The Roast With The Most: Talking Shop With Coffee Review

One of the most influential publications in the coffee industry is located not in a lab, not in a roastery, and not even in San Francisco, but on a quiet residential street in Rockridge, in a two room granny unit tucked behind a house shaded by trees. It’s here, surrounded by espresso machines, ornate brass coffee roasters and endless bags of coffee, that Ken Davids produces the books and articles that have made him one of the most important figures in the coffee community, with a career that’s spanned more than four decades.

A sampling of the Coffee Review's equipment. Photo: Shelby Pope
A sampling of Coffee Review's equipment. Photo: Shelby Pope

His books--about coffee, espresso and home roasting--have sold thousands of copies, and are often given to baristas as part of their training. He consults for companies eager to have him improve their coffee, or to have him build a blend for them. But it’s his website Coffee Review that he’s spending the most time on these days: a compendium of thousands of thoughtful reviews, geared toward the interested layperson. (See below for some of Ken's top coffee picks).

And though his reviews are aimed at the general public (about 80,000 of whom visit his website every month), they have a significant impact in the coffee industry. A good score is proudly proclaimed on a roaster’s website, and most coffees that are awarded a high score quickly sell out. Several small, high-end roasters survive off of online orders, so a good score from the Review isn’t just a good thing, but a survival requirement.

A sample of what the reviewers look for. Photo: Shelby Pope
A sample of what the reviewers look for. Photo: Shelby Pope

Davids has always been passionate about coffee. As a student, he spent a significant amount of his time at cafes, drawn by their romanticism. In the 1970’s, he left the academic world and started a cafe (“I wanted the existential challenge of business,” he says with a laugh), one of the first dedicated coffee shops in the Bay Area. He sold it after a few years, but stuck with coffee, writing Coffee: A Guide to Buying, Brewing, and Enjoying, which became a surprise bestseller and hugely influential, shaping both the second and third waves of coffee. In 1997, Davids started Coffee Review with a friend after the two noticed that no one was critically and thoughtfully reviewing and writing coffee, and after a brief flirtation as a paper newsletter, it’s remained online since.

In the last 18 years, Coffee Review has published thousands of reviews of coffees good, bad and resolutely mediocre. Davids has written most of them, with a few penned by his cofounder or other friends in the industry. A few years ago, Jason Sarley, who had previously worked in the tea industry, came aboard, and the two now do tastings (“cuppings”) together (Full disclosure: Sarley’s a friend of mine). Each month, they review a handful of coffees relevant to the month’s theme, like “Lighter and Brighter: Single-Origin Espressos” or “Not Your Same Old Panamas.”

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When it’s time to cup--always before lunch, so nothing interferes with their palates-- Sarley sets up the coffees, identified only by a three digit number (Davids never knows which coffee is which). Each coffee is brewed five times, so a bad bean won’t throw off the tasting. After pouring hot water over the ground coffee, a wet crust starts to form. After four minutes, it’s time for the aroma portion of the tasting: Davids and Sarley stick their nose deep into the cup (“I burn my nose all the time,” Davids says) while using a spoon to break the crust and integrate it into the coffee, releasing its aroma.

Kenneth Davids smells his coffee as part of the tasting. Photo: Shelby Pope
Kenneth Davids smells his coffee as part of the tasting. Photo: Shelby Pope

They each break two cups, make their notes and compare to make sure they’re each picking up the same things-- Davids calls it “calibrating.” Then they break the last coffee, smell once more, and move on to the other coffees. After the aroma portion, they skim the tops of the coffees, a delicate process that removes the last of the grounds.

Removing the top grounds from the coffee. Photo: Shelby Pope
Removing the top grounds from the coffee. Photo: Shelby Pope

Finally, they taste, spit bucket at the ready. On a recent afternoon, they demonstrated the process. As is traditional, each aspirated their coffee to combine its aroma and taste.

“I’m a quiet slurper,” said Davids.

“I can be loud,” Sarley said, explaining that at professional cupping events, slurping “is always this kind of boisterous one-upping thing. It’s pretty annoying actually.”

“Brazilian [coffee tasters], they sound like a jet airplane,” Davids said.

Neither visibly reacted to the coffee--at cuppings, it's considered declasse to react, whether you’re tasting a Panama Ironman Camilina Geisha (“Beautifully structured and almost impossibly intricate in flavor and aroma”) or Starbucks' instant Italian roast (“Smoky, faintly rubbery aroma with hints of a sensation we are calling salt meat.”)

After tasting, the two silently record their scores, judging for aroma, acidity, body, flavor and aftertaste, and then discuss. Most of the time, they’re within a point of each other, and in the rare case they’re not, they’ll taste the rest of the cups, debating until they agree on a score.

