Interview with Ken Davids

The First of our Series, Profiling the Outstanding Figures of the Coffee World

Coffee ‘cupping’ is the tasting of coffee to uncover the coffee’s unique profile. And in the rarified world of cupping, there are few who can rival Ken Davids for experience or expertise. Originally an academic and writer, Ken Davids has grown to be recognized as one of the coffee world’s pre-eminent figures. He has a consultancy business in the US and a number of highly regarded books on coffee to his credit. He is also a sought-after speaker at coffee conferences and seminars worldwide.

 Crema: For many years you were an academic – the dean of a large art and design college and a tenured Professor. What prompted your change from academic pursuits to coffee?

 KD: For me, being wrapped up purely in a teaching environment has always seemed a bit too removed from the practical excitement of business. But combining the business of consulting with the contemplation of writing and reviewing is the perfect balance, particularly when the subject is as absorbing as coffee. I enjoy the struggle of honorably combining ideas, words and cultural judgments with the most primitive of acts, smelling and tasting something.

 Crema: When did you write your first coffee book?

 KD: I first published Coffee: A Guide to Buying, Brewing & Enjoying back in 1975 – it was something of a break-through book. Then, after specialty coffee started to take off in the US about twenty years ago, I published two more books (Espresso: Ultimate Coffee and Home Coffee Roasting: Romance & Revival), started reviewing coffees, and began my consulting business. In the process I gradually stopped being an academic and started being a full-time coffee guy.

 Crema: What do you find most interesting in the world of coffee?

 KD: Coffee arguably is the most complex of all commonly consumed beverages and the most challenging to master and understand. Many more substances contribute to the aroma and flavor of coffee than contribute to the aroma and flavor of wine, for example. And coffee is a much more global and interactive beverage than wine. A good wine changes only gradually once it is bottled, whereas coffee is first created and then completely transformed by four different parties at four different points in its journey from seed to cup. First someone chooses which seeds to plant where and nurtures the trees, then someone harvests the coffee and performs the tremendously expressive and crucial acts of fruit removal and drying, then someone else again roasts it, and finally someone, often the consumer, brews it. Coffee continues to transform even after brewing, as it cools.

 Crema: What were some of your most interesting experiences travelling for coffee?

 KD: Certainly the most transformative experience was meeting my future wife Iara in Brazil. Beyond that, I certainly have had my share of coffee experiences both exotic and moving. One of the most memorable was visiting the original port of Mocha or Al Mukhā in Yemen. As most coffee lovers know, all of the commercially traded coffee in the world was grown in Yemen and the majority of it shipped through the port of Al Mukhā for over 150 years, between around 1600 and 1750

If I had to pick a second experience it would be sitting in on my first genuine village coffee ceremony in Ethiopia. The depth of continuous and indigenous coffee culture in Ethiopia is incredibly dramatic, dignified and fluent. And, despite the poverty of the villagers, the Yirgacheffe region in Ethiopia is almost Eden-like in its intimate, rolling green fecundity and tidy gardens of interplanted coffee and food and fruit trees. But I have had great moments everywhere in the coffee world. Being greeted by mountain villagers in Papua New Guinea with their extravagant and inventive sculptured poles and banners and feathered costumes would rank up near the top as well. 

 Crema: What is the most important trend going on in the world of coffee today, in your view?

 KD: Simply the explosion of knowledge and the globalization of that knowledge. Although we are at the very beginning of the development of coffee as a genuine specialty beverage with a knowledge base comparable to wine, we are at least sneaking up on that goal. Until recently all of the research money for coffee seemed to go into either increasing commodity yield and commodity consistency at origin or saving pennies on commodity roasting and packaging, but now at least some of those resources are being directed at achieving genuine product differentiation through botanical variety and processing nuance. Eventually we may begin to understand how to create not only great coffees, but distinctive coffees that reflect the individual tastes of a new generation of growers, exporters, roasters and aficionado consumers.

Crema: What keeps you going?

 KD: All of the above. Everything about coffee, from the caffeine to the challenge of keeping up with new technical developments, tends to keep me feeling young.

This is an edited extract - you can read the complete interview to be published in our next issue of Crema Magazine, available in December.

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