Friday, December 30, 2005

the absurd beauty of latte art

if you've spent time in an artisanal espresso/coffee bar, you've doubtless seen a barista pouring magnificent designs with steamed, foamed milk into their drink creations. this artistry is known as latte art--a really dumb, boring name that doesn't capture the elegance of this aspect of our craft. here's a short video highlighting one aspect of the artistry of this craft. [hat tip: the u.k.'s jim seven]

UPDATE: some readers have commented they are having difficulty pulling the link. if so, visit: and search for the latte art link.

Friday, December 23, 2005

espresso theory 201

there's an ongoing debate among espresso enthusiasts about dosage amounts of espresso in the portafilter. many folks believe that a slight 'gap' should remain between the top of the tamped espresso and the group head difuser screen. this allows water to sort of pre-infuse the espresso evenly and helps eliminate channeling (where water finds the path of least resistance through soft spots or 'channels' in your packed espresso), off-center extraction and the like.

the flip side of the argument calls for overfilling or 'updosing' the quantity of espresso in the portafilter--perhaps bypassing the tamp altogether, as the italians are historically known for doing--and simply relying on the greater quantity of espresso in the portafilter basket to do the work of fighting channeling, evening extraction and ensuring an overall delicious shot of espresso.

there's more.

take into consideration extraction times with different doses of espresso. any good barista will tell you that a good shot rule is comprised more of sight than of long as you're getting that good 'tiger-striping' in the pour as your espresso honeys out of the portafilter then you're in good shape. but as soon as the color begins to pale (what many refer to as 'blonding') then it's time to shut off the shot, so to speak. this can happen as early as 18 or 19 seconds (some even claim good tasting shots at 16-17) or can last well into the high 20's and some even say they get good striping into the low 30's. the point is, the visual cues should outweigh the timing factors. nobody closes their eyes, hits a timer and waits for it to go off before stopping the espresso pour. a great barista uses sight, smell, even the 'feel' of how a pour is going to determine greatness in espresso shots. (and obviously, all those factors are trumped by taste.)

yes, there's more.

what are some of the things that can cause the difference in color/time? and what might be one of the factors in deciding on an appropriate dose? [by the way, this is all just the set up for my's all generally accepted barista theory i'm laying down here.] well, assuming the technological field is leveled--that you're using a temp stable machine with good water--and assuming you're skilled enough to know how to use the machine, one of the last, greatest factors to account for is the bean(s) themselves. i say 'bean(s)' to mean whether one is using a single-origin espresso or a blend of beans for their espresso...and of course, what mix of beans and in what quantities.

so here's my theory.

since there are too many factors to account for when talking about an espresso blend (i believe there are some 1600 types of beans combinations available for blending into espresso) i'll limit my theory to single-origin espressos, which are getting much more attention these days.

everyone knows that the espresso method is a far superior way to detect a coffee's true taste profile. (it should be noted for non coffee nerds that espresso is not a type of bean nor a type of roast, but a method of preparation. another post.) anyways, running shots through your espresso machine will highlight the guts and glory of a bean, tell you a lot about its roast and, in my theory, present some significant evidence as to its method of preparation, meaning how the bean was processed in its country of origin. my theory is that, all other things being equal, a semi-washed or natural (dry) process coffee should be able to hang out longer in the portafilter before blonding, before the shot goes awry. further, i believe the processing method may also be a big enough factor to surmount dosage differences. think about it. in dosing you're basically talking about a difference of three to maybe five grams of espresso. yes, i know, that small amount can make a huge difference. but it may not present as big a difference as a dry will show versus a wet.

it's all about the mucilage. a wet processed coffee basically strips the bean from its cherry, gets 'washed' free from the mucilage membraney stuff that surrounds the bean, then gets tossed into a fermenting tank of water for several hours. that is a huge factor in how that bean is going to taste. a bigger factor, perhaps, than roast profiles, than dosing in an espresso machine, will, in fact, help shape and determine the roasting profile and the roast curve a good roaster will treat the beans to.

flip to the dry side. a dry or natural process eliminates the water fermentation tank and allows the beans to dry inside the mucilage and cherry before being hulled. so now, all that mucilage-ey 'stuff' (the stuff of legends, maybe) is drying onto--into--the bean. that is huge. those of you who cup coffee seriously know the difference between a wet costa rica and a dry sidamo. yes, they are from differing regions with inherent taste profiles specific to their geography and 'terroir.' but there is that other, almost unspoken but definitely noteworthy, difference in mouthfeel, in gaminess, in leave. it's what can account for the oddity of a timor maubesse tasting more like a guatemala than an estate java or sulawesi. the timorese have been wet processing their coffee for maybe a decade, giving their product more snap, more crisp acidity than its nearest neighbors, the brooding, mysterious and sludgy sumatras.

