Archive for the ‘ Coffee philosophy ’ Category

Auction Lot 1135

Last year, in ’06, I had a cup of Kenya coffee, Counter Culture’s Thangathie, that was just as juicy as grapefruit and tangerines and fruity brightness and acidity such as those citricy things. The coffee had been Cloverized, the only Clover I have ever tried, and I don’t know if that gave it a little more acidic push, but man it was big and wet like that. After that Kenya was gone I made a point to sample every new Kenya that came out of their roasters just as soon as I could get my paws on them, only to find myself reminiscing dreamily back that day like a Heroin junkie chasing that feeling they got with their first fix. It was just never the same after that, although there have been some great ones (Kenyas) in their own right. Then there came Auction Lot 1135. In a completely new and different way, the glory is back.

These short and round berries are as brilliantly bright as a crispy October cloudless Autumn day when brewed in the Press or the Melita filter. The mildly thin body gives way like the curtains of the theater, drawing back to feature the main performance which I had longed to witness. For days I sipped on it, trying to peg down that distinctive taste that eluded me so temptingly. Deliberately avoiding web pages where I knew it had been discussed and cupped, I tried to decipher the hints of this flavor that called to me so clearly, but remained only in my peripheral vision. There was something of Daniel Humphrie’s blood meal, something very full of iron rich mineral (volcanic soil?), and at the same time it played with sumptuous fruit. The image that kept coming to mind was, and please remember I live in the South, salted watermelon.

I also couldn’t stop getting an image of some kind of red meat. This is where I diverge from many drinkers of coffee. I like a coffee that tastes wild and crazy, different than the orthodox, flavored outside the box. I like the Indido Valley. I like a fist full of blueberry. I like the red meat and sweet salty melon of this Kenya. When I finally looked at the cupping notes of others, there it was; beef stock, steak, stew, and grapefruit.

This may not be for some. Tasting off the beaten path will simply indicate defects of some kind for many celebrated palates. But I applaud CCC for the willingness they show to keep roast levels low, flirting with line of underdone. Indeed, the first few cups I brewed of this coffee came out tasting like what I call the Green Olive of under extraction, even when brewed to the parameters that works so well with others. Not till I bumped up the grind to a finer level than I would normally use did this coffee open up like a cheap date who has just been offered a six pack of PBR (OK, not a pretty metaphor, but I think you get the picture). CCC walks that line, but like golf, it takes risk for reward.

Pick up a pound of this stuff, and if you find that it just doesn’t do the trick for you, return the unused portion to me.

Atlanta II

For some mysterious technological reason I am unable to upload photos today. So imagin a thick and densly packed tangle of wires and tubes and stainless steel sheet metal. Imagine a close up of a circular micro screen and a neoprene covered boiler tank. That is the inside of the Franke superautomatic expresso machine, and it is brilliantly more simple than the Astoria superautos. The engineering was simple and elegant, the footprint was sleek and slender. The shots were, well, lets just say that I was polite enough not to spit in the sink. But that was not entirelly the fault of the machine, but mainly the blend.

After a grulling day of espresso extractor deconstruction, I was picked up by my mystery host, who took me to visit Octane, and to meet Tony, the owner. Tony was tall and slender with a cropped salt and pepper beard, and he prepared us each a shot of a mystery blend with supple agillity that apeared natural and unforced. For whatever reason, he was not even sure himself which blend it was. We all agreed upon CCC Tuscoano, which I am not sure about, but I know it was not Afficionado. Octane has a very nice atmosphere with exposed brick walls, Georgia Tech students, and “Indy alt” staff. They had no brew extractor, but offered French press which they stored in Lexus thurmoses. It was delicious.

My host and I began disscussing our coffee passions, cafe business models, and roaster business models before heading out ot his office for a quick tour. More disscussion of business ensued, ending with a quick milk texturing tip he offered me. His office just happend to be equiped with a LaMarzocco FB80. Now imagine his beautifully formed rosetta and tulip, and my electrostatic wonky rosetta. At least the milk texture came out the way I wanted it, even if the pattern did not.

I got a good look at Atlanta, as he did not seem to know his way around very well, and after a quick pass of the federal penitentiary and some housing projects, we finally found an open restaurant. A huge “Earl Burger” kicked the wiener’s ass that I had last night, though I don’t remember the name of this place.

