Coffee Is The New Wine. Here's How You Taste It

Aug 16, 2012
Originally published on October 15, 2012 11:03 am

The "know your farmer" concept may soon apply to the folks growing your coffee, too.

Increasingly, specialty roasters are working directly with coffee growers around the world to produce coffees as varied in taste as wines. And how are roasters teaching their clientele to appreciate the subtle characteristics of brews? By bringing an age-old tasting ritual once limited to coffee insiders to the coffee-sipping masses.

When we wanted to get in on the coffee "cupping" trend, we headed to Artifact Coffee, a funky new cafe in Baltimore. It was started by Spike Gjerde of Baltimore's Woodberry Kitchen, who is doing with coffee what he's doing with food in his restaurants: sourcing it from small-scale farmers who are committed to sustainability and quality.

If you listen to my story on All Things Considered, you'll hear that Artifact is serving CounterCulture Coffee. This trend-setting, North-Carolina-based roaster has forged relationships with coffee growers all over the world. For instance, it's working with Jorge and Javier Recinos, fourth-generation farmers who run one of the first organic coffee farms in Guatemala.

Peter Giuliano of CounterCulture says creating that one-on-one relationship with growers has led to better coffee. The Recinos brothers had been selling their beans in bulk, but Giuliano worked with them to differentiate the best beans.

"We came in and said, 'No, no, no, we want to separate the coffee and pay more for the better stuff,' " he says.

He says his customers are clamoring for the premium stuff wherever it's served. Like Intelligentsia, another specialty roaster with a similar approach, CounterCulture sells its coffees both online and wholesale to coffee shops. From Atlanta — where chefs Hugh Acheson and Ryan Smith of Empire State South are introducing customers to CounterCulture's specialty coffee — to Des Moines, where the Mars Café serves up Intelligentsia's brews, the new wave of coffee is spreading.

Which brings us back to cuppings, where baristas try to help newbies discern the subtle flavors and characteristics of various coffees.

"Baristas are like the sommeliers of their industry," explains Artifact Coffee's Gjerde. And he says he thinks more coffee drinkers will start to "appreciate coffee for its individual characteristics, as we do wine."

This artisanal approach is changing the way people think about coffee — "from this anonymous commodity to something that's personal, direct and special," says CounterCulture's Giuliano. In a new venture with the Specialty Coffee Association, Giuliano says he's planning a symposium that he describes as his industry's equivalent of the Aspen Ideas Festival.

So, if you'd like to be a connoisseur of coffee, start studying the roasting bags. Increasingly, there's as much information as you'd find on a wine label.

The most recent bag I bought, freshly roasted Stumptown coffee, came with a little tasting card. Online, I can see the exact coordinates of the location of the farm it came from, as well as the elevation (as I explain in my radio story, altitude influences taste), and the varietal of coffee. Happy sipping.

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If your morning coffee habit involves a quick stop and a paper cup, you're probably not taking the time to focus on your java's subtle flavors. Well, NPR's Allison Aubrey reports on a growing movement to slow down, savor that coffee and learn where it comes from.

ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: Almost 20 years ago, coffee lover Peter Giuliano was working at a coffeehouse called the Pannikin in the California beach town of Encinitas.

PETER GIULIANO: It was a classic coffeehouse, you know, wooden floors. It wasn't like a Starbucks-to-go kind of thing. It was a place where people sat and drank coffee and talked about things.

AUBREY: It was in this environment with the food renaissance just beginning to percolate, he asked himself a question. He was sipping what he remembers to be a spectacular coffee with a strong citrus flavor. It was labeled as Ethiopian.

GIULIANO: It tasted like sort of lemon oil, and I was shocked by it.

AUBREY: He wanted to know more. Why did this coffee stand out so much from everyday coffee? Did it have to do with how or where it was grown?

GIULIANO: So at that moment, I realized I had to figure that out, that I was curious about that.

