Thursday, August 31, 2006

cadillac or yugo -- they both get you there in the end

so i've been having this little debate within myself about my roaster. it's electric, you see. yes, i know; i've heard it all before:

"the best roasters are gas powered."

"only a hack would use an electric roaster."

"when you're serious about roasting you'll get a gas/propane roaster."

"master roasters use master tools."

and so forth. and basically, i have believed that for this entire short time i've been roasting coffee. i used to have this slight bit of shame at telling someone my roaster was electric, as though i were driving a little yugo while others were driving a cadillac. one day i would graduate, i would say to myself.

but just the other day i was thinking (a truly dangerous prospect, i know). and it occured to me that the car metaphor i just employed was an apt one on many levels. here are some random breakout thoughts about the roasters as cars metaphor.

both a yugo and a cadillac will both arrive at precisely the same place.

style points say nothing about what's within.

cadillac costs more because of extraneous bells and whistles.

you really gotta know how to drive to drive a yugo well. (!)

a yugo is more economical than a cadillac, and that certainly counts for a lot in my humble roasting book.

yugo sure beats walking everywhere (which would be the equivalent of roasting beans in a frying pan on your stove at home, i guess).

etcetera, etcetera.

now, you may be saying to yourself that the only reason i'm saying these things is to make myself feel better. perhaps. but then again, i know of several well-respected roasteries that use fluid bed roasters and swear by them, and i think fluid bed roasting is for the body; no seriousness in the cup. so who's to tell me my stuff isn't all that?

am i saying i can go head to head with any roaster out there? no. most definitely not. but that may likely be more a function of my skill and experience level and not about equipment. besides, put me behind the wheel of a cadillac and there still no guarantee i'll prefer it to the yugo.

so remaining content with what i have is the name of the game. if those words are good enough for the Good Lord, they're good enough for me.

meantime, anyone wanting to put their tastebuds on the line to try to tell me my coffee is inferior, be my guest. meanwhile, i'm selling my stuff pretty well already over here.

so prove me wrong.

Friday, August 25, 2006

new pour over on its way, or, coffee alone as a main draw

not much to say right now but i just wanted to keep the posts rollin.

i just ordered a new pour over brewer the other day and am anxiously awaiting its arrival. i will be sure to put it through some field tests and report on my findings here. here's a pic of it. just the sight of it fills me with excitement. i can't wait. it actually has a cloth filter, something i had not realized people were still doing...well, at least since the days of the cowboy sock filters.

anyways, if the new pour over works out i'm considering using it as one of the main brewing methods in my retail space...whenever/if ever that gets up and running. the latest on that is that i'm seriously on the trail of opening a retail space so long as i can afford it. and i think i can. it will be a very different place than the usual coffeehouse. for one, we will be opening expressly as a coffee bar. no espresso machine. the idea will be simple, like that of chipotle: very few items on the menu and do them well. feature up to 12 coffees with the customer's choice of brew methods (pour over, press, aeropress, pre-brewed press pots in airpots if you don't want to wait, possibly a clover, etc.) and the size--no larger than 16 oz. of course we'll pair them with easy pastries for the morning and full plated desserts in the evening with a smattering of ready to drink items and some iced alternatives such as italian sodas and iced coffees. but coffee will be the main distraction, both liquid and whole bean. and i'll put my roaster in the space and let some of the pungent aromas of freshly roasted beans waft through the air.

my point with that tangent was to express to you that i'm excited about this classy looking pour over, which i think would make a fine draw to any customer's eye.

what do you think? do you think a coffee bar could survive/thrive without an espresso machine? there are so many coffee possibilities i want to explore that don't include espresso (not that i'm down on espresso by any means).

