Specialty coffee roasters strive for the highest quality and social justice
Sonoma West Times – 16 Apr 2003
By Barry W. Dugan, Managing Editor
A growing cadre of small, specialty coffee roasters are out to change the way you think about, taste, drink and buy coffee.
And once you’ve been exposed to the pleasures of really good coffee, and the politics and economics of where the magical beans are grown and the conditions of small coffee farmers, you’ll never think about a cup of coffee in the same way again.
Today’s specialty coffee roasters, who continue to make their mark in the west and north of Sonoma County, have raised the coffee experience to a new level of consciousness.
Some strive to elevate the amazing coffee bean—and the almost alchemical transformation it undergoes during roasting—into the realm of a culinary art form.
Others are on the leading edge of a social and political movement to bring economic equity to the poor farmers who produce the wildly popular—and profitable—beverage and reap few of the rewards.
Their approaches may differ, but local specialty roasters share a belief in the merits of finely roasted, high quality coffee and how different it is from the vapid, vacuum packed coffee that populates the shelves of the local supermarket.
Coffee is the second most widely traded commodity in the world—only oil changes hands in larger quantities. From Colombia to Kenya, from Ecuador to East Timor, coffee is one of the world’s most popular beverages. It is estimated that 400 billions cups per year are consumed worldwide.
And yet for all the complexities of its production and sale, its numerous varietals and the amazing spectrum of flavors they produce, to many consumers, it’s still just a cup of coffee.
If people like Phil Anacker, one of the owners of the Flying Goat in Healdsburg, and Mark Inman, roastmaster and president of Taylor Maid Farms, have their way, that will change.
Anacker and his two partners, Jake Whitely and Maura Harrington, opened the popular Flying Goat in Healdsburg in 1992. They added a Santa Rosa store in 1994 and just this month opened an annex just up the street on Center Street (next to the Raven Film Center).
Anacker credits sophisticated, educated customers with the business’s success. That and a dedication to produce the very best coffee available.
“We’re trying to raise the bar,” said Anacker. “We want to elevate coffee to a culinary art form all by itself. Coffee is still an afterthought and that is a remnant of when coffee wasn’t very good. That’s what specialty coffee is all about—quality and taste.”
Flying Goat Roastmaster Scott Anderson said specialty coffee is more pricey than other bulk whole beans, but customers can tell the difference. “Our coffee is the highest possible quality. You pay twice as much, but it’s worth it,” he said. “If our coffee isn’t drastically better than the supermarket coffee, we won’t stay in business.”
Several things set specialty coffee apart from the Folger’s variety, or even the bulk whole beans found in most supermarkets. Freshness is one, and the other is the quality of the coffee beans.
Mark Inman, roastmaster at Taylor Maid Farms in Sebastopol, explains that less expensive Robusta bean is used for the canned, ground coffee commonly sold in two-pound cans, which makes up the bulk of the coffee market.
Arabica beans are higher quality. The bulk whole bean dispensers in many grocery stores use the so-called “low-grown” Arabica beans. Inman said coffee grades are based on the altitude where the beans are grown, so the high-grade Arabica beans favored by speciality coffee makers are grown at higher altitudes. “At 5,000 to 7,000 feet, there is literally a sea of complexity and body, flavors you’re not going to find in the mild coffees” grown at lower altitudes, said Inman.
Companies like Taylor Maid and the Flying Goat are buying the top 1-4 percent of the world’s best coffee. “Small roasters, we’re all dealing with the cream of the crop,” said Inman.
To find those coffees, Inman travels to Central and South America to “source” the very best beans, and to buy only organic, shade-grown and almost entirely “fair trade” coffee. Those have become buzz words among coffee aficionados, but Inman’s mission is to educate consumers about the social and economic impacts of their coffee buying decisions.
All of Taylor Maid’s coffees are organically grown, shade-grown, and almost entirely certified as fair trade. Fair trade establishes a floor price for coffee that is above the commodity price on the world market. It ensures that small farmers make a minimal profit.
Even for those coffees that are not able to be certified as fair trade because the farms are too small or too big, Tailor Maid pays prices that are well above the prices mandated by fair trade rules.
Taylor Maid buys all its coffee directly from small farmers, and Inman visits those farms each year to pay the farmers directly.
“My commitment, first and foremost, is to the farmers, not the marketplace,” said Inman. “We should be paying $20-$30 for a pound of coffee, and it would still make the serving price less than $1 per cup… it’s a joke what a deal coffee is.”
