Friday, October 27, 2006

housekeeping and whatnot

some updates to communicate. a few weeks ago 'the forum that shall not be named' decided to 'go public,' meaning they gave the go ahead for those of us who love it and read it twice (thrice even) daily to mention it by name on our various web sites. so, please go visit coffeed if you really want to hear it from the best of the best in the coffee industry.

also, updated blogroll and links, right.

barista jam is coming along well. almost got all my stuff together. now just working through processes and logistical flow. la marzocco espresso machine? check. clover? check. great espresso and coffee to play with all day? check. now all we need are baristas. come on, baristas.and i'm having our logo professionally rendered. here are a couple of the leading candidates so far... i think i want the coloring of the top bean here rendered in the 3-d style below. this new logo--well, my kwee rendering of it on microsoft paintshop--has already begun to adorn our bags of coffee. we will turn this into a 3' x 6' banner and also use it for t-shirts, both of which i expect to have on display and for sale in time for christmas. t-shirt will likely be brown...go figure...with the phrase, 'brown (coffee) is the new black (coffee)' somewhere on it. what do you think of these logos?

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

rorsarch for coffee?

[pic hat tip: james hoffman]
you coffee nerds already have seen this site, i'm sure.

but for the other two of you lurking here: rate my rosetta. a rosetta is, well, i don't know what the heck it is. it's a fern. it's a palm frond. it's an anemonae. who knows. it's geeky and cool to see, that's all i'm sayin'.

p.s. to the uninitiated, these are free pours, done with nothing but steamed milk poured skillfully over espresso. no spoons, no carving knives, no nothing but you, the espresso and the milk. and the cup to hold them. and that's it. well, and the pitcher in which to steam the milk. nothing else. well, except the espresso machine to pull the shot and steam the milk in the pitcher. but that's it. just you, the espresso (ground in the grinder) and the milk, with a cup and a pitcher to steam the milk and the espresso machine for shots and milk steaming. you betcha.

Monday, October 23, 2006

wired in austin

spent the better part of the day today in austin, doing some follow up for the barista jam posters i mailed to all the austin-area espresso bars there. it was really cool to learn that, yes indeed, there are some decent places to get espresso in austin.

one of my most pleasant surprises was progress coffee. tucked away on what should be a quiet side street on austin's near east side--but what is in fact a bustling warehouse block of boutiques, studios and, of course, an espresso bar--is, well, progress coffee. i got up early this morning (8am is early for me!) to drive the 80 miles to austin because i knew i had a lot of places to hit in a limited amount of time. i had seen progress' website in my pre-trip research and was excited to see pics online of what looked like a promising site to pitch the concept of a barista jam. i had planned to make them my first stop in the city and when i pulled onto the street that houses the edifice i knew my plans were going to be richly rewarded. you know you're going to find a cool vibe inside a coffeehouse when there's a moped studio, an artist's gallery and a pilates warehouse all on the same warehouse block. this is typical new urbanism style. the only things missing were the second/third, etc., story lofts above.

anyways, walking inside it felt clean, comfortable, stylish. i was met by an alterna-emo britrock type barista with a mouthful of pearly whites and a clean british accent. i ordered a single espresso (my usual order when i'm checking out espresso bars--weird, eh?) and bought a bottle of water.

i'm always a little hesitant to reveal that i work in coffee when i go to these places for fear the baristas and owners will think i'm trying to either spy on them or convert them into a wholesale client. fear of being seen as having an ulterior motive has probably kept me from having a ton of cool coffee conversations over the years.

but i digress. before long i was sipping my espresso--a bit on the thin side, but fairly sweet and presented well--and chasing it with boutique water. the water cost more than the espresso!

anyways, i was so very pleased with the overall atmosphere at this place that it didn't really matter too much that i've had better espresso at many other places. at least they had a clean machine and prepared the espresso well. maybe i will return and ask to place a bid on their espresso account. superior coffee would just be the icing on the cake. currently, their in-store lit mentions that their coffee is fair-trade and organic. but beyond that there is little by way of origin descriptors, tasting notes, or even a menu listing all the coffees they serve. like a typical texas coffee bar their bread and butter is actually, well, more like bread and butter than coffee and espresso. but like i said, the place was cool, cool, cool; so that was just fine by me. i asked for the owner and was told he was in a meeting. and so, gulp, i pulled out my jam poster and told the britbarista my story. well received and not the slightest hint that he was accusing me of trying to take over their place. before long a girl who worked there came up and had a look at the poster and they both began to feed off each other at what a good idea a barista jam in texas would be. we all smiled and exchanged "yeah's" and i mentioned that i would like to return a little later to say hi to the owner. as i walked out the door i could hear them still talking about it among themselves: "i wonder if we could just shut down the shop that day and all go down to san antonio for this thing." jackpot.

