company - education - coffee

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Scace on Loan

a scace

A care package arrived today from our friend Matt Brinski. Matt email me out of the blue recently and offer me his Scace to play with. A big thanks goes out to Matt for his trust and generosity!!!

- Ben

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Edwin Martinez on fermentation: The critical point in processing

Photo Courtesy of Edwin Martinez

"The above picture remains in my opinion the start of what is ultimately the critical point for most estates in Guatemala, be it 1/4 of an acre or a few thousand acres. It is in my opinion quite an achievement in the development of coffee (particularly for a country that is so much smaller than Colombia or Brazil) to have such a high level of consistency and quality control exercised by all even the smallest growers who have less than 1/4 of an acre. The conflict with fermentation is that if one crosses the line and goes too far, the coffee is ruined as “over fermentation” is in fact the worst and most identifiable defect." -Edwin Martinez
Read the full discussion here

Edwin's recent post on fermentation gives great insight into this process and his undeniable commitment to quality while his recent gutsy post on the professionals only coffee forum showed his intense commitment and dedication to the betterment of his community.

Fermentation is a touchy subject, but it really needs to be addressed and people really need be made aware of just how much labor, skill, water quality issues, and costs are associated with a good washed process coffee when compared with traditional naturals.

Edwin adds, "These topics aren’t for those who want to look over and see what the next guy is doing rather (it's) for those who want to define the cutting edge and are willing to go out on a limb risking falling on (their) face in the genuine pursuit of excellence." We agree, and believe those are the topics we want to cover and see others cover in the future but are very curious who the rookies are that Edwin speaks of!

A whole-hearted crew endorsement of Edwin "commit to excellence and quality with out compromise" Martinez as he is quickly rising the ladder to the top of our coffee champions list.

Monday, December 18, 2006

Spouted vs Bottomless.. again

Spouted and Bottomless portafilters

Bottomless portafilters are great for training but we have been big fans of spouted portafilters for a while.

Whatever we were perceiving, we live by it in most cases. Long ago, the novelty of watching bottomless shots wore off and we began to drool over the thought of something like teflon portafilters.

Whatever your opinions may be, it's interesting to see other people musing over this topic though and how many different ideas exist. Phil offers an introspective look at the topic and there was even a thoughtful post about this on coffeed.

Saturday, December 16, 2006

Green coffee ages but what does that mean?

Stale: Having lost freshness, effervescence, or palatability.

Is it that simple for your green coffee? Is it possible that over time, something changes, and your coffee can lose it's flavor even before it is roasted?

The answer is surprisingly complex. In fact, to what level could depend completely on the coffee itself and the original flavors present. There is most definitely no catch all answer. Some coffees may show this "agey" flavor change whereas others may not show perceivable age. The important part in analyzing this is roasting in a way that you can perceive a difference. The one thing that is certain is that 'something' is changing whether we can perceive it or not.

Chemical and structural changes happen over time in storage that have been well documented. Temperature, humidity, and light seem be the things that can expedite those changes. It should be a given that exposure to chemical agents, molds, and other contaminants should be avoided but these can also contribute to biodegradability.

George Howell has pointed to lignins previously as proof of the biodegradability of coffee seeds. Lignin is a biodegradable plant material that is hydrophobic. This means it is water resistant and resists pathogens entering or possibly flavors escaping while acting like a glue binding the seed together. Coffee seeds are very waxy, so it really brings up the question of how hydroscopic the coffee is in the green state and what part that plays into the flavor changes. Lignins are only about 2% of the total coffee mass so it remains to be seen if this 'glue' is the sole culprit in bean decomposition or plays a part along with volatile flavor components that may escape over time.

What is truly curious is the relationship between sugars and how flavors form as well as the overwhelming topic of moisture content. Sugars are increasingly interesting according to the research on low molecular weight sugars in green and roasted coffee collected in Ivon Flament's 'Coffee Flavor Chemistry.' Poor storage was believed to result in an increase of glucose which correlated with a marked increase in woody/rubbery notes in the coffee. There was also an increase in water content during the same period, so it remains that moisture content of the bean is an easier measure of green quality than a quantitative sugar analysis. Storage in tropical temperatures (such as at origin) can even induce chemical changes such as the Maillard reaction in the green coffee.

So what does that tell you food scientists?
There are changes in coffee in the time it is stored that need to be addressed by expedited shipping, better storage method, and possibly freezing green.

Is that conclusive proof that we should all start flying coffee from origin and freezing green? No. What it points to is that we need to set up conditions where we can do a qualitative analysis of the changes coffees in storage go through and continue pursuing the upgrades you see from pioneers like Daterra Farm in bagging.

From a recent experiment we did with a CoE quality green stored in air conditioned storage and one frozen over the last year, we had a very stark contrast in the two. The differences we have noted are that floral citrus notes in wp centrals, wp Yirgs, and clean Kenyas appear to disappear over time to be replaced with a woodsy dull lifeless note and an unpleasant wheat or barley flavor. Aromatics disappear first, followed by changes in the citrus notes. Naturals turn quickly from the soft over ripe fruit into very muddy rotten fruit flavors over time in storage. We don't have enough notes on controlled dry process to state definitively what is changing.

Those are just our evaluations and this is a challenge to roasters to make their own evaluations and share their observations. Keep in mind that if the green quality isn't already very high, you may not notice the changes. This is not something to invest in your Sumatra at $1/lb but might make sense for that $20/lb CoE Guatemala.

Point being, if you paid a lot for this coffee, you should research keeping it in it's best shape as long as possible whether you are a professional roaster or the home variety.

Friday, December 15, 2006

Espresso: Blends are a compromise

A blend is a compromise. An alchemist's approach to coffee in many cases. Taking parts, that alone can be quite inferior which equal something greater as a whole. Lead into gold, not quite, but close.
Of course I am pitching the extreme to prove a point here.

Espresso blends are historically composed of some of the lowest grade coffees available. Robusta, monsooned malabar, and low grade indonesians are the backbone of the traditional generic milk espresso blend.

What if you took a wine approach to blending? Two or three high grade varietals blended together for something even more complex. Instead of putting together inferior parts, use components that were great as separate pieces.
What if we took only amazing high grade coffees and were to blend them? Not to suddenly abandon the terroir view of micro lots and soil quality, but to add this blending on top of the great single origins/green quality concepts with one caveat to give the farmer due credit:
What if blends came to market that were transparent and labeled the contents and percentages proudly on the bag?

Abandoning the black box approach to espresso and stating what was contained inside for the consumer.
What if?

It's been done with percentages and all by the Danes.

Monday, December 11, 2006

Defintion: The Sommelier

"A sommelier (pronounced /sɔməˈlje/ or suh-mal-'yAy), or wine steward, is a trained and knowledgeable wine professional, commonly working in fine restaurants, who specializes in all facets of wine service. The role is more specialised and informed than that of a wine waiter." -Wikipedia

When will such a thing exist in coffee? A culinary professional on par with a Chef de Cuisine. The first proclaimed tea sommelier happened only around a decade ago. Will such a title apply to a coffee professional in the near future? Someone to help tweak every little flavor from each varietal. A trained professional who understands all aspects of production well enough to be considered a master.
How far away from this are we in coffee?

There are great barista working with a single blend, but few work with enough different espresso/coffees to build a good understanding of different roast styles, origins, and varied extraction methods. Many of the most elite have only ever worked with one roaster consistently and would be hard pressed to adjust to or even simply accept different styles to get the most form a coffee.

Especially as all these new Cup of Excellence coffees come out and change the true specialty market, how can we as consumers keep up without someone to help us get the most from these coffees?

The Coffee Sommelier, the pro who can speak with conviction and passion about flavors in the cup and then serve it with skill.

It's a nice concept.

Saturday, December 09, 2006

Finca Vista Hermosa via Brown Coffee Co

"The lot that Aaron (Brown Coffee Co.) has I believe is from El Eden which means Eden. I think it was my aunt Delmi that gave this parcel it's name after the Garden of Eden in the Bible because it has two springs on it that yield 2 creeks that end up merging and it reminded her of the Tigris and Euphrates river in the middle east that is supposedly where the garden of Eden was. It is very very steep, but has great trees (non coffee) and of course the water and great partial exposure as it is it's own mini ridge...
This was 1 of 3 lots that Anacafe Awarded (the Martinez Family) earlier this year granting (them) the lock on this years supply to Ancafe for what they use to promote the region of Huehue with around the world at trade shows and such." - Edwin Martinez of Finca Vista Hermosa

When we first cupped this coffee, we were largely interested in why it was so even and how it was so clean. It seemed that for this price, this coffee was a heck of a steal. It was so evenly sorted and so few visible defects that we couldn't believe the price. When I got the low down from Edwin, the quality we were seeing made sense. The coffee is solid because it comes from an area with potentially good terroir and they must take care of it in processing.

