As you read this, I am sitting inside Buzz, a coffee shop along the main drag cutting through Encinitas, California.
Two minutes ago I ordered something called “Best Drink Ever.” It’s described as “classic americano + signature creamy vanilla.” I’ve taken two sips, and it seems quite good.
But, really, it might be quite bad. I have no idea, because to my tongue and mouth, coffee is coffee. Starbucks, McDonald’s, Tea Leaf, Dunkin’ Donuts—it all pretty much tastes the same. Which, while hardly unique among humanoids, is surely sacrilege to today’s 285th Quaz Q&A.
James Hoffmann, after all, isn’t merely a guy who enjoys a nice cup o’ joe. Nope–he’s the winner of the 2007 World Barista Championship. He’s also the author of The World Atlas of Coffee, as well as the head of Square Mile Coffee Rosters and a prolific writer on all things coffee.
In short, if you aspire to know anything (and everything) about the magical drink, James is your guy.
James Hoffmann, perk up! You’re the new Quaz …
JEFF PEARLMAN: So James, there are countless times when I’ll be standing in line at some café, and the person in front of me takes 20 minutes to make his/her mind up on some genre of a coffee drink. And I always think the same thing: “It’s just a fucking drink. Who really gives a shit?” It seems like this sentiment would really rub you wrongly. Yes? No? And why?
JAMES HOFFMANN: It doesn’t rub me the wrong way, though it speaks to one of the tensions within coffee: a cup of coffee can be a delicious way to switch on the brain in the morning, and it can be one of the myriad ways in which you define yourself and express control in your life. Coffee has been pretty deeply embedded and intertwined with culture for a long time now, and so we’ve come to add meaning to certain drinks. If you drink espresso, then you probably consider yourself someone worth defining as an “espresso drinker”, and there’s a tone of stuff that comes with that – be it the implication of intensity, or the pace at which you live.
When it comes to function vs form, neither is wrong or bad but there’s often a little friction there. So, if you’re picky about what you want to drink, then I’m on your side. However, if you’re the kind of person who waits in line for the ATM, but wait until you’re actually at the machine before you go looking for your wallet and your bank card – then I hate you.
J.P.: You’re a coffee guy. Like, a coffee coffee coffee guy. So, being American and being surrounded by them, I must ask: What are your thoughts about Starbucks?
J.H.: My feelings about Starbucks somewhat mirror my feelings about the USA. I should explain … I love the US, it is one of my favorite countries on Earth, I love visiting and spending time there. There are so many amazing things, incredible people, opportunities and institutions. However, I can’t deny that I’m horrified by a lot in the US too. The healthcare system, industrialized food and the obesity epidemic tied to it, income inequality, gun violence, workers rights (things like a lack of real maternity leave blows my mind) – all of these things upset me and I hate them. So, I both love and hate the US. I feel the same about Starbucks. I love them for all the work they do recruiting new coffee drinkers (you just don’t see anyone under 21 in a specialty coffee shop). They buy, and have bought, coffee from farms in a responsible and sometimes life-changing way. They’ve changed the general public’s expectation of what a cup of coffee should cost. I know some incredible, talented and passionate people who work in Starbucks. All very, very good things. However, there’s lots to hate: the coffee is often terrible, they could pay staff better around the world, they could pay their taxes in the countries they operate in. The uniformity of a Starbucks just makes the world a little less interesting – I don’t want a coffee shop in Moscow that is the same as one in Houston.
J.P.: What’s the difference between an absolutely breathtaking cup of coffee and a mediocre cup of coffee? I don’t simply mean taste. I mean texture, feel, background, mojo. The whole thing.
J.H.: It’s hard to talk about this stuff without sounding a little crazy. A truly breathtaking cup of coffee is primarily an intellectual thing, because it tastes very clearly of the place in which it was grown. The idea of terroir is common in wine, and is true for coffee. So firstly, you have the kind of clarity of flavor that means you can pick up different flavors and aromas that are tied to a place. As for a more objective experience – truly great coffee has a delightful natural sweetness to it, and this should be front and center. This is down to picking the coffee fruit at peak ripeness, and that sweetness carries right through. Great coffee should have pleasant acidity. Not the tart, ugly sourness that bad coffee can have. I’m thinking more the acidity of a good apple, than the acidity of lemon juice. Acidity brings the other flavors to life, and makes coffee more pleasing to drink. (Same with soda….). The bitterness should be minimal, though bitterness ends up being a pretty subjective thing. Some people like a lot, but I don’t. You can’t really get a lot of bitterness without roasting the coffee pretty dark, which mutes acidity and drives away a lot of the interesting flavors. Finally, the aftertaste has to be wonderful. Coffee flavor hangs around, espresso especially, so when you have a great coffee that leaves you with a pleasing, caramelly sweetness, life is pretty good.
