You have a nose for wine ... But are you ready for coffee?

(PART 1 Conversation with modcup)

As we are preparing to open our craft gelato café, Bucket & Bay, one of the most amazing things that has happened is getting to know other artisans with a passion for good food. A recent visit to modcup’s Jersey City roastery and a conversation with Travas took us on an unexpected tour around the world of coffee. We’d like you to join!

 
Visiting Justin & Travas (in the back) from modcup - a specialty coffee roastery in Jersey City

Visiting Justin & Travas (in the back) from modcup - a specialty coffee roastery in Jersey City

 

Where did you taste your first cup of coffee?

I come from the UK which did not have much of a coffee culture when I was growing up. I drank coffee with cream and sugar to mask the bitterness. That bitterness is due to the poor quality of the coffee beans used in the UK and in the whole of Europe for that matter. They tend to use the robusta variety which is a lower elevation, harsher coffee.

How did you discover specialty coffee?

We happened to be renting an apartment in Toronto next to a guy who runs a specialty coffee roastery. I was hooked. And when I came back to Jersey City, the only way to indulge my increasingly large coffee habit was to open a coffee roasting company of my own.

What was your first step for roasting your own coffee?

I wanted to focus on freshly roasted coffee. Most coffee that people consume is not freshly roasted, and as a result is stale, flat and incredibly bitter. Coffee is a perishable product - the same way that bread is. Once you put green coffee beans through the roasting process they go through the same chemical reactions as dough when it is baked. And just like baked bread roasted coffee goes stale in a short time frame after the roasting process.

So I thought the best way to sell the concept of freshly roasted coffee was to roast live in front of people out of a vintage truck. This little project of course took a lot longer than we thought it would. (Ed. Note:sounds familiar!) 

 
Travas, packing fresh coffee beans with the Citroen truck in the back.

Travas, packing fresh coffee beans with the Citroen truck in the back.

 

And then I met Justin at a coffee conference in San Francisco. We had the same ideas, so he moved to the east coast, I got us a cart while we waited for the truck, we got a mobile license and things started moving. We started selling coffee on the streets in Hoboken in 2012 , and then came to Jersey City, where we both live.

What are some of the obstacles you have encountered so far?

Jersey City historically was an Italian immigrant hot bed, and as a result there was a passion for a dark roasted coffee, which we do not even contemplate doing. And we are not alone. If you look at all the specialty companies from the west coast at the end of 1990s, back then they never got into darkly roasted coffee because it kills the wonderfully complex coffee flavors attributable to the region of growth.

 
Justin had been involved with specialty coffee for 7 years, before he partnered with Travas in 2012 to bring the taste to Jersey City

Justin had been involved with specialty coffee for 7 years, before he partnered with Travas in 2012 to bring the taste to Jersey City

 

People still come in and ask, “Can I have a good dark roast?”.  In our opinion those words don’t go together. Or we will be asked “Can I have a good, strong, dark roast? The darkest you have, I need a pick me up.” Again “strong”, “pick me up”, and ”dark roast” do not belong in the same sentence. The longer you roast a coffee bean not only do you strip it of all of its wonderful complexity, but you also strip it of its caffeine too. 

So if Dark Roasts are the enemy of good coffee why is that so many other roasters still do them and market them?

 There are two reasons why roasters will darkly roast green coffee:

1.      One is to hide the fact that the green coffee they buy into is of a poor quality and has very little flavor to begin with, therefore they impart a flavor into it by roasting it for a long time. Some people trace this practice to Italy.  Several centuries ago, when coffee got to Europe, Italians were not the wealthiest country in Europe. So they bought inexpensive poor quality coffee, and they developed roasting profiles on it to make it punchy and flavorful.

2.      The second reason Roasters roast on the darker side of the spectrum is to create a consistency in their coffee offerings and perhaps most importantly to extend its shelf life. The carbon flavor imparted onto the bean during a darker roast stays on the coffee bean forever, while the complex natural flavor will not last that long. We at modup say that innate complex natural flavor inherent to the coffee bean will remain with the coffee up to around 18 days after the roast date.

