Back in 1978 (that’s thirty eight years ago) I was just beginning to learn about coffee. I spent the first six years getting comfortable with the fire and heat it took to convert it from a tasteless seed into a toasted reddish brown carrier of comforting flavor.
Then I turned my focus to understanding the botany and chemistry of this magical “bean.” One of the first things I wanted to know was what made my coffee so much better then every canned coffee on the shelf.
Back then, a one pound can of Folgers or Martinson’s cost one dollar. My coffee, packed in a clear bag, closed with a twist tie at the top, was $3.50 per pound. I wondered, how could those big coffee companies turn out coffee at such a low price?
Back then there was not a lot of intellectual conversation about coffee in print or on the web. (There was no web, the closest thing to it was The Encyclopedia Britannica.) Coffee was an unsophisticated cup of Joe and not much more. There were no “to go” cups. You didn’t see people walking in the streets, or driving cars with cups of coffee in there hand. Cars didn’t have cup holders yet. Cane sugar found its greatest use in coffee and there was no such thing as corn syrup in packaged foods. It was a simpler time, a time before craft beer, and when people smoked in restaurants.
My investigation led me to Robusta coffee vs. Arabica Coffee.
Back then Every coffee company said their coffee was “Mountain Grown,” an indication that it was High Quality with “Deep, Rich” flavor. But it was pretty much a lie. The canned coffee was basically the lowest grades of coffee they could put into the mouths of unsuspecting and gullible American consumers. The truth was that the major portion of the canned coffee blends was coffee from a variety called Robusta, and Robusta was really cheap coffee with a rough, leathery flavor with wood notes and an ashy dry finish. But it had a heavy body and packed a punch that my coffee did not come close to.
So what was going on here? I was roasting Arabicas, and they were blending in Robustas with their Arabica’s to lower their cost. Robusta was all about volume and price. Arabica was all about flavor. The difference between Specialty Coffee and the 300 year history of coffee leading up to 1978 was the focus on Arabica varieties and the disdain for the Robusta variety.
The botany of these two varieties was very different. Although a raw coffee bean is known to have over 1600 chemical compounds, we tend to define coffee by its caffeine content. (Did you know coffee is 20% coffee oil by weight?) I learned that Robusta varieties have 2.5 -3 times the caffeine as Arabica varieties. I learned that caffeine is a waste product of photosynthesis and is stored in the plant only because the plant, unlike the animal kingdom, can not get rid of its waste. So there it is. And being water soluble, it is not destroyed by the high heat of roasting, and comes out into the cup when coffee is brewed.
So why do these two varieties produce such different levels of Caffeine?
To get to the answer you need to know that the two varieties do best in different environments. The Robusta variety likes the lowlands where the sun is hot, the air is heavy and moist, and the ground is rich in alluvial soils. The Arabica variety loves the cool dryer climates of the high country between 3,000-6,000 ft above sea level. Here the soils are young, with a very thin layer of topsoil, the ground is cool and the forest shade trees are essential for the light sensitive leaves of the Arabica tree.
Photosynthesis is the process by which the plant takes in sunlight (energy) and along with the soils nutrients and water, converts these assets into food. In this case, into coffee berries which contain two seeds and a whole lot of sweet juicy pulp that surrounds them. The seeds are the way the plants reproduces itself, and in the two different environments that these varieties call home, the seeds wind up with different amounts of Carbohydrates (food) and Caffeine (waste). Why?
Germination risk is the reason. The tree evolved to maximize its chances for survival.
When a coffee tree drops its berries at the end of a growing season, it wants the seeds to have a high success rate, meaning it wants its seeds to germinate. In the case of the Arabica variety, high up the mountainside, the conditions for germination and young seedling survival are slim. The soil is dry and cool , and the rainy season is six months after the seeds are ripe and fall from the tree to the ground. The tree knows that it might be a while for the conditions to become perfect. So it prepares the seed by being very efficient with its photosynthesis.
It produces more food and less waste for each seed. High carbs for the long wait and for energy for sprouting under difficult conditions. The Robusta tree does not waste its energy on producing a lot of carbs for the seed’s germination energy because it knows that the soil is warm and moist, and that the nutrients are there in the soil to feed the plant in its sprouting stage. Why waste energy on producing long chain, complex carbohydrates? So the energy goes into the production of Caffeine.
