Carmichael’s Makin’ A Monkey Outta Dixie

 
By 16 November 2011
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From the latest issue of “Garden and Gun” magazine, an interview with Todd Carmichael that will make you reach for your root vegetables and arm your rifle:

 

“To develop coffee blends, you taste the food—the traditional smokiness, the woodiness, the minerality of things from the earth—and go from there,” Carmichael explains. “In Portland, they’re drinking fruity and floral coffees. That’s no kind of coffee for the South.”

 

Or, to put it in its intended ethnographic parlance, “Batdorf & Bronson, Counter Culture Coffee, and all you accounts down South servin’ Stumptown and Intelli? Y’all can kiss my grits.

Those flavor notes are part of La Colombe’s “Louisiane” blend, which “Garden and Gun” bills as “a custom blend dedicated to the South”. Dark roast smokiness might be just fine for the cafe sua da you enjoy at your favorite pho joint off Buford Highway, but in Atlanta’s cafes – among the finest in America – to say nothing of Atlanta’s dining rooms – really, some of the finest in America – there exists no old timey cotton tariff on the coffee drinking palate. This is true not only in Atlanta, but in other cities and suburbs across the American South, and increasingly in the city of New Orleans itself (for whom the “Louisiane” blend is named). Fine New Orleanian cafes like Velvet and Cafe Treme would not be caught dead at Sunday supper serving coffee that tastes of woodsy minerals.

Mr. Carmichael has isolated one of specialty coffee’s most fascinating and fast-growing markets and deemed them disinterested in “fruity and floral” coffees, as a matter of cultural proclivity. This isn’t just merely offensive; his statement seeks to throw a wrench into the otherwise healthy rise of great coffee in the South. This is like telling your average Atlantan that “y’all ain’t interested in eatin’ nothin’ but cornbread and bbq,” to which he or she would point to the aforementioned Buford Highway and its bounty of banh mi, dim sum, and Baja fish tacos as a forceful counterpoint, to say nothing of dinner at Empire State South or drinks and snacks at Holeman and Finch. Which is a way of saying: Southern specialty coffee drinkers have quite capable palates, thank you kindly.

Add to that the fact that Mr. Carmichael is a Northerner, based in Philadelphia, who roasts his coffee to taste specifications rooted in early-1990s Seattle, and the whole thing starts to snowball down towards the ridiculous. “Garden and Gun” trots out La Colombe’s presence on the menus of Eric Ripert and Daniel Boulud, and given G&G’s editorial mandate – “A Southern lifestyle magazine that’s all about the magic of the new South” – the choice is somewhat baffling, as Ripert and Boulud are perhaps the two least Southern men in history.

Mr. Carmichael should be lauded by the industry for his capitalist-humanitarian efforts in Haiti, and we’ve done so on this website. We’re committed to offering both praise and critique of Mr. Carmichael’s oft-controversial media presence in a professional, gentlemanly fashion – a tone we have not always lived up to in the past. But this latest tactic from La Colombe – “coffee fer the South, dag nabbit” – is about as authentic and worthy as a creeping web of kudzu.

 
  • I understand. Such a complex thing is impossible to fully contain in one coffee. But please, don’t think I’m referencing back yard food here, or home cooking, or cliché regional foods. I am referencing what I see as the most important culinary swell in recent history in American cooking, and it is from the South and from these men. For more on them, see James Beard Foundation award winners, see list of Elite Chefs of America, even Google names, then eat their food and then taste their coffee, with no bias. 
     Also, Brian is in Virginia.
    Anyway, I think the reason why this piece created a Sprudge reaction, is that it is me, the guy who slagged on hipster coffee folk last year. This broke a long held taboo inside coffee, where baristas are commonly and all too often exonerated for bad behavior because of their dedication to craft. Not to mean all dedicated baristas have exaggerated attitude, just some, and I still hold the opinion that many of us are rolling off the rails due to a dogged application of craft yet feel this somehow justifies giving condescending service. This is not cool and not sustainable.
    Criticism is not evil, neither his humor. These things needed to be said, some will hate me for it, some will understand, and I will have said what I had to say. I will have said the hard thing.
    What I regret is that my wording was too wide and lax, allowing many who do not belong in the definition to put themselves. This was a shame.
    Thanks for the chat, reading, responding.
     
