Third Wave Wichteln 2015

2016-01-18 tww_logo

Image courtesy Third Wave Wichteln

Scrolling through the thirdwavewichteln hashtag on Instagram and Tumblr or in the Facebook group of the same name, I see packages of specialty coffee continuing to finally reach their intended destinations around the globe.

Bon(n) voyage!

Bon(n) voyage!

It is the second time I have participated in the Wichteln, and my parcel containing a bag of Washed Ethiopia Dumerso roasted locally by Coffee Supreme made its way successfully (confirmed via the social media pages noted above) to Bonn, Germany. I may have also thrown in a bag of the same coffee (this time Natural Process) roasted by yours truly — something I wouldn’t probably describe as a “bonus” necessarily, in the hope the recipient might enjoy comparing the two. Thankfully, Facebook tells me both were well received.

2016-01-18 tww_reanimato frontIn return, I was lucky enough to receive some superb Costa Rican coffee: Divino Niño, from ReAnimator Coffee Roasters in Philadelphia, USA — a little more on this below.

If you have not heard about Third Wave Wichteln, it is a global specialty coffee exchange which occurs each year in December/January, where, at random (after signing up) you are matched with a recipient to send your coffee to, and your name given to another (different) member to receive some in return.

I think most of us know the principle — from Wikipedia:

Secret Santa is a Western Christmas tradition in which members of a group or community are randomly assigned a person to whom they anonymously give a gift … and is known as “Wichteln” in Germany. “Wichteln” is what a “Wichtel”, a wight, does, a good deed.

I wrote a few thoughts down about the nature of the online communities many of us are involved in after last year’s exchange .

Unfortunately for some, the programme does not quite reach a 100% completion rate (now with over 2000 members around the world taking part). Through the vagaries of international postage, customs, and also perhaps a little misunderstanding in some cases about what constitutes an appropriate coffee to send, the Facebook feed is also home to a few criticisms of the programme.

Just a couple of things on this point. There have been some calls within the Facebook group for the organisers to provide the email addresses of the assigned sender to those still waiting, where it appears the coffee is lost or indefinitely held up somewhere.

To their credit, the organisers have repeatedly confirmed they will not take this course of action, citing a priority on members privacy, and reaffirming the programme is based on trust. I applaud them for this stance and strongly agree on both points.

In my view (and yes — easy for me to say having received great coffee each year so far), entering into a programme such as this must be based on giving (isn’t that in keeping with the spirit of the season in the first place?), with an expectation you are more than likely to receive in return.

Whether by global exchange or within your office, we’ve all been the recipient of the random joke. You know, you carefully decide on an appropriate gift for the random pool, and then find yourself on the receiving end of the completely useless novelty shop item meant to give everyone a good laugh. Very unfortunate, but it happens — and bear in mind that was the giver’s intention. In the case of the Wichteln here, I’m sure the coffee was sent with the utmost of good intentions, and for some reason beyond the control of the gift giver, simply never arrives — again unfortunate but hardly the fault of those involved.

I say again — treat the Wichteln as a programme of giving and you really can’t go wrong. Stock up over the holiday season on your favourites, or from roasters you have not tried before and get stuck into enjoying those coffees. If your package from across the world drives? What a bonus, otherwise forget about it and it will be a nice surprise when it does land on your doorstep.

Oh… the coffee itself?

2016-01-18 tww_reanimator_backAn absolute delight, with some handy advice on brewing parameters from the ReAnimator barista and trainer via Twitter who sent me the coffee as well (thanks again Greg!). Yes — it really isn’t hard to connect with those whom you have sent to, or received from, once the exchange is complete.

2016-01-18 tww_iced_filterThe Divino Niño certainly lived up to its promise, a sweet, juicy brew, perfect through the V60, in the Aeropress, and on a particularly hot Brisbane summer day, an iced filter which possibly even outshone the other two. I most definitely consider myself a very fortunate recipient.

If getting involved in something like this is of interest to you, visit the website, where there are some specific, yet straightforward instructions on the type of coffee to send and how to send it.

I’ll certainly be signing up again next December and will be looking forward to sending some coffee to a lucky recipient across the globe — and I’m pretty sure I’ll receive something special in return.

Pucker Up Espresso Lovers

When creating the overall tone in an article, a few key points are generally worth repeating. Put together, these can either weave a fabric of opinion or a shroud of negativity. On occasion I am not really sure which it is – for example this recent piece in The Observer, titled Hot Shot: the story behind the great global coffee revolution, by Jay Rayner, which begins:

Coffee shops have taken over our high streets, supported by a never ending supply of connoisseur addicts. Jay Rayner meets some of the major players taking the revered bean to even greater heights, and asks whether they are ruining his favourite espresso

Early in the piece Rayner describes a beautiful looking espresso, which tastes a little, let’s say, less than perfect:

The taste, however, is wrong. Very wrong. It’s fiercely acidic, a sour hit that makes my lips pucker up like a cat’s bum

That initial impression was London in 2012, with the article published in June this year. It would appear many sour espresso’s have been consumed by the author between then and what is sitting squarely in front of him now. Further, we hear how the burgeoning speciality coffee industry with it’s lighter roasting profiles is (perhaps forever) changing the way our beloved beverages taste across the board.