Davids and Sarley are a tough crowd. On a 100 point scale, the highest they’ve ever given is a 97, with 94 considered an excellent score--”and we don’t give a lot of 94s,” said Davids. Yet the reviews have crept steadily upward over the years, and it’s not because they’re inflating the score. The coffees are simply getting better, he said.

Jason Sarley tastes his coffee. Photo: Shelby Pope
Jason Sarley tastes his coffee. Photo: Shelby Pope

It’s one of the many changes he has observed in his long career. Another trend? Less emphasis on the type of roast. Over the year the pendulum has swung from very dark roasts being the norm (or as Davids recalls it, a time when people “just burned the shit out of it.”) to the current light roast trend. Now, there’s much more emphasis on the the story behind the bean: where it’s grown, how it was processed, with an assumption of trust that the roaster knows what roast is best.

Examining a coffee's roast level. Photo: Shelby Pope
Examining a coffee's roast level. Photo: Shelby Pope

Another change he’s noticed is the increasing effort put into dealing with the effects of climate change, which is making coffee harder to grow and more susceptible to disease.

“It’s going to take a huge effort by the large companies that buy good coffee, and the industry as a whole to offset that trend,” Davids said. “There’s a real danger that there won’t be enough really top coffee to go around.”

When Davids talks about his writing, he mentions the ideal reader he keeps in mind: “a hypothetical individual who is a consumer but wants to spend half their life on coffee, somebody who is genuinely, passionately interested.”

In the future, to reach more of those readers, he plans to introduce a small subscription fee for the site. Eventually, he’d like to hire a new taster to help him and Sarley keep up with the glut of coffees they’d like to review. But for now, it’s just Sarley and Davids, tasting coffee after coffee in their small office, doing their best to help guide that passionate consumer through a crowded world.

Ken's Recommendations:

Best Value
"Almost any Ethiopia Yirgacheffe from a good roaster is likely to be a superior value relative to its quality and distinctiveness. Coffees from southern Ethiopia (Yirgacheffe, Sidama/Sidamo regions) are among the world’s most distinguished, yet usually sell for standard specialty prices. For example, we reviewed a wet-processed or “washed” Ethiopia Yirgacheffe from a New York area roaster, HiLine, that we rated at 92 and which sells for $9.99/pound. But almost any wet-processed Yirgacheffe from a good roasting company is likely to be an excellent value."

Best Local Coffee
"So many fine Bay Area roasters are producing such consistently superb coffees that for us to make a specific “best” call is rather presumptuous. We recently reviewed a Kenya Karagoto from Allegro Coffee’s new café roastery in Emeryville at 94. Kenya is one of the world’s great origins and the current Allegro version shows the floral sweetness, pungent berry and savory hints for which Kenya is celebrated. We gave a 95 to a Blue Bottle Ethiopia Homacho Waena, another washed or wet-processed coffee from southern Ethiopia, in this case from the Sidama region."

Best Splurge Coffee
"Lots of possibilities here, but the leading candidate probably would be a good example of a coffee produced from trees of the rare and startling tasting Geisha (also Gesha) variety of Arabica. The best Geshas are produced in Panama and on one farm in Colombia (Granja La Esperanza’s Cerro Azul). As befitting a splurge, Geshas are dauntingly expensive and shockingly intense and intricate in aroma and flavor. Their intensity and complexity may be polarizing, but no one can accuse you of gifting an ordinary-tasting coffee! The best Geshas sell out very quickly after they arrive at the roaster. Currently, Klatch Coffee may still be roasting its extraordinary 97-rated Panama Ironman Camilina Geisha, $49.95/8 ounces."

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Best Horizon-Broadening Coffee
"See Splurge Coffee, above. Other possibilities at more reasonable prices:

  • A fine Ethiopian coffee that has been dried in the fruit (the so-called “natural” processing method), which turns the fruit notes lush and sweet. Old Soul Co. in Sacramento is currently selling a fine example, the Ethiopia Wenago Natural Process, Coffee-Review-rated at 95, $19.50/12 ounces.
  • A Sumatra of the newer, more refined style, in which the famous Sumatra earth notes acquire a pungent, butterscotch-and-grapefruit elegance. The 95-rated JBC Coffee Roasters Ulos Batak Sumatra Peaberry ($18.50/12 ounces) is currently available.
  • A coffee from trees of the Pacamara variety of Arabica, with its big beans and savory-sweet, complex depth. A fine dried-in-fruit, “natural” Pacamara is currently sold by Dragonfly Coffee Roasters: the Nicaragua Pacamara Reserve Los Congos, 94-rated, $18.00/12 ounces."

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