AUBREY: And what he discovered is that coffee is like wine. It varies in taste depending on where it's grown, what kind of soil, the elevation, the weather. Now, to try to taste this for myself, I went to a funky new cafe in Baltimore called Artifact.

ALLIE CARAN: My name is Allie Caran, and I'm the lead barista here at Artifact Coffee.

AUBREY: It's Caran's job to educate newbies about factors like elevation. Today, we're trying three kinds.

CARAN: We want to get intimately close to the coffee, and we're just going to go up to each one, and we really want to get our nose right in the cup.

AUBREY: After inhaling deeply and then slurping the coffee, she tasted the Sumatran coffee she's brewed.

CARAN: It's really complex. It's really like it's layered, and it's more of this kind of like almost potpourri.

AUBREY: How does it compare to the Guatemalan, she asks?

CARAN: We're starting to see that this one is definitely earthy and chocolaty.

AUBREY: (Unintelligible) mushroom myself.

CARAN: Mushroom. Yeah. There's a fungal quality to it.

AUBREY: To me, the coffee tastes really good, though I can't say I'm discerning subtle fungal notes. Learning to taste these characteristics is a work in progress, partly because of the way we've thought about coffee for so long.

GIULIANO: Coffee was this colonialist crop.

AUBREY: Peter Giuliano again.

GIULIANO: Because we had to import it from so far away, it became logical to sort of just lump everything together. And, you know, the most specific that you can get is, you know, coffee from Colombia, and that's how most American consumers, even sophisticated American consumers thought about coffee in the '90s.

AUBREY: Giuliano was eager to change this. So after his eureka moment, he joined up with a few others who had started a small coffee roasting business called CounterCulture Coffee in North Carolina. They started visiting coffee farmers around the world and building direct relationships. For instance, they reached out to Jorge and Javier Recinos, two brothers in the western region of Guatemala, who run a fourth-generation family farm.

GIULIANO: We were the first buyers that they had ever met. They had been selling their coffee for, you know, since they were kids to the United States but never had anyone showed up at their farm and said, hey, we're the ones that buy your coffee.

AUBREY: And creating this one-on-one relationship led to a very different coffee product. You see, the Guatemalan brothers had been selling their coffee in bulk for one price with no way of separating out the higher quality beans.

GIULIANO: We came in and said, no, no, no, we want to separate the coffee and pay more for the better stuff.

AUBREY: And one of the things that makes for a more valuable bean is altitude.

GIULIANO: The coffee that they harvest first at the bottom of the farm doesn't taste as good as the coffee that they harvest last at the top of the farm, and this is because altitude makes it a difference in - a dramatic difference in flavor.

AUBREY: Similar to wine, Giuliano explains it's the warm days and cool nights typical of higher altitudes that changes sugar content and develops flavors. And if you've spent enough time with coffee, you really can taste these differences. Back at Artifact's coffee shop in Baltimore, we're about to try the premium coffee from the Guatemalan brothers' farm. Taster Greg Biddle(ph) has just tried the low altitude brew which he describes as grassy, and he's about to try the high altitude variety.

GREG BIDDLE: So we'll see if I can detect a difference in that cup.

AUBREY: And after one sip, he's got a reaction.

BIDDLE: It's definitely different. I get a lot of caramelly notes. I guess, it's a little floral.

AUBREY: Biddle says he's into it. He loves trying all these new coffees. And with more small roasters building direct relationships with coffee farmers, Peter Giuliano says people are beginning to see coffee quite differently.

GIULIANO: So it goes from this anonymous commodity kind of thing to something that's personal and direct and, you know, special.

AUBREY: And Allie Caran, of Artifact Coffee, says it also makes people more aware of things like fair trade and environmental stewardship.

CARAN: Now, there's really this push where people want to know what they're buying. People want to know what they're supporting, what they're putting in their bodies. And it's really exciting because this is such a young industry.

AUBREY: But an industry that's growing one cup at a time. Allison Aubrey, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "COFFEE TIME") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.