Interview by Farrah Skeiky, Photos by Jeff Jetton
Cory Andreen is the 2012 World Cup Coffee Tasters Champion. A longtime DC resident, Andreen headed to his favorite city Berlin and unintentionally wound up creating a substantial scene for his favorite thing– Coffee. Not only is Andreen a champion taster– he’s the co-owner of Café CK, and a sought after coffee expert seeking to improve brewing, cupping, and the general understanding of this fascinating beverage around the world. Between work and conferences, Andreen found time to talk to us about the world of coffee, and we have to admit– we never thought it’d be this cool.
Would you say that you’re obsessive about coffee? When people think of anyone who does something competitively, and in this case you also have a cafe, they think obsessive.
Yes, I suppose, to an extent. But I wouldn’t define it like that. I’m more of an obsessive taster. I’m a big fan of my sense of taste. It’s probably my favorite sense. It happens to be that I’m involved with coffee, but I also like to taste wine obsessively– that’s probably my own way of rationalizing drinking a lot. It was through coffee. Coffee was an interesting subject for me, and there was a lot happening in the world of coffee in the past decade, which was really fascinating. I became interested in it in that aspect. And having my business to improve things here, I was tasting obsessively, and through that kind of obsessive tasting, it lead me to approaching everything I ingest very critically. It’s gotten to the point where I can’t really turn it off. There is no off switch for the obsessive tasting.
Your cafe is in Berlin, which compared to plenty of other cities, would never be considered a “coffee city.” Was that your motivation? Making coffee better for Berlin?
That was definitely a big part of it. When I moved back to Berlin, when I was DJing a lot (which is what I used to be most into) and coffee was just a hobby on the side, there wasn’t any kind of coffee scene. At that point, I had been in DC a few years, and it’s one of the few cities known for coffee in the states– not as stereotypically associated with it as a place like Seattle, or even eventually portland– DC is more of a secret coffee city in America. When I got here, there was nothing of that caliber that I was used to in DC. In fact, it was terrible. Quite the opposite, it was disgusting. There was one place in town that was offering it, and just through a couple chats with them, I ended up working with them a little bit. My business partner that I work with now came in one day as a customer and was just blown away by this new kind of coffee that she’d never experienced before, that didn’t just taste like sewer water. She was the one who proposed opening a shop, and that came at a time when I was sick of the nights and all the stuff that comes along with DJing. So why not?
You said earlier that you also apply that same intense tasting to wine. Why did coffee become the competitive thing, and not wine or anything else?
There are a few reasons for that. One of them is that wine doesn’t have a lot of room to grow. Most of the major scientific advances in wine and a lot of what we know about wine has happened in the past hundred years or less. It’s at a point where everyone has a pretty good idea of what makes wine taste the way it does. But that’s not really the case with coffee, and even the general public aren’t aware that coffee can taste like so many things other than what they think coffee tastes like. It’s a field of such intense innovation, and it’s exciting being a part of that.
When you see people running out in the morning, grabbing their Dunkin’ Donuts or McDonald’s dollar coffee and not caring how it tastes as long as they get the caffeine– does that bother you? Could you ever go back to drinking coffee purely for caffeination?
I couldn’t do that, really. It’s kind of like if I had to drink a 40 before work every morning. I don’t begrudge anyone for whatever their taste is. Maybe even the majority of coffee drinkers do it because it’s fuel for them. But what’s unfortunate is that a lot of them don’t realize that it doesn’t have to taste as bad as it does. I think a lot of people who don’t even care for coffee are drowning it in milk in sugar don’t even like the taste, they just want the effect. That’s another thing I enjoy, is this sort of “message of love,” kind of “hey guys, it doesn’t have to be that way! It doesn’t have to be so bad!” And the cool thing about coffee, unlike wine or other spirits, the price difference between the very worst and the very best isn’t very much. Maybe it’s a markup of 200%– spend two dollars on something really crappy, or spend four dollars and get the very best. It’s something that’s very accessible for anyone who’s open to it.
What do you think is the most common misunderstanding that people have about coffee tasting and what you do?