J.P.: You were the 2007 World Barista Champion. I visited the website, and the rules are long and extremely dry. So, James, what did it entail? What did you have to do? And what did winning mean for you?
J.H.: Barista competitions are best described as part Iron Chef, part sommelier competition, part dog show. They’re pretty weird, but in a good way. The format is pretty simple: You make three rounds of drinks, for four judges. You have to make them each an espresso, each a milk drink and then each a custom creation called a “signature drink”. They assess the flavor of each of the drinks, in a very serious way. They also assess your presentation, looking at how well you tell the story of the coffee, how well you describe its flavor, how good your service is. Meanwhile, two judges watch your preparation work to judge your technical skills. This competition format is used around the world – I think somewhere between 50 and 60 countries each year run a competition, that feeds into the World Championship. When I won it was in Tokyo and, unsurprisingly, the Japanese get pretty obsessed about coffee. Having around 3,000 in a room watching me make espresso drinks was both weird and wonderful!
J.P.: Here’s a weird one: When I drink lots of coffee, I have to poop a ton. Is this a common side effect? And, if so, any idea why?
J.H.: This is indeed pretty common. Initially this freaked me out whenever it happened to me, because it happens so fast! There was no way the coffee itself was working its way through my digestive system in that time. Turns out darker roasted coffee triggers a hormone to be released, which in turns makes you need to grab a newspaper and head to the bathroom. Lighter roasted coffee tends to affect people less it seems.
J.P.: You operate Square Mile Coffee Roasters out of East London. How did that happen? I mean, quite literally, how does one develop his own roasting company? And is it really possible to create 100% unique coffee? I mean, there are so many coffee companies out there. Isn’t there a huge taste overlapping?
J.H.: I’d been working in coffee for a few years, and when my business partner and I started the company we wanted to open a cafe and to roast inside it. I’d been working doing a lot of training and education and she’d been doing the same, as well as working for a green (raw) coffee importing company in London.
However, just when we were about to sign the lease the financial crisis of 2008 was reaching its worst point and so we figured a big rent was a bad idea. We took a little industrial space and just started roasting, and working with a few wholesale customers. We tried to help fan the flames of great coffee in London, and since then the coffee scene has certainly exploded. London has one of the most intense coffee scenes of any city in the world now.
As for uniqueness – this is a great question. Our philosophy has been about a couple things: Traceability has always been key. We only create a couple of blends for espresso, and everything else is un-blended and sold under the name of the farm, or group, that produced. Nothing is kept secret. This means our range changes a lot, because we’re also interested in seasonality. While people get seasonality in fruit and vegetables, its role in coffee has been pretty hidden for a long time. Different countries harvest coffee at different times of the year, and once harvested the raw coffee is only really excellent for a few months. Right now is a great time to drink Central American coffees, from places like Guatemala and El Salvador, or Costa Rica. However, in six months you don’t want to be drinking them, as they’ll be flat and boring and likely taste a bit woody. So roasters now try to buy coffees freshly harvested, and use them quickly. Buying from a roaster like us works if you’re interested in exploring what coffee has to offer. It isn’t going to be the same all year, and we like that. We get that some people prefer consistency, but we figure there’s lots of companies doing that already.
J.P.: Non-coffee question: As I mentioned earlier, I live in America, and Donald Trump is our next president. How is this playing in England?
J.H.: There are raised eyebrows. Granted, our foolish decision to try to leave the EU perhaps helped validate some of his ideas, so we feel partially to blame. I think there is genuine fear. The only upside would be that his economic policies would likely weaken the US dollar, which would (as a company that buys coffee in USD) make life a little easier. While we understood that Hilary was by no means an ideal candidate, I think most here were hopeful that upon election she would have come through as the lesser of two evils.
J.P.: You’re the author of “The World Atlas of Coffee”—which delves into the origins, makeup, delight of coffee. I’m fascinated by the way books are pieced together. So why a book? How did you go about it? How much travel was involved? How do you feel about the finished product?
