Friday, August 29, 2008
We will open the shop to the general public Sat. September 6th from 2-4pm for an informal coffee tasting.
[Where:169 Mass Ave Arlington, MA 02474]
There will be rounds of cupping and the espresso blend known in Porter Sq. as 'You're Beautiful' will be on tap pulled by a local barista.
No fees, No RSVP, a few rounds of cuppings, lots of chatter.
Tuesday, August 26, 2008
Problem is, I was never on the bandwagon with the hipsters who fell hard for the Clover brewer. I know it's unfairly hip now to be anti clover and tote the 'back to manual' bit even when few are willing to spend the time to learn what that really means. Sadly, that's how the online community works. So many people are trying to reinvent the wheel with approaches to pour over and syphon when you really just need to start with a good base. If it was easy, everyone could do it amazingly well and yet we have a generation of barista who came into coffee focused on espresso and latte art that are just in the last year finding these old brewing methods again. The book is still open on that one.
Clover always had a few problems with it's design that kept me from getting behind it. So let's go.
Top 5 reasons you shouldn't feel bad you didn't get a Clover:
#1 Fines. The metal filtration really just didn't do it. Clean cup? Out of the question. You could go with a finer screen but the simple fact was that you cannot equate the depth filtration of a cloth filter or the cleanliness of a paper filter in any metal filtration. If you want a very expensive french press brewer where you end up using a coarse grind and enjoy the sediment, you missed out when Clover was available.
#2 Temperature. On several machines we tested, the actual temperature seemed to have different drifts. It could have been issues with different versions but we noticed very quickly there was a temperature drop in the brewing chamber on the machines we had access to. This one never really made sense when you had a heat wrap that was essentially limited in how high it could be set which would have cured the temperature drop problem. It's hard to argue that anything other than flat line brew temperatures in espresso or any other method is a good thing yet nobody voiced this concern in public.
#3 Extraction. Because of the declining temperature and the fines issue, you simply had an under extraction problem. Shooting for short brew times and volume duty in this design meant sacrificing a full extraction. You could compensate by upping the dose but often the cups were either paper thin with a light dose or all high end and fleeting with a hefty dose. Some rationalized this as a 'Clover Cup' vs a paper filter but it was a widely known issue.
#4 Agitation. The trick to squeezing a little more sweetness always seemed to be contentious. Our version which was not widely practiced is as follows: Make sure the water is up to temp and the chamber is full. Then add the coffee and stir it to get a full immersion. Another optional stir mid brew and then a final stir just as it draws down. Just like a Syphon which allowed our brew times on Clover to be longer than others who used the stock whisk and recommended method. While that could do something towards getting a little fuller sweetness, the other problems of filtration were often made worse by agitation that caused fines to filter to the bottom or center. Anyone who has spent time time with technical Syphon methodology (not the steaming scalding ones of tradition) and pour over begins to see this relationship is very important relative to draw downs and the extraction of bitter and astringent flavors.
#5 Clovernet. Did any of the indy shops who bought a Clover ever have a need for this?
Of course, I now wear my Clover shirt proudly and bring the mug out for special visitors. I like it particularly because the hipsters want to ditch the Clover so badly and knock on it's sale to Starbucks yet when they bought it, it was the best thing ever. Clover is not any better or worse than it was before it was bought but the truth is that like many things in our community, the signal to noise ratio is often pretty poor.
Frankly for the perfect fit, you would need a fairly dark roasted coffee for which you could under extract the roast bitters and then the heavy up dose might squeeze some origin character out of otherwise very stale coffee. Then you just need a customer base that would interpret sediment as body. The coup de grâce would be hundreds or possibly thousands of shops that would need to be coordinated by a simple electronic or possibly online interface that superseded dependence on it's end user for calibration(aka Clovernet).
I loaned him one with a timer mod because his switch broke, it's not unlike the one pictured in the previous post but with a different style and push button. Pulling a shot on that was a revelation on how much the blades have an effect on your coffee. Same class grinder, new blades.
While so many shots in town are pulling 20 second gushers on dead -never been changed- blades, I realistically might be able to count on one hand the shops that change them on their own here. There are many shops, the kind where you can't adjust the grind because it's so worn into a groove, any change will make unpullable shots.
Most of us have been there who have worked at more than one shop. I followed (some would proffer instigated) the whole series of upgrades at Simon's from replacing the utterly shot blades on an SM90 right up to the current row of Mazzers. The clarity of fresh blades should be something I would be used to but it's rare times when you are forcefully reminded of the difference.
Monday, August 25, 2008
Monday, August 18, 2008
A few notes about what came of it. We received a slew of positive feedback among which I will take the time to share a few bits and pieces I found funny.
One comment from a Brooklyn interloper was that it was a traditional North Italian. It's a medium roast and yes, it does technically fit in that range but it's not something I would say because that wasn't the idea going in. Point is, it's not a triple ristretto deep disco type of thing but it's simply light because there was only a goal of a specific taste profile, not agtron.
A former Copacafe barista said simply, it's very good but there is too much of X component in the blend. Yes, putting the percentages on the bags makes for some armchair quarterbacking but we expect that. In a way it's fun because when you watch people read the components after sampling, you notice them saying, oh that's what flavor X was.
It's strangely awkward.
