Wednesday, May 31, 2006


it's a good thing we had fair trade in the house for the recent best of panama auction. if it weren't for them, people would have been taking advantage of these poor, helpless independent farmers and paying them less than the arbitrary amount of $1.20/lb, come rain or shine.

oh no, wait. what's that you say? transfair/fair trade wasn't a part of this auction? they weren't policing the event, ensuring that nobody but themselves could set the power of life and death--or at least life versus a better life--over these farmers? you mean to tell me nobody from fair trade had the good sense enough about them to travel down to panama to mobilize the poor, backward, defenseless farmers who were out there all alone against the coyotes gringos de cafe who would rob them blind and take their coffee?

from the look of it, the only people who made out like bandits were the not so poor, not so backwards they couldn't get their crops onto an inernationally attended internet auction, and not so defenseless farmers who, even the very least of them, mustered on their very own without fair trade's help, a minimum $1.50/lb and an average of $4.72/lb. (how much would they have had to pay fair trade for the "right" to be oppression-free?)

too bad for fair trade. you've just become one more nail's worth of irrelevant.

now, anyone in possession wanna make me less irrelevant and score me a bag of any of these?

exploding trees

so i'm enjoying a cup of sumatra mandheling right now--brewed out of a french press, mind you--and i get the overwhelming, no, scratch that, the pervasive, no, not the right word either, the very present feel of cedar in the cup. sure, it has the usual muskiness and syrupy body i expect from a classic mandheling. but over the past three years i have been noticing this cedar-like streak and now i can't seem to shake it. it's like when you cup to the name: you know a classic sidamo profile is going to display lemony citrus. you know a chiapas or oaxaca will typically be way bright and lilting. so you head to the cupping table with your preconceived notions and cup to those expectations. this is both good and bad, in my opinion. good, because after a while you develop an easier vocabulary arsenal that is categorized and more easily retrievable in your mind. you know the major profiles from major regions. bad, because it ebbs away at the element of surprise and pigeonholes maybe some underdog coffees that are just waiting to be discovered. the more categorized the regions' flavor profiles are the more i tend to feel like a big coffee company's palate instead of a punk rock palate that truly gives the stage to let the coffee speak for itself, even the tiny plots on one side of one ridge of one farm that have amazingly different characteristics than the rest of the farm, neighboring farms or region. the end result of cupping to the name is putting out big barrels of coffee with generic "ETHIOPIA," "COLOMBIA," "SUMATRA," and "GUATEMALA" on them. or, easier, i can just write "EARTH" on them all!

i've noticed that since i've begun doing formal cuppings (you know, spoons, spit catchers, cupping bowls and the like) i've been more surprised than i would like to think i should be in terms of finding what could be termed as 'rebel' flavor notes--those you wouldn't expect from a typical region's offerings. i want to come to the table feeling like i know what to expect. but i realize that too much of that closes my mind and my palate to what the coffee is really trying to tell me. so i suspend those notions garnered along the well-worn paths and instead i get a kenya that shows deep plum and leather, a costa rica that displays mangos, papaya, even pineapple, or a sulawesi that suggests dried bananas and dried apples. and the end result is i like this way better. i can still keep my old prejudices but i'm open to newer ideas. i wonder if that could be considered a suspension of disbelief or an opening to new ones.

even the idea that a classic sumatra tastes like i'm licking the inside of my humidor's cedar walls.

it has been pointed out to me

that perhaps the reason i vote for the french press over all comers is because then i might have to change the name of my blog. nonsense. i can just rewrite the actual new name in sharpie over the old one on all the mugs, t-shirts, pencils, pajamas and undies i've just gotten back from the printers.

(that's a joke. there are no coffee press undies for sale.)

Tuesday, May 30, 2006

what are the costs/benefits?

i've been thinking about the economics of coffee production. trying to figure out whether a machine like the clover would be worth my coins. here are some of the things people have said about it:

it's unbelievable.

it's amazing.

it's the best thing to happen to coffee since, oh, ever.

it's the espresso machine of coffee and will cause the barista to need skills to adjust and work with it.


now that's the hype. let's talk about the economics of the machine. for $8000, what are you really getting? an h.d. holographic wificasting plasma t.v. (no such thing, of course, but go with me), or a bigger t.v. remote that has a "125" button so you don't have to press "1, 2, 5"?

and since i enjoyed the comparisons between the french press and the aeropress in some earlier posts, i figured why not swing the pendulum the (way!) other direction and compare the press to what is being marketed as the ultra high end of coffee preparation in the clover.

with so many clover dollars on the line it almost has to come down to a cost/benefit analysis. but first, a couple disclaimers. off the bat i should say that i have never used a clover, never tasted a clover cup, never seen a clover in person. (thank you, texas, for being coffee's geographic equivalent of tattooine.) second, i should note that the reason i am in this uninformed position is because the folks up there at clover have evidently been too distracted by such "major" events as "world barista championships" and "sleeping" and "eating" to bother to return any of my phone calls to ship out a free demo machine to said center of the coffee galaxy, namely, my house. [i make joke. me no askee clover persons for demo machine.] thirdly, and maybe lastly, i haven't thought this through exhaustively. you can think of this post along the lines of talk radio hosts, who come up with these outrageous positions on anything from jfk conspiracies to going cold turkey being good for the e.u's future economic expansion eastward just to get the phone lines filled up.

