On the Line: Martin Diedrich of Kéan Coffee, Part One

I met Martin a couple of years ago, while moderating a Yelp discussion at his Tustin coffeehouse. Fast forward to The Ecology Center this past September, where we caught up at Green Feast. Diedrich's knowledge and experience means he is rarely at a loss for words.

Describe your first experience with coffee.
My first experience with coffee was working on the coffee farm. I think that was the only interaction I had with coffee for a long time before I ever started drinking it. I do remember that as a teenager, my Mom would always ask me at breakfast if I wanted a cup of coffee. In those teen years it was my way of rebelling against my parents and what they were all about. When I always replied to her offer, “I don't drink coffee.”, my Mom played along and asked me every morning again to bug me back. It was my Mom who, while I was in college, sent me my first coffee maker: an Italian stove top Bialetti coffee maker with a hot top to heat it on.

I grew up in one of the world's greatest coffee growing regions, with some of the very finest coffees. I only discovered much later on that it was almost all downhill, quality-wise from what I was accustomed to.


What is the most undervalued ingredient in food and beverage?
From my perspective it has to be coffee. Sure, it is widely consumed and well known, but it is undervalued in terms of what we pay for it. It's not a stretch by any measure, when one understands and appreciates the intense amount of effort that goes into producing coffee. Growing and producing coffee is far more labor intensive than producing wine by a substantial amount. If the workforces in the tropical part of the world where coffee is grown (what is often thought of as the developing or third world) were getting paid what laborers in the world's wine producing regions get paid, then we would be paying far more for a pound of average coffee than we do for most fine wines.

Then there is the enormous amount of land required to grow coffee. An average coffee tree only produces about 1-2 pounds of coffee a year at most. Think of the millions of acres required to produce the world's coffee supply. The low cost of the land, again, is a matter of geography. Hawaiian coffees are a good case in point. You are not paying a lot of money for Hawaiian coffees for the most part, because they are spectacular coffees; you are paying for the higher labor, production and land costs.

Describe Kéan Coffee's goals
Kéan Coffee's goals, mission and reason for being have deep roots in a long history. Coffee has been a way of life for my family for several generations now. On my Mother's side it goes way back, over 160 years. Since my great Grandfather's time, their family were coffee, tea and cocoa merchants in Breslau, Germany. On my Father's side, we were coffee farmers in Central America for most of the last century. My Grandmother in Costa Rica, til the time of WWII. And then my parents, brothers and I in Guatemala in the late 60's til the 80's. I grew up growing coffee on my family's coffee farm. So coffee runs deep in the family. It's practically part of our DNA.

Kéan Coffee is somewhat a continuation of that lifestyle. Our goal with Kéan Coffee is to keep it small, local and very special. We live in the same neighborhood as our coffeehouses. We feel, therefore, like we have a very personal, vested interest in the well-being of our community. So what we do with Kéan Coffee is take the gifts we were given with our deep coffee experience and apply them to serving our local community with a great coffee experience. As a coffeehouse, we are not just a business, but a place in the community where the neighborhood can get together. We are a social hub. We are an urban refuge, a watering hole, the old town square where people can gather and interact over a great cup of coffee, of course.

The entire premise is not the coffee but the people. We can get as intense about our coffee as near anybody is able, but we don't want to impose that on our guests. We feel that our guests expect an amazing coffee from us, but other than that, not everyone wants to be bothered with the details. Instead they may just want to enjoy the coffeehouse experience with whom they came, or those whom they meet there. It's really about the place, the people and the things that happen there, and perhaps the amazing coffee is the catalyst. We feel by serving our community this way and providing our coffeehouse experience, we have been able to create something that the community treasures, thereby making Orange County and the world a better place to live.

Our experience is that our community values what we do. They come in and support what we do, and that creates a wonderful reciprocal relationship that gives us purpose, meaning and inspiration. We are a family business, and my wife Karen and I are directly involved with every aspect of Kéan Coffee every day. It is a way of life, and it's very fulfilling. We intend to keep it this way. It's somewhat of a magical balance that the pursuit of growth and money could destroy, as we have seen it do in so many other cases, including Diedrich Coffee. It's an art to stay small and special. We have no ambition to grow the company much more. I already did the big company thing with Diedrich Coffee in the past; I don't need to repeat that experience. It wasn't nearly as gratifying as what we are doing now with Kéan Coffee.

What is your preferred coffee beverage?
My favorite coffee beverage is a basic, but always perfectly fresh brewed cup of a great single origin coffee. Brewing a coffee properly is not easily done. Not everyone considers that there are many variables involved such as the best water-to-coffee ratio, the amount of time water makes contact with the grounds, the best grind, the water quality and temperature, just to name a few. These are all variables that even many coffee makers can't control well. But when done right with a great coffee, it can be a sublime experience.

