Thursday, July 27, 2006

happy birthday, mom!

two things. one, you may notice i'm now bald in my profile pic. i decided to shave my head a few months ago when my father found out he had cancer and might lose his hair. call it a sympathy shave. (he has since all but licked his cancer and has all his hair back...too bad, says he, even little old ladies were starting to open the door for him.) i let mine grow back, too; but it is just so blazing hot down here in texas in the summer (so hot, indeed, that during the summer months, the devil rents out hell and moves here to stay warm) that i decided to go punk rawk and whittle it down again.

second, and more importantly than baldies, today is my mom's birthday, and in honor of that i am offering a free bag of the brown coffee company's coffee to anyone who asks. today and today only, so get it while the gettin's good. order via my email on my company website. my treat.

Saturday, July 22, 2006

the "any theory" as reality and guide

there's been a question floating around these corners of the ether these days about a philosophy of baristadom which could be coined the "any theory." its major proponent is one mister mark prince of coffeegeek, whose opinions i respect and who cares very much about the state of coffee and the barista community. (btw, mark, check your coffee kid email...maybe you'll come on here and discuss in an interview.) mark's general thesis is that a good, no, strike excellent barista should be able to walk up to any espresso machine and grinder with any coffee in it and within a few minutes should be able to reproduce the parameters of superior espresso.

mark seemed to ruffle not a few feathers with that flag he planted. there were many responses--some of them bordering on angry and even viscious--to the any theory, and some of them were voiced by leading figures within our community, though none come readily to mind.

most of the dissenters, though, seemed to want to pull out one or two minor aspects of the theory in an attempt to blow up the whole sha-bang. some of the most common refrains were along the lines of quality of water; freshness of coffee; quality of coffee; how well the machines were maintained, and so forth.

while this blogger definitely can incorporate those caveats into his mental processes (such as they are) as valid points, i tend to run back into the theory as an answer, believing that those caveats only underscore the importance of the statement originally made. the whole point, as i view it, is that the only truly sterile environment in which to produce 'formula one racing type espresso' (where no cost is spared in pursuit of performance) is the competition format, which even still is not a bubble. the huge most of us who work the espresso bar deal with other little chaos-injecting factors such as customers, other baristas on shift, humidity, tiredness on shifts, machines freaking out, and so on. baristas who can consistently reproduce greatness in the cup in quick order under such stressors are the ones who earn my votes as the best baristas around. i surmise that often that includes competition baristas...though i've never met one personally. just as often, however, i would hazard that some competition baristas are just that--able to shine in such laboratory situations, but who fall apart when the cracks start showing up due to the constant drip and pressure of a crushing line out the door for long stretches on end. what's your mettle? can you hit a baseball out of the park every time in batting practice only or how do you stand up when the ninth inning of game seven is here and you're up to bat with a two run deficit?

i remember an electric company's commercial back when i lived in california. it showed all these natural disasters occuring and what their people did during and after to help keep the juice flowing. the tagline said something like, "in a state where things break, we keep right on rolling." that's an apt parallel here. things break. life at the bar is untidy and often unpredictable. are you barista enough to roll with the punches and produce superior shots come what may?

granted, mark's theory is more hypothetical than everyday. most baristas aren't stepping up to foreign machines regularly and asked to be espresso superperson. but i should like to take that foundation of the any theory and apply it to a more common occurance i face much more regularly and i'm sure many of my industry colleagues do as well: how about any type of coffee maker as well? let's face it: you're an expert. you 'know everything' there is to know about coffee and likely espresso. you can geek out with the best of them. so...cast your mind with me if you will.

you're visiting your grandmother's home for a little visit, when, after dinner, grandma breaks out the phrase that you dread..."does anyone want coffee?" you know what's coming--a river of light brown swill that more resembles tea than anything you would touch. and because you can't bear that potential agony--both of having to drink the stuff and then of having to fake that it's palatable and then on top of that to have to lie about it to grandma--you jump up and shout, "i'll make it!"

so now you're faced with a real life quandry because you don't have access to anything that resembles specialty coffee (the stuff in that can has been around since God was a child), you're staring down a drip coffee machine that looks as though it hasn't had a bath in a coon's age, and for water you have the city's finest that comes right outta the tap. now what? where's your theory go now? you're expected to produce results.

now granted, the people over at grandma's probably aren't going to notice or complain if the stuff you give them doesn't hold a candle to what you're used to dealing with. but your own standards scarcely will allow you to live with yourself if you can pick up the glass carafe and see your shoes through the coffee you just brewed into it. you have to produce something good...for your own sanity's sake. any coffee? any machine?