enough. on with the post.

what are the factors? everything here has to be compared to how clover would stand up versus its next "overall best" competitor. i say "overall best" because each of the major brewing systems present their own upsides and drawbacks. you have to choose one to best represent the competition. and because, to my mind, taste is king, we have to go with the coffee press. (though some would argue for vac pot; some for pour over; and so forth. not the point. just go with me.)

okay, yes, factors. cost per cup. time per cup brewed. generally expected lifetime of equipment. coolness factor. reliability of equipment (especially worthy of consideration in high volume coffee locations, versus high volume espresso locations and also because of their devastation to your operation if one goes down). is the clover necessary? indispensible? merely helpful? a good prop to have on the back counter to impress your friends? hopefully this smattering of factors can represent the lion's share for an accurate comparison.

if your initial price tag is $8000 how many cups do you have to sell at, say, $1.50, to even pay off the thing? or is that it? do you have to start charging $2 now? $2.50? just for a baseline, i'll use some numbers from my old sbux store. we averaged barely 17 uph on the "drip coffee" line. so on 100 transactions, only 17 actual units were coffee. compare that to some days when my espresso uph (any espresso beverage) was into the mid 90's and on some extra-hectic days during holiday season could peak up over 100. so let's say a generous 20 uph on 5000 transactions/week. if my calculations are correct (remember me hating math in school?) that's roughly $1500/week gross. at a stellar 50% flow through percentage it's about three months to pay the thing off. okay, not bad. not bad at all, assuming those killer numbers i posited. there again, using those figures, how much quicker would you have paid off your arsenal of presses and airpots (think stumptown) and been riding the gravy train?

time is definitely a big win for clover versus a press. less than one minute versus about four? total prep time from a dead start has got to be maybe an additional minute (pulling the beans, grinding, prepping them, cleanup).

lifetime of equipment? who knows with clover. already it's gotten an upgrade. not because of deficiencies, i don't think. just improvements on the design. if you've got the bucks to drop on a first gen clover how long will it likely be before you start getting upgrade lust? not long, i trow. compare to the press. the press wins. get yourself a classic press design and you're in business for a long, long time. i think of bodum's chambord line or the cafe paris design. uber classic. uber chic. uber sophisticate. and, relative to the electric coffee box named for a weed, uber cheap.

you gotta hand it to the folks up there at clover hq. they pretty much got 'em right where they want 'em in terms of fans and buyers. even at that price, they are probably picking up enough sales to keep them in caviar and dom perignon. is it marketing? is this new product deemed indispensible by those in the know? or is it just the must have new toy that will eventually be just like the eight track or the cassette player or the home camcorder that you had to have someone help you strap onto your back like you were atlas?

can you be "old school" and still use a clover? (is that a stupid, irrelevant question?)

seriously, is it really that much cooler? better? evidently, these will only ever be rhetorical questions, as my pleas for a free machine have fallen on deaf ears. the nerve.

the phone lines are starting to come alive. discuss.

Thursday, May 25, 2006

do or die

munali coffee's waiting queue of truth, mazabuka, zambia[hat tip: alistair durie and vancouver's elysian room

on spying

i feel like spitting on the sidewalk. remember that? i think it's from an old spook movie, where one older, seasoned spy is showing his newer counterpart the ropes of following and being followed by, well, more spooks. "spit on the sidewalk," he says. when you're being followed and you know you're being followed, a spit on the sidewalk lets the other guy know you know he's following you.

actually, it may be more appropriate to say i would get a good chuckle if one of the baristas here at the place i'm sitting would spit on the floor, or in the drinks they're making, as a clue to me that they're privy to my prying eyes. spying is a fun business. i was thinking about it not long ago because of a thread running through one of my favorite forums. talking about the morality of spying, whether to introduce oneself, if spying is the game, how to go about doing it, how spying annoys the heck out of the spied upon, clumsy oafs who spy dumbly, etc.

anyways, i just got me thinking about that stuff as i'm sitting here "spying" (sort of) in a new, local mcfranchise chain establishment.

now, to be sure, and at risk of sounding overly and unduly full of myself, there's not much here i'm going to "learn" that i didn't know already. that's not the point of my spying. i'm listening as much as looking, getting a feel for the knowledge level of the baristas, the general sounds of the place and the coffee i.q. of the customer base. in fact, i'm getting a little chuckle out of some of the barista-customer interactions i'm overhearing:

customer: i'll take a very large--what is that? 32 ounces?--cafe au lait, please.

barista: [blank stare]

c: ever been to new orleans?

b: uh, no.

c: well, at the cafe du monde in the french quarter they serve cafe au lait's all the time.

b: oh. cool.

c: yeah, they put chicory in 'em.

b: what hurts??

c: chicory. ever heard of that?

b: uh, no. well, maybe. we sell chai.

c: what hurts??

b: chai. it's, uh, this flavor we put in our drinks. see? here's the bottle. we just put like nine pumps of this stuff in any of our drinks. it's really good.

c: what's it like?

