Black gold?

This item has been splashed all over the national media, £15 for a cup of Yemeni coffee from an Alain Ducasse outlet in King’s Cross London. The PR people have done such a good job that even I’m writing about it! It does however, as The Times in their “Weekend” supplement points out, open up a discussion around what a great cup of coffee tastes like and what one might consider is good value. 

 Being in the speciality business and surrounded by world class coffees on a daily basis, even I struggle to identify “which is the best” coffee. I have a preference for medium roasted coffees but we also sell dark roasted coffees that have a large following.

 The style of the coffee will also have an influence. Drip, espresso or a milky combination all influence the coffee chosen.

 We’ve been on an interesting adventure recently as we tasted our way through all of the coffees we currently sell in preparation for a roasting competition. For the purposes of the competition we tasted everything black made through a filter machine. Not only was the style of roast a big influence on flavour but so too was the “process” type used at origin. This can be anything from “ageing” the beans to “natural” process. The same coffee will taste completely different depending upon how it has been handled.

 Then there is “fashion” or as the French so eloquently put it “la mode”. You’ll see Starbucks using the term ”blonde” for lighter roasted coffees. Some of the lightest roasted coffees come out of the Scandinavian countries and are catching on here. However, they can come across as quite acidic. It’s interesting to read what The Times food editor Tony Turnbull thought of the Yemen coffee. Forest fruit and roasted cocoa nibs both suggest a level of acidity you would get with a lighter roasted coffee from this part of the world. I do however think it rather unfair to try and compare with a generic americano sold in a national chain store. This isn’t a like for like comparison; he wouldn’t have done it with different varietals of wine from different parts of the world.

 Michael Burke on Radio 4 when being asked by Evan Davis to taste the Yemen coffee found it quite bitter and sour when compared with his “instant”. Oops!

 As coffee roasters selling both beans and cups of coffee, we’re at the front line when it comes to consumer taste and appropriate price points. Surprisingly, in the speciality world, coffees such as Monsooned Malabar and Old Brown Java, seen as very unfashionable in the modern coffee shop, have a strong following. There’s a reason why these coffees have been around for so long.

 A bright Kenyan or fruity Ethiopian Harrar are terrific coffees but not to everyone’s taste. As with most food and drink, “one person’s poison is another’s cure”.

 What the speciality business is doing for coffee is really important. It rewards those who put huge effort in delivering a great quality product, despite the vagaries of the New York “C” futures market. It brings sustainability to some producers but we must not lose sight of the fact that most producers struggle to make a decent living and anything that encourages the consumer to pay a little more is welcome. That is why despite the hype, the Yemeni coffee gets people talking about a product which most people consume without giving a second thought as to the amount of effort that goes into its production.

 I see our job as coffee roasters to stay close to our customers. Give them great choice and quality at an affordable level whilst telling them the stories behind these fantastic coffees. It’s not really about fashion, more about trying to match our customers’ tastes to the coffees we recommend.



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