Carlos de Aldecoa, "the Coffee King," is a dashing young Mexican-American with wavy black hair and a sly smile. He seems too young to be the head of the largest privately held coffee concern in America. Right now de Aldecoa is leaning so far into the coffee cup, it looks like his nose may get wet. After deep-breathing the aromas, he fills a soup spoon with coffee and slurps the liquid violently so that it makes a loud whistling sound. The idea is to spray the coffee all over your mouth to get a more accurate impression of the flavor. This kind of coffee tasting is called "cupping," and it's the ultimate test of quality in the coffee industry.
We are sitting in the tasting room of the de Aldecoa family's Maximus Coffee Group headquarters on Harrisburg, the former Maxwell House plant. Since buying the facility in 2006, the Maximus Coffee Group has converted the one-million-square-foot facility into the largest integrated coffee plant in the world, with a roasting capacity of 2 million pounds of coffee a day.
Carlos de Aldecoa is the scion of a coffee dynasty. His grandfather Carlos started the family coffee business in Spain in the 1920s and fled to Mexico during the Spanish Civil War. His father, also named Carlos, started a decaffeination plant in Mexico. Young Carlos came to Houston to attend Strake Jesuit High School and earned an engineering degree at the University of Houston. In the late 1990s, the family bought the old Uncle Ben's Rice facility on Clinton Drive and turned it into a world-class coffee plant.
The Houston Press dubbed de Aldecoa "the Coffee King" in 2003 when he won "Best Local Boy Made Good" in that year's Best of Houston® awards for his key role in winning a New York Board of Trade designation for Houston as a certified green coffee bean exchange port. Back then, he predicted big things for the Houston market, pointing out that coffee imports into Miami increased fivefold when that Florida city received the same designation.
The campaign to turn Houston into a world-class coffee port started nearly a decade ago. The city's coffee companies formed the Greater Houston Coffee Association in the fall of 2000 with the goal of increasing coffee shipments to Houston and turning the city into a coffee exchange port.
They began by visiting coffee-exporting countries and making presentations about the advantages of shipping coffee through the Port of Houston. They bragged about our infrastructure, our railroad connections and the number of roasters in Texas.
But coffee sold through futures contracts could only be shipped to a port certified by the New York Board of Trade. So Houston's coffee mavens approached the New York Board of Trade. And they were told that there was no way Houston could be certified as a green coffee bean port because of the state's ad valorem tax on warehouse inventories. Green coffee beans can sit for months or even years in storage, and the tax made the port uncompetitive.
The tax was written into the state's constitution. But, highly caffeinated and unwilling to take no for an answer, the Greater Houston Coffee Association enlisted state Senator Mario Gallegos and state Representative Joe Moreno to take a constitutional amendment to the Legislature. After considerable horse-trading, a bill was passed exempting coffee and cocoa stored in Harris County warehouses from the ad valorem tax. Voters signed off on the constitutional amendment in 2001.
Since receiving the green coffee bean port certification in 2003, Houston has shot up the ranks of coffee ports. And when New Orleans, one of the nation's top green coffee bean ports, was closed by Hurricane Katrina, Houston took up the slack. Many exporters have found Houston an easier place to do business.
While Seattle may be the center of American coffee culture, it's Houston that's becoming the center of coffee commerce. William Dunaway, a Honduran coffee exporter who relocated to Houston to set up a micro-roasting operation here, is convinced Houston will soon dominate the U.S. coffee business. "Coffee brokers who once maintained warehouses in California and Florida will consolidate here and ship to the whole country from the middle," he says.
Avi Katz of Katz Coffee, Houston's leading micro-roaster, agrees. While he used to get most of his coffee from New Orleans, he says it's a no-brainer that Houston is going to take over. "It's all about infrastructure, bridges and highways and railroads," he says. "Try to drive an 18-wheeler through New Orleans, and you're always going to run into some low-hanging live oak tree. We cut all those down in Houston a long time ago."
While Houston is emerging as a major center for the international coffee business, the local coffee leaves much to be desired. "We have two major roasters, lots of warehouses and plenty of shipping companies here — what we really need are more micro-roasters making great local coffees," de Aldecoa says. "We need to be recruiting new coffee drinkers. The coffee I get in most Houston restaurants is awful." (See "City of Coffee: Houston Coffee Culture.")
Dunaway says the guys from Seattle have convinced Houstonians that dark-roasted coffee is somehow superior. "The Houston coffee palate is illiterate," he says. "Dark-roasting coffee allows the use of poor-quality beans."
