The Source: Tha Pye Gone

Boy meets coffee, boy falls in love with coffee, boy travels the world taking sourcing shots, the staging of which has not been seen since MacArthur gallantly refused to roll up his combat trousers.

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As the specialty coffee industry has become bigger and the world smaller, this smallness can be seen on my instagram feed with a constant stream of shots of roasters and baristas meeting those who produced their coffee (interspersed, of course, with latte art and well-plated food). I am generally reluctant to present sourcing from a first-person perspective, introducing myself into the narrative. Along with the feeling that I am trying to force people (i.e. you, dear reader) to watch my vacation slides (when you love what you do, it’s all a big vacation), I don’t know how to avoid the tendencies of adulation or patronization.

Adulation in that, caught up in the travel and the emotion, along with the caffeine, there is an obvious tendency to accept as fact everything that we are told, and to aggrandize everything we see. After all, we have made a choice to partner with these growers, love their coffee, and at the end of the day, have the common goal of selling said coffee to you, no less, dear reader.

On the other hand there is a tendency toward patronization, presenting oneself as either a coffee hunter or coffee savior.

The coffee hunter travels the world, going to the most remote and dangerous places to source exotic and rare coffees. (I know, there was a TV show about this and yes, I thought it was awful.) But coffee is the seed of a plant, and its quality neither stems from the remoteness of its location nor the exotic head garb of its cultivators, but rather from choices of genetics, crop management, and care taken in post-harvest. Even when the Indiana Jones narrative is conscientiously minimized, telling the story of how a coffee was produced often means telling a story of poverty. And what one set of eyes sees as telling the seed to cup story, another could easily see as glamorizing poverty to provide consumers a rustic tie to the land or to bygone times, and trying to profit off of a supply chain still largely based on cheap labor from historically oppressed populations.

The coffee savior is one who uses their historic position as “lord of the supply chain” to pay “more than the other guy would pay you.” But the “good” should not be defined by simply mitigating the bad, and Guy Travels the World, Applies Heat to a Seed, and Doesn’t Conscientiously Screw People Over is not really much of a story.

But perhaps I am being self-righteous about not being self-righteous. Please pardon my Midwestern ways. If you are still with me, please enjoy the recounting of my trip to a community that is growing one of my favorite coffees. I tried to put words together to describe the trip, but truth be told, the slide show (or scroll show) probably does it better.

This April I was finally able to visit the Tha Pye Gone community in Myanmar, producers of a coffee we have offered for the past two years. As a little background on the trip, over the past several years I have been blessed with the opportunity to contribute to the nascent Specialty Coffee industry in Myanmar by volunteering as a post-harvest consultant with the Coffee Quality Institute and Winrock International, hosting a port-to-cup tour in the US, and through our purchasing of Myanmar coffee at Little City. This opportunity has not only allowed us to bring some great coffees to Texas, but on a personal level I have made some deep friendships.

For those in the Specialty Coffee industry, it may seem like Myanmar came out of nowhere to becoming a fairly well-known origin. But having peered behind the curtain a (very) wee bit, that instant success is the result of the dedication and competence of many people such as Sai Wan Ming, Su Su Aung, Steve Walls, Nimish Jhaveri, Craig Holt, Min Hlaing, Pheelay, Thu Zaw, April McGil, Anne-Claire Degal, Lisa Conway, Ko Ko Win, Khun Tu Kyi, Andrew Hetzel, Ye Myint, Marcelo Pereira, Melanie Edwards, U Khine, Sara Morrocchi, Mye Mye Aye, Moe Sat, Amy VanNocker, and so many others… and, at the end of the day, President Barack Obama, who twice visited Myanmar and led an initiative for the U.S. to invest in a nascent democracy.


Last month I spent 2two weeks in Myanmar working at two new dry mills, Behind the Leaf and Amayar, to ensure the machines were working properly and the staff running the mills was adequately trained.  While there, I was able to get away for a day to visit Tha Pye Gone, a community Little City has partnered with to exclusively offer their coffees. Tha Pye Gone is inhabited by the Pa-O people, an autonomous ethnic community. The government of Myanmar officially recognizes 135 ethnic groups. Within Shan State, the Pa-O ethnic group is the second largest, behind the Shan people. Please visit here for some background information about the Pa-O people.

This partnership is through Behind the Leaf, a coffee wet mill and dry mill that was started by Melanie Edwards, an American (more specifically a North Carolinian) who has lived in Myanmar for over 15 years, dedicating her life to bettering lives in rural communities. Behind the Leaf is the coffee offshoot of Lilypad, a company that focuses on making water filters, and bricks, and training rural growers on raising rabbits. Behind the Leaf works with several local communities to produce high quality coffees.  

Rather than bore you with a blow-by-blow account of the trip, here is brief summary, followed by a slide (scroll) show.

Tha Pye Gone is about 20 minutes off Highway 43, lying at the end of a dirt road that passes through picturesque fields of rice and garlic as it winds upward. Upon arriving, we went to the house of Zaw Zaw Tun to pick up the latest harvest. Zaw Zaw is the agricultural leader of the community, and is well-versed in coffee and avocados, two of the principal crops of the community. He works with members to ensure they are properly tending to the plants, performing the harvest, and drying the coffee. He insisted that I put on traditional clothes and we sat around the stove and spendt a few hours talking about coffee and the history of the community. Melanie, Jweet, and U Khine distributed water filters to the community, I snapped some photos, we packed up the coffee, and then headed back at sunset. I have also included some photos from a Pa-O festival I attended. So, break out the popcorn, pour yourself a cup of joe or an adult beverage (hey, no judgement here) and enjoy the beauty of Tha Pye Gone, Behind the Leaf, and the Pa-O people. Not always, but sometimes beautiful coffees come from beautiful places… (and if you are reading this, thanks Melanie. You are an example of decency, integrity, and perseverance).

