"Coffee is always this moving target, filled with subjectivity and infinite possibility and promise."
February 23rd, 2011

Tal Mor Coffee Roaster

Tal Mor is the head roaster and associate buyer at Four Barrel Coffee in San Francisco. He kindly laid out for us all that goes on behind the cup and why it's important to know what that's all about.

 

I’ve heard your roasting style described as intuitive, and a bit unorthodox. Where did you learn?

I learned the fundamentals of roasting in a Portland, Oregon attic. My friend let me borrow a rigged skillet with a makeshift set of paddles and a handle that would move the beans circularly while you applied heat off a propane torch. The skillet had a welded lid, and the only way to look at the coffee was through a small latched door on the top that, when opened, would let tons of heat and smoke out. The roaster didn’t have any air flow, and almost all of the heat was conductive energy — heating up the beans with the contact of the hot metal. It was so awesome and D.I.Y. For the most part, I roasted without looking at the coffee at all. I just listened and smelled, and it was my first encounter with roasting on a sensory level. I had a basic framework of time and a description of what to look for, along with a few basic ideas and approaches to keep in the back of my mind. Those first hundred skillet roasts tasted both horrible and amazing — for the first time I was seeing what influenced and transformed green coffee to roasted.

Can you take me through the process of roasting?

The environment of the roaster is always changing: the green coffee is constantly arriving fresh and aging out; the light is moving with the clock. Coffee is always this moving target, filled with subjectivity and infinite possibility and promise. When I roast up a coffee, I’m pretty fucking obsessed with it. I like to think about the way a coffee tastes when I roast it and connect the cup with what I am smelling and hearing. I believe that you need to know what you are roasting, where it came from, varietal, elevation — lace the facts into your intuition and watch the effects of every variation in heat applied. There is nothing more satisfying and thrilling to me than roasting up a fresh arriving coffee for the first time, purely judging my actions on what I see, smell, and hear. I don’t like a computer near a roaster, or too much data. I like to grind a small sample of a roast just when it has finished cooling, and deduce what’s there with my senses, waiting a few days for it to age and then having a chance to taste it and connect the entire experience into one. I like to reevaluate and obsess. There’s always be a way to make it that much better.

Do you have different roasts, or characterize them in a certain way?

Actually, the goal is not to characterize the roast at all. It is to showcase the coffee. Roast has been a categorizing and discerning factor in the marketing and selling of coffee since, I would imagine, it’s commercial inception. We never refer to roast with customers, and it is actually something we are constantly steering people away from. We are interested in what characterizes each coffee in it’s raw form — the varietals grown, the weather, the soil, the details of processing, the drying, the sorting. Coffee in appearance and taste can indicate to you one or all of those things. When roasting coffees that have so much character, the roast should really just integrate and develop those clear acidities, nuances, and sugars into a balanced and clean cup with significant mouth-feel and body.

Single-origin, freshly roasted coffee can taste quite different than the coffee most people grew up with, or are still used to drinking. How does this concern you as a roaster? Do people need to be taught what is good?

The specialty coffee industry is a small one, and is growing. When I first started working in coffee in New York City five years ago, there were only a few places serving coffee that was any good. Today, I know that the coffee in that town has been elevated not only at the cafe level, but also in restaurants and bakeries. It still has a long way to go, but I would guess that the overall exposure to well-sourced, well-roasted coffee has multiplied many times over in the last few years. But there are also many folks who don’t have an interest, who are perfectly happy with their “version” of coffee, be it a Starbucks frappacino or instant coffee. There is totally nothing wrong with that. I think that people who have a developing notion of the boundaries of food and drink, or who are interested in what they consume, or who just end up stumbling into a high quality coffee shop, will change their standards. These standards will change for not only what’s in the cup, but hopefully the quality of the experience — the barista, the space, the service, and the detail and transparency of the product.

