#30 The Exchange: Talking Blends with Patrick Barter of Gracenote Coffee

The Exchange Green Coffee Podcast Season 3 Episode 5
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By Olam Specialty Coffee
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#30 The Exchange: Talking Blends with Patrick Barter of Gracenote Coffee

#30 The Exchange: Talking Blends with Patrick Barter of Gracenote Coffee

We're talking about coffee blends with Patrick Barter of Gracenote Coffee and guest co-host Todd Mackey.

Mike: [00:00:19] Welcome to Season 3 Episode 5 of The Exchange, a coffee podcast where coffee people talk to coffee people about coffee and/or things coffee adjacent. I'm Mike Ferguson, and for this episode, I'm very excited to welcome back Todd Mackey, this time as my co-host as we talk about coffee blends. And our guest from Gracenote Coffee Roasters in Boston is...

 

Patrick: [00:00:41] Patrick Barter. And my first job in coffee was starting Gracenote Coffee Roasters. I was sort of volunteered to roast coffee for a farmers' market. And at that point, I was a software developer having studied music as a college student and at the graduate level, and then since I had roasted in a little popcorn popper type of thing, I sort of was thrown under the bus and agreed because the opportunity to build a coffee roaster was there and necessary if we were going to do it. So we built a coffee roaster out of a gas grill and served a bunch of freshly home-roasted coffee to some people at the Harvard Farmers Market. And that kind of captured my interest where the job that I was working had been steadily losing it. So plenty of time and mental energy to dedicate to a pretty complex and interesting pursuit.

 

Mike: [00:01:44] You said you built a roaster. Can you talk a little bit more about that?

 

Patrick: [00:01:48] Yeah, it may still be the case that you can buy a stainless steel drum on basically a rotisserie to put into a gas grill. So I went to Lowe's, bought a gas grill, ordered one of these things online, and then started drilling holes and stuff to put in temperature probes and try and get more control over the process and the ability to know more about what was happening in and around the coffee beans and to try and make correlations between what I could measure and what I could taste and the inputs that I had any sort of control over. So I think in terms of process started on the right path, in terms of trying to know what was going on and trying not to kind of wing it too steadily.

 

Mike: [00:02:34] And what are you roasting on now?

 

Patrick: [00:02:36] A Loring. So the other end of the universe in terms of control and data measurement.

 

Todd: [00:02:44] Though, stainless steel.

 

Patrick: [00:02:45] Yes, still stainless. {laughter}

 

Mike: [00:02:48] That the voice you're hearing is today's co-host, guest co-host Todd Mackey. Welcome back to the podcast, Todd.

 

Todd: [00:02:55] Oh, what a lovely pleasure. Thank you for having me, Mike.

 

Mike: [00:02:57] Thanks for coming.

 

Todd: [00:02:58] Wouldn't miss it for the world.

 

Mike: [00:02:59] So today's episode and the reason Todd is here, it's because we want to talk about blends.

 

Todd: [00:03:06] I feel like everyone I've come across in my experience is experiencing the challenge of blending for their business purposes through one of what seems like two lenses or at least two families of lenses. It's either the necessary evil or the opportunity. And depending on that outlook, the discussion is radically different. So we could probably look at both of those lenses. I'd be very curious because you have one blend, Patrick. Is that a necessary evil or is it an opportunity? And has it always been? And then let's unpack where those two worlds go.

 

Patrick: [00:03:54] Yeah. I've never thought of it as a necessary evil or in any way evil. The opportunities are vast. I mean, from a cost perspective, just to get that out of the way, it's like, yeah, this is functional for a business to be able to use coffees that are differently available or seasonal and to try and have a product that's consistent. And the other thing is to just be able to have something with margin that you can sort of rely on that is always going to be a little bit nicer to the business side of things. But what gets me excited is definitely the opportunity.

 

Mike: [00:04:37] So, Todd, you're asking stepping back for you is why? Why blend?

 

Todd: [00:04:42] Well, sure. And I think if you go back in The Exchange archives, we have a pretty significant precursor to this episode. So I won't take us there to stay there. It was more you get people who will identify the necessity to blend based on, "Oh, man, I have this coffee. That was nice."

 

Patrick: [00:05:03] Oh, yeah.

