When I met Hanna it was late and loud. We were in a crowded bar at some kind of afterparty. People were drunk. Numbers were being exchanged left and right, and I was starting to think about making my way home. In other words, I was probably in the last place on Earth where I would expect to get drawn into a coffee conversation, much less one that intellectualized the experience. About an hour in, I was enraptured. We covered everything from brewing temperatures for a French Press to global coffee trade to the mouthfeel of sipping Ethiopian. I suddenly had this impulse to put Hanna on stage so she could teach the world how to taste coffee. I mean, how to really taste coffee. And here we are today.
I have since learned that Hanna has many topics, and she brings an interesting twist to any exchange. She has been known to talk about far-reaching subjects– infographs, British television, and the great authors at Wordstock. It’s easy to linger in conversation with her. You know, like the kind of person you’d meet in, say, a coffeehouse.
Hanna and I hosted a brunch to showcase coffee as an ingredient in food. Through the fall and early winter, we had a blast bantering in the kitchen and making batch after batch of stewed tomatoes with coffee-cured bacon and coffee-candied hazelnuts.
She’s writing a book about Northwest coffee, and I’m looking forward to planning a highly-caffeinated trip around its contents. In the meantime, I thought you all might enjoy hearing what she has to say about coffee. I know I do.
We met at Coava to talk over a single-origin cup of Kenya, and she shared a little know-how about where coffee comes form, where coffee is going, and just a little practical advice about how to wake up your morning cup.
Interview with Hanna Neuschwander, February 18th 2011 at Coava Coffee
A: I want to hear about your daily ritual with coffee.
H: Good question. My daily ritual with coffee is really more John’s [her husband’s] daily ritual. He gets up before I do, puts the water on, takes a shower, and makes coffee. He always makes a little, second cup for me. I put milk and sugar in it and it’s often really weak. So, my weekday coffee ritual is pretty functional—a little bit of caffeine and the ritual that goes along with it. It’s more on the weekend that I enjoy coffee.
A: Tell me about the weekend ritual.
H: Part of my enjoyment of coffee is going out for it. Having worked as a barista, I love just black coffee and tasting different coffees side by side. But if you’re going to have espresso, the investment that you’d have to make to get the quality you’d get at a shop is incredibly high, and even then you can’t really get it at home. I mean, you can, but you’d be throwing away a lot of coffee, or just drinking way too much.
I like hopping around to different places and getting a taste for different things people are doing. There are a lot of places in Portland that pull single-origin espresso shots, which I like. I tend to like a blend better, though, because blends are built to be balanced. But it can be really fun to try something new and crazy. So, I do like to go out for coffee on the weekends.
A: Do you guys have favorite places?
H: Definitely! They change. Right now, Coava is definitely one of them. I did a cupping [side-by-side coffee-tasting] at home a couple months ago. I had accumulated a bunch of coffee at some point and I had Coava on the table. It blew everything else out of the water. It was so much better.
I live two blocks from Stumptown’s Annex, which is where they sell the full assortment of all the coffees that they have and they do twice-daily cuppings for free, so I started going regularly to those cuppings and just drinking coffee there with them. It’s a very fun, geeky place to hang out.
I will always have a soft spot for Extracto because that’s where I worked as a barista. I love going up and visiting. It’s been three years since I worked there and I still run into a lot of my regulars from when I worked there.
A: Speaking of Extracto, how did that job come about? Was that your first barista job?
H: Close to it. I worked in my campus bookstore/café when I was in college. That was in Montreal, Canada. But it was just a job. I made something like $5.50/hour. And the only time I ever thought about the coffee that I was making was one day when an older gentleman came in and ordered a Lungo, which is when you run the water through the grounds for longer and you get a long shot. I didn’t know what it was and he was trying to explain it to me in broken English. I didn’t understand what he was talking about and he got really frustrated and came around to the back of the bar and started trying to show me how to do it. My manager was really mad and I got in trouble.
A: Was it sort of an awakening for you, in a way?
H: Well, kind of. At the time it was just strange and stressful. To me it looked disgusting, like dirty water. I didn’t get it, but that was my first experience with someone who cared about coffee in a particular way. When I was younger, I had a camp counselor that had worked at Starbucks in Seattle in the early 80’s, and he loved learning about coffee and working at Starbucks. So between those two experiences, that’s pretty much all I knew about coffee except how to serve it.
Then I moved to Portland. I was working as a freelance editor, doing a white paper about the economics of chronic disease with an organization in London, so I was totally isolated. We didn’t know anybody and I was talking to people 9 hours away all day in my sweatpants. I got really sick of myself, really fast. So I decided I wanted to get a part-time job that would get me out and help me learn more about Portland. I found this ad on Craig’s List for Chris and Celeste’s shop [Extracto]. They hadn’t opened yet. I ended up helping to spackle the walls; I watched the bar get installed; I watched the machine go in. I very much felt like I was part of that company, kind of family, almost. And it was just a husband and wife and their two young kids. They took it seriously, but had a laid-back approach, which was perfect for me because they were open to people being curious about coffee and encouraged us to play around. They also invested a lot in training.