We cupped this coffee and got a satisfying experience. It was clean and sweet, the roast smoothed out and the cup clarified as it began to cool.

The cupping notes yielded a light layer of roast cocoa, mineral notes, dark sugar, and clean fruit toned acidity underneath. The coffee could go lighter because of it's quality, but I would not enjoy darker. The roast was part of the flavor balance and did not overwhelm the origin flavors allowing them to show through.

Making a snap judgement on this coffee was hard, but it really seemed I preferred the clarity of filter over french press in this case. The 'El Eden' was very representative of what I have come to associate with the good flavor characters of the Huehuetenango region of Guatemala and I will probably sample it again in the future.

Friday, December 08, 2006

First look at Paradise Roasters

"FINCA HARTMANN is a small family farm owned and operated by Ratibor Hartmann and his sons and daughter. The land use is predominantly shade-grown coffee, under towering remnant rainforest trees, and intact pre-montane highland forest that serves as a buffer zone to Parque Internacional La Amistad. At elevations between 4000-6000ft there are a number of accessible dirt roads that pass through many habitat types that are excellent for birding, hiking, and exploring. The family is very supportive of conservation and research and often has Smithsonian affiliated researchers living and working on the land." - Paradise Coffee Roasters

A nice even roast that was clean and balanced and let the coffee speak for itself.

This is not a love letter to a coffee. This is about a roaster letting the coffee speak for itself.
In the last week I have been pleasantly suprised by offerings we sampled from Paradise and Brown Coffee Co(more to follow on Brown). Solid coffees where the roaster had a soft touch.
This Panama had that signature flavor you would associate with it's origin. Good terroir, if you will... It was pleasant and had a dark sugar sweetness. The roaster, Miguel Meza, did a great job on all the offerings we had. It really came down to personal preference in terms of the bean choices though. I didn't like the dry processed SOE Yirgacheffe, but it was honestly the most balanced 'strawberry' ferment(almost cherry-like though there was a lot of debate about potential blueberry!) I have tasted in a Yirg. I just don't enjoy that level of ferment in any coffee. A hell of a statement actually, where I didn't have to bemoan the lack of clarity in the roast and could just look at what I liked/disliked about the bean. When you have sourced from as many roasters as we have, this is refreshing to find.
Meza has this very round and soft flavor profile that leaves a very velvet texture to the coffee, even in drip. Kudos to Miguel Meza, we will be ordering some more in the future!

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Clean Espresso

Have you ever tasted a "clean" espresso?

By "clean", I mean:

Distinct flavor components

It's very much like drinking a fine glass of wine (a nice Cab, for example).

By "clean", I don't mean:

Lack of body
High acidity
Lack of low tones (such as roast flavor)

Among all the espresso I have tasted, only two fits this category - S.O. Yirgacheffe from Terroir and Caffe Crescendo from Kaffa. One is a single origin pulled at a ridiculous low temperature of 194F and the other is a blend (of 4 beans) pulled at normal espresso brewing temperature (~198/200F?). Both are very aromatic, clean, void of any off flavors (from green defects), bright without overbearing acidity, and have enough low-tone roast flavor without any smokiness (much like barrel aged flavor in wines).

Problem is, I can't get any of them now.

You all know how I felt about that Yirg from a earlier post. However, ever since the first batch, it never come back to that amazing roast again. And after so many tries and knowing how great it could be, I simply gave up.

Caffe Crescendo is another story. I had a tiny sample from Chris Owens when we visited nyc a while back. It was a life changing experience. Never have I had anything like it. It was so clean and so sweet; so bright but lack of any sharp acidity; it has enough low tones to keep the shot very balanced; and so aromatic even 8 days out of roast. Sad thing is, I don't know how I could get some more. And even if I am willing to pay for some ridiculous amount of shipping cost ($40 per lb?), I am not sure if the coffee will survive the trip.

So... are there any alternatives?

- Ben

Definition: Grand Cru

'In theory, and many times in practice, vineyards are designated "grand cru" (literally, "great growth") when they have shown the highest potential for greatness. It is emphatically not a classification of wine quality per se, but rather the potential of the site. An underachieving winemaker can easily make characterless wine from outstanding terroir, and a conscientious one can make a superior wine from a less-favored site. To help increase the quality of grand cru wines, they typically have the lowest maximum yields...' Source

I heard this term being thrown around a lot and I thought it might be a good idea to explain it a bit. Grand Cru relates to terroir, so you might want to plow through the terroir article. If not, the simple of it is that the farm lots with the highest potential and best terroir can be considered Grand Cru. This applies to coffee most often when you see the term Grand Cru Kenya thrown around. You could however use the term to describe any agricultural site with great potential in wine, coffee, or even in teas.

The Cru classes have their roots when, in 1855 Emperor of France, Napoleon III ordered the chamber of commerce to set up a classification system for the most famous wine estates.
According to the 1855 Bourdeux classifications, below grand cru are premier cru, deuxièmes cru, troisièmes cru, quatrièmes crus, cinqièmes crus, and finally cru bourgeois.

Monday, December 04, 2006

Barista Interview: Jason Haeger

Jason Haeger is a barista and serious coffee afficianado living in Lubbock, TX. He is available for barista training and events through his blog or email him (jason.haeger (@)
After Jason's Latte Art class at the recent barista jam held in San Antonio, TX, we decided to take some time to get Jason's perspective on coffee.

Decorated Cappuccino - Photo by Jason Haeger

Barismo: What is it like to get in front of your peers and teach?

Jason: It really depends. When I know enough about the audience to customize an outline for that group or person specifically, I can stick to a plan and just work through it. It's not impossible to ignore butterflies in those situations. It's the situations where I have to improvise from the start that are really nerve racking. The biggest fear is of being unprepared, and that people will walk away with nothing. It's reassuring when you know you were actually able to give something. Then again, you can't please all of the people all of the time, but that's still a foreign concept in practice.

Barismo: You live in Lubbock, which is not exactly the hub of the coffee universe. How do you keep inspired to learn more and keep interested?

Jason: Honestly, I can't ever remember a time when I WASN'T inspired to learn more. I've been fascinated with coffee since I was a little kid, but never devoted much effort to it until not too long ago. It's very easy to stay motivated to push for quality and spread the "gospel" of good coffee when you're in a place that doesn't seem to appreciate quality in much of anything in the way of food or drink. That's not to say there aren't pockets of us here, but for the most part, we're definitely in the minority.

Pulling Brown Espresso - Photo by Jason Haeger

Barismo: Does being largely self taught through print and online sources help you have a different perspective on the industry?

Jason: I wouldn't even know. This is the only perspective I have ever had. I have never really received any formal training. I have never been served a great espresso. I have poured art on more lattes and cappuccinos than I care to count, but I have never myself been served a drink adorned with a rosetta. I guess I could say that it has helped me avoid the place where I become satisfied with "good enough". I have never experienced a situation where I physically saw a benchmark to reach. I have never said to myself, "once I can reach ________'s level, I'll be satisfied". I have no reference to where I am now from where I was when I began. If that's a different perspective, then I guess you have your answer. Another aspect is that everything I know has been a direct result of reading, and then going and practicing through trial and error. I've never had a coach to tell me to tweak part of my technique a certain way to achieve better results. It's always just been me, typed posts and articles, and my taste buds to guide my progress. I think it's taken me a lot longer than it could have if I had been trained by a proper coach.

Barismo: What is the role of a barista in using the variables they control?

Jason: Is not the role to deliver the absolute best product they can within the limitations of the situation? Aside from the obvious, the role is also to help the customers along in their discovery and journey through the world of coffee. Of course, not every customer wants to delve into it that far, but for those who do, the barista should help guide them, and match their tastes with coffees. Not all variables are grind size, time, volume, and so on. Other variables are social in nature. I think it's important to be able to match a customer who has never stepped foot into the door before to their future "the regular" in less than a minute. Much of that process is a banter that much resembles 20 Questions, but if you nail it, you've almost landed the customer for life. Developing the relationship between the business, and not necessarily the barista him/herself, and the customer is vitally important.

Photo: Jason Haeger

Barismo: What role does flavor play in your philosophy of coffee?