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

the times they are a changin'

[disclaimer: as with most things, i see through a glass darkly on this issue and don't have all, or perhaps even a majority, of the facts. but that's what bloggers do, isn't it? as always, reader feedback is encouraged.]

it has been an observation of mine over the years that one can generally camp humans in one of two places: there are those who respect the past and what it meant and those who reach for the future and change. the reasons may be as varied as we all are and can even reach for the opposite scenario as the rationale for holding to one's preference: someone may resist change because one fears the future. sometimes people want to keep things the way they are because they are at a distinct advantage that way and want to pull up the ladder behind them. another may live their lives fomenting changes in the status quo because they have been hurt of otherwise disastisfied with "how things have always been done." or there is a revenge or hate factor: a have not decides to wreck the establishment for the haves simply because they are on the wrong side of society...and so forth.

i guess i tend to be somewhere toward the middle of the pendulum on the futurist side, meaning i realize that nothing lasts forever, and so long as fundamental moral, ethical or other similar weighty lines are not being crossed, blurred or destroyed, i may as well learn to adapt and embrace change and even try to put it to my advantage.

there has been a development in our industry that is causing storm clouds to form as sensibilities on either side begin to line up and count who's with them and why. the long and short of the scenario has to do with the oft-mentioned-in-this-blogspace alliance for coffee excellence's (read: the parent organization for cup of excellence) move to partner with the national coffee association in bringing about a new system for marketing quality coffees not being sold using the current c.o.e.'s auction system.

basically, there are some really great coffees out there that just miss the quality cut for c.o.e. auctions (admittedly, a very high bar to begin with), but that represent the blood, sweat and tears of a bunch of farmers who, without the promise of a c.o.e. auction, are faced with the prospect of realizing a capital loss on their crops. the new cooperation between c.o.e. and n.c.a. would help create an avenue for these very good coffees to find markets and allow more quality conscious farmers the means to "farm another day," so to speak.

so where's the problem? and what hath this to do with whether you're a futurist or a pastist? i'm glad you asked.

traditionally, this type of thing might be thought to fall under the purveyance and rubric of the specialty coffee association of america, the organization that typically coordinates the stuff at the high end of the spectrum, while "lesser coffees" and their peripherals are handled by the commodity-like bottom dwellers in the lowly n.c.a (or so the attitudes are spouting off). to be sure, the n.c.a. is in new territory. they generally do hang out with the big dogs in commodity coffee--those who prefer to package in cans instead of bags.

but i have several thoughts here to share, in case you were wondering, in no particular order.

first, i applaud the n.c.a. for agreeing to this move. it shows they are willing to move in directions they have not traditionally moved in, hopefully because they are recognizing the need to branch into higher quality coffee.

second, i applaud them and the a.c.e./c.o.e. because they are putting together the pieces to do this. a.c.e. doesn't have the logistical prowess the n.c.a. does to pull this off. on that level it makes perfect sense for a.c.e. to find someone who can help make this dream a reality.

third, i fold my hands (the opposite of applauding) at the s.c.a.a. on this one. yet again, they seem to be either falling out of touch or already so far out of touch with what can be because they are either too mired in their own worlds of what is, or because they deem themselves too noble to mix with the commoners down at the n.c.a. level, or for some other unknown backroom political squabbles. in any event, it stinks and it shows, at least to this blogger, that they are not doing their part to keep up with the needs of the industry.

fourth, competition is a good thing. say it with me: a good thing. if you don't think it is, just imagine for a second what you'd be paying for gasoline if there were only one gas company out there. if the n.c.a. wants to upgrade their image by upgrading the substance and product in which they deal, i say let's see what you got. if you can pull it off you will prove to not a few people in the industry (like myself) that we should pay attention to you because you are smart enough to align yourself with one of the most respected organizations (c.o.e.) out there.

does this mean the n.c.a. is the new s.c.a.a.? at this juncture, hardly. but the new s.c.a.a. seems about like the old s.c.a.a. (lots of smoke, not much fire) and one can only expect to roast without a fire for so long before one decides to gravitate toward someone with a ready match.

i say stop trying to attract people based on what you once were and go out and earn people's respect by what you're ready to do for them now and into the future. and in this scenario there is only one organization poised to do that. i will look forward to seeing what becomes of this alliance in the days to come.

