What Inspires Us: Matt Bolus & The 404 Kitchen

This is the third in a series (check here and here for the first two) of posts about the people and stories that inspire us. We’re motivated by the dreamers and fearless doers who mold matchless products from their deep passion. Telling their stories is our way to salute their success and say thanks for the inspiration to be better at our craft.

Once upon a time not very long ago, we'd drive the long way around what's now the Gulch. Today we head straight to it. One particular place is working as a bright-orange honing beacon: The 404 Kitchen, a remarkable restaurant wrestled into a shipping container. For decades, bluegrass has packed the room of next-door neighbor Station Inn--but now, just on the other side of those walls, an act of culinary artistry is taking the stage.

Led by Chef Matt Bolus, whose résumé includes positions at Flyte, Watermark, and Charleston's FIG, The 404 Kitchen is an inspiration to CREMA. 

And it's not just their fresh take on classic European cuisine--it's also their emphatic passion for coffee. Others are taking note, too: they've been recognized as a semi-finalist in the Best New Restaurant category of the 2014 James Beard Awards. 

We've had the opportunity to work with Matt and his team from the start, helping craft The 404 Kitchen's exceptional coffee offering. We think you'll be inspired by their enthusiasm for food (and drink), too. As we found out one evening a couple weeks ago, inspiration tastes better when it's right there on your plate.

 

CREMA: So, you’ve opened a restaurant in the heart of the Gulch. It’s such an interesting pocket of Nashville--you’ve got the history at Station Inn, which is literally right next door; yet there’s also the feeling of youth and hip-ness, with the condos and bars and fashion boutiques. Then, of course, the Gulch has a recent history of being a culinary hot spot. Where does The 404 Kitchen fit into this ever-growing urban neighborhood?

Matt Bolus: The 404 Kitchen fits right dead in the middle of it all (pun fully intended). Like other projects and ideas before us in the Gulch, we are different. We took an old bus garage and a few shipping containers and created an upscale casual restaurant and boutique hotel. In the design, we tried to embrace both the old (history) and new (young and hip) in the same building. We kept the outside of the original building the way it was: industrial, chipped paint, and concrete block. The shipping containers were painted with a color that was as close to the original as possible, while also being aesthetically pleasing, both embracing the history. The embracing of the young and hip comes in interior design.

From the chic appoints to the sustainable use of materials we have paired luxury with sustainability.

We built all the tables in the dinning room using the floors removed from the shipping containers. The candles on each table are made in house from rendered beef fat that we are cutting from our meat deliveries. And we are planning our roof top garden, where we will be growing as much food as we can fit into a 630 square-foot space. 

CREMA: And speaking of being in a close-quartered neighborhood, you should expound on that rooftop garden thing. It’s a unique idea, and really shows your commitments to cooking fresh food and doing things the right way. 

Matt Bolus: It's a small space, but we intend to make the most of it. As it is planned right now, we will have just over 630 square feet of garden. Rain water will be collected from the roof and stored in flat containers held under several of the raised beds, allowing us to save space. The collected rain water will be dispersed, utilizing a solar powered pump, allowing us to save energy. We are also working on a composting schedule for each bed, where we can compost our vegetable scrap from the kitchen. We are also developing a plan for proper crop rotation. While we do plan on having several permanent items such as fig trees, plum trees, blueberries, lavender, and rosemary, we will utilize the remaining beds to grow various fruits, herbs, and vegetables in a manner that focuses on the greatest yield, while also maintaining good soil health, and always considering what we grow in terms of how well it can be preserved. 

CREMA: The 404 Kitchen is an intimate place. The dining area is cozy and inviting. Also, the kitchen doesn’t offer much in the way of elbow room. There are surely challenges involved in having limited space (we are learning that at CREMA ourselves), but there are benefits, too. On our visit, we noticed an undeniable camaraderie within the team (on one occasion, the kitchen staff eagerly invited the dishwasher to jump in the group picture). The teamwork could partly be a byproduct of the shared space, but is the close-knit group more of an intentional thing? 