Sublime experience? Some might wonder, “It's just coffee, after all. How can that be sublime?” Well, not all coffees are created equal. One way to think about it is to compare great coffee to great wines, which is a perfect and justifiable analogy. There's more to it than just being a beverage that we often drink for pleasure or the effects. Like wine, there are many coffee varieties that grow in a great number of different conditions of soil, climate, and altitude and so on. So they each have a different taste. Like wine, there are many mediocre coffees and few great ones. One might say coffee is the wine of the tropics.

So when I say “single origin”, that may likely leave some wondering what that means. For the most part, coffees are simply a trade commodity that fetches a certain price for a specific amount. The cheaper, the better. Furthermore, most are all blended together to create the common commercial blends. But there are those that rise to the top. Those tend to be the ones that, like fine wine, grow in regions that have all the right conditions for producing excellence. And the farmers there know that, pay special attention to growing the right varieties and tend to the coffee with extra care because the know they can get rewarded with higher prices. These are the great ones. They are usually not blended and designated with the appellations of the specific regions they grow in, thus the term “single origin”. They are sometimes given even more specifics, such as actually having the name of the specific farm or estate they grow on, even at times including the farmer's name. These tend to be the most exclusive coffees in the world, and are worthy of attention and special handling. These are the coffees when everything is done right, that have every bit as much potential of connoisseurship as do fine wines. With these coffees, one can taste the impact of the place they were grown in. When brewed to perfection, these are the coffees that deliver a “sublime” experience in the cup.

What is Cup of Excellence?
The Cup of Excellence is one of the three to four most significant game changers in quality coffee in the last 30-40 years. A Cup of Excellence designation is the most prestigious quality rating a coffee can have in the world today. It recognizes only the most outstanding coffee quality from any given coffee growing region or country. To be selected, coffee undergoes an extremely rigorous quality screening program and competition, by the most discerning judges in the coffee world, from around the world. These coffees are then sold on an open internet auction to the highest bidders. The strict competition ensures an enthusiastic market and a fair sale price to the farmer for coffee that is truly the best of the best. The Cup of Excellence is the most extraordinary program ever devised for elevating the highest standards of coffee excellence. These coffees are by definition very limited in supply.

I was very involved in the original creation of the Cup of Excellence program in 1999. Working along with George Howell and Susie Spindler, its original founders, I gave input towards the design of the program, was a cupping judge in the first competition in Brazil that year, and secured the winning bid for the number one rated coffee in the world's very first ever international auction of the first Cup of Excellence. Over the years, both in my Diedrich Coffee days as well as now with Kéan Coffee, I have gone on to be very supportive of this ground-breaking, cutting edge program in the roles of advisor, cupping judge in many countries, and auction buyer of these exemplary coffees. One of our roasters, Ted Vautriont, has judged 15 Cup of Excellence competitions around the world in the last nine years.

Advice for an aspiring barista.
It's first about the people you serve. Maybe it's really all about the people you serve. It is an excellent endeavor for someone driven by craftsmanship, excellence and someone who enjoys making people happy. It is not easy, and tends to be extremely repetitive. As we say in the trade, “Dose, tamp, pull, repeat”. One is well-served to approach it with a Zen mindset and to seek perfection in the repetition. When done well, it can even be a slightly glamorous thing. One is working with the public, and if you serve your guests well, they in return appreciate it. Baristas have the ability to become local celebrities. People love their local coffeehouse, and the barista who treats them well and makes perfect coffee drinks.

Being a good barista entails craftsmanship, skill and passion. You produce culinary art when the drinks are made well. Baristas are proud when friends and family walk into the coffeehouse where they work. They often take extra special care to make drinks well in those situations because they want to impress their friends and family with their craft. I suggest that a barista take that same pride of excellence and apply it to every drink they make. The drink is always regarded by the recipient, whether friend or guest, as a beverage that was crafted by them. In that sense, it is always a direct reflection on the barista. So if made carelessly it reflects poorly on the barista. I am sure that everyone wants to be well-thought of, so I always suggest putting your pride into every coffee beverage you create.

The guests that patronize a coffeehouse make everything possible. It is the guest, after all, that provides the paycheck for the barista. It is a good idea to always take great care in crafting a coffee beverage with excellence, especially for the guests. Sure, the job is not easy, and can be very repetitive and exhausting, but that's where the Zen comes into play. Nearly everything in life is repetitive, from the moment we get out of bed every day. It's up to us how we deal with it and the attitude we take toward it. In the role as a barista, you always have the ability to make someone's day, and thereby make the world just a little better than it was before. In the end, what you put out always comes back to you, and if you did well because you put your pride into it, then you come away with a deeper satisfaction of a job well done.

Kéan Coffee has two locations: 13681 Newport Ave in Tustin and 2043 Westcliff Dr in Newport Beach; www.keancoffee.com.

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