Dunaway relocated to Houston to set up his micro-roasting operation to fulfill orders in the United States. His family owns Café Copán, a small concern with a plantation in Santa Rosa de Copán, Honduras. The company offers tours of coffee plantations and sells its coffee to tourists at the plantation and over the Internet.
Green coffee beans are shipped to the Port of Houston and roasted at Café Copán's tiny operation in Tomball. If you buy ten pounds at a time, you get the Honduran mountain-grown coffee for as little as $5.29 a pound. Or you can buy it by the pound at Spec's. Look for the little burlap bags. Café Copán is planning to open a coffee shop in The Woodlands soon as well.
Avi Katz, the founder of Katz Coffee, says he's met a lot of people in Houston who start their days with carbonated beverages and energy drinks instead of coffee. "I started out servicing coffeehouses," he says, "but Houston's coffee culture is so far behind the rest of the country, I couldn't survive just selling espresso."
But aren't Houstonians drinking more espresso lately? "Sure Houstonians drink espresso — as long as they don't have to get out of the car," he said.
While high-profile baristas like Tuscany Coffee's David Buehrer have been drawing attention to the art of great espresso lately, Houston still has a long way to go, according to Katz. Katz sells a lot of espresso in Austin, where local coffeehouses are extremely popular. Even though Starbucks has closed some stores lately, Katz says Houston is still a Starbucks town. "Although, I have to admit," he says, "we all owe Starbucks a huge debt of gratitude for making higher-quality coffee popular."
I found the tall, dark, muscular and handsome Katz unloading a truck with a forklift at his plant on 34th Street one day when I stopped by. The city's best-known specialty-coffee micro-roaster is located in a little complex that consists of two long, metal buildings with a driveway down the middle. Many of the spaces adjacent to Katz Coffee are occupied by antique dealers. Katz has installed two fluid head roasting machines in what looks like an overgrown storage space. Most of the rest of the area is taken up with big burlap sacks full of coffee. The country of origin is stenciled on each bag.
Katz went to work at Diedrich on Montrose when he finished college. He got hooked on coffee and never wanted to do anything else. He worked for a few other local coffee roasters before borrowing money to buy a small roaster that he still uses. In his crowded warehouse and plant, we watched a bag of Sumatra beans being roasted, then stepped into an air-conditioned room where workers were fulfilling orders by weighing coffee and pouring it into bags.
Katz Coffee does most of its business selling coffee to restaurants. And business is pretty good. "I started out in 2003 with 900 square feet; since then we have expanded to 6,000 square feet," he says. Katz Coffee is currently roasting between 30,000 and 50,000 pounds a month. "That sounds like a lot until you consider that Starbucks roasts 27 million pounds a year."
Katz's new Bayou Blend brand is available at Whole Foods, Spec's and a couple of upscale H-E-Bs. A portion of profits are donated to the Bayou Bend Partnership. But he doesn't have any plans to expand his retail sales. The marketing, merchandising and mass production required to sell coffee in grocery stores is too expensive.
Selling quality coffee to fine dining restaurants in Houston is a much easier way to make a living. Chefs like Monica Pope didn't want to serve cheap commercial coffee, but there were few alternatives until Avi Katz started knocking on doors. Instead of trying to sell the chefs on his new brand of coffee, Katz invited them to come to the roasting plant and create their own distinctive proprietary blends.
"Chefs love playing around with flavors," he says with a smile. "And what restaurant doesn't want to have an exclusive coffee blend with their name on it?" In Katz's cupping room, where he helps the chefs create their blends, there are posters on the wall categorizing the range of coffee aromas and flavors. Under "spicy" the descriptors are pepper, clove and coriander. In the resin category, there is maple, currant and cedar. Under the counter, Katz keeps a wooden box that contains little bottles with essences that correspond to each of the distinctive aromas that every coffee taster should be able to identify.
He waved a bottle under my nose and asked me what it smelled like. I said flowers, but that's wasn't specific enough. It was the essence of coffee blossoms. He tried another one. I guessed hazelnuts. It was actually basmati rice. My future as a coffee taster is apparently bleak.
Katz says he drinks medium-roast Guatemala Antigua at home. Dark-roasting great coffee beans is like cooking a Kobe steak well-done, he says.
What's his advice for Houston coffee drinkers? "Forget about brands; buy fresh, locally roasted coffee. Freshness is everything," he says. "Buy coffee like you buy bread; get just enough for a week at a time."
Katz says grinding your own beans is a must. "Did the waiter at a steakhouse ever walk over to your table and say, 'Would you like some dried-out previously ground pepper?' I don't think so. When you grind your beans just before you brew, you improve the flavor of your coffee 100 percent."