Friday, August 18, 2006

cross pollenization

this post has absolutely nothing to do with coffee or espresso. i don't normally double over my posts from my "normal person" blog, but i couldn't pass up the chance to share this story with my legions of readers of this blog (read: all four of you). it posted under the title, "a marine miracle shade tree, or, weeping tree found merely to be connected to the water main." enjoy.


shroud of turin. incorruptable saints and parts of saints. our lady of guadalupe appearing to juan diego. and now, the watery blessing of a san antonio red oak, calling the maim, the halt, the blind and those in need of a faith booster.

here's one from/for the bizarro file. i was sort of following this story the last couple days in the local rag, about an unexplained "weeping stream" shooting forth from the trunk of an east side oak tree. the lady who lives in the blessed home where the fount of blessing began pouring about three months ago says she has no idea how or why this all started happening a few months ago. and now pilgrims and papparazzi alike are making their way to her yard to get a glimpse of a modern day rock of ages. well, okay, you guessed it: the miracle isn't quite such. turns out the tree figured out a way to get its water from the city main without having to pay its utility bill.

either that, or the lady was out there in the dead of night sticking the hose up the center of the trunk to draw the faithful herself. and this in the middle of a drought, even.

i wonder, though, why she didn't try this stunt with--i'm gonna go there--a weeping willow.

still, the faithful flock to the tree like it's some sort of south texas relic. you can't convince them that their wood's all wet.

science may have debunked the mystery of the aquatic oak, but that's not going to wet the blanket of many who still show up. said the son of the lady with the huge and, up until now, inexplicably high water bill, "I tell them all how it is, and they still want it. I figure if they are still that strong in their faith, knowing all that, then go on."


i smell a discover channel expose coming on....

UPDATE: you really must read this commentary on the gurgling miracle tree of the east side. the author writes it funnier than i could paraphrase it (not a very daunting challenge to begin with, i surmise).

Thursday, August 17, 2006

smelly memories

i have heard tell many times that smells are one of the best keepers of memories. to wit, we have all smelled the fragrance of some stranger walking past us on the sidewalk that reminds us of a past love interest.

apply that to coffee and that happened to me this week. i was enjoying a cup of one of my new arrivals from costa rica and i got the overwhelming memory of one of my past girlfriends from college. just kidding.

seriously, though, tasting that costa rica from the tres rios region really gave me a smell memory of one of my first specialty coffee experiences with costa rica, that also came out of tres rios. this time it was from the finca aguas claras. back then it was the amazingly bright and tangy coffee from ferdinand willig's bella vista estate. both times i remember thinking that this is one unbelievably "clean" coffee.

and did i say tangy? i once did a coffee seminar for starbucks coffee masters where one of the workshops was tasting for acidity. acidity shows up best for me as the dance and tingle on the front tip of my tongue. when i hold a coffee like the costa ricas in my mouth for a bit before chewing it around and washing it over my gums, i get that super tang like tiny little rubber bands being snapped on the tip of my tongue. the workshop called for us to pair the costa rican coffee with, get this, a cup of odwalla orange juice (even now my mouth began to well up and water under my tongue as i began to think of the pairing!). now, one wouldn't generally expect to pair coffee with orange juice any more than they would pair toothpaste with orange juice. it's just not supposed to work...but it does. and why? because the acidity in the coffee is every bit as palpable a taste as it is in the o.j.

that acidity workshop opened new avenues of cupping for me as i began to taste coffees as much for characteristics as i had been for specific flavors. i began to taste for acidity, taste for salty, taste for fruity (some would say "for defect").

anyways, all that was brought back in a flash as i sat the other morning with my aeropressed costa rica. just thought i'd share.

do you have an a-ha coffee tasting moment?

