Archive for December, 2012

10 Questions with Evans Brothers Coffee

Until they showed up on the finalist list for the Good Food Awards I had never heard of Evans Brothers’ Coffee. It’s not surprising given their out-of-the-way location in Sandpoint, Idaho.

[I was a media observer for the GFA competition this year, and it’s interesting to note that one of the Evans Bros’ submissions, an Ethiopia Yirgacheffe, was one of the most difficult for the judges, garnering the largest spread of scores (79-87, using the Cup of Excellence 100-point scale). Update: This is a great example of how even with a common vocabulary and calibration, experts often disagree. Of course taste is fickle, and “quality” is not a fixed concept—just like the other shifting value the GFAs attempt to reward: sustainability. In the end, the finalists were all incredible, and worthy of notice. And we should sleep easier knowing that lots of folks have different experiences of the same coffee, even the pros.]

The result is what competitions like the GFAs can do well—bring attention to the work of relatively unknown food producers and the farmers whose ingredients they use.

Randy and Rick, the brothers Evans, have been roasting in Sandpoint since 2009. Sandpoint is outdoor heaven, perched on the shores of Lake Pend Oreille, tucked between the Selkirk, Cabinet and Bitterroot mountian ranges. But it has unlikely coffee pedigree, too, as the home of Deitrich Coffee Roasting, one of the only American manufacturers of commercial coffee roasting equipment.

The “Inland Empire”—it’s the country I grew up in, and it’s full of wild magic.

For those who may not be likely to visit Sandpoint anytime soon, the coffee can be gotten around the Inland Northwest, including in cafes and restaurants in Boise and Seattle. Of course, the internet exists, so it’s also available online at

Twitter: @EvansBrothers
Visit: Roasting Studio and Neighborhood Espresso Barm, 524 Church Street, Sandpoint, Idaho
Open to public: 7a-5p Mo-Fri, 8a-2p Sat

10 Questions

What inspires your roastery and your roasting?
The roasters and cafes that succeed in telling the whole story, providing transparency on all levels of the coffee chain, inspire us.

How would you describe your roasting style?
We work very hard to source outstanding coffees and we want to show them off. We try to maximize the sweetness of the coffee, showcasing the inherent flavors of the bean. We strive not to mute the fruit and floral characteristics with too much roasty flavor. We feel like we’re pioneering the market up here in North Idaho with sweeter and more nuanced coffees; so far, our customers have responded positively to this style.

What’s your focus: single origins or blends?
We get most excited about introducing exceptional single-origin coffees, and showcasing the coffee itself and the farmers behind it. But we work hard on our blend development, which allows us to maintain a consistent espresso blend—our customers appreciate it.

What kind of roasting equipment do you use and what do you love about it?
We roast on a Probat L12 and use an afterburner built locally by Selkirk Manufacturing. Prior to this, we roasted on a Diedrich IR-12 and a Diedrich CR80. Both are excellent machines but completely different. The Probat offers more airflow, quicker response, and slightly faster roast times. I feel like we get cleaner tasting coffees with the increased airflow. The Diedrichs were also fun to roast on and offered simultaneous roasting and cooling (which is a huge plus!), and had much easier maintenance than the Probat.

How did you get started roasting?
I first discovered a love for coffee living in Italy during college. Soon after 2000, I moved to Maui, where I helped open and manage Honolulu Coffee Company, a high-end cafe in Wailea. Like most coffee obsessives of the era, I trained using the techniques of David Schomer. I spent the next five years learning everything I could about coffee, inlcuding roasting at home. When I moved back to the mainland to be closer to family I landed an apprentice roasting position with Storyville Coffee, a well-funded startup on Bainbridge Island near Seattle. I was very excited; becoming a roaster was my next goal after working as a barista for five years. It was really cool to work with David Schomer as our consultant. I also attended several training courses with Diedrich, Atlas Coffee, and Boot Coffee.

We decided to relocate to Sandpoint to raise families in a true community, near the great outdoors. We both love the outdoor recreation opportunities that this area affords with Schweitzer Mountain and Lake Pend Oreille. We’re fanatical about mountain biking and skiing in particular.

Tell us about the most memorable coffee you’ve had: Where did it come from? How did you roast it (if you roasted it)? What most excited you about it? How was it served?
The most memorable coffee I had was while visiting the Menendez family farms in El Salvador. While exploring one of their farms, Finca El Rosario, we were sampling the coffee cherries. There was a very small section of shrubs where the fruit tasted completely different from all the other cherries on the farm—it tasted exactly like the sweetest peach I’d ever had. It blew my mind that this microlot could taste completely different from the same coffee planted only 20 feet away. We later cupped some of that coffee and the peach was still very present in the cup. It was absolutely delicious. This experience was a great reminder of why I had adopted the philosophy of roasting to showcase what the farmer worked so hard to achieve.