 

The Dock and Market at Inle Lake

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The Road to Tha Pye Gone

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Tha Pye Gone Sign

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The Main Road of Tha Pye Gone

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Zaw Zaw Tun

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Zaw Zaw Tun’s Nursery at the Side of His House

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Sitting with Zaw Zaw Tun at his house in traditional Tha Pye Gone clothes.

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Jweet from Behind the Leaf delivering a water filter.

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Taking the Filters Home

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Bagging the Coffee to Take Back to Behind the Leaf

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Tha Pye Gone Growers

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Unedited Interview with Zaw Zaw Tun

 

Photos from a Pa-O Festival

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Bright Lights, Little City: Guerilla Brewing

Little City's Eric Wolf owned and operated Lovejoys, a bar and brewery in downtown Austin from 2006-2012 where he first cut his teeth in the brewing and the craft beer industry.

No one ever said making beer was supposed to be easy, and at Lovejoys, I assure you that it was not.

  Eric Roach and Daron White brewing an early batch on the new system, circa 1997

Eric Roach and Daron White brewing an early batch on the new system, circa 1997

In the mid-90’s, with his newly opened beer and coffee bar already thriving and recent changes to Texas’ brewing laws, Lovejoys founder Chip Tait and some of his Austin Homebrew Supply pals (Eric Roach, Daron White, et al) devised a plan to start brewing their own beer on-site. The franken-brewhouse that they built was unique to say the least - a leaky, square mash tun surely held together by the punk band stickers that covered its exterior, a plastic cold liquor tank that might be cold if the walk-in was working well that day and the brewer remembered to fill it the night before, and an indestructible beast of a custom-welded brew kettle with a clearly hazardous and likely out of code direct-flame burner. The conical fermentation tanks were probably the only pieces of the system intended for use in a brewery though they were oddly sized and crammed into a too-small closet with a cheap window a/c unit providing their only temperature control.

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Equipment limitations aside, brew days brought a host of other challenges. Extreme conditions and limited space made the head brewer role at Lovejoys one of the toughest gigs in town. In what was essentially a hallway behind the bar, the space was tight with very little ventilation and poor drainage. It was always hot as hell and the floors were always wet and slippery. If you could avoid slipping and falling on your ass during a brew day then you were likely tripping over the mess of transfer hoses, pumps and extension cords covering every inch of walkable floor. Burns, cuts, shocks, and head bumps were inevitable and anyone who ever brewed a batch at 604 Neches surely has the battle scars to prove it.

Because we were only brewing for our direct customers and because we had neither the intention nor the capacity to distribute beyond our walls (it was illegal for brewpubs to distribute then anyway) we had a ton of freedom to experiment. The taps rotated constantly and we had no style requirements so we weren’t afraid to take chances. If something didn’t turn out as intended we just changed the name. A blonde ale got too warm during fermentation and went a little funky? Call it a sour ale! Miscalculated the amount of hops needed for that one? I guess it’s an IPA now. The brewery’s  limitations necessitated creativity and risk-taking and many of our greatest hits were the result of our misses.

The beer names ranged from clever to vulgar but were mostly bad puns (Dennis Hopper IPA) or named after a brewer’s dog (Samson’s Best, Sparky’s Special Ale among others). Energizer IPA was born when a brewer dropped his flashlight in the kettle during the boil and was resurrected years later when someone forgot to pay the electric bill (hint: it was me) and the power was shut off toward the end of a brew day. We ran every extension cord we had down the alley to plug the pump in on Jackalope’s patio a block down and finished the final transfer in the dark. For the sake of the story, I like to believe that it was the best damn beer we ever made, but I honestly don’t remember. Imagine that...

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During the time Lovejoys was open, and primarily still, most brewpubs had a very specific atmosphere - big glass windows with shiny tanks on display under bright lights, long picnic tables, wooden flight boards, pizza and chicken wings, and typically the same 4-5 beer styles. We were nothing like that. We took pride in being the anti-brewpub. In fact we didn’t really think of ourselves as a brewpub at all. We were a bar that also made a little beer in the back room and hoped enough people dug it to justify making more. We showed total disregard for trends and had zero flash. The beer was always cheap and was usually good and we worked our asses off to make it happen. It was guerrilla brewing at its finest.

  Brewer Todd Henry filling a growler of AJ Porter

Brewer Todd Henry filling a growler of AJ Porter

The Roast: Grackle

Everyone deserves a great cup of coffee. Fresh, seasonal, roasted to perfection. But what about your coffee flavor profile? The abstract mumbo jumbo flavor notes on the front of a bag and the nonsensical copy on the back (looking at you John) don't really tell us much about the coffee itself unless we understand the jargon. The number of times I’ve been asked if a coffee is flavored because of the flavor notes could make a grown man cry—and sometimes I do. We do our absolute best to provide a cup for everyone. Every blend fits a profile for any coffee drinker ready to take the training wheels off.

Over the years I’ve had a lot of time face-to-face with customers. As a barista, I really tried to help people discover their favorite drink or coffee. Not too dissimilar from Tom Hanks in the Davinci Code, this involved deciphering what people were trying to describe. “I don’t like acidic coffee,” could mean multiple things. It could be the literal acid quality of a bright washed coffee or perhaps the oils from a dark roast coffee that upsets their stomach. Helping people find their favorite coffee always brought me great joy. 

We knew we wanted to make a new blend and just weren't sure what it should be. So the only way to make a good, logical decision was to stop and take inventory of where we were and why. Like usual, I rejoined the never ending conversation between the Wolf and myself regarding our current blends. If you’ve participated in a tasting or class with me, you will know I refer to flavor profiles in relation to processing method first, then origin. For our blends we also add roast profile. So we started mapping out our blends using the X axis for Processing and Y for Roast.