Matt Bolus: The close-knit group is both intentional as well as a byproduct. As we designed the space, we realized how tiny the kitchen was going to be. That meant we had to hire strategically. In the space we have there is no room for egos, tempers, or show-boats. 

We all work together, knowing that while we each have our own tasks, there are no tasks beneath any of us. 

CREMA: Do you personally make an effort to bring customers into that intimate experience? It seems that way.

Matt Bolus: Absolutely. We want customers to come back and see where we work. Most have the same reaction: "Wow, that's a lot smaller than I thought it would be!" The food that we cook here is what you would get if you came over to my house for dinner. With that being said, of course I want you to hang out in the kitchen while I am cooking. To me, it makes the restaurant feel more like a living room than a dining room. It's more inviting that way. 

CREMA: Your coffee setup is superb. You’ve reserved an entire station just for coffee prep, and your equipment is excellent. We tried not to watch over the shoulder of our server, but we kind of did--and she poured our French press like a pro. Why did you choose to make coffee such an important menu item? 

Matt Bolus: Coffee is typically the last thing you have at dinner, so it has to be amazing. I don't want you to finish up what is hopefully an amazing meal with mediocrity. 

Coffee is typically the last thing you have at dinner, so it has to be amazing. I don't want you to finish up what is hopefully an amazing meal with mediocrity. 

CREMA: With so many other things on your proverbial plate, why go the extra mile to make sure the coffee is excellent?

Matt Bolus: You have to be consistent in everything you do. Why use high quality in one aspect and rubbish in another at the same place? Everything we do, make, and create is from the heart, and fresh. That means the coffee has to be of the same quality. Plus, I am a coffee fanatic, and I don't want to drink shitty coffee!

Check 'em out on the web:

How it Works: Coffee Processing

Let’s compare apples and oranges--and coffee--for a second.

They’re all fruits.

Coffee--that stuff in your cup--comes from a bean that originally grew inside a cherry. Most people know that, of course--today, coffee’s fruity upbringings are highlighted in roasting labs and in the tasting notes on the backs of coffee bags.

And yet, it’s not overly clear how coffee goes from being fruit to being, well, not-fruit.  

The magic, as we’ve said, happens at the mill.

The mill is where coffee is processed. And this “process” is how, one way or another, Coffee the Fruit becomes Coffee the Bean. There are many variations of coffee processes, each deriving from three main methods: washed, natural, and semi-washed. Here’s a rundown on those three basic processes.  


Washed Process:

In the washed process, the fruit of the coffee plant (cherry pulp) is completely removed by using a depulper. The depulper splits the coffee cherry with sharp blades, separating the bean from the cherry. Removing the cherry reveals a thin layer of mucilage on the bean. This sticky mucilage is composed of sugars and alcohols, which contribute to the coffee's sweetness and acidity.

But we have to get rid of the mucilage somehow--because "mucilage" is a gross-sounding word.

Mucilage is removed from beans by using fermentation tanks (the traditional wet process) or mechanical demucilagers (you'd think they'd have a more subtle name than "mechanical demucilagers," but they don't). In the fermentation tanks, the mucilage is de-mucilagized by bacteria and microbes, before being washed off with water. Mechanical demucilagers scrub away the coffee's mucilage with bristles--what's left after the scrubbing is still washed away with water, but this mechanical process uses much less water overall. 

After emerging from the fermentation tanks or the demucilagers, the beans are dried. Whether by sun (on patios or screens) or by machine (drum dyers), the beans are fully dried, before being sorted and left to rest in their parchment (inner most layer). Before being shipped, the beans will be hulled at the dry mill, removing the parchment. 

The washed process produces coffees known for brightness and cleanliness in the cup.

Here's a short Instagram video we took of a wet mill in action in Costa Rica. 

Fresh coffee cherries unloaded for processing.

Fresh coffee cherries unloaded for processing.

Coffee cherry collects at the Don Mayo mill in Costa Rica.

Coffee cherry collects at the Don Mayo mill in Costa Rica.

Coffees are patio-dried at Beneficio Piedra Grande in El Salvador.  

Coffees are patio-dried at Beneficio Piedra Grande in El Salvador.  

