C. F. Martin Guitar Factory tour

Just because I mostly, or exclusively, post about coffee does not mean that is my only interest.  I play guitar and have built a couple of acoustic guitars from scratch.  My interest with guitars is at least a decade older than my interest in coffee.  It has been a long standing wish of mine to visit the Mecca of the steel string guitar, and last week I finally made it out to Nazareth PA, home of C. F. Martin & Co.
Martin Guitar Factory Tour
They run public tours every work day of the week from 11am till about 3pm, and all the tours are pretty much full. There is no lack of interest. Unlike the Hershey tour, you get to see the real factory and watch the real workers making real guitars. The size and capacity of the factory are both immense, with an output of about 200 instruments per day. They are also very heavily active in sustainable practices. The tone woods industry is one with a past (and present) riddled with clear cutting, smuggling, and general rape of the rain forests of the world. A minimum of 70% certified Forest Stewardship Council lumber is used in all instruments, and more in some cases.  The long term goal is for 100%, but they have passed baby steps by now.  They have quite an undertaking in this department given the quantity of woods they consume.  There are several species of wood which are traditional to guitar building that cannot be bought an sold these days, and substitutions are made.  Nonetheless, the quality and consistency of the instruments is actually much better now than in decades past.
Martin Guitar Factory Tour
Incoming wood must season in the acclimation warehouse for a rather long period of time before it can be shaped into the necessary parts. Down in the pit area, the rough cutting starts the process of more than 150 steps to completion.
Martin Guitar Factory Tour
The voice of an acoustic guitar is tremendously affected by the dimensions and configuration of the soundboard. We watched this woman in the brace shaping department shave down these braces with a fast and precise manipulation of her chisel at a level of skill and agility you might imagine Michelangelo carving out a marble statue.
Martin Guitar Factory Tour
Martin has been an innovator in regards to structural elements of the steel string guitar for several generations. This laminated head block for a mortise and tenon joint is something I have not seen before. It is strong, stable, and long lasting.
Martin Guitar Factory Tour
Probably one of the most crucial aspects of the guitar, the neck-body joint, is not accomplished by computer aided manufacturing (like many other components in the factory are). The experience and skill of the neck setter must be absolutely top notch. It was amazing to see him dry fit the joint, then shave down the dove tail by the thickness of tissue paper, then re-fit the joint. This step was repeated several times till the neck joint was perfect. The playability of the guitar, as well as the musician’s perception of the quality of the instrument, is dependent on this most vital step.
Martin Guitar Factory Tour
Building 200 instruments per day is nothing to shake a stick at, let alone making each one of them top of the line in a massive market full of high quality guitars. This rack of necks is only a small part of a hard day’s work.
Martin Guitar Factory Tour
Robots are taking over the world, but not in a destructive and maniacal way.
Martin Guitar Factory Tour
Martin will work on any guitar they once made, if you can afford to send it in and have them do it. This is a hundred year old guitar, made by Martin right here in Nazareth, now back for some TLC.
Martin Guitar Factory Tour
How about this for a job. String up Martins, tune them, play them for a bit, then string up another one.  Don’t think I haven’t though about sending in my resume.

What is so mind blowing to me about their operation is that they have something like 600 employees. Most all of them do one small job on the guitars, like gluing on the ribbons that provide a surface on which to attache the sound board and back to the curved sides. Or glue in the lines that circle the sound hole. Or shine light through the thin soundboard material to look for imperfections. Most of these employees do not know how to build a guitar, they only know their small operation. In a factory with hundreds of workers, each knowing very little about the whole instrument, they manage to make a product that is absolutely top of the line. These guitars are world renown for their fantastic sound, fantastic set up and playbility, and perfect craftsmanship. That this can all be accomplished with a team of relatively low skilled and easily trained workers is astounding. Not to dismiss the skill level. Each job is performed with great precision. But if you have a new hire I think you can train them to work in almost any of the booths or cubicles quickly and within 3 months they will be performing a spectacular job at it. There must be only a handful of employees who are truly experts at all the tasks. There can only be a minute percentage of brains in the factory with all the knowledge of how a great acoustic guitar should be built, how to calibrate all the machinery, how to shape all the parts with precision. There is only about 10-15% of employees who even play guitar.