X Axis

  • Washed Acidic 
    • 10 = Highly Acidic – Microlot quality 86+ (Kenya coffee for example) 
    • 5 = Medium Acidity – Washed Colombian blender
    • 2 = Low Acidity – Washed mild (close to a pulped natural profile)
  • Pulped Natural 
    • 0 = Coffee flavored coffee – Chocolate, caramel, nutty
    • Can fluctuate toward the acidic side or natural side 0–5 points 
  • Natural 
    • 10 = Ethiopia Natural – Bright and fruity
    • 5 = Brazil Natural – Medium fruit, heavy chocolate
    • 0 = Chocolate, caramel, pulped natural profile 

Y Axis

  •  -10 = Under roasted 
  • -5 + Microlot profile 
  • - 3 = Light roast
  • 0 = Medium roast
  • +3 = Medium dark 
  • 5 = Dark 
  • 10 = Charcol 

We have devised a set of blend profiles that allow us to visually plot flavor [or sensory] components and create blends that are truly distinct, resulting in a blend for every palette.
 

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After mapping our current drip coffee blends, it was immediately apparent that we were missing a dark component with a natural fruity attribute. To fill that gap we needed to blend coffees that have the smooth dark chocolate body, floral aromatics and stone fruit flavor. After trying a few variations with our LC base dark and our LC natural blender, we decided on 70% LC base dark and 30% LC natural blender.

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We named the resulting blend...

THE GRACKLE!

 

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The next step in creating blends is likely the hardest, at least for me. We had to write copy for the bag sticker. But what can you say about a blend named after a dastardly bird that no one really likes? Here are a couple of our attempts.

 

  1. “The grackle is a black bird whose song crescendos to an irresistible chorus as she flocks with her peers in treetop clouds. Like this coffee, the collective spectacle is a natural delight. The Grackle Blend brings dark chocolate, almond, and blackberry voices to the ensemble, and our roaster's alchemy renders a rara avis indeed: a natural-inflected dark roast coffee that will hold your attention through a second cup and counting. Who cares why the black bird sings when she inspires such things!” - John Outler

    • Nice try, John, but this let the grackle off way too easy. We were looking for something a little (a lot?) more edgy.

  2. “That loud rusty gear and shattered glass cacophony overhead is a flock of grackles that want to darken your horizon and peel the pain off your car. That's why we named our new coffee The Grackle Blend. It's a natural dark roast with almond, blackberry and dark chocolate notes, so of course it will remind you of a terrifying flock of black birds that loom in illogically large numbers so they can gut you when you turn your back. Everyone deserves a great cup of coffee.”  - John Outler

    • OK, maybe this is too edgy? There’s got to be a happy medium.

  3. “The dark full bodied flavor covers the pallet like the black birds at the HEB parking lot. While the smooth chocolate and blackberry finish gleams through the darkness like the violet on the grackles coat. For as many similarities the bird may have with this blend, we are sure this coffee will have you singing a softer tune. “ - Ian Myers

    • Good one, Ian, getting there, but I’m struggling with the image (and flavor) of black birds on my palate. 

  4. The grackle teams, swarms and shreiks; they are like a slow-moving avian train wreck you can't look away from; their attraction is entirely negative, if utterly compelling. They raise more questions, some bordering on existential, than answers... why do they do what they do? why the fucking parking lot, FFS? what did we do to them? and why, in the name of all that is logical, did you name a coffee after them? seriously... Answer. That. Question.” - John Outler

    • OK, John, now you’re just showing your ass. Relax and have a cup of Grackle Blend.

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Eventually landing on:

 

The Grackle—dark chocolate and ripe berries that will give you the confidence to ruffle your feathers, raise your beak, and shriek at the sky. Well, maybe not, but we're confident that one day the Grackles will not be content to scare the hell out of us when we go to the supermarket, so we figure we better start currying some favor.  

 
 

Bright Lights, Little City: CHRIS OGLESBY

“Bright Lights, Little City” is a space for our friends, staff and customers to share anecdotes about the city we love. This month, we’re proud to share a piece by Chris Oglesby.

Do you have your own Austin story that is waiting to be told? You can submit it here for a chance to be featured in our next month's Bright Lights, Little City. 

In Which: Billy F. Gibbons Performs at My Book Release Party.

From the first weekend I moved to this little city in summer 1990, I became more aware of a deep arterial connection between Austin and my west Texas hometown Lubbock. I had read an article by Austin journalist Molly Ivins observing how Lubbock is a good place to be from (implying “no longer there”) and why many of Lubbock’s more creative denizens tend to migrate to Austin. I noticed this phenomenon right away firsthand.

Like many peers in the slacker days of early 1990s Austin, my first bed in Austin was a futon couch belonging to fellow Lubbock expatriates, and my first weekend we went down to 6th Street, which was less lively then. I proclaimed, “I wish we’d see someone we know,” and within minutes a good friend from Lubbock passed by like he owned the street. And so it began. Austin is a little city.

The Lubbock Game evolved in Austin among my fellow flatland expatriates, and the Game goes like this: We ask “Do you know where he/she is from?” (RE: musician/actor/artist/etc whom we’re watching or listening to at the moment) And the cognoscente groan emphatically, “Lubbock.” The answer is always Lubbock.

The apparently large percentage of Austin’s influential artists who admit publicly, “When I lived in Lubbock…,” is uncanny. Examples include Flatanders Joe Ely, Butch Hancock & Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Greater Tuna co-creator Jaston Williams, Lost Gonzos Bob Livingston and Gary P. Nunn, The Texana Dames cosmic dance band, A-List producer & pedal-steel player Lloyd Maines, blues legend Angela Strehli, songwriter Kimmie Rhodes, and okay you get the idea, right? Austin is a little city.  

