Coffee is about pleasure. It’s that moment when your hand is warmed by the mug, you bring it up to your nose, inhale deeply and then take a sip.
That sip is the culmination of years of work, three-thousand mile journeys, and passion. Here is how we make that sip perfect.
While you are holding that cup of coffee, close your eyes. Open your mouth slightly. Breathe in deeply through your nose.
You are smelling the most complex thing humans consume. When people talk about the flavors of coffee — notes of orange, or hints of clove — it’s because those organic molecules are contained in the coffee bean. If a coffee reminds you of apple pie, it's because coffee shares some of the same components as food, like lactic and malic acid.
Inside that small bean are the same natural components that make flowers smell so lovely, the same ethers that let you know when a piece of fruit is ripe. Coffee has twice as much going on, molecularly speaking, as red wine.
When tasting coffee, try waiting for it to cool down a little — you’ll be able to taste (and smell) the most when it’s the same temperature as your body.
Flavor only matters in the context of you. What do you like? What does this scent remind you of? Are you looking for a full-bodied cowboy coffee, or a delicate, tea-like finish? Chocolate aromas, or hints of jasmine?
Don’t worry if you can’t describe it precisely, or have a different perception than someone else. Even when you can’t put it into words, you’ll know what you like.
You experience the full flavors of the coffee bean if and only if nothing has gone wrong during…
There is one right way to roast coffee.
Someone stands by that roaster, all day, a person who knows exactly how to bring the best out of every bean — that ideal ratio of sweetness to acidity, that balance — because he or she has been doing this for years.
Again and again, they repeat the same motion: pull a tiny sample of the beans. Stare at them, looking for the tiny signs of perfection. Smell them deeply. Put them back. Pull out some more beans. Stare. Smell. Five seconds later, repeat the process in a meditation that last hours. Do that hundreds of times a day. Do that every day for years.
Know every bean on a personal level. Adjust times and temperatures throughout the day, knowing that 15 seconds could make the difference between letting this bean shine and overwhelming it. Know that in the morning, the roaster is cold. Know that in the evening it’s hot, and you should probably shave 45 seconds off that roast.
Roast just enough to bring out the best and full potential of what’s inherent in each particular coffee already. Roast to draw out things like acidity, floral notes, chocolate, molasses, and earth. All of the coffee’s flavor potentials are presented at the first crack – an audible signal that happens at a particular point when roasting coffee. After that, roast just enough to add the right amount of body and sweetness, without degradation.
Roasting different coffees as though they’re the same? Not going to work. Roasting for color, not taste? Never this.
Please don’t burn those beans. They’ve been through so much. They’ve come all the way across the world.
The best coffee grows in the most remote places. There is a thin band that goes around the world near the equator. Within that band, you need mountains, thick old-growth forest and just the right microclimate. Set aside up to four days to get there.
On your way there, you’ll pass through Houston’s George Bush Intercontinental Airport, or you’ll stand in the endless security line at New York’s JFK en route to distant parts of Ethiopia, Colombia, Indonesia and 10 other countries around the world.
You’ll also experience 8 vaccines (the malaria pills—which can cause hallucinations and nightmares—are the worst), a passport that fills up with handwritten visas, bumpy eight-hour van rides, granola bars and in at least one case, eating the heart of a bull that has been slaughtered in your honor.
The Green Team members, named for the color of coffee beans before they are roasted, don’t do it the easy way, which would be buying bulk, mid-quality beans at a trading floor in a capital city. Instead, they go right to the source of the best coffee — that farm or washing station high atop a distant Ethiopian hill. It ends when they arrive at that distant farm, washing station, factory or mill. They sit down in a home or around a campfire to talk about this year’s crop with a producer they have met many times. They get to work.
In Colombia, if you go to four farms you will get four bowls of sancocho, which is this soup with chicken, yucca, plantains, potatoes, corn, avocado. Basically, it’s as many calories as you can cram in a bowl.”
The Green Team visits every producer as often as possible, sometimes up to three times per year. They constantly roast and taste the coffee, and they form long-term, lasting partnerships with the producers. They’ll help them implement a new farming technique that could lead to even better coffee. Or they’ll teach a seminar on a new way to process coffee cherry, which is the fruit of the coffee tree surrounding the seed or bean.
They routinely pay producers up to four times what they could get for their crop on the commodity market, but in return, they ask for a lot more work—hand picking each cherry at ideal ripeness, or implementing a new piece of equipment.
The Green Team also identifies potential future producers—maybe this side of the mountain has just the right climate, but the quality level isn’t there yet. Stumptown will invest in that farm, or mill, or factory if that producer is willing put forth effort to get the beans to the level the Green Team looks for. It’s a partnership, and there is prestige and pride involved. For a producer, selling to Stumptown means something.
Above all, they want to help farms become sustainable and to set up strong businesses that build up their communities and produce the highest-quality coffee possible year after year.
Our partners are much more than farmers, they are coffee production experts, constantly innovating practices in planting, harvesting and processing the best coffees around.”
What does Direct Trade mean to Stumptown?
