Date: May 2003

Column/Title: Roasters without Stores

Author: Kenneth Davids

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What a perfect niche, it would seem, for a small start-up Internet business: Take coffee orders by Internet or phone, custom-roast the coffees, and ship them the next day. Roasting to order would seem to make it possible for a company to deliver a much wider range of coffees than could be delivered by a bricks-and-mortar retailer, and deliver them fresher.

This was the premise we attempted to test with this cupping. My colleague Ron Walters and I cruised the Internet in an attempt to turn up companies whose only - or at least principal - coffee business is conducted on line. We ordered coffees from ten of such companies. Some are, or claim to be, custom roasters; at least one sells coffees roasted by a well-established wholesale roasting company; another operates a store and café but concentrates its business on the Internet.

We also pursued a couple of European roasters whose coffees are only available to American consumers via the Internet. Coffees from one of these companies, Julius Meinl of Vienna, also is represented in this review. All in all, I cupped about thirty coffees from a dozen Internet-based coffee companies, and chose eleven of those coffees to report on here.

The range of coffees these companies offer to consumers is, indeed, wide. The roasting in general appeared excellent, although in two cases I saw and tasted some evidence of scorched beans. Overall, however, the roasting was better and more sensitive than the roasting from larger bricks-and-mortar roasting companies, perhaps because these companies roast smaller volumes of beans per batch than larger roasting companies. Just as it is easier to steer a rowboat than an ocean liner, it is much easier to roast smaller batches of coffee than large.

If there was a weakness among these coffees, it resided in the consistency of the green coffees themselves. When I cup offerings from larger, well-established roasting companies, I seldom run across dramatically defective green coffees. Coffees may be clumsily roasted, or ordinary, or shadowed by some slight fault or other, but they are seldom outright defective. With this cupping, however, the green coffees ranged in quality from splendid to, well, pretty strange.

This could be owing to any number of factors. Perhaps some of these green coffees were held in a garage or warehouse so long they turned faded and baggy. Perhaps some green coffee dealers are foisting third-rate coffees off on small, inexperienced new roasters. Or, and I hope this is the real reason, these roasters are exercising their own judgment about what constitutes a good coffee and that those judgments are so idiosyncratic and personal that I find it difficult to fit them into the usual "good" coffee norms.

I put two of these problematic coffees into the review. Note that both were roasted by companies that placed other, conventionally successful coffees in the review. CoffeeMaria, an Internet-based roaster with an excellent record, produced both the splendidly clean and transparent Guatemala Antigua and an Ethiopia Harrar that went far beyond the wild Harrar norm in its murky strangeness. Similarly, FreshCoffeeNow.com offered a very fine Peru as well as a Cameroon coffee that was sweet, but about as flat-out musty as coffees come.

In summary, the high points here may be a bit higher than in many cuppings of conventional roasting companies, and the low points, well, if not lower, at least a lot stranger than usual. Which is the greatness of the Internet, right? A universe of individuals expressing themselves, and if you don't like it, surf on and buy someone else's coffee.

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2003 The Coffee Review. All rights reserved.