It will be back to the grind stone tomorrow as we tackle traditional machines. Hopefully my pictures will make it up next time.

The Barista as Gymnast

This was prompted by discussions such as this and this and this.

Every couple of months the debate comes up somewhere online concerning the merits of the Barista Competitions as performance vs. microcosm of bar life. On the one side there is the camp of those who say these are silly displays of frilly pansies creating impossible drinks for sternly snobbish coffee aficionado judges. There is, they claim, no parallel between pumping out the well rehearsed one dozen drinks demanded for competition, and preparing an ever-changing flux of tickets in a busy cafe. The argument usually takes the position that because the two arenas are so far removed from each other, the competitions have little to no value as a market driving force (or spectator event, for that matter).

The other school of thought I have seen is something of an apologetic approach, explaining the hidden similarities. A Barista must craft their performance to the taste of the judges, and play to them to score well, just as they must read their customers to serve them well. But I think the best view of this side is to look at it as more of an abstraction of human activity, in exactly the same way that sport is. No one claims that American football is anything like real warfare, but that is what it simulates. Archery is not like hunting because your target can’t get away. Olympic style down hill slalom has absolutely nothing to do with the type of skiing that 95% of most vacationers perform, even on the black diamond hill.

I have to agree that Barista Competitions are nothing like working a bar shift, and I think that they should stay distinctly unique from bar service. One would never expect to see a child on the Jungle Gym performing like Nadia Comaneci, nor would one ever expect to see nothing but somersaults and cartwheels in a championship level gymnastic routine. We easily enough accept this level of abstraction in sports, so why is it so hard to take in competitive food preparation? It is as absurd as proclaiming Picasso to be a poor artist because faces just don’t really look like that.

The Gymnast is an exaltation of the capabilities of the human body. Skills that are basic to all humanity, balance, speed, strength, are taken to a height of development far exceeding the simple necessities of day to day life. That is why it takes an exceptional Barista with a somewhat different skill set to win at these things. The complaint that the winner’s circle is out of reach for the average Barshift Barista is a bucket that won’t carry water. Of course it is out of reach, it is reserved for the freakin’ champion! Besides, the average Barshift Barista can barely draw off a half decent espresso or steam milk without making it smell like baby throw-up. So only those Baristas that have been trained to very high standards can even make the finals. Of those finalists, the winner will be someone who understands the nuances of the rules, knows a lot about the judging (or the judges themselves), and has the presence of mind to keep it together as the focal point of attention.

These distinctly unique skills have brought the occasional accusation of champions having corporate backing, inappropriately close relationships with judges, or the inside track with sponsors. But these are just the people who have made coffee their work and their life. Those who have sought out knowledge of the rules are armed with knowledge, and that is not an unfair advantage. Those who have done roasting know about bean processing and espresso blending; still not unfair. Having made time for rehearsals and practice is also not unfair because finding the time to do it comes at a tremendous sacrifice to other areas of one’s life. These are not unfair advantages because they represent the activities of committed individuals who have busted their asses to figure out how to win. If you just show up with the standard house blend and no creative thoughts for your sig bev, you can not claim any disadvantage. The same coffee world is out there to be raked over and scrutinized, and if you are not saturated in it you just won’t be as well equipped. But that is no disadvantage, it is simply not being as well prepared.

These two things I see come up again and again; competitions are not like real life, and winning is only for the privileged. Both of these ideas are a bit hogwashy. Of course competition are not like real life, and they shouldn’t be. There is no cast system in place for Baristas, you just have to want it enough to arrange your life around it. As for myself, I had become complacent in my attitude about coffee and espresso preparation after working behind the bar for a dozen years. It was not till I decided to compete, and realized how much preparation it would take, that I really developed all areas of my game. The more I saw I needed to know, the more research I did. I have learned more about coffee in the last year than in the previous 10. My skill has come up to what I would call “Competition level”, and that simply makes it impossible to drink espresso at other shops. (edit: shops in my area, you may have good ones where you live)

What does this do for the market and the industry in general? I will be taking a full time job with a roasting company, installing and maintaining equipment, and training as many other owners, managers, and Baristas how to get the most out of their coffee as I can. This I will be spreading around my entire region, and I hope to make as much impact on the front lines as possible. This goes far beyond training the Baristas of just one shop. This is my drop in the bucket, and that has to count for something in elevating the entire industry.