Changing habits and perceptions is tough and most coffee companies out there do not want to engage the public in a discussion about what good coffee is. They would rather find out what the customers are already looking for and pander to established long held views, views that we as company do not support.

Where do you get good beans?

In our roastery right now, we have 4-6 kinds of single origin beans.  We use importers but we also directly trade with 2 farms:  one in Colombia, one in El Salvador, and we are now looking to develop a relationship with farmers in Burundi.

 
Coffee waiting its turn to get roasted at modcup.  Calera (on the left) is a small farm in El Salvador from which  modcup buys coffee directly.

Coffee waiting its turn to get roasted at modcup.  Calera (on the left) is a small farm in El Salvador from which  modcup buys coffee directly.

 

What is a “single origin” coffee? Is that better?

When we say “single origin” we mean one farm, one farmer, and in some cases one specific lot in that farm. So you know what you are getting. There is a traceability.

All coffee in the world is scored and graded.  A Q grader assigns a score based on a number of factors such as body, acidity, mouth-feel, after taste etc. The lowest score a coffee can receive is 70, even the worst cup of coffee you ever had scored at least 70!

  • The crappiest coffee is in the 70-75 range, which is what you get at diners
  • Grades between 75 and 80 are what they call good commercial grade, think most big brands here, like Dunkin.
  • 90% of all coffee scores below 80. Coffee that starts at 80 and scores between 80 and 85 is what they call specialty coffee, and where you see most of the specialty coffee brands buying, like Starbucks.
  • Anything that scores 85 to 90 is what they call true specialty coffee. Think any specialty third wave coffee roasters, they all refuse to buy under this score.
  • Coffee that scores 90 or higher represents only about 1% of all coffee that is served in the entire world. That score stands for flawless quality coffee. The rarest and best coffee beans one can find.

So right now we’ve got 4 single origins on our bars, two of which are 90+ coffees:  Our Rwandan coffee from east Africa and a directly traded Columbian coffee from the La Palma estate.

 
modcup sources only the top 5% quality coffee sold around the world

modcup sources only the top 5% quality coffee sold around the world

 

Oh, so it's like wine?

Sort of, it is a different score. But the comparison with wine is interesting…they are indeed very similar. Both are fruits of a tree that produce wonderful complex drinks. Both are reliant on great terroir and farming techniques. And both are like rabbit holes, get “into” them and you can be lost down that hole for a very long time!

There are huge differences though. Obviously wine is better aged and coffee needs to be drunk fresh

Wine has between 400 and 600 flavor compounds that make up its flavor profile. Coffee has between 800 and 1200, so against preconceived notions, coffee has the potential to produce a much more complex drink. Its unfortunate that 99% of the coffee out there for sale is either stale (past the true window of freshness post roast) or roasted within an inch of its life (and this includes btw the majority of so called big brand medium roasts) Its very rare that we are offered coffee that display their true complexity.

With wine you are dealing only with the fruit when making the drink, whereas with coffee you are dealing with the seed of the coffee cherry. The seed is where all the flavor compounds are.

 
Coffee seeds have a complex flavor profile, allowing for a lot of variety

Coffee seeds have a complex flavor profile, allowing for a lot of variety

 

Great, what’s next for you? What are you excited about in the future?

I am looking forward to April, when the Ethiopian crops land in. They were harvested about 6 weeks ago, and are currently being shipped over.

You will have very blueberry floral coffees, from the Yirgacheffe and Konga regions, some of the best coffees in the world as far as I am concerned…

Wow, that sounds like something we should all look forward to!

(to be continued)

Cool beans. Thanks to our friends from modcup for the quick run through the history of coffee. Stay tuned for another cut (Part 2) of our conversation, where we talk about how coffee is roasted & prepared.