Date: May 2010

Column/Title: Micro to Macro: Southern California Coffees

Author: Kenneth Davids; Reviews by Kenneth Davids and Ted Stachura

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This month's cupping of forty-two coffees from seventeen southern California roasters hints at a drama that is currently enlivening the coffee scenes of other American metropolises: Newer, smaller roasting companies that put more focus on medium-roasted small lots of precisely sourced coffees are pressing older, often larger companies that produce darker-roasted versions of more generic origins and blends.

True, Los Angeles and San Diego were never quite inundated by the dark-roast wave that engulfed San Francisco and Seattle in the 1980s and 1990s. The early local success of Peet's in San Francisco and Starbucks in Seattle seems to have pointed taste in both regions toward the dark end of the roast spectrum, an inclination that persists today despite a determined push back from a newer crop of trendy medium roasters. Perhaps one could say that southern California lacked a distinctive coffee identity during the formative years of specialty coffee, with companies tending to straddle the roast spectrum from medium to dark without committing to a signature style.

That same straddling is apparent among the companies we sampled for this month's cupping. Although almost all of the samples we received were distinguished single-origin coffees brought to a more-or-less medium roast, a look at roaster websites suggested that even the newer companies anchor their business on familiar styles of West Coast blends that lean toward the "bold and intense" end of the roast spectrum.

Nevertheless, at least two rather purist micro-lot-buying companies showed off their success in this month's cupping. Well-established Klatch Coffee (founded as Coffee Klatch by Mike Perry in 1993) sent two classic medium-roasted, precisely-sourced coffees, including a type beloved by many among the younger coffee generation, the sweetly but cleanly fermenty dried-in-the-fruit Ethiopia Sidamo Ardi, reviewed here at 93. Orange County's Kean Coffee fits the medium-roast, small-lot paradigm nicely, although Kean's founder is hardly a tattooed newcomer risen from the ranks of the baristas. Martin Diedrich is a coffee veteran whose family has been in the coffee business for three generations and who founded one of the West Coast's early specialty coffee chains, Diedrich Coffee. After Diedrich went public and Martin's role in the company diminished during an awkward period of management and direction changes, he left the company in 2004, and in 2005 with his wife Karen founded the small, community-oriented, hands-on Kean Coffee. He sent us three coffees representing the new micro-lot paradigm, all impressive coffees rating 90 and over, led by the Burundi Kiryama Kayanza (93) and the Sulawesi Pulupulu Toraja (91).

San Diego's (OK, La Jolla's) Bird Rock Coffee does some style-straddling, but overall seems to clearly position itself in the new paradigm, though with a special emphasis on organic and Fair-Trade sourcing. Certainly its very distinctive Yemen Haraaz Supreme (92) reviewed here is a wonderful small-volume find. Coffee from Yemen sold the world on the bean in the 16th century and held a world monopoly on coffee through the 17th, but in the centuries since has declined to an aficionado's footnote, still picturesque in its ancient processing methods (coffee is dried in the fruit on rooftops and hulled with millstones) but dicey in quality, its potential for rich fruit character undermined by careless harvesting and green coffee deterioration during shipping. However, a new exporter is now supplying a Yemen coffee from the high-altitude Haraz region that is produced from only ripe fruit dried on East-African-style tables rather than on rooftop tarpaulins. Last year when I cupped the Haraaz Coffee output I was not greatly impressed, but this year's sample from Bird Rock was not only superb, but superb in a distinctive way, with a softer and cleaner fruit than is typical for any dried-in-the-fruit coffee.

Lamill Coffee (Alhambra and Silver Lake) is a newer company that appears to put as much emphasis on suave dark roasts as on medium-roasted micro-lots. Unlike new-wave coffee companies in San Francisco that emphasize their slow-food attitude by delivering coffee in the simplest of packaging, Lamill goes for an upscale fine wine association big-time, emphasizing the preciousness of its coffees by delivering them in resealable one-pound tins that are as good-looking as they are technically sophisticated. The Lamill Organic Yirgacheffe (92) reviewed here is not presented as a precisely identified micro-lot in the style of the new coffee paradigm, but it certainly competes in the same arena in terms of quality, distinction and tactful roasting.

If these smaller companies are examples of the newer wave of coffee roasting in Southern California, where are the veterans? Two samples from The Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf, a very large Los-Angeles-based coffee chain founded in 1963 with a presence in twenty countries, suggest that some of the large, well-established players may be doing their best to hold their own in the medium-roasted elite single-origin game. Neither the Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf Mocha-Java Blend (93) nor its Costa Rica La Minita Tarrazu (92) fit the micro-lot, direct-trade expectation precisely, but both were obviously sourced with care and brought to a medium roast that reflects a green-coffee-first sensibility. La Minita is one of the pioneering "estate" or single-farm-branded coffees of the world, having been launched by William McAlpin in the 1980s. Mocha-Java by name may be the world's oldest blend, but The Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf's version updates the concept with a fine wet-processed Ethiopia in place of the traditional Yemen.

F. Gavina & Sons, a very large though still very much family-owned-and operated business, has been producing superior coffee in the Los Angeles area for going on three generations, and performs some major market straddling with a very wide array of products. The Gavina line of specialty coffees, Don Francisco Family Reserve, is designed as a tribute to the family patriarch. Launched in 1984, the Don Francisco line is now a market leader in Southern California, offering coffees that in general pursue a medium roasting style but retain the broader naming and sourcing conventions of traditional specialty coffee. In other words, Colombia Supremo remains Colombia Supremo without adding a lot of detail in regard to region, specific farm, botanical variety, etc. Although the medium-roasted coffees we tested from the Don Francisco line were solid to impressive, we were particularly struck by the suave Don Francisco French Roast. As most readers of Coffee Review know, French Roast is an American specialty code name for a super-dark-roasted coffee, in other words, a coffee roasted almost as dark as is possible to roast it short of igniting it. When we cup French roasts we look first for an absence of negatives: no overbearing bitterness or astringency, with at least some flavor and fatness of body surviving the drying impact of the ultra-dark roasting. Secondly, we expect the inevitable charred wood notes to present as richly pungent rather than rubbery or flat. The Don Francisco French Roast (89) made it: smooth viscosity, good natural sweetness to balance the bitter, and hints of fruit that merged with the roasty pungency to read plausibly as dark chocolate and raisin.

San Diego's Cafe Moto, with its stylish black-and-yellow retro-motoring look and no-nonsense communication, offers a large line of single-origin coffees together with what seem to be mainly darker roasted blends, all with considerable emphasis on sustainability and social responsibility. Cafe Moto began in 1990 as an apparently updated division of the pioneering (1968) West Coast specialty roaster Pannikin Coffee & Tea. We tested two darker roasted Cafe Moto blends but found the Nicaragua Las Hermanas Fair-Trade Organic single-origin (88) most interesting. It gracefully expressed the soft, sweet-toned pungency associated with many Nicaragua coffees, though it faded a bit in the finish.

Finally, there is Jones Coffee, a small but bustling little Pasadena roasting company founded and operated by Chuck Jones and his mother Mireya Asturias Jones. We review Chuck Roast (90), a top-grade Guatemala coffee presented in a blend of two subtly different roast levels that together net a rounded, classic cup: rich, subtly balanced and gently bright.

Coffees from four other excellent Southern California roasters also are reviewed this month. To keep the article at a readable length we did not review coffees from several others. Altogether, however, this month's coffee array was a good turnout from a specialty scene in subtle transition, dispersed but quietly innovative.

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