An Interview with Zingerman's Roastmaster

It’s been a bit over three years now since we started roasting our own coffee here at Zingerman’s. Led by the coffee passions, skillful buying and good roasting of managing partner, Allen Leibowitz, Zingerman’s Coffee Company has helped us bring ever better brews to coffee lovers here in town and around the country. Travel and Leisure picked the Coffee Company as one of the country’s top craft roasters. Cafés and restaurants around the country have caught on and Zingerman’s Coffee Company coffees are now being served as far afield as Las Vegas. I grabbed Allen the other day and asked him to share the inside scoop of the coffee world.

What’s new in the world of Zingerman’s Coffee Company?
The coffee from El Carmen Estate in Panama is new and fantastic. It came in 3rd overall at the Rainforest Alliance cupping in March. It’s a very clean cup, with a mild, citrusy floral quality and sweet soft cocoa tones. It feels like a light bodied coffee but has very strong flavors and leaves the palate clean. We liked this one so much we’re putting it on special for TWO months starting in September.

What should we look for this fall?
I’m looking to broaden our line of coffees. Specifically, I’m working to bring in Costa Rican coffees. I have some nice samples in from some small (and organic) farms. I’m also have a promising sample from a VERY small estate in Guatemala with whom we would direct import. Guatemalan coffees are one of our staples, so we’ll have to look at this one carefully. We’ll be carrying some Mexican coffees which are known for their fruity, floral sweetness. They make very nice espresso. And we’re looking at a very promising Kenyan coffee. Great Kenyan coffees are known for their spectacular brightness. A defining characteristic is that they taste distinctly of black currant.

What makes the coffee from ZCC different from most?
Our first criteria is taste. We focus our efforts on bringing out the best characteristics of the beans. We roast in batches small enough so we can see the coffee in all its stages. We don’t just slit bags into a grate in the floor and collect it when it’s roasted. We won’t stock a coffee year to year just because we’ve had it in the past. We taste and select each year based on what’s really good.

Some of your coffees carry the Rainforest Alliance (RFA) certification. Why is that important?
I like RFA because they are improving the quality of coffee in a holistic fashion. That is, they aren’t just concerned with getting coffee that tastes great but they also strive to make sure that farmers and co-ops are fairly compensated and they work to improve the environment in which RFA coffee is grown.

What else would you like us to know?
That coffee is a cyclical crop. It changes from year to year which is part of the fun. We are always evaluating new coffees and re-evaluating the coffees we carry. Think of fresh coffee like fresh bread. Stop in once a week and pick up a 1/2 pound and use it fresh. You really can taste difference.