i know that's a somewhat silly and aloof point to want to expound upon. but it's much more realistic than having a la marzocco GB-5 over at grandma's for you to toy with. and if you spurn the opportunity to make what amounts to much, much better coffee for everyone on that day because the conditions aren't just so or that you might not produce excellence, you are not a true coffee lover in my book. in that one very real sense, mark's any theory can be both reinforced and expanded. and the very best among us had best do our best to create the best we can with the less than best conditions we're faced with at grandma's...and on the job behind the bar. that's the true essence of the any theory and for those reasons i agree wholeheartedly with the any theory. life is imperfect. adjust and prosper.


Tuesday, July 18, 2006


do you ever wonder where people get their lingo? in our industry, people bandy about terms that sound so hip, so in the know and sometimes they are actually pretty silly sounding when you stop to think about them.

here's one of my favorites: origin. people talk traveling to coffee producing countries as though they were mecca: "have you ever been to origin?" as though "origin" were one place. as though it were some sort of singular experience. i for one don't like to use that term. it seems to me to be sort of condescending toward the folks who live and work around the process of growing and exporting coffee. a phrase "the people in origin" (which i don't think i've heard anyone ever use, but still...) just feels like some sort of white man's burden toward the struggling third world. i have never really adopted that term and i don't intend to ever use it. i think i will speak of them as coffee producing countries, regions, people, not just lump them into the bland, "origin."

another one i hear is "single-origin" to define coffees from one country. but this is equally obfuscating since a country can be as hazy a definition as a blend. many coffee purveyors are content to slap on a country name and call it swell. "this is our tanzania. there is our peru." this is untenable, i believe, in our evolving and sophisticating industry. for one, some countries cover a large geographical swath; others have unbelievably varied climates and microclimates that make country designations near meaningless. does this take us in the direction of refining definitions further down to the micro level? in the vein of jonathan swift, i have a modest proposal of my own on reidentifying the term, "single-origin."

sf: single farm
sc: single co-op
sr: single region (could be a co-op or less well defined group)
ss: single slope on a particular farm
se x-y: single elevation range between x and y

etcetera... it sounds obtuse, doesn't it? but hey, those of us who really geek out about a, ahem, single origin espresso shot should be game to take the game just a little bit further, to run just that much farther down the rabbit hole. i'm certain farmers "in origin" classify and designate their coffees thusly. (i seem to recall hearing tell how one farm keeps track and cups separately coffees from different parts of their farm: north slope versus south; 1500m versus 1800+m; pulped natural versus wet processed, and so forth. copious notes taken on all of those quantifiers ostensibly helps them produce the best product they can. why should we be the flippant and weak link in that chain by simply settling for "single-origin" designators?

just a thought.

Monday, July 17, 2006

crossing the pond for the scoop, part two

[this is part two of my interview with stephen leighton, founder of has bean coffee in the u.k. if you're reading this first, stop, drop and roll your way down a bit to the first part, first.]

describe an embarrassing coffee moment.

I guess the most recent (I do embarrassing things all the time ;) )is my appearance on, WOW does my voice sound camp.

I recently got to meet a hero of mine. His name is Gabriel and he is the owner and manager of my favourite farm called Fazenda Cachoeira, and truly changed my world the first time I tried it, and was the coffee that introduced me to Mercanta. Well when I meet him I'd been enjoying the hospitality of a part in Bern at the SCAE show and was worse for wear on good quality champagne (trust me this is not the norm for a roaster at all). Well I went all girly and I'm sure I frightened him, but was a great moment for me. :)

coffee or espresso? why?

This is tough. It's like saying, "Who do you love more your mom or your dad?!?" I love them both for completely different reasons, and for completely different times of the day and moods (coffee or espresso of course--not my mom or dad!) :)

what is the coolest coffee thing happening in your country?

There's a real buzz at the moment with James Hoffman doing so well in this year's WBC, and I think that can only be positive for the industry. And the UK chapter of the SCAE (specialty coffee association of Europe)has a new chairman and is taking steps to make it a whole lot better. The first step is to create training courses for different areas of coffee and creating a steering committee, of which I'm involved in both.

what is your biggest coffee wish?

That we all start paying more for good coffee (roasters and consumers)and bad coffee is known as such. If we can raise awareness of how special coffee can be then there is no reason why it can not be as revered as wine or any other specialty food/drink.

current favorite piece of coffee equipment?