Another aspect of the company at which I marvel is the fact that it was started by a guy named Christian Martin in 1833, and it is now run by another guy named Christian Martin VI. Several generations so far and it is still in the hands of the original family. I love guitars, and I love this place.

Gwilym and the Athena Lever Machine

Love your Lever

Ever wonder where the expression “pulling a shot” comes from?  Maybe not, but this is where; pulling the lever of a piston driven espresso extraction.  The first espresso to have thick and persistent crema, heavy body, and a tasteful balance between acidity and sweetness, came from the lever design.  At a time when the Italian infrastructure was mostly demolished, (1940) cafes needed a way to bring water to the espresso machine (previously steam driven espresso) when there was no running water.  The solution, designed by Gagia, ( still a name in espresso equipment today) was to put the water pump right at the point of coffee delivery.

Cosimo Libardo and Lou Barba of Nuova Simonelli, traveling with Gwilym Davies, are presenting the Athena lever machine in the USA this week.  I attended the event in Washington DC at the Counter Culture Coffee training center.

It is basically the same type of low tech water pump you see in old cowboy movies where the thirsty character has to drive a handle up and down to make the water flow.  Simple enough, right?  It is simple, very simply, so simple it is almost stupid.  Purely by accident, this innovation implemented so many serendipitously positive characteristics that it becomes mind boggling.  Here is a short list:
-The first espresso ever extracted above 2 or 3 bars of pressure, the lever delivers an average of about 9 bars along a declining graph of pressure over time, resulting in the first crema

-Drawing super heated water from the boiler into the piston chamber brings the temperature down to an appropriate range, with a descending temperature throughout the life of the shot

-Soft, slow, and gentle pre-infusion at 0 bars of pressure, which you can time as long or as short as you like

If you think about all the technological advances since this 1940 design, (electric pumps, double boilers, mechanical and electronic pre-infusion, gicleur regulated soft infusion, and pressure profiling),  all seem directed at reproducing what this simple device does in a natural way.  Let’s have a peek:


It does all these same things, but in a way that is slightly different than what we have become accustomed to.  It stabilizes temperature, but not in a flat line sort of way.  The temperature starts high and dramatically drops; as much as 10 degrees F.  It pressurizes, but again not in a flat line.  Pressure starts out a phenomenal 11 bars, and dramatically drops as low as 7 bars.  It pre-infuses, but with 0 pressure.  The differences are such that you can’t apply what you know from electronic machines.  Pre-infusion is long, the shot itself can run very long, and you have to really go out of your way to channel or over extract.  In fact, watching Baristas work on it for their first time, I was struck by how difficult it was for them to allow the shots to run 40 seconds or more.  Second nature for them was to terminate the shots before they were fully developed (thinking they had already over extracted).  Once you get the hang of it, however, you find that the high temps and pressure at the beginning coupled with low temps and pressure at the end will result in brilliant acidity balanced by intense sweetness.

Love your Lever

Nuova Simonelli bought the Victoria Arduino brand a few years ago, and have retooled the design to include a heat exchanger (it was drawing right from the steam boiler before) and some other small tweaks.   Cosimo is very intent about studying all aspects of their equipment in a scientific way, designing and redesigning equipment with the production of great tasting espresso always in mind.

Love your Lever

I have always been drawn to low tech and old fashioned ways of doing things.  My fascination lies with how problems were solved in such simple ways before humans had developed the incredible tech boom of the last 50 or 60 years.  I am in love with this machine and the simple technology on which it works.  With a gas flame, you can run this thing entirely without electricity.  Wrap you bicycle chain around the drive shaft of your espresso grinder, and you have the total package.

Victoria Arduino


I mentioned the lever machine was a Nuova Simonelli.  NS owns the Victoria Arduino product line which the lever machine comes from.  Here it is, slightly dismantled, sans lever, ready for delivery to DC.

Love Your Lever

Gonna meet up with the DC bunch tonight.

