Archive for the ‘ Coffee philosophy ’ Category

Jay’s Strange Jam

The eagerly anticipated opening of Jay Caragay’s second Spro location in Hampden, Baltimore, was pre-heated with a dawn to dusk Barista Jam last Saturday. The day was the organizational brain child of Lindsay Wailes, one of Jay’s Baristas for the new location.  The basic outline of the day went like this

-Eat a catered pastry and yogurt breakfast

-Coffee brewing Demos

-Eva solo, Clever drip, Chemex, Syphon, Aeropress

-Free play


-Competition rules and judging workshop

-Latte art workshop

-Catered diner


The crowd gathers early in the AM

Barista Joy "controls the moist" with a Clever Drip

It was a lot of stuff to pack into one day.  Jay’s Baristas had been put in charge of dialing in all the brewing parameters of all the methods using all the coffees they carry.  There were multiple roasters represented from Barefoot, Intelligentsia, Hines , Counter Culture, as well as local Baltimore roasters Bluebird and Zekes.  I like how Jay has delegated the brewing parameters to the staff.  Simultaneously empowering, instilling confidence, and raising skill levels, this ingenious training tactic has made the shop a better place before the doors are even open.  Each brewing method was demonstrated by the Barista who personally developed the shop’s technique for that particular method.  All the methods delivered extremely good presentations of the coffees specifically chosen for each brewing device.

Lindsay Wailes, event organizer, watches over a syphon brew

The space is located along a retail strip of old, narrow store fronts in an area where the architecture is reminiscent a little bit of Washington DC.  There is comfortable church pew (rarely do the two go together) and handful of two topper tables and chairs.  The bar area is designed with the Barista in mind.  An island of counter houses the brew bar, with a large hot water tower and it’s own sink, a single halogen burner for the syphons, a two bay stainless steel pour over station, and spare room for scales and things.  The old LaMarzocco Linea, developed and built as a prototype for Starbucks many years ago (but never placed in green apron service) now features bright halogen lamps that illuminate only when the group is activated.  The white light created by these babies is soooo much nicer than the blue shift of LEDs.

The white halogen shines on Hines

There was a cupping lead by Devlin, formerly a roaster from New Harvest in Providence, Rhode Island.  Scott Conary, USBC big time judge talked about rules and judges, and various interpretations of rules.  I lead a latte art workshop.  It was my goal to have a very informative workshop while keeping to a minimum of demonstration.  The only latte art I poured for the workshop was a single Monk’s Head design, which is something I like for people to practice.  It is a great “back to basics” skill drill.

Edit:  It has just occurred to me that Scott Conary is a big time WBC judge, not USBC.

Keep the glow alive

You can read about the latte art throwdown in the previous post, which I won.  It is the first latte art throwdown I have ever won.  I won a bag of people’s stuff, which was kind of cool.

Don’t do this


This is why I tell people not to keep their tamper on top of the espresso machine.

Ever wondered what causes big bubbles to push out of the portafilter spouts when you pull a shot? I use to think it was a massive gurgle of CO2. I thought that fresher coffee gave off lots of gas, which is true. But the gurgle effect is something a little different. Steam is building up in the space between the portafilter basket and the bottom of the portafilter. The steam pushes out big bubbles once the stream of crema and espresso fills the exit chute. This may not bother you, and I didn’t give it much thought till David Lamont mentioned it. But if you like to read the signs of good extraction you may not want bubbles or a back log of espresso to get all churned up before you get to see it. If you really want or need to stabilize the flow you can ventilate your portafilter.

This video shows the effect of a ventilated portafilter as compared to a stock portafilter with both fresh gaseous espresso and a slightly more aged and stabilized espresso.

Ventilated Portafilter

Ventilated Portafilter

Meg will bury you with her polish technique

Meg and Cait of Baked and Wired in Georgetown, Washington D.C. came to one of our (Counter Culture Coffee) labs at the D.C. training center last week for some quality time with the equipment. As my loyal readers will know (you both know who you are), I am fascinated with Barista techniques and lingo. I consider myself a collector of sorts. I noticed Meg spinning her tamper like a D.J. and I asked her to reproduce her actions for the camera. This is for the benefit of the Barista community at large, as I hope to expand the knowledge and understanding of the craft among those who wish to know.

It looks a bit grainy in the compressed video, but look for the spinning logo on the butt of the tamper.

And the Big Announcement Is……

Starbucks rolls out their new blend.  Yup, that’s it.  A new all Latin American bucks blend, Pike’s Place, hit the streets today in full force after much tension was built with a huge marketing campaign.  Some have been heard to discount this as mere advertising trickery and over-hype.  But this is the same technique we employ to get good results from our 5 year old daughter.  Every little thing is greatly praised and often recounted with cheering and laughter.  It’s just what you do.

I referred to the “new” old logo as the naked Mermaid and the Barista corrected me.  It’s a Siren.

