Two months ago, I wrote about a new way to brew with the Sowden SoftBrew. I immediately fell in love with the object itself and looked forward to comparing it with my trusty press pot. An early article by the New York Times helped the SoftBrew sell out quickly through its only US distributor at the time, and it was initially back ordered until mid-January. I was fortunate enough to get ahold of one a few weeks ago and since then, Sowden has caught up with demand in time for the holidays.
Initially I was disappointed and skeptical of Mr. Sowden. After brewing a number of really weak pots, I increased the brew time to 6, 7, and 8 minutes as suggested by the manufacturer, but that just seemed way too long for a pot of coffee to brew. So, I started playing with the grind to discover the micro-filter’s sediment threshold—slightly finer than drip—and after a few days I dialed in my method. I settled on a 4-minute brew time with a grind that’s in-between a drip and a French press.
The SoftBrew has replaced the press pot as my preferred morning brew method for a few reasons. First, I just love using it. The porcelain is solid, feels nice in my hands and it won’t shatter with a slight tap on the edge of the sink. I can pull the grounds out of the pot right after brewing to prevent over-extraction and the micro-filter creates a cleaner cup, while still producing a full flavor. The porcelain also maintains heat better than a glass carafe and it’s much easier to clean.
Last week, I included the SoftBrew in the DCILY Gift Guide, but realized not everyone is familiar with it, so I made a video to show it in action. Enjoy!
Over the next couple weeks, I’ll be posting some of the coffee highlights from my travels through Scandinavia (and Germany), including cafe suggestions for when you find yourself in any of the same places.
My first stop was Iceland, and apart from arriving in the most beautiful airport I’ve seen (it resembles a modern art museum more than a travel hub) I was most excited to see an airport cafe (a Kaffitár) at 6am with a La Marzocco espresso machine. No automatic crap here! I had a nice double shot to start my day before heading into downtown Reykjavik to visit, what I was told, is the best coffee shop in Iceland, Kaffismiðja.
Kaffismiðja is owned by Sonja Björk Einarsdóttir Grant, a international barista judge, and Ingibjörg Jóna Sigurðardóttir, an Icelandic National Barista Champ and two time participant in the World Barista Championships. Both owners talent as baristas evolved while working at Kaffitár which has a number of locations around the country, including two in the airport where I first arrived.
The atmosphere is extremely casual, like a good friends living room, but adorned with the many awards from barista competitions from around the world. The center piece of the cafe is hard to miss, once you leave the bar you’re confronted with a hot pink Geisen roaster. It doesn’t really match anything else in the environment, but somehow ties everything together. They roast just a small selection of coffee, but what they offer is quality, including two beans from Colombia that have been in the Cup of Excellence finals multiple times. I got a bag of the Colombia Bella Vista, which is the first coffee that Kaffismiðja has begun importing themselves directly from the farm.
The shots were well pulled and the milk art was beautiful. The cafe is located in the heart of the city, just a block north Hallgrimskirkja (the highest building in the city) so if you ever visit, you shouldn’t have trouble finding it. An Architect friend of mine also just finished an installation in front of the cafe. From most angles it looks like an array of random, geometric wooden benches, but if you find the green square on the sidewalk, it spells “torg” meaning “market square” in most Scandinavian languages.
Any one of the Kaffitár locations will also provide you with good coffee. It may be a chain, but a small one run by talented baristas. So you shouldn’t have much trouble finding somewhere to get a quality cup in Iceland (unless you’re hiking on a volcanic glacier or something of that sort).
A good friend of mine recently met Tim Duren at the farmer’s market in Tuscaloosa, AL. Tim’s normal fare are Snapdragons (the flowers) but he recently began roasting coffee to sell at the farmer’s market. This is great news for anyone in West Alabama, because it’s a coffee desert otherwise, with the closest quality roaster 70 miles away in Birmingham. So my friend kindly sent two roasts my way to try out, and to sum things up, Tim has a bright future ahead of him. I wasn’t sure what to expect from this new roaster, but Tim’s El Salvador is one of the best cups I’ve had since being in NYC this spring.
— Tim’s Custom Roasted Coffee: Organic El Salvador
Aroma: The ground beans were rich as Fort Knox with a sweet scent of chocolate and a handful of nuts. Once brewed the aromas became more complex and very sweet. Caramel and hints of vanilla were very present and the dry nutty scent was blended into the creamy aroma of peanut butter without the jelly.
Taste: My initial sip was met with a lively brightness, like a spoonful of grapefruit on a quite Saturday morning. The shine of the first sip smoothed into a nutty aftertaste that evolved more and more into dry cocoa as it cooled. A very pleasant and smooth, full body swells from the cup, filling my mouth as a warm marshmallow would after roasting lightly on a camp fire.
I’m generally not a fan of Colombian coffees, and while this was more enjoyable than most, it was still kind of boring.
Aroma: The dry grounds were surprisingly floral with hints of fruit and nuts. After being brewed the aroma was surprisingly dull without providing much of anything aside from a slight hint of orange peel. The cup became very flat and unexciting to me.
