For every issue of Brutal, Editorial Director Gheanna will share a bottle of natural wine with someone in media, art, fashion, or music. In this issue, Gheanna sits down with food writer and New York Times contributor Oliver Strand, the go-to guy for finding good coffee anywhere in the world. Oliver’s book on coffee is due out early next year.
WINE: 2011 Domaine Rimbert Petit Cochon Bronzé Rosé
Gheanna Emelia: From what I was told about this wine, it’s pretty dry…it’s simple, it pairs well. Pretty expressive. Really, I want to know what you’re tasting.
Oliver Strand: Well, there is kind of a faddishness in natural wine which I appreciate. I first started to play around with [natural wine] four or five years ago in Paris. It was really exciting because the flavors were so unusual and vibrant. At a certain point people became so in love with how weird they were, just like with any other sort of fad. So there’s a little over-exposure and maybe a lot of critical appreciation for the wines out there. Like if it’s a natural wine, it’s good.
A few years back I was told that the flavor wheel tasting wheel of wine, has like five hundred, five thousand flavors — something like that. I was told that the coffee flavor wheel has something like ten times more. What are your thoughts on that?
I think that people are given to overstatement. Flavor-wise, there’s no absolute — everybody has a different one, and the other thing that we have to remember is that flavors are very cultural. The example coffee people often use is traditional Ethiopian natural, sun-dried. One of the flavors that pops out is blueberry. That’s gotta be on the flavor wheel. There are no blueberries in Ethiopia. So you talk about that flavor with an Ethiopian, and they have to come up with another flavor that they have. So here, they’re making the coffee, you’re describing it in a way which is really strong and vivid of the association is almost a direct association. It’s like you drinking pure blueberry. They have no frame of reference for that comparison. So you need to keep that in mind. Take one of the vivid flavors in New York and one of the vivid flavors in Los Angeles. These are two places that are interchangeable in many ways, but your notion of strawberries in Los Angeles is completely unlike the notion of strawberries [in New York]. You know the notion of an orange out there is completely unlike an orange out here — out there, an orange is much sweeter than an orange is here. But it’s the same country. So in terms of flavors on the flavor wheel, I think there’s a little bit of marketing, you know? I don’t really treat that as anything absolute. The flavors on the flavor wheel are not like looking at something with color — talking about hue change and value and change, where you can actually talk about layers of pigmentation and undercoat and how that can affect it. If you mix up certain pigments, it doesn’t matter if you’re in Moscow or in El Salvador or in Los Angeles. That color on the wheel will be the same, but if you talk about certain flavors in these different places, the references might or might not mean anything, even though the flavor of the coffee is the same. How you talk about it is going to be completely different. Again, people are given to overstatement, especially with coffee. That statement about how there are many more flavors in coffee than there are in wine — I think there’s 11,000, or something like that. It’s based on one study from a while ago that was talking about molecules of chemical compounds that might or might not affect smell. The whole mapping of flavors in coffee has not been done. The whole mapping of flavors in wine has not been done. So we’re not actually talking about a comparison — we’re talking about one spin on one study. One summary of a study drew a conclusion and that number has been repeated over and over again by coffee shop managers and baristas and various other people. It’s a very seductive idea, but the scientific underpinning is actually really flimsy. One person said there are this many volatile chemical compounds, these are the chemical compounds that you detect by smell, smell is related to taste, and therefore coffee has this many [flavors] and in wine it only has that many. There’s several leaps of logic to get to that number for coffee and there is actually a comparison with wine because that number is kind of be made up too. It’s a made up assumption against a made up number. So I’m very skeptical of these things.
Yeah, that’s why I was really excited to share this with you. That’s one of the ways I feel coffee people try to bring new customers in — their coffee is going to taste like a fine wine.
Yeah, and I’ve been against comparing coffee with wine, but I understand the basis of it — which is to say you taste it for pleasure. The chemical effect is there, but it’s secondary. It’s nice to be a little buzzed in the afternoon, it’s nice to wake yourself up in the morning, but you taste it — you taste the pleasure of it, and the taste is one that is layered and delicate and intricate and I think that that as a comparison is entirely valid. Like when you have an egg in the morning, you’re ingesting it because of the energy it gives you because it’s convenient, but you’re not trying to pull apart the layers of egg-y-ness. It’s kind of a one or two note thing, and if it’s well done, it’s a really good egg. And I think that the comparison that coffee people are trying to draw is that you’re actually trying to taste how dynamic and vibrant and delicate this is. And I think that’s a valid thing to say. I think the structure of the comparison is valid and it’s helpful but I think people then take it too far. They talk about terroir, they talk about vintage. Then it becomes a bit beholden to wine and I think that’s unfortunate and inappropriate. There’s a lot more we can gain there. I’m enjoying this wine a little more. It’s jumping up a little than before. I taste a little bit of strawberry. It’s kind of hard to get away from, because you know the wine is pink. It looks like strawberry. So you kind of want that association. You want to find that when you taste it.
