When one observes Mike McKim, founder of Cuvée Coffee, preparing his morning cup, one finds a professional who is exacting with his weights and measures, like a scientist, pharmacist, or drug dealer. This is an accurate observation. McKim is equal parts all of these. He heats filtered water to 200 degrees, then uses it to rinse a paper filter that is set into a the inverse conical top of a Chemex, a sort of Erlenmeyer flask. He discards the rinse water. He slides a small digital scale to the center of his workspace, places a metal cup on it, and zeroes the scale. He measures out 2 grams of coffee beans for each fluid ounce of water. He grinds the beans to a specific fineness appropriate to that bean and pours the ground coffee into the filter, then slowly trickles water through the grinds. The entire process, when executed at a leisurely pace, takes about three minutes.
For those mere coffee mortals amongst you, save your pshaws. Comparing your morning cup to McKim’s is akin to putting Ernest and/or Julio Gallo up against M. Perrier-Jouët. In fact, that comparison is apropos to the name Cuvée Coffee. Many wine drinkers are familiar with the term “cuvée” indicating that a wine is produced from a mixture of grape varieties, but the denotation which McKim had in mind when naming his company is the term’s application to champagne. “In champagne terms,” notes McKim, “They pick the grapes where the terroir is superior, and they only use the first press for cuvée. It’s the best of the best.”
The difficulty in this artisan stratosphere of the coffee world is finding ways to eke out a few extra points on the cupping scale. This 100-point scale is a means for quantifying the qualitative, a necessary but slippery endeavor, by ranking a coffee sample against a variety of metrics. “We shoot for 88 but it’s not always doable with every coffee. 86 is our absolute basement,” says McKim, “whereas most people fall in that 80 to 85 point category.”
The prime “differentiator,” as McKim puts it, is raw ingredient selection. “Every roaster rightfully thinks they’re buying the best coffee. There are varying levels of great coffee. It’s not as easy as calling your importer and saying, ‘Send me the best coffee you have from Colombia.’ It’s way more involved than that.”
This is where the difference between “fair trade” and “direct trade” come in. McKim’s business model is based on his extensive travels. “I know some roasters who travel and visit farms and that’s great. My experience with most people is they do it for photo-ops and marketing, not for the true substance of securing a long-term supply of amazing coffee, of building a sustainable relationship that involves commerce, social, and environmental aspects.”
Establishing these direct connections with farmers allows him to cut out the middleman (No offense to the middlepeople in our readership. We still love you.) and create a more advantageous deal for his farmers. The “fair trade basement,” that is, the lowest allowable price per pound of coffee which conforms to the Fair Trade standard, is $1.26. McKim showed me a sample bag of “yellow mondo novo” that he secured from a Brazilian farmer. He described it in hushed, measured tones as if it was a secret weapon he was waiting to unveil. This farmer had deigned to sell him this rare varietal because “I was the first roaster who had ever visited him twice.” McKim agreed to pay him $2.35 a pound.
But more importantly, in terms of quality control, he knows exactly which farm the beans are coming from, and what methods are being used. For example, one farmer may send pickers through a field only once, whereby berries of a wide variety of ripeness are picked. McKim notes, “Our guy in El Salvador does five pickings a year. He pays the people to pick only the ripe cherries, and it makes a huge difference.”
The second differentiator is consistency in processing. This is where the individual talents of roasters come into play. McKim’s approach here is impressively methodical, betraying an engineering mindset. Log charts for each batch of coffee are kept with temperatures and transition points for various stages of roasting and are examined over each day’s 9:30 a.m. cupping routine. McKim’s original roaster is an aged Parisian Samiac, and he combed the globe looking for another one with which to expand his volume capability. When he found one in Switzerland, he had it shipped to his lair in the Hill Country, disassembled it, and enlisted the help of his father, a retired airline pilot and mechanic, to rebuild it with Venturi nozzles, servo-controlled motors, and an oddly 1970’s-looking control panel with big buttons. It is the Millenium Falcon of roasters—a jalopy with guts that can crank up to hyperspace speeds.
“ We’ve kept all of these things that are great about these vintage roasters, all the cast iron, and then we’ve added modern technology. We’re able to take the craft of roasting, use measurables to define what’s happening during the roasting process, so we know what we can do to manipulate things to change the flavor of the coffee. Because we know what those measurables are for each variety, we can do it over and over.”
Rob Ovitt, co-owner of Once Over Coffee Bar in South Austin, is one of McKim’s key clients. He describes the symbiotic relationship between a boutique roaster and a high-end coffeeshop. “We’re big believers in the roaster/barrista relationship. We trust that Mike determines the optimal roast for a given coffee, and Mike trusts that we don’t screw it up on our end, and keep him in the best light.” When asked how important the direct trade ethos is in comparison to coffee quality when selecting a roaster, he said, “We’re most driven by what’s in the cup, but the reality is that what’s in the cup is determined by direct trade. It’s sought out and sourced in such a specific way, and that’s the only way it’s going to end up at such a level of quality.”