Monday, January 29, 2018

Do you taste your own coffee, enough?

Chefs taste their food before serving it out, Bartenders do so with their mocktails (drinking on the job and I hope they don't turn alcoholic in the process) thus it should be almost second nature for Barista and Cafe owners? Think again!

Coffee calibrations happen daily every morning, after lunch hour too in some businesses and all the time after dialling in a new coffee in the grinder but are they really tasting it or watching the shots drip to hit the 30ml spot in 30 seconds?

How many time do Barista or Cafe Owner reject a coffee after drinking it personally or even stop a bad coffee from being served out? Or do they actually reactively taste it only when a 1 star review comes in the form of social media rating? (Or when a customer leave a full cup behind and leave the premise.)

In Dutch Colony, we taste our coffee daily and with 3 shops and 1 roasting facility, we make it a point to set up a group chat as well as a calibration form just to geek it out and discuss flavours and recipes early in the morning, before the first coffee is serve out to the earliest customer. Taking time to taste our coffees also means we put ourselves in the customer shoes and asking ourselves whether we will buy and drink that coffee or reject them. (And why if we ever reject it!)

Coffee is a serious business and it will remain one, as long as Barista and Cafe Owners takes quality as seriously as they possibly can.

Sunday, January 7, 2018

Third wave coffee will be dead if people continue expecting great coffee at rock bottom price!

Another of our wholesale account have bite the dust. A great cafe by measures of the kgs of coffee they served out and yet their huge social media followers cannot do anything to keep it afloat.

This follow through from another big announcement that came just before year 2017 come closing and the many more dreams that shattered the last few good years. Singapore F&B industry and in particular cafes are in the snake and ladder game. Blamed it on the high overheads of payrolls and landlord ridiculous demands but the truth is, we have been stuck selling the same coffee (which by the way gets better each year as the bar raised) at the same price of $5! How can this even be possible when kopitiams have even seen a price increase of their Kopi-O from $0.70 in 2005 to atleast $1.10 today.

As a few good cafes passed the first survival point of 5 hard years, employees that have been with them since Day One must have surely enjoyed some sort of salary increment and this definitely contributed to a higher cost of coffee per cup ovet the years but with the operator still selling them at the same price they started off 5 years ago. Thinner margins will surely mean a rocky bottomline and so, how do we expect sustainability then?

What does it take for our industry to revolutionise and raise the 'market price' together? Will we be hurt even if we increase the minimum price of coffee by another  $0.50 more? Does this 10% incremental even help cafe owners at all to survive? The low entry level will only mean more cafes will open in the future but the stagnant selling price will only mean more will close too.

Let's just  pray 2018 be kind to us.

Sunday, September 24, 2017

Milk is just Milk!

Milk is important and difficult to master. Dr Faishal will agree.
It is half-time break during a football match between Manchester United and Southampton and I thought it will be a good time to prepare the coffee calendar for month of October, for Dutch Colony. Then my mind wander over a topic that I was discussing everyday for five days in a row. About milk and espresso, to 41 students from ITE College East who was attending the Barista Interest Group program.

Considering Lattes and Cappuccinos makes up the top two espresso based beverages we (in Dutch Colony) sell every month and the art and science of milk is something we talk about in every barista fundamental classes, milk definitely is an important topic. After all, as much as we fuss about parameters of extracting a delicious espresso, milk is at the end of the day almost 80% that completes a drink in any cafe. Unfortunately or fortunately though, milk is something that people in the cafe business don't usually indulge in. Too many incidents to mention but here is one; when a cafe customer provide feedback that the cappuccino is not as sweet as usual, the coffee roaster received a call and asked to investigate that roasted batch of coffee. What happen to the proteins in milk that contributed to the sweetness and liquid marshmallow texture then? After all isn't that cappuccino almost all milk? Oh yes, milk is just milk!

Here is another; five  coffee roasters (or the more the merrier) have been called upon to provide samples for a new cafe who is opening real soon. Coffee have got to be good (and cheap) and it doesn't matter what future consumers of that cafe prefer, as long as the Bosses likes it and they like it chocolaty and 'not sour lah'. When down to the wire, any roaster who can provide that comforting notes and $0.10 cheaper per kg then everyone else, congratulations the business is yours. When it come to milk, which can account to almost $4000-$5000 of cost of good every month, the boss says any milk will do. Whatever everyone is using is good. Not a single questions asked about sweetness, about amount of protein or fat and most importantly, not a question ask about custom profile and/or exclusivity. Why do we not demand the same from our milk supplier like what we do to the coffee supplier? Oh I get it again, milk is just milk.