b: well, it's very unique. it's kind of a sweet flavor with, er, well, here. the label says: cloves, high fructose corn syrup, essence of...

c: well, that's okay. i get the picture. hey, maybe you can add some to my coffee.

b: yeah, sure. oh that sounds tasty.

c: [sipping his cafe au chailait] yes, very much.

b: you like?

c: well, er, it, uh, has a different taste to it, doesn't it?

b: oh yeah, you can add it to anything.

c: right. it kinda changes the overall feel of the cafe au lait. and it sort of changes flavor with each sip.

b: maybe i should've stirred it.

c: [looking slightly let down by the experience of bottled chai syrup] well, alright.

b: well, hey, if you don't like it i can make you a different something with chai in it.

c: how 'bout just another cafe au lait without chai?

b: [confused look at the prospect of customer not immediately warming up to chai syrup] uh, sure. yeah, okay.

...and so forth. certainly not high crimes and misdemeanors. but not exactly winning any awards for enlightened service experiences. just another spring-up-out-of-nowhere-coffeehouse-blowup-kit-now-serving-"coffee."

which gets me thinking. there are essentially two kinds of coffee establishments: sbux wannabe's and antisbux reactionaries. the former look at big green, spy maybe, for a bit, and then posit, "i can do that. let's be just like 'em." only they're not. they're bad knockoffs of an increasingly sterile multinational chain. the latter says, "we want to be as different from you-know-who as we can be," and sets about being (sometimes militantly) radically different, complete with duct taped sofas, cobwebs in every corner and cheese caked up on the steam wands. different, indeed. call it local flavor.

well, maybe there are three kinds. there are those who are indifferent to big green, either by choice or out of ignorance--i.e., they either understand the game and don't live within the circle of influence of the siren's call, living and moving and having their being on their own terms, or else they live in east chapippee and have no sbux and no prospect of getting one any time soon. the first portion of this third group is where all the fun is, in my opinion. i won't go into all of those types of details, since if you're reading this you already know me personally and have heard the sermons, or you know the game better than i do.

my point with all this is that i'm just having fun sitting in this window facing the road, counting cars at 6:45am (well, it's now a little later than that), because i'm meeting with a landlord for a place right across the street and i'm just doing due diligence on the prospects. the traffic is there. and here at 9:30am the folks are in here. there are some 15 people in here sitting with drinks, papers, notebooks (like me), etc. if you build it, they will come, is i guess the mantra to keep reciting. and the person who seems like the franchisee keeps walking by, wondering, i'm sure, why i'm continuously gazing out the window, quietly tapping the "1" button on my computer. i've already got my line worked out: "i'm not spying on you and counting cars here...i'm a computer programmer. these are digital ones and zeros of the code i'm writing. so far, no zeros in the code."

actually, a more fun response might be: "hi, i'm aaron. i'm counting cars from your place because i'm thinking of opening a spot over there across the street that would be your main competitor and, hopefully, suck out the marrow of your current business flow."

hey, at least i'm buying drinks every half hour or so, paying for my spot.

i'll keep you posted on how it all goes down. meantime, maybe i should get a spitoon for all the times i've spit on the floor here.

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

motion trumps sound

remember the glory of seeing your favorite rock and roll band perform live for the first time? remember saying to yourself, "man, these guys rock live. it's such a greater overall experience to actually see them play than to just hear them play."?

remember that?

well, bearing in mind that, as i said in my last post, a critic loves to give directions when he has neither the inclination nor capacity to take the wheel, i am crying out for someone to post some video of the recently concluded world barista championships so i can link to it for the benefit of all my world of (four) readers. hearing the audio of it posted over at portafilter (because, you know, nick, [chuckle] you're all about "low smarts" stuff like mind-blowing baristas in action) just whet my appetite to see these brilliant folks do their thing second hand via the glory of the internet that al gore created.

anyways, let me add my humble and meek voice to the other humble and meek requests for video to get thrown on the net. anyone who's seen it posted somewhere, please inform.

Monday, May 22, 2006

casting pods before swine

calling out for more podcasting. you know, the first couple podcasts i ever listened to were on coffee. i can recall thinking to myself, "self, this is boring. why would i want to listen to some dude(s) giving up their opinions for an hour?" it felt as if the podcast people were almost struggling to find stuff to fill a respectable amount of time for a podcast.

there are two major podcasters (podcastors?) out there today: the portafilter podcast, hosted by nick cho and sometimes attended by jay caragay, and the coffeegeek podcast, hosted by mark prince. some people categorize the two as one for novices, one for more advanced listeners. this is a fairly accurate assesment but doesn't quite encapsulate it in the opinion of this humble blogger. i would tend to say that while one podcast focuses more on movements, equipment and trends in the industry, the other is more personcentric: who's doing what, what they said about it and what the response is. which brings to my mind the saying i remember hearing many years ago that was something to the effect of measuring levels of sophistication and intelligence. people of high intelligence talk about ideas, concepts and macrotrends. people of midling intellect will focus more on things, events and the moving parts thus associated. people of low smarts talk about...other people.