Jason: Flavor is in the top 2 reasons for drinking coffee in the first place, for me. The second being that coffee serves as a bit of a comfort item. The third and more physical reason being the stimulating effect. The only thing that could keep such an ancient tradition interesting is variety. The only real variety is to be found in the flavors that develop from the agricultural part of the spectrum. To love anything is to take it at face value, and embrace it. How could I call myself a coffee lover if I did not strive to find the true flavor identity of a coffee? At this level, however, the quality of the seed becomes quite evident, and the flavor reflects this quality in an either positive or negative light. This leads to a push for inherent quality in the coffee seed from its very beginning: on the tree. Every living thing will have a long-term response to the situations it has been through. The better the upbringing, the better the fruits of the labor. This is common sense, and it seems our industry is just beginning to really understand that. And what is the purpose of all of this care? The consumption and enjoyment of the second most traded product in the world. We still have no idea how far this notion of quality can go, and the flavors we're experiencing as a result of this movement have been astounding. It's the result of a job well done, and I'm all about it.

New Flava Roast!

Fan of Philip Morris?
Think Jay's signature drink is heaven in a cup?

Then you will love the New Flava Roast coffee.

With this signature style of roast, you get a STRONG, ROBUST but SMOOOOTH smoky flavor in your coffee, REGARDLESS of degree of roast.

Now you can enjoy your bright and lively Kenyan with a overtone of cigarette, or your mild Brazilian with a touch of pipe tobacco.

It's like drinking coffee and smoking at the same time without the side benefit of lung cancer and nicotine addition.

Simply amazing!

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Coffee and terroir:
The 'Somewhereness' of the seed

Originally uploaded by asteri design.

Terroir in a direct translation from French yields us simply 'earth' or 'land.' The basic interpretation of this is to say that a product has a distinct association with the land on which it was produced. Stating that the product is representative of it's origins would be the same as saying a product is expressing it's terroir. The term is difficult when trying to apply this to coffee or tea given the disagreements over the specific definition of this topic in wine.

The most simplistic definition of terroir I came across in my research was simply that terroir is a 'sense of place' that a product has. The terroir of a coffee is very broadly defined as the site or region influences that cumulatively give the coffee an attachment to it's origins. It is not simply the taste of earth but all the contributing factors therein that add to flavor. There are two ways the term terroir is approached in wine from which we draw parallels, but we first must have a better understanding of French culture and the approach they have to terroir in not just wine, but an array of products not limited to only the agricultural ones.

The French approach terroir as a philosophy in life. The love of dining and appreciation for local farmer's markets along with a focus on fresh ingredients are important to the French food culture. To the French, terroir seems to be applicable to any product, even clothing, which exemplifies the unique characteristics of a specific area. The traditions or methods of production can be added to the unique (soil, geography, climate) and physical(minerals, soil acidity, etc.) characters of that producing region in describing the product's terroir.

Much like Champagne is only truly a Champagne if produced in the Champagne region of France, this is the predominant view of terroir. The attitude is to preserve this uniqueness where in some cases it may not be viewed as desirable. In France it appears that saying something has terroir is to say that it represents where it was produced well.

The French focus is very much based on the importance of where it was grown over what varietal is used or the producer. The French love of terroir has worked to produce both quality and diversity in the French food, wine, and cheese market. In essence, the opposite to the mass produced commodity cultures you see in other countries.

There are two approaches to the concept terroir we must be aware of. The Old World approach and the New World approach.

The Old World approach is simply the previously mentioned French approach to terroir. To say, in wine specifically, that the flavor of the cup comes from the soil, geology, aspect, altitude, and other factors. An example is to draw a direct corollary between the flavor and the inputs from the soil. This would be to say that since this tastes of mineral and there is strong mineral content in the soil therefore it must be associated and therefore preserved. Each areas unique character is presented in the cup. It could be stated that Old World philosophy is more about restrictions placed on the product to achieve a specific representative quality much like AOC. In essence, the French label would focus on the growing region over the varietal or producer. For example, the French would say it is not a Pinot Noir produced in Burgundy but rather it is a Burgundy that happens to be made of Pino Noir.

New World philosophy seems predominantly based on viewing all the inputs as part of quality. They aim to use the terroir of the region to achieve a product they deem more quality. This is to say, they break down their lots into similar producing groups and attempt to achieve something of greater ripeness and evenness. Terroir is in essence an approach to quality in where defined standards are not traditional defined for the producing regions. The focus leans on the varietal used and not so much on the region. A means to an end if you will, where preservation of the traditions is not such a defining factor.

Applying terroir to coffee is very difficult to understand and this is why I have undertaken this project. Since the term is being thrown around a lot these days in the coffee cognesceti(as one roaster put's it), I feel it's time to begin thinking about this and research it more. Once we can begin to comprehend the term terroir, you begin to see how it is applicable in quality coffee. Silas believes the closest approach in Tea is that of Biodynamic teas, but that's an article for him to write.

Now, when someone speaks about the terroir of this coffee, you will understand what they are saying. Next time you are at your local roaster and they say, 'This is an exemplary Kenya, very expressive of what a good Kenya coffee should be!' Once tasting it, to agree your response could be, 'Yes, I see the terroir in that coffee!'

Saturday, November 25, 2006

Coffee: Repeating that great experience

The romance of your first great cup and getting back to that feeling. Be it coffee, tea, or wine, this is what we are searching for. That one defining moment where everything is beautiful and the cup was glorious. It could have been the moment, the people you were with, or simply the lack of a good cup in a long time. The problem is repeating the 'in the cup variables' of that great experience are a lot harder than we would like and we need to do something about that.

There are plenty of great drinks out there to be had right now. The wine and liquor industry has a long established pyramid of quality in which at any point there is a unique experience waiting to be found. Coffee though, is still finding it's own quality pyramid and we don't really have a handle on how many great coffees are out there or what prices are fair. In fact, so few people have had the truly great coffees, it's often very hard to relate paying for a great cup. There is very little perception in the general public of what great coffee can be right now. If you do manage to find that great defining cup, the very real problem arises that we want it again.
In essence, the great drip coffees are somewhat like bottles of wine. Taking a simplistic look, they are typically similar for each year's crop from the same area or same lot. There can be inconsistencies from roast to roast in the coffee, but the ability to repeat the experience with the right roaster exists. The irony of typing this is one amazing coffee experience I had this year literally yielded me a single good bag while the rest were far less than amazing. With that said, your 'top of the top' drip coffees are typically easier to prepare and will likely yield more consistent bang of the buck than that high grade espresso.

If we do venture into espresso, that's where it gets tricky because espresso is not like wine. Espresso is really like a bottle of those more expensive single barrel Bourbons. You really only know what you will get from batch to batch and it's the intensity that is at the root of the drink. One week, the coffee's roast may be a tiny bit darker and your espresso may have more chocolate flavors, the next, it may be lighter citrus. This is the nature of espresso. While it may magnify all those delightful flavors, it also magnifies any tiny change in the roast. This means it is in constant flux and the Barista needs to adjust.

All this makes coffee a very frustrating product for even the best trained and obsessive Barista. While the Barista is constantly adjusting and attempting to compensate for every little detail, the consumer just really wants to repeat that experience. They want to come in every time and get the beautiful cappa or perfume Yirgacheffe with no excuses. That's easier said than done, but it shouldn't be so hard.

After all the issues with consistency and repeatability, I still feel that espresso has the greatest untapped potential, because there are so few cafes that exist which simply pull acceptable shots of a decent grade espresso much less great shots that qualify as culinary experiences. Aside from those hurdles, the great redeeming factor in espresso is that the intensity makes the flavors obvious to even a beginner. A great Barista can call their shot and the customer will be simply wowed or at least go 'I get it'. Imagine walking into a shop and hearing 'This is a Brazil Daterra Reserve 2004, you should get a creamy sweet buttery almond flavor.' That's rarefied air though and only a few shops in North America have this caliber of Barista.

Today's great coffee experiences will only be shadows when compared to our future experiences as long as we continue to move forward. What I thought was great only a year ago is sad in comparison to what I have today and what I find tomorrow may overshadow it all. We will keep looking for that great cafe Barista to show me the way, but in the meantime, I will nurse a good french press of a nice coffee assuming I get that good bag!

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Espresso: The Massive HB Tamper Roadshow Review

The sponsored Tamper Roadshow rolled through Cambridge recently and this is our take on this massive lineup of tampers.

handle: black rubber handle
width: 1 5/8"
base: stainless steel, satin-brush finish
weight: 1lb 3/4oz
height: 3 1/2"

First Impression:
At first glance, the Bumper tamper looks cheap. However, when I actually picked it up, the weight (of the tamper) and the feel of the rubber really surprised me. In fact, it duplicated the feel of an OEM rubber handle for the La Marzocco portafilter. Very comfortable and solid.
The handle is that of the classic tamper shape and it worked quite well. I personally would like the top to be a bit wider and taller so I can cradle it with my ring and pinky fingers, but Jaime liked it quite a bit (since he was trained on the same shape). The rubberized handle takes a lot of abuse w/out showing much damage and won’t absorb much nasty stale coffee odors.
The base of the Bumper is the thickest of all tampers from the road show. With our style of dosing/tamping (Tim Wendelboe’s under the line style), it’s hard to gauge what kind of dosage is in the basket. The tapered side is quite comfortable for the thumb and the forefinger, however.
Bottom Line:
A solid work horse that can take the abuse of a busy café.

