Cliff Young has been a well-known face in the Southern California food scene for more than two decades.
He’s owned coffee carts and coffee houses. He’s done restaurant reviews. He’s organized food festivals. He’s hosted popular radio and TV shows, including a local PBS show, Out to Eat, for more than five years. Through it all, however, his true passion has always been coffee—specifically, roasting coffee.
About six months ago, he put aside his media efforts to focus on his passion full-time via his brand-new Coachella Valley Coffee Co. The “small-batch artisanal coffee roasting” company today makes coffees specifically tailored to individual restaurants, while also roasting coffee that’s great to brew up at home—and Young always makes sure that a chunk of the proceeds go toward philanthropy. Young’s coffee can be purchased online or at retailers including Tipper’s Gourmet Marketplace and the Palm Springs Air Museum.
To order coffee or learn more, visit coachellavalleycoffee.com. We recently sat down with Young at—where else?—a coffee house for a chat.
What possessed you to go ahead and start Coachella Valley Coffee Company?
I’ve been roasting since 1994. I started my first coffee business at Kaiser Permanente in Fontana—a little coffee cart. If you go to any Kaiser … those coffee carts were started by me. So I’ve been in the coffee business a long time. I wanted more control over my product, so I started going to Seattle, and hanging out with the roasters in San Francisco. I love taking this raw green coffee bean, which is about 12 to 15 percent moisture, and turning it into this gorgeous brown bean. Done rightly, the sugars come out.
A lot of people think, “Oh, I’ll just buy a roaster. I’m going to put this in, and it comes out.” No, it doesn’t. I learned from the old guys up in San Francisco, when Alfred Peet was still alive. It was nose and ears—it was olfactory and your ears. I can smell what’s going on with that coffee bean during the roasting process, and I can listen to it. I love standing next to my roaster, and just closing my eyes, and going, “That bean’s at 386 degrees,” and I’ll be within a degree or two, because you can hear what’s going on with that coffee. Even though we all have computers now telling us what to do, a computer can’t smell; a computer doesn’t taste.
I sold all of my other roasting businesses in ’08, before I started my PBS television show, because I was going to get rich on PBS. (Laughs.) Out to Eat was a fun show; I was No. 2 in ratings behind Huell Howser. Even after Huell died, he was still beating me in the ratings.
After moving back out here from Los Angeles, I said, “I’ve got to do something besides PBS, because I’m not paying the bills.” I’ve always been very, very good at roasting. Everybody has something they’re good at, and that was my thing. I built my own restaurants, opened my own restaurants—but this coffee thing, it got me. It’s my thing. I travel to the farms and meet the farmers …
Let me ask you about that. I just finished a bag of fantastic Nicaraguan coffee from you at home. How do these beans get from Nicaragua or Sumatra, or wherever it is, to your roaster?
Cliff Young, the roastmaster general, goes to Nicaragua, or Guatemala, or Costa Rica, or Colombia—I go to every country except for the African countries. I might buy from brokers who’ve been in the business for 30 years. I go visit farms. I learned years ago that just because it’s from, you know, Columbia, it doesn’t mean it’s good coffee. Columbia grows a lot of bad coffee, and so does Guatemala. The key is finding the farmers who take care of their crops, who are making sure they have the right fertilizers, natural, and that they’re feeding (their crops). Then you pay them properly … so they’re making money, and I get a great product.
I just got back from Nicaragua, where I’ve been going since ’03—(with) some of the best coffees ever. Luckily, I took one of my roasting friends with me, a kid who used to work for me, who now owns my very first coffeehouses in Redlands, and is roasting and doing a good job. We bought the entire crop. He said, “This is the best coffee we’ve ever had,” and thank god he has a bigger credit card than me. Then we book shipping containers and get it up here. It takes us a couple of weeks. Then I hold it … in a controlled environment. Even though we’re out in the desert, I have a controlled warehouse, because I want to keep that moisture content at 12 percent in that raw bean, so I have something to work with when it’s time to roast.
I think that’s what sets me apart: I travel. I know the farmers, and I make sure the farmers are taken care of. I enjoy traveling to these countries and making sure that not just the farm, but the local community, is taken care of.
Since you started doing this full-time again, how’s the reception been?
I thought it would be better, because I thought, “OK, I know so many of the shops and the restaurateurs in the valley; they’ve been on my television show, and on my radio shows,” so I thought they would just crawl all over me. It’s tough, and I know part of it is that I’m new. There are a couple other roasters out here that have been doing it for three years, or five years. I’ve got 25 years under my belt, and there’s a world of difference. I think I just have to put my product in front of them and let them try it, and compare it to anybody else’s, and they’ll notice the difference.
Where can your coffee be found right now?
A couple of the places in the Coachella Valley are Heirloom Craft Kitchen in La Quinta … and Wabi Sabi (Japan Living) and Tipper’s Gourmet Marketplace in downtown Palm Springs; Oscar’s just picked us up, and Alebrije Bistro Mexico. … It took me about three tries to get a roast level that they were happy with. Theirs is really a half dark and half city roast.
You’re actually customizing your coffee for your different clients?
Yeah, I try to customize it for each restaurant, because … different coffees go with different foods. For Alebrije and the Mexican food with a little more fat in it, I wanted to get a darker roast in there that cleanses the palate. If I was going into more of a strictly breakfast restaurant, I’m going to stick with a little bit of a lighter roast.
What’s the best cup of coffee you’ve ever had?
It was on one of my first trips to Nicaragua in 2004. We didn’t want to stay in the city with the farm owner at their nice house, so we stayed at the farm with the workers, because I thought, “Oh, how cute, I want to pick coffee.” Well, that lasted about a half-hour, because it’s hard, and it was raining, and I’m falling down. … We stayed there at the farm in their new building, which just meant it was a one-room building with a concrete floor. Every day, we had black beans and rice and tortillas. You could hear the cook when she got to work at 5 a.m., because you could just hear slap, slap, slap as she’s making tortillas in the morning.
What made it good was … we figured out everything: We got a great coffee; we brewed it correctly. Roasted correctly, coffee has natural sugars in it, and you know you’ve done it right when people are putting less and less flavored syrups or sweeteners in their coffee. We take that liquid, that 12 percent moisture, and we caramelize (the bean) correctly at the right heat, and we have about 5 seconds while we can turn that into sugar, or we can destroy it. … (It’s not) full of sugar; it’s not that kind of sweet. It’s smooth. It’s almost velvety.
Most of us drink our coffee at home. When you’re making coffee for the general public, you can’t really customize it to a food, like you are for a restaurant. What do you do to make sure that coffee is great?
What am I doing? I’m packing it into a plastic bag with a valve that releases the carbon dioxide, because as coffee ages, it’s letting out (carbon dioxide). After a couple of weeks, all the gas is gone; all the CO2 is gone. CO2 is good, because it also moves flavors around in your mouth, so once all the CO2 is gone, it’s stale, old coffee.
When you get coffee, grind it right before you brew it, because within a few minutes of grinding coffee, 50 percent of those oils and the flavor disappear. So grind it fresh, and then use good water. If you drink your water from the tap, and it tastes good, then it’s good. We don’t have to over-complicate this. Buy a decent grinder—you can get one for $30. So you have good, fresh-ground coffee, good water and hot water—water’s got to be right off of the boil, about 202 degrees. That’s the issue with a lot of home coffee makers—they don’t get hot enough, and if you don’t get hot enough, you’re not extracting everything you want to.