Kean Coffee, a deliciously unique coffee specialty shop in Newport Beach, Calif., recently was encouraging its fan base for votes in the annual Best of Orange County competition. But, in actual fact, there is no competition for Kean Coffee in The OC – or beyond.
I email the folks there from time to time about their coffees, and in regard to this, I wrote, “You guys need to set your sights higher than Best of OC. You are one of the top three coffee shops in the U.S.”
“Wow, thanks Jerry! We’re honored,” Karen Diedrich wrote back.
“Kean gets coffee no one else in USA gets. The OC is Unworthy!” I tweeted back.
Like I’m a world authority on coffee. I’m not. I just know what I like. But I am not alone in my lofty option of Kean’s coffee. Erik Hale of Locale magazine writes this month, “The world’s best coffee is in Orange County – no, really.”
The Diedrich family’s penchant for fine coffee came to my attention in the late 1990s. An article in a southern California newspaper confirmed something I already knew: a small chain of coffee shops that originated in Orange County was growing so fast it was moving into second place behind Starbucks in the specialty coffee world.
And then the hundreds of Diedrich’s coffee shops were gone. The entire operation sold in 2004 to someone else who promptly ran it into the ground – or more correctly into the arms of Starbucks, who eventually gobbled it up and devoured it, leaving no trace. Burp.
Oh well, I thought. My quest for a decent cup of coffee again turned to Europe. I had heard, back in the mid-1980s when I was opining about the sorry taste of American coffee, that, “The Dutch have the market cornered on the world’s best beans. They’ve had coffee contracts locked up for 300 years, in some cases, for the best beans.” Other European countries, like Belgium, tenaciously fought the Dutch for control, I was told.
Is any of that true? I don’t know, but I found great coffee merchants in places like Brussels, Stuttgart, Milan and Dieppe, France (of all places).
“The Americans get all the crap beans left over, that nobody else wants,” my coffee source told me. That would certainly explain the taste of the vast majority of American coffee…and particularly Starbucks back then, which reminded me of a stale cup of diner joe – with a cigarette butt floating in it.
But then things started to change. The Americans started to establish a beachhead in the coffee wars. Starbucks – which I suspect was stung by criticism of their signature blend – actually started offering some specialty coffees that were good. Occasionally brilliant – as with a small batch of La Florentina years ago.
La Florentina is one farm in the Boquette area of northern Panama. Only a real coffee snob would know this is reputed to be one of the world’s top coffees – if not the best. (The story is that unscrupulous coffee wholesalers were selling this coffee as “Jamaican Blue Mountain” until someone pointed out it was tastier and probably worth more than the vaunted Jamaica blend.) Kudos to Starbucks for finding it. But shame on them for sitting on their laurels, long after it was gone, and not offering more of it. Posters for this coffee have been touted on Starbucks’ walls for decades since; what a tease. (Okay, La Florentina did return very briefly in 2009 at a few stores with the Clover roaster.)
It’s about time to again cue Martin Diedrich. I don’t know if he’s ever offered any Florentina. But he has purchased even more obscure – and delicious – coffees from the Boquette region, Costa Rica, Guatemala, El Salvador and even Nicaragua (which is an a still mostly undiscovered jewel in the coffee world’s crown jewels, IMHO). Of course, Diedrich has found other astonishing coffees around the world – from Africa, Asia and various islands, particularly Hawai’i – and managed to put in successful bids for them at annual coffee auctions.
Diedrich resurfaced – commercially speaking – in 2005 in Newport Beach, with one small coffee shop named after his son Kean. He roasts his own beans on-site. It’s a family operation, passed down through generations of Diedrich’s, to Martin’s father Carl. Martin’s brother Stephan has developed Diedrich Coffee Roasters machines, of which more than 2,500 are in operation worldwide. Wife Karen runs the online business, among other things. Even the store’s namesake, young Kean, works there.
Clientele was developed through word of mouth: “Martin is back.” But this time, instead of franchising back out into some least-common-denominator chain of coffee retailers, he has kept it simple. One store (until a recent addition in Tustin). Almost no advertising. But an ever-changing array of small batches of the world’s most mouth-watering coffees. Since I’ve moved away from Orange County (damn you, Jerry Brown), I keep supplied via online orders – a recent innovation for the out-of-area, but in-the-know fans of Diedrich.
If you’ve never heard of Diedrich, shame on you, fellow coffee snobs. You haven’t tried hard enough. Coffee experts and bean buyers around the coffee world know exactly who Martin Diedrich is. “Best of Orange County”? Ha!
“You really ought to blow your horn more,” I wrote Karen Diedrich.
“We aren’t that good at hornblowing Jerry,” she tweeted back. “But we hope to get our training wheels off someday and be true hornblowers #workingonit.”
But I almost hate spreading the word about the amazing goings-on at Kean’s. There is only a smidgen of fabulous coffee in the world. Diedrich can’t possibly find enough of it to satisfy the cravings of a larger audience.
Fortunately, most people seem satisfied to remain clueless about coffee. It’s just brown water in a Styrofoam cup, right?
You just keep thinking that, 7-11, McDonald’s and Dunkin’ Donuts customers.
June 5, 2012