this post is not to cast aspersions on anyone or to rank one coffee podcast higher than the other, for everyone knows that a critic is one who knows the way but can't or won't drive the car. i'm simply putting out there that, as i scour each's site for podcasted info on the recently completed world barista championships i am looking for solid analysis, an eye toward the overarching themes associated with the event and what some of the best and brightest have to say about it. the event itself is not the news. what does the event mean in the larger context of our industry? having not been there to witness it i can only depend on the good graces of our aforementioned podcast people to bring their global listeners into the event with insightful commentary and spot on evaluations and interviews.

one of the two has already posted podcasts. the other is likely waiting to get home, edit and then display the final product. there are merits to both. one will give you the news hot off the press in the moment (i am reminded that in journalism and reporting a first newstory of an event is almost always incorrect...not that that applies to podcasting). the other will (hopefully) provide more of a wide angle view of the event and make it absorbable (?) to a wide audience.

it's not a showdown. it's a loose collaboration that serves our coffee community well and i hope even more people pick up the mantle and try their hand at quality podcasting. the more expert opinions we hear, the better. so far the americans and the canadians are represented. how about some aussies, brits and any/all scandanavians?

let's see it, folks.

Saturday, May 20, 2006


final score: french press: 1, aeropress: nil. this will serve as an adendum review to my earlier post about the aeropress, a sort of "now that some time has passed and i've had more time to tinker" post. while i like the idea of the aeropress over a traditional press in several respects--relative cleanliness, easier cleanup, the fact that it vaguely reminds me of a breast milk pump, etc.--i think for my money i would still rather have a good ol' french over the aero. even though the french provides not nearly the wiggle room for experimentation as does the aero (ever try to press a french down when the grind's too fine?). even though the french can take more than four times the amount of time than the aero. maybe the aero just seems to have too many parts to keep track of: the filters, the stir stick, coordinating the numbers on the coffee part and the water part. maybe the french just seems far and away to carry so much more panache than the utilitarian aero. even though we americans are not really talking to the french as much these days (can we rename it a "freedom press?") i think they had it figured out.

style points go to the french. you just look flat out cooler pressing and drinking from a french press versus an aero, which i wouldn't bring to table to impress anyone. and they ain't no fancypants restaurants gon' be usin' no aero no time soon neither.

ease of use goes to the french--is it just me or do others find themselves nigh unto standing on the aero to try to squish out every last millileter of liquid from the aero? i get nervous the mug is going to violently slip off the kitchen counter and hit my son or daughter on the head or something.

cleanup on the aero noses out the french, although bloom in the aero is a real factor and you are essentially relegated to using only enough coffee to fill the "1" or "2" spots without massively overflowing the contraption.

and then there's the result in the cup. yes, i give major points to the aero for bringing out stuff i might have never noticed if i stuck with the french. but if one has access to a decent prosumer espresso machine those crazy notes will show up in the demitasse just as they would from the my contention, anyways; i haven't run the aero side by side with a prosumer espresso machine.

i kind of feel like the product put out by the aero presents a phenomenon i've experienced before when cupping coffees i don't particularly care for. i remember cupping my first papua new guinea some years ago working for starbucks. it was a limited time offering and, as was usually the case in my store, we broke open the case within minutes of it arriving off the delivery truck and fired up the presses (french, not aero). (those were the days--what a crew of coffee hounds i used to's no wonder we sold nearly 200 lbs of retail coffee a week at my old store.)

anyways, i remember smelling/tasting the herbally, grassy tartness that png's can sometimes present and not really being a fan. everyone else standing there was fake gagging, expressing blind reactionary discontent. and then it hit me. i appreciate this coffee. i don't necessarily like it. i won't crave it. but i can appreciate it as an experience-building coffee and for what it is--a different take on coffee than i'm generally used to. i had come to terms with it.

and that's my final analysis of the aeropress. what it presents, what it represents, is a departure from the usual because of the notes it tends to accentuate in the cup. but it begins to feel more like smoke and mirrors after a while, as it tends to pull up more of the bass and lower baritone feelings in a coffee--perhaps--at the expense of the higher trebles. after a while it starts to feel more like a sideshow departure than the arrival of the main event.

my (cyber) acquaintence mark seems to feel the aero can rival the clover, all parameters being set as nearly identical as they can. i a certain, infield extent. but maybe his view on that comes as a result of some stuff i've heard him say on some of his podcasts: that he feels the clover tends to precisely leave out the lower end notes of body and syrup and instead push the higher signatures to the fore. (to be fair, mark also podcasted that he did have some clover cups done well that seemed to bring that more into balance. but given the total number of solidly balanced cups he's had relative to its price tag it wouldn't seem to be--at this point--worth the investment. i still wouldn't know. those guys at clover still won't return my voicemails requesting my free demo machine.)

i digress. i don't believe the aero signals a sea change in how coffee will be made and consumed at the top of the pyramid of this industry. surely, it will always have its supporters; but for my money, i believe i'd still rather press a frenchie than an aerobie. does that mean i'm going to ebay off my aero? certainly not. in fact, i'm drinking a cup of aero coffee right now (a 60/40 city+ roasted harar and full city roasted sumatra...quite interesting, actually). i'm merely saying the search will go on for me for the perfect cup.

...which is how it should be, isn't it?

