When it comes to java, Mané Alves is not your average joe
If you stop by the Mist Grill in Waterbury for a cup of coffee and a muffin on your way to work, or if you happen to order an espresso after your meal in the downstairs restaurant, you’ll probably find yourself thinking, “Damn, that’s good coffee.” And if you’re like most people, you’ll return to the renovated Mist Grill tucked alongside Thatcher Brook on Stowe Street for more.
This comes as no surprise to Mané Alves, a fortysomething world-renowned coffee expert who oversees the coffee at the bakery-cafe. “People know what a good cup of coffee is,” Alves explains with the earnestness of any single-minded aficionado. “They may not be able to identify it or describe it, but they come back because they like the coffee.”
Alves, on the other hand, can both identify and describe the taste of coffee, and this is exactly what he does for a living. As the director of his own small coffee consulting company, Coffee Lab International, Alves devotes himself to a multitude of projects and contracts that involve the taste, science and business of coffee. The title of director is a bit misleading, however, as Alves is Coffee Lab International. Aside from a coffee-roaster apprentice and two part-time assistants to help with the books and the formal coffee tastings — known in the biz as “cuppings” — Alves does all the work.
Exactly what that work is can be somewhat bewildering for anyone not steeped in the world of coffee production and marketing. In fact, if you happen to stop by Alves’ office — which doubles as a roastery and a research lab — to ask what he’s up to, he’ll most likely point to the tall fire-engine-red coffee roaster that dominates the small room and just tell you about roasting specialty coffees for the Mist Grill. He’ll deftly ignore the high-pressure liquid chromatography machine in the other corner and the series of high-tech scales, graduated sieves, specialized thermometers and other indications of a scientist at work.
“I don’t go into the detail of all my businesses because it’s too complicated,” he admits with a modest shrug and a smile in his espresso-brown eyes. In truth, providing Vermonters with some of the best coffee this side of Rome is only a small part of what Alves is up to.
On the day I visited, Alves was producing a training video for a national franchise of coffee kiosks, the Coffee Beanery — you may have seen them in the Pittsburgh or Albany airports. Coffee Beanery has hired Alves to improve their espressos, lattes and other coffee drinks — a multi-tiered task. First he sourced and developed a new blend of coffee beans — espressos are most always made from a blend rather than a single type of coffee. Next he created a new method for making the drink using more ground coffee and less water. Now the trick is to convince the employees in the 200 or so Coffee Beanery outlets to pay attention to the details necessary to create an espresso perfecto.
“A perfect extraction is difficult to do,” Alves explains as he makes one espresso after another. He delivers a nonstop monologue of specifics — the exact amount of ground coffee per liquid; the precise method for tamping the grounds with a prescribed number of pounds of pressure; the number of seconds for the extraction. Finally, he discloses how to tell if an espresso is indeed perfecto: You break the foamy crust, or crema, on the surface of a freshly drawn espresso; the crust should immediately “heal,” or come back together to cover the surface. It seems like a lot to ask of the typical counter employee at an airport kiosk, but Alves remains unfazed. “We just need to do a lot more education,” he says.
In fact, the need for more education is one of the driving forces behind this intense but soft-spoken coffee guru. A few days after our interview, Alves was headed for Saõ Paulo, Brazil, to deliver a seminar to 150 members of the Syndicato de Cafe on the common denominators between coffee and wine. “If you compare coffee and wine, wine is really a punch in the nose,” he explains, saying that with experience, we can begin to identify all the nuances of body, aroma, flavor, aftertaste and so on that are identified with certain coffees, just as we do with wine.
Alves has a missionary’s zeal when it comes to this subject, and he’s presented similar seminars in Italy, Guatemala and Mexico, covering everything from the agricultural to the gustatory to the cultural similarities between wine and coffee.
Drawing these connections seems to come naturally to Alves, whose background is deeply tied to both of these psychoactive beverages. As a child growing up outside of Lisbon, Portugal, he vividly recalls the enticing, rich scent of coffee that wafted through his home every other day when his father brought home a bag of freshly roasted, freshly ground coffee from the city. From the start, he loved the aroma, and by age five, he came to love the flavor and drank coffee with hot milk everyday for breakfast — something he still enjoys. As a teenager, Alves liked to hang out with his friends who had small vineyard lots and wineries, and for fun he learned to make wine. “Everyone would jump barefoot into these big stone vats, where we stomped on the grapes.”