Where is this going? No where of course but just to address the importance of milk in a cafe business.  If I  have the time to collate what I have been working on, is to address the issue of bubbles on milk foam of an espresso based beverage. This was also discussed in the blog FB  group. A topic for another day.

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Yesterday's Barista Training & Calibration Exercise

I have not written for a long time but that doesn't mean I have stopped thinking about coffee. Rather, I have been fully immersed with coffee the past month, creating new coffee training slides, writing coffee handouts and rolling out programs.

Tonight is rather different though. What I saw during a short but intense wholesale training yesterday encouraged me to write down what I encountered. After a step by step demonstration, it was the trainee's turn to pull some shots but right on the first extraction, he got a little panicky and start muttering that he doesn't know then when to stop as he has forgotten to use/start the timer. (We were in a unique position. The operator has bought his equipment from Supplier A, attended coffee training from Supplier B and bought coffees from us.) I asked after that failed espresso attempt if he knows how to look out for signs of blonding or weight/volume of the espresso to perhaps decide when to cut the extraction. The answer was NO. He said, "I stop the extraction at 30 seconds. I cannot do without the timer."

Don't get me wrong. The core ideas of parameters of espresso extraction remains largely unchanged when I conduct training myself. Extraction time is something I hold dearly too, but not the ONLY thing I hold on to. There are also other parameters that I preached about but it was rather amusing to see a trainee being taught to only measure a good espresso by how long it takes to extract the espresso. Is it true that the espresso taste good only at 30 seconds? What happen at 29.5 seconds or 32 seconds?

Appreciation of coffee, expectations of flavours and consumerism behaviour have evolved so much over our specialty coffee years but it is sad if training providers out there are still holding on to that only rule book of 30 seconds and/or 30 mls to measure good espresso.  I know we are better then that.

Oh... I will take that 35gm - 40gm double shots espresso done at 22 seconds anytime. :)

Sunday, January 29, 2017

Unwashed, Dry and/or Natural Process - Tasting the process instead of the actual flavours of the coffee?

Unwashed, Dry and/or Natural Process, either names but they all refer to the same post harvest process.  A process we love to hate or a love-hate process? Tasting the process instead of the actual flavours of the coffee? This article discuss the different appreciation of natural process coffees within the specialty coffee community and the flavours it brings to the table.

                                             Unwashed, Dry and/or Natural Process

A graphic from training slides that I used for Dutch Colony workshops, explaining the difference between the two main processing methods.
Hands down the oldest coffee processing method, the natural process refers to cherries being spread out in a thin layer on a patio and left to dry under the sun. Each sides of the cherry needs to be consistently exposed to the heat of the sun, so farm workers are tasked to constantly rake the cherries. This allow the cherries to get somewhat equal amount of sunshine with the outer flesh and parchments removed all in one step.

The natural process is very environmental friendly with almost no reliance to machinery and very little need of fresh water. Unfortunately with the reliance of a natural resource (the sun), there are notable drawbacks which leads to a higher room for errors while processing as well as a inconsistent flavour profile. As there is no reliable method to predict weather conditions, prolonged rainfall or excessive drying  may caused opportunity for mould, fermentation or rotting.
                                              The flavours of fermentation

In tasting the process instead of the actual flavours of the coffee, in particular the natural processing method, fermentation or fermented flavours usually becomes a point of discussion. Mostly western coffee professionals hate the idea of it  and in cupping stints with them, have heard the description of rotten animal and/or onions far too many times.

In Asia, our appreciation of food follows the tag line, "the smellier it is, the better it taste!" Think stinky tofu and even durian and thus our appreciation of Natural process coffees are more then those Americans or Europeans palate. Having said that, a point to ponder upon. What happen then to non-asian delicacies like blue cheese or cured meat, where equally #gamestrong on fermentation and why is it then those palate cannot appreciate natural process coffee the way they do with their cheese? 

