We were recently lucky enough to have the opportunity to go out to the Cuvée Coffee Roasting Company (pronounced coo-vay) in Spicewood, Texas, to chat with owner Mike McKim and participate in a cupping.
For any coffee lovers out there who have yet to hear of Cuvée, you have no idea what you've been missing. Then again, if you live in the Austin area there's a good chance you've had Cuvée without realizing it — it's served at some of the nicer coffeehouses in town, including Cafe Medici and Thunderbird.
How it All Began
So how does one get into the coffee roasting business? For Mike it was a pretty straight path that started out in the tech field, selling fiber optic cable... well OK maybe it's not quite such a straight path. It started, not surprisingly, as a hobby. Mike said he bought a "hobby roaster" — actually it's the professional grade roaster that he uses today — and after he made enough for himself he realized that there was more left than he would be able to finish. As a result, he began bagging it and giving it to friends and family and eventually started selling it. And are we ever glad he did!
He has since purchased a second roaster which is due to come on line pretty soon here. In fact, the roasting facility was designed with expansion in mind — able to grow from the current amount of over 100 thousand pounds per year to an eventual capacity of around half a million pounds.
Roasting Method: No Burning These Beans
What is it that makes Cuvée's coffee superior? First, of course, is the roasting method itself. They take great care not to over-roast their beans, something many major roasters and coffeehouses tend to do. As it turns out, this is done for a very specific reason — it creates a more uniform flavor. That way, the coffee you get in an Austin franchise will taste the same as it does in any location across the country. Unfortunately, the flavor it creates is one of the roast itself and not of the beans.
At Cuvée, the darkest roast they have is more of a medium-dark by most other standards. Why go so light? Simply put: It allows the beans to speak for themselves. Another detail not to be overlooked is that they only roast batches to order — I recently bought a bag that had roast date of only three days prior.
Getting Picky About Bean Selection
Secondly, and perhaps most important of all, is the bean selection. Cuvée is very picky about their beans and the farmers they do business with. Cuvée does direct trade with individual farmers, and Mike spends up to 12 weeks a year in Latin America meeting with his farmers and inspecting their operations. He explained to us that the bean goes through three stages of ripeness.
The cherry, the fruit the bean actually grows in, will range in color from green to a deep cherry red. Most roasters are content with beans that are in the mid to dark range of red, with a few green mixed in. At Cuvée, they insist that their crop come from only cherries that are the ripest. This means a couple of things. For one, it is more labor intensive because the pickers have to inspect each cherry they pluck instead of simply stripping a branch clean. Secondly, and most importantly, it ensures a much higher quality product.
Cupping: Quality Control
When we were told we'd be participating in a cupping, we had no real idea what that meant. We figured it simply meant that we would be sampling a couple of cups and talking with Mike for a while. What we did was participate in a sampling of new crops of beans from farmers that he is considering doing business with, or in some cases, already is doing business with. This is an important process because it tells him how good the beans are and helps him detect how many unripe beans (by his standards) managed to creep into each batch. If too many make it in, it both affects the flavor of the coffee and also suggests how much care the farmers are putting into picking the beans he wants.
There were over twenty samples set out, all of which had been roasted that day. Each of the samples came from the same region in Guatemala, from the valley between Volcan de Agua and Volcan de Fuego. In spite of the proximity of the farms, each sample had its own very unique aroma and flavor. And of the twenty samples tried, only two made the cut. It is this kind of care and respect for his product that gives Cuvée it's very distinct aroma and flavor.
Passing the Taste Test
How good is it? Well, that's obviously a matter of opinion, but consider this: for three years in a row Cuvée Coffee was used by the winning contestants in the regional barista championships. Of course, the exact flavor varies according to roast and blend, but the three types I have tried — Meritage, Mezzanotte, and Hunapu — all share similar characteristics. They tend to be flavorful, smooth, and very bright with a mild aftertaste. In fact, aftertaste is one of the aspects that Mike pays very close attention to when doing a cupping. If it's not just right it gets rejected and he moves on to the next one.
Going Beyond the Cup
Of course, being true entrepreneurs, coffee is not all that they offer. If you're thinking of opening a coffee shop, you can purchase professional grade equipment (like La Marzocco espresso machines) off their website. In addition to this and some interesting sounding projects in the works — like beer flavored with their coffee (think coffee stout or IPA) and maybe whiskey finished in barrels cured in coffee — they also offer training courses for baristas.
To the uninitiated it may seem a bit strange to send a person to an intensive training course focusing on pouring coffee, but believe me when I tell you there is a real art to pulling the perfect espresso. Everything from grind size, to tamping pressure, to the amount of water poured must be taken into consideration. Cuvée offers day-long courses throughout the week for coffee shops and has open enrolment for the public on Fridays. Be sure to check their website for details.
Where to Try It
So now the final question: Where can you purchase Cuvée? In Austin, you can sample it at restaurants and coffee shops such as Bess Bistro, Cafe Medici, Thunderbird, and Patika. Also, Thunderbird, Whole Foods downtown, and Cafe Medici sell bags of the whole beans, but of course, you can also just order directly. (As a side note, Cuvée is also great to cook with. I came up with a dry rub that I used on some pork ribs that I'll share later.)
Mike, we want to thank you again for having us out. We had a blast and wish you continued success.
—Matt and Dave