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Speckled Ax

Competitive Coffee

We’ve entered some competitions with our coffee recently. Not the national barista competitions—entry to those is pretty limited, and they are more like Olympic sports in the training and choreography involved—but competitions (of sorts) about how our coffee tastes, and we’ve done well.

I’m somewhat ambivalent about food contests. I mean, food is ultimately just something to consume. We eat and drink things because we either need them, enjoy them, or both. The reward should be the taste itself, right? Or a nice buzz. Or just a full belly and the energy to live and work another day. (I suppose that was the extent of food “competition” when human beings were first running around in animal skins, gathering berries and spearing fish and rodents. The “best” food was what was available at any given moment, and the prize for those involved was, uh, not dying.)

On the one hand, there’s a side to the “competitive food” phenomenon that is kind of stupid, whether we’re talking about chicken wing eating contests or Iron Chef-type cooking shows. The former is repulsive and gluttonous, and the latter is goofy reality show artifice. (“Your ingredients are opossum tripe, baby bok choy and Skittles. You have 30 minutes. Begin!”) You might even say these events and programs signify a warped contemporary relationship to food: the decadent point of arrival in a journey from desperate uncertainty to comfortable abundance. The absurdity is compounded by the fact that only a relatively small percentage of our country’s population is afforded such a level of food security, in which calories can be wasted or played with. And yes, I say this as a person who spends all of his waking work time trying to find coffee that tastes like tomatoes or cardamom, and who serves a latte in his coffee shop made with milk steeped in Fruity Pebbles cereal.

On the other hand, even in the olden days, before the rise of magazines with semi-obnoxious articles about the “10 coolest retro pho bars of 2016,” farmers were awarded ribbons at the state fair for their lima beans and broiler chickens, and I’d never in a million years think of questioning the worth of these sorts of contests. Would you? They’re cool. And they follow a certain barnyard rationality: “The udders on your Holstein are perfect! You win!” But beyond the logic of animal husbandry, why shouldn’t people take pride in the things that they cook or grow, and be entitled to an objective “attaboy” for a food job well done? If we are happy to give a trophy to the kid who hits the most home runs, we should certainly give one to the kid who grows the prettiest zucchini, or bakes the tastiest apple pie.

These modern coffee contests are more 4H fair than “Man versus Food” television show, and I certainly take pleasure in whatever praise we garner for our coffee. Honestly, the best thing about having a coffee shop is the immediate positive feedback. It’s not just the fact that people are willing to give me money for the coffee, though that is certainly immediate, and certainly positive; it’s that people go out of the way to tell us that they really like our coffee. It’s sort of astounding, actually, and humbling. No kidding. I wish everyone could experience that kind of positivity at their job.

It’s also helpful to get feedback from other coffee professionals. It can be a little daunting to receive a 200 gram sample from a green coffee importer, roast and cup it, and then have to decide if I want to purchase five thousand dollars worth of it. So, when we win something it confirms, on some level, that we’re making good purchasing decisions and are roasting in a way that other coffee folks deem proper. It puts a guy’s mind at ease. I was particularly proud of our bronze medal for straight espresso at this year’s Golden Bean competition, because we entered Bird Dog, a coffee made entirely of certified organic coffees, in a category that was open to all comers. This is no mean feat. I won’t go into detail, but it’s quite a bit harder (and more expensive) to find certified organic coffees for our blends than it would be, were we just buying quality conventionally-grown stuff.

Last year we entered the Good Food Awards and made it to the finals. We didn’t win, but again, I was pleased, because most of the seven coffee finalists selected in the northeast region were ultra-expensive boutique lots that no one can afford to drink regularly, while ours was a coffee that, while certainly not inexpensive, was a coffee that we included in our blends. I can almost guarantee ours was the only coffee on the entire finalist list that was put to that sort of use. This year, in September, we entered another coffee in the GFA, and were again chosen as a finalist. (Winners will be announced in January.) And again, this stellar coffee is being used in a blend, along with being featured as a single origin selection.

Finally, I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that I’m a little competitive, and like to win stuff. Or at least confirm that I’m not losing, or a loser. I don’t play baseball anymore, so I suppose those feelings have to be displaced somewhere. A little pathetic, perhaps, but I want our coffee to be great! And there are far more useless venues to direct a competitive hankering. (For instance, I tried my hand in a $50 buy in Texas Hold’em tournament a few weekends ago at the bingo parlor near our roastery. I knew I was in over my head when the two guys across from me started talking about which casinos in Connecticut comp them for their stay. Note: When you make your straight on the river, but there are four clubs on the board and someone who gets free rooms at Foxwoods goes all in, don’t call.)

Anyhow, thanks for buying our coffee. I hope your holiday season is filled with good things to eat and drink, of course, as well as the more important stuff: quality time with friends and family, a renewed sense of place and purpose, caring for our neighbors near and far.

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