Craig Miller on 30+ Years of Roasting, Espresso and Shitty Starbucks

Craig Miller is an old-school, espresso-only coffee aficionado.

Miller’s Coffee exists in a time warp back to the ’80s — back before ‘Bucks was on every corner; back before coffee shops were laptop charging stations; back before people spent $2k on espresso machines. If there were a dive bar of coffee shops, this is it. The place is on a side street in downtown Auckland. There are two big barn doors, one 30-kilo roaster and one place to order your drink. No one writes your name on a cup. The tabletops are small. The cups, New Zealand’s ubiquitous Acme brand, are diner glossy white with a red “Miller’s” on the side. Simple. Straightforward. No bullshit. Because Craig Miller’s a no-bullshit type of dude.

I talked with Miller as the roaster churned Miller’s special green blend. He’s likable and charismatic. He’s also sharp tongued and opinionated. He’s old school and doesn’t give a damn about trends. He’s writing a book about coffee culture and he knows the space forward and back. He’s not trying to be boutique or craft or artisan. He’s just making damn good espresso, consistently, day in and day out, every pull for every customer. He believes in old-school hospitality. He wants to know your name. And in his brain he’s got a veritable encyclopedia of espresso knowledge; 20 minutes listening to him talk is tapping into a deep well of information. He believes in espresso. Not flat whites. Not Americanos. Not bullshit; just espresso.

Q. What’s up?
A. You can obviously see my head.

Q. Yeah, what happened there?
A. I cracked it on a fridge. We did a three-day festival down at a place called — well, it’s a regional park, and we just set up a four-meter tabletop, and made coffee for three days. It’s right by the sea. It’s the most amazing place on the planet, and a guy called Mr. Scruff. Have you heard of Mr. Scruff? Write that down. Mr. Scruff.

Q. Mr. Scruff?
A. Yeah, Mr. Scruff did an afternoon set from 11 until four during the day with beautiful sunshine, water right there — a big sound stage. Yeah, he’s like an original English DJ.

Q. Oh, cool.
A. Just old retro stuff wafting out across the water and me with a cracked head.

Q. So, transition: What have we got going on here? How are you guys doing roasting?
A. We do what we call a green blend. So that means that we blend the coffee with the different countries of origin, and then we roast it all together, and we do a degree of roast that is to be used primarily on the espresso machine. We are people that celebrate the espresso machine and what it’s brought to our culture. When I started, there were very few people with espresso machines, and now it’s a prerequisite if you have a hospitality situation, and —

Q. When did you start, by the way?
A. I started in ’84 and roasting in ’88, and it’s important for me to make the connection with the Italian way of thinking around the espresso machine. In other words, what it’s done in New Zealand is it’s changed our social behavior. We used to be a tea-drinking nation, and so you would say to someone, “Come around home and have a cup of tea.” Whereas now we say, “I’ll meet you at the café for a coffee.” So in the last 25 years, you know, we’ve had an exponential curve of growth in the coffee industry that’s primarily been driven by the espresso machine. So what the espresso machine represents is a cornerstone of hospitality, which means that it’s become an integral part of the economy of small businesses. A high percentage of turnover from a lot of daytime trading comes from people having a coffee made on the espresso machine — despite the specialty coffee association and all that stuff trying to, you know, make coffee very interesting.

You know, maybe three weeks ago Starbucks rolled out the flat white across America, and you know, whoopee for them.

You know, America came to New Zealand trying to tell us that they had a big coffee story going on. They paid a lot of money for corner sites, and you know, they amped up the brand, and they were about dividend return to shareholder and all those sort of things, but they overlooked the fact that we’d already used our Kiwi ingenuity to figure out how to use the espresso machine to improve our businesses, and it has been very difficult for companies like Starbucks to get much traction here in the market because they didn’t sort of read where we were at. And now, you know, maybe three weeks ago Starbucks rolled out the flat white across America, and you know, whoopee for them. I hope it saves their business, but I think that it’s about understanding about community — the strength of the community and what small businesses bring to a community… It’s not about the logo or the brand because a lot of the brand identification is about the level of cool because you’re walking down the street with a brand in your hand.

