Thinking about Brewing Espresso>>

So there's this thing in coffee circles called a Brew Control Chart. It is meant to give coffee professionals a guide to measure how a coffee has been brewed with an eye to how it might taste.  The original chart looks like this:

 SCA Brew Control Chart.

SCA Brew Control Chart.

The idea here is that coffee will taste radically different depending on how concentrated (i.e., its "strength" or solubility level, gauged on the vertical axis, and often expressed as "TDS" for total dissolved solubles), and how more or less efficiently it has been brewed at whatever strength level it finds itself on (known often as "extraction yield," or "extraction percentage," on the horizontal axis). So, for example, a coffee that has way too much water to coffee in the mix will plot pretty low on the vertical axis of the chart above (i.e., it's "strength" will be very low). The plot point on the horizontal axis, however, can be manipulated somewhat, say, by grinding fairly finely and/or letting coffee and brew water hang out a lot longer, letting the increased surface area more efficiently extract more stuff. This has the effect of boosting the plot point farther to the right on the horizontal axis. The chart above gives some descriptor words for how a typical brewed coffee might taste if its data points plotted in a certain region of the chart. A device known as a refractometer helps us in this task by giving us a reliable reading of suspended solids (in our case, coffee solubles) using light refraction, and converting that into a usable number, expressed in TDS. That TDS number can be plotted directly onto the vertical Brew Chart axis. We can then plug in the TDS into a simple equation to help us plot our Extraction Percentage number along the horizontal axis. And voila! Now we have a bit of a visual map of how a coffee might "taste." (It doesn't really tell you how it tastes, but for the purposes of our semi-glossed-over blog post it is an acceptable stand-in. But that's another story for another time.) It's a basic look at a fairly complex concept. But it's all we have had for years and years in the coffee industry.

 Atago makes a simple, easy to use and relatively inexpensive refractometer geared toward use with coffee.

Atago makes a simple, easy to use and relatively inexpensive refractometer geared toward use with coffee.

A couples years ago, I started goofing around with the Brew Control Chart to see if I could make one that could encompass more robust sets of data and account for more sophisticated brewing expressions and phenomena found in espresso brewing. So I built the chart below as a first draft.  Here's what I said in a recent Instragram post about it:  

Basically, just take the standard Brew Control Chart; highlight some repeatable taste-target regions; then linearize and bellcurveify it with a time factor underpinning it and you've got a decent rough draft of one way to visually conceive of how espresso behaves, as well as how we might begin to consistitize its execution. 

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There's quite a lot going on in this new chart, including expressions for pre-infusion and post-infusion (another story for another time). But the main idea should still be fairly self-explanatory. At any rate, it's very much a work in progress; and I would welcome any thoughtful expressions of how to improve or clarify or complexify it.  

UP HERE>>

 The road up to Finca Las Delicias hugs the side of the mountain and goes down at a pretty steep angle.

The road up to Finca Las Delicias hugs the side of the mountain and goes down at a pretty steep angle.

The road up here to Finca Las Delicias is ridiculous. Don't even think about it if it's raining. But when you get up here to this spot, one of my all time favorite coffee spots, the beauty of the valley below comes into view, with Guatemala and Honduras just off in the distance, and the cool breezes kiss around the mountain, and time slows down, and all is right with the world. And I'm pretty sure that all your troubles, however big or small they may be, probably aren't able to follow you all the way up here because no one up here seems to do anything but smile.

 Pacamara ripens in the El Salvador sun.

Pacamara ripens in the El Salvador sun.