What can you tell us about your book? People are really excited about it, and it’s been a long time coming.
It’s about coffee. It’s about how we got to this moment in coffee. I think it’s interesting to think there’s been a complete revolution at the high end of coffee and it’s largely been driven by people who are self-taught, who represent a very, very small share of the market, and who are extremely talented, driven, and intelligent. This is kind of the golden generation that was incredibly active when I started to write about coffee a few years ago. These people just basically question everything.
The flavor profiles in coffee now are completely unlike those of ten years ago and have almost nothing to do with what was going on twenty or thirty years ago. People who are driving those changes are people like Tim Wendelboe, who started with one shop but who goes through quite a lot of coffee. They influence how people are looking at coffee within the highest level of the industry more than anything that is coming out of Starbucks or Nestle. You talk about these huge corporations, and they’ve done very little to innovate. They’ve done a lot in terms of quality and they’ve done a lot in terms of how coffee is processed, but they haven’t pushed what coffee can be. I think it’s a remarkable thing to have an industry that is so big and so global, and the most interesting people are small coffee shops, or people who operate mom-and-pop shops. The influence is just so profound that they make the giants pay attention. It’s remarkable that Starbucks is so bothered by the attention given to the independents. It’s such a successful company that makes so much money and yet it has to pay attention to what some small shop is doing in San Francisco that might roast 10,000 pounds a year. I’m interested in those people. The book is about these people who are really jarring an industry, and they’re doing it largely on their own. They’re doing it with very limited resources. Most of the people in coffee have a fortunate alignment of skills, they have a good palate, they have a little bit of freedom, and they were with the right bag of coffee with the right roaster at the right time. They were able to go and stumble on a flavor profile, an aesthetic, and an idea, and push that. So that’s what the book is about. It’s about these people, how they did it, why they did it, what their background is that allowed them to do that, and how they are able to interact with customers — and that’s really interesting, because they have that kind of customer support. If you’re a large company, you roll out a new idea, you have a marketing budget, you have PR — and these people don’t. They just stick some label on their coffee bag, and then they expect everyone to understand that coffee should be tasting like orange blossom. Which is really jarring to a lot of people, but they’re right — coffee can have that flavor, so if they go and do that pretty naively — it’s remarkable, it’s a good story. That’s what the book’s about. It’s about the bad new bears.
A few years back, in 2009, 2010 when you came out with your big New York coffee piece…
Yeah, 2011? I’m not sure.
I sort of feel like there was so much energy, there was so much…I would maybe say urgency, but there seemed to be a lot of excitement happening.
That’s a good word: urgency.
So it’s been four or five years since then. What is the state of New York coffee now? I sort of feel like it’s less urgent because I’m not in it anymore, I’m not a barista in a shop anymore, but…
It’s no longer news to you so it feels a little less urgent, and that’s understandable. It was a moment of discovery — it washed up on the shores of New York, and it all just happened at once. Now, you feel you’re going 120 miles an hour and you slow down to 100. It feels like you’re slowing down but you’re still going really fast, and that’s kind of what’s happened in New York. So look at the numbers — coffee here is growing at an incredible rate, but it just feels maybe a little less urgent. That’s the word. Because it’s not new. It felt more exciting back then to have a Third Rail Coffee, a Bluebird, and an Abraço. But now you have that level of shop opening up all the time and it feels a little less exciting — because back then, they had three [shops] in a lot of nothing, and that was exciting. To have a hundred when you already have a hundred feels less exciting. But it’s still worthwhile. I think that what’s happening is that it’s becoming normalized. So my [most recent] article, the one that came out in spring about all these shops opening up in Midtown — it’s reaching a whole new demographic. These are people who don’t necessarily have the time to go to a cool shop in Long Island City, or Williamsburg. It’s exciting for them. It’s a growing industry. I think it’s also allowed for there to be many more profound changes at different points in the supply chain. So what’s happening at [coffee] origin now, what’s happening in agronomy, what’s happening in processing, and to a lesser degree what’s happening with trade and transportation — is really, really exciting. But that’s a little less visible. Tim Wendleboe’s now involved in trade and growing — he just bought a farm in Colombia. It’s exciting to have a person [like him] open a shop. It might be less exciting for that person to open three shops, but when that person is now part of the supply chain that is changing how coffee is grown, it’s much more exciting when you’re in coffee. You don’t feel that same level of energy on the street because you’re now walking into three shops and there’s all the names, you recognize all the gear, and you recognize all the people. It feels like it’s the same. But what’s happening in earlier stages of the supply chain is actually really fascinating. It’s going to lead to much more profound change than the barista around the corner from your house.
