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The Championship Gambit: Rwanda Maraba Espresso

[flickr-photo:id=3533691455,size=m]For the uninitiated, the idea of a barista championship might seem about as exciting as competitive crossword (and more on that one soon...). But in the world of specialty coffee, the various barista competitions are very serious business. Baristas train all year to craft espresso drinks with exacting precision. Roasters tweak blends and roasts, timing the production to maximize flavors at the precise time of competition. Grinders are modified and lugged around the world with the hope of providing the slightest edge in producing consistent and predictable extractions.

Intelligentsia's Mike Phillips won the US Barista Championship with an extraordinary preparation of the Bolivia Anjilanaka single origin espresso. The Intelli roasting crew had gone to great lengths to produce single origin roasts for the US championships in Portland, with special roasts of the Bolivia, Yirgacheffe, and Guatemala coffees for their four different baristas. In the end, Mike Phillips won the US title. Having tried Mike Phillip's Anjilanaka espresso from the US Barista Championship, I was skeptical when I heard that he was switching to a Rwanda Cup of Excellence-winning coffee for his World Barista Championship try. Then I had the chance to try it myself, first as a syphon brew and then as an espresso. I'm not sure about the "articulate" description (it speaks well for itself?), but tamarind and gingersnap is spot on. It is stunning.

Mike put on an amazing performance at the World finals in Atlanta last month, taking third out of a field of nearly sixty (you can watch the video of his performance here). Just after the competition, Volta was able to offer a very limited amount of Mike's competition Rwanda espresso. We're pleased to be able to offer it again this week on the second grinder. Not only did the coffee help to propel Mike to the finals, it itself was a winner in the Rwandan Cup of Excellence competition. Produced by the Abahuzamugambi Bakawa (“Together we work the coffee”) cooperative, the coffee had placed sixth out of all of the lots submitted for evaluation as the best coffees produced in Rwanda last year. Just fifteen bags of the coffee were available, with the lot split between Intelli and two other companies for $8.20 a pound green. In other words, we're talking about a very rare and limited coffee.

Volta is very pleased to have the Maraba espresso back on tap. I'd strongly suggest it as a straight espresso or as a macchiato to get the full expression of the coffee, but it is also spectacular as a cappuccino. The Rwanda CoE Maraba espresso is a .75 upcharge to the price of any of our espresso drinks.

These New Times

Beginning on Monday, 4/13, Volta will be opening earlier and closing earlier:

Monday-Friday, 7am-10pm
Saturday 9am-10pm
Sunday 9am-5pm

Our mornings just keep getting busier, and we are consistently hearing requests to open earlier so that more people can stop by before heading out to work. At the same time, we're seeing that people just don't need/want that much espresso later in the evenings, and our staff need more time off on Sunday evenings to spend down-time away from the shop.

Peru Cruz Del Sur Microlot

We've been enjoying the new Peruvian coffee Cruz Del Sur over the last month, and we're sad to say that it is no longer available from Intelligentsia-- they've already sold out of the entire lot from this year's crop. Although the regular Cruz will be off the menu by the end of this week, we now have a microlot version. Selected by the farmer as the highest quality coffee from this year's crop, the Cruz Del Sur microlot is more refined, nuanced, and less aggressively sharp than the standard Cruz. We're pleased to be able to offer the coffee at the shop; we're also glad that the crew at Intelligentsia put together the following video featuring the coffee's farmer and his family:

Volta Museum of Natural Histories

[flickr-photo:id=3393248090]For this month's ArtWalk, Volta has been transformed into a temporary autonomous natural histories museum. The NeoNaturalist movement seeks to return the natural sciences to their amateur roots: entomologist and herpetologist working with illustrators, photographers, bike mechanics, cave divers, and baristas to document the esoteric reaches of the vanishing Florida landscape. Following the rallying cry of "Herping ain't easy," these intrepid volunteers spend long nights searching the back roads of north florida for traces of flora and fauna least likely to be featured in National Geographic or Florida Living: while the whales and wolves might be the poster critters of the environmental movement, the NeoNaturalists are documenting the last stands of the insects, reptiles, and plants most likely only to be encountered dead on the road by the residents of Florida-- the last traces of the true Florida landscape that is rapidly eroding in the shadow of development and the angel of history.

