Update: MmmHmm Coffee has permanently closed, effective immediately. For more information, read this.
Jon French's MmmHmm Coffee is unique for reasons other than the fact that it's housed inside a brewery. The tiny operation exists on a single counter inside Hilliard's Ballard brewery and specializes in pulling long shots of single origin espresso roasted lightly. It's a method French hopes will usher in a new chapter for Seattle's coffee scene.
French first launched MmmHmm Coffee last year as a pop-up, finding a permanent home inside Hilliard's just this past April.
MmmHmm does several things differently than your average coffee shop. They rely on light roasts of single-origin espressos, meaning the beans (or seeds, as they're called in coffee parlance) are harvested from a specific region rather than blended with beans from all over the coffee-growing world. Most Seattle shops use blends of dark roasted beans; the dark roast brings out familiar coffee flavors rather than the terroir of the place the beans were grown.
"You'll taste chocolate and caramel and hazelnut flavors, which are byproducts of the cooking process," French says. "They're not necessarily inherent qualities of the plant. It's the caramelization process that creates those flavors."
If most of the world's dark roast espresso is a red wine blend, French's coffee is a single varietal bottle. Complex sips hold flavors like black cherry, red grape, vanilla, stone fruit, citrus, apple, and melon. "Cooking the coffee light brings out these flavors. If you're roasting it dark, you're not going to taste any of these things," he says. "Keeping it light brings out more flavors" that are a truer and more full expression of the bean and the region it came from:
Our goal is to work with producers and roasters that are roasting in such a way that the terroir and the varietal and the processing are transparent. You're able to taste those things and you're not losing that in the cooking process. When you drink an Ethiopian Yirgacheffe, it's going to be different from coffee from Boliva or Nicaragua. It's not cooked so dark that all it tastes like is roasted coffee.
Another difference at MmmHmm Coffee is the long shot: French says that most coffee shops in Seattle use too much coffee to too little water, under-extracting the coffee so that the finished product tastes nothing like the bean.
"It tastes fine and the texture is great, but if the end goal is to make this coffee taste the way it was naturally grown to taste, i.e. pulling out the flavors actually in the seed, then it by no means represents the seed," he says.
Rather than a one-to-one ratio of coffee to water, French's espresso is around one to two. Rather than a thick shot of espresso, you're getting a bigger cup of coffee, perfect for experiencing the nuances of the bean. Nor is this to say French is doing anything completely new in Seattle; several other shops also offer this style of espresso. French says it's still rare, though, and still catching on among consumers.
French has some pretty nerdy equipment to accomplish all of this: he uses a refractometer, an EK 43 grinder originally built for spice grinding, and La Marzocco’s Strada EP espresso machine. What it all boils down to is that French's coffee "opens up, sweetens up, and becomes more balanced." His coffee reflects the place it came from and the people who grew it. His coffee tells a story that is as rich and complex as the flavors it unlocks.
MmmHmm is following a trend that French says originated in Australia. He first tried the long shot at Heart in Portland, and it opened his eyes to the possibilities of this type of coffee: long shots of single origin beans roasted lightly.
To be sure, French isn't knocking coffee shops that offer espresso blends; he says if done well, this type of coffee is still delicious. A light roast simply expresses more nuance, so it plays well with single origin beans.
All told, you won't find 12-ounce, super sweet drinks at MmmHmm Coffee. Instead, expect smaller drinks with these single origin beans. "We're in the coffee industry, not the milk industry," French says. "We want our menu to reflect that." And if you want something sweet, French has created his own honey butter that he drops into a latte. He also makes a killer chai ginger beer that he's looking to bottle and distribute on a larger scale soon.
Ultimately, French wants to challenge his customers to "come down the rabbit hole with us. It's cool to have the average consumer start to learn these things and start to appreciate the coffee. It's not snobbery. It's a fascinating agricultural product that has so many hands on it before you drink it. We're in the Budweiser stage as an industry. The average consumer wants bold, dark coffee. But coffee makers, we're way past that."