The story of Brown and Las Delicias goes back seven years, when one day I was working at HQ, just doing some whatever, when the door opens and three fellows I've never met before said to me, "Hi, we're farmers from El Salvador. We have really great coffee and we think we might be a good match for you." Skeptical by nature, I said something like, "Well, what are you doing here in December, when there are no coffee samples for you to give me?"  Miguel Jr., Guillermo and their uncle Louis just smiled and said, "Just wait. You'll see." And they were right. The samples arrived a couple months later. I roasted and cupped them. And they were indeed beautiful. Sublime. Sweet and well-structured with a crisp acidity. Exactly the kind of coffee I build in my mind when I'm thinking about what a great El Salvador coffee is like.  We quickly found a place for it in our lineup and now, seven harvests later, we still count the Menendezes as some of our favorite coffee people. Our friendship, like their coffee, is the kind of relationship I build in my mind when I'm thinking about what great coffee friendships are like.

 It's very difficult to get a decent shot of Miguel Menendez Sr., pictured at the right here, because he's constantly on the move. He knows his farms and his mill inside and out, having been in the trade for decades. His sons, Miguel Jr and Guillermo live here in the US for most of the year and help coordinate Stateside sales. 

It's very difficult to get a decent shot of Miguel Menendez Sr., pictured at the right here, because he's constantly on the move. He knows his farms and his mill inside and out, having been in the trade for decades. His sons, Miguel Jr and Guillermo live here in the US for most of the year and help coordinate Stateside sales. 

And now it's just about time again for their coffees to arrive. For sure we'll have some FINCA LAS DELICIAS in the mix. And this year we've got a surprise coffee from them to debut to the world. So sit back, relax and enjoy the fruits of our labors as I climb to the top of beautiful mountains and look out over the peaceful valley below at the beauty of God's green earth.

WHAT'S IMPORTANT>>

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There's an old saying that If you don't know where you're going, you're going to end up there. I would add the corollary that, as a company, knowing who and what you are is every bit as important as knowing who your customer is. 

Our company motto at Brown is "To elevate the coffee experience at every turn." But that only addresses the customer-facing side of the equation. What about the company-side of it?

The above diagram is a look at how I have determined what is most important when selecting our core product: coffee. As most of you know, we do coffee at Brown, and not much else. So what we do--what we are, if you will--had better be clear, and we had better be very, very good at it. You know that other saying: "Good; fast; cheap: pick any two." Well, we're not trying to create a fast experience, per se; and we're not cheap. So we'd better be good at our core product. Really good. I would say world class good. The coffee experience at Brown should blow you away every time you visit us or interact with our product. 

How then do we achieve that? By breaking "good" down into the segments that create good for ourselves and our customers. 

  • DELICIOUS. If it doesn't taste good, what's the point of continuing doing it? Honestly. I'll never understand coffee companies that don't zealously and extensively try to educate themselves on what objectively makes coffee bad, and thus what objectively makes coffee good. (Yes, I believe there is an objective "good taste" to coffee. But that is another story for another time.) In short, make sure your consumable product actually delights the tastebuds of your customers. That's how I define Delicious.
  • SUSTAINABLE. Most of you know I'm not exactly the tree-hugging hippy-dippy type. Thus, I don't mean "sustainable" in probably the same way as is the kind of current pop culture understanding, whereby we make sure we're all drinking from compostable cups (even though they impart a terrible taste to the coffee); or that we transport our coffee from its origin on donkeys to save using fossil fuels, etc. What I do mean is that I personally visit every farm or mill we do business with and personally get to know the folks on the ground there, observing how they produce their product and whether it is done reasonably, with respect for the people they employ and for the environment in which it is produced. In other words, are they good people, good neighbors and good stewards? This more often than not will be the foundation of good coffee. If you don't see those kinds of things, you probably also won't consistently see delicious coffee coming from that place. But if you do see it, you can reasonably define that as "sustainable" in my book.
  • TRANSPARENT. It's currently fashionable in high end coffee for coffee companies to publish the base price they pay farmers/producers. I don't necessarily have a problem with that; but that's is not exactly what I mean by transparent. What I mean is being upfront with our buying practices and sharing as much information as the customer wants to know about each coffee itself should anyone want to engage us and ask about it: how it is grown or processed. What its growing elevation is. What the people are like who are producing it. How Brown's premiums are helping the community the coffee comes from take care of those people. How our customers can help in any of projects we are part of in those producing communities. And so forth. We're an open book in that arena (and, I would humbly brag, pretty knowledgeable all the way down to the barista level); which means you can learn just about anything you want about coffee from us. That's pretty good transparency.

