City Paper is not for tourists
The story embarrasses me whenever I think of it, and if it weren’t a good illustration of the point I want to make, I wouldn’t tell it to you. But a few weeks ago, I walked into Qualia Coffee in Petworth and asked owner Joel Finkelstein for a cup of his India Kaapi Royale, which, if you like, he’ll grind with a cardamom pod for this heady cup of coffee bursting with sweet, dusky, and citrusy flavors. I ordered the coffee only twice during winter—but I thought about it almost daily. The memory sometimes made me as happy as the Kaapi Royale itself.
And I was all worked up for another cup when Finkelstein broke the bad news: He was out of it. Kaapi Royale’s season was over, he told me. I just stood there for a second feeling the blood rush to my face. I felt like I had just walked to a winter farmers market and asked for Brandywine tomatoes.
But my expectation of year-’round Kaapi Royale got Finkelstein and I talking about coffee and his desire to make people think about Arabica beans the same way they think about tomatoes or corn—as an agricultural product with a specific growing and harvesting season. As I would learn in the coming weeks, after interviewing Finkelstein and other roasters, “seasonality” is a relative, even misleading, term with coffee. Sometimes, one roaster told me, “seasonality” is a word specialty coffeehouses like to throw around when they’ve simply exhausted their supply of a bean and can’t buy anymore of the good stuff. As in: “Oh, yeah, sorry we’re out. Don’t you know that Burundi is seasonal?”
When Finkelstein and I finally sit down to explore this topic more fully, he starts our conversation with, essentially, a confession, as if this former journalist doesn’t want to bullshit a working one. He admits that you can, without question, buy plenty of burlap bags full of single-origin beans and hold them until the next season rolls around. It just takes the right vacuum-sealing process, which Finkelstein uses at Qualia to ensure his green beans don’t lose precious moisture and turn stale.
But to buy enough beans to last throughout the year, Finkelstein would need plenty of storage space and plenty of access to the finest single-origin coffees, the very same beans that every other specialty roaster and wholesaler in the country are trying to claim, from Intelligentsia in Chicago to the new Wrecking Ball Coffee Roasters in D.C. More to the point, though, Finkelstein would need the desire to sell his coffees year around. Joel Finkelstein doesn’t have the desire.
To Finkelstein, selling the same beans year-round smacks too much of Starbucks, where at any store in the country and at any time of the year, you can likely get a cup of Pike Place Roast, the company’s signature blend. Think about the Himalayan mountain of beans required to peddle so much Pike Place. Think about how much work is required to keep roasting and blending beans to fit that one flavor profile. Think about how little respect Pike Place Roast has for any one bean in its blend. It’s as if the world’s beans must bend to the will of the Starbucks’ roasters.
There’s nothing inherently wrong, of course, with coffee blends, but as Finkelstein points out, the more beans you blend, the more homogenous the coffee becomes. This is not the way Finkelstein wants you to think about coffee. He wants to help break the “cycle where people buy one type of coffee and that’s all they get.”
So, like other specialty shops in the area, from Chinatown Coffee Co. to Peregrine Espresso on Capitol Hill, Qualia offers a carefully selected line of single-origin beans from all over the world, maybe an Ethiopian Sidamo Ardi (harvesting season: November through February) or a Mexico Chiapas (October through March) or a Brazil Alta Mogiana Natural (May through September). But unlike Chinatown or Peregrine, Finkelstein roasts the beans himself.
“Part of this is fighting the man,” Finkelstein says about chains like Starbucks and Caribou. “Let’s take coffee back!”
The idea of promoting coffee as seasonal is not new, but it is controversial. At least in the small circle of wholesalers and roasters and specialty coffee shops that deal in high-grade, single-origin beans. Coffee may be an agricultural product, but it’s not like the fruits and vegetables at your farmers market, which may be pulled from the ground or plucked from the tree days or even hours before they go on sale. Coffee cherries, those ripened red orbs from the trees that grow along the equatorial belt, must be meticulously processed (wet or dry), dried to the right moisture content, milled, sorted, and shipped to the United States. They may be rested and polished, too. It can take two or three months, or longer, before a roaster like Finkelstein ever sees these “seasonal” green coffee beans. And that’s assuming the beans don’t get held up at port.
Besides, as Wrecking Ball owner and roaster Trish Rothgeb says, coffee buying has always been seasonal. A roaster, by necessity, buys beans when they come onto the market after harvesting and processing. The main difference between now and, say, 20 years ago when Rothgeb got into the business, is that a whole host of groups and associations and wholesalers have been working with small farmers not only to upgrade their processing equipment but also to encourage them to sell their green coffee in micro-lots rather than in undifferentiated pools with other, inferior beans.
Specialty roasters and coffee shops, naturally, want to find a way to promote these micro-lot or single-origin beans. One way is to align their coffees with the “seasonal” agriculture movement that has brought generations of Americans back in touch with the origins of their food. Or as Rothgeb notes, using the seasonal term is an attempt to get us all to “think about coffee in a different way.”
“Seasonality,” she adds, “can kind of mean whatever a roaster wants it to be.”
And right now “seasonality,” to many roasters, is short-hand for “fresh” and “quality.” The industry, you could argue, has appropriated the term as an educational tool to help coffee drinkers understand the changing nature of their morning beverage, from an anonymous blend of unknown origin to specific micro-lots that, like wines, express a certain terroir. And it’s not just us lay drinkers who must be educated. Some chefs, too, need to rethink the way they do coffee service and shift away from the monolithic blends that they like to serve to customers all year long. Such inflexibility is part of the reason why roasters like Caffe Pronto in Annapolis continue to sell some coffees to restaurants year-round, rather than move completely to “seasonal” coffees.
But lest we forget, “seasonality” also has its roots in agriculture and harvests. Like all agricultural products, coffee degrades as time marches on, even under the best storage conditions. To prove it, Finkelstein gave me two bags of the same Nicaraguan beans, one from the current season and the other from last season. The bags were marked “1” and “A” so that I wouldn’t be biased when conducting the taste test. I took the beans home, ground them finely, and steeped them in a V60 Hario coffee dripper. The “1” sample tasted slightly sweet and citrusy but left a stale, almost cardboardy flavor in my mouth. The “A” sample had better body and a more pronounced citrus flavor, but with no negative aftertaste. So which one was the older sample?
When I got Finkelstein on the phone, he surprised me by saying the “1” bag was actually the fresher one. He blamed part of the bag’s off-flavors on the roasting process itself: To handle such a small batch of beans, Finkelstein had to fall back on his fluid-bed roaster, which he says is “one step up from a popcorn” popper. I admitted to Finkelstein that I was disappointed with this news; it pretty much ruined the neat little ending I had in mind for this column. You know: Fresher coffees are better coffees or some such tidy summation.
Then I thought of something that Rothgeb told me during our interview: Some people prefer the flavors of coffee produced from older beans. Some producers, in fact, specifically age their beans to cater to such a market. I’m not sure I fall into the aged-coffee camp, but I do know this: fresh, “seasonal” beans alone do not make for a great cup of joe. It’s just the first step in a long, exacting process to bring you that complex mug of morning mud.