Long story short: this obsession for years living in Austin led to me receiving a contract with University of Texas Press to publish a book from my writings & interviews with many of those Lubbock-area artists who deeply influence Austin culture and beyond. The book is entitled “Fire in the Water, Earth in the Air: Legends of West Texas Music.” The title is based on something Jimmie Gilmore supposedly said to someone else, and I now confess that it’s way too long for a book title; almost no one remembers it or says it right. I later told Terry Allen that I wished I had named the book “Dirt” and he agreed that Dirt is a better name. Anyway…

Back to Austin, September 2006: University of Texas Press publishes my book (ISBN: 978-0-292-71434-2), it receives an appropriate amount of good reviews from critics. I got an award for research. The musicians involved seem to like the book, as do the straight folk back in Lubbock, which is no humble balancing feat.

So this is when Bob Livingston, of legendary Lost Gonzo Band fame (think: “Home with the Armadillo”, Jerry Jeff Walker, Cosmic Cowboy Michael Martin Murphey, Ray Wylie Hubbard’s “Redneck Mother”, etc.), contacts me with his idea, “Chris, if you can find a place with a stage and backline, I bet if you have a book signing party several of us musicians would show up to play.” I reply that I agree it’s a good idea but I don’t want to ask such a favor of the artists. However Gonzo Bob assures me, if I find the right place he’ll corral them and musicians will come. Austin is a little city.

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Stubb’s BBQ & Live Music downtown on Red River arguably is one of Austin’s all-time premiere music venues, and do you know where the titular founder C.B. “Stubb” Stubblefield came to Austin from, and where the co-founders of Stubb’s BBQ grew up? Did you guess Lubbock? Good for you. So that is how I’ve known the founders of Stubb’s most my life and felt free to ask; nonetheless, I am immensely grateful when they offer the downstairs stage and bar, along with paid sound-crew, for a Sunday night book-signing party at Stubb’s. Generous indeed. Austin is a little city.

Sunday November 12, 2006. One of those events that is impossible to describe to anyone who was not there but in short it was like a huge all-star family reunion of anyone in Austin with connections to Lubbock, a joyful fellowship of artists who hail from the Hub City. Many artists who had never performed together had the opportunity to do so. Mighty hugs, huge authentic laughs, spontaneous dancing. Gonzo Bob took over as de facto stage manager while I autographed copies of the book provided by UT Press (Full disclosure, my editor at UT Press is Allison Faust, who comes from…did you guess Lubbock?) Impromptu performances by Connie, Traci, and Charlene Hancock of the Texana Dames with patriarch Tom X Hancock; Flatlander Jimmie Dale Gilmore sang with his son Colin Gilmore; Zydeco star Ponty Bone rocked his accordion; songwriter/guitarist David Halley rolled on guitar; Legendary sidemen supported throughout the night: fiddler Richard Bowden, guitarist John X Reed, keyboardist Dee Purkeypile; performance artist and national treasure Jo Carol Pierce, and international award-winning poet Paul Bullock, did their things.

Enter Billy Gibbons and Billy Bob Thornton. Okay, before I forget, Stu Cook drummer for Creedence Clearwater Revival was also hanging around in the crowd this night but never got on stage as far as I know. (I do not make this up; Austin is a little city.) Southern rock veteran Jay Boy Adams is another artist who graces my book with his stories. In the 1970’ & 80’s, the Jay Boy Adams Band toured with and opened for ZZ Top, and Jay doubled as Billy Gibbons’ guitar tech while ZZ Top was onstage. November 2006, Gibbons was in Austin to receive a lifetime achievement award from the Texas Grammy voters with his friend Billy Bob Thornton there to present. So Jay invites them to attend our little book-signing party. Bob Livingston says to me, “Billy Gibbons wants to play.” I say, “Let him.” There happened to be a film crew on site for some unknown serendipitous reason, so if you don’t believe me, here is a link to video:

Afterwards, Jay horse-collars me outside of Stubb’s and says to me endearingly, “What did you think of that, you little fucker?” I said “Well, there’s when I got married and now that is the second greatest thing that ever happened to me.” Thank God, Austin is a little city.

 

Artist Christopher J. Oglesby creates paintings in Austin Texas; please visit his website www.prettycoolart.com

Oglesby also created www.virtualubbock.com dedicated to West Texas music & culture; authored a book about creativity & numerous magazine articles about life in Texas; and he has produced more than 100 successful music events in Austin and beyond.

The Roast: The Art of Skim

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At Little City we cup a lot of coffees. Cupping is the step-by-step process used for evaluating a coffee’s individual attributes to assess its overall quality. Its steps are numerous and steeped in guidelines and protocols. A cupper at source in Ethiopia or Indonesia should theoretically follow the same procedures as a potential buyer in Austin. It is an international language that connects the industry and aims to keep all points of the supply chain on the same page when discussing a particular coffee’s quality and value.

Read more about cupping protocols here!

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One step in the cupping process that is rarely discussed in terms of protocol is the skim. After the coffee has been brewed (8.5g of coffee per 150mL of water at 200-205 deg F for 4 minutes) and the crust of grounds formed on top has been broken (with the bottom side of a spoon in 3 swift motions), the foam that remains on the surface of the cup must be removed. This step is strictly functional, ensuring that the cuppers get a clean spoonful of liquor - the term used for the brewed coffee that will be slurped by spoon during evaluation. Aside from washing dishes, skimming is likely the most monotonous and time consuming step of the entire cupping process.

