Interview with Ben Kaminsky

Specialty Coffee Association of America

On the most recent episode of Tamper Tantrum we decided to experiment with the idea of having an absent guest. Truth be told we really weren’t too happy with how it panned out, due in most part to the second camera dying, but the content of the interview was something we were really chuffed about.

I’d heard a lot about Ben Kaminsky over the last year and his reputation was one of a Coffee professional who was passionate and knowledgeable if a little controversial at times. This kind of reputation is quite prevalent in the Coffee industry, but as soon as you meet Ben Kaminsky you realise that he is more than able to back up what he says with opinions based largely on fact and experience.

After a brief walk around the show floor I sat down for lunch with Kaminsky and he really began to irritate me. Not only was he the current US Cup Tasting Champion, Co-Owner of his own business Barismo and general all round Coffee know it all, he was also a really cool guy.

This interview was a candid and insightful insight into the minds of someone who will undoubtedly become a central figure in the US Specialty Coffee Scene. Kaminsky went on to finish 4th in the World Cup Tasting Championships after reaching the finals in first place. The nature of the competition meant that one bowl was the difference between him finishing first and fourth. Barismo’s shop, blog and everything else can be found here. Enjoy 

How did you get into coffee?
Short answer: Sweet Marias via close friends.
Long answer: I started getting into coffee my first year of university. A good friend of mine was living with a home roaster at the time and he turned me on to the idea of getting into it as a hobby. Admittedly, I was skeptical of this idea, having never experienced a coffee that wasn’t completely acrid and generally disgusting.
Being from the bay area, we were lucky to have access to the Sweet Maria’s warehouse, so the next time that we both home for christmas, we decided to roll by and see what they had to offer. We walked out with a fresh roast and their sample pack of eight different coffees. Needless to say, the first few roasts we did were extremely rough and by no means delicious or even intriguing (*french roast). I must have just butchered at least four or five roasts before deciding I needed to investigate the rest of what the local coffee scene had to offer.
At that time, the linden street Blue Bottle location had just opened, and Ritual followed suit shortly there after. Those shops really made it possible for me to begin thinking about coffee beyond its function as a caffeine delivery system, though it wasn’t for a year or two after that, that I started my first barista gig and actually considered coffee as a potential career.

Which 3 people have influenced you most in coffee?
I dont think they were always individuals. It’s weird to assign one name to the work of many people, no?
1. The team at the Mocca roastery, Oslo, Norway, circa fall 2006
I really think the crescendo espresso blend (from now Kaffa) is consistently one of the most impressive espressos available in the world.
2. Jaime Van Schyndel and George Howell
Two of the most talented and difficult people in coffee. They’ve both really had a large part in defining my taste preference in coffee. Definition = “clean”.
3. Simon Hsieh (pronounced SHE-YEH)
Probably one of the only (if not the only) people that I can confidently say is legitimately a master roaster. He roast in Taiwan and has his own company called “4-arts zero defect coffee”. He sorts all his green by hand three times before roasting and once afterwards (or something there abouts…) in 500 gram batches to order. He’ll do 15-20% rejections of Esmeralda batches, sorting out any possible defects or undesirable looking beans that will cause the roast to be less even. Delicious. Hands down, some of the most aromatic roasts and coffees I’ve ever experienced.

If you were opening a shop tomorrow which three baristas would you want working there?
This is an impossible question. Probably Chris Owens. Maybe Scott Lucey. Its difficult to say… In an ideal world, you will have shared some taste experiences that define your career. I think that it’s crucial to gain as much perspective as possible in this business, yet I find that so few baristas that I encounter really have gone out of their way to gain any…  It’s a sad truth to me.

What aspect of Coffee do you wish you knew more about?
Roasting. Without a doubt, roasting. I truly believe there are far, far more 90 point greens out there in the world then there are 90 point roasts. My business partner, once posed a question that I thought really profound. “What does a 90 point coffee with 90 point shipping and a 90 point roast taste like?” And I think the answer really is that we do not yet know and I’m truly excited to find out.

What would you like to see banned from the US coffee scene?
How many answers do I have time to list? There are so many… I think that the first really and truly has to be this idea that espresso really has to be a beverage with hair and bollocks (translation) on it, something akin to a sledgehammer to the face. I have to say that I really despise when a barista hands me an espresso that was dosed probably 22-23 grams, totaling maybe 23mls (.75oz). Just wildly strong and under-extracted. Those shots make me want to cry, yet to so many they seem to be the hallmark of a properly extracted espresso. Espresso can be light, delicate and nuanced… There’s no reason it has to hurt on the way down.