I don’t believe this is unique to London, given the changes I have seen across Brisbane’s cafés in the past 12–18 months. Although, within a two block radius of my CBD office, there are 3 such cafés, whereas 5–6 times as many (at least) serving “traditionally” roasted espresso. Those serving more traditional style espresso are not going away as far as I can tell (and good for them), and you only need look at the ongoing patronage of the bigger name chains to see that. You may wish to avoid the throngs queueing at these newer cafés, walk right up to the counter at one of the others and order (though possibly a little harsh, message intended in that sentence).

I’m a little curious as to why the author paints a picture of ‘espresso ruined’ across virtually an entire city. I would have thought a city the size of London perhaps may have a few cafés to choose from, many of which would serve espresso with a more “traditional taste”. Perhaps I am wrong on this point.

As far as this ‘new taste’ is concerned? Personally, I enjoy it, along with the variety of espresso now offered not only between different establishments, but also within the same café – often weekly. The more ‘typical’ darker roasted espresso? I enjoy that too – mostly. If espresso can be too acidic, there is just as much (if not more) being served that is more bitter than I care to describe. The continuum works both ways. I can however, see the author’s point of view, as there have been times where I have found the amount of acidity present in some espresso to be perhaps be a little high for my taste. Ironically, the most striking example of this came from one of my own roast batches, which you can read about in my most recent What’s Brewing post.

When it comes down to personal taste, as with anything – food, drink, art, comedy… all a matter of opinion is it not? Why does all scotch not taste the same? I assume it’s because there are those who enjoy flavours of smoke and peat, others sweetness and honey. Or am I missing the point? Are sweetness and honey flavours ruining my favourite scotch? Oh, that’s right, I just buy the one I like. Great to have choices.

Although Rayner makes a valid observation, I question whether the overwhelming negativity and gloom ensure it comes across as too much of a whine to really be of value.

~ PD.

Coffee Pods, the environment, and fiddling

Black HarioFlipping away through my cover stories in Flipboard recently, I came across an article which appeared on Quartz, titled Empire of the Pods: The world’s growing love affair with the most wasteful form of coffee there is.

It comes as no surprise the article lays a pile of landfill squarely at the feet of the “coffee pod” industry, for it’s wasteful cast off miniature plastic cups (commonly known as K-cups, after the Keurig company which popularised this form of brewing in the US) expelled from such machines all for the sake of one cup of coffee. Although not a new sentiment, the article goes on to note the staggering rise in popularity of the single use pod machines around the world, concluding with the following from Murray Carpenter’s book Caffeinated:

… the K-cups discarded in 2011 would have encircled the globe more than six times, and in 2013, more than 10 times

Then, not long after, an article with a similar sentiment and an interesting twist from the Coffee Contrarian, Kevin Knox, including this:

More than one green coffee importer (don’t worry, you shall remain nameless) privately refers to Green Mountain Coffee (now renamed Keurig Green Mountain) as “Greenwash Mountain,” and that’s certainly a succinct and accurate description of the company’s long-standing marketing strategy, using its sizable Fair Trade and organic volume to deflect attention from its actual main business: selling commercial coffee, much of it artificially flavored, in ecologically disastrous K Cups, to convenience stores and the like.

Knox also makes reference to this article on the topic from Mother Jones.

Grounds for outrage? Perhaps, however climbing up and looking over the large pile of cast off pods, why the increase around the world?

Image courtesy Mother Jones

Image: Mother Jones

Consumer demand, convenience and willingness (or lack thereof) to hone their coffee making skills beyond pod in-brew-pod out. A judgement on those using such machines? Absolutely not. For every article lamenting the environmental negatives of pod machines, there are 20 extolling the virtues of the specialty coffee scene, the third wave explosion, the palate development and demands of the consumer. The discerning consumers mantra: “We know good coffee, we know where to get it, and we’ll let you know if you’re not up to scratch”. What else will we as consumers do? Seek out a “cafe level” coffee experience at home with everything from – “wait…what? That is a lot of clean up, I’ll just get a pod machine and be done with it”.

AeropressIncidentally, there are four people within arms reach of me at the office who use Nespresso pod machines, and a family member uses a slightly cheaper clone – without question the popularity of these machines has definitely risen, and will continue to do so given the (large) segment of the home coffee market they cater for.