A large drum dryer used at a mill in Costa Rica.

A large drum dryer used at a mill in Costa Rica.


Natural Process:

The natural process is the oldest method of processing coffee. In this method, the coffee is picked and immediately dried, cherry and all.

Whereas the washed process removes the cherry and mucilage with machines and water, the natural process relies on hand labor. Cherries are sorted (for quality) and spread on patios or racks to dry in the sun. Mill workers constantly rake and turn the cherries, ensuring even drying.  

Because the bean hasn't lost its mucilage yet, a complex fermentation process is taking place inside the cherry. Remember those sugars and alcohols from before? They get to hang out and throw Frisbee with the coffee bean as it dries in the sun. The bean gets to drink in all those spunky fruit flavors from the cherry (natural coffees are intergalactically famous for this). We get to drink in all those spunky fruit flavors in our cups. We all win. 

Despite the wild and exotic flavors that come as a result, the natural process is a more volatile process than others, simply because of its reliance on human beings. The coffee cherries are hand-sorted and hand-raked, so defects are more prevalent, and the delightful fermentation process can turn to rot if drying is uneven. Still, waste is lessened, and the resulting tasting profiles can be spectacular. 

Like in the washed process, beans are sent to the dry mill for hulling. They are then stored in their parchment to preserve freshness, and then shipped out into the world. 

Coffees drying with the cherry intact.

Coffees drying with the cherry intact.


Semi-Washed Process:

The semi-washed process (also known as pulped-natural or honey processed) is basically a hybrid of the other two we've seen. It begins just like the good ol' washed process--with the removal of the coffee cherry. Coffee cherries are ousted by using a depulper or the more-expensive (and harder to say) mechanical de-mucilager (which can be customized to remove only the cherry and very little mucilage, which will come into play here in a second).

Here's where things change. 

After the cherry's departure, the beans go directly to the sun bathing station, where, in lieu of tanning oil, they are slathered instead with their own mucilage. In the washed process, the beans would be dunked in the fermentation tank and washed at this point. Not so here. The beans have their SPF-Mucilage, and they are apparently content to just lie there in the sun.

The drying process is delicate, though, requiring constant attention to ensure evenness and avoid too much fermentation and rot. During this stage, akin to the natural process, the mucilage is drying into the bean, and creating the desired flavor profile. This process reduces acidity and increases body, while also infusing the coffee with an undeniable sweetness. 

Coffee with mucilage dries in Costa Rica. The amount of mucilage and drying time determines the type of "honey process."

Coffee with mucilage dries in Costa Rica. The amount of mucilage and drying time determines the type of "honey process."

Unique to Costa Rica, varying types of semi-washed coffees are typified as full natural through "white honey." 

Unique to Costa Rica, varying types of semi-washed coffees are typified as full natural through "white honey." 


So go ahead: compare apples to oranges. Just don't leave out coffee.

(Also, if you literally want to compare apples to oranges: note the subtle apple tart of the La Lia and the Edlina Microlot's bright, orange-citrus finish.) 

Coffee processing innovation is constant. On our recent trips to Costa Rica and El Salvador, we had many discussions about how farmers and exporters are enhancing the process. One of the most intriguing ideas is to control humidity in shipping containers, where young coffee spends much time in transit, often picking up unintended flavors and losing inherent and desirable tasting qualities. There are a host of other great and exciting things happening on the coffee processing front. If you're interested, chat us up in the shop. 

 

More resources:

Blog: What is Speciality Coffee?
Blog: Sourcing
Learn: Brewing Guides
Learn: Coffee Classes

 

Guest Post: Exceptional Coffee at Home

We invited Holly, our friend and author of the popular food blog Feast or Fallow, to give us her perspective on coffee. Sometimes we overcomplicate it, so here's a welcome reminder that the thing that seems simple and even humdrum is often the difference between good and great--in food and in coffee.


There is only one rule that governs my kitchen: start with simple, exceptional ingredients. Real food needs little help to become something delicious, almost always resulting in remarkable food and drink. An heirloom tomato picked ripe from the ground needs only a sharp knife and a bit of salt to make your eyes roll back in your head (just me?).