In our years of daily cupping and travel we have skimmed a lot of cups and have seen a lot of cups skimmed. Below are some videos of the various methods we’ve encountered:

The two-spoon method

The most common skim. Two spoons are placed together and slowly fanned out around the inside edge of the cup to collect the foam from the top. Here Randy makes it look easy though it will take some practice for new cuppers to be able to remove all of the foam in one motion.

The one-spoon method

This method was captured at a Coffees of the World class given by Joel and Eric in Varginha, Brazil and was the catalyst for this extremely specific and geeky blog post. Here Jorge Assis of Monte Alegre uses a one-handed scoop to corral the foam and then a swirling motion on the surface of the cup to coax it in to the spoon. One may argue that this amount of motion could cause excessive agitation and potentially over-extract the sample, but who are we to argue with a guy who has been cupping longer than half of our company has been alive? Plus it looks super cool and leaves a perfectly clean cup!

The Blow Method

Finally a look at the rarest of the skim methods we’ve witnessed - the blow technique. In this video Joel took at a local coffee competition in the state of Parana years ago, a contestant floats all of the foam to one side of the cup with a gust of breath before gently scooping it out with his spoon. This technique is rarely seen in Specialty Coffee and is more commonly seen with old-school cuppers who use the Brazilian COB (Classificação Oficial Brasileiro) system, where the roast is lighter and the grind coarser, thus facilitating the blow, if you will. We’re not sure if it is critical to the technique, but the Sam Elliot stache definitely doesn’t hurt.

There you have it - three videos that prove the skim worthy of our attention and appreciation. We encourage our fellow cuppers to practice these techniques and turn us on to your own special skim methods. Be sure to tag us in your videos and use the hashtag #artoftheskim.

The Source: Single Origin Diversity - Café De Costa Rica

As we’re making final selections on Costa Rican coffees and waiting for the shipments to arrive, Ian recaps his sourcing trip to Costa Rica and the takeaways from the different farms and regions in this month's edition of "The Source."

While I would love nothing more than for my list on a trip to Costa Rica to include nothing but various tropical fruits I will add to my guaro from atop my beachside perch, while wearing the Little City hat on sourcing trips (literally, actually, check out the photos. I love that hat) I got food poisoning the moment I got to the beach. So instead of rehashing my romantic relationship with the toilet at my Airbnb, I’m sharing a little more about the coffee sourcing part of the trip to Costa Rica and various coffee producing regions I visited in January.

The first context of Single Origin coffee for me was Juan Valdez himself. For any of you who don’t remember the legend of the man, check this out. While Juan is obviously the national coffee hero of Colombia, I was informed that he drinks Costa Rican coffee. Some Costa Ricans actually had a bumper sticker created, resulting in a lawsuit between Colombian and Costa Rican coffee. The lawsuit was settled after finding a Costa Rican named Juan Valdez, who did in fact drink Costa Rican coffee.

Broad generalizations of coffee from one country to another are just as silly as that bumper sticker. Coffee quality varies drastically from origin to origin and region to region. We visited farms from the West Valley, Central Valley, and the Tarrazu Region, each with its own historic, socioeconomic, cultural, landscape, and flavor profile differences.

All in all, Costa Rica has eight main growing regions:

  • The Central Valley
  • Tres Rios
  • West Valley
  • Turrialba
  • Orosi
  • Tarrazu
  • Guanacaste
  • Brunca

In all honesty, I haven't been to all of them. Though I have been to three of the better known areas. During my last trip in January, I visited and cupped coffees from the Central Valley, West Valley, and Tarrazu regions. By the end of it, flavor attributes from each region started to present themselves in the cup. But that’s not the point… we were on a mission.  (I tend to get side tracked, so bear with me.)

Without spending too much time droning on about the specific criteria we use when sourcing (if you’re interested, take a look at our sourcing outline), this particular trip was intended to identify a coffee profile that can replace our current Peruvian blend component. A washed coffee with mellow acidity, full body, and notes of milk chocolate. It’s a relatively easy profile to identify, in all honesty; the hard part is the quality threshold. Let’s say you want a nice lager beer. If the criterion is just lager, a Lone Star tall boy works just fine, but if you want exceptional quality, nothing comes close to the St. Augesteiner Helles Lager (IMO). Trouble is, that damn St. Augustiner can’t be found anywhere outside of Bavaria. Our blend components are no different (they actually stand up quite well on their own as a single origin). To get the quality we are looking for, going to source is the only way.

In addition to the blend profile, we want some coffee to nerd out on. Last year we featured coffees from El Cedral farm in Dota Tarrazu, Costa Rica. Personally, this was one of my favorite coffees of all time. A well rounded, natural processed, Yellow and Red Catuai, full bodied, strong notes of stone fruit, milk chocolate and an after taste that doesn’t disappoint. Naturally (Pun intended), I had to visit to see what made El cedral so exceptional last year.

Sitting at 1,900–2,000 masl, it was one of the highest farms in the Dota, Tarrazu region. Generally speaking, the higher the altitude, the longer the maturation period (due to a milder climate). From my experience this increases the chances of an amazing cup of coffee. While most of the coffees in this valley had been harvested already or were in the middle of picking, El Cedral was just beginning to reach full maturity. This coffee wouldn’t be picked until a few weeks after I left, so unfortunately we have not yet tasted it. (Samples will be arriving in Austin in the next few weeks).

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From the picture above you can see the small town of Dota; located at the center is Coopodota, a cooperative processing mill that all the growers in this region are a part of. While the smallholder growers may not have the resources independently, as a group they are capable of some pretty incredible things. The mill was one of the most sustainable and organized mills I’ve seen. Sustainably speaking, all of the coffee pulp is composted and used to fertilize the crops. The water from the mill is either sprayed into grazing fields or star grass for purification. Most of the electricity is generated from the nearby river and the dryers are heated using only coffee parchment.