Seen by family, friends and co-workers as a bit of a coffee nerd, I am often asked about my thoughts on whether pod machines are a worthwhile purchase, with the expectation I will frown on such machines. My answer is usually along the lines of: they are great due to their simplicity – if you want a machine that will make the coffee for you and involve minimal preparation and clean up. Not everyone wants to grind and then brew (whether through a machine or manually) their own coffee, and frankly most don’t. One of the simplest forms of brewing I use at the office is my Aeropress, which often attracts comments in the order of “gee that looks complicated”. In reality, a plastic tube, a piece of paper, coffee and water – to me so simple. To others, a whole lot of messing around.

Such practices are summed up by Marco Arment in a great post which provides some perspective on the obsession with pod machines:

We’re the ones who obsess over every little detail of brewing technique as if they matter much more than they really do, making good coffee ever more alienating and confusing to casual coffee drinkers who don’t have time to study and fuss over it as much as we do.

The post goes on to list many ways these obsessive brewing techniques may also impact the environment in certain ways, not to mention the added time taken to brew with such methods.

In addition, the comments in the article linked to above on the Coffee Contrarian are worth reading, which include a dig at independent roasters, possibly those who have the most to gain from an environmentally based rebellion against the Nestlé and Green Mountain behemoths:

Passionate small roasters would like to believe that being smaller scale makes for higher quality, but all it really guarantees is higher overhead, higher green coffee costs and other structural inefficiencies that the consumer ultimately pays for.

Interesting times ahead no doubt.

My thoughts personally? The environmental impact should always be a consideration in whatever we do, however I can’t help but think those who judge these pod machines from a supposed position of “superiority” regarding quality may be missing the point. Do I personally think the coffee I make is superior to that emanating from the spout of a machine after water has run through grounds in a plastic pod? Yes I do.

The reason I think this? Well, for one, the amount of time I spend selecting green beans, personally roasting, resting and correctly storing them. Brewing through many different methods (many of which are a little fiddly) at just the right time to maximise freshness and ensure the flavours are at their peak. When visiting coffee shops and cafés, I seek out those with good reputations amongst the coffee industry, perhaps embracing the so-called “third wave” brewing techniques and approaches. Does all of this make me biased? Absolutely, which is where perhaps knowing the effort I put into these factors makes me believe this must be better – right.

And whilst I do not believe the following to be true – What if it isn’t better? What if it is all in my head and I simply want it to be better, so my already biased beliefs make it taste better? After all, what do both the pod user and myself end up with? A cup of coffee – and I bet the pod user was enjoying theirs long before I had finished making mine.


Third Wave Coffee Thoughts

Dave Lieberman in the OC Weekly Blogs:

There’s one place I won’t go anymore, though, and that is the so-called third-wave coffee shops, the new generation of coffee bars with patent machines and a heavy concentration on knowing exactly which patch of steep, shady, equatorial land the coffee beans came from.

Mostly, though, I’m tired of the attitude of the people who make it.

It is fairly apparent the author takes issue with a certain “attitude”, “condescension” and “superiority” of some who work in these “third wave coffee” establishments. Should we put up with arrogance, rudeness or indifference when we are handing over our money? Absolutely not – a point which I touched on in a previous post. Here I agree with the author, however am mindful this is not limited to, nor the main feature of, any particular industry (or sector within it).

We should be very careful in placing blame at the feet of an entire sector of an industry over behaviour related to a smaller subset of it (and a subset of characteristics unrelated to the industry itself at that). I am referring to the fact that in any event, a certain proportion of the general population exhibit these very characteristics. Do they all work in “third wave coffee establishments”? No they don’t. However, a condescending attitude or the arrogance in these people (or anyone for that matter) has the potential to show through where they have a certain amount of knowledge (and often a great deal of passion) – in the case discussed here, coffee.

Is this an excuse? No.

My point is simply this, a more appropriate title for such an article would be, “Some people are rude, condescending and arrogant in our society – they work across many industries and therefore you may find some working in the coffee industry”. Not the most catchy title, and as you can see, I didn’t use it either – for obvious reasons. At times an attention grabbing title and a quick scan through an article without too much thought does not do justice to the issue at hand.

Sure, what the author writes is not fiction and does at times occur, however there are some hardworking purveyors of specialty coffee out there, who serve with humility, passion for their craft and do everything possible to make you feel at home. They are only too pleased to educate you on all things coffee and get excited when a customer shows a genuine interest in what they are doing and seeks out their knowledge. They deserve our support and respect, and I tip my hat to those very people. Lets not forget, it is they who provide us as consumers, access to features of an industry that may otherwise only be available to those within it – much to our benefit.

As for the rest, well, do as the author has done and speak with your feet, however it is not far before you will find somewhere you can feel at home. A place where the staff may cringe if you put sugar in a carefully filtered single origin, but they’ll never let on, and continue to serve you with enthusiasm and a smile.