Real food needs little help to become
something delicious.

Coffee is no different. Careful intention on the front end—in coffee fields and in roasteries—leads to a truly exceptional cup. And fellow homebodies: you don’t have to traverse the wild coffee shops to get one. Start with an exceptional bean, and transform your coffee at home. What is an exceptional bean? CREMA covered that here.

Most of us drink coffee every day. Where do our beans come from? What are they like in their raw form? What are the different varieties, and how does roasting bring out the unique flavor of that region's beans? For something that permeates our daily lives, we know very few of these answers. Maybe you agree that knowing your farmer is a life-giving experience, but unless you live in a rain forest, you won’t see your coffee farmer at the farmer's market.

Knowing a coffee roaster who knows their farmer is the next best thing. Thankfully for us, roasters like CREMA truly know their coffee farmers. They’ve been to their farms, their houses, their kitchen tables. They know and respect the land and the people who pour their lives into growing the coffee. This attention to relationships and terroir can only lead to exceptional coffee. Farm-to-cup coffee isn't a new term, but it’s one of those simple, maybe mundane things that makes or breaks the coffee experience.

How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.

One of my favorite writers, Annie Dillard, said, “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.” I know this: I spend every morning drinking coffee, and I have to remind myself often that there is purpose in small things, in details. Waiting quietly for the water to boil, slowing pouring hot water over fragrant coffee grinds, taking the first sip. This is the story of my morning, every day of my life. These things that fill our lives should be lovely, delicious, exceptional--and there is no better way to begin the day than with a cup of coffee that turns our minds to such lovely things.

Simple and exceptional.

--

I'm inspired by minimalist kitchens and cooks who don't rely on fancy tools to make exceptional food and drink (Alice Waters doesn't even have a food processor in her home kitchen!), but if you love the daily ritual of brewing coffee, there are a few tools that are worth seeking out. Plus, I’ll say it…they will look pretty on your shelf.

1. A pour-over tool, like a Chemex. We have this one and work it like a dog, but I’m pining after this white ceramic dripper.

2. A burr grinder. Burr grinders evenly crush coffee beans rather than finely chopping them which releases all their fruity oils. We have a hand-cranked Hario one.

3. A kitchen scale. Weighing your beans and water is the sure-fire way to ensure you strike the perfect ratio for the most exceptional cup. I like this bamboo one because it looks pretty on the counter. CREMA carries the venerable Jennings CJ4000--also a great pick.

4. A kettle with a swan neck spout. I’ll be candid and say we don’t have one of these, but I sure wish we did. This one to be exact.

What Inspires Us: The Farmer's Daughter and Copacetic Coffee

This is the second (missed the first?) in a series of posts about the people and stories that inspire us. We’re motivated by the dreamers and fearless doers who mold matchless products from their deep passion. Telling their stories is our way to salute their success and say thanks for the inspiration to be better at our craft.

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A couple weeks ago, we visited our partners and friends in Chattanooga at The Farmer's Daughter and Copacetic Coffee, whose delicious and minimalist collaboration have inspired us from the day their doors opened. Copacetic Coffee is located in The Farmer's Daughter restaurant, serving up excellent coffee to restaurant patrons and walk-ins. 

The Farmer’s Daughter is owned and operated by Ann Keener and Mike Mayo. Ann is the "Farmer’s Daughter."  They have been holding “underground” dinners throughout the fair city of Chattanooga for the past 4 years. 

Ann and Mike believe that the future economy depends on conscious consumerism and that the bowl you sip your soup from is just as important as the soup. The Farmer’s Daughter is the resting place for these dinners, where Ann and Mike hope to grow and share their appreciation and love for the local economy of food.

The hint of spring made a good excuse to take the back roads to Chattanooga, so we dusted off the moto's from a winter's slumber and rode down to learn more about this team that inspires us. We connected via email after the trip. Here's their story.


CREMA: The Farmer’s Daughter and Copacetic Coffee have been open for a few months now. Though you’ve each had your hand in other projects before, what are some things you’ve learned (about yourself, hospitality, your community, etc.) from the unique experience of opening the Farmer’s Daughter and Copacetic?