A: Were you surprised at the training since you had worked in a coffeeshop before and hadn’t had that experience?
H: I was incredibly pleased. It drew me in and made me want to stay there a long time. When I did finally get a job that was in my background, it was agonizing to leave. It was the right decision, but I knew I would miss Extracto, and I immediately longed for it. It was a neighborhood café, but the quality was high enough that you’d get coffee-tourist coming in who took coffee seriously, but a lot—most of the business—was from regulars, and you learned about them. Half the baristas I worked with were musicians or artists and had interesting stories, and I always felt like I was very mixed up in the social fabric of Portland.
A: This is interesting because for a long time, that’s what coffeehouses were all about. I mean, when you hear about coffeehouses in Vienna in the 1800’s, they’re not talking about single-origin beans.
H: They were places where people talked about art and politics.
A: You’re writing a book about coffee, and I was wondering what new ways your research is inspiring you?
H: It’s certainly inspiring me to think about coffee in new ways. The book is about roasters, but it’s really about places where you can go to get coffee where they happen to roast, so it’s really a consumer guide to cafes, in a way.
I originally set up a lot of my interviews with roasters. Then it turned out that what I really needed to do was experience the cafes and talk to baristas and café managers because a lot of what’s unique about a particular coffee company isn’t actually the roaster. Most of the places I’m talking about are taking a similar approach. They take a high quality coffee that has been meticulously treated, harvested when the cherries were the most ripe, and dried carefully so they don’t rot or have ferment. Then they’re packaged carefully so they don’t sit on an airplane tarmac and get baked. By the time it gets to the roasters, their job is to bring out the qualities that are innate in the bean and not fuck it up by over-roasting it or grinding it wrong or putting it in the machine the wrong way. Blends are a little different and I’ll talk about that in a second. Not all, but most of the roasters that I’m talking to follow the same approach. The things they do to differentiate themselves are more surface level: What does the café look like? What are they trying to evoke? How do they go about educating their customers? What is the experience they’re trying to create to bring it home?
A: Again, it’s that sense of place thing…
H: It is! Because in the end, roasting is about telling a familiar story in a unique way, and that’s where you see a lot of the differentiation.
A: Going back to the blend thing? Can you expand?
H: Pretty much every old-time roaster I’ve talked to suggests that it’s harder to make a blend than to roast single-origin coffees. This makes sense because most blends are in fact just mixtures of single-origin coffees. Most—though not all—high-quality roasters do what’s called “post-blending.” They roast each coffee headed for a blend separately, to get the flavors for that component just right. Not all coffee roasts the same—some, like Costa Ricans, have denser beans, which you can roast faster and with a heavier hand, bringing out more acidity. Brazils are less dense, so you generally roast them more slowly and they have a mellower flavor. Then, the individual coffees are mixed together: Usually, there’s a “base” coffee making up the majority of a blend. It’s often, for espresso, a mellow coffee like a Brazil, that fills in the area around the other coffees. Think of grout, holding a tiled wall together. In with that, you might add an African coffee for acidity and maybe some hints of fruit flavor, a Guatemalan for chocolate notes, and a Sumatran for thick body.
The art of blending is suffering at the moment because so much attention is focused on transparency in coffee among the boutique roasters. They are traveling to farms, getting to know the farmers, arranging transparent purchasing agreements, bringing back TONS of information about the coffees, and passing that off to customers. Farms and microlots are, in a sense, becoming mini-brands that roasters can capitalize on. Of course the roasters are themselves largely responsible for building these brands. Blending, if you think about it this way, sort of dilutes the brand. Single-origin coffees showcase all that transparency and the big story behind each coffee. Those are lost in blends.
Also, blending is hard. You have to know what flavor profile you want out of a blend possibly even years before you taste it—because you buy coffee in advance. You have to deeply understand the kinds of flavor profiles that come from different origins, and you have to be meticulous in building it. That’s a top-quality blend. Many roasters dump lesser quality coffee into blends, and most consumers don’t notice—another thing that gives them a bad rap with boutique roasters. The other issue is that many of these boutique roasters are very young—which is great. But it takes a lot of experience to build great blends, especially for espresso. I think some of the reason blends get knocked is that roasters have been frustrated by how hard it is to make good ones.
