Java Lust

If It Were Up to John Martinez, Everyone Would Be Drinking Estate Coffee
| By Sam Gugino | From James Woods, May/Jun 97

It was early January and John Martinez had just come back from a trip to the Big Island of Hawaii to make sure his source of Kona coffee was secure. The specialty coffee world had been rocked in late 1996 when it was discovered that for years a Berkeley, California, roaster had been adulterating pricy Kona coffee beans by blending them with cheaper beans from Latin America.

"He fooled a lot of people who should have known better, but not me," says Martinez, owner of J. Martinez & Co., the Atlanta-based coffee importer and roaster, and a former tobacco executive. Martinez wasn't fooled because he doesn't buy beans simply labeled Kona any more than wine négociant Louis Jadot buys grapes labeled Burgundy. Both merchants want to know exactly where the raw materials came from, who grew them, who processed them and what they look and taste like.

The green Kona beans Martinez roasts himself come from 10 farms selected from some 50 farms in the Hona Unau Valley. What he sells to customers, however, isn't Kona or Kona Style but Hona Unau Estates Kona Coffee. His Jamaica Blue Mountain coffee says "Estate Selection" because it, too, is carefully chosen from a few selected farms. Martinez's Jamaica High Mountain comes from a single estate, Baronhall, as does his Costa Rican Tarrazu coffee, which is grown at La Minita Hacienda.

These great coffee estates express their own terroir, that combination of soil, climate and topography that give their coffee beans a taste and aroma as distinctive as wines from the legendary estates of Burgundy.

Estate coffee is the mantra of John Martinez, coffee négociant. It hasn't enabled him to reach nirvana yet, but he's getting closer by the day, and he's bringing the coffee world along with him.

Estate coffee is very much like estate-bottled wine. When America was in its wine infancy--about the same time we all drank coffee from percolators--most wine labels read California Chablis, Rhine wine or Burgundy. The grapes could have come from anywhere. But as we became more sophisticated, we demanded more specific information. Where in California? What grapes? Who bottled the wine?

The specialty coffee industry is where the California wine industry was in the late 1960s or early 1970s, according to Martinez. We can tell the difference between an earthy Sumatra and a high-acid Central American, but beyond that few of us know much, or even know what to ask. Would a sophisticated wine drinker be satisfied that he was drinking a California Cabernet Sauvignon or even one from the Napa Valley? Of course not. Yet coffee drinkers are perfectly comfortable simply drinking Costa Rican coffee. Some may go beyond a country designation and ask for a regional definition, such as Tarrazu. But few would seek out a specific estate like La Minita, the Lafite of Central American estate coffees (featured in the Autumn 1995 Cigar Aficionado).

"Of course, there are good and bad estates, farms or haciendas, called fincas, in Costa Rica," says Martinez, "but by and large, when you buy an estate coffee, you're getting a certain guarantee of quality, just as you are when you buy an estate bottled wine."

Not all coffee Martinez sells is estate coffee. Estate coffee from Colombia, for example, is very difficult to obtain. "Like most coffee-producing countries, Colombia is made up of many small farms, as small as a half acre. Picture 50 or 100 Juan Valdezes," Martinez says. "These farmers take their coffee to a central mill to be processed. And it's the mill that puts its name on it."

In such situations, Martinez approaches the mill owner and makes "an arrangement," as he puts it. "I say to him, if you buy this type of cherry berry [the unprocessed coffee bean] and process it this way, I will pay you X cents above what the commodity traders will pay you," he says. Guatemala, on the other hand, has many estates, but no one estate that Martinez believes he can consistently count on. So he combines two estates for a consistent taste.

In regions where Martinez is less familiar, he finds a knowledgeable and reputable local and tells him, "This is the quality I'm looking for. Buy me this type of coffee and I'll pay you a premium." Martinez figures it takes about 10 years before the best estates can be determined, then narrowed to one estate that produces consistently high-quality coffee. Such an estate is La Minita, which Martinez claims produces the most carefully produced and processed coffee in the world.

The J. Martinez & Co. brochure is explicit about when an estate coffee is being sold and when it is not. But Martinez believes too many other retailers aren't as forthcoming for consumers. "The problem is there isn't enough information out there to help the consumer. Though the evolution of coffee has been similar to wine, there are many more wine publications than coffee publications. We need a 'Coffee Aficionado'."