Analysing the typical flavours one will get upon cupping a natural processed coffees, the likes of melon, jackfruit, banana (MJB) (which are arguably always considered as negative flavours) candied strawberries, blueberries, lychee, mango (positive flavours) are often presence. These are all yummy flavour attributes in my honest opinion but MJB somehow or rather are often linked to fermented fruit notes, which are considered tainted or defects. It beats me why melon, jackfruit and banana are considered flavours of fermentation! After all, natural process is all about taking in most of the skin of the cherries and the whole fruit into the finished beverage and when one argues 'taste the actual flavours of the coffees in its truest fruit form  rather then the process" shouldn't that mean have it natural process? 

Upon the beautiful discovery of post harvesting and turning coffee as a beverage, rather then having it boiled and drinking it as tea, it relived the moments when natural process was first discovered thousands of years ago in ancient Ethiopia, which indicates instead of calling it flavours of fermentation, it could possibly be the first flavours one get out of coffee which leads for it to be commercialised. Yet the community is pushing for the washed-method instead and lead it it to be cleaner, less complex and sweeter! 

End of Part One.

Monday, November 21, 2016

Singapore Specialty Coffee: A Catch-22 situation!


Just minutes  before embarking into this post, I wrapped up the monthly planning of Coffee Calender for Dutch Colony. (which usually follows with a mini blog post, covering in details of the range of coffees introduced within the month)
Then I told myself that there are now 12 posts to read and reminisce from for work year 2016. In my horror too, I realised that the same cannot be said for my personal coffee blog. I have only written ONE this year and that is definitely one too little.

So I browse through my daily diary (yes i am a pen and paper type of guy) and flipped through pages, searching for any coffee quotes of the day that I may have scribbled. There was plenty but nothing close that sets the mood to write in length about until this caught my eyes...
'How to convince cafe owners to pay more for quality?' Scribbled and/or doodled in one of the coffee strategy meetings we had as a company, this shall be the topic to spark a writing comeback.

Quality and Prices (or rather Prices then Quality)

We are all born economist. In context to this article, cafe owners/purchasers/decision makers/head barista thinks they have studied and analysed the  subject so well that they understand customer attitudes and take advantage of the market trends. (Some really understand it well but some does not represent all!)

The formula is made simple too. Buy and have it available, what the consumers market trending are and sell it a dollar cheaper then your closest rival in that area. The rival follow suits and goes a dollar lower too and this continues at the expense of not their profit margin but that of the supplier. (and in this case coffee roasters) While all these are happening, the same economist does not agree too on the flavour of this flavour trending.

Let me put this as an example:

It is the season for Africas and everyone goes out gun blazing, making available delicious Ethiopians in their grinder hopper. We speak traceability, limited availability, farm processing experiments, flavour R&D and what have you but Cafe Owners come back to ask if these coffees can be priced the same as their current blends. When we say no, they reply the 'other cafe' is serving a Ethiopian coffee already and their supplier is charging them $30/kg. 

Cut the story short, when we come to a middle point and agrees on the selling and buying, they come back a week later to say the Ethiopian is sour and does not taste like coffee in milk! It again become the fault of the coffee roaster and we have yet even discuss the thin margin this roasters get for selling a grade 1 fully washed Yirgacheffe for $30

Understanding the Market

Every coffee roasters out there love to buy, roast and sell great quality coffee and in the ideal world, we like to have cafe owners who love buying and serving them and understand how these wonderful coffees come at a slight premium. If this scenario happens, a difference will be made in Singapore local specialty coffee culture.

Enough have been said about our traditional local kopi culture but their existence is never a bane to our specialty industry, selling generic Ethiopian, commercial grade ones and passing them off as specialty is the true clown in the box. They bring out the ugly of our economist cafe owners who are taste blind.

This result in highest quality specialty grade coffees only to be made available in cafe business that really care and economies that can pay while the rest either get lucky with roasters offering the same grade coffee for less or majority settle for commercial grade ethiopians and serve it anyway. Consumers following the trends drink them anyways but not necessarily appreciating them for what they truly are. 

Catch - 22 Situation

This is the same catch-22 situation found throughout specialty coffee market across the region, to be able to truly serve high quality specialty grade coffee, local roasters need to be competitive on roasting quality and flavour profile , and not selling them at the same price as blends. (or even $30 and less) When roasters sing the same tune, cafe owners see the same economy and trends, consumers pays for delicious coffee consistently.

