There is no shortage of objects of obsession for cyclists. From handlebar tape to tire width, saddle position to stem length, sock height to sunglasses (over or under the helmet straps)? While coffee doesn’t typically play an on-the-bike role, it’s often an excuse for a long ride with friends on the weekend and it usually fuels us on our way out the door, for a training ride or as a pre-race ritual. Indeed, we geek out over coffee as if it’s a component of our beloved bicycles.
Words: Clive Pursehouse
Images: Andy Bokanev
Kuma Coffee is the best coffee I’ve ever had and I’ve tasted a lot of coffee—probably too much. In Seattle and the greater Pacific Northwest, there is an abundance of specialized, craft roasted and brewed coffee. If you love coffee, living here is like heaven on earth.
It’s a crowded field. Specialty coffee as an industry has exploded over the last several years. The SCAA (Specialty Coffee Association of America) puts “specialty coffee” (coffee that places an emphasis on quality at all levels, from origin to roast to brewing techniques) at 55 percent of the American coffee market share. And while the big franchise-coffee establishments might be the only game in small-town America, the specialty micro-roaster and independent coffee shop are gaining major traction as the country’s coffee consumption and obsession grows.
While truck-stop coffee will always have a place in America’s cultural fabric, it’s looking more and more like that drink will remain at the truck stop. The bar has been raised substantially when it comes to what we expect of our coffee, and from the look of things there is no going back. Coffee’s prominent place at America’s table dates back to this country’s founding and has its roots in the Boston Tea Party. As a strike against the British Empire’s taxation on tea, as well as the monopoly of the East India Company, Americans turned to coffee. It was an act of patriotism and independence and we’ve never looked back.
In 1793, New York City’s first wholesale roaster opened, and coffee businesses bloomed in the Big Apple. In 1864, Pittsburgh’s Arbuckle brothers were roasting coffee by the pound and selling it across the country, from the Eastern seaboard to cowboys of the Western states. While coffee was cultivated in much of the world, America was mostly drinking coffee made from Brazilian beans and, frankly, it wasn’t very good. The good stuff, even the stuff grown by our neighbors in Central and South America, was shipped off to Europe. That is, until the submarines came.
Germany’s use of submarines in World War I crippled transatlantic trade. Overall, there were many negative impacts, but there was a net coffee gain for America, which began on the West Coast. Coffee from Central America began making its way to San Francisco. The roasters in California at the time, relative unknowns by the name of Hills Brothers and Folgers, began America’s quality coffee movement.
While those are not names we associate with quality coffee today, that shift laid the groundwork for a coffee culture that in the late-1960s and early-’70s was taken a step further. Alfred Peet of Peet’s Coffee in 1966 is often cited as the starting point of what today has become known as specialty or craft coffee. Jerry Baldwin was one of the founders of a company called Starbucks in Seattle in 1971, and Carl Diedrich was roasting craft coffee in Newport Beach by 1972. These men, along with coffee importer Erna Knutsen, who found a growing interest in her high-quality coffee bean imports in 1974, mark the foundations of what has become a giant and growing coffee industry. If you find yourself obsessing over coffee, you have these folks to thank for getting the ball rolling.
Kuma Coffee started out as a weekend project for Mark Barany. “I started feeling an itch sitting at a desk all day. I needed something…you know, how old men need that shop or garage they work in on the weekends.” Mark set up a little half-pound roaster to distract him from his day job working in IT. He was drinking Portland’s Stumptown coffee, and he found himself wondering if he could do that too. “It started as a curiosity—what made one coffee more delicious than others? It began as a hobby but pretty quickly it was a business. I was experimenting…but I was experimenting a lot. I had to find someone to buy some of this coffee.”
A neighborhood grocery store was the catalyst for what was to become a full-blown business in two short years. The grocery started buying 10 to 20 pounds of Mark’s coffee every week in 2007, and by 2009 Kuma opened a large commercial-scale operation. Over time, Kuma Coffee has outgrown two different locations, with Mark and his two-person staff now roasting 2,000 pounds a week.