Monday, May 15, 2006

old adages are just that

"if it is going to is up to me."

sounds like the title of a self-help bestseller, doesn't it? actually, it may be. but i first heard it coming from the mouth of jim alling, senior vice president of this-or-that for starbucks coffee company. now, i don't know if they pay mister alling those six figures to come up with pithy one-liners to keep the rank and file managers reaching for the stars, or if he brings it along with him for free as part of the package, or if he is, in fact, lifting said one-liner from the end of an episode of oprah. no matter, it stuck in my mind. and i can remember when and where he said it. and i remind myself of that saying in times such as now when i am trying like a dog to put some legs on brown and get it to fly (consider that visual!).

i've been talking with a friend who has expressed an interest in brown's success in terms of possibly giving brown a funding boost and maybe even open a retail space. while i'm generally a cautious fellow when it comes to such possibilities, i have really taken a shine to the idea, since i do have cafe management experience with said large, multinational coffee chain, and i do think i have something to offer that would be rare in the central/south texas scene. so over the last couplethree months he and i have been swinging our attention toward making such a space a reality. and i have been letting the wholesaling side of the business--the only side there currently is and the only side that is bringing me any income--slide a little bit. well, as you might could guess, things don't always pan out the way one dreams, envisions, expects, hopes; and the retail adventure is still sort of in a nebulous state of affairs.

and so i am left with dwindling resources with which to live and the prospect of needing to make a living off of brown because the good Lord knows i ain't goin' back to no caffeinated green mermaid (i know, i know: she's a siren, not a mermaid).

if it's going to be, it's up to me.

so i am resolved to do two things. first, visit at least one potential client every other day in the hopes of garnering one new account a week over the next ten weeks. two, continue to explore possibilities for a retail space but NOT to do so at the expense of the only revenue stream i currently have. which reminds me of another old saying...

"oatmeal is better than nomeal."

thus, my life.

UPDATE: success. a potential client i had kind of been grooming for a few weeks has come on board. and i'm very, very happy because this guy's place would be perfect for the kind of high end stuff i love to do. he's agreed to carry three of my coffees: one will be kind of the utility coffee that can do double or triple duty on a number of desserts. i'm thinking a guatemala or colombia. solid but not flashy. the other will be more of a "rock star" the kind that knock your block over at the cupping table and that would be a real eye opener paired with the right desserts. i have that harar horse lot or kenya peaberry in mind. (check out some of his desserts and tell me they wouldn't pair well with the citrusy components of an east african coffee.) the third coffee will be my single origin espresso from brazil. they don't do a ton of espresso beverages. mostly just shots for espresso martinis. but heck. it'll be one delicious shot in that martini.

so i'm pumped. one down. nine to go.


so this weekend the world's best baristas will be competing in berne, switzerland, for the world barista championships. while i don't have a dog in that hunt, it would still be amazing to be there to see it, as well as to network and build relationships with people of interest in this industry.

problem: i can't justify the cost just to meet cool people and possibly make some business connections. i guess i could snag some floor space with some folks if necessary. so basically food and travel. but i just can afford it. so oh well. i'll just have to listen to the podcasts and read the commentary after the fact.

Thursday, May 11, 2006

defects, quakers, character and complex cocoa in the cup

i remember seeing a sweet kool-aid flavor once, where the dry kool-aid was one color (i think blue) but when added to water turns another (red). my friend quipped, "somewhere, a chemist is proud of himself." (and a prescient thought, coming from the man who now holds a doctorate in chemistry himself.)

i felt a tiny bit like that today with an experiment i ran on one of my favorite coffees: ethiopia harar. yes, the legendary horse lot, with all its wild and untamed, unpredictable beauty. i just received my order and was eager to roast up a sample and cup it, along with two other selections i added to my lineup: a guatemala from the fraijanes district and a fabulous looking kenya peaberry, all new crops. the mouth is watering just thinking about them.

but i digress. i knew what to expect from both the guat and the kenya. they both would roast very evenly. (i usually take notes on the percentage of "consistency" each batch of beans has. greater percentages can indicate better quality beans, or the fact that the beans may come from a very small number of farms or that the farms may be very near each other. and just the opposite may also be true: inconsistent beans in the roast can be the manifestation of myriad smallholder offerings being lumped into one lot. not saying that's always the case; but it's something to consider. i also consider the fact that i could just suck at roasting consistently.)

again, a digression. i was looking forward to very consistent roasts from guat and kenya; while the greens from ethiopia were typical broken chippers, irregularly whithered and mottled looking--but not, i hasten to add, showing signs of pests. as i've mentioned in previous posts, i enjoy the character imparted by such irregular beans versus the brilliant and boring centrals. and harar has to be one of my perennial favorite coffees, bearing in mind that flavor counts more than appearance to my mind. (at this point, every serious cupper and buyer surfs to another website.) i just enjoy the mystique of harar, is all, even if i didn't know what to expect in the roast.

and of course, the unexpected showed up. as i dropped the harar i think i may have audibly gasped in curious wonderment, for there in the cooling tray was the most inordinate number of quakers i had ever seen. granted, my history as a roaster is not extensive. but i would hazard that this was an atypical amount of unripe beans in this lot. and seeing what looked like an unintended melange roast/blend there in the cooling tray, i had a cupping epiphany of sorts: "let's cup this tomorrow both ways, one set of cups with the quakers in the mix, one without."