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Overall, the co-op administration has most of the control to decide which lots get picked on which days and to determine how they will be processed. The two receiving stations are the larger more industrious station and then the microlot receiving station.

Stopping by one co-op to find the perfect coffees for our blends isn’t enough, though. Another great example with its own nuances would be La Candelaria. We would be meeting Coricafes Green Coffee Manager, Stefan Wille, at the farm. Stefan had actually been to Little City’s roasting facility to visit months beforehand.

  Stefan Wille (left), Ian Myers (middle), Fernando Cabada (right)

Stefan Wille (left), Ian Myers (middle), Fernando Cabada (right)

After the 1.5-hour car ride to the West Valley, just northwest of San Jose, we arrived at the Candalaria Estate, Stefan waiting patiently at the gate. Funny enough, Stefan did not realize it was the coffee roaster he had visited in Austin, TX coming to visit until he saw my face. The coffee industry has had of way of making the world feel like a small place. The potential to run into someone you met in a completely different country is very real.

Candelaria Estate was founded in 1965 by Otto Kloeti. Otto, Uwe Thormaehlen, and Klaus Ronning founded Coricafe, the independent coffee exporter, the same year. Candalaria was purchased from producers in the province of Alajela, 40 km northwest of San Jose. Like most coffee growing regions in Costa Rica, the road to Candelaria was winding, steep, and only sometimes paved. Once inside the farm you immediately see the recently harvest coffee shrubs from the lower altitude lots of the farm. At the time, Candelaria was in full swing of harvest, though at 10 a.m., most the action is still happening in the fields. Stefan showed us the newly updated washing station and also showed off some of the old ox-powered equipment.

After touring the washing station and mill, we moved on to the highest lot on the property. The views were fantastic, though most of the coffee at even its highest lot had been picked already. It’s great for tasting but not so great for photos. Hence the non-coffee-oriented landscape photo.  

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One of the fascinating things I learned while at Candelaria was how they processed the waste water from the washing station. Otto Kloeti took steps toward sustainable clean water years ago at the washing station. Otto hypothesized that by sprinkling the waste water over star grass, it would filter the water enough to rejoin the rivers. After testing, his hypothesis was proven true, and it is now used by many other farmers in the region.

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The Source: Sourcing Seasonality

In this entry, Little City GM Ian Myers provides an introduction to our new section called "The Source," and explains some of the basics of sourcing seasonal coffee.

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Hopefully you have experienced the enhanced flavor of coffee that is freshly roasted, ground, and brewed. It’s life-changing, or at least it was for me. But what about freshness in terms of seasonal coffee? And I am not talking about Pumpkin Spice or White Christmas seasonal, but rather “fresh crop coffee” that was freshly harvested.

What does “seasonal” coffee even mean? The coffee shrub, like many other trees, has harvest periods throughout the year, when its fruits are ripe for the picking. Depending on rainfall and weather patterns, the coffee plant can have one or several harvests throughout the year. Those harvest times vary by country, and even by the specific region within a country.  As Joel talks about in The Roast [LINK], the coffee bean is actually a seed, and the minute that coffee seed is harvested, it is removed from its protecting mother plant and subject to degradation. In other words, the clock is ticking. What happens as the bean ages? The first sign that a coffee bean is past its prime is that the flavor attributes fade—the coffee loses its brightness, sharpness, and intensity. After that stage, the coffee starts to taste “past crop,” gaining papery, woody, flavors and even astringency.

As the General Manager of Little City, I wear many hats. But, along with head roaster Eric Wolf and all of our team, one of the ones I am most proud of is how we keep our blends fresh by constantly sourcing fresh crop seasonal coffees. Along with our seasonal microlots, we are always planning ahead for coffees that will go into Congress Ave, Republic, Grackle, Messenger, Violet Crown and other blends. Our blends are crafted in the sense that they are not the same coffees year round, nor are they “where microlots go to die.” (A common industry practice is to use blends as a place to get rid of older coffees that might have once been good, but have since faded and now taste faded or woody.) We are constantly planning our blends and changing out the components with fresh crop so they don’t fade, or, worse yet, develop those “past crop” woody flavors.

  The Little City team cupping Costa Rica samples from Ian’s sourcing trip, to determine which freshly harvested (seasonal) coffee will replace the Peruvian coffee in some of our blends.

The Little City team cupping Costa Rica samples from Ian’s sourcing trip, to determine which freshly harvested (seasonal) coffee will replace the Peruvian coffee in some of our blends.

You may have seen calendars showing the harvest, ship, and arrival periods from each country. God, I wish it were that easy. The only way to understand the ever-changing harvest seasons and ensure freshness is through relationships with producers and exporters, and visiting them as often as possible to have an ear to the ground about the intricacies of each harvest.

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Counter clockwise: Ian cupping coffee in Costa Rica, Eric in the fields of the Huila Department in Colombia, and Joel enjoying a non-coffee beverage in Myanmar.

 

Of course, even “perfect” planning doesn’t ensure flawless execution. For example, we’ve sometimes struggled getting coffees into the U.S. from countries like Myanmar, or even neighboring Mexico. The steps between harvest, processing, sampling, contracting, milling, bagging, exporting, and importing take real time and attention. Best case is three months after harvest, and we’ve found that working with exceptional producers and carefully vetting supply chains help to hit that target. I traveled to Costa Rica last month and last week our team made a decision about the new Costa Rica blend component. You can follow those coffees at #lccostarica.

But I am so proud of our results. It’s time consuming and expensive to constantly be sourcing new coffees for the blends, not to mention the time spent working on the roast curves to ensure they don’t alter the blend profile. But it’s worth it. I am very proud of the work we do and the quality of our blends. They are not afterthoughts. Our motto is Everyone Deserves a Great Cup of Coffee. And with all of our blends, that rings true year round.

