Doug Welsh, Peet's roastmaster and vice-president of coffee, loves the complex tastes and smells of coffee. And that's a good thing, because he spends his days sampling coffees, dividing his time between in Alameda and the corporate headquarters in Emeryville.
When did you start drinking coffee? When I came to Berkeley to go to school.
What kind was it? It was the kind you put milk and sugar in, without thinking much about it. Like most students, I drank coffee in cafes all over town.
And when did you have your first cup of Peet's coffee? 1981. And it was my last cup of everything else. Once you taste all that a cup of coffee can be — bold, complex and caramelized sugar-bittersweet — it’s hard to settle for low-quality, stale, thin, underdeveloped or incorrectly brewed. (And you don’t need the milk or sugar any more.)
How does one become a coffee buyer and expert? Is there a Coffee University? There's on-the-job experience. Unfortunately, there is no school for coffee. I started out behind the counter at Peet’s original store on Vine Street, turning customers on to great whole bean coffees and whole leaf teas. I was a barista, before that was really a term. My interest in tasting led me to training others, and finally to an apprenticeship with the legendary Jim Reynolds, who still serves as our Roastmaster Emeritus.
Do you need special skills like a wine maker — taste, smell or the ability to speak different languages? Special stubbornness maybe. We taste dozens, up to hundreds of coffees every day. You do have to have a certain aptitude, but it is mainly a function of practice. You have to have experienced everything that can happen in a cup of coffee, know each kind of defect, for instance, as well as knowing what virtues are possible.
After that you have to concentrate. We (humans) don’t inherently trust our taste, or rely on it as much as our sight (or our preconceptions!), so it is really a discipline of shutting out distraction and bias and methodically evaluating the aroma and flavor of coffee.
What do you do as a coffee buyer? Taste. And taste and taste. Every coffee we buy is taste-tested three times, when it is purchased, when it is shipped, and when it arrives, and then of course daily after it goes into production roasting.
How much do you travel and how many frequent flyer miles do you have? Not as much as you might think. Fundamentally, we are coffee roasters, and too much travel can detract from quality control at home. Samples of coffee can be received from anywhere in the world in a couple of days, and many of the sources Peet’s is fortunate to have are suppliers of many years. We travel as much to maintain these relationships as to form new ones.
What's the best thing about your job? The coffee. Our niche is quality, so I’m fortunate to work with the finest coffees in the world, and the fine people who produce them, every day. And coffee is such an inherently satisfying flavor — one of the most complex known — that there is endless fascination in it. No matter how many cups you have sampled, as a buyer you are always looking for that next amazing sensation, that next extraordinary aroma or flavor that marks a great cup.
How do you decide which beans to put into a blend (such as Anniversary Blend)? It’s a combination of experience and serendipity. You have to know what coffees will marry well, but you also look for something different. The coffee we will use in Anniversary usually finds us. We always base the blend on a coffee or coffees that are exceptional in the moment, a new crop standout, for instance, or an extraordinary delivery we have purposely salted away.
What makes the 2011 Anniversary Blend special? New crop, that is recently harvested coffee, from one of our favorite farms in Costa Rica, Doka Estate, which has both ample acidity and body, an equally fresh, and wholly elegant, chocolaty coffee from Guatemala Antigua, and the secret weapon, Burundi. It’s from Kayanza, and is beautiful on its own, but also brings a sweet berry tone and smoothness to the blend. The secret to great blending is to put good coffees in.
If you were stranded on a desert island and only had room for one pound of coffee, which one would you bring with you and why? Major Dickason’s Blend. It has everything, upfront acidity, broad layers of flavor, and a long, satisfying finish. There’s a reason it has a cult following at Peet’s.