I had a hankering for cup of coffee after lunch, and I remembered that today was the big day.  I made my way to West Chester’s very new Starbucks location.  This place has been built out to emphasize the theatrics of the coffee bar.  There is bar seating at one end with marble counter top and a great view of the Barista’s side of the Super Autos.  You can watch the whole show and interact with the Partners while you sip your free cup of Pike’s Place Blend.  They promise it is the “smoothest” coffee they have ever served, and they will make it fresh every 30 minutes.  Most quality oriented coffee shops I know have longer holding times if they use any type of thermos device.  And in fact, I did see the black aproned “Coffee Master” dump at least a half gallon of P.P. down the drain just as the timer sounded.  He then used a large measuring ladle to prepare another batch from the pre-ground beans.

Black Apron Coffee Master promptly dumps the coffees every 30 minutes .

As for the coffee itself, I have to say that I had my hopes and expectations very high.  I have been reading on the Starbucks employee blog how much the Partners themselves enjoy the new blend with less cream than they normally use, and how highly they regard this new national sensation.  My first whiff of the aroma reveled a lot of cocoa and caramel.  At it’s hottest, I thought at first that it came across with just a tiny bit of phenolic like fresh plastic note, but at a more reasonable drinking temperature it was definitely the most pleasant coffee I have ever tasted from this company.  The finish still betrayed the beginning of roastiness, but in comparison to their other coffees, it was really well restrained in it’s roast level.  There was a discernible and pleasing amount of brightness also, which was a surprise.  However, the roast level was just a bit past what might have expressed a more dominant origin character.  As a result, there was a certain lack of complexity.  Still, the coffee was very well balanced, very fresh, and all at a very good level of extraction.  Did I mention it was free?  I asked for a 12 oz, and the Barista let me know I could have an 8 oz free of charge.  I said OK.

For those who dislike the company for philosophical, political, or ethical reasons, there is just not going to be any way for you to be pleased.  When the company was huge and served mediocre coffee at acrid roast levels it was easy to be a hater.  There will be many who continue to hate.  But the fact is that they are moving toward a style that is more fashionable among the coffee educated.  Also a fact is that they are beating many an independent shop on consistency and freshness.  The employees were really friendly and accommodating to me.  How can you hate these things.  In the past these guys were a last resort coffee shop when you were in a different town and you didn’t know where else you could go.  You could choke down a cup if you needed to, even if you couldn’t finish the last quarter.  Which by the way, was still pretty good with the Pike’s Place blend.  This gives me somewhere I can go and get a more than mediocre, pretty fresh, pretty good cup.  If you own your own coffee shop, you should be so lucky (or skilled, as it were) to do as well as they are doing with this new, but over marketed, coffee.

Where does flavor come from?

I have often heard the question asked concerning the flavor characteristics of a coffee, “what is more important, the terroir, the variatel, or the process?” The question presupposes the concept that one of the factors is more important. Here we have an experiment by one producer, Aida Battle in El Salvador, that involves coffee all from one farm but processed differently. All Bourbon, grown in the same volcanic soil and in the same climate, these coffees each present a truly unique profile each unto their own. The fourth coffee, Grand Reserve, contains coffees from three of her farms blended together.

four amigos

The Finca Mauritania coffee is typically washed and comes across with stone fruit sweetnes, warm brightness, silk on the palate, and impeccably clean aftertaste. The only washed coffee from F. M. in this group is the Peaberry, and is so savory with a mineral brightness that one professional roaster I cupped it with mistook it for something from Kenya.

The Pulp Natural, (the mucilage is dried on the seed instead of soaking in a fermentation tank) has muted brightness, deep sugar development, and a cocoa flavor. This coffee has single origin espresso written all over it.

The Pasa, or raisin, coffee is left to dry in the cherry. This is a risky undertaking in humid places. Everyone I cupped it with was certain that they had easily identified a Harrar or Yergicheffe natural. The acidity was a little less pronounced, however, and is the only give away. Deep cherry and blueberry and strawberry were all over this coffee on the cupping table.

The Grand Reserve has peaberries from three of Aida’s farms, each from carefully selected micro lots, to produce a sweet and savory, subtly bright, layered complexity of fruitiness with nuance and cleanliness.

Justin and Jesse

Obviously process plays a huge role, but we must not discount the meticulously cultivated and harvested crop. The heirloom coffee pedigree has a place in the final product as does the perfectly suited ecosystem in which it grows. The expertise of the roasters, (Tim, John, and Kiran) brings it to a point of readiness. Of course, the Barista is the last person to touch it, and they can make it or break it.

I guess that answers the question. None of these factors if the most important. They must all be in harmony with each other to achieve a great cup of coffee.


