Archive for the ‘ coffee ’ Category

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.

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!

Aida, holding my bag

I made this messenger bag from a burlap coffee bag from Finca Mauritania.  Betty from Spruce Street Espresso took in to El Salvador for a bag making project, the details of which will be forthcoming.  Here is Aida Battle, coffee producer and owner of Finca Mauritania, holding the bag.  Apparently she though Betty was giving to her as a gift, and was disappointed when she had to give it back.

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.

Ultimo Coffee

Almost ready to open (early May 2009)  is the newest addition to the coffee community in Philadelphia.  Get the story of  Ultimo Coffee here.

T-Shirt and pin from Ultimo Coffee

T-Shirt and pin from Ultimo Coffee

There will also be a lot of damn good beer by the bottle thanks to landlord and owner of The Tap Room, John Longacre.  The combined coffee and beer joint is call  Brew, featuring Ultimo Coffee, and is located at the corner of 15th and Miflin in South Philadelphia.

What’s Going on Now

For my 7 faithful readers, I know I owe it to you to let the world know what has been happening in the long while since my last spastic post.  I don’t have any cool mods or refurbs to show at the moment.  But the last couple of months have been fast and busy.  Crap, it is sounding like a Christmas letter already.

Betty and me at the MA/NEBC

Betty of Spruce Street and me at the MA/NEBC

It seems like I am in Pittsburgh a lot these days, I could call this “What’s going on in Pittsburgh”.  The Mid Atlantic/North Eastern Barista Competition was held in Cranberry, just North of Pittsburgh.  I had the real privilege of volunteering for this massive event, which by the way, brought the crowd in like no other regional competition ever before.

The view from the Rennaisance Hotel, Pittsburgh

The view from the Rennaisance Hotel, Pittsburgh

Barista Kevin at Voluto Coffee, Pittsburgh

Barista Kevin at Voluto Coffee, Pittsburgh

Voluto Coffee, again in Pittsburgh, was a great experience.  While I was in town for three days of Grocery demo coffee, I stopped in here for 49th Parallel’s Epic espresso on a daily basis.  The crisp and uncluttered design was super sharp, the staff was knowledgeable and skilled, and the owners, Barb and Amalie, were warm and friendly.  It is definitely worth a visit for the coffee traveler.

Brandy of Lovers and Madmen, not in Pittsburgh

Brandy of Lovers and Madmen, not in Pittsburgh

My friends of Lovers and Madmen have finally opened after what seemed like an eternity of pre-opening preparation.  At Ludlow and 40th in West Philly’s University City,  these guys offer a much needed touch of quality beverages to that side of the Schuylkill.

So that is what’s up right now.  Oh, I almost forgot, the Counter Culture Coffee Training Center in New York City is just about ready to recieve guests and students.  You will have to check here to find out about it.

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.

MANE Barista Jam in Full Swing

Today we hooked up four GB-5s, splicing electrical cord, duct taping it to the rug, and in some cases rigged a little hard wiring, to get things up and running for the East coast Jam of the year.  Jon Lewis, billed as “Keynote Speaker”, wheeled in a cart which was outfitted with a hand crank grinder, thermal French Press, and pumping device.   He brewed some coffee in the press after which he poured the liquid into a bucket of water, pumped the coffee/water solution with the handle driven pump into one cup, and poured it’s contents into someone else’s cup.  That cup was poured into another, and then again and again, until the whole audience had both received and gifted the coffee to others.  All the while, Jon talked of letting it flow, let it flow, let it flow like Ralaph Waldo, let it flow like Ultimo, let it flow like Giuliano.  There was also something about creating our own deliberate life as an artist would create a work of art.  Don’t forget, he was dressed in brown overalls and dark brown specs, as he was to be the espresso shot of the collective Baristas.  Thusly did we commence the Barista Jam.

A Spro Down was to follow, and I am wanting a rematch against Aldo’s Rich Westerfield, as he narrowly beat out Austin of Olso coffee in Brooklyn, and myself in the second and final round of the robust and friendly competition which raised over $300 for Bikes to Rwanda.  Not present was the whoopin’ and hollerin’ typically characteristic of these events.  Instead there was a respectful atmosphere nurtured with polite “golf” applause.