King's Row Coffee is an unusual upstart—not surprising given that finicky chef Craig Shelton, famous for going his own way, is behind the venture.
Shelton made his reputation as a chef tailoring meals at the Ryland Inn, in Whitehouse Station, N.J., to match selections from his renowned wine list. His efforts earned the establishment a Wine Spectator Award of Excellence for three years and a Best of Award of Excellence for the final 12 years of his tenure as chef-owner. Now he is applying the same intensive approach to coffee for King's Row, founded in 2013 in Hanover, N.H.
Most specialty coffee companies feature single-origins-say, a Guatemalan Antigua or an Ethiopian Harrar. They often market their own blends, but these typically aren't the main attraction, in part because blends have gotten a bad reputation from mass-market roasters that include cheaper beans in the mix. It's rare to find a company that offers only blends, although Illy does that for its espresso.
Born in 1960, Shelton holds dual French-American citizenship and spent many of his childhood summer days in France with his parents, sipping Grand Cru wines with fabulous food.
He studied molecular biophysics and biochemistry at Yale. In a course on the physiology of the senses, he discovered that humans' sense organs are not reliable on an absolute scale; they are relative. "My tongue can't tell me if something is a pH of 7 or 3," he says. "It all depends on what has just been in my mouth." As an example, he suggests drinking bland distilled water, then biting into a lemon and sipping the water again. "You would swear that it was sweetened."
That discovery led him to prepare appropriate food around particular wines. But what about coffee? In all the restaurants where he'd worked-including Ma Maison, Bouley, Le Bernardin and others-the coffee bothered him. "When I was at Bouley, which deserved its reputation as the No. 1 restaurant in America at the time, there was one glaring exception: the terrible coffee. I was surprised that the best restaurants served the worst coffee, when they would spend $3,000 on buying white truffles."
Shelton finally figured out that it was because the coffee brewing equipment used by the restaurants was provided free from companies that supplied poor quality coffee. "These were really equipment rental companies, making a huge profit, under the fiction of selling coffee."
It disturbed Shelton that he was working insane hours to create exquisite meals, "only to serve crappy coffee." So at the Ryland Inn, he asked Oren Bloostein, a renowned New York City roaster, to send him the world's best single-origin coffees. But something was missing. "I couldn't get that great coffee experience with the magnificent finish, the aromatics and body I wanted, all from one single-origin."
Then it dawned on him: Why not make a blend, similar to how Bordeaux wine is created from different grapes? He would choose beans with complementary characteristics, sourced from different origins.
Shelton and Bloostein began to experiment. The chef not only tried different origins but demanded what he called "broadband roasting," taking each origin to slightly different levels of medium to medium-dark roast and choosing several levels of roast to add to the complexity. He created the proprietary Shelton Signature blend in 1990, combining five different origins from small farmers in Africa, Asia, and Central and South America. King's Row calls it "the world's most sophisticated coffee" ( $15 for 12 ounces), so I brewed it with some skepticism. But I was blown away by its natural chocolate sweetness, lush body and long finish, featuring bright citrusy snap and hints of caramel.
Shelton won't reveal the exact proportions or the farms he uses, but he told me that he has a personal preference for African and Indonesian coffees.
Success proved elusive, however, because his perfect blend was good only by itself. If you drank it with a doughnut or other breakfast sweets, the coffee fell flat because of the physiology of taste relativity. "It tasted flabby," Shelton said. So he modified the recipe to create the Bonbon Blend, which contains a substantial amount of Kenya peaberry to boost the sweetness, making it a better match to sugary foods.
Tastings conducted under different circumstances inspired the chef to experiment with new blends suited to specific places or activities. Learning that the salt air was dulling his senses on a sailing trip, he developed the Coastal Blend, which features a modified mix of coffees with a darker roast to stand up to the briny maritime atmosphere.
The testing didn't stop there. "Someone with a private jet complained to me that they couldn't make good coffee," Shelton says. For every 1,000 feet of elevation, water's boiling point drops about 2˚ F, which results in under-extracted coffee oils. "So we scoured the earth to find a plantation whose coffee beans extract at lower temperatures." Shelton won't reveal precisely where these key beans come from but says it is somewhere in Asia. The find led to his Aviation and Mountain blends.
The company currently sells nine blends through its website, www.kingsrowcoffee.com, including the Mountain Blend and the Monday Grind. And though there are no plans to develop new blends, according to CEO Sam Sabky, surely some niches remain untapped. A Submarine Blend for scuba divers, perhaps?
Mark Pendergrast is the author of Uncommon Grounds, a history of coffee.