Coffee is easy to take for granted. It is, after all, an almost omnipresent brown liquid that supplies the energy necessary for conscious thought. But should you have the privilege of sipping a decent cup of the stuff–and here “decent” refers not just to the flavor, but also the impact the beans have had on the land on which they’re grown and on the humans who nurture, harvest, and export them–consider yourself lucky. Standing between you and that cup was a murderers’ row of calamities, all evaded thanks to a long, largely invisible chain of people and organizations.
“We want to maintain quality first and foremost, and understanding all the steps that go into the production of the coffee allow us to build a better picture of where that quality is and how well it’s going to hold up,” says Joe Marrocco. Marrocco is a champion barista and part of the team at Café Imports, a leading Minneapolis-based coffee importer with a global presence. As such, he has his eyes on the life cycle of the coffee bean and all those calamities waiting to rob it of its flavor or virtue.
“With coffee,” he says, “you’ve got a roaster who can ruin it, a barista who can ruin it, transport that can ruin it–all these steps along the chain that can be a devastating point. So we put a lot of work in to ensure the best coffees in the world actually see the light of day for the consumer.”
Marrocco’s team (which includes a Costa Rica–based “coffee traveler,” self-evidently one of the coolest jobs on the planet) is one of the most critical links in the chain that has brought the Walker Art Center’s new Catalyst-branded coffee to market. What looks like a mere bag of beans on a shelf is actually the product of complicated environmental factors, thought-provoking cupping observations and roasting decisions, and a whole lot of thought along the way. Plus a cool label.
From Bean to Boat
Café Imports is something of a new animal in the world of coffee importation.
“The traditional way of importing coffee is working with a broker in the country of origin–you cup their offerings and then decide from those offerings which coffee you’re going to import,” says Marrocco. “We go a lot more in depth than most traditional importers do. We communicate directly with farmers and coffee mills at origin. We work with cooperatives and arrange all of the transport logistics and all of that kind of stuff alongside of exporters that we’re working with and then bring in the coffee, and we also own our own warehouse. We’re very involved in the process from where the coffee grows to who we’re selling the coffee to.”
On the American side of things, Café Imports supports its mission by educating buyers and baristas. Coffee is a dynamic product, and it behaves better when handled by people who know its habits and life cycle.
“A lot of people draw parallels between high end coffee and wine,” says Marrocco. “Wine has a lot of complexity, and it’s a very seasonal item: one year is better than another year.”
There’s a notable difference between the two pricey and complex beverages—wine often improves in the bottle. Coffee, by contrast, is “always declining in its characteristics,” says Marrocco.
Part of the solution for Café Imports is to communicate constantly with producers and emphasize the “traceability” of their beans—economic and ecological data that puts a data-driven point on the larger, more subjective goal of quality coffee.
“We’re one of the first companies that imported fair trade and organic-certified coffee and have been a big supporter of those,” says Marrocco.
Over the past 15 years, sustainable coffee has grown from being a marginal presence in the world market to a serious force. In 2010, coffee expert Daniele Giovannucci noted in a survey of the industry that more than 8 percent of the global trade in green coffee was certified to one or another of the major sustainability initiatives. These include organic, fair trade, and Rainforest Alliance certifications, all of which involve combinations of different economic, social, and environmental standards. In the US, the numbers are even more robust, with 16 percent of the market certified.
The Many Components of Flavor
The taste of coffee is no small thing, and panels of tasters are often used to gather a variety of observations and home in on some sort of consensus for how a blend should eventually taste.
“We had a small group here from the Walker that went out to spend a morning tasting a lot of coffee [at Café Imports],” recalls Scott Stulen, who was among the Walker’s tasters. Teams from Café Imports and the coffee roaster MorningStar had the Walker group sample a variety of blends to experience the nuances of the different beans.
“Obviously each one from different parts of the world has different flavor notes to it,” says Stulen. “Some are brighter, some are more earth-toned… what I think was interesting in that process was having people who are truly experts in the field walk us through that.”
A Café Imports team member showed off one of his favorite beans, which was roasted extremely gently, barely past green.
“I’d almost compare it to a really hoppy IPA,” says Stulen. “It had these bright floral notes. I’m not sure I’d want to drink a big cup of it every morning, but as a unique thing to try it was really good.”
After blend sampling, the team narrowed down its interest to a single blend.
“Our whole group was unanimous about the blend we picked. It was a nice, easy-drinking morning kind of coffee,” says Stulen. “It wasn’t too bitter or bright or too acidic, and it wasn’t too dark or Starbucks tarry, either. It has a nice kind of a balance in between. Since it’s been in the café [at the Walker], the response has been really good. I like it enough that I’ve been getting my morning coffee here instead of getting it on the way.”
The Art of the Roast
“We roast daily to order,” says Jose Vido of MorningStar Coffee. “The day we deliver [to clients], we get the coffee roasted. We’ve been using premium clean coffee that we buy from our local importer.”
