Justin Amirault '01

 

taste the coffee

%226%left%"I've always liked coffee," admitted Justin Amirault '01, "but I used to like bad coffee with lots of cream and sugar. The term 'regular coffee' should mean black, not with cream and sugar, because black is the way coffee is supposed to be drunk!"

A native of Plymouth, Mass., Justin Amirault did more than drink "bad coffee" at Colby. He majored in economics, played soccer and "met friends from all over the world." Today, Amirault likes good coffee and knows good coffee, for now he is a taster and buyer at Coffee Holding Company in New York City. He gets his kicks not from soccer but from tasting coffee beans from around the world and creating new coffees that will satisfy the most demanding and/or price sensitive client.

Amirault started his coffee career with Premier Roasters in San Francisco in what he terms a "sales logistics" role. But he soon became fascinated with the coffee side of the coffee business: the taste, the aroma, the ineffable process of moving from raw green coffee bean to good marketable coffee.

When the top taster/tester at Premier Roasters retired, Amirault was assigned to take the job as he'd shown such a talent for the art of coffee.

%225%right%Coffee companies buy green coffee in the millions of pounds, often sealing multi-million dollar deals with a handshake. The companies receive a constant flow of free samples from growers eager to sell their beans in this highly competitive business. So Amirault is constantly tasting and testing. "You have to have a grasp of flavors, aromas and colors," he explained, "and you have to be willing to learn. I'm into trial-and-error every day, trying new things, new mixtures. Sometimes we get some real bad stuff, what we call skunk beans that have already been fermented. But we also get in some exquisite beans."

Tasting coffee, incidentally, is not unlike tasting wine. In fact, it's exactly like it: sipping, swirling, spitting. "It's been done the same way for hundreds of years," he said.

While Amirault laughingly admits to being a coffee snob, he knows his challenge is pleasing the client, not just his own sense of good taste. "A private label client will give me criteria. 'Make our coffee taste like Starbucks.' Or 'Match Folger's Hazlenut.' And people in the south often like a chicory flavor, dating way back to Civil War days. What matters is what they want, not what I would drink."

In addition to the subtleties of taste, Amirault faces the pressure of price. In other words a client who essentially says, "Give me the coffee that tastes like I want it to taste at a price that I can afford to pay."

Amirault possesses the patience and the palate to satisfy the tastes and pocketbooks of his clients. And he derives much satisfaction in return. "It's an interesting job and a lot of responsibility for a 24-year-old: putting together from scratch what someone wants within their price range. My position is well respected in this business," he notes. Then he adds, his artistic side emerging, "There's also a timeless romantic aspect to the job. Behind every cup of coffee, there's been someone like me."
--David Treadwell