Mostly the DC crew, with exception of Brian G of Philly on the left

I’ll be heading down to Washington DC today for the Nuova Simonelli lever espresso machine event hosted by Counter Culture Coffee and Gwilym Davies. I have been saying for years now that modern pressure profile machines are using an advanced application of technology to achieve essentially the same thing as the old fashioned lever machines. We will see what Gwilym has to say about that.

The (relatively) new Shot Tower


Thought I would get something new up on the dusty old blog.  Shot Tower Coffee, 6th and Christian in Philly, opened a couple of months ago with lots of rustic wood, old subway tiles, and Philly’s first Strada espresso machine.  The Stunptown coffee is good, the cast iron cafeteria table from the Tasty Cakes factory is handsome and substantial.  But what really takes the podium are the exquisite (and I don’t feel funny using that word to describe these) orchids on every flat surface.  Matt, one of the owners, is said to have some experience in botany, and he keeps the alive and in full bloom.

Me in my Halloween outfit



MANE Artisan Coffee Conference 2010

For the fourth year in a row Gerra Harrigan (New Harvest Coffee) and Troy Reynard (Cosmic Cup) have organized the Mid Atlantic North Eastern Barist Jam, but this has always exceeded the narrow description of a Jam, and is now called a conference. I have been saying it is more of a convention for the three years that I have participated. Using the headquarters of New Harvest Coffee in Providence RI was a huge success. There were six espresso machines (if you count the two in the training room), oodles of manual brewing devices, loads of beer, and for the lucky few, there was home made apple brandy, coffee liqueur, and slightly aged whiskey. Somebody up there has a still in a secret location, and apparently they know what to do with it.

Yesterday someone asked me to tell them my three high points. Here they are in order of greatness (to me anyway):

1- The point of the conference, in my opinion, is not just to have the opportunity for accomplished Baristas to rub elbows and network with other great coffee personalities. It is raise the level of knowledge, to educate, to create a greater sense of professionalism. There was a young woman named Emily from a local shop called Honey Do Doughnuts. She uses a super-auto machine, and has never dosed, distributed, or otherwise handled a portafilter. She heard about the conference and, of her own volition, sought us out (the specialty coffee people) to learn more about the craft. I took here on a dizzying crash course of Barista craft while scrambling to calibrate the tricky Malkhonig K-30 grinders just prior to the spro down. Quickly explaining what I was doing, and why, I crammed as much as I could into her brain for a few short minutes. It is important to me that everyone attending get the message there is no place for elitist and self aggrandizing attitudes in our little part of the industry. I hope she came away with a positive perspective and the desire to continue to learn more.

2- As the representative of one the sponsoring companies, I was given 10 minutes to tell a bit about the company. I recited our (Counter Culture Coffee) mission statement.

-Counter Culture Coffee is a relentless pursuit of coffee perfection

-We strive to achieve real social, economic, and environmental sustainability in all our endeavors

-We create cutting edge coffee people

That about sums it up.

3- For the last two MANEs, I worked sort of behind the scenes in a technical and logistical support capacity. This year I was asked to be a feature presenter. This was a terribly great honor for me, and I hope to never lose sight of the fact that I am in no way a super brain of coffee knowledge, and that there are many, many others as worthy or more than I am to speak on such matters.

For a close tie in fourth place would be hanging out with all the great bunch of coffee professionals who ended up getting sent away from on bar in downtown Providence, and ended up the true hang out, the Red Fez. This was equally matched with meeting the big bunch from Buffalo, the big bunch from Joe in NYC, working with host and organizers, spending time with my co-workers, and partying with the crew from Aldo Coffee of Pittsburgh.  All others I ran into, chatted up, or otherwise interacted with, this goes for you all too.

MANE Artisan Coffee Conference 2010

This is the New Harvest training room.