Taste: Though the aroma offered no enticement, my first sip was pleasantly accented with a citrus zest followed by slightly salted walnuts washed down with a nice slightly sweet finish. As the cup cooled the brightness was more pronounced and the flavors became much more complex with chocolate and a dry wine finish that rounded out this medium body brew.
In this ongoing series about coffee branding, I’ve decided to begin with one of the best roasters in the US, Stumptown Coffee. Portland, Oregon based Stumptown was founded in 1999 by Duane Sorenson, who cares deeply about his coffee. The brand itself has been built on his passion for quality. No logo, aesthetic, packaging, or marketing can capture the word-of-mouth buzz that transcends the taste of their product.
Packaging: There is no universal style to the Stumptown brand. Instead, an understated, but eclectic voice weaves itself through the various elements—beginning with their bags. For a company once credited with having the most valuable stock of coffee beans, you’d think more money would be spent dressing them. However, Stumptown choose a simple brown bag with a slight modification, a pocket. The slit in the front of the bag allows a color-coded card to be slipped in, displaying the type of bean, while the rest of the card contains information on the bean’s origin, elevation, and flavors. This modest, but functional packaging is a humble proclamation of the companies confidence in its product.
One thing I really appreciate about Stumptown’s branding, is that they’ve avoided the largest cliché in coffee branding, what I call the “origin aesthetic.” Coffee only grows in countries within the “coffee belt” roughly bordered by the Tropic of Cancer and the Tropic of Capricorn, so every company selling coffee gets it from similar cultural regions. It’s difficult to “own” tribal patterns, native color palettes, or photos of the locals, when any of your competitors can do the same. It’s an overused and therefore meaningless way to tell your customers who you are—think bottled water and images of mountain springs.
Company Responsibility: When companies do use origin images, it often seems like it’s only purpose is to exploit the perception of the local population to increase coffee sales, instead of genuinely helping them. Stumptown however, has gone above and beyond most in the industry to establish relationships and pay above fair trade prices for coffee. They also work intensively with farmers to improve the quality, and thus the value of their crop. In 2006, Duane also helped create a non-profit organization in Rwanda that builds and maintains cargo bikes to help coffee farmers deliver their crop. Yet, they’ve chosen not to exploit any of this in their branding or marketing, they just do it because it’s right.
Cafés: I’ve only been to a couple Stumptown cafés, but I found them both to have a similar ambiance, even though they were quite different. The atmosphere captures a slight steampunk vibe, with dark wood contrasting against the shine of La Marzocco espresso machines. The barista’s were casually dressed like members of an indie band, except at the Ace Hotel in NYC where the baristas resemble the cast of the Newsies. While the environment will quickly be dubbed “hipster” by some, I think the latter is a fun and sophisticated twist on a bygone era. It makes visiting the café as much of an experience as drinking Stumptown coffee. If you want commodity comfort, look elsewhere.
Collateral: What I find most successful about the Stumptown brand, is the freedom and flexability it has established. All of the collateral has a unique aesthetic, designed with the brand in mind, but not dependent on anything designed previously. Each item is considered and fits comfortably into an invisible aura that Stumptown has created for itself. This characteristic has successfully allowed the brand to be placed within various lifestyles instead of trying to create one itself.
Coffee is a huge industry—the second largest commodity in the world after oil—and Stumptown is one company treating it differently. While I know there have been others in the past, most have let their concern for the quality in the cup slip. Stumptown meanwhile, has been a master of making that their greatest concern, which is more valuable than anything good branding can do.
Last week a Starbucks in SoHo was reopened to the community, but now with more from the local ecosystem integrated into the store. After 15 years of service, the newly renovated location became one of a dozen pilot stores around the world to implement more sustainable practices into the construction of new locations.
The Spring and Crosby location is part of an experimental batch of 12 stores around the world, testing the feasibility of Starbucks’ recent initiative to have all new global locations LEED-certified by the end of the year. Each store is located in a different “bio-region” of the world–Kyoto, Japan; Lisbon, Portugal; Toronto, Canada; and Seattle among them–to test the varying shifts in energy use and locally sourced materials -PSFK
The store’s use of reclaimed wood, locally manufactured furniture, and recycled glass tiles are quite beautiful. The place feels more authentic than the cheap strip mall quality most locations posses. They also offer “for-here” mugs, an option they never should have removed from stores in the first place. Although, I was the only person I saw during my hour long visit who used one.
The new location is the first in NYC to boast a Clover machine for single cup coffee brewing. The quality is great (best cup I’ve ever had at a Starbucks), but there is a bit of a knowledge gap among the employees. I had to repeat my order 6 times between the two people I encountered, and it was still made iced before I could notice and correct them. It’s not like I was ordering off a secret menu either, it was a featured item on the menu board.
However, if Starbucks is to continue growing at the rate they have, it’s an extremely admirable goal to have all their future locations LEED certified. The quality of the materials truely add a rich new layer to the experience and the responsibility behind the decision illustrates why they continue to be an inspirational business leader, even if you don’t like their coffee.