By JOHN DeMERS
Having enjoyed what my calculator assures me is just under 30,000 cups of coffee in my life, and having hunted the wild coffee bean into the fabled Blue Mountains of Jamaica, you’d think I might have met a master roaster before today. But no. Not until I shook hands, recorded radio and conducted a casual (if totally noisy) “cupping” with Ken Palmer of Java Pura.
Right here in Houston.
Ken’s been growing, buying and roasting coffee almost as long as the 40 years I’ve been drinking it, having turned his habit into a career after years spent in Alaska as a commercial fisherman. It was during a vacation from Alaska to Hawaii in 1979 (apparently the guy prefers freshly roasted states) that Ken got interested in coffee. Before long he was serving as production manager for the Big Island’s biggest coffee producer, Kona Kai. That meant sending out three million pounds of green Kona coffee each year.
And after that, his life really got interesting. Over several years, he met and lucked into training from a host of coffee’s luminaries, a bit like learning to make wine from Randall Grahm of Bonny Doon and Ed Sbragia of Beringer. His ultimate mentor of them all, though, was the late Alfred Peet, a Dutchman legendary for introducing America to custom roasting at Peet’s Coffee & Tea in Berkeley in the 1960s. After three years of learning from Peet, Ken moved home to the Pacific Northwest, where the current Golden Age of Coffee in America was born. He built his own BJ’s Coffee Company in Oregon into four stores with three roasters in a 6,000-square-foot wholesale facility – before being invited to work in Africa.
Africa is the historic birthplace of coffee – or specifically, Ethiopia is. In fact, Ethiopia was specifically where Ken was working, taking on a 30-day assignment there that ended up lasting more than two years. Frustrated with government red tape, however, he returned to the United States in 2006, landing in Houston and being scooped up by Richard Colt, partner in a small coffee catering company poised for growth, Java Pura. The knowledge Ken brought to Java Pura on Day One was extraordinary. Now with 34 years in the business, he, Colt and their business partners are not only brewing and pouring great coffee at Texas galas and improving the flavor of “office coffee” one office at a time; they’re moving into the retail market. In other words, you can now buy and brew Java Pura in the privacy of your own home.
One thing you may or may not want to do in your own home is an official cupping. For one thing, you need a large Lazy Susan to spin bowls of different roasted and ground coffees in front of you. You then pour hot water into the bowls, let it form a “cap” of grounds on top and then break that cap with a special spoon and your nose shoved almost into the burning liquid. Aroma is important with coffee, you know. And it’ll surely take you a few lessons to master breathing out then sucking in suddenly to spray the coffee across every square millimeter of your mouth, letting every single one of your taste buds have a go at the stuff.
Hint: your mother won’t like the sound your mouth makes when you do this. But for Ken Palmer of Java Pura and the rest of the world’s master roasters, it’s got to be prettier than a lullaby.
Photos: (top) Ken Palmer with green (unroasted) coffee beans; (middle) green coffee beans ready for roasting; (bottom) Ken’s black gold – but hardly “Texas tea.”