I love the Clover, but hey, who doesn’t who has been lucky enough to drink from it? So I'm not going to say that, predictably. I love the Aerobe Aeropress, yes that’s right a piece of plastic that costs under £30. Now come on pick that jaw up of the floor and let me explain why.It shows Joe Public--and we are not talking coffee freaks or people in the industry but real people--how good coffee can be done relatively cheaply. It's very close to the cupping experience and I like that. It
removes a snobby barrier from coffee and that can only be good.

what is the most *practical* advice would you offer for someone wanting to get into specialty coffee?

Keep focused on what you want to achieve. For me, I've kept true to what I believe. There have been times I could have made an easy buck and I could have been a lot richer than what I am now.'s coffee without compromise, and my rules my goal. What's the point in going into business if you cant' do what you want for who you want?

where do you see your company in five years?

I don’t see a massive change from what we are doing. We will have some staff so I can go to origin without having to drag the family in to help Sarah run things, and I guess a little more than what we are doing now. Good coffee is still good coffee (and quite often better if you aren't huge) if you’re a big or a small company. And I still I hope it will be coffee without compromise.
thanks to steve for taking time out for this blog interview. please visit his site and support the scene.

Friday, July 14, 2006

crossing the pond for the scoop

so as promised, i am beginning today a semi-regular interview series with people i like who are into coffee and espresso. i first "met" stephen leighton a little while ago (on the coffee forum which shall not be named) and he always seems to rock my face off with his cool ideas about coffee, his dedication to the bean and, perhaps most importantly, his seeming belief that no question is out of bounds in the pursuit of coffee excellence.

steve is the founder of has bean, an amazing roastery in the u.k. that sources just some sick, sick coffees. he's a regular purveyor of cup of excellence coffees and an active leader in the specialty coffee association of europe (the sister organization to the specialty coffee association of america), as well as probably numerous other accolades and honors.

i was elated when steve agreed to do an email interview for the coffee press and even more pleased with just how much fun the process was.

no more time wasting. here's my interview with steve leighton. i asked steve to begin with his own brief introductory bio...


Who am I ? I'm a 32 year old coffee roaster and business owner based in
Stafford UK. I've been involved in coffee for only a relative short
period over the past seven years. Two of those spent as a coffee shop
owner, and the other 5 as a roaster e-tailer on line. I've been lucky
enough to work with some UK industry greats, and work with some of the
finest coffees on the planet. Our business remains relatively small with
just myself and my wife both working full time (full time = all the time). I
love my job and my life and here I will try to explain some more about

what's the first cup of coffee you remember drinking?

I'm fairly sure I must have had coffee at home but it would have been instant or something not so good. I do remember a small coffee shop in
my local town and I one day just to shock my parents said I'd have a
coffee instead of a milk shake. So this is the first memorable cup at
say 8 or 9. I then remember pestering my mom to buy a home filter
machine with papers and we bought 5 bags of pre ground (ohh just feel
the freshness from here). From my humble upbringing I thought I was a

when did you know coffee was going to be your life's work?

Is it !!!! Only kidding. I never ever thought it would be, I enjoyed
coffee, but that was as far as I thought it would be. I worked as a
nurse in a psychiatric hospital for a while and then in a Jail as a
prison officer for a number for years, but nothing seemed right. I
remember sitting down and thinking "What do I like?" As there was no
chance of a career in football (the real one--not that American rugby you
play) because I was rubbish, I guessed coffee would be good. It's only really
the past three years or so that it's become what defines me as a person.

what has been the greatest single moment in your coffee life thus

I've had many good things happen to me, but this one is easy. My first
invite to be an international jury member for the Cup of Excellence. The
email...I can tell you exactly the time it came through. [It was] 11pm at night,
and after I had run up and down stairs shouting at the top of my voice I
couldn’t sleep that night. At the time we were really small and I was
buying one or two bags of CoE coffee but that was it. So the thought of
being invited was strange, exciting and very frightening. The
competition was awesome the trip sooooo exciting. I hadn't been on an
aeroplane for over 20 years and never outside of Europe, so this huge
trip (23 hours travelling), not speaking any Spanish, all on my own to a
place where I don’t know who I am meeting and don’t know where I'm even
stopping. Truly special.

who are your influences in coffee? do you have any coffee mentors?

I've been influenced by some great people. My biggest I guess is Stephen
Hurst and Flori Marin of Mercanta here in the UK. These guys took me to
one side when this nobody, who knew nothing about coffee turned up at his
cupping lab, and started very patiently at the beginning, and walked me
through. Their influence on my business has been huge, and I owe them a
great debt. Today still they continue above and beyond in their help and
willingness to share not only their great coffees but their experience
and knowledge [that is] is invaluable.

