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Handsome Coffee's Michael Phillips on Cheap Coffee, Blade Grinders + Keeping Beans in the Freezer

handsomecoffee.jpgThe supremely delicious, Los Angeles-based Handsome Coffee Roasters became available in New York this year at places like Iris Café and Marlow & Sons in Brooklyn and at Joe Pro Shop in Chelsea. One of Handsome's owners, Michael Phillips, formerly of Intelligentsia Coffee, won the U.S. Barista Competition in 2009 and 2010 and then took home the top prize at the World Barista Championship, the first American to do so. On a recent visit to New York he offered some helpful coffee tips.

Are you planning on opening a Handsome Coffee bar in New York?
We are looking around but don't have a location just yet. It's certainly one of our longtime goals.

When you worked as a barista did you get a lot of burns?

Baristas don't burn. We're a special type of people. We've killed off the nerve endings in our hands. I still work the bar at Handsome sometimes. It's fantastic to make someone happy with something as simple as a cup of coffee. I'm very much into hospitality. I'm not one of those people who's disgruntled.

What do you think of people who keep coffee in the freezer?
It's not a great idea. Coffee is a dry, porous material, so if you put it in the fridge or freezer where there's humidity, coffee will take on moisture and flavors of whatever else is in there. It's best to keep it in an airtight canister at room temperature.

Drip or French press?

I tend to prefer it poured through a paper filter. The French press is too muddy and sedimentary. But if I do a French press I give it four minutes. If coffee is fresh it'll rise to the surface and form a little crust at the top. If you break that crust with a spoon after a minute or two and skim it off, and depress the plunger very, very slowly, it will help mitigate the sediment. Whatever you do don't pour out every last drop. Leave three or four ounces.

What about blade grinders?
They should never be used. Extracting or brewing a cup of coffee is a pretty scientific process. If you use a blade grinder it produces a range of particles from gigantic and coarse to tiny. Pour water over it and you get a very uneven profile. A burr grinder is much more consistent.

Your coffee sells for $17-$22 for 12 ounces. What makes it so expensive?
If you're into buying a pound of coffee for $6.99, chances are it's being sourced at a level that's horrendously achieved both socially and environmentally. There's a very large gap in terms of flavor, quality and sustainability. For us, the raw product itself costs more than $6 a pound. Even at $20 for 12 ounces coffee is one of the best bargains you have going. It's removed from trees by hand multiple times throughout the season as the beans ripen. Climate change is pushing the amount of available land where it can be grown farther and farther up the mountain. As temperatures rise the land keeps shrinking. Coffee production has a big carbon footprint and its cost should be significantly higher than it is. Let's say you have to pay $6 for the best cup of coffee in the world. Where can you go anywhere in the world and get the best of anything for $6?

Your packages list where the beans come from but you don't have a house blend per se. What does 'house blend' really mean?
It's sort of tricky. Historically it represents a flavor profile a company is trying to consistently produce. But it's less than fantastic in some cases. Your very common insider knowledge of the practice is that it's a way to hide cheaper beans. The darker you roast the beans to cover it up, you break down the organic components and reduce them to a char until there's a carbon quality not unlike burnt rubber. It's actually to some extent beneficial if the coffee is horrific. Blends have a very prominent place in our society and large roasters create these brands that people can latch onto and then they try to find the cheapest way to produce it without driving away their base.

Is your coffee organic or direct trade?
We're definitely supporters of organic products but we're simply too small to be able to be certified. There's a lot of regulation that makes it difficult for small producers in Ethiopia or Colombia. We look for coffee that's sustainably produced in regards to the farmer's health. But the thing that we look for most is amazing, delicious coffee. Organic has no bearing on the flavor.

How did you decide on the name Handsome?
Our partner Tyler Wells thought it up. The big problem coffee has is being associated as a fancy lifestyle product, built up by people who are intolerably rude and ill-mannered. We wanted to create a more accessible experience but still great in terms of quality. The word 'handsome' goes back to when thing were handcrafted. It adds a touch of class.
How much do we need to pay attention to the expiration date on a bag of coffee? Can you keep it around for three months?
Whoa! Would you eat three-month old bread?

What about buying coffee from bins?
Bins don't seal in freshness and you don't know how old it is. With our coffee, we pull it off our shelves after seven days. You're going to get your best flavors within two weeks. Once it gets older than two weeks you definitely start to see the intensity fade.

So you're not a fan of buying a bunch of coffee on sale and keeping it in reserve.
Buy small amounts and buy fresh.

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