Have I conclude what I started? The answer lies not on one shoulder but the whole industry. Let's just pray it happen fast enough.

Monday, May 2, 2016

How do you defined sustainability and profits in a speciality coffee business?

Sustainability     Traceability                 Direct Relationship
Fair Trade                                                            Conservation
Transparency           Exclusivity
Crop to Cup                           Commitment

What was the first thing that came out of your mind, as soon as these words jumped right at you?


That is if you are a Barista, Roaster , Green Bean Buyer or even a Coffee Farmer in this speciality
 industry but in layman's term, others outside of this industry (but one who love his or her coffee still) would think of it as some social activity, an NGO related cause or even a 'Save the Planet' campaign. Not too far off from coffee you may agree but definitely far enough when you ask a coffee professional. Then again to a coffee regular who visits a speciality cafe at least three times a week or that wholesale account who buys your coffee in kilograms, these words above means         EXPENSIVE COFFEE

In writing this article, I definitely question my own credentials  in doing so. I am no subject expert in this matter and certainly, I have not done enough in talking to coffee farmers to understand their worries. Rather, I am looking at it in a very different perspective, defining it from a cafe and coffee business owner altogether and hence my question, 'How do you defined sustainability and profits in a speciality coffee business?' It is my prerogative as a coffee professional, to understand that profitability is essential in driving the coffee business and to keep it sustainable,  THE PRICE MUST  BE RIGHT.

BUT AT WHAT PRICE? Well, it is like two girls spending six hours to bake one cake. How much would they sell it for? $200 for that cake will certainly be very profitable but who pays for a $200 cake? They will claim they have given six hours of their artisan time and will be able to only baked one cake per day and so the price is justifiable.  If that cake was bought by a cafe owner to be sold in the shop, that same cake will be sliced up to ten servings, each serving carries a nett cost price of $20. After taking account of cost of labour, garnishing, electricity and profit, that same slice of cake now sells for the very minimum - $28. Perhaps Sustainable but not very Profitable. Then again, it could also be vice versa - Profitable but not sustainable in the long run! 

Barista to advocate the speciality mannerism to a customer in the hope of changing the overall appreciation of that coffee, one cup at a time, may help to sell that same cup of coffee at an additional $1 above the national average selling price. But is it FAIR to pass this cost to the consumer in the name of coffee education? Also, how many customers will ever return for a $6 five ounce white (even though he received $60 worth of education while waiting for that cup) when a few streets away, a similar beverage is being sold for $5.

In all honesty, it is hard to defined sustainability and profitability in a specialty coffee business. Often then not, new cafe owners entered the business under the assumption that revenue and margins will add up in day to day operations. Running a coffee business is never as simple as forecasting the sale of  200 cups of coffee per day to generate $365,000 revenue per year. Also in Singapore context, 30% of that sales revenue or to be precise, $109,500 going to the shark of a landlord will never allow the coffee business to be profitable, let alone sustainable unless you plan to do it all by yourself. (if you plan to hire the very least 3 salaried Barista full-time with a total 20% of the same revenue going to wages entering a 365 days operation, that is another $73,000 entering your P&L spreadsheet) 

The only way to have it both sustainable yet profitable is to reduce cost and selling more cups of coffees, and by that meaning to open up the business in more than just one location. In the simple logic of supply and demand in the supply chain, the more you buy, the cheaper it gets. Products and the brand began to have a mass market appeal but at the risk of losing its EXCLUSIVITY CHARM but that is a topic for another day article. 
There is also the possibility of being good at what you do and with enough skills and knowledge, set up a roastery to create your own supply chain and selling more coffee by the kilos without losing that exclusivity that you started off with in the beginning of your coffee business dreams. That too, is a topic for another day.

Have i concluded anything yet up until this point? 
No i have not but that is why the title to my article is a Question. There are just too many mitigating factors and theories involved to get that question answered and now these WORDS below may just take a life of its own, each deserving an article to be blog upon, in defining sustainability and profits in a coffee business.

Employment Practices      long term supplier relationship

      unique selling point    QUALITY WORK 

            creativity      INNOVATION        Passionate   

  brand identity               CUSTOMER SERVICE