Oren Bloostein has loved coffee since he was a child and was allowed two tablespoons of black coffee in a glass of milk with sugar. At the University of Pennsylvania he began drinking coffee straight, no sugar, and became a loyal Yuban customer after being served that brand—and really liking it—in a Philadelphia restaurant. But his coffee education didn’t begin until after he graduated Penn with a degree in English and quit a job selling clothes at Saks Fifth Avenue because, as he puts it, “I was awful, awful, awful at managing upwards.”
After learning how to roast and researching the coffee business, he opened his first Oren’s Daily Roast store at First Avenue and 82nd Street in Manhattan in 1986. He realized he needed something beside “my winning smile” to differentiate himself from other boutique coffee shops and decided that the something should be unimpeachable quality—flawless beans, exactingly roasted, carefully brewed. Today, 25 years later, his warehouse and roasting facility in Jersey City supplies nine Oren’s Daily Roast stores in Manhattan and the company’s website (orensdailyroast.com), which sells coffee and coffee supplies all over the world. Inc.com recently called Bloostein “the pioneer of the specialty coffee business.” We spoke with him at his Jersey City plant.
Why have coffee prices been so high?
Wholesale coffee prices are the highest they’ve been since probably 1977. Part of it has to do with bad weather in Central and South America and Sumatra. But a lot of money has fled the stock market for commodities generally, and for coffee futures specifically, fueling the bullish trend of the coffee market. There’s good reason to be bullish, because India, China, Russia and even Brazil are all increasing consumption. Fortunately, there is no actual shortage of coffee, just a run-up of prices due to speculation.
You buy coffee direct from farmers. What qualities light up your brain and make you think, this is great?
You need sweetness in the cup. That indicates that the grower has left the beans on the tree long enough to get ripe. Coffee ripens at different rates. If you have people going through the trees getting paid strictly by how much they pick, they’re going to bring in stuff that’s underripe, ripe, overripe, whatever. So great coffee takes more care in picking, which means the farmer generally has to pay the pickers more money because it’s going to take them longer to fill a basket. We pay a premium for quality. Early in the season, farmers need cash, and often they take whatever [from the pickers]. That’s why we try not to buy coffee at the beginning of the picking season.
What makes Jamaican Blue Mountain so expensive?
It comes from just a small area in Jamaica, higher than 2,800 feet above sea level. So it’s rare. But what makes it desirable is its perfect balance. When cuppers cup coffee, they’re looking for qualities that are defective or out in left field. They’re looking for extremes—too full-bodied, too sharp, too sour. Jamaican when it’s good is really balanced—it’s got a nutty aroma, sweetness, some complexity. A couple years ago we had an amazing lot of Jamaican. I called up the broker and said this is probably the best I ever had. Recently, I ended up speaking with the farmer. I told him that a couple years ago his coffee suddenly got better. He said, “Oh yeah, we stopped machine drying it and since then we only sun dry it.” That made all the difference.
Is it true that lighter roasting preserves more caffeine?
There is some extremely slight reduction in caffeine content with a darker roast, but it’s not really measurable. A darker roast will have a heavier flavor because you’re really tasting the roasted cellulose in addition to the coffee oils.
What mistakes do people make brewing coffee?
One is not having the water hot enough. It has to be above 190 degrees for the whole length of the brewing cycle. It’s a good idea to grind the coffee just before brewing—once it’s ground, it begins to oxidize and deteriorate. Elliptical burr grinders are, unfortunately, more expensive than blade grinders, but they do a better job, meaning the particles come out a uniform size, which reduces sediment [from too-fine particles] and overextraction. You want very fine particles for a Melitta type, less fine for Chemex. The plunger type needs relatively coarse grinds.
What is overextraction?
The oil in the bean is what you’re extracting to make the coffee. If you take more than the first 18 to 19 percent, you will start to get thinner, more bitter, flavor. Typically what happens is that people use too much water and the oils overextract. You want two level tablespoons for every six ounces of water. That holds true for any brewing method. If you’re using a Melitta or Chemex type, pour the water in very slowly. Dumping it in all at once leads to overextraction.