cover_story (2005-51)

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Bean Town

Coffee at Home

Treat your beans right

Bean Town The Buzz about Knoxville by Ellen Mallernee

In the hallway outside Matthew McReynolds’ office there’s a headache-inducing fluorescent fixture that’s mistaken itself for a strobe light; his phone won’t stop ringing, and a hurried colleague keeps dropping into his office, clutching a clipboard, asking questions.

It’s like any office, really, apart from the pervasive and piquant smell of good coffee—and I’m not talking about the office mud maker simmering away in a corner somewhere. Despite the chaos, or because of it, McReynolds is grateful for an excuse to seal us into a jumbled side room in the front offices of Goodson Bros. Coffee Co., located among a swarm of car dealerships in West Knoxville. Behind him, roughly 100 baggies of unroasted green coffee beans are tacked onto a corkboard and arranged meticulously by country of origin and quality.

The vice president of quality assurance and green coffee for Goodson Bros., McReynolds pours hot water over two heaps of coffee grounds, stirs and spoons the floaters from the surface; in turn, he lifts the decanters, breathes deeply and slurps like a child with a near-empty cereal bowl, drawing the coffee fully into his mouth. Then he gurgles and spits a string of brown liquid into a spittoon at his feet—all to do with a ritualistic practice called cupping, crucial when evaluating incoming coffees for a company.

Wine enthusiasts share similar interests. In fact, cupping draws numerous comparisons to wine tasting in terms of identifying the nuances of taste and smell and appreciating the lineage and growing technique of a pound a coffee.

“Look for coffees that start at the front of your tongue and go all the way back,” he advises, hopping up to point at a comprehensive diagram of the tongue.

I’ve never before paid attention to my tongue in the context of coffee, unless it’s being scorched, and when it’s put to a spur-of-the-moment test, it fails me.

I take McReynolds’ place, straddle the spittoon like a bongo drum. “Now, put your nose right up to the coffee, ’til you’ve almost burned the tip of it,” he says. “What does it smell like?” Hovering over one of Goodson’s specialty brews, I say lamely, “Smells like good coffee.” I don’t yet have the vocabulary, nor may I have apt taste buds, to articulate the taste. And—don’t tell McReynolds—I’m used to cream and Splenda in my coffee.

“Suck it with a lot of force,” he says. “It’s kind of barley, malt-like, right?”

I nod like I get it.

“Now the next one, what does it remind you of?”

The liquid smells putrid, looks like the Tennessee River. “Dog food?” I guess.

I’ve just sniffed a sample of an industrial blend, the kind you’d find pre-packaged in a hotel bathroom, or in my kitchen.

“I’m very adamant about my feelings,” he says, adamantly, “And I don’t want the public to interpret coffee the wrong way, because quite often people think it’s just caffeine.”

Whatever the reason, most folks simply love their coffee. Americans drain more of it than any other country. Like nothing else, it lures them out of warm, early-morning beds, complements a cigarette or a dessert, polishes off a meal. It provides an excuse for old friends to meet and to linger, relieves constipation and restores flagging energy. It can be dressed up with milk and sugar and syrup and spices and whipped cream. Or it can be taken black and strong, as McReynolds and most other roasters advise.

As a self-described wholesale roaster, Goodson Bros. sells the majority of its coffee to bigwig coffee companies, the names of which the roaster can’t disclose. “We sell everything from jail coffee to Jamaica Blue Mountain,” he says, “jail coffee” being the stuff of supermarket cans and Jamaica Blue Mountain being the most expensive specialty coffee on the market at $29 a pound—unless we’re including Kopi Luwak coffee beans, plucked from the feces of a rainforest marsupial, billed as ‘Good to the Last Dropping’ and selling for a whopping $600 a pound.

Goodson Bros. does only five percent of its business in retailing specialty coffee, sold locally at Café Gourmet in the Gay Street Visitor’s Center. But the specialty vein is McReynolds’ passion, a passion that theoretically runs in his genes; his great-great-great grandfather James Franklin Goodson opened a wholesale grocery company in Morristown, Tenn., under the JFG name in 1882.

McReynolds believes that, following a national trend, Knoxvillians are slowly becoming more receptive to specialty coffee, long popular on the West Coast. “Knoxville has had a real problem with coffee for a long time,” he says. “But it’s starting to infiltrate the masses.”

Home to two nationally known roasting companies and to at least four independent coffee companies, Knoxville has brewed up a robust name for itself in the coffee business.