For me, the coffees from Kuma are standouts. They’re reliably bright, with loads of floral and citrus elements, and higher in acid than other coffees—even those I buy from other high-end roasters. Mark credits origin. “What you’re tasting is a lot of African coffee; we love what those coffees bring and we use a lot of it. Our Fresh Crop blend (formerly known as Red Bear espresso) is 100-percent African beans.” In addition to the beans sourced from Africa, Kuma focuses on “high-grown” coffees, those grown at particular elevations. That’s true of its African sourced coffee, as well those from Colombia, Guatemala and Indonesia, or anywhere quality coffee might grow.
For Kuma, origin and a sense of place are wildly important. Mark was the son of missionaries and in 1995 the family moved to Kenya, where Mark learned to speak Swahili and developed a love for African coffee. The sense of place for coffee plays an important role in its flavor and aroma profiles, much like wine, and the concept of terroir is as true for coffee beans as it is for wine grapes.
At Kuma, Mark sources directly from growers around the world, but he favors those high-grown coffees. They come with a higher-acid profile for his style of roast. Most of the Kuma coffees are single origin, the bags hand-stamped with the name of the coffee, with the country of origin in large type. Below that, Kuma includes everything you could possibly want to know about the coffee in that bag. There’s the specific growing region (for example Colombia’s Huila region or Ethiopia’s Gera Woreda), the growing elevation in meters, and the farmer’s name—such as Panamanian coffee grower Carlos Aguilera, or perhaps the 240-member Yukro Cooperative in Ethiopia. The last bit of information on the label is the process used—“washed,” “pulped and sun dried” or “natural.” Natural processing is the most common process, in which the entire coffee cherry is set to dry in the sun; but each processing method plays a part in how the coffee’s flavors ultimately manifest.
The idea of place is at the heart of what Mark is hoping to convey in his coffees. At Kuma, origin and process take center stage and he aims to accent that, not drown it out. The roast isn’t even listed on the bag. Where the coffee is grown plays the most important role in how it will ultimately taste, unless of course you roast all of those elements away. The roaster decides whether to steward and preserve those elements through a lighter-to-medium roast or place the emphasis on dark-roasted flavors. As you get toward darker and espresso roasts, origin can often become overwhelmed. In Vienna, French or Italian roasts specifically, the characters imparted by the roast are often all you get. For Kuma though, even for it coffees that are popular for espresso, the emphasis remains on the origin characteristics that make selective sourcing so important.
Knowing the source is important to Kuma. Mark travels to the coffee farms, tastes the beans, and meets the growers in an effort to further relationships with those he thinks are growing the best coffee in the world. In a rapidly growing industry, Mark also finds these relationships a business necessity. “Specialty coffee is continuing to explode. The number of roasters, the number of consumers who want specialty coffee keeps going up, but the small farms that grow these coffees are disappearing. It used to be there would be a small farm in Colombia, and that farmer would sell to 15 to 20 different specialty roasters. These days one importer might go down and ask them, ‘How much coffee are you producing?’ The farmer tells him, say, two containers and the importer says, ‘I’ll take all of it.’ That can make it impossible for us and small roasters in our position to get the best coffees in the world, and those are the coffees we want.”
On a recent trip to Colombia he met with a farmer named Olmeda Amula who owns a small farm called Floresta in Pijao, Quindío. In recognition of the quality of what he’s growing, Mark paid Amula twice the going rate for his crop. In Mark’s words, investing in this farmer can have implications that are life changing.
At the end of the day, we should all drink what we like. But coffee has a story to tell us, a story about the place where it’s grown that gives us a glimpse of the people, history and culture that have grown up around those coffee trees. Isn’t that a story we want to learn, a story we should care about? Mark’s roasting approach and style at Kuma seeks to enhance those things. It’s a stewardship that allows a coffee from Kenya or a coffee from Colombia to remain true to itself, an opportunity to convey the sense of place, the terroir of those beans that traveled from so far away to give us a glimpse into where they came from, and not have it roasted out of them.