The coffee I grew up with, even in places that might have roasted their own coffee, was pretty burnt. In a certain way, it wouldn’t have been much better even with say “our” roasting approach. For starters, the difference in the quality of the green coffee that we roast compared to average consumption is different by leaps and bounds.

Where does Four Barrel buy its coffee from?

Four Barrel buys its coffee from Central and South America, East Africa, and Indonesia. Depending on the country, sometimes coffee is bought through a transparent auction at origin or other auctions that are less transparent or directly from a producer. Some companies that are large enough, do the exporting and importing themselves, usually to cut costs and get coffee more quickly. This is few and far between in the specialty world. Most roasters are dealing and buying from importers and the coffees that those importers have bought and have available in the warehouse.

Is your coffee organic? Fair trade? Direct trade? What are some of the implications of these labels for a roaster or a cafe?

In order to offer more seasonality, greater quality, and understanding, we are dealing almost exclusively with exporters and producers on the ground level. We are going out and visiting these producers sometimes a few times a year and developing a relationship with them, paying them well, and gaining a better understanding of coffee at the agricultural and export level. At its core, traveling to a coffee growing origin is education and empowers a company to better answer its customers’ questions.

Questions regarding organic, and Fair or Direct Trade are not cut and dry. Every coffee growing origin has its own intricacies in terms of organic production and transparent purchasing. For instance, a bad fungus can push some of our best organic producers to adopt necessary fungicides to save their crop and livelihood. We will still buy their coffee, and be happy to tell you about it — and hopefully be there to buy that farmer’s coffee again when he or she manages to produce organically in subsequent years. Even with a label like Direct Trade that I know is used legitimately by some roasters, others use those terms so loosely as to make them meaningless. Labels are the easy sell, the one-word answer, the quick fix. With the detail involved in purchasing, roasting, and preparing coffee, I would argue that it might be best to avoid labels altogether. Obviously they can make for great profits and marketing, but I would hate to limit myself to one word when talking about our coffee.

If you avoid such labels, is there another buying philosophy at work?

I believe that our buying philosophy is much more invested than a roaster who insists on Fair Trade purchases. Essentially, Fair Trade is a third party that certifies that parties involved in a transaction are being paid accordingly and according to an agreement. The extra premium paid on this certification is five cents above market value, and likely little or none of this extra dividend ends up in the farmer’s hands. We are basically doing what Fair Trade does, but in-house. We travel to visit our farmers and work closely with exporters in a transparent fashion that dictates a clear and fair transaction. On top of this, we pay much higher prices to the farmer and create buying relationships and price structures based on quality.

How is the price of coffee determined?

In every country and with every exporter, pricing and agreements are different. There are certain origins like Kenya that run on a transparent auction system, and others, like Ethiopia, that are not so transparent. Both of these origins have loopholes or other avenues of purchase outside of the auction, but they are not always easy. In other origins, many of them in Latin America, purchasing quality coffee is very direct, and working with exporters, we can set up quality-based price structures, lot separations, protective packaging, and timely shipments. In Colombia, our purchases are entirely based on cup score. Our exporters there have trained tasters, or cuppers, in various buying stations around coffee producing regions who in turn buy and separate purchases according to score.

Coffee is unique in that roasting is only one part of an essentially all parts equal production chain — farmer, roaster, barista — and this makes it quite different than other farm-to-market artisanal goods like wine or cheese, which are more vertically integrated, so to speak, where the farmer is also the producer. How does this aspect make coffee different?

This is what I believe makes coffee the most challenging and maybe the most underrated of such goods. Even if you source an incredible lot of coffee, it gets roasted just right, and someone buys it off the shelf and uses it fresh — the preparation can still get messed up, and it can taste pretty sub-par. Coffee involves a great deal of education and equipment to brew correctly at home. Even with experience, you might end up with wonky results. All of the different hands that coffee goes through have to align and all do their job effectively to end up with a solid product. I feel like we are making a good effort and maybe getting closer little by little.