Getting Coffee Right: CaffeMarco's Robust Success

Green coffee beans in burlap bags from around the world

Green coffee beans in burlap bags from around the world

Tanzania. Mexico. Peru. Ethiopia. Sumatra. Mark Newberry, owner of CaffeMarco in Paris, Kentucky, speaks with awe of the sheer human labor coffee growers and processors in these five countries on four continents must complete before the 150-pound burlap bags of "green" (unroasted) beans reach his storage room. I read the Wikipedia entry on coffee processing to get some idea of what a bean lives through before it reaches Mark's 729 Main Street store room. Mind boggling - I will not ever get the steps straight, or understand which ones happen in which conditions and countries.

It's more fun and at least as informative simply to hang around Mark as he roasts and packages beans and talks with customers in his shop or at the Lexington Farmers Market. Mark treasures coffee and its place in our lives. Cheerful bits of coffee chemistry, history, geography, and tasting lore appear during most interactions with customers. For example: the differences in the two types of coffee beans, robusta and arabica; coffee beans' tendency to develop peak flavor on the third day after roasting; or how dark roast beans may have lowest acidity.

Mark Newberry of Caffe Marco sells coffee at the Lexington Famers Market

Mark Newberry of Caffe Marco sells coffee at the Lexington Famers Market

Mark Newberry of Caffe Marco holds full Bodum French Press pot of a light roast blend

Mark Newberry of Caffe Marco holds full Bodum French Press pot of a light roast blend

One day I listened as Mark mentioned that his coffees come from different sources in different seasons. He was explaining to a customer why it is likely he will not have coffee from Mexico year-round -- because he buys beans when they are freshest, and he aims to sell any beans he buys within six months. I thought at the time that he meant that coffee has seasonality, a concept I had never imagined, other than the appeal of hot mochas and pumpkin spice lattés in chilly weather or the wonders of fine iced coffee in summer.

UPDATE, November 5, 2010: For at least a year, I intended to find time when Mark could explain more about seasonality in coffees. When we finally arranged a day, some of Mark's patented Coffee as Connector magic happened. Stella Parks and Rosco Weber of BraveTart, the sparkling new Kentucky-based food blog, were there with real photo equipment, intending to document Mark's roasting process from start to finish. Stella, a CIA-trained pastry chef and inventor, had brought coffee-friendly pastries with her, including sweet potato doughnuts and gluten free chocolate biscotti. I delighted in the biscotti, but the tastiest thing may have happened when Stella offered a sweet potato doughnut, free, to a skeptical customer who had been grumbling a bit about food in central Kentucky. He took one bit of Stella's sweet potato doughnut, stood up straight, opened his eyes wide and said "WOW. That's the best doughnut I've had in the state of Kentucky."

Stella has just posted her fine BraveTart story about their visit to CaffeMarco, with exquisite Rosco Weber photos, here: Coffee in Paris: this ain't Starbucks.

Although I went to Mark's shop to learn more about coffee source seasonality, as I wrestled with the information about geography and cultivation Mark shared, I realized seasonality is not the right term. It's more a matter of Mark's expertly timing his purchases of beans from different origins so the beans he roasts are always the finest and freshest. As I am understanding it now, the situation is a bit like the changes in sources fresh produce markets require in order to sell ripe peaches several months each year. In Kentucky, the first fresh peaches we see in May and June come from the deep south, and then the source moves north through our own peach season in July and August. By September fresh peaches may come from Michigan.

When Mark orders coffee beans that will arrive near the end of the year, they likely were picked the previous April or May during the southern hemisphere's coffee harvest. It takes months for freshly picked coffee cherries -- the fruits that contain the beans -- to go through milling, processing, hulling, drying, and who knows what in order to be ready for roasting. So, for example, a shipment of beans from New Guinea, which lies south of the equator, will arrive at CaffeMarco in late November. Beans from northern hemisphere countries like Mexico or Nicaragua, on the other hand, were likely picked during our fall season, and arrive in Kentucky in spring for our enjoyment across the warm months.

Even though Mark knows which country's beans will be most delicious during which months in Kentucky, even though he selects beans based on quality and taste, and even though he applies a set of values about healthy conditions for both coffee workers and the land and water that produce the beans, still more variables affect the deliciousness of this beloved drink. For example, Mark says he bought Nicaraguan coffee from the same plantation last year and this year. Last year the coffee was good. This year it was great, so popular it virtually replaced everything else people bought. So coffee varies by vintage, based on what happens during the growing season.

Mark constantly sips, tries, tastes, tests his coffees. He says when new shipments come in, like the New Guinea shipment he is expecting, the fun begins. He roasts, blends, experiments. Mark says blends are the richest and most satisfying ways to enjoy coffee. His handsome black bag coffee is always a blend, and always maintains a familiar flavor profile, even while he shifts the origins and proportions of beans to get the taste he and his customers like.

Good Foods Market & Café asked Mark to develop a coffee as part of an October focus on honoring African food. I tasted the Tanzania-Yirgacheffe blend Mark has developed, and I'm a believer in whatever Mark says about blends. This light roast coffee tasted rich, complex, and completely delicious. Look for this blend in Good Foods this month.

Those of us who champion local growers and producers often make coffee one of our exceptions, finding it hard to live without this luscious drink. All coffee comes to Kentucky from a great distance. It is wonderful that at least the final roasting happens in Kentucky, and to know that CaffeMarco uses only certified organic, fair trade beans from family farms.

The 13-second video below simply shows Mark's roaster at work yesterday.

Since AromaTube has yet to be invented, I cannot send the intense cooking/roasting smells to wake you up, as the aromas seem to be waking up Main Street in Paris. When I pulled in to a parking space across from the CaffeMarco shop yesterday, I stepped out behind a white sedan and breathed in the bracing smell of coffee just beginning to roast. I noticed the word "Coffee" across the white sedan's license plate, and I thought "Coffee is taking over this Kentucky town!" I tried to understand for a moment what the "Coffee" license plate meant. I discarded the idea that the car belonged to CaffeMarco, since it did not seem useful for the deliveries Mark makes weekly all over central Kentucky. After a second, I realized the license plate was from Tennessee -- Coffee County, Tennessee, named for a person, not a bean.

Mark Newberry is as thoughtful about his business model as anyone I know. He thinks carefully about how to run a business ethically, kindly, and at an appropriate scale. He does not want his business to run him. I admire these strategic choices, among so many other things I admire -- adore -- about both Mark Newberry and CaffeMarco.

Now there is evidence that Mark's business model is, in fact, good for business. In spite of the recession, CaffeMarco sales show huge increases over last year. Mark is brewing up success along with his great coffee.

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The world is coming to visit central Kentucky this year for the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games. To help our visitors know more about Kentucky's food and food ways, Savoring Kentucky is rolling out 116 Savory Kentucky Bites, one for each of the 100 days before WEG begins, and 16 for the days during WEG, September 25 - October 10. Today's Savory Bite is number 112.