What’s your personal preference: espresso or filter? Do you have a favorite way to make coffee?
We all typically start our day with a pourover on the Hario v60, usually one of our Roaster Reserve coffees. I also like Chemex for a clean cup that highlights sweetness and the delicate flavors of our coffee. But espresso is also great—we always have our Headwall blend along with an exciting single origin to play with. And I really enjoy a traditional macchiato.

What do you love about the coffee scene in Sandpoint?
Artisan coffee is really just being discovered in this area and we’re excited to be a part of the coffee revolution in the region. We’ve hosted all kinds of events: aroma challenges, public cuppings and, recently, the Inland Northwest Thursday Night Throwdown latte art and brewer’s competition. Most people around here had never seen a pourover brewbar before we opened. We love introducing someone who normally orders the darkest roast with lots of cream to single-origin coffees dripped to order, served black. We’ve created a few coffee nerds.

What’s the best thing about being a coffee roaster?
We feel honored to be such a critical final step in the complex journey from seed to cup. We take a lot of pride in this. We’re grateful for the positive recognition we get from customers but also feel strongly that coffee is not just our creation—it’s the hard work of many passionate people along the way. To provide peoples’ first ritual of the day is very cool. We want that experience to be great.

Preferred soundtrack for roasting?
Our music scene at the roastery is pretty diverse. You can hear anything from Black Sabbath to Coltrane to Dylan to Thievery Corporation to Hall & Oats. We dig it all!


Coffee at Home, Jan. 22 in San Francisco

On my visit to SF in January, I’m exciting to teach an intro class about making the most of coffee in your home:

18 Reasons
Tuesday, January 22nd, 7-9PM, Ticketed
Brew Methods: Coffee at Home
$25 for 18 Reasons members; $35 for the general public

We are hosting a primer on exploring coffee in your home kitchen. It’s easy to make drip coffee just as well as top cafes. We’ll focus on “slow coffee” approaches like French Press, pour over, and Aeropress. Find out what equipment is must-have and nice-to-have, and get suggestions for how common kitchen tools can help you get better results.

Throughout the class, we’ll discuss the complex flavors of coffees, talk about ways to develop a more nuanced palate, and explore how taste preferences differ. We’ll also touch on how roasting coffee at home (even just once!) is easy, inexpensive, and a great way to deepen your knowledge of coffee.

Coffee and Sustainabilty Panel, Jan. 21 in San Francisco

Sustainability is notoriously complex, embedded in deeply interdependent environmental, social, and economic contexts. And coffee, which must play convoluted games of global leap frog to get from farms into our cups, is no less tricky. The coffee industry, somewhat uniquely, has intertwined itself with sustainability at a deep level. But there are no easy answers.

When I was writing Left Coast Roast, the issue of sustainability was the thorniest, and therefore led to some of the most interesting conversations I had with coffee roasters.

I was interested in exploring how ideas about sustainability have changed in the last decade, and in hearing from both coffee roasters and academics on the issue. What is known about effective solutions? What are we still guessing at? Are quality and sustainability mutually reinforcing or do they conflict? I am grateful that the amazing folks at CUESA in San Francisco were keen to take up the topic and agreed to sponsor a panel discussion on it. Below is the description—I hope to see many people there.

Coffee and Sustainability Panel Discussion

Ferry Building, San Francisco
Jan. 21, 6 pm

Coffee is a daily necessity for many of us, savored quietly in the kitchen, downed at work as a mid-afternoon pick-me-up, or sipped at a cafe among friends. With the exploding popularity of coffee in recent years, there are more options than ever, and more confusing messages about what “sustainable” means. Which coffee should we choose? In the Bay Area, you won’t find any coffee farms, but you will find local artisan roasters who are grappling with these questions, selecting their beans not only for quality and taste but also for values. Join CUESA for a discussion of the ethics behind a cup of coffee: What is its environmental footprint? Are the farmers taking care of the land? Are they getting a fair price, and what is the effect on the communities along the supply chain?

Hanna Neuschwander, author of Left Coast Roast: A guide to the Best Coffee and Roasters from San Francisco to Seattle, will introduce the complexities of growing coffee and moving it around the globe. She will moderate the panel.



Starbucks’ Geisha Gamble

The pixie on the table yells, “So, who all here is a partner?” The crowd erupts, politely, indicating “We, we are partners!” I think for a second I’ve stumbled into a Marriage Preservers Anonymous meeting. But no, she means “employee.”

Ah, Starbucks. I’m at one of the company’s high end, LEED-certified, boozy sip shops in Portland for a special event—the unveiling of their much-ballyhooed new reserve coffee: Costa Rica Finca Palmilera; quantity, 3800 pounds; price, $7/cup; roast, light as air. Media outposts from Houston to Atlanta have covered the release and the steep price tag, despite the fact that it’s only available in the Pacific Northwest. As far as I can tell, almost no one who has written about the coffee has actually tasted it.

