3/01/2013 03:22:00 PM

Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf's Jay Isais on Roasts, Third-Wavers and Competitors

When it comes to large coffee chains, SoCal-born Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf is up against big guns like Peet's Coffee and of course Starbucks. But aside from Ice Blendeds, what's the difference? We asked CBTL's Senior Director of Coffee and Manufacturing, Jay Isais. In the coffee business for almost 30 years, not only does he secure and maintain relationships with growers around the world, but he also oversees the blending and roasting of all coffee at the company's Camarillo, CA facility, just an hour north of L.A. Here's what we gleaned from the man who's responsible for our brew from bean to cup.

Give us the elevator pitch behind Coffee Bean?
We see ourselves as the accessible and friendly ccompany. We take a bit more care to let the customer to tell us what they like. The feedback that we’ve received is that they like us because we’re friendly and willing to customize anything that they want. Our roasts are typically lighter and sweeter than our competitors. It's like having two restaurants across the street from each other: what makes them different is how they express the food. They may by the same ingredients to prepare, but the way that they do it is different. And it’s because everyone in this space does it differently, from the farmer to the equipment that we use, the recipes that we use in our drinks, store design, music, the people we hire. It’s like saying who’s better, Gordon Ramsay or Wolfgang Puck? They’re both great chefs just different.

How does the company stand apart from competitors like Starbucks?
Starbucks has been extremely successful, especially from a real estate perspective. They’re able to secure locations to sell their products, and most of our focus groups say they go there because it’s convenient. That’s their hallmark right now. But, in my opinion, a lot of things are suffering because of their growth - the stores are becoming more automated. They’re frontline people are having less influence on the quality of the beverage. They’re becoming a bit more homogeneous. We see that as an opportunity to become more individualized. Hand-crafted beverages, which might be more difficult to make, gives us some exclusivity in how we do things. We’re still small enough that we have an element of pride in our systems. It’s not something we want to lose.

How many stores do you have?
As of this morning we have 883 Coffee Bean & Tea Leafs worldwide in 25 countries. I think I lost track of Starbucks around 15,000 stores. I just know it’s a lot.

Do you think they grew too big too fast?
I'm amazed that they could get so much traction so quickly, and that they were able to establish the latte culture across the country. I was a big fan in the early days because they did such a good job creating icons. And even when they were way off base factually, they were able to convey a sincerity that wasn’t there at the time. Unfortunately I think they lost their early innovation or commitment in terms of the product.

Tell us about the CBTL roasting facility. Is there only one?
Yes, we have only one, in Camarillo in Ventura County. We contemplated having another facility at various times, but our volume and cost is better with one. Plus it allows us to control our products. You wouldn’t expect things like elevation and climate to affect how the roast turns out. Over the long haul you can probably get a similar result in a different places, but for us it's better to keep it centralized. We roast just under 7,000,000 pounds of coffee here a year on two roasters that hold 500 and 600 pound batches each. We run continuous batches all day starting at 4 AM.

Starbucks is heavily marketing this Blonde roast. How would you describe CB’s roasting style?
They’re finally admitting that they’ve been doing it wrong after all these years. The best for us is to roast on the ligther side. Coffee reaches the point of transformation thorugh different processes. Somewhere around 400 degrees internal temperature is when the bean is completely transformed and roasted. From that point onward, for another 30 to 50 degrees, the coffee will continue to get darker and darker, and the dominant flavor and aroma is more related to sugar browning and not the coffee itself. It’s sort of the difference between a very quickly stir-fried vegetable or roasted: you have textural differences and flavor, and things that were present that are no longer present. A ligther roast coffee is always more complex, more acidic, and more vibrant in terms of its aroma.

Tell us about the most memorable coffee you’ve had.
There are coffees that are so memorable and distinctive that you want to have a moment with it. You just want to tune everything out and enjoy it. You just want to give thanks and praise to all the things that aligned to make that so perfect. Ehiopian coffee is my favorite. I’ve had some amazing, startling coffee from Ethiopia. There is a "natural" from Harrar, and a "washed" from Yirgacheffi. The two primary ways of processing coffee is "natural," meaning they pick it and dry the fruit, and at some point they mill all the material off. "Washed" is when they pick the fruit, squeeze the seed with pulp, ferment them in water to get the pulp to decompose, wash the residue off, dry them in the sun, then they mill off the rmaining shell down to the green bean. Each produces a different flavor. The fist time I tasted both coffees it left quite an indelible mark.

What's your favorite way to make coffee?
Generally every morning I start my day by making a drip coffee on a Capresso machine because my wife likes that, and I like my wife. At the office I use a French press. It most closely replicates the way we evaluate coffee in the industry. You have a screen instead of a filter, so the oils remain and gives it better texture.

Any favorite coffee brands other than your own?
I really like Intelligentsia, I like Blue Bottle. I like Zoka in Seattle.

What do you think about the growing coffee scenes in places like LA?
I do and don’t follow it so closely, but I’ve been to some latte throwdowns and barista jams. And I think that’s one of the most exciting parts of the industry right now, this barista culture. It’s still a very much niche phenomenon. It’s like music in a way. The passion and commitment that these third-wave companies and shops have is amazing to see. And a lot are doing an amazing job creating their brand and express the coffee that they have. I’m not sure how digestible it is to mainstream America, but it’s all very cool.

You don't think it's hitting in smaller markets?
That’s the amazing thing, there are micro-roasters popping up everywhere. You can go to Wisconsin or North Carolina, and there are all these spinoffs happening. That someone worked for Intelligentsia or some place, and move to Alaska and start something there. Or someone who works for Peet’s and starts something in South Carolina. It's great.

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