The installation includes specimen boxes and jars, line drawings, photographs, paintings, scientific research stills, including works by:

Lary Reeves
John Bremer
Alexandra Wright
Anthony Rue
Amanda Ropp
Amanda Grabau
Quincy Masters III
Montana Atwater
Keitha McCall
Charlie Meyer

New Chocolate: CioMod, from Sicily


Thanks to our friend Andrea Tosolini, Volta is debuting another new chocolate that is unavailable anywhere else in the US (yet). CioMod Neropuro is one of the more intriguing chocolates that we've come across. The packaging is extremely well designed; you'd think that the chocolates would be refined and sophisticated like Cuoronero or Maglio. The chocolate itself is unlike anything I've tried, anywhere in the world. CioMod prides itself on contemporary twists on regional Sicilian specialties. In their attempt to capture the “Terra del Sole” of Modica, they have developed a style of bar that seems ancient in execution. They don't use any cocoa butter in the bars: the pure dark, for instance, uses only cocoa mass and sugar. The pistachio bar adds only locally-grown Modica pistachios to the ingredients. The result is somewhat startling when you unwrap the bar. The surface looks like it has a swirling golden bloom, and when you snap the bar it appears to glisten with raw sugar granules. When you eat the chocolate, it has none of the characteristics that one would expect from a chocolate bar. There's no snap, no cocoa butter to smooth the flavor around. It's more like maple sugar candy: as the sugar and cocoa mass heats up, it dissolves into a luxurious buttery cream with profoundly deep chocolate flavor.

Free Public Coffee Cupping: South American Coffees

The next Volta coffee cupping will be held this Satruday morning (March 21) at 11 am. We're taking the opportunity to evaluate the South American coffees that we've seen dominate the menu board over the last few weeks.

The cupping is free and open to the public. No prior experience (beyond a love of coffee) is necessary; we'll provide instructions and guide the cupping from start to finish. A cupping is a structured tasting that is used in the specialty coffee industry to evaluate the quality of specific coffees, both in the field before auction/purchase and at the point of roasting to determine the best roast level. We'll start by evaluating the dry and wet aromas of the coffees, then move on to the "slurp" to develop an evaluation of each coffee's taste. All we ask is that you refrain from wearing perfumes or other strong scents when cupping with us-- there's just so much that a nose can take in before the individual fragrances of the coffees are overwhelmed.

Volta Goes to Cancun

Well, not exactly. But Volta will be holding to a shorter spring break schedule this week. Please note that Volta will close at 8:00 p.m. on Monday, March 9 through Friday, March 14.

We will return to normal hours of operation on Saturday, March 14

The Price of a Cup: History, Quality, and Our Difficult Times

I think that anyone who comes by Volta knows that we are pretty serious about how we approach our coffees, teas, and chocolates. Ok, sometimes we're borderline obsessive. First and foremost, we started Volta because we think that Gainesville deserves to have just as good a drink as anywhere in the world. If you can boil water and buy quality ingredients, you can make make great tea and coffee. It's not rocket science. As a business, it requires that we go out on a bit of a limb: we have gone against the grain to create a menu that shows each ingredient at its best. Sometimes we disappoint the occasional customer who wants a jumbo-sized drink, or a specific drink made exactly like it is by a multinational chain-- but the overwhelming majority of the people who come in to Volta understand and appreciate that we're serving something very special.

Personally, I consider the quality of what's in the cup to be a signifier of a chain of respect that stretches back to the farmers who grow the trees and the generations of working people who have suffered and strived to make their living by growing commodities that are entangled in a very troubling mesh of social and political forces. (I highly recommend Wolfgang Schivelbusch's Tastes of Paradise, Mark Pendergrast's Uncommon Grounds, or Coe and Coe's The True History of Chocolate if you are interested in how these luxury commodities are borne by hundreds of years of political and social injustice.) The coffees, chocolates, and teas are getting better every season, but it comes at a cost. Our wholesale cost of a pound of coffee is higher than the retail pound of coffee costs at Walmart or Target. When you see that our coffee prices are differentiated, it is because the different coffees have a considerable range of costs to us. It costs more to us because we partnered with a roaster that is extremely pro-active in working directly with the farmers to produce better coffees. Intelligentsia is fanatical in their desire to bring higher quality coffee to market, but they do so by working directly with the farmers and co-ops to produce better coffee cherries and to improve processing methods. They work with the farmers and producers to research better mill procedures, they invest in new technologies to ensure that the coffee arrives at the roasting works in better shape, and they put incredible focus on roasting each new harvest to bring out its potential based on the seasonal qualities of each crop. I strongly believe that the cost of our coffee is worth it because it is the cost of improving the lives of everyone down the supply chain to the farmer-- and because it is the best damned cup of coffee that you'll be able to buy in town.