Though Mike Edwards, president of Knoxville Area Chamber Partnership, doesn’t think coffee’s done much for the city in terms of the number of persons employed, he says, “We’re producing a lot of coffee. Coffee has become very avant-garde. There’s a new discovery of it and there’s all sorts of grades. A lot of communities are seeing a revival in coffee processing, and in comparison with other cities, I’d say we’re doing extremely high levels of coffee production.”

Specialty coffee shops—including Golden Roast, Old City Java and both Cup-a-Joe locations, now closed—have fared well here since the ‘90s. Since the opening of the first Knoxville Starbucks in December of 2002, 12 new locations have mushroomed in greater Knoxville. Even gas stations have kept up, installing cappuccino machines and offering dark roast European blends. Weigel’s boasts that it has “The Best Cup of Coffee in Town—Guaranteed,” and Pilot’s sidling up too, just this month introducing an Arabica blend called Kenya King AA.

Though most Southern folks are stubborn in their devotion to tin-can coffee, the specialty coffee industry has made it increasingly difficult to eschew exotic blends. Local roasters, with the help of the ubiquitous Starbucks on your corner, endeavor to break your industrial coffee bend. They swear collectively that all they have to do is get to you once and you’ll never go back.

All the world’s coffee comes from a narrow subtropical belt that encircles the Earth, and while Brazil, Colombia and Vietnam grow the majority of it, the more desired specialty varieties come from Kenya, Hawaii, Tanzania and Indonesia.

Specialty coffee is grown in high-altitude locales, and its cherries are scrupulously handpicked, conditions that free it from defects and imbue it with a distinctive taste. Much of it is organic, fair-traded, and shade-grown.

On the other hand, industrial coffee beans (also known as Robusta beans), are grown at lower altitudes and harvested all at once, without much attention to maturity. In fact, because Arabica beans—grown at 2,500 feet or above—are cultivated at a higher altitude they’re notably rounder than the flat Robusta beans. Americans bought $9.6 billion worth of specialty coffee last year, with 20 percent of customers opting for it at the supermarket.

Knoxville’s biggest coffee manufacturers—JFG with 150 full-time employees and Goodson Bros. with 25 employees—both boast lines of specialty coffee, and both say those lines are on the upswing.

“It’s an area we’re looking at possibly growing into from the retail end,” says JFG Plant Manager Rich Schmader. Besides marketing its specialty line through a sister company called Standard Coffee Service, JFG supplies chicory coffee to arguably the world’s most famous coffee house—Café Du Monde in New Orleans.

JFG now belongs to New Orleans-based Reily Foods, which purchased the name from McReynolds’ family in ’65. By then, plants on both Mynatt Avenue and Jackson Avenue had opened. Only recently, JFG announced that it would be closing its 78-year-old Old City location and relocating its roasting facility to a $12 million, 33,000 foot expanded plant on Mynatt Avenue, near Sutherland. “Our downtown equipment is 70-plus years old,” says Schmader. “We’re just moving to a state-of-the-art type operation as opposed to what we have right now on Jackson Avenue.”

Schmader says JFG anticipates a 25 percent increase in productivity because of the move. It has already hired 38 new employees.

Goodson Bros. can relate to JFG’s increasing productivity. After selling JFG, brothers Jeff Goodson and Moffatt Goodson, the latter deceased, began anew with Goodson Bros., now 26 years in business. In the last five years alone, McReynolds says the company has increased business by 80 percent. Still, he admits, “Everybody’s got good coffee if they know what they’re doing. The better the coffee they sell, the better coffee we sell.”

The trick, really, is getting a pound of coffee in somebody’s kitchen,” says John Clark, owner of Maryville’s Vienna Coffee Company. “If I can get it there, they drink it, then they try to go back to Folger’s or Maxwell House, and they just can’t do it. They get spoiled.”

Clark’s operation is located inconspicuously in a half-empty, beautifully scented building along Highway 411. A retired environmental engineer, he’s been in the roasting business for only four years.

“I grew up here, but then I spent 15 years in San Francisco, and I got used to a good coffee shop on almost every corner,” he says. When he returned to Knoxville in ’96, he began roasting for his own consumption in a stovetop popcorn popper. Soon after, his brother opened a Miami, Fla., coffee shop called Vienna Coffee House, and with the help of an antique roaster purchased through eBay, Clark roasted and shipped all of the shop’s beans.