We don’t buy in bulk on a trading floor. We buy directly from the people who are making the coffee. It’s not a transaction; it’s a partnership. If someone is growing the quality of coffee we’re interested in, then we will help them in any way we can. That means regular visits (even though that trip can take up to four days), implementing new techniques and equipment, and forming long-term partnerships.
We shoot for sustainability, and not just in the environmental sense. A sustainable coffee producer is someone who is paid fairly for their incredible work and who can in turn encourage others to follow in their footsteps. A sustainable producer innovates, develops and improves cultivation and in turn can fetch even higher prices from Stumptown. The more each side of the partnership puts in, the better the coffee gets.
Producers & Processing
We don’t call them farmers, we call them producers, which gives credit to the fact that they are production experts. They are the ones who make this coffee great. They are the ones who are like-minded, who will go the extra mile for quality, whatever that means.
Producers are the heart of what makes great coffee.
Their skills, expertise and craftsmanship is the difference between mediocre coffee and coffee that is like nothing you’ve ever tasted before. The coffee will never get any better in quality once it lands in our hands, after all. We rely on the producers for that pristine bean. A good roaster works tirelessly to preserve that coffee’s inherent greatness.
The producers grow the coffee trees. They pick the cherry when it is perfectly ripe. They remove the outer fruit, leaving just the bean covered in a thin parchment. They rest the beans, let the beans develop into their full selves.
Everyone on this page does something slightly different — he may tend a small patch of coffee trees on the farm he inherited from his grandmother; she may oversee the cherry soaking in a big tank of water, fermenting at just the right rate.
They live on four continents. They speak at least 30 different languages. Some use traditional methods that are centuries old; some have taken out four-year loans to get that new top-of-the-line piece of equipment that will lead to a greater, cleaner cup.
It’s not the easy way. It’s not the fast way. It’s the right way, and it creates the best coffee possible.
Coffee is a tree, and you probably prefer one branch to another, even if you don't know it yet.
There isn’t one kind of coffee, there’s a coffee family tree. For hundreds of years, humans have been cultivating, hybridizing and perfecting it, and today there are hundreds of types, or varieties.
The variety of coffee tree matters—or at least, it usually does. Just as different types of grapes yield different wines, the variety of th e bean can have a profound impact on the finished cup.
There are hundreds of varieties, and we’ve chosen roughly a dozen that we find truly special. But here are the first ones you should know.
So sweet, so complex and so delicate, this is the pinot noir of coffee. The plants are fragile and don’t produce as much cherry as some other varieties, but they’re worth the effort. A cup of Bourbon-type variety is lush and classic. It’s the coffee of coffee. It charms the snob and the rookie alike. And no, it has nothing to do with the delicious brown adult beverage, though we at Stumptown are big fans of that kind of bourbon, too.
This is an offshoot of the Typica family, which is delicate, floral, at times even citrusy. This variety was brought to Indonesia in the late 1600s by Dutch traders. We love it for its nuances and high, fine acidity. Villalobos in particular brings strong flavors of stone fruits like apricots, peaches and plums.
The beauty of these is in their mystery. They are the wildflower varieties, descended from the natural coffee forests of southwestern Ethiopia. Each village has its own variety, handed down over centuries and shaped by the soil, elevation and weather.
Think of Gesha as coffee from an alternate dimension. It's like a Szechuan peppercorn, or the Sun Ra Arkestra, complex and otherworldly. It’s as far as it could be from diner coffee, a delicate, black-tea body, with a zest of bergamot. Gesha is picky—it will only grow when, where and how it wants, in tiny microclimates. But whether you grow it in Indonesia or the Americas, it is always thoroughly itself.
Related: Nothing. It’s in its own orbit.
Which, finally, brings us to the very beginnings of coffee…
Ten thousand years ago, the Coffea trees grew wild and tangly on the mountain slopes of southwestern Ethiopia.
There, you can still find people performing traditional coffee ceremonies many times a day—one woman will prepare it for the circle of her friends and family who stand around her. She roasts it in a pan, grinds it, pours hot water over it, serves it in the predetermined social order.
The Dutch traders, enamored of this tradition, brought cuttings of the plants to Indonesia. French missionaries, who also saw the beauty in this hot, euphoric brew, spread it throughout Africa and across the sea to the Americas.
Today, coffee trees are cultivated in every hemisphere on four continents. In 70 countries, you will find those shrubs and their cherry. You’ll also find the farmers who tend them, the pickers who select them, the processors who obsessively convert fruit to bean. You’ll find the roasters who delicately transform them, and you’ll find the coffee drinkers.
You’ll find the earliest riser in the backpacking crew that stokes the fire and sets the water on to boil. You’ll find the barista who pulls the first shot of the morning for the go-getter. You’ll find the group of 70-year-old men in the diner at 6 a.m., spending hours discussing the issues of the day over their bottomless cups.
Drinking coffee is a pleasure. Coffee drinking is fun, and it feels good, and every once in awhile I remember that we’re actually cultivating pleasure. Why do you put anything in your mouth? Because it’s delicious.”
Everything that came before—the shrubs, the farmer, the journey across the sea, the hybrids and the mutations—is for this moment. Because the only thing required for the smallest, quietest and most personal of coffee ceremonies are some good beans and a way to brew.
You’ll hold that mug possessively. You’ll inhale deeply. And then you drink.