that was yesterday. fast forward to today for my cupping results. i had already worked my way through the guatemala a little bit earlier (very interesting cup--dried tropical fruits like pineapple and papaya, fruity but not juicy, with an unusually crisp and dry i think back on it even now i might characterize it like a good german riesling). kenya would be last because of its tendency to overpower a cupping table. before me lay the harar. so i set out my cups and began to do my experiment. for the first set of cups i scooped, weighed, ground and portioned the harar normally. the second set of cups took more time because i painstakingly separated all the quakers i could from the rest.

without all the rest of the mundane details, here were the results, which were not what i would've expected. the non-quakered harar presented the typical blueberry, cherry wine, rich blackberry notes as per usual. but the quakered harar actually gave an added dimension of cocoa or baking chocolate on the low end. complexity in the cup created by the quakers. go figure. the difference was night and day. even my father readily noticed it as i beckoned him to taste the two. quakered harar acted almost like a mocha-java blend with a fuller range of flavors.

i've never tasted/tested for quakers before. this experiment was eye-opening. do i have a favorite of the two? yes. but i'm not telling which.

what do you think of 'defective' coffees like harar versus more technically well-constructed coffees? are the defects worth it for interesting cups?

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

first blush--aeropress

so i've been hearing about this aeropress gadget around the web. it's quietly raising eyebrows and quietly getting reviews on prominent coffee sites by folks who hold the power to launch it right. i say quietly because, as basically a couple pieces of glorified plastic and rubber, maybe the powers that be don't want to admit that it is, all things considered, a decent coffee producer and a heck of a bargain. so what did i do? i went out and ordered one online. it arrived today, along with some other coffee stuff and i sent the kids outside to play for a the 93F texas heat.

i'm one of those kinds of people who learns with a split mix of visual and kinetic learning. meaning, if there's a manual for a new product i have to read the entire thing first, then go through a mock dry run using the equipment while following the manual, then go for the real thing. so when the aeropress arrived i quickly shuffled away the packing peanuts, ripped open the box, laid out all the pieces and the manual and commenced inventorying and reading.

first, the "manual" is hardly that. it's one sheet of thick paper. second, it's a snap to read with clear instructions and even some helpful best practice tips thrown in for good measure. third, well, i don't think there is a third, but since three is a Godly number and a number of completion, i'll say that the manual was written by english speakers, for english speakers.

now, a quick side note. as thompson owen of sweet maria's says on his website the packaging is just plain embarrassing. as in, embarrassing for the manufacturer, embarrassing for coffee professionals, maybe even for your average discerning, thoughtful consumer. the first thing i noticed about the packaging was its claims to create espresso. false. and dumb. espresso is way, way more than just concentrated coffee. it's, well, er, --okay, let's leave the metrics of espresso for its own someday post. suffice to say, i almost expected to see an "as seen on tv" sticker somewhere on the large-firecracker-like box.

no matter. i had bigger fish to fry. i quickly walk over to my pantry to select a coffee for this experiment. i had roasted some beans for an account and had miscalculated the overages and found myself with several half pounds of about four different coffees. after deciding against a central because i thought it might be too boring (see one of my posts below) i narrowed it down to an african and an indonesian and finally decided on a decaf (wp) kenya. i know, i know: decaf? but i take extra special care sourcing/sampling decafs i carry because i don't like for them to lose a step to their caffeinated cousin. and i figured what better coffee to really pull out clarity notes from using this contraption than a kenya?

so i fired up the ol' kettle with some water, ground more kenya on the ol' mahlkonig than i needed (in case i wanted to do several tests) and made double sure i had all the parts i needed laid out sequentially.

now, here's the part that most flies in the face of tradition. not only does this contraption claim a very short brew cycle--they say start to finish is under a minute--they also claim, controversially and, to my mind, incorrectly, that the proper extraction temp is between 165-175F. i recall in my days with big green leading a workshop for a bunch of fellow starbuckians (coffee masters) where one of the exercises we pulled from the coffee and tea manual was to brew two presses of coffee, one at normal temp, around 195-200F and one at just ten degrees below that, at 185F. i picked, again, kenya because, one, i'm a sucker for kenya's bright but caramelized grapefruit and two because, well, any notes in the cup are going to be most exaggerated coming from a kenya. what did we find? you guessed it: tepid tasting, dull and lifeless swill in the cooler press versus alive, crisp and juicily tart kenya in the hotter one.

thus, my skepticism on aeropress's cooler temp. how could you possibly extract more from less, and in less time? one would think you would need either higher temp or longer time (or a little of both) to pull out all the chemical compounds, acidity and fullness from the coffee. and to top it off, aeropress uses a filter to trap some of the rich, silt-like sediment we've all come to know and love.

anyways, my water heated too hot so there i sat, therm in cup, waiting for some to cool before putting it in the water chamber and then into the coffee. waiting. waiting. man, i'd better not be waiting so long for sucky coffee. finally the appropriate temp arrived and away i went.