The Roast: The Challenges of Storage

Welcome to The Roast, where we detail the journey of unroasted green coffee through storage, transport, roasting at our facility, and eventually to your door as the brown beans you know. In this first piece, we look at the technical coffee storage challenges that inspired us to rethink our methods.

Heraclitus famously claimed that you can’t step in the same river twice. Maybe the same could be said about coffee roasting—you can never roast the same coffee twice. But you can sure as hell try! 

Why can you never roast the same coffee twice? Coffee is so many things—a plant, a stimulant, a ritual; but when you boil it all down, coffee is a seed (OK, we promised puns, so there you go. Never boil your coffee!) And, like all seeds, it is living entity that is constantly changing and adapting to its environment.

  • Coffee seeds, or beans, are hygroscopic, meaning they actively exchange moisture with the environment around them. Put coffee in a humid place, it will get wetter; put it in an arid place, it will get dryer.

  • Many of the components that give coffee the flavor we so love are preserved in the cell walls of the endosperm. If the coffee is not stored properly then those reserves will be depleted through processes such as respiration and oxidation. As temperature and relative humidity increase, the rate at which these activities occur also increase, further depleting these reserves and thus decreasing the quality of the coffee.  

  • Depending on a seed’s chemical composition, it will need to be dried to a different moisture content level in order to be safely stored. Simply put, moisture content is the amount of water in the seed and is either calculated in “wet basis” terms, meaning the the amount of water divided by the total weight of the seed (dry matter + water) or “dry basis” terms, meaning the amount of water divided by just the amount of dry matter. While water is necessary for the life of the seed, it can also be a bad hombre, leading to rapid deterioration from mold, fermentation, or a high rate of metabolic activity that consumes the cell reserves. This degradation happens through reduction in sugar levels, and increases the levels of polyphenols, electrical conductivity and potassium leaching, among others (Borém et al, 2008).

  • Seeds that are oily need to be dried more. Why? Since water and oil don’t easily bind, the water in these seeds is less bound to the seed, and is more available to do its bad hombre activities such as fermentation or mold formation. On the opposite end of the spectrum, starchy seeds can be dried less, since water binds to starch and is therefore less available.

  • Coffee seeds lie in the middle - not too oily, not too starchy. Empirical evidence suggests that the ideal moisture content to store coffee is 11% wet basis (Corrêa et al. 2003; Afonso Junior et al. 2008). The best way to maintain this is to store the coffee at less than 70% relative humidity at the coldest temperature possible above freezing (Borém et al, 2008).

As Guy Clark sang (and Steve Earle wrote), “they say in Texas the weather is always changing, and one thing change will bring is something new.” Over the years, we have struggled with the changing weather in our efforts to keep constant temperature and humidity. Sometimes the summer heat and humidity have inspired our AC to kick on and maintain a wonderful homeostasis at 65° F and 60% relative humidity. Other times, not. Similarly, a cold winter dry spell many a time has left our humidifiers struggling to keep pace with the dry air.

In the past few months we completely remodeled our green warehouse space. First, we increased its size so that we can bring more coffee in-house at once, thus bringing under our control even more the quality of our coffee. More importantly, we added (lots) more insulation, an oversize AC, and mist-aspersion. We can’t stop the aging process of the seed, but I’ll be damned if we won’t die trying!

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  New improvements to our storage facility.

New improvements to our storage facility.

We have always been searching for the best packaging to transport and store the coffee. I have had the good fortune of participating in some pioneering studies for coffee packaging (Ribeiro 2011; Ribeiro et al. 2013; Andrade 2017).

  The sensory analysis team for the scientific research behind a recent innovation in coffee packaging - lower cost high-barrier bags. (Fabricio Andrade’s PhD dissertation which is listed in the references below.)

The sensory analysis team for the scientific research behind a recent innovation in coffee packaging - lower cost high-barrier bags. (Fabricio Andrade’s PhD dissertation which is listed in the references below.)

Our very first coffee was Daterra’s Pearl Reserve which came to us in vacuum-sealed bags as part of their Penta system. When we started importing ourselves, we used vacuum-sealed and then Grain Pro ® bags. Now we are an early adopter for a new packaging technology that provides high-quality moisture barrier bags at a reduced cost for growers (the same ones referenced above in the photo of the sensory analysis team).

  A photo of a much younger me at Daterra’s warehouse in Patrocinio, learning about their Penta System for quality control, including the vacuum-sealed boxes.

A photo of a much younger me at Daterra’s warehouse in Patrocinio, learning about their Penta System for quality control, including the vacuum-sealed boxes.

  One of the earlier containers we brought in, with vacuum-sealed bags inside boxes.

One of the earlier containers we brought in, with vacuum-sealed bags inside boxes.

Another recent innovation we have implemented with our Brazilian export partner Sancoffee is the use of high-barrier big bags, a method proven to provide better protection for the coffee.

  A photo of our coffee in a high barrier big-bag awaiting export.

A photo of our coffee in a high barrier big-bag awaiting export.

Growing up in Iowa, the sight of grain silos was common, but nothing I gave much thought to.  Yet when completing my masters in Agricultural Engineering, one of my favorite classes was on grain silos—calculating systemic pressure, dimensioning fans, determining when to aerate or not based on relative humidity, external temperature and grain mass temperature... I know, I know, it doesn't sound too interesting, and I’m still not sure how I got from loving coffee for coffee’s sake to applying the Janssen equation to determine wall stress in silos.

But perhaps in this awkward interest I have company. After all, you, dear reader, are still reading :) Let's not think about it too much. As a reward for getting through it, here are Guy Clark and Emmylou Harris singing Steve Earle's Ft. Worth Blues.

