Magic Bean Stocks
1330 E. Superior St., Duluth
What makes a bad cup of coffee? About a million things. A single bad bean, fermented or attacked by insects back when it was grown, can poison a cup with sour or off flavors. Rocks, sticks, or even monkey teeth can get ground into carelessly sorted coffee, resulting in a cup that tastes, presumably, rocky, sticky, or toothy. Alternately, a bad cup of coffee can exude the noxious odors of slave wages, child labor, and destruction of far-off farmlands owing to low commodity prices from a worldwide coffee glut. Mmm. Top o' the morning to ya!
What makes a good cup of coffee? About a million things: Freshness, for starters. Roasted coffee is very volatile and will start to lose flavor in as little as a week. And then there's careful roasting, meant to bring out the character of the individual bean, and not cynical roasting, meant to get the most weight or biggest volume per bean. Purity, which in this case means paying more per pound so that the bean cleaners back in Java, Zimbabwe, Colombia, or wherever spend more time picking the inevitable bad beans out of every batch. And, perhaps above all right now, price: Commodity prices are so low right now that many coffee growers can't afford to keep their operations going, causing farms to close, creating poverty, encouraging drug growers, and generally making for extremely bad cups of coffee.
That's why Nessim Bohbot devotes himself to paying as much as he reasonably can for coffee beans. "When coffee prices collapsed, we all suffered," Bohbot explained to me one afternoon as I toured the Alakef roastery up in Duluth, which the Moroccan-born Bohbot co-owns with his wife Deborah Bohbot. "If the grower can't support his farm, then he's not raising good coffee. He'll drop whatever he's doing, in terms of irrigation, weeding, pruning, and maintaining a staff, so now the farm is in poverty, lives all around him are ruined. And then, whatever coffee comes out of the untended farm, well, it tastes just terrible."
To combat this terrible trend and terrible taste, the Bohbots labor mightily to import "fair trade" and "relationship" coffee, terms that basically refer to systems of distribution that ensure that the farmers who grow the coffee are paid a fair price, and in turn run an ecologically and morally reasonable operation. (Much as organic farms in this country are certified by a third party that visits and tests the soil to make sure that the foods are being grown organically, third-party fair-trade organizations supervise relationships between the far-flung growers who labor in the less developed tropical nations where coffee thrives, and European and North American coffee importers and roasters.)
About 40 percent of Alakef coffees are fair-trade or relationship coffees, says Bohbot. "Our goal is to have a full relationship with specialty growers, to move totally away from the commodity market and support these niche farmers," he explains. "People don't realize how much work is involved in every pound of coffee: Each bean is handpicked, hand-sorted; each coffee tree is picked five times in a season, because the coffee ripens at different rates. Coffee is sorted on a conveyor belt, with people picking out the flawed and bad beans and throwing them on the floor. For a higher price, they slow down the conveyor belt--I've seen them do it. At the end of the day, they sweep the floor for bad beans and twigs, gather it up and sell it."
Ever wonder why some coffee is really so very bad? Now you know: It's the floor sweepings from your good coffee, run through an industrial grinder. I got a gander at a coffee professional's tasting wheel while I was at Alakef, and I was alarmed to see that it contained categories for horsey, hidey, wet cardboard, caustic, sauerkrauty, and ashy. Mmm, that's bad coffee.
Meanwhile, if you're running a coffee shop, you can't afford to serve bad coffee. You pay a specialty roaster like Alakef to ensure that your coffee not only tastes great, but allows you to, um, sleep better at night. (Insert decaf joke here.) Alakef has a Twin Cities following for just that reason. At first I found it hard to believe, but dozens of the metropolitan area's most prestigious independent coffee shops get their coffee through Duluth, including Pandora's Cup, European Grind, some Ginkgo Coffee Houses, Nokomis Cup, Swede Hollow, and lots more.
St. Paul's Prairie Star serves only Alakef. "Being a coffee-shop person myself, I realized that the coffee shops I went to the most were the places that served Alakef," says Prairie Star owner Kristina Gronquist, who also serves only organic and fair-trade coffee. "It's not just excellent coffee. You call and place an order and they roast it for you that day and you get it the next day, which is amazing. But it's a political statement, and a health statement. A health statement because the coffee isn't coated with herbicides and pesticides, so you're not drinking a hot cup of who-knows-what. But just as important is the political aspect: You know you're not paying a grower who's basing his business on child labor. I hope that's important to people. To me, we've got a situation where Americans are hated in the Third World, and you've got to ask yourself, 'Well, why are we hated?' One small thing you can do is ask, 'What is the effect of the products you're buying on people who live thousands of miles away?' You do what you can in your lifestyle to make a difference."
At north Minneapolis's Steamworks, Aaron Hardley, who owns the coffee shop with his wife Barbara, says that he feels that it's important to do whatever he can to make sure that other families don't suffer to ensure his family's success. "As an independent coffee bar, we are all about relationships," he opines. "In our relationship with our own customers, we have to be able to say, 'This is the finest coffee available,' be assured that the coffee is the best available and that the people who produce it are being treated fairly."
One part of customer service, says Hardley, is making sure his customers and staff aren't inadvertently implicated in ethical troubles. "Here is the earth reflected in this bean from Colombia, all the beauty of the earth, the sunshine and the water, the love and labor of someone far away, they are all in this bean and in this cup of coffee. We think about that idea a great deal, about trust and customer service and relationships." In coffee, as in all things.
Ever notice how the nicest people often have the best products? I've noticed that. I especially noticed it while tasting all this thoughtful, ethical coffee. I did a cupping in Duluth, and while I can't honestly say my coffee palate is acute enough to tell the difference between great coffee and staggeringly great coffee, it all tasted pretty swell to me. A cupping, in case you've never done it, is when 12 grams of coffee are placed in a cup, covered with the right temperature water, and allowed to steep for the right number of minutes as determined by the professionals around you, at which point you pierce the crust of grounds that float atop the cup with a spoon, and smell the aromas that are released. Then the crust is removed, and you use your spoon to bring enough coffee to your mouth to slurp noisily, spraying a coffee mist about the inside of your mouth and, if you are particularly slurp-skilled, all the way into your lower nasal passages.
Me, I was able to discern enough to note that the Alakef Mexican coffee we tried was floral, bright, and clean; the Colombian chocolatey and round; the Kenya AA winey, fruit, and brightly acidic; while the Zimbabwe was dark and malty. But when the coffee professionals in the room--like Chris von Zastrow, who was born on a coffee plantation and owns a personal hand-forged coffee spitoon--start bandying about opinions about the blueberry, buttery, or peppery notes of the coffees, I just start smiling and trying to get out of the way.
While I was up at Alakef, I also couldn't help notice that their cupping room was well stocked with little Melitta plastic cones to hold individual filters for individual cups of coffee. Why? For camping, of course. Enter the Boundary Waters, which simply had to factor into this story: How did the Bohbots, who met on a kibbutz in Israel, become coffee roasters in Duluth? They vacationed in the Boundary Waters: "For me, coming from Europe, it was unbelievable," says Nessim Bohbot. "In Europe you go to a forest, there are crowds of people right at your elbow. Here you can be alone, really alone, which is unbelievable. People take it for granted, but it is an amazing experience." Moreover, says Bohbot, the water you get from a Boundary Waters lake is the best in the world. Seeing as coffee is mostly water, filter it, boil it, and you're sitting pretty.
Which is to say there's good coffee, and there's bad coffee, and then there's fresh-roasted fair-trade coffee in an oxygenated filter steeped for three minutes and made with pure northern-Minnesota lake water. Which the Bohbots think is the best coffee in the world.
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