Coffeelab Design
Coffeelab Design
handle: anodized and powder coated aluminum with rubber grip handle
width: 1 1/2"
base: stainless steel, satin-brush finish
weight: 13 3/8oz
height: 3 5/8"

First Impression:
This tamper has a toy look to it, probably due to the use of different material/colors. The neck of then handle also looks flimsy.
The grip is actually a lot more comfortable than it looks, and the adjustable spacer at the neck is a good idea. However, the combination of the very thin neck and the small size of the connection screw gives off a very un-secured feeling. More than 3 of us feel we could snap it with excessive force. Not too sure about the long term durability in a busy/abusive café environment.
The rubber pad and the slope are very comfortable for the forefinger and thumb to rest/press on.
Bottom Line:
Very comfortable tamper that falls short on the overall durability.

EPNW Compressore
EPNW Compressore
handle: powder coated aluminum handle
width: 1 7/8" base: stainless steel
weight: 1lb 1 3/4oz
height: 3 9/16"

First Impression:
Part of the EPNW tamper lineup. The anodized finish is quite attractive.
The large bulbous handle is really designed for very large hands. The head is even a bit too big for my palm and the neck is not thin enough for my middle finger to get a good grip. The anodized finish is durable and won’t absorb any funny odors.
Nice tapered sides and thickness. This is our “standard” and preferred tamper base.
Bottom Line:
A solid tamper for large hands.

handle: polished Bulbinga wood handle
width: 1 3/4" base: stainless steel
weight: 13 oz
height: 3 3/16"

First Impression:
Part of the EPNW tamper lineup. The handle looks quite small.
Short and bulky handle designed for short stubby hands. Glossy clear coat protects from dirt/odor contamination, but can wear out with use.
Standard EPNW base we loved.
Bottom Line:
Tamper for large but stubby handed home user.

handle: stainless steel handle width: 1 3/4"
base: brushed stainless steel
weight: 14 5/8oz
height: 3 1/2"

First Impression:
The fit and finish is amazing. The precision machined stainless steel are the main reason behind the cost and it’s worth every penny.
The most comfortable of all tampers I’ve used. The length and the shape of the handle allowed me to place my ring and pinky finger on top comfortably while providing a secured grip with my middle finger around the neck. The curvature/thickness at the base of the handle allowed me to spread my fore-finger and thumb comfortably. The brushed stainless finish was hard and proves sanitary, though I could see the nice surface being scratched/dinged up from use.
While the fillet at the neck fits the fingers comfortably, there is no overall slope to the base. This forced you to place your forefinger and thumb at the center of the base instead of spreading out across the entire diameter. This makes leveling a bit more difficult and feels wobbly. The base is also a bit thin which makes it difficult to use with our dosing method. It could work with over doses though.
Bottom Line:
Beautiful metal sculpture for triple ristretto style café.

EPNW Lava Import
EPNW Lava Import
handle: machine milled aluminum
handle width: 1 3/4"
base: stainless steel
weight: 3 1/4"
height: 9 oz

First Impression:
My current tamper is a Lava deluxe, and this tamper looks and feels like a bad rip-off version of it.
The handle is too short for me to get a good grip. It also feels very cheap due to the weight and finish.
This is a bad joke, right? The thing is metal but hollow, and has no substantial weight at all. It felt like a real (cheap) toy.
Bottom Line:
A cheap taste of real tamper for first time home user.

La Forza
La Forza
handle: handpainted glazed ceramic handle
width: 2"
base: stainless steel
weight: 14 5/8oz
height: 3 1/2"

First Impression:
Is this for real use?!
The ceramic handle is not centered and already has chips when it arrived. The head is way too big and bulbous. I cannot get a good grip on it. I am not sure I will use this as a tool.
Standard EPNW base.
Bottom Line:
Pretty decorative tamper for occasional uses.

EPNW Lava Deluxe
EPNW Lava Deluxe
handle: machine milled aluminum handle
width: 1 3/4"
base: stainless steel
weight: 14 1/2oz
height: 3 1/4"

First Impression:
This is my current tamper. I previously bought it because it was not wood and orange…
A little too short for me to get a good grip. The aluminum top damages easily and after 1+ year of home use, it already looks quite abused.
Standard EPNW base.
Bottom Line:
Solid, affordable tamper for smaller hands.

handle: machined milled aluminum handle
width: 1 1/2"
base: stainless steel
weight: 1lb 3 1/4oz
height: 3 3/8"

First Impression:
Classic café tamper.
Good shape for a flashlight style grip. I found the top to be a bit small to be totally comfortable with it but Jaime loves it. The very top is inlayed with delrin so tapping won’t damage the metal finish.
Good taper and height that lends to easy leveling when using volumetric dosing.
Bottom Line:
No-nonsense and durable utilitarian work horse for café.

handle: oiled, resin impregnated hardwood handle
width: 2"
base: stainless steel with TrueTamp guide rings
overall weight: 15 oz
overall height: 3 5/8"

First Impression:
The fit and finish showed high level of worksmanship. The sharp edges of the handle and the base made it look a bit uncomfortable.
The sharp transition from the head to the neck looked very uncomfortable at first but is actually quite comfortable in use. The shape provides a very secured feeling from the grip. The hardwood has no clear coat finish and will absorb a lot of (bad) odors from use. It smelled really bad from previous users when we first open the box.
The taper at the sides is a bit short but big enough to allow a nice spread of the index finger and thumb for a stable, level tamp. The base is a bit thicker than other tampers but the machined indicator lines around the perimeter provide good feedback on the level and dose.
Bottom Line:
Comfortable and solid tamper for home use.

Reg Barber Radical Pro
Reg Barber Radical Pro
handle: African Rosewood handle
width: 1 1/8"
base: stainless steel
weight: 11 oz
height: 4 3/8"

First Impression:
Radical look for sure. The handle is a lot smaller than it appeared to be in the photo.
The shape and length of the handle forces you to apply all your forces thru your thumb and index finger. While it forces you to use a straight wrist (or it will hurt you dearly), you can be too far forward with your tamp easily. Judson really loved this shape while the rest of us hated it (it physically hurt me). While the wooden handle is finished with a clear coat, it already showed discoloration from the road show. This is definitely a long term durability concern.
Similar taper and thickness as the EPNW one, but with a better metal finish.
Bottom Line:
Unconventionally shaped tamper for someone special.

Reg Barger HB logo'd
Reg Barger HB logo'd
handle: Tall - African Rosewood handle
width: 1 13/16"
base: stainless steel, satin-brush finish
weight: 12 1/4oz
height: 3 1/2"

First Impression:
The reg that most ppl seemed to love.
The shape is an update to the classic café tamper shape. It provides a comfortable and secured grip. I personally would like it to be a little bit taller though. Being made of wood, it really is not so suitable to be used in a busy café environment due to durability and sanitary issues.
Similar taper and thickness as the EPNW one but with better finish.
Bottom Line:
The quintessential home barista tamper.

Cafe Kultur TORR Classic
Cafe Kultur TORR Classic
handle: African Blackwood, handpolished, glossy finish handle
width: 1 13/16"
base: stainless steel, matt finish
weight: 13 3/4oz
height: 3 3/4"

First Impression:
The fit and finish of the TORR is first class. I especially appreciate the fillet edge of the base.
The large handle would be almost comfortable had it not been so tall. The bulbous head to neck transition does not provide as secured grip as others. The smooth finish of the wood feels very nice but most likely will not stand up to the abuse of heavy use.
The flat base forces you to press at the center of the handle which made leveling difficult and uncomfortable. The inward taper of the perimeter is perplexing because it actually looks off-level when it is actually fine.
Bottom Line:
Home use tamper with a unique base for large hands.

handle: polished wood handle
width: 2"
base: polished wood - Lignum Vitae or Blackwood
weight: 12 3/4oz
height: 3 11/16"

First Impression:
Who stole my pepper grinder?!
I don’t know how to grip or level with this thing.
Um… it’s flat?
Bottom Line:
Why spend so much time and energy to create so much nothingness?