It’s actually about enjoying the experience and the taste and to recognize the taste. You will always know when you have a good cup of coffee. You might not know too much about when you have bad cups of coffee, but if a good one comes along, then you’ll recognize it, and it starts with, you know, what we call premium mild Arabica coffee beans. So mild Arabicas grow at a high altitude, so what we say is the higher the altitude, the harder the bean, and the harder the bean, the greater the definitional characters or flavor it has. So we’re not too interested in the stories attached to where the coffee comes from and the farmer that is, you know, is able to supply a guy that’s going to win a world barista championship. We want the coffee with quality, and to do that and have the same blend in the store 365 days a year means for me just working through a program that can make those sort of determinations about having enough coffee in store to supply me on a regular basis.

Q. Do you guys do all your roasting right here?
A. This is it.

Q. This is it?
A. Well, this is a 30-kilo roaster, so we put in 30 kilos green, and we take out 25. So we have like — we have a 20 percent moisture loss from green to roasted. The idea of a green blend is that it gives it a greater spectrum or characteristic or flavor of the blend, whatever the blend is. But the thing about espresso is that we know from what the Italians have written about espressos is that an espresso is always a blend. It’s not a single-origin thing. It’s not about looking for the subtle nuances or characteristics from the coffee that’s grown on the southern slopes and has got, you know, more sunlight. So we put in 40 percent Sigri from New Guinea and 30 percent each of Columbian and Kenyan, and those are all sort of countries that have an old history of coffee-growing. So they’ve already got the structure in place to maintain a reasonable sort of quality because a lot of it is government controlled anyway, so it’s important for those countries to maintain a high standard because, you know, coffee is such a big part of their income as an export commodity.

So basically the coffee just tumbles around in here for about 20 minutes at about 200 to 210 degrees Celsius. Have a look. So we have a burner that is drawing the heat up through the beans, so they are tumbling around in a drum, which is sort of a little bit like a concrete mixer, and as the heat gets into the beans and heats them up, what it’s doing is it’s driving the moisture out, and as it dries it out, it’s a bit like when you roast popcorn. The moisture gets driven out of it, and it expands, so same thing here. As the moisture gets driven, the beans expand. So if you look at the volume of a kilo of green beans versus a volume of roasted beans, you will see that there’s a difference in the expansion process even though we’ve had this thing of 20 percent moisture loss.

Q. I don’t want to kill the process talk. I am curious, though — so you’re really focused more on espresso drinks than, say, pour-over coffee?
A. Yeah, man, you know, that’s our bag.

Q. That’s what you guys do.
A. Well, you know, I challenge anybody to say that, you know, 80 percent to 90 percent — and that’s not even putting my neck on the line — of sales in cafes and daytime hospitality places come from coffee. People drink coffee that’s made on the espresso machine unless you are in lower Manhattan with the big urns, and, you know, you go along and self-serve whatever, but as a rule, most coffees are made on the espresso machine.

I am roasting the same blend today that I did when I started in ’88. So I haven’t made any changes, and for me, it’s about putting energy back into connecting with the public, because they are the people that have come along every day for a long time and paid the money for coffee made on the espresso machine.

So, you know, I bought an espresso machine before I started roasting, trying to figure out how it worked. I got involved, got interested and saw the value that a cup of coffee could bring to my business. And so I went down the track of trying to figure out how to make it work better for myself, and by doing that I just did the one thing. I did one blend. I am roasting the same blend today that I did when I started in ’88. So I haven’t made any changes, and for me, it’s about putting energy back into connecting with the public, because they are the people that have come along every day for a long time and paid the money for coffee made on the espresso machine.