I like to think of the Robusta as a Buick that will operate without being highly tuned and the Arabica tree as a Ferrari that will not run unless it is highly tuned.
Hardy Robusta – Fragile Arabica. Arabicas taste better because they have the need to put food in the seed. That food is a complex starch that under high heat, breaks down into simple sugars which caramelize and produce the flavor of coffee. Robusta has starch to convert to sugar in the roasting process and thus, it is less sweet. Now, caffeine being one of nature’s most bitter substances, adds a distinguishing bitterness to coffee- and 3 times more in Robusta. Arabica coffees have less caffeine, and more carbohydrates so it is sweeter and less bitter. The major negative in Robusta, Caffeine, becomes a positive when you forget the flavor and use it for the speedy pick-up that its caffeine gives the drinker.
In 1978 Thanksgiving Coffee Company introduced Pony Express, “The Jackhammer of Coffee,” the start your day with a “Blastoff” drink.
It is natures natural five-hour power shot. It will make your heart race, it will keep you on your toes, and if you want to stay awake, you will stay awake!
Today, Robusta coffees are quite a bit more flavorful, mostly because the way coffee has evolved over the past 35 years. Flavor counts for value, and value means higher price. When I first created Pony Express, the flavor was metallic with a petroleum aftertaste. It was rough and not to satisfying. Today, our Robusta comes from places like Cambodia, Thailand, and the Philippines. It is clean and has a flavor that will take you back to a time when coffee was “Just a cup of Joe”, but this time, you might just develop a taste for it and never look back.
– Paul Katzeff
DARK ROAST • HIGH CAFFEINE
This restaurant, located on the western edge of the Anderson Valley on Highway 128, about 25 miles from the Pacific Coast, serves the finest pizza west of the Mississippi River. I come from the Bronx where “Italian” means “old world”, authentic and spare. Dough, tomato sauce and mozzarella cheese, combined to make a savory blend, greater than the sum of its parts. I dropped in with Joan a couple of Sunday’s ago on a wine tasting trip, something we rarely do, being surrounded by great wineries, you seem to take them for granted.
Lunch was pizza and a draft, a North Coast Pale Ale from Fort Bragg’s North Coast Brewery. We sat at the bar, on high stools and watched the preparation of our pizza. The stone oven registered 900 degrees. Black Valley oak embers glowed in the oven. Sweet basil tickled my nose. The dough was spread, tossed just a bit and laid out on a wood panel board, covered with a right amount of tomato sauce, blobs of fresh buffalo mozzarella and slid into the oven. About four minutes later it was in front of us, bubbled up crust with carbony tipped edges just made me think of those days back in the Bronx in the 50s when the only pizza you could get was called a “pie” or a “beitz” and it came whole, not by the slice. It was “old country” just like the one we finished off at Stone & Ember.
A perfect Ten!
– Paul Katzeff
Co-Founder & CEO
Find out more about Stone and Embers online at:
Many of the decaf coffees available in the supermarket are sourced from “past crop” coffees, which is why so many people think of decafs as tasting “a bit off” or “stale.”
We care deeply about the flavor of our decaf coffees. We send new coffee crop green beans directly to our Certified Organic decaffeination facility.
Shop Decaf Coffee
We have found a cooperative in Veracruz, Mexico that is a stone’s throw from the best decaffeinating plant in North America, which uses the Mountain Water Process. The green coffee beans are immersed in mountain glacial water to extract the coffee oils and caffeine.
The water/coffee oils/caffeine solution is then passed through a special filter to remove the caffeine. The flavor rich, but caffeine-free coffee solution is then returned to the coffee beans under pressure, to re-infuse them with their original oils. The decaffeinated beans are then thoroughly dried and tested for quality to maintain the flavor profile of the original coffee.
A note from our co-founder, Paul Katzeff, about decaf coffee…
I have always loved my after-dinner coffee with a dessert. The next three hours were bright and awake for me, perfect for reading a book without dozing, or watching a ball game. But, my body stopped metabolizing the caffeine as fast as when I was younger, and the coffee had to go if I wanted some good sleep.