J.H.: Sadly, the advance for a book like this doesn’t finance a huge amount of travel! The book was a pretty brutal learning experience for me, and at the end I truly understood that writing is a job that takes time, energy and head space. Trying to do a job like this, while having a couple of other full time jobs, is not wise!
I wrote the book, primarily, because I wanted to own it. There was this weird gap in coffee, where we spent so much time talking about where it is from but there wasn’t a book you could buy that would explain what it all meant, that showed you more about where and how coffee was grown. The coffee boom in recent years has come with a lot of information about every cup of coffee served, but not much in the way of guidance for how to use that information to make better decisions, and to make coffee a little more enjoyable. A barista might tell you a coffee is a “natural process coffee”, but if you don’t really know what that means it just makes coffee complicated, intimidating and less fun.
I don’t want coffee to be something impenetrable, something you have to be “in the know” about to really enjoy. I didn’t want the Atlas to be just a reference text, all dry and serious. So hopefully the book is kind of field manual, there to help buy your next bag or maybe help with your next brew at home.
J.P.: Is there fact in the taste of coffee? What I mean is, are there factually “good” and factually “bad” coffees? If my dad loves McDonald’s coffee but hates Square Mile, is he, simply wrong? Is he of bad taste? Or do you view it differently?
J.H.: This is difficult. In terms of taste, my preferences aren’t any more right than yours, or anyone else. You like what you like. However, there is coffee is bad when considered outside of the cup. It might be the way it was grown, or picked, or roasted or brewed. There are good ways and bad, from an ethical, financial or philosophical perspective. My feelings are that, whatever you currently enjoy, there’s probably something out there you could enjoy even more. Coffee is a rich world, full of choice, diversity and fun. It’s worth at least a little exploration.
J.P.: Greatest moment of your career? Lowest?
J.H.: Greatest moment: hard to pick one! Winning the World Championships was great, of course. (I got a giant novelty cheque too, which was definitely on the bucket list!) Seeing London’s coffee culture boom and grow has been another. Building a sustainable business, supportive of its team (about 50% of people who have moved on from us now run their own companies) and its industry has been hugely rewarding.
Lowest: being so broke, as a demonstrator of domestic espresso machines in a department store, that I survived several days on milk and chocolate powder.
QUAZ EXPRESS WITH JAMES HOFFMANN:
• Rank in order (favorite to least): Ella Fitzgerald, Monty Python, Guns n Roses, “Rocky II” Chris Tucker, ankle-high socks, the Big Mac, your right elbow, the number 23, Michael Jordan: Monty Python (national pride), Ella Fitzgerald, Chris Tucker, the Big Mac, Guns n Roses, Rocky II, my right elbow, ankle high socks, Michael Jordan, number 23 (this means nothing to me!).
• The worst cup of coffee you ever had was?: There’s a cafe in Tokyo that serves coffee that was picked a long time ago. They had a coffee from Colombia that was picked in 1954. I could not resist ordering it. Our sense of taste evolved primarily to keep us from poisoning ourselves, and drinking this set off all sorts of alarms. Just weird, rotten, moldy, gross coffee. It was like nothing else I’ve ever had. It was hard work to make it to the end, as my hosts had paid for it and were keen to see me enjoy myself.
• The best cup of coffee you ever had was?: Possibly that same coffee from 1954. Most memorable, certainly!
• Would you rather never drink coffee again or cut off three toes from your right foot?: I’m struggling more with this question than I thought I would. It’s not that I don’t love coffee, but I feel like my toes are very useful and I like running around and doing stuff. So maybe no more coffee for me.
• In exactly 23 words, make a case for Diet Pepsi: It probably isn’t what you want, or what you ordered. It’s fine though, because it has caffeine. Just add a lot of ice.
• Three memories from your first date: Jet lag, a shy smile, the door being closed on me before I could go in for a kiss.
• What is the absolutely coolest coffee-making device in the world?: The Victoria Arduino Black Eagle Gravimetric espresso machine. But I am biased as I helped design it!
• One question you would ask Bob Dole were he here right now?: What is your biggest regret? (I’m always interested in learning hard lessons the easiest way possible)
• Is speed walking a sport? And why?: No, because apparently this is just something I consider to be normal walking speed. (I just like to get to a place, and I gather me being 6’4 and in a hurry isn’t much fun for the people walking next to me).
• Is it possible my dog is ignoring me on purpose?: There is definitely intent in that behavior.