If the locavore movement has a black sheep in the family, it’s locally roasted coffee.
The standard knock on the product, of course, concerns the origins of its only ingredient: the green, unroasted beans imported from mountainous countries located within a tropical band around the Earth’s equator. But perhaps even more frustrating when it comes to whole roasted beans: Local is not always better. You can purchase specialty coffee from knowledgeable professionals in Oakland, Calif., Chicago or even Topeka, Kan., that will blow the chaff off beans baked to the shade of motor oil with a small drum roaster in the back of some D.C. operations.
“You can make bread at home, too,” cracks Joel Finkelstein, owner of Qualia Coffee on Georgia Avenue NW, where he roasts beans daily. “It doesn’t mean it’s as good as Mark Furstenberg’s.”
So consider this a friendly caution: When shopping for locally roasted beans, you need knowledge. You need to know not only your own caffeine preferences, but also the roaster’s approach to green coffee beans.
Start with yourself. Do you like light, medium or dark roast coffee? Do you prefer coffee brewed from beans grown in a particular country or even a specific region within that country? Do questions like these make your head hurt when all you want is the same damn coffee every morning, 365 days a year?
If you fall into the last category, you’ll want to visit local roasters such as Compass Coffee in Shaw or M.E. Swing Coffee Roasters in Alexandria, both of which produce coffee blends available year round. But be forewarned: You may have to hide those blended beans from a certain segment of coffee snobs.
Michael Haft, co-owner of Compass, recalled a conversation he had recently with a competitor who had attended a Specialty Coffee Association of America conference. “People were talking about us like we were the anti-Christ,” Haft says, recalling the colleague’s words. “That we had light, medium and dark blends! It’s coffee snobbery at its worst.”
Whether out of experience, ignorance or arrogance, some in the specialty coffee trade consider blends one step removed from Folgers. These purists are not interested in a factory-engineered blend of beans, but in the natural expression of beans imported from a single origin, a broadly defined term that can include beans harvested from an entire country or beans harvested from the micro-lot of a family farm. The purists can act as if they’re doing the Lord’s work, while their barbarian peers conjure up blends for the dirty masses.
But this is a false dichotomy, a black-and-white perspective on coffee roasting that excludes all the gorgeous shades of gray. This is why, if you’re serious about buying locally roasted coffee, you need to know your roasters.
Do they buy cheap commodity beans of no distinction or specialty beans that have received the highest scores on regimented cupping tests? Do they focus on single origin beans or do they create custom blends? Do they roast the beans light to medium or do they burn those babies until dark and oily? And what kind of roaster do they use: a computerized Loring machine such as the one at Compass; a customized U.S. Roaster Corp. machine with electronic controls such as the one at Qualia; or an air roaster designed by Michael Sivetz, the late mad genius who created the machines for Zeke’s Coffee?
Different roasters tend to bring out different flavors, partly due to the length of roast. Air roasters take a few minutes less to brown the beans. “The acidity is created early in the roast,” Qualia’s Finkelstein says. “And the longer the roast, the more you break down the acidity.”
Shops that treat their beans like Cajun chicken — blackening everything that enters the roaster — may be suspect. The roaster may be trying to mask defects in the original beans.
“You can hide a lot in a dark roast,” says John Kepner, owner of Zeke’s on Rhode Island Avenue NE. “You don’t need to use expensive beans in a dark roast because what you’re tasting is the flavor of the roast. So when we have expensive dark roasts, it’s only expensive because we wanted it to be organic, fair trade. You’re paying for that.”
Over at the tricked-out coffee lab at Compass, owners Haft and Harrison Suarez, along with head roaster Brandon Warner, spend a lot of time testing the industry’s standing prejudices, some of which seem to have hardened into dogmas. Do beans always taste better when roasted lighter? Are blends just cheap, middling products created as a sop to drinkers who only want the same coffee daily?
As a pair of former Marines who served as platoon commanders in Afghanistan, Haft and Suarez understand the importance of poking holes in established theories and ideas, just to see where the weaknesses lie. Both men started off as snobs, drinking coffee, they like to joke, brewed only from beans lightly roasted in Scandinavia. Through a lot of trial and error, they’ve seen the shortcomings in their old ways.
Take blends: Compass is turning back the clock to the 1970s, Haft says, when such roasters as Starbucks Coffee and Peet’s Coffee & Tea created custom blends solely for the pleasures found in the cup, not because they needed to mix cheap commodity beans and heat them until they all tasted like oily French roasts. Those roasters were, and are, striving to create harmonious flavors not found in any single bean.
“They weren’t doing it to mask defects or anything like that,” Haft says of Peet’s and Starbucks. “They were doing it because you can create things that don’t exist.”
Adds head roaster Warner about craft blends: “You kind of get a rounder flavor that way. You’re able to hit more notes than just this one single” note.
On the other end spectrum, such roasters as Qualia and Vigilante Coffee in Hyattsville focus their efforts on single-origin beans from around the globe. Such roasters can prove frustrating to customers who fall in love with a particular bean from, say, the Tarrazu region in Costa Rica: The bean could be gone within weeks, not to return until the next harvest. This is the harsh reality for those who have just discovered single origin coffees: The beans, like most agricultural products, are seasonal.
These specialty roasters trade a steady, consistent stock for a rotating, ever-changing inventory of coffee. The roasters are always on the prowl for farmers who may have adopted new varietals or new processing methods that result in beans that score well in cupping tests. Then roast masters such as Finkelstein at Qualia or Chris Vigilante at Vigilante Coffee will start doing their thing: Roasting beans in small batches until they find the perfect one for the varietals in hand.
Vigilante compares the process to cooking steaks: He would never take a fine cut and grill it until blackened and juiceless. So why do the same with coffee beans, burning them until all you can taste is the roast itself and not the inherent flavors of the coffee? “Our approach,” Vigilante says, “is to try not to allow the taste of the coffee to be dictated by the roast.
“To be honest, they do all the hard work,” Vigilante says of coffee growers. “We don’t do anything difficult on our end. . . . All we do is make sure we don’t mess up the end game.”
And the end game is those coffee bags (or in the case of Compass, coffee tins) of freshly roasted beans. Not all containers are alike. Those so-called paper specialty bags won’t preserve your beans as long as a vacuum-sealed bag with a release valve or the Compass tins. Which is why you need to know when the beans were roasted. Most quality roasters won’t sell beans more than two weeks off the roast. Some, such as Finkelstein at Qualia, take an even more draconian approach to freshness: He pulls beans off the shelves three days after their initial roast.
The roast date should be stamped on the package, not an arbitrary “fresh by” date, which can promise undegraded, high-quality beans months after the roast. Other tell-tale signs on the package: How much information does the roaster provide about the beans’ origins? Just a country? Or does the package list the actual farm and its location, down to its elevation in the mountains? The more information, the more you grasp the roaster’s seriousness in sourcing beans.
But package information can be a delicate balance. If a roaster is not careful, a label can be packed with so much esoteric information that the coffee bag begins to read like a French wine label.
“We didn’t want to coffee geek-out our packaging so bad,” says Vigilante, “so that if you didn’t know much about coffee, you’re going to be turned off.”