This is part two of a two-part interview with NYC’s own Erin McCarthy, the 2013 World Brewers Cup Champion. Part one, which was posted a few weeks ago, covered his experiences, personal preferences, and thoughts on coffee’s third wave. This week, the focus is on the future of coffee, and we conclude with him settling the debate of how to brew coffee served cold.
What do you think about the future of coffee?
We’re seeing more automated delivery systems and a push towards automation.
Where do you think it’s going in terms of automation and where do you think it’s going in other ways?
There’s definitely a move within specialty coffee towards using volumetric dosing [programming an exact amount of water for a shot] with espresso machines. We rejected it for a long time, because automation always went with lack of attention to the product, but we’re realizing that if you do that with baristas who are trained to know what to look for, it actually does result in a more consistent product. Katie Carguilo, Counter Culture’s wholesale customer support, is hoping to get volumetric dosing on Maialino’s espresso machine. That would be a perfect place to try it, because they’re one of the best restaurants in the city serving coffee.
In terms of home use, I always come back to where’s the coffee from, how is it sourced, how does it taste? It tends to be that the more convenient stuff like pre-ground coffee will never taste as good as something you make fresh, but there will always be a need for a quick fix.
I think the technology at this point, probably needs to catch up a little bit. There are still things about hand-poured coffee that I like better.
You mentioned that Maialino has a good coffee program. What other restaurants in the city have good programs?
Coffee people have been having this conversation for a long time and have been working from a wholesaler perspective in trying to create systems that can sustain a good coffee program. A restaurant has to be willing to not serve espresso unless they have a dedicated barista. Restaurants feel they have to have espressos to have a full menu. It takes certain owners or chefs who really care about coffee to make the change. Eleven Madison would be another. The ones that come to mind are accounts of ours. There’s a place called Sunshine Company in Prospect Heights that decided to go with a coffee brewer. In terms of high end places, not many come to mind. There is hope in hotels — those with more than one coffee-service area.
When I went to the Nordic Barista Cup, there were a couple talks about customer service, and one with chef Rene Redzepi from Noma. They [the chefs] talked about how they trained their servers to make coffee to perfection just as they trained their sous chefs. It created this bond between the serving staff and the kitchen staff. They talked about how serving good coffee was part of their customer service model. All the way along they’re creating this experience for people and not to have it drop off after the last course.
How will variety impact the future of coffee (as it has in the wine world)?
There’s more genetic diversity in the coffees from Ethiopia than everywhere else on the earth combined. Mostly because just a few varieties made their way to the other side of the world during the spice trade. There are maybe four to five main coffee varieties being grown in Central and South America. A big problem is global climate change (massive rains, crazy droughts) and the coffee grows a fungus which decimates the crop. Two years ago, 75 percent of one farm we worked with at Guatemala lost their crop. It affects some varieties more than others.
Traditionally we talked about coffee in terms of the country and then the farm. We actually didn’t start talking about variety until about 2006. There was this turning point where we started to push the concept of quality along with disease resistance and productivity. We worked to maintain the same level of coffee grown, but also increase the quality.
With coffee inching up in price, $4 or $5 in some places, it seems that marketing of varieties or regions becomes important to explain the price.
That’s something we had to do as a retailer when we started serving pour over coffee by the cup and people started remarking about how expensive it was. We had to teach ourselves. We started talking about flavor notes and work on the farm, because they weren’t used to coffee costing that much. The coffee I used in the Brewer’s Cup was from Hacienda La Esmeralda, and they broke records for the highest price for their coffee in an auction in 2007. So this farm became famous, and the variety became famous. And then roasters had to sell it to customers, who didn’t know why it was so expensive, so we had to learn how to talk about really expensive coffee and why it was important and so pricey.
What New York-based roasters do you admire?
Café Grumpy does a great job. Gimme coffee. Joe, though they roast in Philly. There’s a little place in the back of a barber shop in Williamsburg called Parlor coffee. That might be a different perspective.
What is your opinion on iced coffee or cold-brewing coffee? Some favor the toddy, or use a Japanese dripper; others pour hot coffee over ice.
If you make it hot and then cool it down, it turns it bitter. If you cool it as you’re brewing it, it tends to preserve the acidity, which is my favorite thing about coffee. It tastes more like hot coffee than any other cold coffee method, including cold brewing, which can be good, but in general does not showcase the nuances in different coffees. You get the same kind of chocolate flavor. The selling point of cold-brewed coffee is it’s made to produce lower acid.