altura fresh talk

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Herkimer Coffee: Beyond the Myths and Stickers

by Caitlin Collins

Herkimer's coffee headquarters in the Phinney Ridge neighborhood boasts more than a cute cafe with excellent coffee; you might hear the steady roar of machinery from around the corner, and should you peek your head around, you'll see a window looking through to the roasting room.

One of the Roasters in the roasting room might be Scott Richardson, Co-Owner of Herkimer, who has been working with coffee for 20 years now-- since 1993. Scott is a prime example of why Herkimer coffee is not only a fine supplier of coffee, but also a great company overall: he has passion about what he does.

Known for hand-delivering their coffee orders around the neighborhood, Herkimer's roasters are amazing resources for anything coffee-related, and they are eager to share their knowledge. Scott took some time one morning to offer some information on coffee production as a whole, and to dispel some of the most common myths in the field, and he did all of it while roasting two beautiful batches of coffee beans.


"What you're doing in the roasting process is similar to your pastry chef making caramel or Nathan searing a steak to perfection," explains Scott as he checks the beans. "There is a certain point where it goes past [perfection]. The thing you are manipulating the most is sugar content.  Starting from very complex polysaccharides, pyrolysis converts sugar to a simpler state. The farther you go the more they convert and begin to bond.  Go too far and you remove the origin character that defines them, similar to the difference between a very simple butter caramel and a Kraft, mass-produced caramel.  If you start with great ingredients, you don’t want to ruin them with homogenization, you want to feature their strengths and uniqueness."

Matt (left), a roaster from Colorado, watches Scott roast the coffee.
Q: What does "Satin" mean in terms of coffee beans?  

A: Satin refers to the sheen that emerges on a bean late in the roast process. All coffees start with upwards of 1000 chemical compounds. During the roast process, the cellular structure of coffee starts to expand while compounds either convert or are released.  Larger cellular pathways are created for volatile gases to escape as they expand.  The more time and temperature you apply, the more the compounds change.  Moisture leaves first, followed by gases such as CO2 and Nitrogen, and finally lipids (oils).  Satin starts to show on the surface of the bean usually between the first and second exothermic phase (“crack”) of the process.  The farther you go, the more oil you will see.  It’s also known as 'sugar browning' but I like to use the term 'satin,' because it looks like satin paint or a satin finish on a piece of wood.  In a light roast a satin finish might barely begin to show, sometimes not if dropped earlier.  In dark roasts, a lot of the oil will be on the surface when dropped.   As it cools in the tray, some oil will be pulled back into the bean as the coffee contracts a small amount, then follow the remaining gases out to the surface later.  In lighter roasts it is much later, 8 days or so.  In dark roasts this happens within hours. So shelf life is partially determined by roast degree.   

Raw coffee beans


Q: Herkimer only buys coffee from farmers using traditional cultivation methods. What does that entail? 

A: Coffee wants to be at elevation and grows amongst other plants and trees that can provide some shade.  In other words, a natural indigenous ecosystem.  We work with producers situated high in the mountains, starting at 3000 feet above sea level.  The elevation can range up into the 9000 foot level in some regions.   

They tend to their trees as seasons and tree age dictate, use their cherry pulp and other composted flora for fertilizer, practice rain catchment and recycle water whenever possible.  These farms have limited production capabilities so their yield size varies, limiting the amount of trade partners they can work with.  

Q: Herkimer's interaction with producers? 

A: What's happening now with small roasters is we're trying to establish relationships with individual producers directly with sustainability in mind.  What that means is an ongoing relationship between roaster and producer year after year.  Our needs are within the producer’s means to meet.  We then create a benchmark price that is based on real world costs rather than Commodities Futures fluctuations and grow together.  The price can often be double or triple what the institutional brand pays but you get what you pay for in terms of quality, complexity and quality of life.  If a producer has a larger financial need looming for equipment, labor, etc we will assist by paying more for a season or two to help them meet their needs.  Each year we revisit needs from both sides prior to contracting.  This is usually done in the country of origin face to face.