Then the decaf revolution began to speed up, and decaf became tolerable for me. I accepted less flavor in favor of good sleep but I also knew there was a better train a-comin’ and I wanted to ride it, even be it’s conductor.
Thanksgiving Coffee is a small decaf railroad engine and we have done what I had hoped we could do. We have found a way to make decaf indistinguishable from caffeinated coffee flavor. There is a quality in the cup you will find as satisfying as any coffee you ever loved, and wanted more of.
As a coffee lover, I invite you to join me in a good night’s sleep after a great cup or three of our decaf, roasted to the exact flavor profile you love. I know you will be amazed, and hope you will feed me back your tasting comments below!
CEO & Roastmaster Emeritus
Shop Decaf Coffee
This is a different kind of blog post. Paul would like to share some excellent movies with you that don’t really have anything to do with coffee, but they are great movies to enjoy with a cup of coffee in hand.
I have come upon three great semi-cult classic movies that would be a perfect accompaniment to a rainy (or foggy) evening, a fire in the fireplace, and a cup of coffee. It should be a press pot brewed coffee for these movies. You want a brew that you don’t have to get up, pause the film, and rebrew. You want to watch these movies start to finish, no breaks.
My preference is a preheated mug, with thick ceramic walls. You can preheat the mug with boiling water prior to filling it with coffee. That’s gonna become slow sippin’ coffee. Just right for these flicks:
Dusk till Dawn
Two criminals and their hostages unknowingly seek temporary refuge in an establishment populated by vampires, with chaotic results.
A great vampire western with Harvey Keitel, George Clooney, Quentin Tarantino, Juliette Lewis, and Selma Hyack (playing the hottest vampire on the planet).
A burglar falls for an heiress as she dies in his arms. When he learns that he has the gift of reincarnation, he sets out to save her.
A magical fantasy starring Rusell Crow as Lucifer’s field manager, in a story about the power of love and hate. It features an exploration of good and evil, angels, fate, destiny, and the meaning of life.
Harry Angel is a private investigator. He is hired by a man who calls himself Louis Cyphre to track down a singer called Johnny Favorite. But the investigation takes an unexpected and somber turn.
A story about a WWII solider coming back in search of the roots of his soul. From Chicago to New York to New Orleans, he is led by forces of Voodun, the spiritual and exotic force that leads him into his Destiny. It stars a young Mickey Rourke, Robert De Niro, and a host of fantastic characters. It is a period piece taking place in the strange world of the 1940’s, just after the war ended.
These are good coffee movies. You will want to be awake and clear minded for each of them. Warm your mugs, plunk in the DVD, and sit back. You will be entertained with the unusual and the profound.
– Paul Katzeff –
By Paul Katzeff, CEO & Co-Founder, Thanksgiving Coffee
On January 12, I depart my comfortable home on the North Coast of California to visit coffee Farmers and Cooperatives in Rwanda and Uganda. I haven’t visited them on their home turf for almost a decade. Over the last several years Ben Corey Moran, our former Director of Coffee, deepened our relationships with Cooperative leaders and farmers in Africa. It is my intention that this visit will strengthen those ties.
I’ll be traveling with Nicholas Hoskyns of Etico, an import/export company that has imported our Nicaraguan coffees for the past two years. In 2004 he accompanied me to Rwanda on a USAID consulting job to help The Cooperative Coffee Sector plan its “cupping lab” construction project for cooperatives. He has a vast knowledge of Cooperatives and their organizational structures.
The trip’s focus will be on collaboration: How can our relationship improve quality of life for both coffee farmers and coffee roasters? I believe that quality of life and quality of coffee go hand in hand. There has to be opportunity for a better life in all parts of the coffee trading chain, from the farm to the cup. It is the farmers’ love of their trees that makes good coffee great. Back here in Ft. Bragg , California, it is our pride in what we create for the coffee lover that makes great coffee remain great.
There are some sticky issues that need attention, which have made this trip necessary. Primarily, about crop financing, shipment dates, and creating a system of transparency that demystifies the transfer of money from Thanksgiving Coffee to the individual farmers.