EPNW Clicker
EPNW Clicker
handle: black rubber handle width: 1 3/4"
base: stainless steel, satin-brush finish
weight: 1lb 2 3/4oz
height: 4 3/8"

First Impression:
This is supposed to be a training tool for beginners.
Quite comfortable gripe actually, but you cannot level with this thing due to the double decker design. Very difficult to balance so I am not sure how good of a learning tool it is (you are not learning the proper way to level the tamp). The click is something else…
Does not really matter as you cannot see or touch it when tamping.
Bottom Line:
A proper tamper and a scale might be a better training tool…

Saturday, November 18, 2006

Tea and coffee: Can I afford the great ones?

high grade oolong tea
Photo of very expensive tea by Ben Kaminsky

We typically don't drink good tea in North America. I know Americans don't drink very much good coffee either. The real question is do we have access to good examples of both?

If you want good coffee there are literally a handful of roasters in the US and then it becomes a roast preference to get those coffees roasted the way you like them. You will probably have to pay more for a freshly roasted coffee, spend more on the equipment to brew it, and put some energy into brewing it correctly, but you could find it and it would be affordable to most consumers. The most expensive coffees coming out of the Cup Of Excellence still break down to affordable per cup prices if you brew them at home. A pound of coffee produces a lot of cups making even a $20/lb bag steep but still affordable as a once in a while treat. Even as these microlots creep higher in price, we are still able to access them if we want to pay the price.

pulling an espresso
Pulling a double espresso for a milk drink(don't tell)

The problem with tea is it's a largely inaccessible market. Sure, we can all buy commodity grade tea bags or even pay a lot for a famous named tea, but those aren't the truly great ones. The great teas of Taiwan and mainland China don't make it to the American market. The price paid for them there is so high due to demand, we have little ability to buy them. What we do get is often stale or poorly processed remainders. Even if we had access, the top teas sell for such exorbitant prices, we would never even get a sniff! A competition grade tea in Taiwan of 300g recently sold for $15000. (yes, that's 15k) And to think we still complain about a $12/lb bag of decent coffee.

high grade oolong tea
Photo of Oolong Tea by Ben Kaminsky

Right now, we can afford the great coffees coming out. Of course, all of this has little to do with your free refill diner coffee or that phony Starbucks black apron offering, but that Brazil for $50 a pound doesn't sound as unreasonable now. The truth though, is that good teas are much rarer than we like to admit. You can get great herbal teas but you get largely poor grade broken leaf teas for everything else.

Unless you've got a connection in Taiwan or China, it's going to be hard to get that mind blowing Oolong or high grade tea. Want a good coffee, browse the CoE buyers. Until someone truly taps the foreign markets for fresh picked high grade whole leaf teas, a lot for us will have to be content with cupping these CoE coffees. It's rough being a mouthwatering cupper.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Coffee: Strong and dark is better?

One of the most common complaints I hear is the Barista's lament 'The customer only wants a really large, dark, and bitter cup of coffee they can pour large amounts of cream n' sugar into. Why should I bother?'

The roots of our coffee heritage are strongly rooted in Starbucks and the dark roast mindset. Darker is better. It's more premium. If it's not dark, it's not specialty. Roast it so dark some of the beans explode, that way there's less to grind up! It's not about the coffee, it's about what's added to it that makes it special. That's the state of specialty coffee for most of North America and a lot of marketing money has been spent to make that case.

We've been suckered.

A Northern Italian style roast for espresso.

In Northern Italy (and the Scandanavian countries) they source better grade beans and roast much lighter than we generaly do. (There are a handful of exceptions tho) They historicaly have wealth in Northern Italy and therefore the customers can pay more for better quality. In the South, the roasts are darker because they were economicaly forced to use poorer quality beans and needed to roast over the defects. Hence the Northern Italian(very light) and South Italian(darker) roasts in espresso. The poorer areas roasted the coffee darker because they had to.

Espresso is a brewing method and not a roast or certain coffee.

Early American espresso seems to have adopted the South Italian style simply because of immigrants from Southern Italy and what appeared to be the complete lack of access to good coffees for espresso. Rumor is that certain countries bought all the good coffee while we were still serving cheap coffees with unlimited refills.

What about French roast you say, the French are wealthy and have a culinary focus...

French roast is a very dark roast for a simple reason. Historicaly, the French were colonialists. They only bought coffee from their own colonies, which was a problem because the coffee producing colonies were all low altitude areas that produced very poor grade coffees. They roasted dark and covered all the faults in the beans. All they had to do to compensate for the campfire roast flavor was add a lot of scalded milk and some sugar, and you have your Café au lait!

If you look at the China/Taiwan/Japan tea culture and how black tea came about, they don't drink these black teas. The tea they shipped over to Europe was roasty to preserve them for transport and sold to the Europeans who compensated and doused tea with cream and sugar. The Chinese and Taiwanese focused on holding the best teas for themselves and continue to do so. This is the reason many of us may never have a great green tea.

There are parallels in wine/grappa as well but it might be too much for one article.

It's easy to argue about, but the point is that a rare few of us have had high grade light roasts. Most of us have sampled the grassy under roasted poor grade coffees of companies like Dunkin or the overroasted coffees dressed in nicer bags and must begin to realize, the bean plays as much a part as the roast. Darker, yes, when you have a bad coffee or want a lot of milk and sugar. When it is exceptional coffee, you can and probably should go lighter. Let the coffee speak and enjoy it for what it is and where it came from. There are changes thanks to CoE but it's a long slow process.

Dark roasts have their place but they are about what the roaster has done and not about the unique flavors of a great coffees.

Anybody know what these are?

Aussie Double Roasts

The Mythical Third Crack

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Chris Owens headed south...

Chris Owens of Gimme coffee fame will be headed down to Atlanta for the next year. More details on his site. We wish him the best but hope he can make the North East regional& MAR barista competitions.

Monday, November 13, 2006

What's the deal with Injerto?

We at Barismo are trying to wrap our heads around the sales of this CoE winner and one of the ten most expensive coffees in the world...
The premium lot of Guatemala Finca El Injerto, Bourbon Reserva (Cup of Excellence #1 lot) that went for $25.10/lb at the CoE guatemala auctions is creeping out for sale. Forbes predicted it would reach $50/lb or more retail.

Let's do the numbers...
Sweet marias is turning over the green for sale unroasted at $29.90/lb

Stumptown is selling it roasted at $36.25/lb

Terroir is selling it at $49.95/12oz

*Note: Terroir is holding limited roasts only on holidays and will offer the lot as a vintage in the next few years. Achievable only because of George's green freezing system...
No updates from Robert Thoreson at Kaffa or 49th parallel on what they may charge for the same lot.

Is Stumptown underpricing? Are they making money on this once shipping and all costs are included? Would you as a home roaster take the risk at burning a few roasts to get it right? Is Terroir overpricing or creating demand by restricting supply? Long after the last lot of Injerto is sold elsewhere, Terroir wll still be selling it for special release...

Sunday, November 12, 2006

Coffee Blog roll sound off...


A quick run down of the coffee blogs I read these days. There are many more out there that are great and amazing, but these are the people I follow enough or know well enough to discuss them on site.

  • Jason Haeger

  • The coffee fanatic. Jason lives in Buddy Holly country down in Lubbock Texas and is available for barista training if anybody in the area needs it. When Jason updates, there are often some good soul searching tidbits about what it's like to be a barista who really cares in a culture that doesn't... yet!

  • Chris Owens & Mike White

  • Chris Owens and Mike White of Gimme Coffee in Brooklyn, NY. I know Chris fairly well and have huge anticipation for what he will do in the future. He gets it in a way few people do. No suprise, since he was trained by former World Barista Champ Tim Wendelboe and what more can I say. His recent trip to the Nordic Barista cup is a good read(and the photos are primo too!).

    - Part One

    - Part Two

  • Matt Brinski

  • The 'Mile High' home user in Colorado. Brinsky has gone through the same evoloution as Jason, Chris, and our Barismo kids of finding out what all this 'flavor concept' stuff is. Origin flavors, finding the right volume and temp for each bean... Brinsky did it all alone with only Tacy's archive to work from and what he got from analytical observation and forum discussions.

    When Brinksy does update, it's interesting.

  • Aaron Blanco

  • Aaron Blanco of Brown coffee company is roasting out of San Antonio, Texas. Aaron has a lot to say and has this intriguing idea of an all coffee bar. Using a clover brewer and all high end drip methods to give many beautiful coffees a stage. Coffee like wine in a way.

    - the beautiful view

    - a glimpse of the past. a picture of the future of coffee.