Information is one thing, standards are another. The only government standard for coffee is that decaffeinated coffee must contain less than 1 percent caffeine. That's it. Caveat emptor still rules the coffee world.

"If I read that Wine X is splendid, I can go out and find the wine and be pretty damned sure that the wine I'm getting is the wine reviewed, because it says so on the label," Martinez says. "But when I walk into a coffee store where the product is sold in an open bin and it says 'Jamaica Blue Mountain,' it is a total act of faith that I'm getting exactly what it says."

That faith was shaken to the core when even coffee experts were duped in the Kona scandal. "No one is going to notice if 10 to 20 percent of the coffee an unscrupulous roaster or retailer sells is adulterated," Martinez says. "But with wine, you have the protection of a cork in the bottle and a covering over that."

To protect his reputation and the integrity of his product, Martinez chooses the retailers as carefully as he chooses his beans. "If I put my coffee into reputable hands, I know the consumer will get what he's supposed to," Martinez says. "That's why I'm negotiating with Williams-Sonoma to carry my product. Consumers know when they walk into that store they can expect quality. And I'm willing to reduce my own profit margin to make it happen." (J. Martinez coffees are also available at retailers such as Dean and DeLuca and Neiman Marcus.)

This is not to say that all in the specialty coffee business is as dark as a French roast. Things have never been better for Martinez and those like him. Martinez gives due credit to that Golden Arches of coffeedom, Starbucks. "They played a vital role in taking coffee a step up," he says. "But where they lost it was the desire to grow so fast. When you do that you have to sacrifice quality. There just isn't that much high-quality coffee to go around."

Another thing that bugs Martinez is that so much coffee sold in espresso bars like Starbucks is smothered by foam and milk, not to mention cocoa, syrups and other flavorings. "Would you mix Taittinger Blanc de Blanc with orange juice?" Martinez asks. "I will not have whipped cream, half-and-half, nuts or whatever in my shop. I only use whole milk and 2 percent milk. That's the only way we can help the palate to evolve."

Dark roasting or over-roasting may also mask the true taste of a fine estate coffee the way excessive manipulation (like over-oaking) may disguise the terroir of a Dry Creek zinfandel or Carneros pinot noir. It may cover up defects as well. "If you have a beautiful woman, she doesn't need a lot of makeup. She's beautiful as she is," Martinez says. "If I buy coffee with a minimum of imperfections, then I want to bring it to the consumer that way."

Nor should the distinctiveness of estate coffee be compromised by blending. For years Martinez resisted attempts to create any blend, believing that top estate coffees could and should stand on their own. He still adheres to that philosophy, though he's made two exceptions. "I made an espresso blend"--with the somewhat overwrought name of Don Giovanni's Espresso Bellissimo--"because it is traditional, despite the popular misconception that espresso is a roast. And for historical reasons, I made a Mocha-Java by combining Yemen Mattari with aged Sumatra Mandheling."

The Martinez coffee connection goes back a long way. In 1830, John's great-great-grandfather, Pedro Martinez, arrived in Jamaica from Spain. By the turn of the century, the family was involved in Jamaica Blue Mountain coffee (it still owns a four-acre farm in Jamaica), rum (Martinez's father, Eugene, was one of the inventors of the famous coffee-rum liqueur, Tia Maria) and, with the aid of the Cuban branch of the family, cigars.

"One of my earliest memories was sitting on my grandfather's veranda in Jamaica. His cronies, Ramon Cifuentes, the owner of Partagas, and Omar Garcia, the owner of H. Upmann, used to smoke cigars called puro [for pure], drink very sweet Cuban espresso, called cortadita, and play dominoes," Martinez says. "I hung around to get the cigar box."

Martinez worked for the Rothman International tobacco company for 18 years, eventually becoming head of all Latin American operations. He also spent several years on various cigar projects, and helped Rothman gain control of the Jamaican cigar industry in the late 1970s and early '80s, when the government divested control of its tobacco growing operations. So it's not surprising that Martinez is a regular cigar smoker. His tastes are eclectic. "I love my Havanas when I can get them. I also like a good Macanudo or Royal Jamaican--Upmanns and Dunhills, too, but nothing smaller than a corona."