 

Todd: [00:05:04] "Where does it go? What do I do with this previously nice coffee that I can't sell at this margin or I committed to such and such an amount of this coffee and the namesake is not special anymore. And how do I continue to resonate with my customer and sell this maybe even at a price point that it's out of its cost-of-value range?" I encounter a lot of folks that that head-scratcher becomes the premise for, "Hey, we have to have not so much like a waste strategy or a trash can, if you will, for where stuff goes, but a place that we can manage our inventory proactively," and they haven't even been able to or been offered the opportunity to look at it from an opportunistic standpoint of, "Oh, what if we could have something that is cross-seasonal and always available and reliable as a product on the shelf and as its main characteristics are by and large staples of its identity?" And I think if you can get past the sort of anxiety the prior to experience the opportunity of the ladder, the whole discussion opens up.

 

Patrick: [00:06:29] Yeah, the one blend that we've had, we haven't had the approach of using it as a way to move old coffee because we buy one coffee for two purposes. One of it is use as a single origin, and the other is that it's part of this blend. And then the other component of that is just always going to go into the blend and it never sees single-origin status. But thinking about the challenge of taking a coffee that's aging and trying to find something to do with it, it's sort of keys back into the same philosophy that drove the original choosing of the coffees and how to use them together, which is buying the coffee and roasting coffee so that it has space for something else. Which is kind of a weird thing to say without much context, but causing a coffee to have space for something else is the thing that we've worked on being able to roast in such a way where a coffee will make room for something and like the Brazil, that is the main component in Alpha. We're buying that specifically because it lacks certain characteristics. It lacks a strong, acidic anything. Like it's pretty muted there. And it leaves space or something else that has more charisma there and more interest there. And we're using our other component because its character fits nicely into that spot. And so thinking about using an older coffee that may be starting to get a little bit baggy or woody or something like that. Can it be roasted so that it leaves space for something else to fill in that part of it that was special and without causing other problems?

 

Mike: [00:08:23] You were talking about sort of necessity blending with coffee is aging. And then I hear Patrick talking about not necessity blending, but sort of more of a proactive blend. So those two approaches are not necessarily at odds but exploring the opportunity to roast. Why we maybe would blend with coffees where aging was not an issue.

 

Todd: [00:08:52] Just to make sure I understand the question you're saying why would we avoid aging coffees?

 

Mike: [00:08:56] We want to develop a blend. We're not looking for a place to park some aging coffee. We do want a blend. Why would we want to be blending?

 

Todd: [00:09:05] No. And I think that that's the pure place to start from is "Hey, what can we create here?" And you're saying it's really interesting you describe it as leaving space? I envision this as like the interlocking of two puzzle pieces, whereas I think a lot of people I've heard described blending more as layering, like in the case of a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. It's more "Hey, this on top of this on top of this." Not to suggest hierarchy, but some sort of layered but very linear kind of strategy, whereas you're saying there's almost a yin and yang to...

 

Patrick: [00:09:49] Yeah. The layering thing doesn't really resonate with me just because so often a blend is just sort of brown tasting and those different layers don't differentiate and that is not that exciting. Something that has some sort of a distinct, cohesive character is something that does it for me. And if it loses that for any reason, then that's why we have one blend only right now, because it's so easy to just find brown, like inoffensive brown.

 

Todd: [00:10:20] Inoffensive. Yeah. Nonoffensive brown. Well, it's interesting. And to bring it back to your question, Mike, I think that you just said it. It's exciting to blend coffee well. I mean, and I think that's why we wanted to sit down with you in this case, because of your how many years now focus on Alpha?

 

Patrick: [00:10:42] Oh, nine.

 

Todd: [00:10:43] So nine years of cycling season after season on one blend only. And you have never had any other blend in your catalog, correct?

 

Patrick: [00:10:53] We have had a seasonal blend twice and we learned many things by doing that and we're still interested in having another blend. But it's not going to be out there until we're happy on a lot of different levels. And so we are actually tasting coffees as candidates for that and thinking about how they might work together and thinking about why we're doing this. But yeah, one blend we've had a little bit of experience with. And even we've run tastings at the cafe, public tastings pre-COVID where we would take the two blend components and put them in a line 100%/1%, 80/20, 40/60, 60/40, 20/80, and pure other to see where the general population lands in terms of where they think balance occurs. And it's like 80% of the people prefer the two cups that 80/20 and 60/40 were living 70/30. And so they just clump right there in terms of like, "Yeah, I like this chocolatey thing from this and this fruit thing from this, and now we're sort of overpowered with this. So there's consensus without education, which is really exciting. So yeah, we're trying pretty hard to keep these components in balance, and to get into what balance means is a sort of that's a long conversation.