Eventually the coffee shop closed, leaving Clark keyed up and eager to start a company in Knoxville.

“[Vienna Coffee Co.] is small enough that I can do all the selling and delivery myself…. I’m having so much fun,” he says. “I’m not bringing in near the money that I was [as an engineer], but for now my wife is content to pay the mortgage and let me build the business.”

Clark now employs two women who assist with the roasting and bagging of roughly 20 blends, sold at Downtown Grind, Sunspot, Aubrey’s, Three Rivers Market, Maryville College, Bliss, Cumberland House Hotel, Garden Fresh Market, Nature’s Pantry and more. He also lends his coffee to others; i.e., The Farmer’s Market puts its label on his coffee, as does Bliss, Circle Modern Dance and the Knoxville Ornithological Society.

A well-informed, socially conscious roaster, Clark takes care to offer some organic, shade-grown and fair-traded coffees. “Fair trade is a movement that was begun in the specialty coffee industry years ago because of the glut of cheap, inferior coffee coming out of Vietnam and Brazil,” he explains. “It was driving down the commodity cost that farmers were getting for the coffee…. The little guys picked the coffee that we liked, so the industry said, ‘How can we keep them on their farms?’”

Begun in the late ’90s, the fair-trade movement pays specialty coffee growers above commodity cost and certifies through paper trail that the farmer, or co-op of farmers, receives a fair and competitive price, currently a minimum of $1.26 a pound. In comparison, the world price usually hovers at $1 per pound, but most farmers earn less than 50 cents per pound as they are forced to sell to manipulative middlemen.

Clark highlights another issue of concern—shade-grown, or bird-friendly, coffee. “In a lot of countries, they plow down the rainforest to plant coffee trees,” he says. “The only thing for acres is just coffee trees, and so the songbirds and other bio species that used to inhabit the field no longer have their habitat.”

Shade-grown coffee is planted beneath an overlying forest canopy, sustaining the area’s original fauna and flora. Shade grown is more expensive though, Clark says, because growers have to pick the coffee cherries by hand and load it on the back or a burro or onto their shoulders.

“The things you see in this industry are phenomenal,” he says, pointing to a photograph of a woman balancing a 150-pound sack of coffee beans on her head. “These people are hardy, scratching to exist, and it’s just phenomenal that we can afford to buy coffee here, with the amount of effort involved to harvest it.”

Clark doesn’t have the monopoly on independent roasting in Knoxville. Though Alan Zeigel opened his quiet, campus coffee shop Golden Roast 10 years ago, he began developing his own beans just four years back, after an old friend put his roaster up for sale. He currently roasts 250 pounds of coffee a week, supplying coffee to Three Rivers Market, Tomato Head and Preservation Pub, as well as his own shop.

“I do about 11 different varieties of coffee, and I have a couple of blends as well,” he says. A former diver, adventurer and world traveler, Zeigel isn’t one to forget where his coffee’s come from. Ninety percent of his coffee is fair-traded and organic, and 70 percent is shade grown.

He does his work in a shed that he calls The Roastery, built according to Department of Agriculture standards and located adjacent to his home. “Big roasters want you to think it’s a real science,” he says. “But I use an 80-year-old gas-fired roaster.”

Depending on how a person wants to develop a bean, green coffee can be roasted anywhere from three to 18 minutes. When a bean reaches 160 degrees it begins to make a cracking noise, at which point it swells to roughly 150 percent of its starting size. Soon the cracking subsides, and a roaster listens for the second round of cracking, signaling impending completion. After the beans are deemed done, the roaster lifts a gate and the beans flood into a tank, where they’re churned until cooled.

Unlike Clark and Zeigel, not every roaster has to stray from the area to have a first encounter with fine coffee; the Lockett family’s history is sewn into the very fabric of Knoxville.

“My grandmother came here in the 1800s,” says Tom Lockett, father of Curt Lockett, who owns the Great Smoky Mountain Roasting Company, a roasting plant and full service coffee shop off Northshore. “We’ve been Knoxvillians all our life…. We’re direct descendants of William Bean, the first white male child born in Tennessee after it became a state.”

The Locketts own and run the stunning, 200-year-old Maple Grove Inn, a majestic bed and breakfast that doubles as a wedding venue. Just last month, Curt purchased Smoky Mountain Roasting Company from former owner Neil Crateau, who’d run it for six years. After a month of Crateau’s tutelage, the Locketts took over. Besides running the Inn and their new coffee shop, they currently supply coffee to Old City Java and have hopes to grow the business.

