company - education - coffee

Friday, February 23, 2007

Good barista like to watch, great barista like to taste...

Since the novelty of the bottomless portafilter has since come and gone (for most), the tagline that good Barista like to watch has been offered more than once. That's a silly statement because everyone likes to watch. Even if you don't like coffee, the novelty of a beautiful bottomless extraction is a great draw. There is a huge thread on the coffeegeek forums of simply people taking photos of glorious espresso shots.

Great. Good. Amazing. Let's frame it!

Thing is, I really want to see a barista sneak a shot in between orders and taste it. Not my shot! Maybe a throw away shot or a split shot where instead of throwing away half, keeping it and taking a sip to evalutate it. Yeah, that's the sign of a good barista, much like a good chef, always tasting everything.

Visuals can lie. Volumes can be off because of freshness or roast variations, but taste is the only way to go. Evaluating the shot by diagnosing it's taste. There are so many times I have found bad batches simply because I stopped and tasted a shot every now and then. Accountability is doing that step in quality control where you taste it.

You want to learn how to make the perfect shot? Well, first off, there is no perfect shot, only a series of great shots you will find once you become serious about espresso. The truth is though that you will never really progress as a barista, home barista, or general aficianado unless you learn to understand what you are tasting.

It's sour. What kind of sour and what is causing it?

The causes range from bean sours, defects, fermentation issues, clean fruit acidity, improper brew temps, improper dose, and possibly the roast profile. To put it simply, it's complicated. Then take into effect that you must diagnose this for not only your array of sours but for the many different bitters as well. Finding that balance where the cupping notes come through is hard.

The Barista controls the dose, grind, temperature, and an array of other minutia to tweak the most from each offering.

Taste. It takes experience and training and a lot of time drinking a lot of bad coffee to understand what is good.

For a Barista to identify the smoke and know that they need to up the dose and shorten the shot, that's a skill. That's why all the great Barista spend so much time learning to cup.

A good Barista knows taste.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Freezing Green For "Vintage" Coffees?

Wine is a beautiful thing. It is one of the products in this world in which the grower can create a bottle of wine and enjoy it year after year and watch it grow, mature, and change with time.

Coffee is not wine in that regard. Coffee is much more like produce in that it is a perishable product meant to be consumed with as little interference from the deteriorating effects of heat, moisture, and most importantly time. Freezing cannot increase the flavor of the coffee over time but makes it possible to keep coffee fresh until it is roasted.

I am all for freezing green to keep it fresh, but are so called “vintage" coffees a good idea? You could approach coffee like wine and vintage it. You could even save it for your kids to try, but why do this now when we have so much to look forward to?

At this point in time, our industry is still in its infancy. Since freezing obviously cannot increase the flavor of the coffee over time, why hoard it? One of the greatest things about this time in coffee is that we are at a point where we have everything to look forward to. If we want the coffee industry to continue to progress in the direction of product quality, what use is there in freezing coffee to be used several years from now? I see only detrimental effects to the industry from this. Every successful business has return customers. How can farmers be expected to create a consistently good coffee if they cannot rely on return customers? How can a farmer expect a return customer if the company buying it just freezes it to be sold when the company chooses and does not continue to buy that coffee year after year? If we want to continue to see consistently good washed coffees year after year, we must retain the seasonality of the coffee business and give farmers a chance to perfect their craft so that it is more repeatable. Especially at this time when so much growth is happening, this is important.

Vintage coffees also create false demand. If a roaster chooses to freeze a coffee for years to come, it creates the demand for consumers to buy that coffee when the roaster chooses to roast it, not when the coffee is still in season.

Everyone has favorite coffees that they want to continue to have again and again, but “vintaging” coffees means that at such a pivotal point in time as is now, farms that produce consistently good washed coffees will remain few in number.

It would be great to fill a vault with all the best coffees you have ever had. To take the best from each origin and make an all-star cupping table would be great. On the other hand, each year the coffees that come to the CoE cupping tables get better and better. Each year I taste coffee, I continue to taste new coffees that amaze me.

Not only would “vintage” coffees put another question mark in how the farmer will consistently be able to sell his coffee, but it will also cost much more for consumers. Freezing coffee costs a lot of money and why would the consumer want to pay for that cost if the coffee can be used faster and ultimately take less money to freeze ? I am willing to take the chance that next years coffee might not be as good, in order to assure that the next 10 years of coffee are.

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Cupping coffee clubs

Cupping coffee is one of the things I enjoy most. To cup is divine. In truth, it could be Tea or anything in the cup and if the flavor is there I would be happy.