 

Mike: [00:12:27] Well, Patrick, let me ask you if the two things. Does the Alpha work as an espresso blend?

 

Patrick: [00:12:33] Yeah, that's its primary purpose.

 

Mike: [00:12:35] Okay. But it works as a drip coffee as well.

 

Patrick: [00:12:37] Yeah.

 

Mike: [00:12:38] Okay, great. Yeah, that's sort of an ideal.

 

Patrick: [00:12:40] Yeah.

 

Mike: [00:12:41] And is that your best-selling SKU?

 

Patrick: [00:12:43] Yes, I think it is.

 

Mike: [00:12:45] I found that that's pretty normal for a roaster. Their best-selling SKUs are going to be blends. Todd, why do you think that is?

 

Todd: [00:12:52] Yeah. I mean, I think I tend to always come back though it oscillates for me, I tend to always come back to familiarity as the reason these are the best-selling. Coffees either that exhibit a strong relative balance and I'm going there and using the term that you just teased out a potential deconstruction of but I'm going to go ahead and step on it because I think that if you took coffees that by their natural characteristics even single-origin that exhibited what is a relative balance along with either the or the few primary blended SKUs that any given roaster offered... I mean, it's that accessibility consistency. And then the thing that the blend has is the brand, right? It's always there. You've done the work to always provide that. And I just think change is hard in every case. So I think, yeah, do I want to go in to Gracenote and get that unbelievably dank Lintung Sumatra? Yes, I do, I think. But I know that I want what Alpha has. So even if for someone, if you imagine eight out of ten times that they're grabbing a bag from your shelf. A) Alpha is always there and may, because of its prominence, take up more space, literally. I don't know if that's true.

 

Patrick: [00:14:46] It sometimes is.

 

Todd: [00:14:47] Sometimes. Or at least the same amount of space as the remainder of your offerings.

 

Patrick: [00:14:53] Yes.

 

Todd: [00:14:54] Would a single-origin appear as many times facing on a shelf as Alpha?

 

Patrick: [00:14:59] No.

 

Todd: [00:15:00] So there's that. So you're essentially seeing what you're already assuming on the shelf, which then is your affirmation to say, "Oh, yeah, yeah, well, my impulse is right." Gracenote here, like, I'm not thinking this, but this is the exchange, and this is happening so fast. And then there's also, I feel like you're having that experience and for roasters that are in grocery, whether that's conventional grocery or like organic grocery and co-operative type grocery, those are the through lines. Those particular brands within a certain roaster's offering list are always there, whereas, for production considerations and reasons, you might have certain single-origin SKUs that you just don't see. So it's reinforced that way too.

 

Mike: [00:15:58] Right. There are two things there. One is that it's just a fact that consumers want consistency. Not that they're not adventurous, but the number of people who are adventurous every day in terms of their coffee is a very, very small percentage. Most people want to know what they're going to taste when they buy at least their first-morning cup. And the other thing is the branding point, which I think is super key. People may or may not but probably will not think "Gracenote and Kenya," but they will think "Gracenote and Alpha." It's just from a branding standpoint it's hard to beat having a blend that becomes synonymous with your roasting business.

 

Todd: [00:16:43] So why not only blend? Why not only one blend? Why does a roaster sell multiple blends or why would they sell a variety of single origins at all? If this is the lion's share of the market, I mean, do we have strong thoughts on this?

 

Mike: [00:17:04] There was a time when there was no such thing as single-origins. I mean, 100 years ago, every roaster was blending every coffee. It was nearly impossible and may have been impossible in 1922 to go find a single-origin coffee.

 

Todd: [00:17:19] Well, it might have been very hard to find coffee that was all coffee too, right?

 

Mike: [00:17:24] In 1922...

 

Todd: [00:17:26] When was sawdust taken out? I mean, I still go to the grocery store and check the bags and it's like "100% coffee." I'm like, "Wow, that's something to hang your hat on."