You can see that these three things have plenty of bleed over. Hence the Venn diagram. You can also see that they are not all weighted evenly. One is clearly higher than the others. One is clearly below the rest. It's not that these things are more or less important than the others. It's that we choose to emphasize certain important aspects of the coffee we buy more than other important aspects of the coffee we buy. In other words, if they weren't important, they wouldn't be on the diagram. But even on the diagram, we value each aspect slightly differently. 

That is how I view our commitment to coffee at Brown. 

WHOLESALE>>

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One of the areas that has been a core of what we do at Brown is partnering with likeminded establishments and people who care as much as we do about quality coffee. Even still, it can at times be overwhelming trying to keep up with the volume of inquiries we receive in any given week. As a result, it's fair to say that many potentially great coffee partnerships have gone wanting for lack of manpower to accommodate all the requests. Great coffees. Tough to get their stories told to the world.

No more. We are pleased to announce that as of this week Brown has hired a Wholesale Manager, Liz James, *and* hired our its first Wholesale Account Representative, Domonic Miramontes. These two fine human beings will be the first point of contact for all wholesale inquiries, as well as the folks who partner with clients along the way to help accelerate our clients' coffee success as they serve delicious Brown coffee to their respective guests. Both Liz and Dom are Brownies--we really love promoting internally--so both have Brown DNA imprinted on every coffee thing they do. Both of them are whip smart, extremely personable and honestly, they're wearing me out with their enthusiasm, eagerness to start and all the fantastic questions they've been piling on me as we launch this portion of the business away from my hands and into theirs.  

But that's just the start. Expect many more exciting changes in the weeks and months to come...some that may really surprise and delight our wholesale clients and potential wholesale clients. All in keeping with our company motto: To Elevate The Coffee Experience At Every Turn.

If you've been wanting to explore better coffee for your coffee shop, hotel, restaurant, Airbnb investments, office, church or any other group, give Liz a shout at liz@browncoffeeco.com and let's talk. We can take your coffee from zero to hero status in no time flat. 

MUSCLE>>

Hambela-Alaka Estate in the Guji zone of southern Ethiopia is one of the more impressive coffee places you'll visit. With over two dozen year round employees, the place swells to around 700 seasonal workers as the coffee harvest gets into full swing. These young men were keen to show their strength loading ~100 lb sacks of parchment coffee onto the trucks headed for the dry mill. At one point they offered me the chance to lug a few bags out of the warehouse and onto the back of the truck. But I was happy to just smile and nod and pretend not to understand the language they were speaking plainly with their hand motions. No place to set down my camera, you see. Soon these coffees will be hulled and bagged as green (raw) coffee beans and sent across the ocean to discerning roasters...and perhaps Brown will be lucky enough to be among that number. Anyway, I was there.

This is actually an unofficial NEW COFFEE ALERT. We are currently reviewing pre-ship samples from Metad, the owners of Hambela-Alaka as well as purchasers of quite a lot of outgrower coffees from surrounding smallholders. If the samples are good (a high probability) we'll work through the logistics of bringing in one/some of these coffees to Brown by mid to late Summer 2018. 