Q: How would you describe Herkimer's coffee?

A: What I call us is a new world microroaster with an old-world aesthetic.  That means new world procurement through direct relationship buying but old world affinity when it comes to espresso.  I love the process of espresso, the organic chemistry combined with controlled physics yields my favorite coffee experience.  What we can do with smaller lots of unique and quality coffee today differs from the traditional Italian blends, roasts and methods to varying degree.  What we try to do is meld the two.  High complexity, juicy sweet acidity, loads of spice, all balanced within big viscosity.  What we’ve left out is the astringency or bitterness that many still associate with espresso extraction.  We also strive to provide high quality, unique origin coffees for all types of brew methods and the means to achieve great results with them, regardless of your favorite method.


Q: When it comes to selecting coffee, how important is it to have those sticker certifications, such as certified organic? 

A: Some certs are good and do good, others were created for marketing.  The problem that arises is how misinformation gets spread.  Some people will think if coffee doesn’t carry a certification then it’s unethically produced and sold and farmed with chemicals and pesticides.  This is simply not the case.

For the high end side of the specialty market our producers are impeccable farmers that tend to their crops needs through understanding their process.  The elevation which this coffee grows also gives it a natural advantage which often precludes the need for pesticides simply because of where the farm is situated.  Many exist at or above the predation line, meaning pests do not reside there.  The bugs like it lower and warmer where food is abundant. 
An interesting problem that I see often is a Certified Organic producer, whose farm lies just below a higher elevation producer, sometimes neglect the crop entirely, letting it grow without assistance or tending.  This becomes a breeding ground for both bugs and plant diseases.  Some of these regions have wind patterns that will blow the problems uphill to the high elevation producer forcing them into action.  In those cases the Certification is a real negative situation. 
Fair Trade is another example of needing to do some research to know the truth.  It was created with altruism in mind to protect laborers from being exploited at harvest time.  Lots of volume needs lots of hands to pick at harvest, especially at low elevation high yield farms.  Often farm owners were forced to hire groups of nomadic pickers that would undercut the wage the locals would get.  The nomads would then follow the harvest elsewhere and do the same in another region.  They took less for one job but did multiple jobs.  The locals got cut out of their opportunity.  This would take the money out of their economic situation and cause a cycle of problems.  Fair Trade was created to establish a minimum benchmark price that was guaranteed to keep the local labor involved and improve their livelihood.  It started well but needed funding to oversee.  Transfair and Equal Exchange became the governing bodies and are listed on the Stock Exchange.  Since these companies have shareholders they also have quotas for dividends.  Instances saw a producer unable to meet the estimated demand loss his sale altogether as the organization moved on to someone who could meet the demand.  Sustainability is not the goal here. 
Our producers are deeply rooted in their communities and have well established local labor for harvest.  Their yields are smaller and realistic and provide plenty for their local system.  

Nathan Reasoner and Scott Richardson of Herkimer Coffee
Q: Advice for coffee drinkers? 

A: Treat coffee like wine. The taste experience is in that same realm. Balance simply refers to the balance between acid and sugar in the coffee. When you're drinking a really young Piedmont Nebbiolo compared to something that's had  ten or twelve years in the bottle, volatile aromatics can come out and punch you in the face. Coffee can sometimes do the same thing.  If you have acid in too high concentration, the cup will start good when hot but sour as it cools.  This can be caused by the roaster (harvested too early, poor quality, underdeveloped roast) or by the brewer (grind too coarse, too little coffee, water too cool).  The same is true if sugar is too high except the results are often muddy, bitter or salty.  It may go back and forth between sweet and sour but balance will never return.  To achieve balance, get to know the coffee in question by asking your provider what parameters they suggest.  The ratio between coffee and water, the temperature of your water and the brew method being used will differ from region to region, roast to roast, etc.  Don’t be shy or absolute.  If you don’t like it try changing something and see what happens.

Visit the boys at the Herkimer headquarters in Phinney Ridge! 
7320 Greenwood Ave N. 
Seattle, WA 98103

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