 

Mike: [00:17:35] Pure Food and Drug Act was 1906/1907.

 

Patrick: [00:17:38] Yeah, even like the lexicon. Still, I have conversations with non-coffee people and they say they use the word blend synonymously with coffee. Like "How many blends do you have? What blend is this?" So single-origin hasn't reached many people.

 

Todd: [00:17:55] Well, and I mean, there is the kind of ongoing green coffee nerdery around well at what stage do you change from single-origin to a blend? Is it single variety? Is it single farm? Is it single separation within a farm? Do you know what I mean? Like regional coffees?

 

Patrick: [00:18:19] We have a blend called Altura, but it's not a blend in the sense that we're talking about like this was a bunch of microlots from Nariño at or above 2,000 meters altitude that were picked and combined. And they just weren't large enough and they didn't have the exact mix of charisma and balance that we were looking for to offer them as a single-origin. And so they all went into Altura, which is a form of a blend which almost every grain coffee is anyway. And that's a single-origin coffee for us.

 

Todd: [00:18:56] Because it's from a single area.

 

Patrick: [00:18:59] Yeah.

 

Todd: [00:19:00] For those listening, Nariño is a Columbia sub-origin, if you will.

 

Patrick: [00:19:05] But it was really neat to pick those microlots out of the 25 or so that we got to taste through to think, okay, this is an appropriate coffee for the goal that we have for this thing. And this isn't.

 

Todd: [00:19:17] Yeah, yeah. I mean, to that point, I mean, that's what's going on in creating any sort of branded coffee on the mill level, on the origin side, to make a full container load or a lot as it would be called in the trade. "Hey, here's the patron. This is what we're trying to hit, these five contributors' coffee. They may not stand out for the sake of separation or to support the price point, but we put them together. And at these ratios, this comes through to this particular character." So you see blending all the way through to origin in this case, which is interesting to see that that customer is not wrong.

 

Patrick: [00:19:58] Yeah.

 

Todd: [00:19:58] Yeah. I mean, for you to get back to the question why? Why not only Alpha or why not Alpha, whatever the constituents are at the particular mix at any given time? Why is that not that is just Gracenote and that's only it? Why do you have to do anything else?

 

Patrick: [00:20:19] It comes back to balance again and the ways in which it occurs, the forms that it can take. And so with single-origin coffees, microlots, or whatever, we're looking for that. But just in something's own way. So if it's a Huehuetenango from Guatemala that can have its own type of balance. And only to give one example of what we think is elegant or gorgeous or Gracenote would probably limit our ability to tell that story, which is why we've added a wine component to our newest café. We want to keep telling that story of balance. And so with Alpha, it's a very straight ahead. The name Alpha comes from first Greek. It's just like the most simple and obvious blend that we could possibly create. 70% natural Brazil, 30% natural Ethiopian. It just seems really straightforward. We're not being fancy with it. They interlock beautifully. It's a very generous coffee for espresso, for drip, supports milk really well. And it's just very straightforward. The rest of the stuff is a lot more charismatic, a lot more dynamic, and a lot more interesting. And to have all of these points from which people can triangulate quality or good or find their own version of what can coffee do? That's why we have a wider menu and are checking out things outside of coffee to keep that going.

 

Todd: [00:22:05] We'd be remiss not to just own the adventure that most of us have gotten onto in colliding with coffee, whether at Harvard's Farmers Market or wherever we might have. I mean, there are things that a lot of roasters are doing that are probably expressly for the team themselves and for their own journey within coffee. And I think that's completely worthwhile, and I think if we were to remove that, there would be a very significant missing piece in the experience of working with coffee through a specialty focus.

 

Mike: [00:22:55] So we've covered sort of philosophical and business aspects of blending, I think. If we can come back to the practical aspects. Me, I'm a new roaster. I've only been roasting for a while. I don't have a blend. I realize it's time, but I don't know how to do that. And so I come to you guys for advice and it's free. I just had to buy you coffee.

