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Coffee Legends: We Chat with Coffee Review's Kenneth Davids

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Davids in Papua New Guinea. [Photograph courtesy of Kenneth Davids]

Coffee people of all stripes have long had an idol in Kenneth Davids, founder of Coffee Review and author of several time-honored coffee books, including Home Coffee Roasting, which remains one of the pivotal tomes for anyone hoping to cross over into next-level geekery. Davids is both an insider—having owned a cafe in Berkeley, California, in the height of specialty coffee's early days—and a consumer advocate, spending much of the past three decades spreading the good word about great coffee to anyone who will listen.

With his best-known and enduring project, Coffee Review, he has managed to give voice to some of the best coffees and roasters around the world, showcasing their work when it's good—and not pulling any punches when it disappoints. (Case in point: A lowers-scoring coffee from a prominent Italian roaster is described as "Astoundingly under-roasted and woody... For the curious, an object lesson in how bad coffee can get if it fails to be developed in the roast." Just the facts, ma'am.) Scoring each submission from 1 to 100, Davids has become a kind of judge and jury on specialty coffee, and drinkers the world over turn to CR's opinions to help choose winners from the vast variety of bean offerings out there.

We recently caught up with this coffee statesman to get his perspective on how coffees should be rated, current blends and trends, and his pet peeves in specialty coffee today.

You've been involved in coffee for more than 30 years now, in several different capacities. When did you realize you loved the stuff?
Well, I published pretty close to the first book on specialty coffee in 1980—so it was long ago!...Nobody outside of Northern California even knew about specialty coffee when I wrote it. [The book] grew with the industry up to a certain point, and continued to sell extremely well, so I kept it up to date. I was an academic at the time, at an art and design school in San Francisco. At a certain point, everybody was deciding to find themselves doing something other than what they were doing. I was bored with teaching, and I decided I would do some business. I naturally looked to coffee. So I started something in Berkeley, and it was successful but I hated the daily grind. So I thought, "I'll just dive in myself and I'll learn about coffee." I learned cupping and roasting... Suddenly there looked like there was an opportunity to make coffee my main industry because it had grown. I wrote two more books, and...joined with a partner who is a sort of wine nut, so I started Coffee Review 14, 15 years ago. Coffee became my entire focus.

A lot is said, both pro and con, about scoring coffee the way wine is scored, on a 100-point scale. Do you think there's value to the coffee-like-wine analogy?
The rational behind the site is the same as the rational behind my first book: Coffee is widely worth of connoisseurship and respect but that wasn't thought to be the case when I wrote my first book. Coffee Review was an effort to bring some attention and discipline to the coffee world. There is still so much crap passing off as fine coffee out there! If I were to start it now, I might not do it that way. I don't know how I'd do it, actually. It's a difficulty: Obviously coffee is like wine in lots of respects. In fact, people don't realize some of the overlaps. On the other hand, of course [coffee] typically never takes its final form at the producer; it always goes somewhere else where it's roasted, and then it goes somewhere else and somebody brews it. That collaborative trail is not the case with fine wine at all. It's a problem, you know: You can take a coffee and completely mess it up, or make it much better with how you brew it. But I don't think those issues mean that we shouldn't bring a very critical attention to coffee. It really needs it.

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Coffee being prepared to cup. [Photograph: counterculturecoffee on Flickr]

Do you think coffees designed specifically for espresso need to be approached differently for evaluation?
I think espresso has an entirely different position as a separate kind of...how should I say this? The consumer relates to it in a different way. I think that's justified. For example, there's a kind of coffee production in Europe and Latin America that's kind of a long espresso shot, 5 ounces... In Europe they call it black coffee [Laughs]! Of course, like most Americans in specialty coffee, I have a lot of contempt for this type of coffee, but then I got a client who was working in Europe and got very interested in this stye of coffee, I found that kinds of coffee work well with it...There's a lot of possibilities.

What is one of the biggest changes you've seen in specialty coffee since starting Coffee Review?
The obvious is the move away from dark roasts. When I started, medium roast was the norm, and people sold by roast [level]. Single origins were all sold [as] medium roast, and those who had a blend would be Italian roast or French roast, that was the model. With the success of Starbucks and all this other lunacy, small companies started dark roasting everything. That was a dreadful time. I said, "We should do a theme cupping of French roasts," and we tasted 20—and they all tasted the same! There wasn't enough to talk about. We've moved away from that, which is a relief. Now we have the opposite problem, where it's under-roasted. Well, it's not that they're under-roasted, we just feel that their potential is underdeveloped. We try to honor dark roasts, but it's very difficult. I used to make more effort.

What do you hope for the future of specialty coffee, from a consumer's point of view?
I hope it continues to go where it goes with wine, where people learn what varieties work with soil and condition—but we're not there yet, we don't have that sophistication.

What's the highest ranking you've given a coffee?
I've only given a 97. I don't know why I've gotten stuck there, but that's how it's worked out. We're careful and have developed a kind of calibration, so whoever's working for me understands and I understand that we can apply the same scores on a fairly wide variety of styles of coffee: For instance, 95 is, "Woo hoo—this is terrific"; 94 is, "This is great, oh man, I want to take this home"; 90–93 is really good, worth buying and worth drinking. Maybe someday we'll get 98. I think we have to get more consistent coffees at 95 and above to want to push past 97. The coffees really have improved. If you look at Coffee Review and think there's been rating inflation, really it's just that the coffees have gotten so much better.

Would you rather have bad coffee or no coffee at all?
I think I need caffeine in the morning, so I guess my temptation is to try to find tea, but it's really bad. I was in Kona one time in the early days and the coffee was just horrible! I stopped drinking coffee while I was there. I've ordered coffee where I just can't drink it. When I get a dark roast in the Bay Area—you continue to get dark roasts in the independent cafes—if it's freshly brewed I just pour half-and-half in it. If I get some kind of stewed coffee, I just will not drink it. On the other hand, I don't wait for a gesha! We have a lot of nice coffees that we take home; my wife has gotten completely spoiled. Occasionally I don't have one, and I just bring home some ordinary stuff. She notices. She says, "What is this? What?!?" [Laughs]

About the author: Erin Meister trains baristas and inspires coffee-driven people for Counter Culture Coffee. She's a confident barista, an audacious eater, and a smiling runner, but she remains a Nervous Cook.

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