Probably the most common misunderstanding is that coffee is a bean, and I think that’s misleading in itself. People don’t think of coffee as having many flavors because they consider it a bean, when in reality it’s a fruit product. It’s the seed of a stone fruit, which looks a lot like a cherry, and these fruits– just like cherries, or apples, or grapes used to make wine– come in all different varietals. Just like a Granny Smith is completely different from a Braeburn, different coffees taste drastically different. That’s compounded by other factors, like chemically, there are more aromatic notes in coffee than in wine. It’s potentially the most complex beverage that humans consume. But it’s all about what you expose yourself to. It’s kind of like the 40 thing. If you’re only drinking 40s, you’re not going to taste much of a difference among them. But once you start to branch out, like with coffee, you can see quite a lot.
It’s also a weird phenomenon with coffee that there are all these different varietals just in Ethiopia, where coffee comes from natively. In the forests of Ethiopia, there are still thousands of undocumented varietals, and the biodiversity you find among these varietals is huge, whereas all of the coffee that’s cultivated elsewhere on the planet only represents one percent of all the biodiversity you’d find in the forests of Ethiopia. And that’s just because when coffee first came out of Ethiopia, it was like picking the apple off of one tree, and Johnny Appleseed taking back that one apple and neglecting thousands of other different trees. Coffee from Ethiopia is amazing, because it can taste like bergamot and jasmine and peaches and apricots. It’s pretty amazing.
Obviously Ethiopian coffee is high above the rest, but as far as other international coffee traditions, are there any that you’re particularly drawn to?
The traditions of coffee are something that I’m very much fascinated by. As a purveyor of specialty coffee, I find that my biggest obstacles are these traditions. Every culture enjoys coffee in their own way, but often time, this enjoyment involves a ritual of making the coffee more palatable. In a lot of Arab cultures, it’s brewed together with cardamom, all kinds of other spices, and sugar, and at that point the coffee is an integral component, but the dominant flavor is the spices. For me it’s not that much different than the Italians who order an espresso but almost immediately pour on sugar, or sometimes it’s already got the sugar mixed in. It’s a tradition of getting it in a certain social context, and there’s always going to be another additive along with it. In that sense, I’d say there’s no coffee culture I’m drawn to at all, and I’d say what I’m most drawn to is creating a new coffee culture and breaking people out of these rituals they’re used to.
I think that’s the way they’ll learn to appreciate the beverage of coffee as a new thing. That’s the way people will best learn to appreciate it for itself. That’s the way I see a lot of shops failing– when shops try to forbid people from using milk or frown on them and make them feel guilty. That’s not cool, you’re giving someone a hard time because of their custom; because of their ritual. That’s not their fault, that’s something they enjoy. It’s more your fault for presenting them with a familiar context for their ritual and then all of a sudden saying, “no, you’re doing it wrong.”
In the past couple years, I’ve discovered more boutique coffee shops and more regional brews, and I often see people who are more of a Dunkin’ Donuts or Starbucks kind of person go into one of these non-chain establishments, order a great brew, and drown it in milk and sugar before even tasting it. What’s the biggest mistake you see the average coffee drinker make?
In brewing and drinking? It’s kind of a double-edged sword. What you’ve witnessed with customers like that, who are just drowning higher quality coffee without even thinking about it, that’s a failure of communication on the part of the shop they’re in. It’s not the customer’s fault if they walk into a place with a register and an espresso machine and a board up with Italian names and prices on it, they’re thinking, “okay, this exactly like a Starbucks. It looks a little different but all the pieces are there.” Even though you know what they’re doing is a little outrageous, you can’t really be mad at them because you haven’t communicated well enough that what they’re experiencing is different. If you go into a fine dining restaurant with white tablecloths and nice silverware, you know that this isn’t McDonald’s, and you’re not going to ask if you can just buy a toy and leave. Good coffee shops are bad at communicating that.
That’s the big mistake in serving the coffee. But in brewing it and consuming it, the biggest issue is freshness. It goes back to the thing where coffee’s not a bean. It’s not a dry bean that you can keep in your cupboard for the hungover day when you don’t feel like going to the store to buy any groceries. It’s definitely a produce product that should be consumed when it’s fresh, because that makes all the difference in the world. At my shop, we don’t even use coffee that was harvested over a year ago, because it generally tastes like wood by that point. And that’s just the harvest, whereas once it’s been roasted, you usually have a three week window. Once it’s been ground, you have a window of anywhere from twenty seconds to two hours. Once you grind coffee, thirty percent of its aromas are gone in ten seconds.