Mike (The Farmer's Daughter)Ann and I have learned all kinds of things. Both our folks are small business people, so we grew up around the constant demands of doing your own thing. So, naively I felt reasonably prepared for the constant juggling, but I am nonetheless awed by all the moving parts of even a small operation like ours. I’ve been surprised by who our customers are vs. who I imagined they would be. Tuesday through Friday I bet over 50% of our customers are over 65. Would have never guessed. I think our menu is really accessible generally, and our style of service is like a diner, so there’s that. I think the idea of supporting small sustainable agriculture is much more resonant with people of my grandparents generation than they often get credit for.

Andrew (Copacetic Coffee): I like forced friends. That’s kind of what happens from behind the bar anyway. You make someone’s drink a few times, then suddenly feel strange when you don’t know their name. The friendship unfolds from a casual, unforced interaction, and at some point you become interested in more intricate details of each other’s lives.

Similarly, I found that this happens with coffee. We decided to present it in a way that was very approachable and simple. The genuineness of the coffee surfaces either immediately or with time, based on the customer’s engagement. An interaction as simple to a person as getting coffee becomes a learning experience or point of discovery that develops into a much more engaged relationship.

I’ve definitely been surprised at how receptive our customers have been to the simple menu we offer. It’s such a different experience than what you find elsewhere in town with coffee, I was sure there would be daily backlash. But there hasn’t been.

People are generally intrigued and curious about our simple focus on quality.

I think something is communicated without words when you do what you want to do because you fully stand behind it. I’m also extremely grateful for the receptive nature of Chattanoogans.

Scott (Copacetic Coffee): As with what Mike said, the people we thought who would be walking in our doors vs. who in reality is there has been surprising for sure, but it has also been great. I think us (Copacetic) having a limited but approachable menu helps out immensely. Our menu is small, simple, and really exciting at the same time. We have very few components, if you will, in our menu--but they are ingredients we can stand behind 100% and are very proud of. I think when folks see our excitement and stance on what we are trying to do, they generally respond well to that. Does that make sense? Also, without The Farmer’s Daughter doing what they are doing in regards to food, We would not be able to do what we are doing with coffee in that space. It’s really a beautiful scenario.

CREMA: You guys do a good job of fostering community in and around Chattanooga, working with several local farms, and collaborating with CREMA and Velo for coffee. Why is local and regional tag-teaming important to you? Have you found that Chattanooga rallies behind a place intent on developing community?

Mike (The Farmer's Daughter): We believe that great communities are a product of small business and individuals investing in one another. This connectedness empowers us all to push the culture forward together. I think Chattanoogans are getting behind what we’re doing because of our stance on quality, and our sincerity.

So many people everyday interact in very structured corporate service environments, where the service staff has a script, that when someone comes in and has a great qualitative experience and is treated in a sincere and nuanced way, they react well.

Then, after developing a natural relationship that comes through regular interactions, like Andrew mentions, I think the value commitments we have begin to really resonate, and some of our customers get excited about our intention.

Andrew (Copacetic Coffee): I agree with Mike and think that you should pursue what’s important to you or you’ll find yourself doing something you don’t like. For Copacetic, we serve products that we are in love with. I have always thought Cruze Dairy milk was the best milk I’ve ever had. When we had the opportunity to serve and shed light on our favorite things, it seemed a no-brainer what we would do. I think you can capture customers’ curiosity because your interest is infectious. And I think that’s a much better way to involve people than any other form of forced evangelism.

CREMA: You actively promote and work with artists, film makers, blacksmiths--anything else?--in Chattanooga. What role do you see yourself playing in the city’s art scene? Any cool things in the works?

Mike (The Farmer's Daughter): Like it or not, consumerism is the American religion. Consciousness around food is really percolating up through the American culture right now, and we are really trying to figure out how to leverage the spotlight on the food scene to help our community move towards conscientious consumerism.

If you’re aware enough to care where your kale came from, it’s not a big jump to care where your plates, bowls, skirt, etc., comes from.