To establish a steady supply for Taylor Maid, and to maintain stable prices for his growers, Inman goes directly to the farmers. They deal with small family growers and small tribes in Central and South America. While the fair trade price for coffee is $1.26 per pound for non-organic and $1.41 for certified organic coffee (15 cents above the market rate), Taylor Maid pays an average price of $2.50 per pound. “That guarantees a good supply and a stable supply,” said Inman. “When I have to go down and face that farmer next year and look him in the eye, I have to do better for him. I can’t tell him I need to cut the price because I need a new car, when he doesn’t have shoes.
“If I get less (profit) my doors are still open,” he said. “If they get less, they will starve… or their kids will never be educated and never break free of the cycle of poverty.”
One of the goals of Taylor Maid Farms is to “educate consumers and help elevate the livelihoods of the farmers,” said Inman.
As the Flying Goat’s business grows, Anacker said he is able to establish direct relationships with growers. Several years ago, he traveled to the Galapagos Islands and visited an organic, shade-grown coffee grower on San Cristobal Island. The Flying Goat now offers the coffee exclusively for $15.95 per pound. A percentage of the profits are donated to the Darwin Foundation.
Acquiring the best coffee beans is just one factor in producing great coffee. Coffee roasters constantly sample their products, a process called “cupping” in which new beans and regular production are sampled for consistency.
“Freshness is only one of the issues,” said Anacker. “Even coffee that is fresh can still be bad. There is a lot of bad coffee out there. Any good roaster will spend time sourcing and cupping samples.”
Anacker, roastmaster Anderson and store manager Scott Tidds “cup” coffee samples every day. They sample the previous nights roasts, they “interview” beans they are considering for purchase, and they sample the company’s blends, to either create new blends or reformulate a blend.
What the cuppers are looking for is consistency to the “roasting profile” they have established. A customer who buys a pound of the Flying Goat’s Baraka Blend (a fair trade, organic and shade grown coffee – $10.25 a pound), for instance, can expect the same medium to dark roasted coffee that “creates a plush but powerful blend.”
Anaker said Roastmaster Anderson “is integral to the process and is incredible at what he does.”
Anderson has been roasting Flying Goat coffees for most of the nine years the business has been open. He considers coffee roasting an art form, and practices it with care and attention. Anaker describes the process of roasting numerous samples of the same coffee to “try to find the sweet spot. When that particular coffee’s character comes out.”
A Kenya AA, for instance, is roasted more lightly than a Timor Maubesse.
“It’s very popular to roast coffee very dark,” said Anaker. “But a lot is missed. You’re replacing all those flavors” with the smoky dark roast.
“Part of the craft of roasting is to determine where the coffee is at its best,” said Anderson.
Each blend is “cupped” weekly and “if it’s not hitting that target, my job is to do something about it.”
Anderson describes coffee as a “very delicate and unstable beverage. What people should be amazed at is the coffee they bring home is as good as it is. It can be ruined at every stage.”
From cultivation to processing to roasting, “each of those steps has to be perfect.”
Which is why they cup hundreds of samples. In fact, Anderson and Tidds point out that the majority of the coffee beans they sample are not up to Flying Goat standards. “Our goal is to find the very best coffee there is,” said Tidds. “The top one percent.”
“What we’re really interested in is seeing how good we can get at this,” said Anderson. “Much like a dedicated winemaker. It requires a tremendous amount of pride.”
At Taylor Maid, Inman understands that his business cannot rely entirely on social consciousness and conscientious consumers.
“I just can’t ask you to buy my coffee because you like what I’m doing socially,” he said. “I have to do it because the coffee beats the competition. That’s the litmus test of whether Taylor Maid is going to make it as an experiment.”
There are not a lot of companies that are doing what Taylor Maid is doing. Inman is on the board of directors of the Specialty Coffee Association of American, and says his company is one of only a handful of “socially conscious coffee companies.” He consults with larger companies, such as Starbucks and Dunkin Donuts, to “green up their organizations.”
“We’re really one of only a handful of companies in the U.S. that are experimenting with different ways of doing fair trade, and cleaning up agricultural practices,” said Inman.
A guiding principle at the company is “everything we do is pure. Everything we do is transparent. If you doubt we do fair trade, come in and I’ll show you the receipts.”
Taylor Maid helped develop a U.S. Aid for International Development project to building cupping labs in nine of the poorest regions in Nicaragua. It helped growers learn to cup and learn the language so they could negotiate with buyers.
Ultimately, the hope is that consumers understand where their morning cup of coffee came from.
“I like the idea that conscious consumerism is taking hold,” said Inman. “This is a plant that is grown., it’s not like Coke or Pepsi … 68 hands touch your coffee before it gets to you. When you make a buying decision, you’re affecting 34 people. That’s a heavy load.”