As a retail coffee establishment, Intelligentsia's cafes in Chicago developed in a different time from Volta. Until recently, if you went to an Intelli cafe, you saw many of the same approaches that had been used over the last ten years to compete with the mermaid, including 20 ounce drinks and a lower quality blended coffee brewed by the gallon and sold for a reduced price. I feel a bit of pride to see that Intelligentsia is now switching their Chicago shops over to an approach that any Volta customer would recognize: selections of their best seasonal coffees brewed by the cup on the Clover or Chemex, served in sizes that are appropriate for the intensity of the experience. The change for Intelligentsia hasn't been without criticism; especially at a time when people are feeling financially at risk, the idea that a coffee-- no matter how spectacular-- might cost more than any other commodity coffee seems to bring out very emotional responses from some people.

Intelligentsia has caught a fair amount of heat in response to their changes in the Chicago press; a story in the Tribune about eliminating jumbo drink sizes brought out hundreds of very angry responses (although I'd wager that few if any of the respondents were actual customers). The move this week to brew-by-the-cup has ignited more debate, with the added twist of questioning the value of a $2.50 or $3 cup of coffee at a time when the media drumbeat about depression economics would have you believe that we should only be drinking watered-down Maxwell House. Intelligentsia's buyer, Geoff Watts, responded in depth to one such story recently. I'm indulging in reprinting the entire response here because I think anyone who frequents Volta will be interested in what he has to say about how Intelligentsia thinks about coffee in both an historical and a commercial context:

Coffee is probably one of the most poorly understood food products in the world, especially considering how ubiquitous it is in our lives. I don’t think the Specialty Coffee industry as a whole has done a very good job of changing that, unfortunately. Part of the reason, in my opinion, is that in the last ten years there has been such relentless proliferation of certifications, seals, buzz-words, fancy brewing gear, new flavor additives, over-wrought milk-based coffee drinks and that sort of thing that the average consumer is overwhelmed and perhaps even a bit cynical about what they come to see as a lot of fancified hubbub masquerading as a culinary and cultural coffee revolution. Considering all of the misinformed proselytizing and disingenuous storytelling the industry at large has turned to as a means of marketing itself and it is no wonder that the actual coffee (the basic raw material that transforms into coffee beverages) has gotten pushed into the background.

But it needn’t be that way. I thought about the comment Doug made in that Time Out article and realized that it may have been taken the wrong way out of context. I share his belief that coffee has historically been way under-priced. Ever since the Dutch started to commercialize coffee in their East Indies island colonies and the Portuguese went crazy planting coffee all over Brazil, it has been treated, with extremely rare exception, as a commodity—easily replaceable (“if Guatemalan coffee gets too expensive we’ll just buy from Peru instead”), minimally differentiated, and valued as a function of worldwide supply and demand rather than as relation to true production costs or intrinsic quality.

There have been a few times over the last couple of centuries when becoming a coffee farmer seemed like a good idea. In the 1700’s, when coffee first came to the Americas, lots of coffee was produced at low cost for the European markets and farmers expanded their land holdings as fast as they could cut down trees. In the 1800’s you saw plantations turning into small fiefdoms, and coffee farms became coffee empires. By the early 20th century the US had already become one of the world’s most important consuming countries, and farms kept proliferating. Coffee was the go-to-crop for many aspiring landholders/entrepreneurs who enjoyed some success in the 50’s and 60’s. There was huge price spike in 1953 that stimulated a lot of further planting (coffee was THE thing to do, man) and within 5 or 6 years a pattern of over-production was initiated that drove prices into the gutter and has kept them there, more or less, ever since. By this time many Central and South American and East African countries had come to depend on coffee as a critical source of export income. The economic fallout from the price drops was intense and led to the founding of an international regulatory body (the International Coffee Organization) which went on to institute a series of agreements (and a quota system) aimed at stabilizing prices in the world-wide market and preventing huge spikes/drops. It worked OK for a while. Countries had newly-imposed limits on what they could export annually, and ‘extra’ coffee got put into reserve stocks for the future. Supply was regulated so that markets could be more predictable.