I feel like the urgency was in the messaging. Is that really the next step for all these shops, for them to have three Third Rails, to have a new Abraço?
Well I think what’s gonna happen in New York, and around the rest of the world, is a recalibration of these shops. For the most part if anybody talked the talk, then they were in. I think people are going to be able to pull apart who walks the walk. We’ll be able to say, “I like X, I like Y, I like Z,” and that’s kind of where we are now. In the future, you’ll be able to say, “You know what, Y is amazing. Y is really good, X is ok, Z is ok, but Y is just doing a beautiful job with their coffees.” We’re starting to get to that place. You have that on a global level. There are people who I really admire — Heart Roasters, Verve, Phil & Sebastian, Ceremony, Tim Wendleboe, Square Mile, Coffee Collective. There are other places that can be really nice, but can also be really inconsistent, so it could be nice to get to the point where you have twenty or thirty good roasters and really be drawn to what they’re doing. I think it would be very exciting to get to the point where you have a $2 bag of coffee that tastes like a $50 bag of coffee that is so good, that is so much better than anything you are having now, that makes you feel that it’s a fair exchange. This is an odd thing to say to want to spend more, but I know that’s actually what we want. That’s what we want with our clothes, what we want with our wine, what we want with our housing, what we want with our food. I want there to be $400 per person restaurant that I go to once a year and when I go, I feel like I have a fair deal because I was treated so extraordinarily. Of course that’s not the way you feed yourself. But you want that experience. That doesn’t exist in coffee yet. For that to exist, it’s gonna have to be a Coffee Collective or Square Mile or Heart, investing hundreds of thousands upon millions of dollars in these farms to come up with a product that is so extraordinary that in ten years when you get that coffee, it will actually fall in line with that very expensive meal. I want coffee to cost a lot more and have it reflect that value. Just imagine this experience of having a coffee that makes the hairs on the back of your neck stand on end that is so delicious. That’s where we’re going, but it’s a little invisible. It’s not the same as messaging, it’s not the same as a barista, it’s not the same as style in the shop, it’s not the same as being around the corner. That’s one part of the conversation. The other part is much more difficult to have and much more complicated, and it’s up to these people to invest it and also make these investments smart. It doesn’t make sense to throw a whole bunch of money into changing how coffee is farmed but not having a place to put that coffee. They have to go and build an audience that would be receptive to that. I think that they are — they’re reaching enough people that there are enough people who will want this product. But that’s where I think it is going. It’s not the same sense of urgency, which, like I said, is a great way to put it. But it’s a completely different program and if that program happens, that would just be unbelievable. I want to have a luxury coffee that’s not about marketing, it’s not about name, it’s not about which animal’s asshole it came out of, but is actually is just so far beyond any other thing out there that you’re like, “Okay, that’s amazing.” Can’t afford it, love it once a year, twice a year, or give it as a present. I want to find that level. That doesn’t exist yet, but I feel that it will in a few years.
A few years?
Yeah, you know and whether that means in five years, ten years, or in three years. Like in three years, things will be much better and in ten years they’ll be much better. This of course is complicated, because coffee in general has suffered due to climate change and because of the volatility of the market. That’s gonna be all over the place, but you know, welcome to the modern world. The high end is getting more interesting and mass market is suffering. For example, the Union Square Greenmarket has never been better. It’s amazing, and yet more Americans are getting their food from fast food. That’s what you’re going to have with coffee. Mass market coffee is going to be increasingly compromised, because of crops that aren’t consistent. Then at the highest end, you’re going to have a lot of people who are investing in farms and sharing that agronomy for very good high quality coffee.
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