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.


At Monday, 23 October, 2006, Blogger Mike White said...

glad you like jp's. his nephew is a regular here in Brooklyn. I'm also glad to hear more good things about Medici. They're developing quite the reputation. Some day i'll visit my sister in Austin and have the pleasure myself.

At Monday, 23 October, 2006, Blogger blanco said...

yeah, austin is beginning to come into its own on the espresso front, i think. hopefully a jam or two round here will keep things gelling together.

thanks for the comments. wish i could visit you guys in brooklyn. hey, at least i was sportin' my 'brooklyn' brown hoodie i got a couple years ago in, er, manhatten.


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