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

floating ideas

so if you're a regular (all three of you) to this blog you know i've been kicking around the idea of opening a retail space for some time. basically, no money = no retail space.

but based on a conversation i was having with a friend i got to wondering the other day whether a retail space could find success as a straight coffee bar. not espresso and coffee. not coffee and fruit smoothies. not a full range of dairy beverages and whatnot.

the idea is simple. small menu of coffee choices (that changes regularly). small range of brewing choices (clover, french press, pour over, aeropress). choose the size you want. of course we'll compliment those with freshly baked pastries. and of course people will be able to buy beans...we'll set up the little roaster in the shop. but the focus will always be coffee. a true coffee bar.

what do you think? will i have trouble making rent each month? or could it take off? i think it's conceivable that i could pull it off. we would just have to have some fabulous press and word of mouth would have to spread like wildfire. that, and heaven and earth would have to move. but hey, if they can determine just like that that pluto isn't a planet after all, that might be my equivalent of heaven and earth moving. so we'll see. i'm giving it some serious thought and prayers.

Sunday, August 13, 2006

two are better than one

sorry no updates lately. i was hoping one of my next posts was going to be the second in my fledgling interview series. but soon enough we'll get back to that.

i've been reading a bunch of unbelievably cool posts over at the forum which shall not be named. one of the suggestions that has come up recently is the formation of a serious but informal "study group" comprised of members of said forum. each volunteer would select a topic of interest to them relating in some way to the industry. at first this seemed like a fascinating idea, but not one i would be very interested in participating in, as my knowledge tree is pretty much a shrub compared to some of the giants who roam that forum.

but then it hit me one day perusing the recent posts. someone was talking about the lack of universal definitions in the industry and i got to thinking that this was indeed a topic worthy of further research. i decided to toss my hat into the ring as well with a working title of "toward common definitions of coffee processing methods" (a true white paper title, eh?) the idea is simple, if gargantuan. around the world exist many varied methods of processing coffee and myriad more variations on some of the more well known methodologies. no one has undertaken a catalogueing of these methods, let alone standardizing their definitions.

immediately i realized a couple things. one, i'm stupid for choosing this topic. it's HUGE and complex and mind numbingly detailed, and did i mention HUGE? second, i'm potentially not stupid for choosing this topic. it's a little looked at corner of the industry that perhaps only a handful of people have ever considered tidying up. it could be a way to benefit our industry. third, i'm a genius for choosing this topic. if it goes over halfway as well as i halfway expect, it will be twice as beneficial to the industry as well as to farmers and, ultimately, to consumers. the potential could be massive--we could finally see the emergence of a foundation for the long-awaited appelation system of coffee that so successfully gelled the wine industry decades ago and helped propel it to worldwide recognition.

originally, my idea for a paper was to define where we are, what the main methods being practiced are, with major variations, all broken down generally by geography. the next thrust would be to use those definitions to help serve for a suggested standard appelation system that could be floated around for comment and possibly adoption at some point way down the road. after soliciting feedback from a few colleagues (and getting a pile of unsolicited but excited feedback from others!) i am realizing that i probably need to split this topic into two white papers. the first will cover definitions by geography. set everything in concrete. the second, to be constructed...who knows when, hopefully shortly thereafter...will aim toward overcoming obstacles to adopting such a universal standardization of processing names and definitions, a true appelation system for specialty coffee.

original deadline was set for october. thank goodness it has been pushed to december. i will need all that time to research, build a skeleton and then start adding meat to the bones and hopefully breathe life into it.

wish me luck. and feel free to chime in to tell me i'm stupid.

Monday, August 07, 2006

tiny elephants

talk about freak of nature. the other day i was roasting some coffee and came across this monster bean in the cooling tray. i took a pic of it next to some of the other beans in that batch and with a ball point pen for perspective. sorry i couldn't get the picture any bigger. but if it were you'd be as freaked out as i was by it.

seriously...i nearly hyperventilated at the sight and thought of it. it was freakish and freaky. isn't that funny?

