Five Years + A Few Million Beans

An Interview with Zingerman’s Coffee Company managing partners, Allen Leibowitz and Steve Mangigian

Ari: We’re celebrating the Coffee Company’s 5th Anniversary this spring. That’s a big accomplishment. Congratulations! Allen, how did you get into coffee?
Allen: The short answer is when I worked for a computer company back in 1988, and I was in Palo Alto at one of the research labs, they had a small home espresso machine in their break room. They brought Peet’s coffee in to brew. That was in 1985. I came back from that trip, and I bought a home espresso machine from Tom Isaia at Coffee Express. That really got me going. I started reading everything I could about espresso. My wife and I planned vacations to Seattle to taste coffee. That was before Starbuck’s had really exploded nationally. I tasted espresso everywhere. Then I got a machine and started roasting coffee at home. At that time, I had my own computer company, and we put a full-sized espresso machine in the break room. It was a lot of fun. Now it would be even more off the hook. There’s a hundred times more shops, but back then there were just a few great ones.

Ari: What are some of the big things you’ve learned about coffee over the years since we opened?
Allen: The Roadhouse started buying in late ‘03, then the Deli the year after that. The most profound thing I’ve learned is how the coffee world is both big and small at the same time. Terry Davis from Ambex Roasters likes to say “The deeper I go the deeper it looks.” He’s an ex-Navy diver. Basically he’s right. The more you learn there more you realize that there’s an infinite amount to learn. Steve and I were talking to Sterling Gordon, who’s in his early 70s and a second generation coffee guy (we buy from his daughter Karen, in NYC), and he goes, “You know what I love about this business? Every day you learn something new!” And I think he’s right on.

Ari: You get pretty excited when you get around good coffee. What gets you going?
Allen: For me it’s mostly what’s new and good each year. I love finding something that just shines. It’s like picking a wine. Some years some regions are great. Other years they’re different. Finding that spectacular coffee is definitely what gets me going. It’s finding that sample that you just know is going to be great. Sometimes it’s finding the ‘right’ roast for a coffee after many sample roasts. I love bringing out the best in the coffee.
Steve: What excites me is when we’ve selected a really great coffee and we see the people who are drinking it really love it. That validates my work.

Ari: Steve, how did you get into all this?
Steve: I came to coffee out of the appliance business. I had watched Zingerman’s from a distance, but I never thought there would be opportunity for someone like me who didn’t really have a food background. A colleague of mine called Paul, and Paul told him something polite, like “we don’t really have any jobs for guys like that…” But my colleague insisted. I ended up getting together with Paul, and he suggested I come to one of the bi-weekly Zingerman’s partner meetings and sit in and see what that was all about. And he hooked me up with Allen because the Coffee Company was starting to sell more wholesale coffee and Allen wanted someone who knew how to do that. We talked for probably three or four months about how I could get into the organization at a partner level. Allen came over to my house one day and said, ‘Why don’t you come on board?” and I did. I worked as an employee at the Coffee Company for about a year and then last summer I became a partner.

Ari: If you could only communicate a couple key things about buying coffee to brew at home, what would they be?
Allen: Undoubtedly the first is to buy fresh coffee as close to the roast date as you can get. Fresh coffee is definitely better—it’s a whole ‘nother product compared to what’s been sitting on the shelf for weeks.

Ari: What are some of the factors that go into brewing great coffee?
Allen: Be sure to use enough coffee. A lot of coffee is just brewed way too weak. A little under 2 ounces of ground coffee by weight for 32 ounces of water. Every coffee professional I know actually weighs the coffee before they brew, and we always suggest to people to do that at home too. It makes a big difference!

Ari: How about the grinding?
Allen: In general, my advice is to try to get a grind that’s gonna give you a four minute drip through a filter. If it goes through in less time, then you should grind the coffee more finely. If you are going up to 2 ounces of ground coffee per 32 ounces of water for the first time, it might be more than you’re used to, so you might want to grind the coffee a little coarser to compensate. Coarser grind will mean you get a less intense extraction.