To understand the significance of Houston's New York Board of Trade green coffee bean port certification, think of the movie Trading Places, the one where Eddie Murphy goes from being a bum to being a commodities broker. Commodities brokers buy and sell contracts to deliver goods at a set price, betting on fluctuations in supply and demand.
The plot of the movie centers on frozen orange juice futures, and the ending involves a run on the market, with wild action in the trading pit as the price of orange juice futures goes up and down. To guarantee that futures contracts are fulfilled as promised, the New York Board of Trade certifies ports and warehouses where the commodities can be tracked.
Commodity-grade green arabica beans are currently selling for around $1.40 a pound on the New York exchange — robusta beans are at 70¢. Coffea canephora, or robusta coffee, accounts for about a third of world production of commercial coffee, and is of lower quality than Coffea arabica, or arabica coffee, which makes up the rest.
Arabica is one of the costliest agricultural products in the world. All premium coffees are made of 100 percent arabica beans, but there are many grades of arabica. Specialty and premium grades are used in expensive gourmet coffees; commodity grade is used in commercial blends.
Grown at sea level, the robusta bush is harvested mechanically, with beans at varying stages of maturity and ripeness all mixed together. It's typically dried on the ground, so the beans absorb the flavor of the dirt. Arabica coffee, on the other hand, has lovely fruity and floral aromas and a bright taste thanks to a balance of roasted flavors and high acidity. It's grown at high elevations, picked by hand as the cherries ripen, and cured and dried by one of several labor-intensive processes.
So where does all the robusta go? It is often used in espresso blends for its excellent "crema." Some like it for its high caffeine content. "Some supermarket coffees are 100 percent robusta," says de Aldecoa. Typical supermarket coffee blends contain around one-third robusta beans.
"Blends are dynamic; they respond to the market," says de Aldecoa. "Big brands are constantly changing their blend with the goal of keeping the flavor exactly the same." When the price of beans from Brazil goes up, you look for a bean with a similar profile from Central America or Mexico.
Most of us think that opinions about aroma and flavor are subjective, but they're not in the world of coffee. You can weigh the beans, measure their size, check their color, look for defects and even perform chemical analysis of caffeine content. But in the end, it's a trained coffee taster's sensory perceptions of flavor and aroma that will determine what the beans are worth and how they will be used. Coffee tasters undergo formal training and must be able to distinguish distinct coffee aromas and flavors according to a highly codified glossary.
"Coffee roasters are like chefs," de Aldecoa explains. "We have to choose a roasting technique to bring out the best in the beans." In this analogy, high-quality arabica beans are the prime steaks, and you roast them very quickly at high temperatures to medium doneness to preserve all their wonderful natural flavors. Cheaper beans, like cheaper cuts of meat, can taste great if you cook them slowly. And Vietnamese robusta beans, like stringy fajita meat, are dark-roasted to mask the defects.
In 2007, Kraft changed the Maxwell House blend to 100 percent arabica beans in a companywide effort to improve quality. Community Coffee is also labeled 100 percent arabica. But there is no enforcement of labeling laws. Coffees labeled Kona blend might contain as little as 2 percent Hawaiian coffee. Kona-style coffees often contain no Hawaiian coffee at all.
The FDA isn't checking, but the industry has its own system for determining that coffees labeled 100 percent arabica really contain all arabica beans. "Coffee brands monitor each other," says de Aldecoa. Robusta contains around 40 percent more caffeine than arabica, he points out. If you do a chemical analysis for caffeine content and the results are higher than normal for arabica beans, then you know that the coffee contains robusta. "No coffee company is going to let its competitors get away with claiming their coffee is 100 percent arabica when it isn't."
Is the market for coffee growing? "The national market is growing slightly in volume, but the market in dollars is up because of a shift toward better-quality coffee," de Aldecoa says.
There is also plenty of growth in new coffee pods and filter packs. The Maximus plant makes single-cup coffee-brewing pods for some of the most popular new brewing machines. And de Aldecoa loves the idea that Starbucks is now pushing Via, a high-quality instant coffee. "I think they will increase the market for instant coffees dramatically."
"Who drinks instantcoffee?" I ask.
A city's coffee-buying habits reflect its immigrants, de Aldecoa explains. Italians drink espresso to the exclusion of all other coffee. So on the East Coast and in Northern California, where you have a lot of Italian-Americans, people drink espresso.
In Mexico, where atole and chocolate were long the traditional breakfast drinks, the coffee culture was slow to take root. The vast majority of the coffee consumed in Mexico is instant. And as you might expect, at the Mi Tienda H-E-B in Pasadena, a store that caters to Mexican-Americans and recent immigrants, instant coffee is the largest seller.