Like many young men searching for a career, Alves bounced around a bit; he worked as a salesman for a pharmaceutical company, taught language in high school and graduated from law school before he followed a love interest to California in 1984. Witnessing the hype around wine and all the opportunities it provided, Alves decided to bank on what he knew. Over the next six years, he lived and worked primarily in Alexander Valley and Dry Creek Valley — two prime wine-producing regions. After jobs at such well-known wineries as Murphy-Goode and Rodney Strong, he was hired by a large winemaking corporation, Vintech, to buy grapes from various growers according to specific flavor profiles.
Alves is quick to deny that his palate is exceptional, though. “It’s just a matter of experience,” he says. “I would taste, taste, taste, taste every day to understand the taste profiles that the wine makers wanted.”
In the early ’90s, Alves again impulsively followed his heart, pursuing the woman who would become his wife, all the way to Vermont. Since there were no wineries in Vermont, and the then-fledgling microbrewers in the area couldn’t afford his expertise, Alves redirected his focus.
During his first year in the state, Alves busied himself traveling back and forth to Portugal to import hand-painted tiles. On one trip, he introduced some Portuguese friends to Green Mountain Coffee Roasters’ flavored coffees: They flipped. “Nothing like this existed in Portugal and they thought it was the God-given natural flavor of the coffee,” Alves recalls.
Convinced that he’d hit pay-dirt, Alves briefly attempted to import Green Mountain Coffee products into Portugal. While the endeavor proved unfeasible, it did introduce Alves to Dan Cox, then the owner of GMC — a meeting that ultimately launched Alves into his current career.
Following the failed Portuguese endeavor, Cox offered Alves a batch of coffee samples to taste and told him to come back in two weeks with a report. Alves agreed, not knowing if he had the ability to taste coffee, but counting on his experience tasting wine. When he returned the reports, Cox was impressed. “He told me that if he ever started a coffee consulting company, he’d call me,” Alves remembers. That’s exactly what happened.
Soon, Cox sold GMC to start his own Burlington-based coffee consulting business, Coffee Enterprises, and he hired Alves to help him. With clients like Ben & Jerry’s and Bruegger’s, the business took off. Alves began traveling frequently to coffee-producing countries to “cup” coffee with a lot of other people in the industry. “It’s very important that you go to the producing countries and cup, because if you don’t there’s a lot of nuances that you’re going to miss,” he explains.
In addition to honing his craft, the trips offered Alves the chance to make his own contacts. Two years ago, he left Coffee Enterprises to go it alone. “I wanted to get more into the teaching and research side of things,” he says, “and Dan didn’t want to do that.”
Now, with about 20 customers including large food manufacturers, retailers, independent restaurants, coffee brokers and coffee associations in producing countries, Alves’ Coffee Lab International is well underway. He’s reluctant to name his biggest clients, though, citing confidentiality agreements with the mega-corporations. “Let’s just say, there are only five big [coffee] companies in the U.S., like Folger’s, Nestle and Kraft. Well, I work for two of those.”
In addition to the big guys, Alves spends time educating coffee growers in South and Central America, helping them understand what makes a quality coffee and how to get a fair price for it. Alves envisions an industry where individuals produce smaller quantities of specialty estate coffees and charge more for them, rather than just growing beans as a commodity priced according to the New York market. “My belief is that coffee is going to be like wine,” he says, “and in 15 years growers will start to tailor their coffee to a certain quality.”
Alves has many private clients who enlist his help in selecting coffees directly from producing countries, and in developing signature coffees with prescribed flavor profiles. He’s also at work on a new line of coffee extracts that highlight a specific type of coffee. Instead of coffee-chocolate-chip ice cream, for instance, we’ll be able to choose between Colombian Supremo swirl and Kenya AA ripple.
Alves’ talents as a cupper are employed by an online coffee-buying site (coffeereview. com), where he’s part of a 13-person coffee-review board. Alves also plans to hold free coffee-tasting seminars at the Mist Grill sometime in the next year.
Other projects include the development of a software program for international coffee cuppers to use — Alves speaks five languages, a real boon in such an international industry. And he’s participating in a research project to develop genetically modified coffee plants selected for quality, yield and resistance to disease.
When Alves finishes this exhausting list of projects, I have to ask the obvious question: “Do you drink coffee?”
“All the time,” he responds. “I usually start with a latte in the morning and, after that, I have to have an espresso. I love espresso. I drink it all day long.”