It’s all rather amusing from a distance, because of course the single biggest seller for every roaster is their espresso blend. Americans drink lattes. It’s what we’ve been trained to like. Not that a focus on single-origins or on farmers is a bad thing AT ALL, but I do believe that the pendulum will swing back toward the artistry of blends eventually, especially as many of these boutique roasters achieve the goal of educating our palettes. If more Americans are ordering double-straight espressos, more are going to demand the nuance you get from blends.
A: What is the environmental impact of coffee?
H: That’s another way roasters distinguish themselves. Some only buy fair-trade and organic coffee and that is a way of saying they have a commitment. Other folks will look at it in a more nuanced way, because actually a lot of specialty roasters are paying significantly above fair trade value. Many farms in particular areas of the world—Ethiopia is probably the best example—none of them are fair-trade certified; all of them grow “organic” coffee because they can’t afford pesticides and they’ve built this style of coffee around a traditional approach to processing it, and it’s very marketable. Other places, like Kenya, none of the coffee is grown without pesticides, but certain farms will minimize pesticide use and try to approach it in a balanced way. And it’s the relationships between roasters and farmers that will change the environmental impact. So maybe in saying, “Okay I love your coffee; I’ll buy your coffee for 10 years, but next year would you be willing, if I agree to pay you more, to set off a small part of your land where you’re not using pesticides?” So that’s the idea of direct trade. There’s no certification that holds those kinds of relationships to a certain standard, but at its core, that’s what the good places are doing.
A: And where does Folgers get their coffee? Do they get what’s leftover from all that?
H: Kind of. There’s a saying: “All coffee has a home”. You’ll talk to some specialty roasters and they’ll say the hardest thing they’ve ever had to do was turn away coffee. Maybe they know the producers, maybe not, but these roasters know how much work went into growing it. Hundreds of hands are involved in bringing coffee from its original status as a fruit on a tree to a hot cup in your hand. Sometimes, for reasons outside of a roaster’s control, the coffee got ruined somewhere along the way. Sometimes when coffee is delivered, it doesn’t actually meet the standard that it met when the roaster sampled it. In that case, they can refuse it. That’s one of the primary functions of an importer. They essentially act as an insurance policy because when coffee is refused by a roaster, the importer will turn around and sell it for less money to someone who doesn’t have the same quality standards. In that way all grades of coffee end up somewhere.
Folgers is buying millions, probably billions of pounds of coffee a year. At this point, most of it probably comes from farms in Vietnam. After the Vietnam War, there was an economic revitalization program that brought coffee into Vietnam. It’s all high-yield strains that are pretty poor quality. Most of it is Robusta. They don’t have a good infrastructure for processing, but when you’re making instant, you’re putting so many chemicals, it really doesn’t matter.
A: Let’s talk about coffee and globalization. I’m so fascinated by it because coffee has always been a globalized product, right?
H: For deep history, of course, it was grown in Ethiopia, but since the early 1800’s it’s been a global commodity. I don’t know exactly what all the changes in the coffee world say about globalization, but that’s what fascinates me. For the book, I’m talking to a lot of roasters and green buyers and because of that, I have learned an incredible amount about how coffee gets from the farm to the United States. That kind of connectivity fascinates a lot of people who are pushing at the boundaries of what coffee is.
A: Do you think the general population does think about the global impacts of coffee more now than they used to?
H: There’s a learning curve. I think people are interested to learn more about coffee, but consumers in general—even people that care about where their food comes from—often don’t think about where their coffee comes from until you give them a way in and get them thinking about it. Certainly that was me for a long time. Even working as a barista, I never really thought about the producers and the processing.
We live in a bubble in Portland. I think so many more people care about it, think about it, talk about it in Portland than they do elsewhere. But I do think that’s changing on the whole and there are people all over the place that are thinking about it and talking about it in pockets. I think as the food thing happened, people started thinking about food in new ways and they started wondering how things make it into their homes, and coffee is one of those things. But a lot of people just want a $1.50 cup of coffee, and there’s nothing wrong with that.
A: On that note, what are your tips for improving your regular cup of coffee at home?
H: Buy fresh-roasted coffee and don’t let it sit for long. Often that means buying in smaller quantities. If you have the luxury of being able to go to a local roastery, you can get a quarter pound or a half pound, a small amount you can go through fast.
The second thing is grinding it fresh. And to me that recommendation relates to the quality of the cup you’re going to get, but it’s also part of the total aesthetic experience of coffee.
At a certain point, you’re just making small incremental increases in quality. You can get a burr grinder and it’s going to be a lot better than a blade grinder, but you may not notice that it’s that much better unless you actually care to notice. If you’re fine with a blade grinder, you’re fine with a blade grinder. And there are all sorts of things like that where the more into it you get, you will notice the differences—they do make a difference—but making a difference is sort of a relative quality.