Other influences are my big friend Joel Pollock at Stumptown: what a guy
and a joy to cup with. His cupping vocabulary is immense and he nails
things when I'm left up in the air trying to decide whether it was
coffee or not. He is like my soul mate in coffee(not in a dirty way :)) and a good friend.

Duane at Stumptown is also a huge influence and Geoff Watts at Intelli, what great guys they both are. All three are like coffee brothers, and
meeting up again with them is like meeting family when you haven't seen
them for a while. It's wild.

Phil Jordan of TooMuchCoffee also needs a shout out here, a VERY
good friend, and my sounding board. He and I share similar pallets and I
respect his opinions.

One more I've got to add is someone I've never met, and never had a
conversation with (not even an email) so it’s a strange one. But in my
early days, all of my learning was done through Tom Owen at Sweet
website. I'm scared that the day I do get to meet him (it was
meant to happen in Bolivia last year but a hurricane Stan put a stop to
that), he will think I'm a stalker and get an injunction out on me.

if you could have a cup of coffee with anyone in the world (living
or dead), who would it be and why?

This is going to sound corny so look away now if you are of a nauseous
disposition, but I really do mean this. Every time I have been to origin
and every time I have met a farmer it's been in a very false setting and
slightly awkward due to my poor grasp of Spanish. All I want to do is
sit down on a farm, with the farmer of one of the coffees I've bought in
the past, drinking his coffee and telling him in Spanish why I love it so
much and what it's like to work with his coffee everyday, and [let him] receive so
much praise for the work he and mother nature do. I also want to know
what it's like for him every day working with the coffee before I get my
hands on it. I am going to night school to learn Spanish, and one day it
will happen.

if you could throw scalding hot coffee on anyone in the world, who
would it be and why?

I guess I'd let it cool a little. I'm not a nasty man but it would have
to be Max Morgenthaler the inventor of soluble coffee and just shout,

[to be continued]
next time on the coffee press blog, the conclusion of my interview with steve leighton, including steve choosing to love one parent over another, how a chincy $25 piece of plastic is standing up to an $8500 piece of coffee equipment, and being a little tipsey while meeting one of his coffee heroes.

stay tuned...

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

the new face

going to be adding some new and fun components to this space in the days to come. one of them will be a recurring interview segment where i ask folks i like from the coffee world a few questions on my mind. look for quirky, unusual, thought-provoking and perhaps highly combustable coffee questions. the first round should be up in a few days.

i'm also starting regular reviews of different coffees different roasters and producers around the world. i'm trying to talk people out of samples so i can (roast, if needed, and) cup them and provide interesting reviews for my myriad readers...sort of the way record labels send prominent music critics free records for a shot at getting their records reviewed in print.

i will discuss the coffees in obvious ways: flavor, aroma, whether it makes for better espresso or drip, etc. and i will also do my best to have as much fun with the "other stuff" around each coffee: how unbelievably lame the packaging is; how i needed a bazooka to open the bag; whether the supplier sent it usps, ups, fedex; plus any fun facts i happen to pick up (or divine) along the way.

THIS JUST accepting samples (one to five pounds) of green or roasted coffees from, well, anyone who wants a review in these cyber pages. don't be shy. bring it. let's see if the coffee press will divinate or dismantle your coffee. email me at browncoffeeco AT gmail DOT com for more information on how to get your stuff to me.

all of it, all the time

i've been ruminating within lately, trying to explore the next possible wave(s) of topics, philosophies, tidbits of gossip to blog about lately. i returned from my vacation yesterday--oddly enough, happy to be home--and jumped into the business of catching up on what other coffee bloggers and coffee friends were doing, thinking, discussing in my absence.

now, it's an unusual configuration of the planets when more than one of the usual sites i visit are tuning in to the same topic. and it's generally a rule of mine not to dive in when i don't feel i have anything original to bring to the table.

but this topic has been of interest to me since first hearing about it some weeks ago. it is basically the question of whether a barista dictates the parameters of espresso perfection or whether he is constrained by his immediate external components: the equipment, the surroundings and, of course, the coffee itself.

i won't hold forth here tonite (suffice it to say i'm still dragging a bit from sleeping on the hard ground in a tent for a week). but i do want to toss my proverbial two cents in very soon.

and i hope to expand the discussion massively. massively. a "yes" or "no" reponse is just too dull.

stay tuned.