By the 70’s and 80’s coffee had evolved into the default cash crop for many smallholder peasant farmers who planted coffee for lack of other clear alternative or inherited small plots as a result of various land-reform policies that broke apart big farms. There were fewer “big estates” and millions more small-scale farmers. Sometime in the 80’s the United States pulled out of the ICO, the quota system was dismantled, and things started to derail for coffee farmers. Between 1990 and 2000 Vietnam went from being an insignificant producer to the second largest in the world (behind only Brazil) and the world found itself flooded with very low-cost (and low quality) Robusta coffee. This led to a total collapse in the coffee market, wherein the prices hit rock bottom and stayed there. This time, from about 1999-2003, is often called the “coffee crisis”. It would be understating matters to say that this depression ravaged the industry…it was a fatal blow for many coffee growers, and hundreds of thousands of people around the world who depended solely on coffee for cash income lost their livelihoods.

It still hasn’t recovered, and probably won’t for some time. Production costs are higher than ever before in history in most places due mostly to increased costs of fertilizer, which have almost tripled in the last few years, along with big-time increases in labor costs, energy costs, and transport costs. Your average coffee farmer today is making less money per pound of sold coffee than his grandparents did, in real (unadjusted) dollars, despite drastically higher living costs and production costs.

It is a problem—most coffee farmers I know are of an advanced age and continue to grow coffee because they have no other options. Their children want nothing to do with growing coffee—it has the appearance of the ultimate dead-end job. It is a question I ask myself often—why would one even consider growing coffee as a reasonable career option? Coffee growing, at least of the smallholder and family estate variety, is becoming increasingly unsustainable. Even producing low-quality coffee with the fewest inputs, the lowest costs, skeleton crew labor and little attention paid to detail, maximum attention to volume and minimal regard for environmental impacts…even this kind of production is failing to add up to any profit for coffee farmers. We’ve watched a race to the bottom taking place over the last two decades as the majority of farmers in the world scaled back on farm husbandry, cut harvest costs by sacrificing selectivity, and hustled just to get by.

Meanwhile, the mainstream first-world consumer has held stubbornly to the idea that coffee is a cheap luxury, that the $1.00 bottomless mug is somehow a right or a deserved privilege. It is this very attitude that will continue to ensure that the modern smallholder coffee farmer has little hope of escaping a life of extreme poverty. Cheap coffee (and by “cheap” I mean low cost, which typically equates to low quality) is one of the many forces shackling the developing world and suppressing opportunity for advancement for a huge chunk of the planet’s population who depend on coffee to make a living.

I would argue that even downright crappy coffee ought to carry a higher price tag than it currently does, especially considering the higher production costs that most farmers face today. Current prices are not sustainable for farmers in the long term under even the most optimistic of economic outlooks. Something has got to give.

But high quality coffee (and by this I mean coffee with definite, perceptible sweetness in the cup, a profundity of positive flavor and aroma attributes, and free of taint or off-taste, which is clean coffee, sweet coffee, intrinsically pleasurable coffee, with no additives required) costs a lot more to produce than low quality coffee. Most of this cost accumulates in additional labor—much more highly selective picking, meticulous washing and drying, separation of individual lots rather than bulking, and so forth. Some of it comes in the form of more inputs and more intense plant husbandry—more attention to soil health and nutrition, cultivation of shade trees, good pruning and weeding, and that kind of thing. And some comes as a result of infrastructure improvement—cement or ceramic-tiled tanks for fermentation, raised screens for drying, better de-pulping equipment—there is a long list of things that can be done to dramatically improve the chances of producing a great tasting coffee. Typically it also means paying higher wages to farm workers, investing in training programs, giving attention to water quality issues. All of these things are necessary simply to produce a better tasting coffee in the field.

Once social and environmental issues are considered, the costs begin to accumulate further. If the farmer is serious about treating the water they use for fermentation and de-pulping before putting it back into the ecosystem, there is a cost involved. If an estate farmer is committed to giving increased opportunity and services to the many workers on the farms, they ought perhaps to invest in day-care services for pickers with children, a small health clinic for the community, a water pump for local use, or other basic services that are most often lacking in coffee producing areas.

Protecting coffee quality post-harvest is another matter. Green coffee is very perishable, and in the wrong circumstances can lose most of its quality in a matter or weeks or months. Investing in better packaging material (instead of the traditional jute bags) and organized warehouses with climate/humidity controls can make a huge difference in quality, but comes at a significant price.