  • Steve Ford

  • Steve Ford, formerly of Blue Bottle in SF is now working with Andrew Barnett at Ecco. While this is Steve's blog, his real blog is the FlickR one. Steve is an avid photo hobbyist who takes a photo of every morning's cup of coffee. While the photos are cool, the commentary and introspection is better.


  • Rich is the part owner of Aldo coffee in Mt. Lebanon, PA. You'll need to search throught the site to figure out what aldo means! Rich is a frequent updater who blogs about everything from the cafe floor to non coffee stuffs. Good reads and often a good chuckle or two in there if you read between the lines...

  • Daryn Berlin

  • Daryn Berlin is the account rep for Counter Culture Coffee in NC... The blog is more of a watching Daryn's coffee tree grow. How it got so big, I don't know... but it's worth the look.

  • Dwelltime

  • I was a big reader of Dwelltime back in the day when Nick Brown was manning the keyboard. These days this Vancouver BC blog is fairing just fine post NB. Hopefully Nick will spring some new coffee blogs in his Toronto location if he can find an outlet...

    Other notables:

    Chris Tacy - Now limited to Archives, an interesting read to follow if you have the time to read it from the beginning. BenC plans a best of Tacy at some point for Barismo.

    Tonx Tony is a flickr junkie like Steve so keep an eye on the photos. The blog is largely archival right now but seems to have some recent life again as Tony gets closer to his new project.

    Saturday, November 11, 2006

    Espresso: Dosing video

    A quick short film about dosing(The Schyndel Move?). No theme song or dance yet, but the video is done. Dedicated to Rich(for coining the phrase) and BenC(for forcing me to do the video).

    I didn't count on the Youtube logo so I will fix that later.

    Thursday, November 09, 2006

    Why the North American cafe culture is a negative on coffee quality

    We pull up to a table at the nearest cafe and nestle ourselves in with a 20oz to go cup of coffee flavored milk and sit. Content to settle in for a few hours of work. Comfortable watching all the others in the cafe sitting on their laptops, headphones on, happily typing away on study projects and work assignments. We just want a cheap tea or coffee that will justify our sitting in the cafe for hours on end, taking up space that the owner would surely love to have for other paying customers.

    We should be ashamed of ourselves that this is what our cafe culture has come to. Isolated individuals who no longer converse and talk. Too easily irritated by the commotion around us. Impatient with the people behind the counter and complaining about the lack of ambiance. We miss out on great coffee experiences because the perception of cafe owners is that they will be over run with students or laptops so why pay more for good coffee? Why invest in training good barista? Why work on making the coffee prep consistent? Why buy the good equipment when the consumer will only douse their coffee with milk and sugar? They cynically believe consumers are a bunch of people who will come in and choose the cheapest menu item and pull up taking table space for as long as their conscience will allow. Many shop owners believe customers won't pay a nickel more for bettter coffee and they may be right in many cases.

    The sword cuts both ways when we complain about the coffee or tea, realize that we, as the consumer share a fault in this. As long as we settle for less, we should expect only the minimum. The majority of us will miss out on great coffees coming out of the Cup of Excellence program. We will miss out on great barista who can pour and know tastes like a sommolier.

    When it comes down to changing this, consumers need to see these tiny developing sections of coffee no longer as a commodity but as a true specialty that has nothing to do with syrups or chemical flavorings. These are the micro-lots of coffee that have distinct floral and naturally sweet flavors which need to be recognized as unique by themselves. Each region and microlot being distinct and unique in taste from the next.

    When you demand to know the name of the farmer and the specific farm it comes from as well as it's growing climate and then begin to educate ourselves about what this means, we can begin to challenge things. We can demand the division of more auction lots of coffees into smaller lots too small for large commercial chain roasters but just right for artisan roasters who can focus on perfection of roast. We can get past burnt bitter over roasted coffees and defect laden under roasted grassy coffees to perfectly roasted ripe defect free coffees. We can learn to accept these disctinct coffees as quality experiences of flavor and not something based on volume or quantity. We can stop trying to get the most volume for the cheapest price and focus on the best tasting drink where caffeine is an afterthought. When we demand fresh ground, fresh brewed, AND fresh roasted(with dates), then we will see things begin to change.

    When consumers and shop owners head in the direction that the Cup of Excellence is going, then the debate over what is good coffee will change from what goes good with milk to what flavors are inherent in a Grand Cru Kenya or is the Brazil CoE really worth $50/lb? That's a beautiful thought.


    Wednesday, November 08, 2006

    Espresso: Puckology

    Interesting coffeed discussion.

    Even though I agree with bits and pieces of what everybody posted (in the thread), I think Tim Wendelboe pretty much summed up my opinions on this matter. I believe there is more than meets the eye when you examine a spent puck. A soggy puck does not necesary equate to bad extraction, and in fact, sometimes what appeared to be pinholes are actually not a result of channeling. You have to spent a little time playing with different combinations of setups before you can really see what the puck is telling you.

    Here's my take:

    I believe how wet or dry the spent puck is largely a factor of the head space (result of the combination of group head design, basket size/depth, and dose volume) and how the 3 way valve is plumbed.

    When there is little or no head space, the puck's expansion during depressurization is restricted, which results in a nice firm puck. With the type of coffee, flavor profile, and shot pulling style of most US shops, you will see mostly firm spent pucks. In this case, pinholes and fractures will definately tell you that something is wrong with the dose/distribution/extraction (though side channeling and intra-puck channels are much harder to detect...).

    On the other hand, if the total expansion is less than or equal to the head space, then the spent puck will most likely to be spongy and sometimes, soggy wet. This is due to the puck's free expansion. Now, how the puck looks like (especially the top surface layer) is another story. My theory is that, it depends on how the 3-way is setup, you will either get a nicely shaped spongy puck or an ugly roughed-up mess.

    With the coffees I use (light-roast, high acidity/intensity beans), I found that I get a better flavor profile if I don't up-dose and keep a nice head space. On the Linea/GB5/Synesso, this results in shapely but spongy spent pucks (with the GB5 having the best looking of 3). On the other hand, on my Rituale, the spent puck mostly looks like a ugly mess. The top layer are often very disrupted with "hills" pulled up by the depressurization (and subsequently stuck onto and broken by the group screen). Sometimes, you even see craters which, w/out careful examination, could be interpreted as pinholes. The ugly puck issue troubled me for quite sometime. It continued to puzzle me as I have checked with a naked PF numerous times and there were absolutely no channeling or other extraction issues (and the shots tasted perfectly fine). I recently had Jaime double check me and was reaffirmed that the ugly pucks are not indications of dosing/distribution problems.

    My conclusion is that, due to the setup of the 3-way in my Rituale, the depressurization at the end of extraction is much more violent than the LM/Synesso setup. As a result, instead of letting the puck expand (relatively) gently, the puck (especially the top layer) was ripped up which caused all the roughness of the top surface layer. However, this has no effect on the shot as the phenomenon occured after the end of the extraction. So just like what Wendelboe said:

    "But really, If the taste is excellent, what does it matter ?"

    - Ben

    ps. food for thought (tossing a bone here, dear readers): I know it prob adds to the complexity of the mechanical design, but why don't we see a group head design that has a separate path for depressurization (or maybe it already exists and I am just not aware of it but will be interested in knowing...). This way, all the residue will be (mostly) contained in the depressurization path, leaving the brew path relatively clean. Sure, you still have to clean it to prevent any sort of clogging, but I imagine this setup will produce a better cup in a busy cafe environment (where you do not have to luxury to detergent-flush the group often).

    Monday, November 06, 2006

    Tea: Judging Leaf Appearance

    Photos by Ben Kaminsky

    Left: a photo of a single unfurled leaf. Right: A quarter next to a rolled/unbrewed tea pearl with a brewed unfurled intact leaf/stem underneath.

    Leaf appearance is a critical observation when judging the quality of a tea. Just like green coffee to a certain extent, you can judge the quality and the degree of precision in processing just by looking at the leaf. In China and Taiwan, the teas are sometimes named after their dried leaf appearance. In many cases, the leaf appearance cannot tell you exactly what kind of flavor it has, but it can certainly tell you all about the processing, and from knowledge of the processing you should be able to tell where the flavor is coming from. According to the Tea Research and Extension station in Yangmei Taiwan, “As a matter of fact, it is a good quality tea, as long as it looks good.” The idea behind this theory is that the people who are judging the tea train themselves to detect flaws in appearance that parallel those in taste.
    When judging a tea by leaf appearance, one must look for several things. In the dry leaf, consistency, degree of oxidation, and roast or firing is evident. Also the skill with which the tea was handled and sorted is evident by the shape and consistency in size. The post steeped leaf can tell you how consistant the grading was and reveal flaws in the oxidation.