it's another fold in the ongoing theory debate over espresso. the longer i cup coffee the more i am convinced that processing can affect flavor every bit as much as terroir, variety, yes, even roasting and dosing. this concept naturally--maybe definitively--manifests itself in the intense parade grounds of the world of espresso.

let me just iterate here that mucilage or its lack on/in a bean does not trump the variety, geographic character of the bean itself. but a bean's processed method can make some significant differences in the cup. everyone talks about how the centrals (central america) must be washed as though it's a foregone conclusion that those beans will only stand up to wet processing. but maybe it's a self-fulfilling prophecy. maybe no one tries to dry process the centrals anymore because they just take it as received wisdom and don't bother to test and retest the settled questions. maybe that will be the next frontier in boutique coffees.

there are some really killer blogs and enthusiast sites that are theorizing and debating much more eloquently than i can. i encourage you to check out some of those sites: godshot, i am a green bean, portafilter, coffeegeek and viva barista are all great sources of info.

happy hunting. and bring on the comments. it should be noted here also, at least for posterity's sake, that i don't currently have the equipment/beans to test my theory; so it's also a call for someone to look at this theory and test it. i currently have a super auto home machine that doesn't get me where i want in terms of in-depth testing.

Saturday, December 10, 2005

no coffee-off at brown

[from the book, there ought to be a law] evidently there is a law on the texas books that provides:
All personal, physical and mental endurance contests in public competition for prizes, awards or admission fees shall not continue longer than twenty-four hours in any one continuous competitive period of endurance.
although the law was originally passed to prohibit dance marathons (citing, as justification, citizens who so engage do so until they are "weak, blind and delirious"), i think it sets a dangerous, blind and evil precendent that biases the public against what i plan to make a cornerstone of my marketing plan: the coffee-off. folks will slurp coffee from sun up to sun down for 25 hours or until they explode with a caffeine buzz. the winner would get five free sessions with a sleep therapist. but no. we are beholden to arcane regulations that keep us from the full pursuit of happiness. gestapo government.


Friday, December 09, 2005

happy birthday brown!

so on wednesday i went to the bexar county clerk's office to check to see whether anyone else in this county owns the name THE BROWN COFFEE COMPANY. turns out no one does...oddly enough.

so i bought it.

just got back from a meeting with the potential landlord. i really can't believe how gracious, generous and willing they are to make this happen. every time i go to them to ask for something they are not only willing to accomodate me but they counter my request with an even greater offer. i keep waiting for the other shoe to drop. but so far, no zapatos.

let it ride.

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

brown is becoming brown

so the process of moving from concept to coffee with brown is picking up steam. i've begun some negotiations with the landlord on the site. the good news is that the landlord has expressed a genuine interest--an eagerness, even--to have my specific business in their spot. the list of incentives they have offered from the get-go has been very generous...including exceptionally generous lease terms.

so after trudging along slowly here for a while doing research and following up leads on peripheral stuff the long journey finally seems to be showing signs of bearing fruit.

brown is becoming brown.

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

super auto clover

been reading a bit about the new clover machine. one button coffee that is delicious. everyone seems to think this is highly desirable--just put your stuff up top, hit a button and voila! great coffee quick.

i've also been reading folks' opinions about it on coffee forums. some people mention how a more all-in-one type machine would be an improvement: set up hoppers, grinders, multiple brew baskets, easier puck discarding, etc. that would be great, i say.

then i think, there is often a bit of a backlash in the purist indie coffee world around superautomatic espresso machines. 'the art is gone,' they complain.
while i personally don't have a problem with superautos--they have their place and their target market customer base--some people unleash the vitriol when the supers are even brought up in conversation. i just want to point out the hypocrisy of that thinking with regards to clover, which is poised to become the superautomatic of drip coffee. indeed, the 'improvements' suggested for it by some who have seen it in action only move it further in the superauto direction. no one is shouting, "you're taking the 'art' out of making a french press! you're dumbing down the coffee!" no. all anyone talked about was the ease of use, the near frenchpress/vac pot quality, the willingness they had to sacrifice a slight bit of that quality for ease of use and time cutting.

why the disconnect, then? why not just embrace the technology? clover doesn't mean you lose the connection with coffee. YOU lose the connection with coffee, not the machine with which you choose to brew it. it's the same with supers. YOU lose the connection if you choose. i worked for a year on supers at starbucks after two and a half on a la marzocco linea (philadelphia was about the very last market in starbucks to get switched over from la marzoccos to the superauto verismos). yeah, they're plastickey and unshapely. but i didn't lose my passion for quality espresso, or for foaming just the right microfoam bubbles, or for freepouring the perfect cappuccino or macchiatto (yes, you can get real macchiattos at sbux!) i just channeled that passion through the machine i happened to have access to.

and so it would be with clover. technology is not inherently bad. it's all in how you choose to utilize it. or not.

if you're just tuning in...

welcome to the coffee press: my blog about coffee stuff. this is a spin off blog from my original site, white on. that blog has been operational for a while now, but i decided to allow myself to narrow the focus into a coffee specific blog here.