After years as acting pastry chef at Maple Grove Inn, Curt Lockett has ensured that the Great Smoky Mountain Roasting Company always has a selection of made-from-scratch pastries and cakes on hand.

Despite the influx of Starbucks, Knoxville’s independent coffee houses are faring surprisingly well in the midst of the city’s coffee awakening.

Roger Hay, owner of the Lost Savant in North Knoxville, opened his bookstore and coffee shop 11 months ago. “The community has definitely buoyed us at the moment,” he says. “It obviously takes a long time, but I still have people come in today and say, ‘I didn’t even know you were in existence.’”

Hay, who gets his coffee from the Vienna Coffee Company as well as a roaster out of Lexington, Ky., has enhanced the Lost Savant’s popularity by doubling it as a music venue on Friday and Saturday nights.

Renée Sanábriá, the spiky-haired owner of Old City Java, has sustained her business, in part, by offering it as a weekend destination for kids of all ages. On Friday and Saturday nights, she charges $5 to see any one of the area’s younger, often more experimental, bands. “We have a really wide variety of stuff, just all basically underground genres,” she says. “We usually have the place freaking packed to the hilt.”

Old City Java dubs itself Knoxville’s oldest coffee house, open since 1989, but Sanábriá has owned it for just three years and runs it with only four employees. “You get to make your own rules, call your own shots,” she says, sounding for once like the 22-year-old she is. “Of course, then all the responsibilities are yours. If something breaks, if something happens, you’ve got to be here no matter what”—and just as suddenly she’s 22 going on 40 again.

Sanábriá has owned the shop since she was 19, and she tries to keep things interesting. Each month new artwork can be found fastened to the bare brick walls of the front room. Her mother, a board member for A-1 Lab Arts, arranges those exhibits.

Since the closing of both Cup-a-Joe locations, Sanábriá has the city’s only remaining coffee shop to allow smoking, a powerful drawing agent for some of her customers.

In January of 2004, after nine years in business, Joe Smith sold his Cup-a-Joe on the Strip to the Sunspot, which was next door and wanting to expand into the space; his Old City location followed soon after. Smith says the latter occurred in large part because he lost a lot of clientele once the building’s owner reneged on permitting folks to smoke inside. At various times, Smith purchased coffee from Vienna Coffee Company, Smoky Mountain Roasting and Goodson Bros.

He says he hopes to open a coffee house again one day, possibly in a section of the new bar he’s just opened on The Strip, the Half Barrel. “We’re still in the process of growing the business to get it to that point, but we’d like to have a separate work area for a full time barista to be serving coffee beverages,” Smith says. “We’re also interested in serving some of the cordial coffee beverages, since we have a liquor license.”

The brainchild of three men out of Seattle, Starbucks had its beginnings in 1971 as Starbucks Coffee, Tea and Spice Company.

“We just sold whole bean coffee, teas and spices—no lattes, no cappuccinos,” says Keith Stewart, a Starbucks regional marketing manager. Thirty-four years later, the Starbucks product can be found in coffee shops, campuses, gas stations and grocery stores in every state, with 78 locations in Tennessee and 7,400 throughout the United States.

The company familiarized many Americans with Italian terms such as latte, cappuccino, grande, venti etc., and acclimated them to the comfortable coffee-house setting. Its chic light fixtures, overstuffed arm chairs, wireless Internet access and syrupy espresso drinks got many considering the local Starbucks a desirable, even aristocratic, stop. “We want Starbucks to be the third place, after home and work,” says Stewart.

In just the past few years, it’s become an indelible part of popular culture. Britney Spears and the Olsen Twins cling to it like stubborn cases of anorexia and businesspeople shell out upwards of $5 bucks for grande-skinny-decaf-peppermint-mochas, leaving one to wonder if Starbucks won’t one day become synonymous with coffee in general, as Kleenex or Q-Tips have.

“This company has this rich tradition that’s taken coffee and elevated it to the place where a lot of people felt it should have been,” he says. “I don’t know that we created a coffee culture as much as brought it to the forefront.”