So that all sounds a little bit philosophical, but those values guide how we fit into the local art scene. When we built out our space we integrated the work of local artists and craftspeople, and then hosted a meet-the-artist event and invited the public to come and interact with us and the artists. Coming up on April 18th we are hosting a Q&A with an Atlanta street artist who is doing a weekend workshop on the free art movement and making work. So yeah, the point is, its all the same value structure and it all helps grow our communities and it’s all fun.

Scott (Copacetic Coffee): It also helps having a lot of wildly talented friends, who we want to support in anyway we can. From our logo, to bar design, countertop, shelf brackets, etc., we were able to turn to our friends for their creative input and approach. It feels good to refer inquiries back to those friends from people who admire what they see in our shop.

CREMA: From over here in the Music City, it looks like really great things are happening in Chattanooga, coffee-wise. We of course truly dig Velo. What are some things you love about serving coffee in Chattanooga? What do you think you guys (and others) are doing well to craft a great coffee experience for your city?

Mike (The Farmer's Daughter): The guys are crafting a great coffee experience by being accessible and approaching all their interactions with a gracious spirit. Anyone can bring quality to the table, anyone can make the decision that their product is going to be the best and then develop the technical expertise to deliver. What Copacetic does exceptionally is craft a quality product and guide the customer without being pretentious or holier-than-thou.

A customer asks, “Can I have the dark roast?” The guys generally explain that the beans are roasted to highlight the best characteristics of the beans, and often follow with a simple toast analogy. If you have a piece of white bread and a piece of artisan bread and burn the hell out of both, they are qualitatively indistinguishable. To me, this is a perfect example of how Copacetic sincerely wants to educate our customers and pull them into what we’re doing.

Andrew (Copacetic Coffee): Man, there are GREAT things happening in Chattanooga in regards to coffee! I’ve never been more excited. There are so many shops in town that are focusing more and more on the intricacies behind coffee extraction, and are genuinely caring more and more about quality. It seems like all this budding creativity is being fueled by engaged customers. And then there’s this super positive community around quality driven shops...it’s really inspiring and helps validate what we are doing.

Our focus from the beginning has been to involve people with coffee beyond a transaction. It seemed a bit like a gamble at first...to offer coffee with no flavorings and with no facade that would tell you if it was any good. There was also this element of tedium behind the bar that made sense to us, but could be perceived as superfluous by restaurant staff and customers. But I think the approach is successful in disarming people and inviting them to explore as much or as little about the coffee as they want. I think people can sense that we want to respect the coffee and respect them.

I also think the shared-space thing is a phenomenal way to symbiotically help each other exist. We could not do what we are doing without Farmer’s Daughter. They are awesome!

Scott (Copacetic Coffee): I agree with Andrew--right now is such a great time in this city for coffee, and for the community surrounding a more aware coffee scene. It’s a wonderful thing to have friends in other shops to talk with, and learn from all the time. Essentially, we are the end of a very long line from which coffee came. We just really want to respect all the efforts before us, and do what we think is a proud representation of such efforts. 

CREMA: People in Nashville love visiting Chattanooga. Maybe we all secretly want to live there? Either way, we’ll all be coming down for a day trip soon (all 600,000 of us). We’ve got a full day in town--what do we do?

Mike (The Farmer's Daughter): Damn, 600,000 people can do all kinds of fun stuff. Go to Velo, come to The Farmer’s Daughter and Copacetic. Go play outside. Truly, the city is pretty swell, but we just do stuff outdoors. There are awesome trails going up Lookout Mountain, and we have some friends who have an awesome site called rootsrated.com that will tell you all kinds of places to go outdoors. That’s all.