Cheers!

Joel

 

References

Afonso Junior, P.C., F.M. Borém, P.C. Corrêa, and V.C. Siqueira. 2014. “Physical and Thermal Properties of Coffee Fruit and Seeds.” In Handbook of Coffee Post-Harvest Technology, edited by F.M. Borèm, 1sted., 30–47. Norcross: Gin Press.

Andrade, F.T. 2017. “Qualidade Do Café Natural Especial Acondicionado Em Embalagens Impermeáveis E Armazenado No Brasil E No Exterior.” UFLA.

Borém, F.M., E.P. Isquierdo, F.C. Ribeiro, J.T Almeida Neto, and A. Piagentini. 2014. “Coffee Storage, Milling and Sorting.” In Handbook of Coffee Post-Harvest Technology, edited by F.M. Borém, 1sted., 143–72. Norcross: Gin Press.

Corrêa, P. C., P. C. Afonso Júnior, F. S. Silva, and D. M Ribeiro. 2003. “Qualidade Dos Grãos de Café (Coffea Arabica L.) Durante O Armazenamento Em Condições Diversas.” Revista Brasileira de Armazenamento 7: 137–47.

Ribeiro, Fabiana Carmanini. 2013. “Métodos Alternativos Para Armazenamento de Cafés Especiais.” Universidade Federal de Lavras.

Ribeiro, Fabiana Carmanini, Flavio Meira Borem, Gerson Silva Giomo, Renato Ribeiro De Lima, Marcelo Ribeiro Malta, and Luisa Pereira Figueiredo. 2011. “Storage of Green Coffee in Hermetic Packaging Injected with CO2.” Journal of Stored Products Research. doi:10.1016/j.jspr.2011.05.007.

Bright Lights, Little City: James Hand 

The ongoing “Bright Lights, Little City” column is a place for our staff and customers to share their Austin anecdotes — no coffee required. This month, Little City’s Joel Shuler starts us off with the melancholy of Country music. 

In his revisionist history podcast, Malcolm Gladwell puts forth the hypothesis that Country music makes people cry because it is not afraid to be specific. And with James Hand, you get the feeling that he ain’t delving into self pity as much as he is just stating the specific facts of his life. 

"When you stopped loving me, so did I
Ain't it strange, now we both see eye to eye
Neither one of us, cares if I live or die
When you stopped loving me, so did I" 

Then again, maybe the only thing that could make me respect the guy more than his genuine authenticity is if the opposite were true — if he worked in Dell’s tech support department troubleshooting business servers during the day and at night could flip a switch and bam, out comes James Hand. 

I have two James Hand stories that I find myself going back to. When I first moved to Austin, I couldn't get a job. In fact, I’m pretty sure I could fill a day of an Austin tour of “places that wouldn’t hire me.” I would go to Ginny's Little Longhorn a few times a week to blow off some steam and drink through whatever spare change I had left from groceries, buying cans of Pearl for a buck. When I heard James play for the first time, I was so impressed I felt the need to buy him a beer. I offered to buy him a Lonestar, which, given my financial means at the time, meant I was likely going home a few sheets shy of my original intent. His response: "No sir, I am going to buy YOU a beer." It was the best damn beer I have ever had. 

About 10 years later, I took the Amtrak from Austin to Little Rock to visit my grandmother before she passed away. Knowing it was the last time I would see her, I was in a pretty morose mood, which was not helped by the rather gloomy view the Amtrak route gives you of the US - not so much A City of New Orleans picturesque Americana as it seems to be a run-on view of America’s back alleys and junkyards.  On the way back the train stopped in Fort Worth outside the stock yards, and who boarded the train with his guitar? He looked spent, and I was too. I didn’t feel the need to engage like I had a decade ago. It seemed like the best thing I could offer him was some space and peace and quiet. And I had all I needed. I was on a train, in Fort Worth, outside the stockyards, sharing a passenger car with a modern day Jimmie Rodgers. 

Got a better Austin story? Send it our way, if we publish it in one of our newsletters we'll send you a Little City shirt and bag of coffee.

Port to Cup Tour Reflections and Video

We’re excited to share a video recap from our Port to Cup tour, where Little City brought together growers from the Philippines and Myanmar to help them better understand their product and the coffee supply chain. Check out the video below and read on for insights from the experience.

 

Port to Cup Tour Participants and Partners

Since the tour, Little City has continued to foster its relationships with several of the growers, both through purchasing their coffee, and through Joel’s work with the Coffee Quality Institute in supporting the budding Myanmar Specialty Coffee Industry. This July, through a USAID grant and under the supervision of Winrock International and the Coffee Quality Institute, two of the tour participants, Melanie Edwards and Su Su Aung, received wet and dry mills to increase the production and quality of coffee in their respective communities.

Little City has also purchased lots from two of the tour participants: Melanie Edwards, who works with the Tha Pyay Gone villagers through her economic growth organization Behind the Leaf, formerly called Lilypad; and Sai Wan, who owns Green Land Estate.

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Melanie and Sai share their experience:

[The growers] are wonderful, hardworking, and sometimes I feel like they are not appreciated for the hard work that they do. And so I came here just wanting to tell about them, and also I wanted to learn as much as I could. This is an excellent trip for me to be able to learn all the aspects of the coffee.
— Melanie Edwards, director of Behind the Leaf, an economic growth organization in Myanmar
The United States is consuming our speciality coffee, but I don’t know exactly [how they consume it], and how they market, how they sell the specialty coffee. So after I went on the Port to Cup [tour], I learned a lot about speciality coffee, and who are the key players in this kind of business, this kind of industry… To see our coffee in the hands of the buyer - I was very proud of that.
— Sai Wan, owner of Green Land Estate and winner of best coffee in Myanmar