Cupping is traditionally something you do when evaluating coffees in a professional capacity. Many of the best barista I know spend extra time and money cupping outside of work to build a better palate and understanding.

When I sit down for a cupping, it's largely a group of friends getting together to evaluate a coffee and enjoy it. That's not the norm but I think more people should consider this type of event. A coffee club if you will.

I think Ben originally called our group the Saturday Afternoon Coffee Club but that was a long time ago. A lot of faces came and went. In the end, we tightened up and had a small group of us who were really serious and no nonsense.

It doesn't need to be serious though and it can just be fun.

Dipping the grounds for the last drop
Photo courtesy of Gabe Rodriguez

Coffee can be fun but you have to distance yourself from the personal nature of the business. Inviting someone who works at a company to bring their own coffee to cup is not a good idea. If the invites don't keep an open mind, you can end up with someone who simply critiques everything but their own products.

When I was in Guatemala though, I got a big reminder of the joy of cupping.

Edwin fetched us all personal cupping spoons, looney toons and the likes. it was a statement made unintentional. We were not the rock stars or the big egos, just the coffee people. No silver spoon, just ready to try something new.

Some of the joy gets sucked out of coffee when people become unwilling to see other perspectives. A lesson I took away from the trip is appreciation for others and their views. The flip side is that it left me with a bit to chew against the myopic and narrow minded people in the business.

All that aside, cupping an amazing coffee with a group of friends is great fun. We will be looking to get together with some of our local buddies and tap some old friends soon. It's time to start doing something and culture a bigger community.

Ideas or participants welcome...

Jason's cupping face
Photo courtesy of Gabe Rodriguez

Friday, February 16, 2007

A retropsective on research...

This blog on coffee started one year ago. A few of the early posts were removed and lost but it has been a full year now of blogging.

I'd like to invite everyone to go back and browse a bit through all the wild stuff we've done or been blessed to be a part of. From 'coffee shots' to 'rooibos lattes' to home machine rebuilds and dosing debates, there's a lot of stuff we had a lot of fun with. I miss doing that stuff and playing with all those variables.

Things are about to pick up in the next few weeks and we will begin posting frequently soon.

A teaser of our newest project....
What does your kitchen table look like...

Details to follow in the next week...

Friday, February 09, 2007

New Toy

Huky300 Coffee Roaster
Capacity: 100~360g (3.5~12.7oz), 250g (8.8oz) recommended (limited by cooling)
Size: 16" x 7.5" x 14" (L x W x H)
Weight: 13 lbs
Mirror Polished 304 Stainless Steel

Perforated Stainless Steel Drum with dual agitator vanes (4.7" diameter x ~0.1" thick)
50rpm-24VDC motor (running @ 20VDC -40rpm)

Custom machined stainless steel axial/bearing (vacuum heat treated)

Bean sampler and quick release gate
Solid rosewood handle
Dual temperature probe: type-K thermocouple and analog

Exhaust vent with gate valve and chaff collector

Accessories: Storage bucket, cooling basket, cooling/exhaust fan, DC power supply, bean funnel (hand made)

High-output Portable Butane Gas Stove with ceramic element (for infrared heat)

Just about every single piece on this roaster is hand made due to the limited production number. Everything is made to last at very high fit and finish (the thing is almost entirely of stainless). The craftsmanship is amazing.

I've done two roasts with it and it's not an easy roaster to use due to its all manual nature. I never use a direct flame drum roaster, let alone one that has air-flow control. The bean probe is very accurate and the thick gauge steel drum is able to retain heat once up to temperature. There are much to learn from this setup but I believe it will teach me more than any currently available home roasters (sample roaster does not count...).

- Ben C.

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

It's in the soil... and the climate

coffee tourists
When we first made the turn to the road leading to the farm, we were told by Edwin Sr., 'don't get your hopes up about the pavement.' He was right, of course. While the early few meters were all nicely paved and surrounded by trimmed trees, it quickly became more forested areas as we moved up where the roads were bumpy and provided a more raucous ride. Mind you, it's not jungle as our late arriving colleagues opined, that would be in the lowlands, it was forest with some evergreen and mixed in the occasional bamboo clump.

One of the things that struck me the most as we headed up the mountains to the farm was how different the lower lands were compared to the higher altitudes. As we journeyed the final leg of our expedition to the farm with a beautiful view, we passed several other farms on the way up. It was these farms at the lower altitudes that looked so different than what we would see higher up. It's hard to explain, but as we followed our bumpy road twisting up the mountains in our little bus, the vegetation began to change and so did the look of the coffee trees planted around us.