One in a MILL-ion (Part Three): BIRD'S EYE VIEW>>

One in a MILL-ion (Part 3): BIRD'S EYE VIEW>> To give a little more spatial perspective of how a lot of wet mills work, here's a top side view of the one we've been posting about in this series. The cherry has been delivered into the ceramic holding tank (see Part 1) and now it's slowly pouring down the drain and into the flume where it's met with fast running water and taken into the separation tank (Part 2). Because this mill has been strategically built into the side of a hill the truck can simply back up to the holding tank. Many free standing mills rely on pneumatic or augered systems to deliver cherry up to the higher starting point, which as you can see here is four stories up. After separation, the coffees move into two separate pulpers, where what often looks like a giant rotating cylinder with cheese grater teeth grabs hold of the outer cherry skins and rips them about halfway off the beans. From here one of several secondary strategies for removing the remaining cherry skins is employed. If you look down to the bottom level on the left toward the end of this video clip you can see the rotating secondary depulper for the lower quality beans that have been separated from the higher grade beans, and its feed pipes bringing those beans into the depulper and then the pipes leading away outside and to the next step. White PVC pipes traverse the wet mill and carry coffee, water or waste/recycling water throughout the mill. The sound of generators and/or depulping equipment is a constant element in the ears during harvest, which is why many wet mill workers wear protective ear plugs. The yellow cat walks here are wet and often slightly slippery, which means safety is a big deal when climbing or descending. Part 4 will show the depulping/demucilaging for the higher quality cherry.

One in a MILL-ion (Part Two): CONTENDERS VERSUS PRETENDERS>>

Once coffee cherries have been delivered into the mill (see Part 1 above), the process of separation begins. After the truck dumps the lot into the receiving tank, there's an exit chute at the bottom of the those tanks that cherry tumbles into and down into a flume where water and gravity transport everything that was in the truck delivery--ripe cherry, unripe, leaves, small stones, twigs...everything--into a large hopper filled with water, with a pipe chute out the side that feeds into a slightly lower, smaller holding bin. The water in the large hopper plays a critical role in the separation process. Since the mass of water is heavier than all the foreign material as well as the unripe coffee cherry, it causes most of those to float. Ripe cherry, however, is heavier than water, which causes it to sink and be separated into the next holding bin below and to the right. Hence, the pipe chute feeding the smaller bin is toward the bottom of the large bin. The gratings at the entry of the smaller bin allow most of the water to escape below, where it will be recycled into pulper(s) on the next level down. It is often difficult to distinguish which cherry is fully ripe and which isn't when it's on the tree. Both may be bright red. More or less sugars inside the cherry means more or less density vis-a-vis the water, and that's the brilliance of this simple separation technique. The thing to notice here is that while there may be upwards of 15+% unripe cherry and foreign materials feeding into the big hopper, that number has been reduced to around 5% by the time it reaches the lower hopper. From here, the unripes will be processed and prepared for the local commodity market, while the ripe cherry continues its journey to the depulping

One in a MILL-ion (Part 1): INTO THE SYSTEM>>

One in a MILL-ion (Part 1): INTO THE SYSTEM >> Most coffee cherry around the world (with the notable exception of Brazil) is harvested by hand and brought daily during harvest season to the wet mill ("el beneficio," in Spanish) in the afternoon, where a record is made of which workers brought in how much. This record is especially important if the mill is owned or operated by a cooperative society of some sort. Where the farm and mill are owned and operated by the same person, as here, cherry can be bulked in via truck instead of by ~100 lb sacks. In this video segment you can see the cherry being measured into the blue metal container with the sliding door. Each time the blue container gets filled with cherry eventually represents about a quarter of a bag of green (raw) coffee that will make it to buyers and roasters like Brown. (In the video clip you can hear me erroneously indicating that each blue box represents a full bag of green.) Toward the end of the clip, you can see as Luis Alberto empties the cherry into the ceramic tile-lined holding tank below, then turns around and adjusts the blue counter above the holding tank to keep track of how many containers he has dumped so far into the holding tank. Simply divide by four for a bag count. This tank represents one "lot" of coffee and will get a unique identifier based on the farm, date, variety(ies) and eventually the type of processing the cherry will receive. Everything is separated and accounted for at a quality-minded mill like La Lia, where our famous and beloved El Dragón is processed. Wet mill inprocessing like this will last well into the night during the season.

