Recently I sat down with Jay Cunningham, wholesale sales and coffee buyer for Intelligentsia and SOB’s beer sherpa. We’ve been working with Jay for the last four years on various coffee beer projects, a mere blip in his seventeen years in the coffee game. Jay is someone who, like me, has a kind of insatiable desire to find out what coffee beer can be. With our creations we hope to challenge your palate with something interesting and exceptional; we also hope to educate you about how we see the mashup of coffee and beer evolving and the role we strive to play in that.
You’ve worked in coffee for a long time. Tell us about your job and what draws you to the industry.
I primarily work in wholesale sales in the Midwest, I work with small markets, restaurants, and coffeehouses that are serving our coffee and tea. I get to work with a huge range of businesses and people. Coffee seems to attract like-minded (curious and progressive) but very diverse folks, it’s never boring and I really enjoy it. Specialty coffee is a young industry, growing quickly, and it’s been fun to be on the vanguard of the movement. There is so much room for the industry and Intelligentsia to grow, it’s exciting. Also, coffee makes people happy; it’s nice to play a small role in a daily ritual that brings a lot of joy.
About 10% of my time I work as a member of our green buying team, working with coffee farmers – that’s super fun and challenging and it’s pretty incredible to be able to see and participate in that process: the green coffee trade is a big beast that most consumers don’t think too much about. I like to think that really high quality coffee can be a catalyst for development and sustainability at origin and we’re working to figure that out and increase the value of coffee for producers on a larger scale.
We’re using Tikur Anbessa this year. Tell me about that coffee and the region and farm where it comes from.
JC: It’s a beautiful coffee from Ethiopia, where all coffee originally comes from. It’s the only place in the world where there are wild coffee forests, the genetic diversity there is unrivaled, and probably one of many factors that make the coffee so complex, sweet, floral and winey. This coffee is the product of our partnership with METAD, a farm, mill and exporter which was founded by Ethiopia’s first woman pilot in 1934. It’s still a family run operation, with a really sustainable approach. This particular coffee is from the GIDEO Zone, near the famous Yirgacheffe area, and 70% of the smallholder farmers that produce it are women.
People will notice that the head on Most Important Beverage of the Day and Beverage of Champions disappears really quickly. That’s due to the presence of oil from the coffee. Can you explain where that oil comes from, what it contains, and how it’s extracted during brewing?
JC: Well coffee is the roasted seed of the fruit of the coffee tree, so it has a small amount of natural plant oils and fat in the seed. Those oils can still be present when we grind and brew; some of them end up in the cup. Some brew methods (like paper filters) capture a lot of the oils but since we’re using pretty minimal filtration and a really long contact between the coffee grounds and the water, there’s a fair amount of lipids and oils in the finished cold brew. They don’t taste great on their own, but if there’s some oil in a cup that has good sweetness and nuance, I think they can add to the mouthfeel in a nice way and give coffee some heft.
Why is it that Intelligentsia works directly with farmers at origin and what does that mean for the quality of the coffee that we end up with?
JC: The simple and impersonal answer is that we want first dibs on the harvest, every farm produces a range of quality, and typically coffee is bulked by minimal tasting, definitely the end buyers are not participating in those tastings. You can end up with good coffee, but you’ve lost the diamonds when you bulk like that – we try to taste as many lots as possible and build our containers of coffee, segregating out the lots of the very best coffees, which we sell as our single origins. That’s a somewhat crass and simplified way of explaining the crux of our direct trade model; we also pay well above fair trade prices for our green coffee, ask for transparency along the supply chain, and take a hard look at both environmental and social practices on the farms. We want to help and assist wherever possible to put in place things that improve quality. It’s selfishly motivated, but we’ve found if we work towards that goal with farmers, millers, and exporters, the quality bar can be raised for all the coffees, not just what they are selling to us, and more value is realized by producers. It can really work well and we’ve seen operations begin to flourish and grow with us. We’ve worked with some of the same producers now for over a decade. It’s not a perfect model, but I think it’s working well and we are always looking for ways to improve our sourcing.
Talk about the cultures of coffee and beer. How do they intersect and in what ways are they different?
JC: I’m not sure–I mean the growth and interest in coffee beers has definitely caused a lovely collision. I think both have a lot of little subcultures, especially since they are pretty complex beverages. So you have your homebrewers, who are very technical, and you have the same thing with home-roasters, then you have your scenesters, folks who are on the search for the newest little brewery or roaster, they want something unique. Then you’ve got your obsessive drinkers and espresso fiends, your home-baristas and your Cicerones, there’s a lot to each world! I think we’re united by criticality. But I definitely think both worlds are obsessed with flavor, and exploration of flavor, which to me is endlessly fascinating and challenging. I think we’re all chasing an ideal, something fleeting and delicious and magical, probably impossible, but the real fun is the hunt.
Solemn Oath Brewery will be releasing Most Important Beverage of the Day and Beverage of Champions on Saturday, January 21 at noon. For information or to pre-order, check out the SOB shop.