By David Ansel
Photography by Dustin Meyer
When Mike McKim, founder of Cuvée Coffee, prepares his morning cup, he’s meticulously exacting with his weights and measurements—like an engineer, alchemist or apothecary. It’s a fitting comparison, really, because McKim is actually equal parts of all of these. The scene opens with McKim heating filtered water to 200 degrees, then using it to rinse a paper filter that’s set inside a conical glass perched atop a Chemex (a sort of Erlenmeyer flask).
He discards the rinse water, slides a small digital scale to the center of his workspace, places a metal cup on it and zeroes the scale. He measures out exactly two grams of coffee beans per each fluid ounce of water, grinds the beans to a precise fineness based on the type of bean, pours the ground coffee into the filter and slowly trickles water through the grounds. The entire process, when executed at a leisurely pace, takes about three minutes.
For those mere coffee mortals in the audience, save your pshaws. Comparing the average morning cup to McKim’s is akin to putting Ernest or Julio Gallo up against M. Perrier-Jouët. In fact, the low-end/high-end contrast is apropos to the name Cuvée Coffee. Many wine drinkers are familiar with the term cuvée, which indicates that a wine is produced from a mixture of grape varietals. But the denotation McKim had in mind when naming his company was 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, though, is finding ways to eke out a few extra points on the cupping scale—the 100-point industry-standard scale used for quantifying the qualitative by ranking a coffee sample against a variety of metrics like acidity, aroma, body, sweetness, flavor and aftertaste. “We shoot for 88, but it’s not always doable with every coffee,” says McKim. “Eighty-six is our absolute basement, 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,” he says. “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.”
To McKim, the success of this aspect of his business model involves extensive travel. “I know some roasters who travel and visit farms, and that’s great,” he says. “But I travel not just for the photo ops and marketing, but 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 connections with farmers, known as the direct trade method, allows McKim to cut out the middleman and create a more advantageous deal for his farmers. According to the current Fair Trade standard for coffee, the lowest allowable price per pound is $1.26. Pulling out a sample bag of yellow mundo novo beans secured from a Brazilian farmer, McKim describes the cache in hushed, measured tones as if it’s a secret weapon he’s about to unveil. He says this farmer had never sold the rare varietal to an American before, but agreed to because McKim was the first roaster who had ever visited him twice. McKim agreed to pay the farmer $2.35 a pound.
But more importantly—at least in terms of quality control—McKim knows exactly which farm the beans come from and what methods are used during harvesting. For example, one farmer may send pickers through a field only once, whereby berries of a wide variety of ripeness are picked. “Our guy in El Salvador does five pickings a year,” notes McKim. “He pays the people to pick only the ripe berries, and it makes a huge difference.”
The next largest differentiator in bean quality is consistency in processing. This is where the individual talents of a roaster come into play. McKim’s approach is impressively methodical— he keeps log charts for each batch of coffee, and examines temperatures and transition points for various stages of roasting during each day’s cupping routine. McKim’s original roaster is an aged, handcrafted Parisian Samiac with a cast-iron drum. He’s so fond of the roaster that he combed the globe looking for another one, and when he found one in Switzerland, he had it shipped to his headquarters in Spicewood where he 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 1970s-looking control panel featuring comically large buttons. It’s the Millennium Falcon of roasters—a jalopy with guts capable of cranking up to hyperspace speeds.
“We’ve kept all of the things that are great about these vintage roasters and then we’ve added modern technology,” says McKim. “We’re able to take the craft of roasting, [and] 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.”
But what happens to the roasted beans after they leave the care of McKim is of significant import, as well. “We trust that [McKim] determines the optimal roast for a given coffee, and [he] trusts that we don’t screw it up on our end, and keep him in the best light,” says Rob Ovitt, co-owner of Once Over Coffee Bar in South Austin. When asked how important the direct trade ethos is in comparison to coffee quality when selecting a roaster, Ovitt says he’s “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.”