I’m supposed to be slurping; I’ve been given permission to slurp. But it’s hard, as the noise is silly and makes me giggle, and giggling makes me dribble. Sophisticated people don’t have coffee leaking from their lips. But smarter people might.
Dan Charoenrath, manager of Santa Barbara’s second Peet’s Coffee & Tea, which opened at 1131 State Street the day before Election Day, is teaching me the ins and outs of comparison coffee shopping. That involves tasting, something Peet’s is all about. Alfred Peet, the company’s founder (in the way Jesus was the founder of Christianity or Ruth Fertel is the founder of Ruth’s Chris Steak House, they all get quoted a lot by their followers), is famed for saying “tasting is comparing.” So Charoenrath and I are tasting Peet’s Holiday Blend, Major Dickason Blend, and Arabian Mocha-Java, discerning each coffee’s flavor profile.
As with a wine tasting, which this event is very much like, you start with smell. “A big part of whatever is in the flavor is in the aroma,” Charoenrath said. “All those good notes come through the nose.” Next comes the slurping, as you should get some coffee in you mouth and draw air over it to be sure to activate your tongue’s varied taste buds. Then I prefer to let Charoenrath, much more the coffee expert than I am, describe. For instance, he calls this year’s Holiday Blend (yes, like Anchor’s holiday ale, it differs a bit each season) “rich, warming, maybe a little spicy-sweet.”
Turns out this Holiday Blend has a story, as its beans mostly are from Costa Rica, and as Charoenrath said, “It comes from this farm that’s starting to die away because of urbanization. They produced an amazing crop this year, so we felt we owed it to them to call it out. And Latin American coffees are traditionally spicy, with a very nice bright acidity like this one.” Of course there are secret elements to this blend, too-some Indonesian beans, but how much and from where you’re not allowed to know. You will know it’s one tasty brew, if you try it.
You can do just that, actually, as the tasting I’m conducting is a preview of one the store will hold for the public on Saturday, December 13, and Saturday, December 20, from 11 a.m.-noon. It’s all about Peet’s plan, as Charoenrath put it, to “match up the right coffee with the right customer.” While Major Dickason (named after the customer who developed the blend with Alfred Peet) is the company’s flagship, it doesn’t mean one blend fits all. For as Charoenrath pointed out, people have different uses for coffee, and drink it at different times of the day. I’m also pleased to know I’m not a coffee loser for drinking mine with milk. “There aren’t any hard and fast rules to drinking coffee,” Charoenrath reassured. “At least half-this is a guestimate based on what I see happen in the store-of people drink coffee with milk.” It does help to drink a more rich and complex coffee from beans from Indonesia, say, to balance that milk.
Balancing the company’s message-and I have to admit I saw his binder before the event and it included “corporate talking points”-and personal zeal is something Charoenrath has down. Sure he’s a Peet’s proselytizer, quick to point out the company’s three tenets (1. selective sourcing; 2. artisan roasting; 3. commitment to freshness), but he really seems to love coffee without even being caffeine-induced jumpy. He had opened the chain’s Thousand Oaks store before coming to Santa Barbara, and stressed the company, even at 185 locations, is still thought of as a Northern California phenomenon, for, he recalled, “A whole bunch of people asked if I was Peet.”
While he might not be Alfred Peet, he certainly is Peet’s, admitting he “fell in love with a company whose values and principles are aligned with mine.” Part of that is the fair-trade issue. While Peet’s has one certified fair-trade coffee and one certified organic coffee, Charoenrath asserted, “All of our coffee follows the fair-trade principle, and virtually all our farmers practice organic methods. Our growers are very well compensated and there’s pretty much no use of pesticides.”
Charoenrath knows it’s about “the quality chain. The people before us are putting their hearts and souls into this product. If we blow it by not being responsive to our customers and providing the best service, it’s all going to waste.” He even has an answer for those who complain Peet’s coffee is too strong, pointing out, “‘Strong’ is one of those weird words; it can mean dark, caffeine, richness. We can doctor up their drink how they like it. The knowledge we offer is far superior to anyone else.”
S.B.’s newest Peet’s Coffee & Tea is located at 1131 State Street. Call 722-1912.