this is not an expert blog. it's an opinion blog. i am not the final word. but i do have strong opinions. here's hoping you'll share yours here, too.

oh yes, something about coffee on this post. my breakfast this morning: a cup of starbucks komodo dragon blend. spicy and satisfying on a cool december san antonio morning.

what starbucks does well

i had a dream about starbucks last night. actually, i was dreaming about my old starbucks. the one i used to manage...across the street and down a block or two from central park in manhattan. i can never figure out how dreams do that: how they trick you into "remembering" that your starbucks is across the street and down a block or two from central park when in reality it is in suburban philadelphia.

anyways, i was dreaming about "my store" which had changed considerably in appearance since i was there a few months ago--they had gotten these killer aged wooden floors, great sconce lighting, etc. stuff you would never see in a real starbucks, unless it was some kind of flagship store in a new market. as i was greeting all the old partners i knew i realized what starbucks does best...its people. in my dreams i was flooded with joy at seeing those familiar faces, remembering the times we had shared and just enjoying each other for a while...i was only visiting "new york," after all.

there's a lot of talk in the independent coffee world about the lacklusterness of starbucks baristas; how they're little more than skilled monkeys with no appreciation for the art of espresso. i can say for sure that i don't really care what people say about starbuck baristas. while there are definitely way more like that than not, at my little corner of the world the baristas were top notch. and that's not just dreaming. and why? training. most sbux managers don't train right. they don't utilize the absolutely massive amount of training materials available to them. just think about all the resources a company like big green can bring to bear on...any area they want. there are tons of training materials that can be utilized. but even aside that, most managers failed to execute the most basic training programs required of them, causing forgettable baristas and a forgettable starbucks experience. i have had many of those experiences in my two short months here in san antonio. starbucks are just too "busy" (running around in circles "busy") with their starbucksy stuff to remember the world of espresso. and that's a shame. there are so many things they could do well simply by virtue of their size and influence.

[i'll say this as an aside, it irks me to hear independents smirk at starbucks, as though their profession would be anywhere nearly as accepted or celebrated as it would if starbucks were not the historical player it were. it is simply not true. you cannot convince me otherwise, no matter how much you smirk and preen your rockstarzey ways. starbucks is/was the umbrella under which the independents--the good ones, at least--were able to thrive and gain momentum toward critical mass. that's a whole other missive. email me if you want examples.]

anyways, so people. my people were the hardest working, friendliest, dedicated baristas starbucks has known. i know that's way biased but i just finished a fluffy dream with their smiling faces and i'm allowed that license. seriously, though, those guys were great.

the other big thing starbucks does well is actually a small thing in their world: black apron exclusives. this is code for super premium coffees starbucks offers quarterly and charges a bundle for. they only offer limited amounts because they can't acquire large enough amounts to, say, stock all their stores regularly with these beans. think of it like starbucks best attempt at offering boutique coffees. and oh, are they devine. think of how many pounds starbucks has to buy to supply all its stores with just six pounds of these coffees. it is not the river of coffee i saw in one of their warehouses: i stood on the balcony overlooking fifty-two million pounds of coffee. it was enough to supply that one warehouse's distribution area for six months. rivers of coffee. you cannot be exemplary when you have to offer that much coffee to your customers. bae is a way to get back to that boutique feel.

we'll leave aside the arguments that starbucks roasts their beans too darkly. that is largely a preference thing and can be answered generally by saying that starbucks is not dumb: they typically buy beans--bae beans especially included--that will stand up to their roast styles. but yes, they definitely are roasted dark. and yes, there is a market for that, believe it or not. in my old store, almost two hundred pounds a week's worth of market.

if you're into coffee but not into starbucks, hold your nose just long enough to visit one and ask when the next black apron exclusive comes in. when it does, buy a half pound and cup it. you will be pleased, i hazard to say, if for no other reason than to note that every once in a while starbucks is getting the same lots of coffee so celebrated in the indie coffee world (and typically in those cases, the best of those lots).

starbucks has gotten too big. no question. they have lost sight of their original passion. no doubt. but two things they did well, in my humble estimation: the people at lionville were second to none, anywhere; and their limited time special edition coffees (even seasonal ones like anniversary blend, christmas blend, etc.) are something special.

Saturday, December 03, 2005

going ape over bananas

so in their neverending quest to keep sales going, big green has begun to test selling bananas...yes, bananas in some of their stores. for seventy-five cents each. each!

couple thoughts. one: bananas are like forty cents a pound. two: bananas don't taste all that great with coffee. three: you're now one step closer, starbucks, to selling fruit smoothies, then it's all over. four: someone somewhere raised the issue that bananas supposedly aid in the quick absorbtion of caffeine from the bloodstream.

"my venti pumpkin spice latte didn't take. can i get another one?"

does anyone else find this funny/offensive?