Sunday, March 18, 2007

Communiqué #11: Learning in the Coffee Cup

Seven years ago I was introduced to fine coffee by one of my business partners, Damian Nelson. At the time Mr. Nelson was busy operating a small web site called and wanted some assistance on site design and marketing. At our first meeting, Damian expounded on the many virtues of 100% pure Jamaica Blue Mountain Coffee. I remembered listening patiently and after a few minutes asked him for a sample of the coffee to test drive.

Now I must admit that at that time, I was not an ardent coffee drinker. My foray into what I would later recognize as Specialty coffee never deviated far from a French press and a bag of Kenya AA purchased from Barney’s at the local mall or Helmut Sachers from the local German grocer. Damian produced later that week two bags of coffee. The other being a 2oz sample of JABLUM 100% Blue Mountain Coffee (ground as I did not even own a grinder at that time) and one bag of Wallenford Jamaica High Mountain Coffee. I remember distinctly going home, opening the bag of JABLUM and smelling it while waiting for the water to boil for my French press.

From that first meager pot of coffee I experienced and epiphany. The flavor was unlike any coffee I had ever experience and that was my “ah hah” coffee moment. I suspect that ever coffee lover has had that same moment where the cup was so different and the experience so mesmerizing that it started a life long fascination with coffee in all it’s most sublime forms. The next day I agreed to work with him on the new site for an equity position in the fledgling company.

Today it’s seven years later and my how things have changed. I’ve tasted fresh roasted Kenya Aas that defy description. Kona Fancies so mesmerizing that when asked I could only describe the taste as “round like a soft playground marble.” We have collectively read countless books, attended countless trade shows and traded stories with countless coffee nuts about the particulars of arcane subject matter (like what’s the best roast for a true Tanzanian peaberry if you’re using a vacuum brewer). What binds all of these experiences is a damn near mythic quest to find the next great coffee not necessarily the best coffee.

Coffee like all things is really based on two things that defy easy codification – personal taste and passion. I always tell friends that coffee is like wine in more ways than one. Some people prefer thin Rieslings for years as their wine of choice and go from bottle to bottle learning the peculiarities of the grape. They experience first hand the differences between the same wine bottle from year to year and gradually begin to understand how weather, drinking temperature, food, etc. affect the flavor. All of that is what I call the “school of the glass.” In effect the drinker is learning from experience with the subject. Eventually that Riesling drinker takes a baby step to a white wine from Alsace and oh man what a difference. A new series of lessons are learned and their taste mature seeking the next great wine. Now, does that wine lover ever really abandon Riesling… probably not, they just seek better Rieslings. Better often means seeking a particular region or better yet a particular estate. Eventually things like vintage come into focus clearly.

Coffee lovers go through a familiar evolution as well. You find a truly great cup and you follow it to where it leads you. A great cup of after dinner coffee at a German restaurant led me to Helmut Sachers and a cup of coffee on morning led me to Kenya AA. Coffee is like wine in one very important way, each bean like each grape variety is different when it is in the glass or in this case the cup. The alchemy of plant, weather, growing condition, harvest, processing, roasting, freshness and brewing all play crucial roles in taste. Thus some coffee are more sought after than others. Unlike wine however coffee does not have an international lexicon honed over centuries that can be used as a shorthand in separating the regal from the plebian. Coffee is far more hands on than wine. By that I mean you, yes you have to dig into the choices. Here’s the good news, today you have a better chance of scoring a truly great cup than at any time in the past. I really believe and have experienced great cups of coffee and so can you… it only takes a little diligence.
Warm Regards,
Jerry Delince
Managing partner

Jamaica Blue Mountain Traders, LLC.
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