While at Rothman, Martinez successfully helped the company to diversify into--what else?--coffee, as a means of generating additional income. In 1988, while stationed in Atlanta, he decided to retire from tobacco and pursue coffee as a second career.

As he traveled through Latin America, Martinez met with growers who frequently asked him, "Why does our great coffee end up tasting so different with the American consumers?" So, Martinez struck a deal with as many individual estates as he could: "You give me the best you have and I'll put your name on it." Thus, Martinez became one of the first coffee retailers to sell estate coffee.

"At that time, virtually no one was putting anything on the label of coffee except the country of origin and perhaps the grade," says Martinez, whose wife, Melanie, and son, John Jr., also help run J. Martinez. "We had no models. Coffee on the West Coast was very trendy with places that had names like The Daily Buzz. Seattle was just starting. So we just evolved our own thing."

The specialty coffee business has come a long way, Martinez says, but it's still a fledgling industry with few requirements for entry. "All you need is a bank loan to get started," he says. "I'm a voice in the wilderness asking for more standards. When I get up at forums I get poison stares. But the fact is, there are a lot of people giving coffee seminars who aren't qualified. And the last definitive book on coffee was originally printed in 1922." (All About Coffee, by William H. Ukers, was reprinted in 1990.)

In addition to an inexorable move toward more estate-grown coffees, Martinez sees several other important developments in specialty coffees. One that he is wary of is the transplanting of beans from one region to another. For example, Jamaica Blue Mountain beans are finding their way to Hawaii, Costa Rica and Kenya. In theory, this is perfectly logical. After all, coffee is not native to the New World. And those Hawaiian Kona beans were originally brought via Guatemala. But this trend is happening before regional characteristics are being fully developed and understood. In effect, it's just muddying the waters.

One development Martinez would like to see is aged coffees, in the same way that there are vintages of wine. The concept of aged coffee began in Indonesia in the late seventeenth century. Beans aged in their natural parchment on long voyages to Western markets or, in some cases, during the period before the ships set sail. Though aging was incidental, it had a positive effect on flavor.

"We learned that aged Sumatra is a beautiful coffee. In fact, I pay a premium for it. So I thought, why can't we do it with other coffees?" Martinez says. That's just what Martinez did, or tried to do. In 1990, he uncovered a unique batch of 1988 Jamaica Blue Mountain. But the Jamaican Coffee Board told him it wasn't exportable. It was too old.

"It had exquisite characteristics, but it just didn't look like the traditional Blue Mountain," Martinez said. "So I said, 'Fine, let's call it Joe or something so we won't confuse consumers.' But the authorities said no." (As it turned out, the prohibition applied only to green coffee beans, so Martinez later was able to roast the beans in Jamaica and ship them to Atlanta.)

While Martinez acknowledges that not all coffees can be aged, he's convinced that the time for aged coffee will come. One major obstacle to aging is that it keeps coffee off the market, which has global financial and political implications. Unlike wine, coffee is a commodity. It is the second most traded commodity in the world, after oil.

Perhaps the idea of coffee as a commodity is one reason why consumers can't think of coffee in the same terms as wine. "When most people have a dinner party, the wine and its label are proudly displayed. It makes a statement to your guests. But coffee is considered a pantry item, so no one talks about it over a meal," says Martinez, who purposely decants his wines so no one knows what they are drinking.

Nonetheless, Martinez believes the day is coming when restaurants will have coffee lists just as they have lists for after-dinner drinks. Six or seven coffees will be offered, ground to order, and put in small French press coffee pots.

That may seem highly unlikely, considering that busboys typically make the coffee in restaurants and getting an espresso with a crema on it is as difficult as finding an aged Jamaica Blue Mountain. But 10 years ago, who would have guessed that restaurants would be putting the pastry chef's name on the menu?

Can the name of the coffee roaster be far behind? At a dinner at Atlanta's Ritz-Carlton in 1995, each course was prepared by a superstar chef. The menu listed the legendary names of Bocuse, Verge and Perrier after the dishes they prepared, along with matching wines and their vintages. At the end of the menu it read: "Coffee, 1988 Blue Mountain, J. Martinez."

Sam Gugino is a food and wine writer based in New York City.