next stop: jp's java. a rather unfortunate name i think, with a location than was a nightmare for parking due to its proximity to the university of texas campus and all the residential parking surrounding the place. after a couple passes i finally was able to secure a spot triple parking a fire hydrant and i scooted on inside. busy feel. a bit cluttered and the furniture had a slightly used thrift store feel to it. but most tables were taken with laptops and poets and the la marzocco was getting some good use. i had learned before i drove up to austin that this place used zoka coffee from seattle, so i was expecting above average stuff. i stepped up to the plate, ordered a single espresso and plopped down my money and then waddled over to the hand off area. like i said, i was expecting decent stuff. what i got, however, was more like a miracle from the espresso gods. rich, red-rust honey poured out of the portafilter and into my demi. as the barista handed it to me i could smell its sweetness. i almost didn't want to drink it a) for fear it might not taste as good as it looked/smelled; and b) that the experience of a 1.5 oz shot might not tide me over long enough. well, here goes nothing i said to myself and enjoyed what would be the best tasting shot of espresso i had all day. indeed, i would hazard that it was the best tasting shot of espresso i've had in the year i've been in texas. it was so sweet and mesmerizing. i hardly could pull my poster out to give to the barista, i was so excited. but once i did he mentioned that he had already gotten one (i had forgotten i had already mailed them one, so i was all surprised at 'how fast the word spreads'!). we talked for a quick minute and i complimented him profusely on his espresso and he said, "you want another one?" i'm all, "is the pope catholic?!?" so he pulled me another shot on the house and i sucked that one down almost quicker than the first.

and off i went.

the next several establishments were rather forgettable with espresso that ranged from bad to metallic to one that was so terribly repulsive it was all i could do to finish it, put it down, run out the door and start spitting the second i hit the parking lot. perhaps that place needed a barista jam poster more than most; but i just couldn't stay in there long enough to get it to them. sorry!

a few places later i pulled into the parking lot of cafe medici, which i had been recommended to by a barista at jp's and which delivered as predicted. medici is newly opened in september and by the look of it they are already fitting into the austin community well. all their coffee is press pots and the house itself has a cozy, laid back feel that is clean and inviting. again, dark, rich looking espresso with lots of deep caramel in the demi, pulled from a hybrid la marzocco. (read a little about the hybrid and medici here.) it was here that i really got off schedule because of the loooong conversation i got into with the barista there, clancy. a cool guy who seemed really excited at the prospect of a barista jam, as they had been to one some months earlier in dallas. it's great to see the kids these days gettin' all excited about the scene and i hope to see clancy and some others from the medici crew at next month's jam.

so after my layover at medici i knew i had to boogie before heading back south to san antonio. so off i went in search of a few more espresso bars on my list. yes, i compiled a list of over a dozen places i might visit. some i visited. some i drove by and decided against visiting. others i didn't even drive by due to time or because i couldn't actually remember why i put them on the list in the first place, and since i had limited time i simply decided to keep driving.

because i'm such a sucker for good espresso and good vibes i made a deal with myself. i wanted to leave austin on a positive espresso note so after a couple more visits to average coffeehouses i hit jp's java for a single macchiatto (it was simple and sweet...more like a noisette than a macchiatto, but still very nice) and then hit progress on my way out of town for a bite to eat.

now, when it came to food i was in a bit of a quandry because austin is a really great food town. because of the university and also because of dell computers and other high-tech peripheral companies there, austin has a real sophisticated and cosmopolitan type feel to it, even though it does a great job of actually staying down to earth and college-y. as a result, there are any number of cuisines to be had in the city and i was really feeling a bit of consternation as to which quick bite i might have to visit before heading home. (there are also to be had in austin the best bubble teas anywhere in texas, which was also a real tough decision to forego; but as this was a business trip instead of a pleasure trip and because i was pressed for time i decided to skip it and go next time with my wife. we both adore momoko bubble teas.)