Water temperature is important. Pouring boiling water over coffee grounds will kind of scald the coffee and kill subtle flavors. If you boil it then just count down to 45, it will be the right temperature. But most automatic coffee makers do not boil; some are actually not hot enough, but again, it’s all kind of relative.
To me, the very biggest difference comes from knowing more about it. If I go to a roastery where they’re roasting it on-site and I talk to them, I have the whole visual memory of being in that place and seeing it happen and have it made for me. Knowing that it’s something that someone made translates into better coffee to me.
A: Do baristas care when you put cream and sugar in your coffee?
H: In Portland you get more of that, but I don’t really see that anywhere else. Part of what a lot of roasters are trying to do is to bring out the natural sweetness in coffee. It’s a fruit and has a lot of natural sugar. There’s also a lot of sugar in milk. If you steam milk right, the heat breaks down lactose into sugars, and a chemist could measure the sugar content of cold milk versus hot milk and find it’s higher in hot milk. A really well-made cappuccino with a high quality espresso is tailored to bring out sweet flavors. But sweetness is totally relative. I think a lot of people put sugar in coffee because they think coffee isn’t sweet enough, and they want something sweet. Cream is a little different because it can cover up flavor or it can bring flavor out, depending on the coffee. For example, the Ethiopian Nekisse we had at brunch: It had enough body that could stand up to cream. So you put the cream in it, but it’s not like that covers up the flavor of the coffee.
A: I think that was the best cup of coffee I’ve ever had.
H: It’s pretty amazing.
A: And it was like you were saying, it tasted really good but also to have this whole back story of where it came from and watching you do it, made for a complete experience.
H: You know if I could go back and revise my answer, I would probably put that first as the most important thing for getting a better cup of coffee.
There is an objective grading scale for coffee. People spend 10 years getting their palates certified so that they can grade it. It’s still taste we’re talking about, of course it’s still subjective, but there is a difference between an 80-point coffee and a 95-point coffee. All of the coffees we drank were in the 90’s.
Obviously the quality of coffee isn’t affected by weather or not you know about it, but knowing about them, for me, changes the quality of the experience in a fundamental way. For one, it’s a creative experience because you’re connecting the physical thing that you’re doing—having a cup of coffee—to your memories. “What does this taste like? What does cinnamon taste like? Does this coffee taste like cinnamon?” For me, I’m actually running tastes against sort of a checklist in my head sometimes. I find that an engaging process. You’re not just drinking coffee, you’re thinking about it a lot.
A: And you’re also interacting with your memories of coffee, too. What is your earliest memory of coffee?
H: My grandparents always had a percolator on. Always. They drank coffee all the way through until dinnertime.
A: Is that a nice memory?
H: It is! I now know that the coffee I was smelling was not particularly good, but in my head it is. Absolutely!
A: Do you remember the first cup of coffee you actually got to taste?
H: No. I do remember the second or third time I cupped coffee. The first cupping I did was interesting, but I didn’t really get it. Coffee-tasting, like anything else, gets better the more you do it and your palate starts to adapt; you start picking out details in a different way. I think it was the third time I did a cupping when I realized I could really taste how different the coffees were. It was such a revelation! And so much fun. I can trace my interest in coffee to that experience. To this day, cupping is still my favorite way to drink coffee.
A: But going back to coffee culture—you know, I brought someone here to Coava and she likes coffee, but she was kind of annoyed with the…
H: The sceney-ness of it?
A: That’s it! The sceney-ness of it. And I was wondering if you think there’s a way to bridge the gap between people who just want a good cup of coffee and people who want to wrap their lives around it?
H: I do and I think lots of people are trying to do it, actually. There are a lot of small neighborhood shops that can’t afford for people to come in and feel alienated. They themselves might be really serious about coffee and train their baristas well, but they’re likely to make their presentation warm and friendly.
I hear baristas talking all the time, struggling with how to make people feel more comfortable, while also challenging them. Because a lot of what places like Coava are trying to do is to actively get people to try something new or give up on assumptions about what coffee is supposed to be like. And so you’re walking into an unfamiliar environment and you’re asked to step outside your comfort zone, so how do you do that in a way that makes people feel comfortable. I don’t think there’s a really easy answer to it.
A: So, you’re writing a book about Northwest coffee. Do you think there really is something unique about Northwest coffee, in general?
H: Everything that we’ve been talking about is being driven in the Northwest right now. The focus on producer relationships, the focus on bringing out flavors of origin. Other people in the rest of the country are doing it but not on the same scale or with the same level of collaboration. Intelligentsia (Chicago) and Counter Culture (North Carolina) are also driving that conversation, but you haven’t seen the flowering of smaller companies around them doing the same thing and bolstering that work the way you have in the Northwest. The culture in Portland is dynamic right now. People are really talking to each other and collaborating and, in different ways, pushing at the edges of what’s possible. It has a dynamic feel.