    Todd

    Reply
  • Seems the main point was missed. Additionally, “Smoke” does not mean dark roasted (aka burned) or BBQ it is, like ”minerality” a culinary term, which you must know, and is beautiful and sweet.
    Fruit is one aspect to coffee, as is floral, of many, and I love them too, when appropriate yet I did not pick up on them in the top 15 restaurants of the South and weeks I spent with their leading chefs.
    For such creative and free thinkers, lets try to allow for some decent and thinking outside of your box now and then. We’re all moving in the same direction, I simply like making my own way, and will continue to do so because that’s the coolest thing to do.
    Shake it up.
    I freaking love the mag cover. Serious, its hilarious.
      

    Reply
    • jasondominy says:

      What’s that list of top 15 restaurants in the South you went to, what chefs? I’m calling BS.

      Reply
      • Can we start with the Southern Culinary masters who played
        an active role in the creation of Louisiane? Sean Brock, Mike Lata, Edward Lee and Brian Voltagio, all elite Southern Chefs who I admire for their sense of modern, while respecting heritage.

         

      • jasondominy says:

        Well, I’ve never heard of any of the other chefs you mentioned, and I know most of the current best Southern chefs, but Brian Voltagio I’m very familiar with, but you missed something, he’s in Maryland, which isn’t the South. Again, I don’t think you got a reasonable picture of the culinary South at all.

  • Joe Davis says:

    Ok, I have a few problems with both sides of this argument.  Todd Carmichael’s “blend fer da souf” is offensive, and should be since it’s from a roaster who, from my estimation, has no ties here in the South.  Never met him, can’t speak of his character, and honestly I don’t care.  Don’t like it?  Don’t buy it, and those who know better will look for coffee elsewhere anyway.  Ignore the petulant, obnoxious child in the room and eventually they will go away.
     
    The issue I have with the other side is the perception that light roasted coffees have somehow been magically discovered by a few roasters in the Pacific Northwest and now they’re bringing the truth to us heathens.  Somehow bringing daylight to us “other” roasters (specifically in the South) who have been roasting in the dark for so long (literally).  I’ve been a roaster, in the South, for ten years and was a barista before that and I can say, without any doubt, that I’ve been light roasting coffees since day one.  Whether or not people wanted to drink them, well thats another story.
     
    -Joe Davis

    Reply
  • Jen Prince says:

    My Sprudge brothers, you have such grace. Thank you yet again.

    Reply
  • jasondominy says:

    With every post I read from Mr. Carmichael, it becomes painfully aware that he truly has lost all touch with reality, and has no right to be an “authority” for anything other than pissing people off. The South has come a long way in the past, say, 10 years. If Mr. Carmichael had actually researched for his comments before making it, by simply ordering and drinking coffee from the South, and not the French Roast from a roaster, he’d find that we’re actually pretty current with most coffee drinking trends as roasteries. Having spent a good amount of time drinking a wide selection of coffees from the Pacific NW in the past month, I’d say our coffees are easily just as similar, and in some instances, even lighter than our PNW counterparts.

    What Mr. Carmichael doesn’t know, well, one of the many things, is that the South, Atlanta in particular, has become a foodie culture that matches the best in the country. Last year’s Top Chef Richard Blais has two restaurants here. There are two other Top Cheftestants that have very nice restaurants here in Atlanta, Chef Kevin Gillespie, and Chef Hector Santiago. Miller Union, named one of the top 10 new restaurants in the country by both Bon Appetit and Esquire Magazine is both here, and using Batdorf & Bronson Coffee in their restaurant. Current Top Chef judge Hugh Acheson is both a James Beard nominated Chef, and highly esteemed with his restaurants in Athens and Atlanta. His restaurant here features Counter Culture Coffee. We have about as diverse a food culture as there is here. Heck, even Mr. Good Eats himself Alton Brown lives here.

    And there are other great food and coffee scenes around the South that are not centered around “smoky coffees.” Nashville has a burgeoning coffee scene with Ugly Mugs, CREMA and others. New Orleans has Velvet Espresso. Florida has Volta. On and on. It is clear that he hasn’t A. Drank coffee from the SE, B. Spent any considerable time in the SE, and C. Spoken with anyone from this region.

    I recommend that before Mr. Carmichael writes another crappy piece loaded with incorrect information and opinion, he actually do a little research, lest he look like an ass when it’s done.