Andrew (Copacetic Coffee): Sounds like you’ll want to do a cafe crawl. Good idea. As soon as you pull into Chattanooga, swing by Pasha in St. Elmo. Pasha is a Bongo Java shop that features rotating roasters such as Tandem and Verve via pour over. From there, you’ll want drive into town to visit the coffee district on the Southside. Camphouse serves Counter Culture very nicely and usually has four or five of their coffees to choose from. Literally across the street is Mean Mug, who serves Velo Coffee. Further down Main St. is Velo Coffee, which is open Wednesday thru Saturday, 10-3. Ask about the bikes. You’ll want to swing by Warehouse Row after that to visit Brash Coffee, an Atlanta-based roaster that does a fine job. Finish up your coffee guzzling at Copacetic Coffee and make sure you come hungry!

Scott (Copacetic Coffee): Yeah, you're gonna want to prepare thy goozler. Lots of great coffee in this city. Plus, Chattanooga is so close to so many awesome outdoor adventure spaces, so you can easily fill your days exploring our beautiful city. Hope to see you soon!

What is Specialty Coffee?

A few weeks back, we talked about “sourcing” coffee. “Sourcing,” it seemed, had been poorly defined--it was a buzzword that many just didn’t understand. So we got back to the basics, went to the source of things, and took some of the mystery away from coffee sourcing.

While we’re at it, we figured we’d tackle another titan of the coffee buzzwords: specialty coffee. This one isn’t so hard to figure out.

Specialty coffee is coffee that is, well, special.

Now, “special” doesn’t mean “better than all you other guys.” Specialty coffee is not a beauty pageant, a popularity contest, or a cooler-than-thou self-dubbed nickname. It isn’t tight jeans or hand-woven aprons or that dreaded h-word (hips**r).

The “special” in specialty coffee is measurable.

Coffees are graded on a 100-point scale--to be considered “specialty,” a coffee must score at least an 83 (if the talk of grades gives you 10th grade geometry-class-related PTSD, it does to us, too—here is a helpful guide to coffee grading). Specialty coffee costs more in the coffee market than commodified coffee--the price tag is higher for the buyer, and generally more profitable for the farmer.

To achieve that high coffee-score, and to be deemed worthy of its loftier price tag, the growing of specialty coffee necessitates great care. Farms like Don Miguel’s in El Salvador--a place with top-of-the-line equipment and expert farmhands who know the land--these kinds of farms become bastions of specialty coffee. From the terroir (farmers must plant coffee in certain climates, altitudes, and soil conditions for the fruit to fully mature) to the mill, specialty coffee holds itself to a higher standard.    

In this way, specialty coffee stands as the direct alternative to commodity coffee. Specialty coffee isn’t “right” (and commodity coffee isn’t “wrong”)--it’s just a wholly different way of approaching things. Commodity coffee (think Folgers, K-cups, and Maxwell House) purchases coffee en masse and sells it that way, buying with less concern for quality than caffeine. Commodity coffee sales still dwarf those of specialty coffee in the coffee market. It is fair to say that commodity coffee emphasizes quantity over quality.

Remember that Christmas when you were a teenager and you didn’t get as many gifts as you usually do? Instead of ripping open a ton of little presents from your parents and your aunts and uncles, you got one big gift? A PlayStation or something? And your mom said it was about quality over quantity? Specialty coffee is like that. It’s like finding a PlayStation in your stocking. Or a delicate, complex, fruity coffee in your cup.

So, what does the term “specialty coffee” mean for us at CREMA? It means we have a great responsibility, it means we continue the work that began with the farmers in, say, Costa Rica and the workers at their mill, it means we roast and grind and brew and serve with care and attention to detail, doing justice to the truly special coffees we receive, and upholding their already high standards. (Like other aspects of specialty coffee, our roasting and brewing standards are of course “measurable”--check out our brewing guides or our in-depth coffee classes.)

And what does “specialty coffee” mean for you? It means sitting back, taking a moment, and playing PlayStation--er, drinking coffee, and appreciating that gift of quality over caffeine.


1 Interesting Maxwell House fun fact: in 1892, Joel Cheek named his coffee “Maxwell House,” after the Maxwell House Hotel where it was sold. The Maxwell House was Nashville’s largest and most famous hotel before burning in 1961. Present day Cummins Station sits on the site of the old Maxwell House Motel. (Bonus fun fact: Joel Cheek married Mabel Wood. Their sprawling Nashville estate? Cheekwood.)