Vido, a co-founder of Café Imports in 1993, started coffee roaster MorningStar in 1996. In a way, the second business is a natural partner for the first. Growers in the countries of origin grow the beans and sell them to co-ops; Café Imports imports the beans; MorningStar roasts them and delivers them to restaurants and shops; members of the public drink the coffee.
“We like to use a blend,” says Vido. “Like wine [vintages], different years will give you different coffees, so you sometimes have to use different producers to come up with the same cup.”
Different varietals from around the world, for example, comprise the Walker’s Catalyst blend.
“The countries of origin are Guatemala, Mexico, and Sumatra,” says Michael Mullen of MorningStar. “We purchase all the product through Café Imports. It comes to us in burlap bags, about 150 pounds of green coffee. We roast it to about what you’d consider a medium roast, it’s blended together, and there you have it.”
As for flavor, Mullen says: “It’s clean, with some fruit in it, which is what the Guatemalan brings to it. The Mexican has a nice medium body, but it’s got the sweetness. And then we put a little Sumatran in there, too, and it’s a full bodied product that brings a little bit of earthiness.”
That blend is no accident: it’s the result of a deliberately guided cupping and blending process that builds layers of flavor.
“When you are cupping to buy a crop, you need to test for acidity and body,” says Vido. “It varies. Between two countries on other sides of the planet—Africa, or Indonesia for example—you’ll get coffee that’s earthier or nuttier. You’re looking for a profile that fits the customer, whether it’s fine dining or just a café or coffee shop where they’re serving it with pastries.”
“Mexico is very light and mild, so you want a blend that will bring the body up. Maybe you add a little Ethiopian or Kenyan AA, and you start building up the blend. What makes it premium is when you buy directly from producers and you know exactly what their process is. Smaller producers are the ones who are certified from a cooperative–a lot of time they’re not producing enough for a [shipping] container, which is 40,000 pounds.”
Two Sides of Sustainability
Many specially marketed coffees (like Walker’s Catalyst blend) differentiate themselves not just on flavor, but also on fair trade certification that protects the wages and rights of workers, and on striving toward a sustainable product.
“Sustainability means not using fertilizer or anything chemical that will be healthy not only for the plant, but for the people handling it, and for the rivers, for example,” says Vido. “You have chemicals being sprayed on the farm—that goes on the soil, and it goes to the river, and to the people washing their clothes in the river… The idea is motivating them to use organic methods to grow. There are pesticides that are organic that won’t be bad for people’s skin or their land. That is the sustainability that we try to motivate the producers to maintain.”
In the US, MorningStar concentrates its sustainability efforts on the energy used to roast the coffee and how the company packages and delivers its beans, using, as one example, packaging that is recyclable or biodegradable.
“We don’t need aluminum foil bags when we use coffee we just roasted,” says Vido. “Coffee gets stale in six weeks, but we are servicing our accounts once a week, so they won’t have more or less coffee than they need.”
MorningStar uses an American-made air bed coffee roaster that runs on natural gas. “It’s a faster roaster, and it’s human error–free,” says Vido. “In a traditional roaster you have to be pulling the coffee out and smelling it and looking at it, but this roaster, as long as it’s set up correctly with a recipe, you don’t have any human error.”
One byproduct of the roasting process is potential air pollution (“at least 30 to 40 seconds of the roast is a big amount of smoke,” says Vido), a problem dealt with through a water-based process called a scrubber. The liquid “washes” the smoke’s particulates leaving a clean steam that can be discharged into the atmosphere.
Communicating: Catalyst and Caffeine
Once coffee has been sourced and cupped, and imported and roasted, not much is standing between the beans and the customer’s cup. A name and label never hurt, though—something that entices consumers and tells a story. When it came to packaging Catalyst, the Walker team had a distinctive brew to work with.
“I knew it was going to be organic and fair trade and that we were partnering with MorningStar,” says Andrea Hyde, a designer at the Walker. “I also knew that it was a medium roast. It was something that we had been serving at the café as a soft launch for a while, without having the brand there. So I’d had some experience with the flavor of it. It’s very smooth.”
Then there’s the name, which comes out of the Walker’s mission to be a “catalyst for the creative expression of artists and the active engagement of audiences.” For Hyde the name suggested a graphic motif that alluded to the kind of jolt both a good cup of coffee and contemporary art can offer. Then the size of the labels and print specifications brought a creative challenge.
“At the Walker we try to think about things a little bit differently,” says Hyde. “I took the constraint as an opportunity to do something very graphic and almost brutal.”
Sure enough: the label is bold and stands out from the warm colors and imagery most consumers associate with coffee. “It’s just black and white,” says Hyde. “It’s almost severe. It doesn’t call itself out as ‘this is a coffee,’ although I abstracted the form of a coffee bean, and that’s the pattern in the background.”
Beyond the label, the coffee (and the process that brings it to our breakfast or dinner table) is anything but black and white.
James Norton is the editor of the daily online food magazine Heavy Table and author of Lake Superior Flavors: A Field Guide to Food and Drink Along the Circle Tour (University of Minnesota Press, 2014), both projects which feature the work of Becca Dilley, a Minneapolis-based editorial and wedding photographer.