NEW COFFEE ALERT>>

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Señor Tonio Barrantes. A giant among men with absolutely huge coffees. His coffees have been on my radar ever since my first visit to Costa Rica back in 2014. It's not exactly like I was finding some hidden gem no one else had ever discovered, though. No discussion of the luminaries of the Costa Rica coffee scene would be complete without him in it. His mill, Herbazu, is the very picture of coffee super-ness: it's super organized, super clean, super inspiring. So when our head roaster Mike and I swung through West Valley this past February and paid him another visit I knew the time was right to finally pull the trigger on one of his coffees. My notion was confirmed a couple days later back in San José when his coffees were consistently scoring toward the top of each cupping table they were on. And so I did it--I pulled the trigger on what is sure to become a favorite among the elite coffee drinkers who choose Brown as the gatekeeper of San Antonio's elite coffees: Finca Lorena. Remember that name because you'll soon be able to say you remember when you first heard it. And before you know it you'll remember the first moment you tasted it. I can promise you that. Landing soon at a Brown near you.  

P.S. Herbazu is an acronym for HER-rmanos BA-rrantes y ZU-niga

TRANSPARENCY>>

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Let's talk about knowing where your coffee comes from. Here's a copy of yesterday's coffee harvested from one part of one of my favorite farms in the world. You can see the variety, volume, date, etc., so that everything is traced. This is what repeatable quality looks like, and it's why we continue to partner with the amazing Don Miguel Menendez and his family and his extended farm family, many of whom have been with him for decades. 

As technology advances so much of this paper trail is becoming digitized. We at Brown are actively exploring ways we can help facilitate the transition from paper to digital in as many places we work with around the world. We are already working out the details for our contribution to a digitized scale for our producer friends in Kenya as a way for them to eliminate the time consuming burden of copying everything in triplicate. A digitized scale will give each smallholder producer a unique PIN. When they delivery cherry to the mill, they input their PIN and up comes a readout of their entire history: Did the producer take a loan for inputs? How many visits have they made to the mill and how much cherry was delivered each time? What is the total YTD volume of cherry for him or her? Have they been paid on any of this yet? And so forth. There's even talk of linking the Kenya scale to Mpeza, which is the local Kenya digital currency payment system so that payments can be immediately paid to the farmer via mobile phone. Anything that can be done to speed up the pace of business is good because faster transactions almost always result in more rapid wealth creation. This is the future and it's a good one. 

KNOW YOUR TERMINOLOGY>>

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TERMINOLOGY>> Whenever someone talks about coffee in "parchment" ("pergamino" in Spanish) this is what they mean. Parchment is the last major layer of the coffee cherry before you get to the actual seeds of the cherry. (Technically speaking, there's a paper thin layer that surrounds most coffee varieties called "silverskin" that is mostly processed off, but that's kind of another story. Also technically speaking, the seeds/beans of the coffee tree's fruit are called drupes, which is the same as the avocado, but that's also another story). So here we are with a small pile of parchment, so named because as the beans are dried to the desired level of between 10-12% water/moisture, this layer dries into a crackable, but highly protective layer, not too unlike parchment paper. Seeing coffee in parchment is the first time during the harvest that you can see the actual outline of what looks like a coffee bean. Because parchment is such a reliable barrier against external forces, almost all specialty grade coffee is dried then stored ("rested," or, "en reposo") in parchment for up to three months--sometimes even longer--before being hulled at the dry mill, bagged and containerized for the long trip to a broker's and/or importer's warehouse, or in Brown's case, directly to our roasting facility. The resting phase is widely thought to help the beans settle into a more stable organic scenario and, anecdotally, gives them slightly better solubility potential, which means they won't taste as youngish or greenish/vegetal when roasted and brewed. Green coffees that have their parchment removed too soon tend to taste "LOOM-ey" (Loss Of Organic Material) much sooner after arriving into the roaster's hands than those that are rested properly. Hulled parchment from previous harvests is often used as fuel to fire the large mechanical dryers some coffee producers use to bring their coffees down to 10-12%, saving money and using less external resources.