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.
I want to thank you all for finding us here at Speckled Ax, but I especially want to thank our Matt’s customers who are visiting the new site for the first time. This first blog entry is for you, in particular. I’d like to explain what’s going on with our brand.
When I started roasting in 2007, I chose Matt’s Wood Roasted Organic Coffee for a name because I thought “Matt’s Coffee” would be easy to remember and type into a search engine. Ego probably had something to do with it, too—literally sticking my name on every package that goes out the door? Really?—but mostly it was the simplicity of it. There were a bunch of cooler sounding names that I had considered, but ultimately the five letters won out. And there were a handful of other “guy’s first name” coffee companies out there too, so I figured I was just joining the lineup.
Jump to 2012—I was in the process of opening a retail coffee shop. The specialty coffee landscape had changed a bit, and I was thinking that Matt’s sounded a little hokey and simple, given the kinds of stuff I planned on doing in the shop itself: one of the only full siphon bars in the northeast, multiple espresso options pulled on a Slayer espresso machine, pour over coffee for the majority of our brewed stuff. We were also going to be brewing primarily single origin coffees in the shop, for the most part, and single origin was something that I had gotten away from in the Matt’s lineup. When I started out I had no blends or dark roast, but gradually started adding them, as that was what folks seemed to want. Lightly roasted single origin coffees from difficult to pronounce places were a tough sell when sitting on the shelf next to “french roast,” or approachable (and strong sounding) names like “jet” and “double dark.” Before I knew it, blends made up the majority of what we sold.
Don’t get me wrong, though. I think our blends are delicious. And they are made up of coffees that stand on their own as single origin coffees. I’ve never bought what is known in the business as “blenders”: relatively boring (and sometimes flawed) bargain coffees that mostly just fill space in a bag. Whenever I purchase a coffee, it’s because I think it’s really good, and exhibits attributes that will contribute to the blend it’s going into. And it’s the primary reason our blends are, in my opinion, better than a lot of what you find out there. (I’ve had multiple importers react in a startled way upon finding out that the pricey washed Ethiopia I just purchased from them was going into, say, our “breakfast blend.” “You’re doing what with that coffee?” Etc.)
Still, the opening of the shop provided the opportunity for a bit of a reset of sorts, so I wanted to go with a new name. I ended up with Speckled Ax. I liked that there was an object tie-in to our unique wood roasting process, and I liked the somewhat ambiguous, or ambivalent, anecdote from which the name comes. (It’s in The Autobiography of Ben Franklin. I’m sure I’ll write about it in this blog sooner than later.)
The longer term plan was to keep Matt’s Coffee in place as an organic blend lineup, and start marketing Speckled Ax as an alternative single origin-focused brand, but after a while it became apparent that it was unwieldy to explain, confusing for customers, and really just kind of stupid. The natural tendency for many folks who come into the shop is to think of the Speckled Ax coffees—the ones we are serving—as the “better” or “premium” ones, and the Matt’s line-up that we also sell on our shelf as somehow inferior, but this really isn’t the case. We often serve a coffee on the bar that is a component of one of the blends, and most of the coffees we sell under the Matt’s name cost just as much, or more, than the smaller estate, conventionally grown options we sell in Speckled Ax bags.
To add insult to our self-inflicted injury, a lot of people don’t realize that we are the same business, or that the coffee comes out of the same roaster. They come in and see Matt’s bags on the shelf and say something like “hey,cool, you sell Matt’s!” And I smile at them from behind the counter and say something like “yah, we do.”
So, I’m hoping that the new name will stop the confusion and simply work better across the board. I think that, ultimately, it represents the coffee better. Not just because there is an ax in the name, but because, truthfully, it’s not “my” coffee. For starters, it’s no longer just me in a warehouse roasting, bagging, and delivering the coffee, like it was for the first seven or so years that the business existed. Dan is now doing most of the roasting and delivering, and Megan and Tessa are doing most of the bagging. But even more importantly, the truth is that the coffee is grown and picked and processed by individuals all around the world. They are the ones doing the heavy lifting. It’s their coffee, really. We are just a conduit. And I’m not just bullshitting. It’s the central fact of the coffee industry, and one that I wrestle with every day. How can we get more money into the hands of the people who grow and pick this delicious coffee, while at the same time running a business that functions well enough here in the US, with its very different cost of living and doing business, to pay employees fairly, pay myself something, and keep prices fair for our customers? I’m hoping this new website, and the consolidated brand, will help me to continue getting closer to all these necessary goals.
A note about new pricing and packaging:
–Anyone visiting this site after having been a customer at mattscoffee.com will see that our prices have increased, and relatively substantially, though I believe they are still a good value when compared to comparable coffees you might find out there. I won’t go into too much detail here, in what has become a very long blog entry, but the bottom line is that the coffee I purchase is expensive, and I hadn’t really kept up with pricing on the old website to reflect costs. I’ll talk more about coffee prices very soon, but for now, I hope that you will still find that our coffee is worth what we are charging for it. It’s the best we can do, and still remain in business. Seriously.
–For the next few months, orders placed online will receive two different bags. The blends will come in the familiar Matt’s bags, and the single origins will come with a Speckled Ax label. We have new biodegradable bags on order that we are excited about, and once they arrive, everything will be packed in a Speckled Ax bag. But until then, we’re still doing the dual brand thing. We hope it won’t be too confusing.
Again, thank you very, very much for your business. I appreciate it, and hope to keep it.