I want to have a first person experience in discovery and learning. And I want to share this 10 day adventure with you. I use the word “adventure” with a certain amount of respect for its broad application. I am not “going on an adventure,” but I know it will be an adventure. What I wish for is the most uneventful yet spiritual adventure. No ceremonial high points and no high fives or WOW’S! I’m hoping for a low key visit with a slow easy gait, and a smile on my face when I return home.
To be continued…
A Trip to Africa (series archive)
Intro – I’m going to Africa
Day 1 – Arriving in Uganda
Day 2 – Dancing, Mango Trees & the Dry Mill
Day 3 – On the Road
Day 4 – Transparency, Trust & Relationships
Day 5 – Coffee Quality & A New Mystery
by Paul Katzeff, CEO & Co-Founder
I have been drinking coffee since I was 17 years old. I will be 76 in February. That’s been 59 years of coffee drinking. I have averaged approximately 2.5 cups per day for 21,535 days. That comes to 53,837 eight ounce cups of coffee (plus or minus), in my lifetime so far. This is about 61 fifty-gallon drums of coffee. Considering ten minutes per cup on average, I have spent 373 full 24 hour days behind a cup of coffee. Granted, I was not just sipping coffee during those moments, I was taking a time out for, I am convinced, a health break.
I’m currently in Phoenix, Arizona playing in the “Over 75” Senior Baseball World Series. I am a catcher, playing the best baseball of my life at 75, and I owe it all to 3,364 gallons of coffee. I’ll let you know how I did when I get back in November. Until then, as my mother never said, “Don’t forget to drink your coffee.”
Learn more about the benefit coffee can have on your workout – “How Coffee Can Galvanize Your Workout” – NY TIMES
PHOTO: Paul Katzeff, batting strong in the 2012 over 70 senior baseball world series.
by Paul Katzeff | CEO, Thanksgiving Coffee
“Rust” is a word with an ominous sound. It ruins older cars, renders tools useless, and is a major reason for the use of paint to preserve everything made from iron. In Central America there are two kinds of rust. The kind that corrodes iron and the kind that kills coffee trees. The latter rust, called “La Roya” is a Fungus that is pernicious. It lives on the leaves, sucking the life out of them. They fall off and do not return. Coffee cherries never ripen, and the tree eventually dies. This is not a good thing for a coffee farmer whose survival depends on coffee.
La Roya is worse than a 60 cent per pound market price, which is a monumental crisis, but there is always another season, and hope for higher prices for the farmer. La Roya is no crop, then three to five years of rehabilitation of the coffee farm. In other words, it is the end of family life on the farm. It is the end of a way of life, of culture, of living on the land. It means hunger, it means migration to the cities, it means over crowding and the deterioration of family life as country people are forced to work in urban factories making clothing for two dollars a day.
La Roya is here and unless a major battle is waged to beat it back, Central American coffee will be a thing of the past, and coffee prices will rise as the supply of quality coffee is diminished. This is not Chicken Little talking here. This is absolutely a disaster about to happen – this year.
This February, I was in the Nuevo Segovia Region of Nicaragua on a coffee buying trip. I visited the farm of a member of the PRODECOOP Cooperative. Alexa and her two teenage sons live two kilometers from the Honduras boarder. Many of their coffee trees are affected by La Roya, and are starting to lose their leaves. They got a crop this year, but next year they expect to get 50% less. I have no idea how they will be able to continue making a living. They produced 10 sacks (1500 lbs) this year, for which we paid $ 2.75 per pound. That was double the world price and the highest we could afford to pay.
Alexa’s coffee is fabulous and we want her coffee farm to thrive. We want her to be able to refresh her trees and beat the Rust. Next year, she will need to get $ 5.50/lb. to survive on her farm. Will you support our effort by paying $2.75 more per pound for her coffee next year? Would you pay more than $15.00 for a bag of her coffee?
Well, first you have to taste it. We will present her coffee to our public in July when it arrives. It is going to cost her about $8,000 to rehabilitate her farm. We are going to try to raise that money between now and December.
That’s the way Direct Trade works – we are all in this coffee thing together.