Not everyone agrees with Stewart. In fact, the Starbucks brand has taken considerable flak over the years. One website, www.ihatestarbucks.com , was overrun with so many thousands of derisive comments last year that its webmaster disconnected the public input function. Most of those who abstain from purchasing the Starbucks product feel that by doing so they’ll be contributing to the preservation of independent coffee shops; others rally in support of human right issues. In 2000, thousands of activists stipulated that if Starbucks didn’t provide fair-trade coffee they’d stage a massive public protest in over 30 cities. In October of that year, Starbucks CEO Orin Smith conceded, signing a contract to sell Fair Trade Certified coffee and making the company the largest purchaser of Fair Trade Certified coffee in the United States. Fair-trade advocates say the company hasn’t gone far enough; Starbucks never offers fair-trade coffee as its Coffee of the Day.

Some say smugly that Starbucks sells more milk than coffee, that its coffee tastes burnt and bitter, and that it bulldozes independent coffeehouses, which make up 57 percent of U.S. coffee establishments.

Knoxville baristas say just the opposite, expressing consistent appreciation about Starbucks’ ability to intensify awareness of specialty coffee.

 “They’ve done a great thing for our industry,” McReynolds says. “They’re going to change the markets for the future.”

Golden Roast’s Alan Zeigel says his sales have climbed by eight percent since the installation of a Starbucks just down the way, on The Strip. He experienced the same phenomenon when a Starbucks went into the UT Library, crowning the hill that’s just paces away from his shop.

Clark says all ships rise with the tide. “People start going to Starbucks, they learn about good coffee. They learn what a latte is, what a cappuccino is…. Then as they’ve learned about good coffee they will seek out me and more often than not they’ll come back…. East Tennessee is far behind as far as the maturity of our coffee culture, but that’s good for me. It’s a growth opportunity.”

With a caffeinated chuckle, John Clark says, “At some point, I wouldn’t mind being Johnbucks. Not at all.”

A look inside Clark’s Willy Wonka-esque coffee roasting facility gets me to thinking about the promise of an independent, idealistic new business, and about coffee in general and about why people love it. Coffee is romantic—its unfurling steam, its origin in exotic locales, its sumptuous smells and tastes, its implications about privilege and social status. Whether I am the victim of a grand coffee hoax, I’ve not yet decided. But just yesterday—even in the tightwad tizzy of the Christmas season—I shelled out, with only marginal compunction, $18 dollars for a pound of whole-bean Ethiopian Mocha coffee. I wrestled the holiday traffic and elbowed my way through a queue of people for my place at a cash register, where I purchased a grinder for $30.

This morning, I got out of bed just as the alarm sounded. I wanted to commune with my astronomically expensive coffee. I believe, with only a little hesitation, that it was worth it.

Coffee at Home Treat your beans right

 

Which beans to buy : Matthew McReynolds, vice president of Goodson Brothers, recommends Kenya AA Gitchacha Estate, Ethiopian Moka Harrar Horse, Java Estate, Tanzanian Northern Mwenga Peaberry and Guatemalan SHB Huehuetenango Huixoc as his favorites. Sound like Greek? You can find delicious variations of these at local coffee houses.

To grind or not to grind : Coffee begins to go stale within 20 minutes of grinding, releasing essential molecules of flavor and aroma. Coffee enthusiasts suggest grinding just the needed amount directly before brewing.

Where to store: Though it’s a controversial issue, consensus has it that coffee should be stored in an airtight container in a dark space. Keep it out of the refrigerator or the freezer, where it’s likely to absorb odors.

How much to use : Use seven grams of finely ground espresso per shot and two and a half tablespoons of coffee for every six ounces of water.

Which espresso maker to purchase : Vienna Coffee Company’s John Clark recommends that you avoid steam espresso makers, usually ones like Mr. Coffee or Krups that sell for less than $200. “You simply cannot get a good latte at home without a machine that ‘pumps’ the water to high pressure and costs more than about $250 or $300,” says Clark, who recommends Starbucks’ Barista machine and others found on www.wholelattelove.com . Can’t afford an espresso machine? Clark recommends preparing it in a stovetop Moka-style pot, found in camping stores.

Which coffee pot to purchase : In general it doesn’t matter whichpot you purchase, as long as you don’t leave the pot on too long. Without transferring it to another carafe, coffee is only good for 10 minutes or less. True coffee enthusiasts, Clark says, migrate to the cheapest coffee maker around—the French Press, a small gadget that grinds your coffee coarsely and strains it with hot water.

What to do with the grounds : Compost them in your garden, where they’ll ward off ants, or use them to kill slugs and snails.

© 2005 MetroPulse. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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