Ever had a coffee epiphone moment?
Yes, absolutely. Two actually. The first was in early september, 2006. My coffee friends and I had met up to pull shots of a recent arrival from Terroir. The coffee was the Addis Ketema Co-op washed Yirg. Vac sealed at origin. The second the espresso dropped from the spouts, the room was just filled with this vivid floral aroma. As always we started passing the demitasse around amongst the five of us. It was really unlike anything I had ever experienced. Beautiful earl grey tea with candied lemon and an incredible floral bouquet with a mouthfeel that was just silky smooth. It was just exactly the opposite flavor profile of what I believed espresso was capable of producing at the time, and a brilliantly pulled shot on top of that.
The second came a month later. Chris Owens was just traveling back from the Nordic Cup that year, and he dropped us a line telling us to meet him in New York so he could show us an espresso from his travels. He had brought back some Crescendo from Mocca in Oslo. The first thing I was able to note about this coffee was how incredibly light the roast was… In my memory, the roast looked like it was dropped just out of first crack. Super light. Chris pulled the shot and passed it over the bar. We all just stood there for a minute, looking at it, smelling the aroma. It was a spectacular shot. Perfectly flecked. The aroma was reminiscent of the Addis Ketema in its floral characteristic, but in the cup there were many different layers of flavor. Soft, dried yellow fruits with the earl grey character coming in again, followed by a sweet honey finish and a mild funkiness. We later found that the blend was composed of five beans, the base being a CoE columbia followed by some Injerto, a washed yirg and some Java in there as well (I cant recall the fifth coffee). Generally, I’m really not a fan of the Java’s, but it remained pretty clean in the cup, so it wasn’t enough to ruin the experience by any means.
You recently finished 2nd in the World Aeropress Championship despite being on the other side of the planet, what was that like?
Well, it sounded like a fun time. The Scandinavians all seem to be a little obsessed with that brewer. They really don’t stop raving about it… I had tried it a few times, but had never really been that impressed with the resulting cups, so I figured I would just enter and try my hand at it, thinking that I would at least be a good sport for showing up. I probably tried at least 20 different techniques before coming up with the technique I ultimately submitted just hours before the competition. It’s really not the easiest brewer in the world to use. I honestly think I could have won if I’d have been there. I guess there’s always next year. Many thanks to Mie Hansen for competing on my behalf.

Tell us a little about the US Cup Tasting Championships.
The competition was definitely an interesting experience. I was glad to have some friends on the roster. I’ve never competed in anything coffee related before, so I was definitely nervous about the whole thing not to mention that there was some serious competition to be had: Andy Sprenger, Oliver Stormshak, Phoung Tran, Colleen Anunu, Geoff Watts, Eric Ellison, Gabe Boscana. All of them, in my opinion, respected cuppers and baristas. I obviously assumed, like everyone, that Geoff would be in the running for the win, but didnt really know which way it would go. It was really exciting and nerve-wracking to be there with Geoff and Andy in the finals, but I did go in thinking that if I could apply what I had learned from the previous two rounds and maintain my speed, I could win it…

Do you think the competition maybe deserves a little more exposure?
For sure it does. I think that’s really my responsibility as the first champion for the U.S., just spark as much enthusiasm about the competition as possible to make sure that it’s has as much respect and attention as it deserves in the future, by both the public and the coffee community. I think as more reputable cuppers and baristas start entering the mix, there will be more fanfare over the comp itself. Like, if we saw Tom in there with Duane and Peter Giuliano, you could probably sell tickets to that event. We definitely wont be on the exact opposite end of the conference hall as the barista competition next year, that I promise you…

What would your perspective of the European Coffee scene and how does it differ to the US?
It’s funny. Sometimes I think the Europeans are miles ahead of the Americas as far as their customer base and general appreciation for great coffees, but then other times I think I might be completely wrong about that. On one hand, I see the Scandinavians with these really nice, transparent roasts of some beautiful coffees and espressos and think that they are operating on a fundamentally different paradigm then people in the States, and it is one that is much more in line with where I’m trying to go with coffee. On the other hand, I hear every week from James about how there’s essentially no market for filter coffee in London, which I believe is essentially the same situation for much of europe, including Scandinavia and I’m just so glad to have nothing to do with that battle. I’ve been loving brewed or filter coffee more and more these days and I’m really happy to have customers who are open and willing to experience it… I’d be interested to hear what you guys think on the topic.

Rainforest Alliance is something we’re focusing a bit on this month, any opinions?
All these certifications seems to have their own place, but ultimately, it’s not something that I would ever advertise on my coffee bags; the reason being that all the different aspects of sustainability that these certifications represent should ultimately be the rule, not the exception. I want my customers to be buying my coffees because they can count on the fact that my farmers are being paid sustainable prices and are practicing sustainable growing. I think that many times, what these organizations set out to do and what the are doing now may be very different things.
As you discussed last episode, much of the commodity market pricing lies above Fair Trade. Why then would Transfair not keep pushing the price up? There really are many facets to RA’s operation though, and I certainly wont pretend to know about all of them.
Benjamin Kaminsky


10 thoughts on “Interview with Ben Kaminsky

  1. Tim Varney says:

    And now he’s in Oslo to claim his second prize for the WAC’s. Nice questions Colin…

  2. colinharmon says:

    He does get around alright

  3. colinharmon says:

    I really think Interviews are the way to go. I’d hope to do the next one with a camera

  4. Just for the record. In Norway over 90% of all coffee consumed is filter coffee..
    Less than 1% is espresso. And we have the 2nd highest consumption per capita. There is definately a market for filter coffee in scandinavia.

  5. triptogenetica says:

    Great read!

    I really like the last points – trade should be sustainable and fair, not “FairTraid”…

    If the prices they pay are truly Fair (capital F), then why do they track the commodity baseline at all?

  6. Gwilym says:

    thanks for the interview Colin. Ben is a great guy

  7. […] sips, you just want to chug it.  Yes, chug it.  I must give credit for this descriptor to Ben Kaminsky who on rare occasion is known to refer to a coffee as “chuggable”.  While fvh honey is […]

  8. lucey says:

    Can’t believe it too me this long to read this. . . great questions Colin!

  9. Margie Golub says:

    I have the privelege of knowing Ben personally and this interview really captures his charm, profound knowledge, and eloquence when it comes to coffee talk. He is a great guy and happens to be incredibly handsome and personable.

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