    For example, things I look for in a Semi-ball type Poachong tea (the tea in the photo) are consistency in size, shape and color. The color tells you how heavy the oxidation and roast are. Size and shape tell you how well sorted the tea was, and also how the leaves were manipulated in the processing. In the wet leaf(after it is steeped), I look for evenness of oxidation, color, and how intact the leaf structure remains. A good semi-ball paochong should have very few broken particles when brewed and for the most part, the leaves should stay intact through the duration of the steepings. If the oolong leaf shows too much brown, this is a sign of too much oxidation and is contributing to the bitterness and astringency of the tea.
    Judging what a tea should look like is different with each tea, and should be judged according to what the tea manufacturer was trying to get. In the end, cupping a tea's taste is the deciding factor, but leaf appearance helps explain how and why the tea tastes a certain way.


    Also see:

    Tea: Processing

    Cupping high grade taiwanese teas

    Say it ain't so~ (Intelligentsia)

    Was browsing thru my latest Crate and Barrel catalog and found this:

    "Well Street Blend"

    How could Intelligentsia insure any sort of freshness/quality control of these products? Or are we seeing the beginning of "Starbucks-fication"?

    - Ben

    Monday, October 30, 2006

    Coffee is a fruit?

    Coffee is a fruit not a bean. I used to say that a lot to really make people understand that you can't be afraid of the fruit. The fruit can be very delicious. A coffee that is very jammy and sweet is not your milk and sugar coffee but it is more like a sweet red wine.

    I personally love the great clean perfume Yirgs. The great antithesis to the funky fermenty Harrars.
    A thought, the absence of roast flavors is the essence of coffee flavors. I have this theory that the absence of roast bitters allows you to taste more of the sweetness in these dense uber coffees. Bitter confuses the palate and hides the sweetness. While I admit you can manipulate some really interesting roast flavors at times(especially in espresso), the fruit is what is unique.
    It comes back to what George talks about with the coffee horizon. A concept where coffees are a commodity where all the micro lots are blended together and roasted/processed as such into one generic coffee profile. When you roast dark and slow enough, you can make most any coffee into a dull cocoa with a generic coffee flavor. He's right about that. The thing is it also applies to espresso and over blending. When we put filler in the blends that may cover or hide much of the interesting tastes in the coffee.
    We should seperate the coffees at harvest into smaller and smaller lots to help isolate the most complex and unique lots. Goerge is pioneering this and the CoE helps a lot.
    With all that said, I'm going to take some time and learn more about tea. I am tired of bickering with people who just focus on renaming the standards instead of finding a better cup. Minutia over flavor. When it comes back to flavor, I'll be there.
    Does anyone get the feeling that the Scandanavians in general and especially the Danes are drinking better espresso than us on a daily basis? While we are wowing over 2oz doubles of lightly roasted Yirg SoE, that may be old hat for them! Something to ask the last three WBC champs.

    Saturday, October 28, 2006

    Cupping high grade taiwanese teas.

    Checking the leaves after the cupping which were very intact, undamaged and pretty. Thy expanded with each brew until being fully unfurled.

    Dha yu ling and a Pear mountain tea from taiwan. Each taiwanese tea was high grown and sells for $100 per 5.5oz. These teas were both at the base very sweet and intensely floral.
    Fresh crop!
    Flavor cuppa notes:
    Pear mountain - pear, cinnamon, mint, honey, super creamy, and lemon drop aftertaste.
    Dha yu ling - molasses, cinnamon graham cracker, clean cucumber, grape soda aftertaste.
    Summary: We don't drink teas like this in the states! Silas needs more of these!
    The sweet aftertastes linger in a super sweet clean flavor for many minutes afterwards.

    UPDATE: I realized that after this cupping we had to rethink everything one more time. If the tea industry is this advanced in Taiwan, then it means this is where the coffee industry should be or will be going. It's scary to think but maybe that's what it's about. The tea's were expressive, amazing, and complex. They were worth getting excited about. They were more complex than any tea I have had. Granted I have visited china and Japan but these blew down any of those expereiences by a long shot. It was strange how you could taste layers of flavors in the cups. Tea has this potential? That's something to think about.

    Big cheers to Ben's dad in Taiwan for arranging them!

    Thursday, October 26, 2006

    Teflon Portafilters

    Originally uploaded by Chris Owenscoffeemutiny.

    I love this idea of having teflon portafilters on a bar. I don't know why everyone is so cool to the idea here in the US. It seems fabulous to just be able to rinse and wipe the portafilter and not worry about rancid oil buildup.


    Diagnosis of a label

    On our last trip to New York, I came across a few bits and pieces in one of the McDonald's gas station combo rest areas you see in CT on I95. Inside is a McDonalds and a coffee stand selling Lavazza. At the stand was this big board describing PB&J lattes and Nutty Buddy lattes as 'Specialty Coffee.' Those drinks had little to do with coffee but the irony was that right across from the stand was a huge sign for McDonalds iced coffee as a 'Premium Roast.' I thought, all we need is a Starbucks in the building! Then we could round out with some 'gourmet coffee' or some other nondescript term the marketers came up with. I chuckled a bit but it was kind of sad. With those terms, it's just varying derees of the same spin.

    The coffee industry is running out of nondescript terms to describe it's coffee.
    There, I've said it. When Starbucks says "This coffee is bold." I'm sorry, I looked it up and I still don't know what it means in terms of coffee! How about robust? I still struggle with full bodied. Now if my coffee is not Bold, Robust, and Full-bodied, it must be meek, weak, and light??? It's marketing spin isn't it? They must assume by controlling the label to make it sound nice without really saying anything they have succeeded in delivering the product with ambiguous terms that cannot be identified as positive or negative. It takes a lot more guts to describe the flavors in a coffee than to just say it's "full bodied and smooth." Check the coffee boards of some of these corporate shops and try to really pin down exactly what they are saying. It's all very nondescript and vague. Try the Starbucks site, that's my favorite. Just scroll through and imagine trying to tell a friend what each of the -flavor- descriptors of each of the coffees means. This one has zest! This one is bold! Say what? Then again maybe that's better than saying bitter, ashy, and burnt!

    It seems that the marketing just muddies the proverbial water. Diluting and confusing the facts until the consumer gets into a routine of "Venti Breakfast blend." That's the real danger when someone is convinced that they know what that means and are so comfortable ordering it, they cannot go into another shop and order something else without confusion. The marketing gets into your routine and you have been pushed to recite the branding terms until you forget that you have been branded. Now, when you go into another shop, you must unlearn your routine and go back to normal land where there are small, med or large. OR Where a cappuccino may actually be a true italian 6oz microfoamed cappuccino and not large foamy latte.

    Sadly, I really don't see it stopping anytime soon but we should not give up and roll over.
    So, How do we fight this:


    Consumer Education

    Perceivable Quality(and value)differences

    Online Forums and other free information sources

    Exceptional product in the independent Cafe

    All opinons welcome-


    Tuesday, October 24, 2006

    Costa Rica: Reflecting on water

    Last winter when I was travelling through central america, I volunteered at a coffee farm for about a week and a half. Now the water quality in most of central america (Belize, Guatemala, El Salvador, Hondorus, Nicaragua and Panama) is fairly poor, but Costa Rica because of the economic situation in most of the country, is an exception for the most part. So after having to buy filtered water or purifying my water with iodine tablets for 2 months, I was surprised to find that the coffee farm had clean, fresh tasting water. It came from springs near by and collected in a well underneath the guest house. For several days the other guests and I were drinking the water with delight, relived that iodine was not necessary. After maybe 5 days I noticed a soapy taste in the water and started to get concerned that maybe the water wasn't as good as I had thought earlier. The other volunteers didn't notice any thing strange about the taste so I kept drinking it, thinking that maybe they had a chlorinated source. After washing some dishes one night I realized there was a hole in the sink. I ran the faucet and went outside to see a good amount of water dripping into the ground right below the sink. The pipe that brought us fresh water was right there sticking in the ground and it turns out that the soapy dish water was leaking into our well beneath the house. I patched up the hole as best I could and put a pot underneath the sink to catch the excess water leaking through. After about a day or so, water started to taste alot cleaner and like it did the first couple of days I was there. I never thought developing my palate would actually be practical like that!

    Now several months later after coming back from california, I am realizing how incredibly critical water quality and chemical make up is for tea. I think my brita has a learning disability, cuz the water goes through it too fast. I tried poland spring and volvic and neither work as nicely as the water in cali. Ben's filtered and softer water worked fairly well, but I still can't get that same sweet and fullness as in california. Whatever ends up working, I realized that where ever you are in the country your water is probably gonna be a little different. I know that when I was in Arizona several years ago, the water tasted aweful cuz it had been sitting in the pipes for a really long time. Maybe I just need to get a new filter...