Paul Katzeff, CEO
Thanksgiving Coffee Company
– By Paul Katzeff, Co-Founder of Thanksgiving Coffee
The year was 1994, the place was Washington DC, the event was the first Coffee Sustainability Conference; the host was The Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center. The issue that brought 150 environmental activists and coffee business owners together was the fact that the new practice of growing coffee in the sun, which was begun in the early 70’s, had been discovered to be the cause of the disappearance of 60% of North America’s migratory songbirds. When you cut down forests to expose the land to sun, you remove the homes and habitat of birds that spend their winters in the southern hemisphere, vacationing in the warm climate, in wait for the Northern Spring to begin their migration back home.
I had come to D.C. “armed” with a Keynote Address that was more of a challenge then a speech. It was titled “Beyond Organic.” I had been frustrated with the way the industry was developing and promoting organic coffee. We at TCC had been importing and selling Certified Organic coffee since 1990 but demand was slow to develop because “organic” was a health issue in America, and who wants to think about health issues when you begin your day with a cup of Joe. I saw “organic “ as a much bigger issue and so did the people at the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center (SMBC). They saw sun grown coffee as the way toward an environmental disaster being created by the removal of habitat needed for birds, monkeys and all sorts of forest canopy dwellers. The Conference was called to expose this problem and to stop the practice of cutting down forests to grow coffee in the sun.
Why coffee, a shade-loving evergreen tree, which was shade grown for 500 years was now being grown in the sun is a conspiracy story that involves The World Bank, national governments, chemical companies, the oil industry, international timber companies, the greed of Plantation owners and the hope of getting out of poverty by small scale coffee farmers. It is an interesting story about the early use of oil based chemical fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides on coffee farms, and the US furniture and housing industry’s need for the hardwoods coming out of the virgin forests of Central and South America. (A story for another time).
IMAGE: Coffee Buyers Value Chart – 1994
This Sustainable Coffee Conference became a turning point for the industry. I introduced a TCC brochure that included our “Coffee Buyers Value Chart” which created a point system for buying and identifying sustainable coffee.
I challenged the attendees to think about Sustainability as more then “organic” and this set in motion the next evolution in coffee cultivation, and subsequently, the marketing of “shade grown” coffee as an essential to saving migratory songbirds.
Attending the conference was the Executive Director of The American Birding Association who, like me, was an Alumnus of Cornell University School of Agriculture. He approached me with the idea of creating a shade grown coffee package to both educate bird lovers about buying only shade grown coffee (yet to be found on the shelves), and also, to raise funds for his organization, The American Birding Association. After a handshake and three months of graphic design by Chris Blum, Songbird Coffee was launched.
In the fall of 1994 the world of coffee changed with the Songbird Coffee introduction. Coffee became a focus for America’s 73 million backyard bird lovers, the 1,000 Bird Business’ like Wild Birds Unlimited, and the 2 billion dollar bird food industry. Thanksgiving Coffee Company had used birds and shade to move organic coffee away from a health discussion and into an environmental discussion with Habitat preservation as the mission for buyers of shade grown coffee.
We have been selling Songbird Coffees for 19 years. By 2010 Songbird sales had raised $142,000 for ABA’s Birders Exchange, which purchases and donates scientific equipment to ornithologists in poor countries so they can study and preserve bird habitat in their countries to the south.
After 20 years, it is time to reintroduce Songbird Coffees to this generation of bird lovers. Lets make our 40th year the year we put bird friendly coffee and the forest canopy it comes from into the climate change discussion.
It was our third day on the road and we were feeling good. The simple diet of rice, beans, eggs, chicken and beef, plus mangoes and papayas was beginning to provide native energy. We were not in conflict with the food we were eating, we were in harmony with it. And we all had lots of sleep last night. So after breakfast we took a stroll in the central square where these photos were taken. Just a slice of life in a dreamy coffee town in the most important coffee growing region in Nicaragua and the home of SOPPEXCCA, a small scale producer cooperative we have been purchasing coffee from for over a decade. Flor de Jinotega: sweet, caramelly with cashew notes in the finish – just great stuff. A really progressive cooperative also. Here are six photos that will tell you what you need to know about Jinotega (if you examine them closely)…
A garbage can on a street corner. Could be Manhattan or your home town, lots of plastic… because it is the can for recycling plastic! They are soooo hip. Look at how attractive, festive, these cans look. Makes you want to throw away things just to see if music comes out .