Yes, it is Esmeralda again

      Roasters who bought Esmeralda at the now famous Best Of Panama auction a mounth or so ago paid $130 per pound.  The same coffee could also be aquired directly from the farm, when and if available, at it’s regular price, which I don’t know.  The retail cost to the consumer for the 12 oz bags from Counter Culture Coffee was $30.  Is this price worth it?  Ask yourself this, how much did you pay for your last hair cut?  How much did you pay for a glass of wine the last time you ate out?  How much did you pay for your cool shoes, boots, Abercrombie shirt?  Stop worrying about the cost of damn good coffee.

   I made a french press of the Esmeralda the other day, my first encounter with it, and I thought it came out a little under done.  It seemed tea-like, but with a perfectly clean and crisp acidity and beautiful finish.   The next day I had some as iced coffee and it was like the most fantasitc thing iced tea wished it could be, with a good coffee foundation to boot.  Then when I made another press pot I over shot the mark and it came out bitter and a bit flat.  Then I cupped it and it was the most delightful fruity chinese Lychee and pink fruit.   Then the next day I cupped it and the after taste was a displeasing tartness.  Later that afternoon it was a delicious plum.  I’m torn.  Do I like it or not?  The fragrance is always the most fantastic coffee aroma I have ever known.  The flavor changes on me from day to day depending on too many factors to grapple at once.

    All coffees have a sweet spot when it comes to time, temperature, turbulance, and throw weight.  It is never a simple mecanical excercise to hit the bulls eye.  What I have found difficult with Esmeralda is that it is a moving target.  This is simultaniously the best, and most fickle coffee I have known.

   Maybe my expectations are that it must always be great.  This hasn’t been my experience though.  This morning I felt kind of like a chump in a room with 20 people cupping Esmeralda, and I was the guy who didn’t like the after taste.  Every body else was like “I love the after taste, I wanna carry it around all day!”  I was like “um, does anybody have any gum?”  But after lunch, while giving samples to some wine experts, it was transending.

   It just goes to show you, a Jaguar may be a fine automobile, but it will be in the shop often, and it will cost a fortune to get it fixed.

The Wooden Bikes

What do you do when you have several hundred pounds of hand picked coffee cherries and only a few hours to get it to the mill before it starts to turn?  Do you load it up in your beat up Toyota pick up?  Do you pack it up on the back of your Buro?  Do you send it UPS?  Not if you live in Rwanda.  You carry it by bicycle, but not just any bicycle; by wooden bicycle.


If you are handy and you are willing to put out the human resources you can build your own.

Tim Hill, Head Roaster of Counter Culture Coffee, (and a friend of his who’s name is not known to me), built this crazy American version with rubber wheels.

 If you want to learn more and help support the manufacture of steel framed bikes for the farmers, you can get up with the people at BikesToRwanda.

Don’t be a ‘Spro, Bro

     I don’t know…..    Maybe I am too old to be hip anymore, if I ever was.   Maybe I am just not on the cutting edge of cool.  The kids like their lingo, and the lingo morphs from one generation to the next.  Hell, it changes from one graduating class to the next for that matter.  Everything has been shortened or abstracted.  If you are in the know you will get it, otherwise you just some old geezer, or at least over 35 years old. 

     Peeps, scrilla, the shizzzz, tat, the ‘Tane;  almost anything can be shortened, abrieviated, or altered for added hip value.  With the exception of the timeless “cool”, the relavence of any given piece of slang is restricted to a period in history that lasts about as long as adolesence.   You will easily be spoted as an older poser if you try to whip out an expression you think is cool, but has already gone out of style.

“Yo G, slap me some skin, ’cause you look crazy stoopid in all the Bling!”   You get the gist.


 Maybe I am just to old to appreciate creative language.  Am I a stick in the mud, or is the term “‘Spro” just the most juvinille sounding thing?  Do you walk into a sophisticated establishment and turn to the Somallier and say “Dude, pour me some Vino!”  So why would you walk into cutting edge modern day specialty coffee bar and say, “Gimme a ‘Spro, Bro!”  Maybe the torn and un-laundered jeans and ratty T-shirt with a Kitchy silk screen allows you to let down the guard you normally reserve for interaction with civilized and cultured individuals.

     The long and short of it is, wheather I am too old to be cool or not, I just think it sounds bad.  It is not that I think it gives the coffee industry a bad image, or that the Barista community needs to clean up it’s act.  I am not advocating any sort of social correction.  The expresion istelf is just crude and awkward.   And besides, it is very reminiscent of the term “Spooge”.

This is What it’s all About

I found this on  This doodle represents everything we are trying to do in the specialty coffee industry.  One should look forward to, and think fondly of one’s coffee break.  One should dream and fantisize about it.  Coffee should creep into the frontal lobe via the reptilian stem, touching all memories real and ancestral.  The welling up of coffee from the subconscious should cause the limbs to move, tracing the outlines and causing to take shape the image on one’s self reliving the moment when that beverage was transporting.  The added bonus is the feeling of being enveloped in a shroud of love.


 This was doodled and originally posted by lebonbonmulticolre, also known as Izzy from the street style blog Mtl Street.  BTW, Montreal is my hometown too.