MANE Artisan Coffee Conference 2010

Here is Troy of Cosmic, Rik of New Harvest, and Jay of Spro

MANE Artisan Coffee Conference 2010

Tommy, the Counter Culture Tech Guy, plumbing in a dedicated Shot Brewer

MANE Artisan Coffee Conference 2010
Jay gives a mock speech to an empty room
MANE Artisan Coffee Conference 2010
Among other coffee shops, we visited White Electric to see their cool (actually hot) lever machine
MANE Artisan Coffee Conference 2010
The discussion panel talked of the coffee career path, with special attention paid to women specific strategies
MANE Artisan Coffee Conference 2010
David Schomer, who was invited, said he is happier working in his shops, but did send this autographed glossy
MANE Artisan Coffee Conference 2010
We saw the Providence River Pyres, I’m not even going to try to explain thisMANE Artisan Coffee Conference 2010
Sorry about half of John’s face from Aldo, Troy of Cosmic, Ani of Aldo, Jess also of Aldo. Not to omit or offend any of the other dozens of great people, but these were good times with this bunch.


See you next year!

BGA chapter rep in the Housh!


Julie Housh, MidAtlantic BGA representative, was in Providence last weekend repping the BGA, signing up new memberships and promoting Camp Pull a Shot.  Go to the BGA web site and sign up when you have the scratch, and then you can stop complaining that people don’t take you seriously as a Barista.  Advance the professionalism, Hun!

Artisan coffee conference


The conference is fixin to start.

How to generate more business at your shop

I came across this coffee shop in Pittsburgh, and I really liked so many things about it.  Unfortunately, there were several things that seemed to go unnoticed by the owner, and she was left confused and baffled how to generate more revenue.  She had shrunk the labor costs by having practically no staff and working killer hours herself.   But like I always tell people in her position, you do not create more business by lowering expenses, sometimes you just short change yourself.

I love this bar design. However, this place has so much room for improvement.   The owner was a youngish woman in her early 20s (or mid), who seemed surprised that the bank even gave the loan to buy this place from the previous owner.  She seemed concerned about her inability to generate new business besides having what she said was some of the best coffees, pastries, and breads in the city.  Well, I made a few quick observations, but it was certainly not my place to make any suggestions.   Had I been a good friend, or asked by her to consult, these are the key points I would have made, and it is a good lesson for anyone else out there trying to make a run at the coffee business:

-The equipment is very old, not necessary to replace it, but up-keep is important.   Specifically, clean them up so they look good at least, and replace the grinder hopper, which is filthy.

-The bar is so cool and generates an awesome customer/Barista dynamic, clear away the newspapers that are 4, 3, and 2 weeks old, just keep the current one. Unlcutter.

-Reduce the crazy number of syrups down to maybe the top four sellers and free up the revenue that is tied up in that wide spectrum of seldom used flavors.

-The pastries and breads you are so proud of are displayed in zip lock bags and stored in a grimy and unlit case.   Give them a display worthy of their goodness, show the customer what you think of them by the setting in which you place them.  Some nice plates, glass domes, and a little windex would do the trick.

-Clean up the basic stuff;  dust, accumulated dirt, scrub the floors really well, get rid of all the old news paper clippings and random notes taped to the walls behind the counter.  Put them in a scrapbook and organize a clean display for new ones.

-Find a discrete location for your computer, don’t sit in front of all your customers on the laptop at the end of the circle and FaceBook away your slow afternoons.   Look like you are participating in your own coffee shop rather than looking like you are waiting to clock out.

-The coffee itself is mediocre quality brewed on poorly maintained, (not to mention ugly) machinery, and made in a technically incorrect manner for good extraction.  The  SCAA, and probably your own roaster, can give you classes on coffee brewing and espresso extraction.  Understand the industry standards in which you operate.


There is actually a lot that can be done without changing food or coffee vendors or replacing any equipment.   Just clean the place from floor to ceiling and get rid of the clutter.  There is a bustling neighborhood right outside the door, and business is dwindling because the atmosphere is just a little dingier than it needs to be, the food is presented just a little slacker than it could be, the coffee is just a little off from how it could be prepared, and the service seems just a little less interested in the customers than it may really be.  It wouldn’t take any extra money to do most all of these things, and would probably generate some badly needed business.  It just takes forethought, spunk, and a lot of elbow grease.