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The Kool-Aid’s in the Coffee: An Interview with David Latourell of Intelligentsia Coffee Roaster

Maybe we’re feeling jittery right now, but the adjectives we’re psyched about currently are as follows: light, soft, round, voluptuous, caramel-scented, citrusy, brambly. Brambly? What does that even mean? We got the chance to find out when David Latourell of Intelligentsia Coffee Roaster shared some words and a pot of just-in (“pre-production”) Tanzanian single-origin coffee (meaning that rather than a blend, this coffee came from just one farm) with us this week.

It’s not that blends are at all bad, and no denigration meant on David’s part, he explains. It’s just that “single origin has the capacity to tell an awesome story, and people like to hear awesome stories.” David spoke with us about the relationships different cities seem to have with their coffee drinkers and coffee culture, and how those relationships can be improved with the recognition of the stories a coffee can tell.

Talking to David, it’s clear his passion lies not only in how coffee is served, but in how it arrives to the roaster. Intelligentsia follows a rigorous process to determine which coffees they sell. They make sure every person along the way is paid for their part and has a “transparency” contract that reveals what everyone else is being paid for their efforts. And because Intelligentsia is willing to pay top dollar for their beans (sometimes as much as 350% above the market value of commodity coffee – the freeze-dried stuff, for instance), it’s not just about increasing consciousness on the consumer level, but as David puts it, shifting the mentality of the farmer to produce a real quality bean.

Intelligentsia started out in Chicago 14 years ago, and in a quickly changing industry, they’ve evolved their model and developed countless new ones to work with over the years. But these stores aren’t the cookie cutter model some companies (we’re looking at you, Ubiquitous Green Mermaid) have pursued. The passionate staff (and Intelly hand picks some of the most passionate people available – their director of training, Stephen Morrissey, earned the crown of World Barista Champion a couple years back) ensures that each store matches its locale and takes advantage of the denizens there.

About the LA area, and the new Venice Beach location, David had this to divulge: “We’re redefining how things should work here on the consumer side. So with the new concept in Venice, it’s very open space, very much something where you can wheel the machine around, bring the person in, show the person what you’re doing on the machine, talk about different extraction models you can have.” This is what David means when he talks about the different stores: “It’s not like we’re at the base of Grand Central Station. I don’t think we would put a store like that in Grand Central Station. I know that it’s incredibly busy already, which is awesome. It’s in Venice, so it’s a laidback culture as well.”

The Chicago stores, on the other hand, are more geared toward the 9-to-5 audience. While each of the 3 cafes has their own character, they are “more suited to the business experience.” That is to say, while you often find the baristas there conversing with customers about coffee sourcing and the origin of the beans they use, the emphasis lies more on serving the coffee well and efficiently. The Monadnock store is the epitome of this model, and the original store on Broadway, while extremely busy, also has a larger space for sitting and conversation, an area for cuppings in order to inform the public of industry standards, and a variety of brewing methods to choose among.

Though Intelligentsia hasn’t opened a café of their own in New York (yet!), there are great spots all over the city where it can be found, all of whom have at their disposal the Training Lab where we chatted (Flavorpill and Intelligentsia are office neighbors, in fact). We’ve experienced some of the delights of Intelligentsia coffee from Dean and Deluca and Commodities Market, as well as designated coffee shops like Southside and Ost Café. Some people might recognize names like Ninth Street Espresso, without even knowing that their recent proprietary Alphabet City blend was developed with Intelligentsia, who is now their roaster.

Of the coffee scene in general, David asserts that San Francisco definitely led the pack. He says the opening of Peet’s in the Bay Area in the ’60s stands as a great example of coffee going along with the food culture progression. As for the current movements, he speaks of “a need to bring people’s focus back to the way they eat, and why they would want to put something in their body, and what are they doing with that.” Chicago, according to David, has also done a good job of moving coffee culture ahead simultaneously with food culture.

What’s happening in New York right now is particularly interesting to David because unlike San Francisco or Chicago, the coffee consciousness of New York seriously lags behind the marvelous food culture. This might seem like a criticism, but David points out that it will likely be a boon to New York’s coffee culture. The advantage to coming in late, as he sees it, is that “if you come in late you can jump in at the right level.” In this way, David believes the New York coffee scene will not only quickly catch up to the existing scenes in San Francisco and Chicago (not to mention the Pacific Northwest) but be able to surpass the current norms faster and create new designs à la Venice Beach for an innovative New York audience.

TIPS
When we asked David for tips on what to look for in a coffee or coffee shop, we received a slew of them to share with you.

1. Be informed. David shrewdly pointed out that anyone can produce propaganda, so a picture of a farmer on a wall does not mean any representative from the company knows that farm or where the bean really comes from. The more you know about what you’re buying, the more you can guard against the bad stuff. For instance, if you buy beans from El Salvador in January or February, you should be aware that those are last year’s beans, because El Salvador’s harvest is around that time of year, and it wouldn’t be in the stores in time to buy it in those months. Coffee loses some of its vibrancy after ten months, and while it may not be bad, it certainly helps to know more about what you’re getting.

2. Pay attention. That leaf shape in your coffee foam? It’s called a “rosetta” and it’s pretty indicative of the amount of work your barista has put in. It doesn’t necessarily mean your barista knows about the origins of the coffee beans she’s using, but it does require well-extracted espresso and well-steamed milk, so chances are you’ve got a quality drink in your hands. David hopes (as do we, after this conversation) that a well-made latte will stimulate more interest on the part of the consumer to understand what it is they’re drinking.

3. Look around. You know that container that the beans are in before they’re ground? The one you can see into and gaze at the beans lovingly from the other side of the bar? That’s called a hopper. David says if it looks dirty or oily, that’s bad news and indicative of an apathetic barista, and you should consider another café.

4. Stay fresh. When you’re buying beans for home use, check for a “roasted on” date, and definitely buy beans that are no more than a week and a half past roasting date. Freshness makes a huge difference in taste, and the quality of even the best beans drops rapidly after sitting on the shelf for a couple weeks. Similarly, buying whole beans and having a grinder for home use has a significantly positive impact on your morning experience.

5. Converse! Without being too aggressive, because their job is pretty stressful, it doesn’t hurt to ask your barista a bit about the coffee they’re serving you. David points out that you can’t always expect the best answer, but by showing your baristas that the interest is out there, they’ll likely seek out the answers for the next time and take more pride in their work as a result of accumulated knowledge and respect.