Perhaps I’ve rambled a bit much, and I didn’t really intend to when I started writing, but you know that happens sometimes. The point I’m really trying to make is that the reason we’ve raised prices is that we must. We are after the best coffee we can possibly develop, that is the purpose that drives us. To achieve that means paying higher prices to growers and giving them the resources (and the reason!) to produce better tasting coffees. While we certainly feel the impact of the depressed economy here in the States, that impact is not limited to us. The farmers that Intelligentsia works with around the world are feeling the same kinds of pressure—it’s a global phenomenon. And while of course it makes sense to be thrifty in difficult economic times, we still need to realize that the decisions we make will have an impact further down the line. For a consumer the choice to purchase cheaper coffee has ramifications that extend far beyond the personal sacrifice of taste in favor of lower cost. It impacts the way coffee is produced, the way it will be produced in the future, and the ability of those who produce it to earn a living wage from their efforts.

And when you really think about it, even the best coffees are really not that expensive as compared to any other “luxury” product I can think of. You can access the very best, highest quality coffees in the world for between $13 and $30 per pound. Considering that a pound of whole-bean coffee will yield anywhere from 25-40 cups (depending on how it is brewed) the per-cup cost is still measured in cents, not dollars. Or you can go to a top end coffeehouse, where you will likely pay $3-$4.00 for a cup made to order by a professional barista. Now you are paying for the convenience, the vessel, the ability to chill out in a nice space in a nice neighborhood, you know what I mean? That’s a choice as well. The very cost-conscious consumer might consider brewing more coffee at home as an alternative to changing venues and buying a mediocre-to-poor coffee from another coffeehouse. Perhaps it is a little less convenient, but the return is far higher—a truly tasty coffee that is, in a very real and measurable way, supporting artisan farmers and helping to secure them a future in coffee production.
I do agree that there are limits—your wine analogy was right on target. The $100 bottle of wine ($20 per glass?) is for a particular niche, probably not suitable for the mainstream drinker. In most cases not that suitable for even the connoisseur, since a committed wine freak will likely go through several bottles a week, and spending thousands of dollars per month on wine doesn’t seem like a great idea. With coffee I don’t think we’ve ever gotten anywhere close to that place though. Even the glorious and now-famous La Esmeralda Geisha (which sold at auction for $130.00/lb in 2007 and officially became the most expensive specialty coffee in the world) was still available to be had for less than a couple dollars per cup if one were to buy a half-pound at a time and brew at home. Most of today’s most celebrated and delicious Specialty Coffees still come in at a price that is remarkably affordable.

My three cents.

Geoff Watts
Intelligentsia Coffee Buyer

Geoff's comments were in response to the original article on the Hungry Magazine website.

March Gallery Show: Ted Lincoln

Volta is currently exhibiting the mixed media works of Gainesville artist Ted Lincoln. In describing his own work, Ted says:

It amazes me the preponderance of overt and covert eastern influences that exist in my western world. This fusion can sometimes lead to cultural clashes but it can also give rise to rich source material for a profound global dialogue. This richness, irony and dichotomy can be found in no place more evident than in my life, work, and background. Growing up in the south as the son of a Filipina mother and a white father I was aware of all the contradictions and treasures that this contemporary dynamic propagates. My artwork is by no mistake a reflexion of this rich mix.

More information about the techniques used in work can be found on

Ted's work is represented by galleries Art Gotham in New York and 111 Minna in San Francisco, and the current works will be exhibited in San Francisco next month.

New Coffees: Bolivia Calling

The coffees continue to churn through the menu as we see more South American crops come to market. New this week: Bolivia Anjilanaka. The Bolivian coffees have just been getting better and better every year, and the Anjilanaka has consistently been among my personal favorites from Intelligentsia for two years running. Here's how they describe it this year: "Smooth and silky on the tongue, Anjilanaka carries plump green grapes and black mission figs into a lush center that blooms on the palate. The finish is long and lingering with notes of cocoa and cane sugar."

We also welcome back the Guatemala La Maravilla Black Cat Project single origin espresso. Of the three recent Black Cat Project espressos, the Guatemala was the customer favorite at Volta; it was also used by two of the three top competitors at the Western Regional Barista Chamipionship earlier this month. We only picked up a kilo of the Maravilla, so expect it to sell out quickly.

We're also moving two coffees over to limited availability. The Rwanda Zirikana will be gone from Volta very soon now, to make way for more South American offerings next week. We're also sad to see the Colombia El Mirador move over to limited availability. Apparently the demand for El Mirador caught Intelligentsia by surprise; it went from 5-week availability to sold out in one week. We just received 15 pounds in, so we should at least have it through the weekend. If you have not had a chance to try the Mirador brewed on the Chemex or the Clover, be sure to come by soon.

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