Read "SMALL BUSINESS; A Coffee Connoisseur on a Mission: Buy High and Sell High"
Something's Brewing in Office Coffee
July 13, 2005
Washington Post Food Section
By Michaele Weissman
Doug Cohen's boss at the University of Maryland's Institute for Research in Electronics and Applied Physics calls him "our ayatollah of coffee." Spend time with the talkative Cohen in the College Park break room, where he rules over $28-a-pound coffee beans and an $800 commercial coffee maker, and you realize his boss does not exaggerate.
"I think I have frightened a few people," says Cohen, a senior engineering technician and founder of the office coffee club, referring to his hard-nosed habit of chucking unlabeled packages from the break room refrigerator and freezer because "you can't store the world's finest coffee beans in a filthy environment."
Cohen's determination to avoid what he calls "old-fashioned office swill" is no anomaly.
Throughout the region, more workers are drinking upscale coffee in the workplace. In public-sector offices -- government rarely provides free coffee -- brew lovers are forming coffee clubs. In the private sector -- most notably at companies specializing in biotechnology, high tech and finance -- many employers now subsidize the better stuff.
On-the-job coffee consumers often exhibit a convert's zeal for their favorite beverage. At the university, Cohen's 20-minute morning coffee ritual mixes engineering's precision with near religious devotion. Arriving at the break room at 7 a.m., he filters the water, preheats all the equipment, rewashes the coffeepots that were washed the night before -- "overnight, dust falls," he explains -- and puts the beans in the microwave for a few seconds to release their flavor, a coffee-brewing innovation to which he proudly lays claim. Then he grinds the beans very fine, brews the club's coffee in an electric pot and pours it into an airtight carafe.
Each club member donates a pound of high-end beans each month. Cohen's contribution is usually 100 percent, private reserve Kona grown on Lehuula Farms in Kealakekua, Hawaii, and airfreighted to him the day after it is roasted. "When you open the sealed container," Cohen says with a sigh, "it smells sooo good."
After he brews the high-quality beans, Cohen, a man of generous, if bossy, impulses, uses the same equipment to make coffee for the non-elite drinkers in the office, who pay 25 cents a cup to imbibe pre-ground Costco brew. Mostly, the coffee aristocrats and the groundlings get along fine, though occasionally, Cohen says, an infuriating co-worker will sneak a bit of java from the upscale carafe. "People are lazy," he says. They will poach, instead of making a new pot.
So who are these on-the-job coffee fanatics?
In general, they are younger rather than older coffee drinkers. "Many older people who grew up on commercially canned coffee find this new, high-end stuff too strong," says Vincent Iatesta, owner and roastmaster of Caffé Pronto Coffee Roastery in Annapolis. "Younger workers are the early adopters" in the growing market for high-end coffee, he says. "Starbucks created the demand. They opened the door for coffee lovers and for high-end roasters like me. For that, I applaud them."
To take advantage of the growing demand, Caffe Pronto sells freshly roasted coffee beans wholesale to office clubs. One of his customers, Gary Shenk, works for the Chesapeake Bay Program of the Environmental Protection Agency. Each week, he buys beans for three office clubs with 70 members.
Just buying good beans doesn't guarantee a full-bodied, sweet -- as opposed to acidic -- mugful. Brewing technique counts. "There's a lot of scientific evidence showing if you use too little coffee, you will over-extract the beans and get more of what coffee roasters call sours," Iatesta says. The right brewing method, he adds, requires cleanliness, filtered water and a pot that controls for the three Ts -- time, temperature and turbulence.
Equipment that can meet these brewing requirements is starting to show up in offices.
Sam Fleming, founder and president of Fleming-AOD, a small Silver Spring company that processes billing data for hospitals, has an "adoration verging on worship" for his office espresso maker, a sleek Italian job made by Saeco that brews espresso, Spanish-style coffee and caffe americano. "The machine measures and grinds the beans, tamps it down, infuses it with a small amount of water to release oils and flavors, then pumps the rest of the water through the grind. The whole operation takes 25 seconds. Then the machine cleans and resets itself," Fleming says.
Fleming drinks black coffee and prefers espresso, which tastes stronger than American coffee and has less caffeine. "You don't put milk in red wine, do you?" he asks, adding that if he craves a cappuccino, the Saeco also steams fresh milk.
Fleming keeps two of the $1,400 machines in the office -- when one needs servicing, he is covered. He buys beans from Mayorga, the custom roaster with half a dozen retail locations, most in Montgomery County.
For those who don't want all the fuss, Michael Butz, president and founder of Peakland Coffee Service in Beltsville, has built a thriving business selling coffee to offices. According to the business journal Automatic Merchandiser, office coffee service nationally was a $3.39 billion business in 2004, and it is growing.
Peakland customers have their choice of coffee makers, including a high-tech, one-cup machine similar to the Saeco or an air-pot brewing system that pours fresh coffee into thermoses, thus ending the acrid smell of office coffee boiling to death on an electric burner.
Butz says new customers are often looking to upgrade the coffee service in the executive suite, overlooking the high-end coffee aspirations of lower-level employees. But eventually, folks on other floors follow their noses to the good stuff. In the interest of office morale, many clients eventually decide to offer everyone the higher-quality brew.
Butz sells three brands of coffee -- Gevalia, Starbucks and Quartermaine, the last roasted in Rockville and available at Quartermaine's Bethesda store and at its Rockville roasting plant. "We run taste tests for our employees and our customers. Quartermaine always wins. It's a rich, smooth coffee that's easier on the stomach than Starbucks," he says.
Though some prefer other brands and some accuse Starbucks of overroasting, the Starbucks name has tremendous cachet. Many employers throughout the region insist on Starbucks coffee and pay extra for paper goods embossed with the Starbucks logo -- to please employees and impress visitors. One such company is K12 Inc., a McLean publisher of print and computer-based curricula with a staff of 200-plus employees.
When Fran Roman, director of procurement and administration at K12, introduced free Starbucks coffee four months ago, employees flooded her with grateful e-mails. And no wonder: Many of these employees were paying out of pocket for Starbucks coffee.
Heather Charles, senior finance manager, says before Roman made the upgrade, coffee at K12 "literally made me sick." So she and some co-workers organized a coffee club. Twice a day, a member would fight Northern Virginia traffic to make the run to a Starbucks drive-through. Charles kept a spreadsheet. "I was spending $6 a day for coffee." Others were spending as much as $12 a day. When the office began providing Starbucks, "it was like getting a raise."
According to K12 management, in-house Starbucks is paying for itself in increased productivity. "I was losing up to 40 minutes a day of Heather's time," says Charles's boss, finance chief John F. Baule. "I couldn't afford that."
The cost effectiveness grows, he adds, when you multiply the time lost going out to Starbucks by some proportion of the 200-plus people who work here, he adds.
The fact is, Baule says, that many of the people in his company, himself included, "run on caffeine" -- which may explain why he thinks "for workers today, coffee is a much bigger deal than it was in the past."
Freelance writer Michaele Weissman last wrote for Food about reciprocating dinner invitations