Ari: What do you look for when you’re gonna buy a cup of brewed coffee at a shop?
Allen: I almost always look for an independent shop that’s using a local roaster or roasting their own coffee. You can find great coffee in unusual places. One of the best cups I ever had was at a dog show (my wife and I breed dogs) in Peoria. We went by this little drive-through place . . . it looked like a Dairy Queen, but the coffee was fantastic!

Ari: What are your thoughts about espresso?
Allen: It’s really hard to brew good espresso. With espresso, the grind is as important as the machine. The only way to do it is to have a grinder that can grind fine enough so that the espresso is extracted in 30 seconds. Espresso is really very finicky. Very small changes—in the grind, in the humidity—all of these things really effect it.
Steve: We both have machines at home, and we’re always brewing shots. It’s the first thing we do each morning. I check my email, and by the time I’ve done that, the espresso machine is warmed up. I make my shot, I make my wife her Americano and then it’s down to the exercise room to work-out.

Ari: What about buying an espresso in a café?
Allen: I think the first thing would be to watch and see if the shot is extracting in about 30 seconds. Each coffee varies but in general about 30 seconds is what you want. It should have a really luxurious, nice, viscous mouthfeel. That comes from the crema and that’s an emulation of the oils in the coffee with the liquid. That’s what coats your palate and that’s what makes an espresso an espresso. A double should be no more than two ounces with the crema. If it’s not that luxurious, if it’s watery, it’s not a good espresso.

Ari: Given that there are hundreds of coffee roasters out there, what makes what you’re doing different?
Allen: It’s kind of a philosophy . . . the first thing we want to do is buy first on flavor. We don’t start with cost or other labels of certification—we start with what the coffee tastes like. That shocks a lot of our importers. We say we want the best flavor. That’s where we start. Another thing that I think we do different is serve single origin espresso that contains four or five varietals, so it’s pretty complex. But because espresso is my first love, that’s what we get.
Another thing that’s fun is because we’re relatively small, importers will offer us some things that are very limited and unusual, so we can get stuff that’s only available in small quantities. They know that our staff is interested in learning about them, and we can pass that learning on to our customers.

Ari: Most every coffee roaster probably talks about the same sorts of things. How can a casual coffee drinker really tell the difference?
Allen: The easiest thing to do, like for wine or really any other product, is to taste things side by side. Brew the coffees identically so you have two with the same ratios of coffee to water, the same brewer, the same water, . . . and then taste side by side.

Ari: Zingerman’s coffee is now being sold all over the country, which is great. Who are some of the wholesale accounts you’re working with?
Steve: They come from 3 primary markets: cafés and restaurants, specialty grocery retailers and offices who seek a higher end product than normally provided by coffee service vendors. Locally, we work very closely with Zingerman’s Deli, Zingerman’s Roadhouse/Roadshow trailer, and Zingerman’s Bakeshop, and we’re very proud of our sustained partnerships with customers like the French Laundry in Fenton, Moonwinks Café in Ann Arbor, Plum Market in Ann Arbor and Bloomfield (and, by the time people read this, in West Bloomfield), as well as Busch’s (just to name a few). We have solid coverage throughout Michigan, Ohio, and Western Pennsylvania and are building distribution relationships in Illinois, Wisconsin, Indiana, and Minnesota. We recently exhibited at Coffee Fest in Chicago and were received really well. The coffee tasted great and that was evidenced by the enormous amount of positive feedback we received from attendees. So, we are really excited about our prospects for the future.

Ari: What are your top coffee picks this spring?
Allen: We’re really excited about the new Guatemalan. One of our brokers has been working for years to get the growers to produce this coffee. Because the quality is so high the growers get more money, the coffee tastes better and everyone wins.
There’s also a new crop very fine specialty Indian robusta. The grower realized that, where he was in India, he could grow run-of-the-mill Arabica beans which are usually the better beans, or he could switch to a really great Robusta which is better suited to his land. This stuff rivals Arabicas. It’s very unique very exciting. Robustas generally are not thought of as ‘high quality’ but this one definitely is!