But if you read any magazine of the Specialty Coffee Association and all that, you know, you wouldn’t actually think that the public even exists because they’ve taken this time to make coffee really interesting by, you know, cold water drip and all this sort of thing and talk about all of that. And there’s some need to make something interesting when really it’s basically simple, and we’ve always been in a public environment and people can just walk up to me and start talking and, you know, it’s like no big secret. Whereas some coffee companies have, you know, put the gate across. You’ve got to have an appointment, a frisk, a buzzer, and then they go in and they say, “Ah, this roaster. He’s a master roaster.” He’s been doing this for such a long time, and you know, he’s really experienced, and this is a great science, you know, and all of that sort of thing.

Q. Can we go through how you guys pull an espresso? Do you guys have a certain technique?
A. Yeah, well one of the questions that we ask people is — you know, when they come along to learn about espresso — is: what is espresso? So what is espresso? Well, espresso is a drink that they presently make at the International Barista Competition, and espresso is seven to 10 grams of coffee, about 30mL of water. It takes about 25 seconds from when you switch the machine on to when you switch it off. It’s something that’s made. It’s something that you make, and how well you make it is how well you understand the recipe and apply it each time you make a pour. So we’ve gone to the trouble of having these, you know, special grinders that dose a certain amount and all that. They press the button and it automatically pours water through and they think they have made a good coffee.

You’ve got to have an appointment, a frisk, a buzzer, and then they go in and they say, “Ah, this roaster. He’s a master roaster.”

But it comes back to this thing about the connection with the Italians. In Milan in particular, where you have baristas that make espresso at the bar, it’s like how well they know you — how well they remember you from when you came in the day before and what you had and they make it when you walk in. Rather than, if you go to the corner site, they are going to ask you your name, what your order it is, write it on a cup with a felt marker, and if you go every day for three weeks, they will still be asking you the same bloody question, you know, because they’ve got to follow procedure. The thing about Italy is that the barista is — his remuneration is directly proportional to that. Obviously in New York, this is mandatory, so people do it whether you get a good espresso or a bad espresso.

Q. There’s a hospitality element to it.
A. Well, it’s also the thing of — it’s about the prana. So the prana is the energy that you put into food, to put that sort of simply. So how much — it’s like 17 grams, 30 mL, 25 to 30 seconds, 20 to 30 seconds, 28 mL, 32 mL — it’s about the taste. Espresso is a taste. It’s always a single shot. Now, you’re going to go to a coffee company in Wellington that makes all coffees as a double shot. So they are making double shot up to 22 grams for one shot because in Wellington they think they are very tough, and they have to make strong coffee. So they use a double shot, which is great for the roaster because he needs to use twice as much coffee.

If you don’t get the foundation right, you can be as flashy as hell with the milk, but the rest doesn’t follow. You can put all this fancy stuff on the top, but it’s actually about espresso. So I am really primarily interested in espresso, and that’s the single shot — always a single shot, never a double shot. If you made a double shot of espresso in the barista competition, you’d be disqualified. Yet, all these people that spend the money with their companies competing in these competitions go back to their company and train people to make everything double shot, which is bullshit. You know, because if you understand about the principle “make it well,” then you know there’s no reason why you can’t make a nice single-shot flat white in a slightly smaller cup. Because the other thing that I guess I always sort of resist is this idea of a large serve. And the Italians are about a small serve, and so, you know, the Italians say that if you have milk in your coffee, it’s because you don’t like the taste of coffee.

So often people in Milan have milk in their coffee, but they have it in their espresso, which is a macchiato. So it’s like once you get outside of Milan, then the places that have heaps of espresso bars, and when you go in there they only have espresso cups on their coffee machine, on their espresso machine, and if you ask for a cappuccino or a café latte, you know, they might be looking up at the counter and say, “I am sure we’ve got a couple of cups somewhere?!” I like that. I like the idea that the Italians are about small business, mom and pa, you know, knowing their customers, a creative part of the community. They’ve become the heart of their town, city — whatever, and you know, that’s more interesting to me than, you know, what I get from the American interpretation of coffee.

Q. Can we try a shot?
A. Oh, look, I’m sorry we’ve taken so long to get to that point. I tell you what; I’ll give you an espresso.

Advertisement - Continue Reading Below
More From Opinions & Essays