Coffee: The thing about artisanal things

The coffee roasting I do is probably best defined as artisanal. That word tends to conjure the image in most people’s minds of a skilled craftsperson working tirelessly to produce masterpiece after masterpiece in his or her chosen form, and to a great degree, that image is correct.

Most of the time.

The fact is, however, that even for the most skilled craftsperson, things sometimes go wrong. And so it is with coffee.

This summer I’ve been having quality problems with some of my coffee, especially my Tanzanian Peaberry Mt. Meru Estate. Something has just been off with it. Between two batches roasted one right after the other to the same time and temperature, one will under roast and one will over roast. One will crack quickly and heavily where another will never crack. This problem has generated the first complaints I have ever had about the quality of my coffee, to the point that I feel I need to discuss it here.

I will be the first person to admit there is a problem. The fact is I haven’t quite solved it yet. Coffee roasting is a complex process at any level, but in my little roastery I have to deal with a variety of variables that makes the problem more complex than most. My roastery is not climate controlled, so I have little control over temperature and humidity. Both of these factors do things to the beans, and in the case of the Tanzanian, I suspect the wild swings in humidity we’ve had this summer are the culprit.

On the upside of this problem, it has forced me to revisit my roasting process in a very direct way. I’ve even added new, more precise equipment to help me sort out certain specific factors that contribute to the quality of a roast. Yet, even with those factors in place, the problem persists, and I continue to work on it.

So, with all that said, I want to pass on to you, dear coffee drinker, this reality: if it’s bad, don’t drink it, even if it’s artisanal and even if you paid a lot of money for it. If it’s bad and I roasted it, let me know. I will replace every ounce of coffee I’ve roasted for you until it meets your satisfaction.

And, that last bit is why artisanal coffee–or food or clothing or whatever–is superior. We artisans care about what we produce and want to make it right. I hope that fact alone continues to earn your business.


Read more at my Coffee weblog…

It’s everywhere

There’s a picture circulating around the internet right now showing the pink paste that is “mechanically separated chicken”, which picture seems to disgust people who see it even as they consume products made from it in huge quantities. What’s more, this picture represents the barest tip of the iceberg compared to what is being done to produce most of the food product most people consume on a daily basis.

Yet, somehow, the fact that most of the food in most of the supermarkets in most of the world represents an industrial preparation more akin to plastic than what we like to think of as food, people still eat the stuff, and the companies that produce those products make millions from what they sell. I’ve even heard people try to compare the industrial food production system to what happens in a real kitchen when someone is preparing food from real ingredients. This is how far we have become detached from our food.

Now, I do not believe that it is possible to eat–or medicate–ourselves to some strange form of immortality, but I do believe that it is possible for us to increase our quality of life, however long it might last. I am certain that the advent of food products and processed food has diminished that quality even as it has served to help increase its quantity. I wonder what the point of such a thing might be.

In this modern era, I am certain that it is possible to have the best of both worlds: to have the benefits of access to a higher calorie diet that probably leads to longer life while also greatly increasing the quality of that life by refusing to consume what the modern world passes for food. Sadly, this kind of increase in quality and quantity requires a choice that far too few people are willing to make or, perhaps, even understand can be made.

The choice I am talking about is twofold.

First, one must choose not to eat most of what one finds in a typical grocery story. Really, if one was sincere about this sort of thing, he would stop shopping in grocery stores at all. Instead, one would seek out food at its source, buying directly from the people who grow it in its most basic forms. This kind of choice also means choosing to make one’s own food rather than having someone else make it for you, but I see that all as part of one choice.

Second, one must choose to spend more of his income on food. Americans, as a measure of percentage of income, spend less on food than at any other time in the history of the United States and maybe even the world. Currently, the average household spends less than 7 percent of its income on food, and that number is still declining. As a result, Americans have to make compromises about the kinds of food they buy, opting for cheaper alternatives because that is all they think they can afford. Further, other lifestyle choices like cable, the internet, and the like force most people to make choices for convenience and cost rather than quality when it comes to food. Making this choice will likely mean making hard choices about other things.

Once made, these choices, I believe, will have immediate, tangible, and ongoing benefits. Frankly, it won’t just be because of the food either. The lifestyle choices one will have to make to choose quality food will improve the quality of life just because they will. There is little doubt in my mind that less television coupled with better food will improve the health of most people.

But for that to happen, you have to do it first.