    Reply
  • Anthony says:

    Damned northerners. Always rubbing our noses in how poor we are down here in the South. Sure, we can only afford the rankest triage that makes it into the Port of New Orleans. That’s why we brew it with leftover pot likker from our collards and sweeten it with the cane syrup that our broke-down mule grinds on the stone out by the doublewide. And it wouldn’t be so smokey, but we gots nowhere to store our coffee but behind the smokehouse, next to the still. Down here in the south we have a proud tradition of making the misery of our position and paucity of quality ingredients into a badge of honor. Don’t go making that into your business model, Mr. Carpetbagger.

    Reply
    • Taste it. I’m afraid you got it all wrong. Open your mind here, wait, taste, and you will be pleased, not only for the grade, the attention put into the blend, but the drop temp is on par with current specs. 

      Reply
      • Anthony says:

        Ok, I’ll keep on playing. The point of my subtle-as-a-sledgehammer parody was pretty straightforward: what you wrote in your article is nothing short of carpetbagging. It’s trading on cliches, but building them into marketing points for your product. Can you really feign surprise that people who actually live in the south have a reason to think that you should be taken to task for what you wrote? And it’s not because you behaved like an ill-tempered child in your other threads about baristas. It’s more that you are making things up to market your own goods, but also trading on the history of others do do so. Let’s see some accurate documentation for your claims about the historical nature of coffee in the south for the last 150 years. Never mind the smoke-and-mirrors of “we had to go back to shipping manifests of the 1700s.” Seriously, do you think that the culinary identity of the current south has even a tangental relation to what might have been en vogue in the 1700s? If you do primary research into the archives of the New Orleans Times Picayune from the 1890s– arguably the starting point for our current understanding of creole food– you don’t find reference to Haitian coffee, nor to the characteristics that you’re claiming to be historical. You do find plenty about coffee, but it’s more focused on Ethiopia/Yemen and Indonesia as the preferred growing regions. You find mention of drip brewing being the preferred method for the clean cup that it produces, and you’ll find all sorts of advice about keeping brewing devices as clean as possible to keep from introducing muddy or dirty flavors into your coffee. From within the last 100 years, I have seen advertisements for Haitian coffees in the US south from the 1950s: cans of supermarket coffee ground for percolators. Hardly the starting point for southern cuisine. 

        In other words, you are trading in cliches in a poorly-written article, making claims for historical accuracy where very little demonstrably exists, in a magazine with (apparently) exceptionally lazy editors. You are not talking about food or coffee or culture or farming or history or people. But I’m sure you sold plenty of coffee to the good readers of Garden & Gun, which I’m sure was the point of this exercise.

      • Anthony, you’re clearly dug in hard on your opinion, married to is. what’s sad is of course mistaken.

  • > “It’s like finding a time capsule,” Carmichael says.
    > “The past three hundred years haven’t affected these
    > beans one bit.”

    Not one bit. Well, OK, maybe they ARE starting to taste a bit “woody” ….

    Reply
  • Tim says:

    Todd Charmichael is unbearable. Pass me a fucking bucket. I commend his efforts in Haiti, but why the dramatics of it all? His psychotic self-absorbed public demeanour is deplorable. His published resentment of peers is incredibly childish and unprofessional. Yet what makes him worse is the pitiful retractions in the hope of gaining back respect and admiration. 

    Esquire American of the Year? Well, if the nomination was up to his coffee peers, and not his buddies at Esquire, I doubt he’d even get a look in.Also, give me the true grit ‘Horses & Whores’ magazine over the fluffy bullshit of ‘Garden & Gun’ magazine any day.

    Reply
  • Ferguson says:

    Pennsylvania is not part of the South. That’s what
    Gettysburg was actually about. It wasn’t an invasion, it was a defense. 
    #phillygohome

    Reply
  • Eric says:

    I’m from New Orleans (I don’t work in the coffee industry) and I’ll pass on the “smokiness” (over-roast) as well as the “woodiness” (old crop) to which Carmichael speaks. Many of us aren’t fooled by such coffee descriptors. And as goes with everything else here, no one speaks for us. I order coffees to my house from great roasters from the South, the West, the Northwest, and Northeast. None of them taste smoky or woody.

    Reply
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