Martin Skar //
// 19.3.2019

A Cup of Coffee with Tim Wendelboe

I grabbed a cup of espresso with Tim Wendelboe to talk to him about the changes coffee has gone through from his point of view and what he predicts going forward. 

During 20 years in coffee I've gained some memorable moments in the name of flavor and aroma. Moments involving coffee that are just so amazing that they stick with me and give me a flashback when I feel a scent of something similar years later.

10 years ago there was a new exporter that had some amazing Single Origin coffees from Ethiopia. One of them, called Aricha, found its way to Tim Wendelboe. They roasted and brewed it as an espresso and it was one of the most amazing coffees I have ever tasted.

I still remember the shot having aroma like cured ham and reduced beef stock (Chef Term is Demi Glace). The viscous and sticky mouthfeel underlined this and as I stuck my nose further down in the cup I could even smell the earthy note of celery root. My inner chef definitely came in handy here!

Reminiscing of this lately made me think about the roasting and brewing of espresso and how we are known for a bit lighter roast styles here in Norway/Scandinavia. Many say this is due to our general access to great quality green coffee. 

So I grabbed a cup of espresso with Tim Wendelboe to talk to him about the changes coffee has gone through from his point of view and what he predicts going forward. 

tim wendelboe
Original photos: Tim Wendelboe

Hey, thanks for meeting up, I know you are a busy man.

My pleasure!

I tell Tim about my experience with the Aricha. He starts off by telling me a bit about the coffee.

That coffee was so good, but after going with the exporter to origin and asking him lot of questions, it turned out that the lot of coffee wasn't as transparent as they had promised after all. My company is all about transparency and making sure the farmers are paid well and treated with respect. Therefore I could not continue to work with that exporter as they just were not open enough.

The way you describe the coffee, is interesting. I think many would find more fruity aromas like strawberry and peach in this coffee. It was a natural so would have some of the wild fermented aromas too, and this can translate to cured meats that you are describing.

Chis Kolbu used the Aricha in the World Barista Championship in 2008. His signature drink was the Aricha brewed as an espresso mixed with a bit of sugar and the same coffee brewed on Aeropress. We got comments from both our team and the judges that this drink, consisting only coffee, did not taste enough of coffee. I guess this says something about many people’s expectations of what coffee should have taste like at that time. It sure was a fun coffee and it was fun changing people’s perception of coffee with it!

Yeah, it has been a long time since I have seen any natural coffees in your assortment. Is this on purpose?

I am actually looking for natural coffees all the time. In fact, I recently found some wonderful coffees from Gesha Willage, also in Ethiopia. But the lot was so small that we would be able to only roast 2 batches in total. The coffees where so clean and juicy. Of course fruity, but juicy like sun ripe peach. Anyway, I am still open on buying naturals. It's just that I rarely find them clean enough. 

You are a bit in to wine. Do you find that tasting for cleanness in coffee and wine are similar?

Sure. I don't know that much about wine, but I do enjoy to drink some. I don't want wine to taste too much of processing, rather of the fruit (raw material). In wine, there is for sure a fermentation process happening to be able to make alcohol. I do not want the wine to taste too much of this or any other processing. This also applies to coffee. Giving unwanted taste to coffee or wine from the processing is like adding a taste to the product. I don't want to add flavors to my coffee after it has been brewed, so why should I add flavors from fermentation during the processing/before it is brewed? If you as a farmer have very good quality coffee, and this is hard to find, there would be no need to add any flavors in the processing. This is why we rarely have naturals.

That being said I am very much in favor of optimizing the whole potential in the farm. One of the farmers I buy from on a regular basis, Gilberto in El Salvador is a great example of this. He has a farm on a volcano. On the top of the volcano, the coffee is great. The lower grown coffee has less complexity. Therefore, he processes this coffee as natural/sundried instead of selling it at marked price. He has Japanese buyers that pays 7 dollars per pound. 

tim wendelboe cafe
Photo credits: Tim Wendelboe

Ok, great. Let's go back to espresso. The other day I ran into a green coffee buyer and we talked a bit. At one point in the conversation, he said something and sounded desperate: I don't know how to make espresso anymore! I can totally relate. If you are not in the bar working on a day to day basis, it can feel like the parameters has changed a lot the last years. What would you say has changed with how we brew espresso over the years?

Well a lot has changed since we learned this 20 years ago, that´s for sure.

Ok, now I feel old :)

Back in the days we were so strict about the 25 sec. brewing time, and to stop the brewing cycle when the crema got white spots. This is not how we do it nowadays. We were taught by teachers with experience and inspiration from Italy, and in addition went there to see it ourselves, right. In general, we were a lot into the visual appearance of the shot. We had super warm small cups. In addition, we were brewing under extracted espresso and short shots compared to now. When you are brewing shots as short (as we did) you tend to get sour flavors. This led us to roast the coffee darker to get rid of the acidity. The result was espresso coffee that was a bit too bitter.