It’s hands-down the best cup of coffee I’ve ever been served under the banner of a mermaid. I’m not sure that’s saying a lot, but it’s saying something.

Is it a gimmick? Maybe. Cynical? Probably. Likely to get very good, well-roasted, fairly priced coffee into the hands of folks who otherwise wouldn’t try it? Ya bro.

Leslie Wolford, the sprite on the table, is a “coffee specialist” with Starbucks. She talks for a few minutes about the estate, La Candililla, in Costa Rica. (They buy other coffees from the farm and have for some time; she couldn’t give me an exact year). Seventy hectares are managed by a family, split into sectors. The Geisha comes from a sector managed by brothers Marvin and Didier Sanchez, who devote 3 hectares to the variety.

Wolford gives a light disquisition on the history of the variety, which hails from Ethiopia and was brought to Costa Rica in the 50s. Farmers had hopes the seed stock would be resistant to disease, but quickly realized that low yields made it unsuitable for production. It is, though, more resistant to fungal rot than other varieties typical in Latin America. It migrated across the border to the Boquete region of Panama in the 1960s (sources credit producer Don Pachi Francisco Serracin). But it gained notoriety only recently, when the variety began winning competitions and earning top auction bids. According to a brief history of the variety by Geoff Watts,

With rare exception, this Geisha coffee has won every competition it has enttered for almost a decade [starting with the Best of Panama in 2003]. It has set and then broken 5 records for most expensive auction coffee in the world, topping out at a whopping $170/lb at a recent auction. It has become the most talked-about coffee in the industry and caused producers from Mexico to Bolivia to scramble to try to get their hands on seeds to … reap some of the windfall profits before Geisha gets too widespread.

Starbucks’ move is almost certainly a fullfillment of Watts’ prophesy about the reach of Geisha. Like other roasters seeking a signifier of prestige, Starbucks went looking for it. They found it being grown by a farm they already bought coffee from, right under their noses.

Alisa Martinez, global brand manager for the company, tells me frankly, “This is the best coffee we’ve ever served.”

Someone asks about roast. Wollingford’s answers are a bit hedgy. She calls it a light roast, but you can tell she feels a little uncomfortable saying this. Later she plants it in the middle of the SBUX dark-o-meter. This is false. It’s a light roast by any accounting of Starbucks’ standards. Wolford spends a lot of time talking about how the flavor and complexity would be lost if there was too much roast. At this, I develop a mouth gape—a Starbucks senior “partner” stating publicly that overroasting can inhibit complexity.

The Geisha is roasted in a batch roaster, 80 lbs. at a time. It’s one of the few Reserve line coffees to have this distinction—mostly because there’s so little of it.

For those who worry about the coffee being old or stale, that’s also not a concern here. There’s so little of the coffee—only 3,000 pounds—Martinez estimates it will be gone by January, a total run of about four weeks.

Meanwhile, the floor is open for conversation and the questions and commentary from Starbucks baristas in the audience are blowing my mind. Someone checks the Geisha’s brightness against remembered Kenyans. Someone thinks to ask about optimal brewing temperature. Someone expresses surprise at its sweetness even though it’s a washed coffee. Everyone loves it. I realize I have been seriously underestimating Starbucks baristas.

Wolford, meanwhile, is on her perch itching to get to the nitty gritty stuff—“Pineapple, yes!” “Anyone getting peach? White peach, not yellow?” “It’s got acidity, but it’s also so soft—isn’t that lovely?” She asks everyone to savor the coffee as it cools, pointing out that the flavor Just. Keeps. Going. She uses the word “singular” nine times after I start counting.

But the whole experience is singular. Starbucks served me black coffee I kind of love. It is complex. It makes me think. It lingers.

It is notably better than similarly priced coffees that have long had overinflated reputations—Jamaica Blue Mountain, Kopi Luwak, Kona.

That’s not to say that future shipments of Geisha will get the same treatment (there will be more—in three years Geisha will be so common, we’ll wonder what all the fuss was about way back when). But this particular coffee seems to hit the mark on most fronts: It’s fresh, it’s carefully (and not too darkly) roasted, and it’s being thoughtfully presented, brewed to order on a Clover, with gentle encouragements to at least sip it once without cream and sugar.

Is it better than the other infamous Geisha in my repetoire, Stumptown’s Panama Esmerelda Especial? My predictably psychological brain wants to remember Stumptown’s coffee as better—more delicate, more ephemeral. It was certainly the latter. To be honest, I don’t remember it that well.

Starbucks’ Reserve Costa Rica Finca Palmilera is available only in 48 stores in Portland and Seattle. ½ lb bags are $40. Get it while it lasts—another CR Geisha was available briefly online, but sold out in one day.