I started drinking coffee with lots of milk and sugar when I was 12, but that's because my dad was a coffee salesman. We had a Bunn restaurant coffeemaker, and Dad was fanatical about brewing coffee. He ran some of the water through the grounds, then removed the grounds and added the rest of the water. He said over-extraction caused bitter flavors. And we only drank medium-roast coffees, never dark-roast.
At the Port of Houston's Coffee Symposium last month, I ran into William G. Quinn, the logistics manager for Kraft's coffee-buying operation. He worked for General Foods' coffee operations in New York 30-some years ago, when my father worked there. When I was in junior high, my dad sold his largest order ever — a million cases of coffee to Dobbs House.
When I asked Dad where the restaurant chain was going to put a million cases of coffee, he explained that the coffee was actually delivered a little at a time over a year. By buying it all at once, Dobbs House got a better price and kept its costs uniform so it could accurately predict profits. General Foods, in turn, bought coffee futures at the New York Board of Trade so they could insure delivery of the contract at a favorable price.
Makes sense, right? But the system isn't perfect. Just as gasoline prices were inflated by speculators last year, coffee prices have been subjected to wild swings over the years. In 1975, there was a run on the green coffee bean market. A freeze in Brazil destroyed much of the crop that year, and the cost of coffee skyrocketed in anticipation of shortages. The price of a one-pound can of coffee in a U.S. supermarket went from a national average of around 68 cents in 1975 to more than $3 in 1977.
The public accused the coffee companies of price gouging, and the House Agriculture subcommittee held hearings. At the time, most American supermarket coffee was blended from 100 percent arabica beans from Colombia, Brazil and Central America. In response to the pressure, coffee companies switched to cheap robusta blends. The quality of American supermarket coffee never recovered.
I asked another coffee industry veteran I met at the conference, Peter Doyle, how the coffee in Houston differs from coffee around the country. In Houston convenience stores, fast-food operations and diners, a half-gallon pot of coffee is brewed with 2.5 ounces of medium-roast coffee, Doyle said. New Yorkers, on the other hand, drink medium-roast coffee brewed strong — 3.5 ounces to the half-gallon pot. On the West Coast, dark-roast coffee is brewed to varying strengths.
"That 100 percent arabica coffee your dad was selling back before the prices went up would be considered gourmet coffee today," said Doyle.
I have always wondered if the specialty coffee market and expensive coffee shops like Starbucks would even exist if American supermarket coffee was as good as it used to be when I started drinking it.
I have never tasted Vietnamese coffee before, but there is some included in our cupping at Maximus Coffee. On the round table in front of us, there are seven coffee samples. We sit on wheeled stools so we can rotate around the table.
At each station, a little paper boat is filled with green coffee beans and another is filled with the same beans after roasting. Then there are three handle-less cups filled with freshly ground coffee from different parts of the shipment. First we examine the green coffee beans, then we sniff the roasted grounds, then we sniff the roasted grounds with hot water added. Finally, we slurp the coffee.
Two samples of Mexican beans both remind me of Community Coffee — I am guessing Community Coffee uses a lot of Mexican beans. There's also an example of very old beans and another of beans that have been improperly dried; they'll probably be used for instant coffee.
The best blended sample I try is actually McDonald's coffee; it's 100 percent arabica, but where the beans come from is a trade secret. I like the flavor of the tiny Brazilian beans we sample, but de Aldecoa points out that while they have excellent fruit sugars, they're naturally dried and lack the proper acid level. They are very nice beans, but they would taste much better blended with brighter, more acidic, fermented and washed arabica beans from Colombia, like the first coffee we sampled, he says. That's when I know I'm way out of my league.
When I get to the coffee from Vietnam, de Aldecoa giggles as I slurp up a mouthful and wince. "It tastes like dirt," I say in shock. "Or mud."
This is not only the first time I have ever tasted Vietnamese coffee — it's the first time I have tasted a cup of 100 percent robusta coffee. I may not like it, but it's enormously important to commercial coffee roasters.
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Vietnam is the second-largest coffee-producing nation in the world, and while its coffee doesn't land at the Port of Houston, it eventually arrives here anyway. It is unloaded in Southern California ports and shipped to Houston by rail for roasting.
I ask de Aldecoa if Houston will eventually become the top coffee port in America. The coffee that is unloaded at the Port of Houston doesn't tell the whole story of Houston and coffee, he says. You also have to include the Vietnamese coffee that arrives here by rail.
"Measured by total tonnage, Houston is probably already the nation's top coffee city."