Thursday, August 03, 2006

counterpoint to point

listen, i have this friend who believes that drip coffee in all its forms is the true test of a coffee; whereas espresso simply touches one tip of the iceburg.

i couldn't disagree more, and here's why. if you show up at an upmarket sports car dealership and ask to test drive the best vehicle they have on the showroom floor you're not going to drive it to the grocery store parking lot to see how it parks. you're not going to bother with parallel parking. and you're certainly not going to be asking about gas mileage and maintenance schedules. why not? because you're prepared to drop a bunch of clams on a kick-boody tiger of a car and you don't care about a value market family sedan. you want the formula one experience, baby.

that is where we want to live: up there soaring with the eagles, not poking around the feed lot with the turkeys. hey, anyone can get their hands on run of the mill specialty coffee. we're talking about the best of the best, and because of that we need an apparatus that can deliver the goods in the most appropriate medium. that medium can only be the medium of espresso.

i mean, sure, everyone agrees that the press, the aerobie and especially the clover will deliver a remarkable drip cup that delights the senses. but even still, those may be the equivalent of seeing coffee in black and white or grayscale, whereas an excellent espresso is the full millions or colors range of high def television in all its glory. it is upfront, in your face, pedal to the metal all throttle coffee at its most urgent and most glorious. yes, it requires a ton of great equipment. but if you want to drive at formula one speeds you need a formula one car, pure and simple. do you think the f-1 people give up because theirs is an endless pursuit toward greater perfection? hardly. so why should we settle for coffee using the same old parameters day in and day out as you would with those regular brewing methods? why not shoot for the moon?

and why not demand greater and greater good from the fuel for the formula one machine...the beans themselves?

now that you've read my point counterpoint on drip versus espresso, what do you think? thanks, steve, for letting me pillage your topic and explode it so brashly.

point counterpoint

use the word "drip" to some people in this industry and they think you are a) talking about them, and/or b) insulting them. it's the "d" word for many purists.

i hate to rip off my friend steve's blog topic but i cannot agree more with his views on elitism in coffee as expressed by the exaltation of espresso at the expense of "coffee." it has become en vogue to exalt the perfect shot of espresso as the coup de grace and fewer and fewer people talk about the loveliness of 'regularly' brewed coffee, be it press, aerobie or even electric drip machine...yes, that!

why am i working to pull the argument back toward that direction? mostly because espresso is so incredibly machine/technology dependent--and increasingly more so--that it's becoming commonplace to hear people talk about building the bean to suit the machine. this is a mistake of epic proportions in my book that gets it exactly backward and forgets the reason we all got into this field in the first place: the coffee.

second, you have to work so much less at tasting when you taste coffee as espresso. there is no tough labor involved and little skill. basically, anyone can cup espresso because it shouts its hand loud and clear.

but cupping coffee...ah, now there's a skill. an art. sure, it's extremely time consuming to set a cupping table and sit with the coffees to really dig into their pedigrees. but that's the point: you're living around and with the coffee, not glorifying this machine or that technique. it's you and the coffee, plain and simple.

this may be my luddite moment; but i'd almost rather not have the espresso apparatus than have the coffee play second fiddle to what you're going to do to it. let's remember that the main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing. coffee is a social tool, designed to pave the way for you to enjoy the company of others. espresso is simply too explosive a medium, in the opinion of this humble blogger, around which to enjoy a relaxing time with friends and/or family. sure, it's sexy and beautiful and all. but as with women, there are two kinds of coffee preparation in this world--there are women you wouldn't mind dating and then there are women you know you need to marry. espresso is a the celebrity dating of the coffee world. find a truly great coffee and you'll want to spend the rest of your life with it.

next time, the counterpoint to coffee versus espresso argument: coffee is the turkey to espresso's eagle.