The best tip ever for coffee is before you spend money on an fancy brewing device, just buy a grinder. You’re better off grinding it into a glass and pouring hot water on top of it, rather than buying some fancy machine and pre-ground coffee.
What do you think is a bigger threat to artisanal coffee or new coffee traditions: is it the chain coffee shop people defer to, or is it the Keurig they can take home?
The bigger threat is definitely the Keurig machines. The difference between the artisanal shops and the chains is one of quality. Most other things are fairly the same, and even quality shops try to maintain competitive prices with the chains. There will always be a market for the customers who are interested in the higher quality, whereas one thing the capsules have the shops beat is the convenience factor. That’s where they kick ass. Espresso is just a piece of marketing genius. It’s scarily easy, and it makes you want to buy one because there’s no boundary between you and what they’re selling. Everyone is super helpful, everyone is doing what they can to make it as easy as possible for you, whereas if you go into an artisanal coffee shop, sometimes you’re bombarded with six questions before you pick a drink, and then you’re not sure if you made the right choice. If artisanal coffee shops could figure out how to utilize an espresso method better, it would be huge.
I’m sure there are a lot of issues and challenges in the coffee community at any given moment; what do you think the biggest concern is right now that the general public isn’t aware of?
It’s hard to say.
Maybe there’s a common challenge you’re facing in Berlin that someone in DC might also be struggling with?
That’s actually been partially responsible for the huge advances we’ve made in coffee in the past decade. It’s an international effort. Scenes popped up independently in Scandinavia, Australia and the Pacific Northwest, and all started tackling problems together thanks to the internet. That’s been massive. But at the moment? The biggest thing people are thinking about is the way in which coffee is brewed, which sounds rather vague, but coffee is an extraction. When you grind coffee, it’s cellular matter that you’re breaking down. Modern grinding technology is more of a crushing and a smashing that creates uneven particle sizes. If you had even particle sizes every time with even surface area, it makes extraction really easy. When you extract one particle to fifty percent, odds are you’ve extracted every particle to fifty percent. Awesome. But, the problem is, grinders create lots of really fine pieces and lots of coarse pieces, so maybe the fine ones have been taken to eighty percent, and the coarse ones have been taken only to fifteen percent, and the middle is all over the place. You end up with a range of flavors that’s nasty stuff and good stuff, and nasty stuff again. It’s always a balancing act of getting enough of the good stuff to balance the bad stuff so you end up with a usable, drinkable cup. The biggest puzzle people have been working on over the last couple years is how to improve that. I’m actually flying to Copenhagen soon to a panel of ten people to discuss that.
Are you still the reigning champion, or has the 2013 competition already passed?
No, I actually was the Emcee at the finals back in June. This really sweet guy from Hungary won. It was his third or fourth go at it. Very stoic Eastern European man who couldn’t really say anything, just tears.
For anyone aspiring to be a coffee taster, or even simply to expand their sense of taste, what’s the best advice you can give? What’s helped you the most?
Taste everything. No matter what it is. If you think you’re going to throw something up because it tastes bad, try and think first. If you’re going to guzzle something because you think it tastes good, stop and think about why it tastes good, or what about it you like. One mistake people make is they taste something like a glass of wine and can’t pick up individual flavors, they’re intimidated. They think they’re not a good taster. What most people don’t know is that the flavor signals from your nose and your tongue go to your right brain, to the same area where images and memories are. That’s why when you taste something, you might be reminded of some dinner your grandmother made, or you might be picking out a specific word like “strawberry shortcake.” It’s really tough. Some people are naturally very good at it, and other people have to work at it. Don’t be intimidated, just go with your gut instinct. If you drink something and it reminds you of a dinner that grandma made, just say it reminds you of a dinner that grandma made.
Lastly: how do you get the perfect palate spray?
That’s definitely practice. I am for a certain spot on the middle of the back of my tongue. When I can hit that, that’s when I get maximum data. Palate spread is important, but what happens in the aftertaste phase is the most important.
Thanks so much for taking the time to talk today, you’re obviously a very busy guy.
Well, yeah, I’m also hyped up on caffeine right now.
Isn’t that just normal for you?
I try not to be, and today I was consciously trying to avoid ingesting any coffee, and I’m not sure I did, it somehow still absorbs through the gums even if I spit it out.