We stopped at several points and really began to get a feeling for just how high up we were and how truly massive the mountains are in Huehuetenango(pronounced wayway... not hueyhuey).

On the way to FVH

It was not until later, as brave explorer Tristen was taking GPS measurements with farm manager Carlos from different areas of the farm, that we got a better handle on what kind of variations lay on each lot. From 5000ft to 7000ft with new plantings pushing even higher. Needless to say, we were impressed by the altitude and are certain it warranted the rating Super Hard Bean.

The altitude of these mountains also spoke to another feature you may not notice unless you spent an early morning at the farm. I remember the first morning sitting on the porch watching the sun slowly creep over and down the mountain, filling some crevices and restraining from lighting others. It moved over bit by bit until creeping up the porch and onto my lap. I realized then that the side of the ridge behind us may not get any sun for at least an hour more and then it dawned on me how each part of this mountain could get very different rain and sun. All those steep crevices and ridges presented different shade and rainfall options. Just looking at some of the slopes made you wonder how anyone could harvest some of these coffees without tumbling down the mountain or sliding off in the mud every time it rains.

coffee trails

It is the soil on the mountains that seems a funny thing to me. It sparked more than a few memories of childhood traipsing through the corn fields or running in the mountains. I remember when growing up in the hills of Appalachia in Southwest Virginia where the soil was clay and stuck to your shoes in intolerable clods. Then there were areas of the mountains where it just was different for whatever reason and darker richer soil or rockier sandier soil would suddenly prevail. In these mountains of Huehue, some areas were more like clay while others were darker and richer in color lacking that reddish hue. In some areas, large chunks of volcanic rock were laying around to remind us of the region's tumultuous past. After trekking up and down those trails, I'm sure more than one of us came a bit too close to the soil while barreling down those paths though I was lucky enough to avoid ending up with a terroir encounter.

So if you ever wonder why some of us out there opine about the value of micro lots and smaller and smaller units for the coffee, it largely has to do with the land. There might be a great lot out there where some perfect set of soil and shade comes together with just the right amount of rain to produce some tiny bit of perfection. Or so I imagine, as I am still dreaming about sitting on that porch as the sun creeps down the mountain while I enjoy the beautiful view.

Sunday, February 04, 2007

Familia Martinez: Mi Casa es su Casa...

This is a coffee site but to begin to talk about this trip to Guatemala is to talk about people because this was a trip that became a lot more than just a group of coffee people getting together.

Finca Vista Hermosa Guatemala

It has been an amazing experience of growth and realization. A journey that lasted only a week but the conversations were epic and the friendships were intense. Eugenia said to me the last day that coffee attracts a lot of weird people but I have to say it seemed to attract a lot of good, sincere, and honest people that week in particular. There were people from all over, different political views and religious views, but when it came to coffee, we were all ready to learn something. Topics were debated with an open mind and willingness to see the other side of any argument. There were no 'hipsters' or 'rock stars' demanding attention, just a solid group of characters that created something I will never forget.
I have not seen this level of camaraderie before in coffee and I feel a bit of sadness in having to let go of that moment.

Room with a view

Edwin Sr. says that the chemistry of groups like this is luck, they only happen every now and then when you can mix anyone into any room with another and the conversations may last all night. I will miss those group settings after meals where Sr. would sit us down for the day and tell a story or ask us to share something about the trip. The late night conversations about what if. It was like our own little family.
Looking back now, I think we were all a bit crazy, staying up all night talking, sick as a dog, discussing what we had seen and our past experiences. It seems like a long dream, a bit surreal to me in many ways.

Taking a rest on the patio

We traveled up the mountains and back down many times through Huehuetenango, Antigua, and Guatemala City with Edwin Sr. and Eddy as our guides. They were open and honest with opinions while sharing more information than we could ever ask. They showed us the patios, the land, the plants, the city, the history, the dry mill, Anacafe, and most of all, they showed us the people there in a way I imagine few could. No matter what question was asked or how tough it may have been to answer, they told us everything we could absorb.

Dusk at finca vista hermosa  Top left:Paul, laura, Aaron, Gabe, Corrina, and Jorg Next row:Alan, Casey, Richard, Jaime - me! Front and center:Jason of course

For those who attended that week, there will be stories told for a long time to come. Rightfully so, it was an amazing journey that made long time friends and spurred ideas and debates that will be fodder for Aaron and me for a long time to come.
I truly consider any of them a friend I would welcome any time here in Cambridge.