This fruit stand was selling mangoes that tasted like sorbet (mango sorbet) for five cents each. The cart was “hecho a mano” (handmade) the tire is illegal and there is no running water or ice, but the health department is not shutting down the economy today. It is known that about 80% of the world’s commerce is “unofficial” and unreported. It is a problem worth many more words as the implications of not being able to get credit go way beyond mortgages and car loans.
This church was and is magnificent. I’m not Catholic, but it felt Holy in there just the same.
And the revolution shall not be forgotten. A monument is on the rise and it will overlook the town square for the next 100 years.
You can tell, the mood was up. Left to right Ben, Jenais, Nick, and Jody. And that’s how we started our day.
When our party of seven arrived at the restaurant in Matagalpa for lunch on our first day in Nicaragua two weeks ago, there was Ernesto, sitting under a tree, waiting for us. He was about 30 pounds heavier then the young man I had last seen nine years ago. He is married now to his college sweetheart; they have a 10 month old baby girl, Katlynn. Ernesto traveled with us for two days, ending up on Wednesday night in Jinotega where the group was bedding down. Our hotel was just one block from where his wife was living with her parents and the baby. His job in Chinandega allowed him to see them only once every 15 days, being a three hour bus ride away and earning a salary too meagre for them to live together. Holy cow! What a painful way to be in love. But as fate would have it, I was looking for a Nicaraguan Blogger to send us reports on life in Nicaragua as seen from a Nicaraguan’s perspective. Ernesto and I struck up a deal that enabled his wife and baby to move to Chinandega to live together for the first time under the same roof. At breakfast the following morning, we all met his wife and baby. So beautiful! When I asked him what he was going to do with the rest of his day, he said, “We are packing. The bus leaves in two hours, and we will be on it together.”
So here is Ernesto’s first Blog entry. We can expect many more.
– Paul Katzeff
Hello everybody, my name is Ernesto Somarriba, I’m 34 years old, I’m Nicaraguan and of course I do live here in Nicaragua in a place named Chinandega.
Now I want to tell you my experience with the cupping labs for small coffee farmer. In 1998, I was in my third year of agriculture engineering at UNA (Universidad Nacional Agraria) in Managua. I was young at that moment without experience, at the same time I was working for a lodging house in Managua, because I have to eat and to have a place to sleep during the time I was studying engineering. This house was visited by pleople from The United States and Canada, and of course they spoke English, so I decided to learn English, I said, if I have some problems with the language, I can ask the visitors for help. I was studying English very hard, I spent about 3 or 4 hours a day.
In 2000, I received a phone call from UNAG (Union Nacinal de Agricultores y Ganaderos). The caller was Byron Corrales. He said, “there is a delegation from the United States coming this evening and we need a translator for tomorrow.” I told him that I never did that job before, but he said, “Do you want to come or not? ” I said, “Yes, I will do it, give me the address of the hotel that I have to be at and the hour.”
The next morning I went to the hotel, and then arrived Byron Corrales. I met him personally and he said, “there is one person that needs someone to help with the translation. He is a coffee buyer, his name is Paul Katzeff, and you have to do the best you can.” And I guess I did, well I think so, because they looked for me again the next time Paul came to Nicaragua, but this time I was with Paul, Byron, and the technicians. We went to Palacaguina,Yali, Jinotega, Esteli, Matagalpa, and Arajuez, where they were planning the best way to build the cupping labs. I was translating for them. They got agreement from the coffee farmers and cooperative leaders about the best construction styles for the cupping labs, and they started building them. While they were building (2000-2001) I finished my engineering degree, I got off of the project and I stated working in other things.
Nine years later I got an invitation from Paul Katzeff, to go back to see the cupping labs, and now you can see that it is a job well done. These labs work very well and the farmers take advantage of it. They are able to assess how good their coffee is, and because of that, they can improve the quality and get better prices. This means that they have better life conditions for their families because the cupping labs are useful. Now I feel proud of it because I helped in some way.
For some reason in this moment I’m working as an English teacher in a high school here in Chinandega, I have been doing this for 5 years, but in the future I have a good story to tell to my grandchildren.
More next week….