one other thing i found in two trial runs that i didn't care for was the inability of the water to easily penetrate the bottom of the grounds without the help of the stir stick. this leads, in my opinion, to unevenly extracted grounds, especially with a steep time of less then a minute. i stuck that thing down there and was a little upset to feel the crunching of dried grounds at the bottom. but stir i did and then i placed the suction chamber on top and began to press as instructed.

let's just say i was a little underwhelmed with the results as they appeared in the cup. but, remembering the old adage to never cup with your eyes, i proceeded. of course, i had to taste this straight shot first, to see for myself what the manufacturer was claiming was delicious "espresso." i think my choice of kenya helped me and helped the manufacturer. me, because i noticed what others have said about it: lots of clarity and those characteristic kenya notes came bursting through the cup. the manufacturer, because if it hadn't been such an extraordinary berry burst of a kenya i probably would've been gauging it against true espresso instead of merely thinking of it as an extra strength african. i proceeded to add water and...oops. i added maybe a bit too much. or maybe not. after tasting the concentrate, i honestly couldn't tell.

for my second run i decided to up the ante from a "1" shot to a "4" shot. why not see the full run? this time i was dead certain there was something wrong about the water not penetrating the grinds, especially since there were so many more grinds to penetrate and only by risking spillage over the side during stirring several times was i able to mix water and coffee adequately. the "4" pull, oddly, didn't seem to extract all that much more than the "1" leaving me to wonder whether i had done something wrong ("crap. i misread the one page manual") but adding an appropriate amount of water yielded a surprisingly decent cup.

now on to some likes/dislikes about this device. one. cleanup is a snap, as advertised. you need little more than water, mild soap and a paper towel and sometimes not even the soap. second, i actually really enjoyed the flavors that came out of the cup. while i'm still rolling my eyes at the manual's/box's claims of the richest, smoothest, most delicious coffee and espresso you've ever tasted in your whole entire life, the end result was better than i had feared and almost as good as i had anticipated. i do think i want to continue tweaking, though, and i'll probably start first by raising the temp to closer to normal ranges. maybe they know the average consumer won't be able to tell the difference of lost high notes that may come out with the coffee exposed to higher temps. but i'm not average. i'm nerdy on coffee. so i'll make my own adjustments and recommendations, thank you very much.

another item in the like department is the step by step instructions and how well they correlate to the actual product. this, coupled with very strong ease of use design elements incorporated onto the product itself, is a big win. maybe even my mom will take to using a coffee device the prescribed way. okay, maybe not. but she could relatively easily, is my point. (sorry mom. must be a left-handed thing.) and the price is right. for just under $30 it was worth the price of admission and certainly better than any so-named, so-priced espresso machine one might find on the aisles of wal-mart.

dislikes? i think i've pretty much spelled them out above. silly marketing/packaging. unecessary claims to coffee messiah-hood. my personal hangups about steeping time/temp.

i heard someone say the aeropress could be the $30 answer to clover. having not tasted the fruits of said clover i can't judge. but i respect the person who made the claim and i'm sure it's worthy of investigation. (so if clover equipment co. wants to send me a demo machine i'll be happy to blog about it to my one, two, maybe three readers.)

clover for the masses or not, i had fun using the device and i will use it again and show it to all my coffee friends. who knows, but with some tweaking this could become my prefered least for my morning cup and at least until my demo clover arrives.

Saturday, May 06, 2006

the scaa and all its conceits

so as a newer business one of the concerns brown faces is the issue of trade memberships and associations. governing bodies, accountabilities and so forth are a good thing for a business. and in this industry the specialty coffee association of america (scaa) is that trade membership. so i've been considering joining them.

the pros: some modicum of standardization. some semblance of accountability. some slight recognition by the general public of scaa membership as a good thing to see in the front door window. the softer benefits of networking and knowledge sharing.

the cons: politics. attitudes. irrelevance. not a good value for the softer benefits.

because the pros should be largely self evident let me take a crack at explaining some of the cons. i've been watching the scaa for about five years, well before i was in business as an independent in this industry. i've looked at it much in the past through economic eyes: will spending these several hundred bucks be worth it to me as a small independent? will i get anything tangible out of it in terms of more business generated, more customers, greater exposure in the community? the more i sit with the proposition, however, i realize that economics is a poor gauge of it, not least of which because if i focus the lens at simply the pocketbook it will indeed not be a good value. about the only value it gives the independent is a discount to their annual trade show. customers don't generally express greater confidence in one place with an proverbial sticker in their window versus one across the street without the sticker. one can produce excellence in coffee without the fees to the scaa, is basically my point there. and listening to others talk about it, having the scaa in your corner doesn't exactly pay for itself in terms of post-scaa membership customers blazing a path to your door.

so then what are you left with? you've paid several hundred dollars to some organization and expect you'll maybe at the very least get tools, forums, workshops, maybe a dash of tech support, advice and the like along the way. nada. well, not nada. you have to pay for it by going to the trade show. so now you've paid for the little window sticker and then you pay some more to get into the trade show to access the workshops and panels (which is where people--"experts"-- who know way, way more than you could ever possibly expect to know and are cooler and better looking and just way more important than you sitting in the audience) and you get...platitudes. generalizations and caveats that this formula or that may not work for everyone. anecdotes and war stories, if you will. "great. i paid for this?" now granted, one is certain to glean a good bit if info from cruising the workshop circuit. but the real benefit is walking the vendor exhibits, in meeting equipment makers, in chatting with other industry co-workers. but you don't get that unless you pay at least once and maybe twice--once for membership, once for the show. (for the record, you can go to the show without being a member.)