At one point we started to measure the TDS in our extractions. This was thanks to a guy called Vince Fedele who developed a way to use the refractometer to measure TDS in coffee much faster than we could previous to this. This was in 2009 and he called it “The Extract Mojo”. After playing around with this we saw that we extracted around 15 % flavor from the coffee. The recommendation, if you want to follow Fedele´s method, is 18-22 %. After learning this, we began testing a lot how we could get more flavor and sweetness out of the coffee. We also saw that some filters working better than others. Later, the same Vince Fedele also developed special filters with completely evenly sized holes, for better extraction. (He has made some called VST and some others with La Marzocco.) This meant that we could extract much more flavor from the coffee, using a bit less coffee and a finer grind. For our case, we understood that we had to change to a lighter roast to fit this new and improved way of brewing. 

Previously the holes in the filters where made imprecisely and the holes where not the same size. This meant that if you grinded the espresso in an optimal way, the filter would clog up. So, we grinded a bit coarser, this gave too fast flow, so we added more coffee in the filters to reach the 26 sec. If you have too much, and too coarse coffee you under extract. This became and evil circle that you could not escape. To compare, our espresso roast is much lighter now compared to 10 years ago. 

Did this change the way you approach espresso with your wholesale customers?

Yes. Often we get calls from them saying that the coffee is tasting sour. This is a good opportunity for us to help them and pay them a visit. We bring a Refractometer and a couple of new filters and do some adjustments with pressure, temperature or other things. Small details make the flavor go from pretty acidic to nice and sweet. That being said, our espresso is definitely more acidic in general compared to other more traditional espressos. With the right filters, you get the sweetness and the balance. You can compare it with lemonade. If you drink lemon juice with water, it might be a bit too sour, but with a bit of sugar you get the balance right. With an extraction of 20 % you get a lot of nice sweetness! 

Also, you can see and old post on VST filter, developed by Vince Fedele here

For us, using the extract mojo to measure the extraction has been a great instrument. I know of only a few coffee bars that measure this. Some measure the filter coffee, but not the espresso. It is so easy, and I encourage people to do it more. It will help you to make better tasting coffee.

If you want to see how Tim and Bar Manager Stephanie brew their espresso, watch this video.

Isn’t this time consuming?

Not really. Weighing the grinded coffee before brewing takes a bit time, but not more than how we did it before. We get a consistent result and less waste. I guess this is the biggest difference. Actually nowadays we taste our shots a bit less than before, because we know the numbers will not lie.

And no more 25 sec espresso brewing time?

This differs. It might be 25 sec and it might be 35. Depending on the machine, grinder and so on. It is all connected as we know. When people ask us for a brewing recipe we give them a dosing recipe of 20 g in and 40 g out. This is a good starting point for us! We also serve our espresso in big cups, this is our preferred way. Referring to Italy. They have a very aesthetic coffee culture, but we have changed a lot in the way we do things.

For sure, and now people look to us and you as a business for inspiration. My experience drinking coffee in Italy is that the quality of the raw material is not always so good.

Agreed. And it gets worse and worse. The price of hiring people is getting more expensive, but the price of an espresso has been around 1 euro for many years. This results coffee with less and less quality in my experience.

I used to know Vincenzo Sandalj, a green coffee trader, who unfortunately is no longer with us. I visited his green buying company in the early 2000s and he said that he had mostly stopped joining the daily cuppings as the quality was so poor. The development has continued like this ever since in my experience.

tim wendelboe farm
Photo credits: Tim Wendelboe

Cool, I visited him on a study trip in the same period! Coffee and cocoa are said to be harder and harder to buy. What do you think will happen with the prices over time?

Right now the sales price is under cost price for the farmers. For example in Colombia they are under one dollar per pound. Even though the government are subsidizing a bit, it is not enough. The farmers do not always have an alternative. Sure they can grow other crops, but the local markets are full of beans and bananas already. Many times they find themselves other jobs and leave the coffee or loose money from the crops that they already have. Let me put this in another perspective. The average farmer in Colombia is earning the same as they did in the 70s. Can you imagine having the same salary as our parents in the 70s? It is a complex situation for sure. More and more want to grow the exclusive crops, but there is limited space for this and with climate change this is even more challenging. Take the leaf rust. 10 years ago this was not a problem in many areas, but now it is spreading more and more due to warmer and more humid climate.

Thanks for the great conversation Tim. I'll keep on following your journey. You really set the standards.