    Monday, October 23, 2006

    Trials and tribulations of a mouthwatering cupper.

    I think we love the taste. The sensations, the flavors, the colors that it inspires in the imagination. Drink fine red wines, uber whiskeys/bourbons, rice wine, grappa, you name it... oh yeah and teas too. The flavor is what gets us so excited. Finding those unique flavors and then sharing it. That's what I love about a good barista. Finding that one extraction of the espresso where the temp, the timing, dose, all come together to reveal for that coffee the roasted peanuts with a buttery viscosity leading one to declare 'peanut butter!' A eureka moment really. What if every new coffee is a eureka moment and playing with each extraction leads to new and distinct tastes that really excite you because you know even the average untrained palate can see the difference between the light sweet floral Yirg and the peanut butter chocolate cup espresso presented before them.

    Sadly this just isn't the case. When I play around with George's coffee's, I get that. When I get a special batch from Andrew to muck up, I get that. It just doesn't happen very often besides one time experiences outside of those two roasters.

    So when you read our enthusiasm, we aren't really crazy... well not too much. You have to be in the same room or have an experience like we have had... a shared experience and then it all clicks. Sometime you really have to be in the same room to get it and relate.

    In George's roasts it's like lifting a veil off the coffees and exposing them clearly. George is the exception with his light roast style though. It took me a while to get it but I do and I'm better for it.

    The end result is I have now priced myself out of most of the things I could enjoy if I didn't focus so much on flavor. When you cup, you think more about flavor. In the end, you train yourself to become more discriminating about what you eat or imbibe and then your bank account will suffer!


    Saturday, October 21, 2006

    San Francisco Tea summary

    I got back a few days ago, and I am still starry eyed from Bay Area’s essence. The Tea culture and the whole gourmet culture in general seems to be living proof that flavor can exist in a true and accessible fashion. A friend told me that there are about 100 bakeries in the city for San Francisco alone. There are some wonderful food experiences to be had in the area, as Andrew showed us. There are many tea houses of various quality and feel. A few of the more well known ones are Imperial Tea Court, Far Leaves and Samovar. To the best of my knowledge Imperial Tea Court and Far Leaves both source tea directly from estates in China. Another well know tea house is the Celadon Tea Room. They are renowned for their quality and freshness. Unfortunately, I missed my chance to go there because they are currently switching locations.

    The Tea Culture in the San Francisco Bay Area is one that is entirely its own. Tea is much more a part of daily life and culinary experience than it is in Boston. This is obviously because of the strong Chinese and Japanese influence. Seeing Tea Houses ranging from good to simple doing well gives me hope for what Tea in the United States could become. As the culinary culture and focus on quality in what we eat and drink continues to grow, it is nice to see a few people paying attention to Tea. I only hope that this culture will continue to grow and the quality will improve. I hope also to see more focus on the flavor of tea as opposed to the conscious altering effects and social aspect of tea.

    Lots of inspiration to keep tasting, and a desire to figure out what they put in their water was found in California.


    Friday, October 20, 2006

    Transparency in coffee...

    Las Termopilas, Esteli, Nicaragua
    Entwined notes of soft citrus and apple over a subtly smoky base of nuts, coconut and a dash of persisting sweet chocolate. Full bodied with medium acidity. The next roast of this fine coffee will be on Monday, October 16th. Supplies are limited.

    Roast Style: Full Flavor Roast
    Certified Organic

    Cup of Excellence winner

    Rated 90 points by Kenneth David's Coffee Review, to read the review click here.

    Farmer: Milton Canales

    Region: Esteli

    Altitude: 4,100 feet (1,250 m)

    Rainfall: moderate

    Soil: N/A

    Arabica cultivar: Caturra

    Size of farm: 52 acres (21 ha); 7 acres coffee (3.5 ha)

    I noticed this the other day. Transparency is a good thing. I am looking forward to the point where this information is on the bags somewhere. My appreciation for this extra info comes a bit from my purist side but also from my sales/marketing side. Being able to go that extra bit and talk about the coffees elevation or varieties can really sell someone on your coffee. That and it's just cool to know!

    BTW does anyone question the palate of Ken Davids? Sometimes his scores seem like he rolled a handful of dice and just went with it! Having tasted many of the coffees he has, I read the reviews and just wonder what was he tasting that day?

    FYI Take note fellow New England Barista!


    Wednesday, October 18, 2006

    San Francisco

    I have arrived back though still a bit jet lagged. Hong got me a new phone so I am now back in the thick of things. Silas will be back shortly and may give a redux of his trip.

    San Francisco was great. the food was great. The shopping was fun. The scenery was amazing. In some ways, it was like stepping into another country... then again, I live in Cambridge.

    As far as coffee stuffs, I briefly visited Ritual but very few photos. Had some espresso and a cappa. Got the cappa just to check the milk but couldn't really finish it. Interesting place. Later the next day we found a Cathedral in Nob Hill with a Peet's in the basement. Mouldy cofffee? Well, it's not quite as bad as the Starbucks I saw in the Forbidden City in Beijing. I will try to Flickr some of the good ones later.

    The last day I was in San Francisco... Hong, Silas, and I took the car up to visit Andrew. Spent the btter part of the afternoon philosophizing and a tiny cupping. Had lunch with Andrew too which was excellent. A highlight of our trip really was just getting to pick Andrew's brain a bit and hang around him. We really appreciate him playing host and were as usual impressed with his persona.

    It was a tiring trip for me, but very interesting. I really felt it was very introspective in some ways and that was a good thing. I am satisfied but it will be hard to get back to projects at hand here.

    EDIT: Some photos upped...-Jaime

    Thursday, October 12, 2006

    Late night Hines cupping...

    Did quick small group cupping with the guys around 9pm. Alex scored some Hines c/o Bronwen. Not much to report. Too tired for notes or anything. Just got a taste of the 'spro, some other sample roasts, and a little perspective on how different things are in each region.

    Tamper road show to Cambridge on the Horizon... oh yeah, Hong and I will catch up with Silas in San Francisco tommorrow.


    Sunday, October 08, 2006

    Hong dropped my phone in soup... and breaking down the NY trip.

    I have somewhat recovered from the trip to NY but still feel out of touch with things right now. BenC, Silas, B.Kaminsky, Judson, and I crammed into the car for a good ole road trip to New York.

    All of us were working on very little sleep but especially Sleepy was Silas...

    Chris Owens on the GB5

    We ended up in Brooklyn around 10am. Dropped by Lorimer St. to visit Chris Owens for the first shots of the day. Everyone got a round of shots, which is the routine at every place we visit. When I got my shot, it suprisingly was one of the blends CO brought back from his trip to the Nordic Barista Cup. Caffe Crescendo from Kaffa out of Oslo roasted for Mocca.

    It was good. The kinda good you don't expect and don't see very often. The first shot he served was one of those coffee experiences where you have to stop and rethink things. It was simply the best shot I have had in the times I have been visiting cafes... ever (period)

    If anything, the trip was worth it just to have that shot of Cresendo:

    Colombia Esmeralda Cup of Excellence
    El Salvador La Fany(Bourbon)
    Sumatra Mandheling
    Ethiopia Yirgacheffe...

    Perfume and sweet. Aromatic. Smooth and subtle but overtly complex. I was feeling thie Yirg perfume and other florals immediately in the shot. Not even a touch of ferment in the cup or dirt or muddiness. Clarity. That was it and much more. If you had the SOE YIRG, you know where I am coming from here. A lack of roast bitters and a roast that GHH would be proud of. Kaminsky offered to order some when we have reason to celebrate because that was some damn fine coffee*expensive shipping though!!!).
    5 guys ordering shots around NY!
    After that, the day was a blur. Toured more coffee shops, more espresso, and just soaked up NY(aka whined about how we miss Boston). Towards the end of the day, we ended up at Grumpies for our final round of shots. At this point we were all tired and very past the point of wanting any more coffee. Shots of old familiar Ecco Reserve and trying to relax a bit.

    Kaminsky peeking at the Ecco Reserve at Grumpies
    Before we headed out, Chris and Melissa stopped in to chat. We discussed Chris' trip to the NBC a bit, Teflon portafilters(love it), and volumetric baskets(aka the lack of sizing), and other such stuff. It was cool to chat with someone who knows his stuff and really has a bright future ahead of him.

    All in all, it was a good trip. To say we were tired is a bit of an understatement. NY is nice to visit, but maybe it was the fatigue that made me so glad to see old Mass ave again.