unless...unless you seek out a place where those people are willing to interact and listen as well as share and ideas can be bandied about in a free exchange. given such a forum, what would be the purpose of paying to get that? why buy the proverbial cow if you can get the milk for free? it would seem, then, at least to my trogladyte thinking, that if the economic benefits are negligible relative to what can be procured online that from that perspective the best reason for an organization like the scaa to exist continue existing. dues are paid to keep the people in place who keep collecting dues. it's kind of like a caffeinated labor union, only with a labor union the labor boss can keep the members in line and get them all to vote certain ways and take certain actions for the good of the group. the scaa doesn't even have that power. so it exists to wield influence and create some baseline of standardization but doesn't. well, it does wield influence but not actionable influence, meaning its decisions and prognostications are non-binding among the proletariat.

so economically my dollars are better off in my pocket. but as i said above, economics may not be the proper lens through which to view a body like the scaa. any analysis of cost-benefit has to also include content and content relevance in terms of the generally expected aspiration of any business owner in this industry: to serve a better product and thereby create a more satisfying bottom line. but the product comes first. believe it or not, there are a good many folks out there for whom a quality product is a virtue in itself, not merely to swing a bigger buck. so because one could surmise that an organization such as the scaa, ostensibly, shares that goal it would be a safe bet that the scaa would plaster evidence of fielty to that goal all over its website and publications and send them freely to members and prospective members alike. it would be an outward manifestation of the organization's real relevance and value to the industry. one would guess that admission into the club would show you those things in even more depth: perhaps some way to brew better coffee, to increase traffic flow to your site, to flow a greater percentage of your controllables to the bottom line by reducing cogs, keeping markouts and shrink to a minimum, balancing net/net needs to one's actual ideal so that your labor line is maximized, etc. and also, you know, things like how to develop relationships with farmers in coffee producing countries; how to carry as small an environmental footprint as possible through reuse, recycling and reduction of resources (consider the alliteration); opinion and analysis of new industry products, techniques, trends and so forth. any evidence of that? well, not on the face of it--not on their website, anyways. but maybe if you pay.

ah, but there's the golden key. because, as some (perhaps in a desire to tote the party line or because they are knee-jerk reactionaries against those who ask questions) are almost aching to point out, the scaa is a "mutual benefit society." meaning, of course, if you benefit them with your hundreds of dollars every year, they will benefit you being a member and sharing everything you know with everyone else. and, of course, prospective members are free to inquire about the value of joining, so long as they're willing to accept "join it and you will understand the value of joining" as a legitimate rationale. really, it's absurd on its face.

how long will people continue to do that, to pay people to let you tell everyone what you know and listen to their opinions about their experiences that may or may not work for you, depending on your business situation? how long until people simply decide to shrug off the inefficient and largely unnecessary bureacracy and connect more organically? how long with they accept "join it and the value to you is the value you create by joining it?" (heck, i can create value among myself to myself all day long...there's nothing, some might say, i love more than the sound of my own voice!)

and how long will people tolerate what appears may be financial malfeasance? well, i won't go into that because i don't know much about it and honestly, couldn't care less as i have no dollars currently in the scaa and no future plans for it.

one might carry the expectation that those currently in the scaa would be interested in garnering new members by selling the public face of the scaa, putting it in a positive light and welcoming questions and concerns--even tough ones--with forthrightness and honesty. i must say that has not been my personal experience. and since i am a value unto myself i suppose i can take my dollars and keep them firmly in my bank account and allow the scaa to mutually benefit others. as far as i can guesstimate the quality of the coffee i source, roast and brew will be diminished not in the least.

and that, friends, is a value unto itself.

Friday, May 05, 2006


i was reading about utz kapeh today to edumacate myself and i ran across the common code for the coffee community, or, 4c's.

now, being ignorant of the 4c's up until about half an hour ago, i'm curious whether this movement is trying to position them to rival utz kapeh and fair trade, work alongside them, within their larger movements, or what.

of course, it looks halway presentable on the surface and hits all the right talking points. but then again, so does hillary clinton.

obviously, i'm for sustainability, traceability, equitable treatment and the like. but is this just another organization trying to do the same old thing instead of just joining forces with an organization that's already doing it well? will it muddy the chances of creating one unified chain of traceability and accountability?

again, i'm in the dark here and speaking rhetorically and out of ignorance. anyone know about this and can enlighten me?

Monday, May 01, 2006

pic of the day

oh spectacular. (hat tip: espressolab)

blogroll swelling

calling out for good coffee blogs. this is a rfp's (request for proposals) for high quality, regularly updated coffee or espresso blogs (as in, about as often as i update this site), from thoughtful folks who care. if you've just started a blog like this month, or if you think, for instance, that flavored coffees qualify as 'specialty coffee' then please don't bother.

as you can see, i've added a few to my links on the right. blogs or coffee sites i like. if i read your blog and like it i will definitely add it.

and if i've already added you, consider yourself serious.