so anyways, after much thought and self-deliberation i decided to swing back by progress coffee to kill two stones with one bird: i would get a bite to eat and i would also check in on the owners. i succeeded brilliantly in both endeavors. my roast beef and brie sandwich was delectable and after lunch i found the owners and introduced myself as we talked about the barista jam and being in coffee in texas. a very nice couple. it was a brief, enjoyable conversation i hope to continue next month at the barista jam. sometimes you can tell when people are just being polite by hearing you out, waiting for you to get bored and go away. i felt a genuine interest coming from both owners--husband and wife--and they asked enough questions about the event to let me know they were serious about considering it and would likely bring themselves and a few of their team down with them. so that'll be cool to see them there.

so all in all i drank like a gallon of espresso. and despite some really awful shots, the memories of the few good ones far outweighed those of the bad...maybe because in texas bad espresso is the norm and the expectation so when it happens you don't really think twice about it; but when you get the good stuff it makes you sit up and really take notice.

so now i'm feeling pretty good about how the jam is shaping up. i think we may see a pretty good turnout, which is good because i've put a ton of work into making this a great jam and lined up some really great machines and folks to come share their knowledge and expertise. we're gonna have a grand time here, deep in the heart of texas.

Friday, October 20, 2006

free and fair?

somewhere, i suspect, in the intricate webworks of the specialty coffee world there are many intersections of politics and economics affecting the lives of the masses of coffee workers. this is nothing new, i suppose; for everyone who buys green coffee has at one point or another been subject to the pricing whims of the market as a measure of their cost of goods. and while the scale of proportion maxim rings very true that pennies per pound to a roaster means a year's survival--or not--to a farmer and his people there are even more of those clouds brewing overhead in the near future that, sadly, have very little to do with the quality of coffee itself.

one such intersection of the economics of coffee comes in the upcoming elections to be held next month in the u.s. more specifically, it has to do with the politics of power and how economic policies here in the u.s. can have terrible ramifications for people in many, many other nations.

i'm talking about the potential loss of power by the republicans and the unwillingness of their more economically liberal democrats to bring legislation to the table that would eliminate tariffs between the u.s. and other nations. much has been made about the democrats' proclivity toward protectionism and how a return to power by the democrats could mean a return to the glory days of influence peddling by organized labor and their populist policies.

in other words, a classic battle is brewing between the forces of free trade and the forces of fair trade.

on the face of it it seems pretty straightforward. fair-trade has been a boon for many coffee farmers and helped them escape a crushing cycle of poverty. but it also has a tendency to create a bloated bureaucracy around its implementation, is a huge disincentive toward quality coffee and is wholly unverifiable to any degree of comfort for this blogger. it is an artificial system to level the playing field by making everyone and everything equal, regardless of merit or quality of product. and while, yes, it definitely has helped quite a few, ultimately, like the failed socialistic systems of the former soviet republic, fair trade will finally collapse under its own weight because either the people will see it for the sham it has become or because a truer view of specialty coffee will prevail, one in which spectacular coffee is valued at a much higher rate of return than the fair trade movement can keep pace with (see examples here and here). but the fair trade scheme is typical of any system that is often blindly touted as a savior for coffee and countries. it doesn't matter what the merits are, let's just give them all a ribbon and call it good. this is the radical egalitarian ethos and summation of the liberal left currently vying for power in the upcoming elections. and if indeed republicans do lose those six seats in the senate and the handful of seats in the house the hard won victories for free trade in the americas could come to a screeching halt, raising the price of coffee yet again--based on artificial economics and not on quality. democrats might likely attempt to repeal both nafta and cafta and seem certain to keep any potential similar legislation from even reaching the floor of the legislative bodies.

the other side of the coin is the free trade reality that some say is not really all that free for all. often, one side stands to gain much more from the opening of economic borders than nearly all others combined. the case has been made many times that the u.s. is the single largest beneficiary of free trade agreements such as nafta and cafta because in the world market, u.s. manufacturing might (would?) effectively crowd out local products, opening the way for further globalization and domination by american companies. this is, obviously, wholly irrelevant to the discussion of coffee, since only one state in the union even produces coffee--and has its own set of artificial price propper-uppers that are completely devoid of merit, in my opinion. continued free trade between the americas only stands to help american coffee importers, roasters and consumers, since we would be able to continue to enjoy the benefits of great coffee arriving at our shores without taxes, tariffs and trade regulations which would bump the price ever higher both artificially and arbitrarily. the long and short of that equation is that freed up american dollars always flow downward, creating a rising tide that lifts all boats. before long, americans will start comparing what kind of boats between them and begin to race/consume toward the top of that category. in that analogy, specialty coffee is the 'boat' category that is set to continue floating ever higher under any free trade agreement.

republicans: good for specialty coffee?