 

Patrick: [00:23:19] {laughter} This might sound a little funny, but look for coffees that are missing something. That's worked really well in experimentation and also in Alpha. We make sure that we're not adding a complete coffee to a complete coffee. It doesn't have its own balance. Or if it's a coffee that does really sing as a single-origin, it has such a distinctive voice that it can be added to a coffee that's missing something. And for that to not be that coffee as a whole within some other context that it's really distinctive characteristics stays without, like the rest of the coffee being involved in the experience. And don't be shy about roasting a coffee so that a coffee that was once complete maybe loses some of its balance so that it can involve itself harmonically with another coffee. I mean, our Brazil component, the ask is for it to basically do just a chocolate mousse in some form. And if it does anything else, it's a little bit suspicious because it might not work very well because we don't want the acidity of the Brazil to encroach on what the Ethiopian is bringing, because then we're getting into layering instead of puzzle piecing.

 

Mike: [00:24:41] The analogy I've used is the jazz combo where you've got a bass player, a drummer and a guitarist, and the bass player would be the the coffee that's sort of missing something. As much as I like bass players, the bass player alone can get a little tedious. So, Todd, very practical advice for someone developing the first one.

 

Todd: [00:25:04] Yeah. Yeah, I would say similarly, I mean, I like that you're applying the term complete. I'm going to hold that because I love what that speaks to about coffee, the way that that's a value judgment is, I think, very sound. And I think that it allows a counterpoint that is a fair comment when calling coffees, plain or simpler. I think that that's where you want to go. And I think that you have to also apply an understanding of cost value balance because, like Patrick very graciously pointed out earlier, a big part of this is also to make sure that what is, in most cases, a lion's share of your offer list, your overall sales, you want to be making sure that this holds your budget target together for what your aggregated price per pound is going to be in terms of inputs. So you're looking for coffees that have that open space and the room to be combined and to contribute without overstepping others, but also looking for that in whatever market you're in to where you're not spending more than you need to to get it. And I think that's the next step beyond just finding the coffee based on character is to say, "Okay, what do I have to spend on this to get that without spending too much?" And being really self controlled in that. Because you can find these coffees everywhere, relatively speaking. To find them at good cost/value/balance and consistently season to season, that's a lot harder.

 

Patrick: [00:27:05] It's convenient that as cupping scores go up, things like the whole score, acidity, body balance, all of these things tend to level up together. And so when you're talking about a coffee that's 80 to 83, generally there might be a dip somewhere. For me so long as there's a dip somewhere and there isn't the additional kind of issue of having to roast around age or vegetable qualities or things like that, then that's really nice. A nice clean Hondo or Brazil or something like that can offer something like a canvas or a space for something else to be nicely positioned so that it continues to be dynamic and interesting. A blend should not be there to try and kind of unskillfully hide problems by layering stuff on top of stuff, on top of stuff. So it's still a very sort of careful and deliberate activity ideally.

 

Mike: [00:28:10] There are some other topics that are sort of next episodes, espresso being one, seasonal blends being another. But I think we can start to wrap it up. One thing I like to do when we have guests is ask them if they could go back in time, Patrick building a roaster out of a barbecue, and give that Patrick some advice. What advice would you give him?

 

Patrick: [00:28:41] I think the whole learning process has been pretty great. I'm not sure I needed to know anything earlier than I did. And I was just really lucky to have the the process of taste the coffee as accurately as possible, record everything you possibly can about it, and try and find cause and effect while roasting and just do that over and over and over and over.

 

Mike: [00:29:07] Patrick, thank you so much for coming in and driving down from Boston to join us today.

 

Patrick: [00:29:11] My pleasure. Thanks for having me.

 

Mike: [00:29:12] Todd, thank you, too.

 

Todd: [00:29:15] It's a wonderful pleasure.

 

Mike: [00:29:29] You've been listening to The Exchange, coming to you from our coffee podcast studio in beautiful downtown Providence, Rhode Island. The Exchange is produced and edited by me, Mike Ferguson. Our opening theme was A Cup of Coffee and A Piece of Pie by the Ribeye Brothers. Our closing theme is Coffee Morning by Olga Scotland. All music is used under Creative Commons. You can reach us using electronic mail on a computer at CoffeeTheExchange@gmail.com. And now your postscript. For a roaster, their best selling SKUs are going to be blends. Why, Todd, do you think that is?

 

Todd: [00:30:09] {laughter} Oh, man. If only we took video of these chats and everyone could have seen that side eye you gave me.

 

Mike: [00:30:19] What makes you think we're not videotaping?

 

Todd: [00:30:22] {laughter} Is that what's going on? Where are the cameras?

 

 

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