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

a lot of 'spro

i used to work long hours on a la marzocco linea. four groups of pure espresso madness pouring out into paper cups with an aquatic tart emblazoned across the front and into the hands of an adoring public that couldn't get enough caramel macchiatos (the drink so terrible every indie shop within fifty miles of here has to rip off the name and recipe of exactly!). i didn't know half of what i know now by the time we had switched to the superauto verismo know, the ones originally designed for office coffee service. i can't believe in my naivete that i was actually happy to have the 'upgrade.' i think mostly i was happy because the verismos were so fast and consistent compared to all our mistakes and do-overs on the manual. we gladly gave up quality taste for ease of use. the monkey machines, as one of my baristas called the verismo. but in my store we were like crazy busy with espresso beverages. something on the order of 85-95 uph. on busy days and during holiday season that number would spike to over 100 uph. insane. that's a lot of gingerbread lattes, dude.

i just read that the australian coffee market is like 99% espresso beverages. holy kabootin cactus, batman. talk about the eye of the tiger. Lord only knows their breakdown of supers to semis; but even still, the line gets backed up unless you're pullin' the bucket o' milk at a time system.


Saturday, October 14, 2006

a fig tree cannot produce thistles

this will sound weird, un/under-educated, perhaps misplaced, and so forth. but i find it nearly useless to 'cup' for espresso. here's why.

typically, when i'm cupping i'm doing so for two main reasons. one is to cup for defects. i'm slurping quickly and deftly across a few or even a large number of coffees. fast and furious, simply working the table to separate the contenders from the pretenders. i call this cupping defensively because i'm basically putting up my filter system--comprised of my nose, my tongue and my gums (yes, i'm a firm believer in chewing coffee and washing it over my gums as part of mouthfeel)--to detect stuff in my work cup that i don't want to show up in my pleasure cup.

while cupping defensively is very, very important to my decision on whether to buy a coffee it cannot be done alone, which is why i also 'cup forward,' or, cup with the goal of proactively looking for desireable stuff that will enhance someone's experience when they are at home after ordering one of my coffees. this is where i use my skill as a wordsmith almost as much (in some cases, more) as my skills in assessing acidity, body, flavor and aroma. i'm cupping forward and taking notes, sometimes mentally, sometimes feeling as though my pen will run dry before i finish with the adjectives pouring from my brain. the synapses of syntax are firing and i'm generally at a loss trying to hold both the pen and the spoon at once.

this second reason for cupping is keenly important to the frontline roaster because whereas a professional cupper who is determining whether coffee will be sent from, say, the beneficio to the exporter is mainly concerned not with the subtle nuances inherent in a particular lot, but more, as my friend edwin martinez (see the last interview below) says, on the 'health' of the cup. they are simply concerned with passing it up the protein chain. i have to romanticize it, describe it ad infinitum, to sell the sizzle as much as the steak itself. so i begin come with the flower of language, which is guided by efforts at cupping forward. i am learning to be more relaxed, to take more profound slurps which can be as much philosophical as physical. i am deliberately slowing my rate of slurp not to detect crap but to enjoy the possibility of future bliss. i'm sucking at the future, at the what will be after i (potentially) buy this coffee, not sucking at the past, at what has already been done that i have no power of control over.

what, you may be wondering, in the sam hill heck does this have to do with espresso? some of you see it already. it comes.

as i mentioned at the top of the post, cupping for espresso is, for me, nearly useless. because i am a cupping hack? because i don't have a delicate enough palate? because i'm trying to get more than one person at a time to comment in the comments section by using the talk radio controversy approach to blogging? no. no. and, no. in that order. i say useless not really meaning completely devoid of benefit for me in guesstimating educatedly where an espresso will land or fly--or not--as it comes out of the portafilter. it does have its purposes. but those purposes are effectively obfuscated to me as i cup because i am using absolutely none of the same tools. it'd be like trying to run at a track meet in skis. or trying to hit a football with a baseball bat. how could one possibly be expected to make a judgment about Y using tools that have been designed to give insight into Q? another way of putting it might be to say that you're using the wrong map in the wrong laguage. when i want to determine how a coffee will taste as espresso the way to do that is through an espresso machine, with an espresso grind, at what more closely resembles an espresso roast (not necessarily an oiled roast, mind you), into an espresso holder.

maybe this is old news to any serious coffee person. but i seem to hear over and again people's conversations on making espresso blends, conversations that are devoid of the espresso machine. and that sounds a lot to me like the adage that when you're a hammer, every problem looks like a nail. maybe roasters get tunnel vision and try to approach espresso nirvana strictly from the cold science of the cupping table instead of the fanciful artistry of the espresso machine. two parts new guinea. one part brazil. three parts this, that or the other. stir vigorously and shazam! espresso alchemy.

me, i'm not built that way. maybe that means i'm more a barista at heart than a roaster at heart.

or maybe i am indeed just a hack at cupping.

Monday, October 09, 2006

oh yeah, i have a blog

sorry for lack of updates lately. i've been consumed lately with coordinating this barista jam next month. so far i've got a nifty poster. just kidding. (i mean, i do have the poster and i do think it's nifty. i do have more than just that, though.)

actually, i'm getting excited for the program that's shaping up. here's a general schedule of events for the day:

7:00–8:00a Registration, networking, coffee and pastries

8:00a Introductions and Announcements

8:30a Group Cupping: “Geography As Flavor”

9:00a Ideas Exchange: “Sustainability in Coffee”
Angel Mena, Ruta Maya Riverwalk Coffeehouse, San Antonio, TX

9:45a Equipment Demo: Clover 1S
David Latourell, Coffee Equipment Co., Seattle, Wa

10:00a Skills Workshop: “Espresso 101–201"
Mike McKim, Cuvee Coffee Roasting Co., Spring, TX

10:00a Skills Workshop: “How To Brew Anything”
Aaron Blanco, The Brown Coffee Co., San Antonio, TX

10:45a Coffee Break

11:00a Ideas Exchange: “Seed to Cup: The Story of Finca Vista Hermosa”
Edwin Martinez, Finca Vista Hermosa, Huehuetenango, Guatemala

12:00p Lunch On Your Own

1:00p Free Time On Machines

1:30p Group Cupping: “How Roast Affects Flavor”

2:00p Skills Workshop: “Milk Stuff 101–201”
Jason Haeger, Mangia Bevanda Coffeehouse, Lubbock, TX

2:00p Skills Workshop: “Fixing What Goes Wrong”
Mike McKim, Cuvee Coffee Roasting Co., Spring, TX

2:45p Espresso Break

3:00p Free Time On Machines

4:45p Wrap Up; Door Prizes; Clean Up

5:00p Good-Byes

and then afterward we'll hit a pub and talk about coffee into the night...

one thing i am changing is having the skills workshops go concurrently, then have everyone switch. meaning, for example, at 10am half the group will participate in mike's workshop while half are in mine. then we'll switch them and the other half will be in mine while my original group will go to mike's session. this is going to take more than 45 minutes to do each workshop twice, though. so i guess we can just push into coffee break time and then some. the same will happen at 2p.

all in all, i'm really pumped about how it has been shaping up. most everyone i've contacted about sponsorships of some kind has been very helpful: syrups, amazing coffees, killer equipment to play on, and so on. there is so much that goes into coordinating one of these things. but it's not stressful. hey, when you used to coordinate events to keep middle school and high school students occupied for two hours each, twice a week every week for two and a half years, putting together a barista jam is a walk in the park.

now, off to more planning.

oh yeah, if you're interested in attending the jam, register and pre-pay here.

Monday, October 02, 2006

big green overload?

at risk of focusing too much on big green lately, here's another interview/podcast posted over on a truly fascinating interview indeed, one which nick cho of murky coffee needs to take a ton of credit for. great, great interview, nick. your questions were spot on. now you need to have a follow up for that podcast and ask me the exact same questions about sbux. i'll give you the real skinny that bryant simon was only guessing at.

i found myself being the (sometimes not so silent) third conversant, clearing up inaccuracies here, filling in the blanks there. we three had a great time doing that podcast.

a fun podcast to listen to. go listen now.