You work a long time to develop something, a concept or an idea. Then you get to the stage where you have to share and realize it. You have to come out of the lab and talk with real humans beings which is entirely tiring but likewise cathartic. You get wrapped up in your own world of 'Skeleton grinders' and Vacuum Packing for so long, it becomes easy to forget just how novel all of it is. I'm in a place where the worry over if it lives up to the expectations is met with the reality of how it is actually served up. The irony is that you almost expect issues after having so many months of problem solving sessions and it becomes hard to sit back to just enjoy the positive feedback and stop to have a shot. Getting an excited text message about 'ice cream cappa' is almost a bit hard to share in the excitement when you are refining and critiquing but you have trouble switching into sell mode to talk about how great it is.
Of course the next phase is a lot of training sessions, calibrations, machine mods, well... you know the drill.
Favorite quote has to be when the shop owner visited us and I pulled him a shot only an hour or two off the roast. He responds by telling me, 'shots are pulling better at the shop.' While we are barismo, I don't think I am good enough to beat three days worth of shots in a single pull but I digress. That's kinda cool in it's own way.
Thursday, August 14, 2008
We are moving in a lot of directions at once right now so it's hard to really say what I have moved from barista to doing specifically. As I go forward, given the reputation I had on bar, there has been a lot of discussion by those in our circle and around us that is making me feel a bit introspective. One friend described my time behind bar as a cult with it's own mythology. Like the legend of what we were doing behind bar became greater than the actuality. In some way, I agree because we were doing a lot of things that were very progressive at the time though more common now, the void after it suddenly stopped created an emptiness I myself sometimes struggled to fill. Another friend related to me yesterday that it was like the first battle of the civil war. Without the press and attention or had competing shops and our roaster taken us more seriously, we would not be here because it should have been over before it started.
I am easily willing to attest to the fact I wouldn't be dabbling in roasting or sourcing if I had not had so much friction with roasters and middlemen when I was on bar. That friction literally gave us a name and in part allowed us to second guess and test everything freeing us from the almost ideological obsession many get working with one roast style. I might have had a hand in sourcing some equipment and gone that direction but you can never say for sure. The thought has occurred to me more than once I could have been a working barista for much longer had I not been forced down the road of learning what was going on with the roast. When you are not in control, you might be encouraged to take the next step forward, more of a plunge and you either sink or swim which remains to be seen.
At that point, the vision of a large cafe with multiple SOE and a sweeping bar laden with top notch barista and dual espresso machines went down the drain like a sink shot. We shifted directions because it was no longer an option when you didn't have a product to believe in. Now my focus is set on training and working on concepts that will play a supporting role to others in the cafe. That means, some light roasting duty for limited volume and a heck of a lot of ambitious focus on getting some unique gear and equipment to play in cafes. To which a huge syphon post is about to land on barismo...
I guess it's true of anyone who tries to focus on the task at hand with seriousness and pride. You expect a lot and you desire to deliver but rarely do things align where you can actually deliver. You get the equipment, you find the training, and then finally, you realize you cannot control the coffee or function in the bureaucracy. Coffee becomes the last uncontrolled variable in the equation. This leads the obsessive types having urges to begin moving backwards in the supply chain to try and take total control of the product.
Coming in as a barista may actually be a blessing. I know it brings a specific perspective to how I approach everything.
I have had some pretty good shots in the lab lately and I feel a little yearning to get back on bar though that is quickly quashed by discussions of ghetto lattes and blender drinks. Really, it's almost a fear I can't bust out and tune that shot in the middle of a rush anymore but I know I can even if it may take a day or two to get my mojo back. I do prefer to play backup these days and just focus on tuning shots and training. To let someone else pull shots and work the blend giving advice and only stepping in when it's not getting closer is much less stressful. Quite enjoyable if not quite as sexy as the dream of the cafe that someday will happen.
Friday, August 08, 2008
9. Grind - The grind is off or worse, your blades are dull and worn out. Worn out blades are the most common problem in cafes and frequent home users.
8. Brew time - Over or under steeping can leave you with an undeveloped cup or some unpleasantly bitter or dry notes. Pay attention to time.
7. Temperature - If you have a home drip coffee maker, your temp is probably too low, a common espresso machine, your temp is either way too high or way too low. Either way, check it and eliminate it as an issue.
6. Crop variance - Few coffees will ever be exactly the same throughout an entire offering. The more bags, the more likely there will be some natural crop variance throughout. This is unavoidable in all but the most premium lots.
5. Weather - Humidity or ambient temperature could have played a part in either storage or in creating variance during the production roast. This is an unseen factor which cannot be accounted for by the end consumer.
4. Roaster error - You could write a novel on this point. Needless to say, nobody is perfect and sometimes the coffees run the profile but something was wrong. Something wasn't cleaned, an appropriate change was not made to compensate for environmental variation, or worse in that the roaster could not identify the error even post roast. I know some roasters just cannot handle the wet and high grown coffees so they end up with raw tasting sharp astringency and other weird flavors that vary batch to batch.
3. Brew method - Everyone has different evaluation methods. We cup and then vac pot, (then espresso for some roasts) but that's not common. We heard one roaster uses a technivorm for evaluation but most people just use traditional cupping which often doesn't taste like your home brewer's profile. For espresso, it's as simple as the difference between using a GB5 and a Robur vs an E61 with a Jolly, don't expect the same tastes.
2. Age - Coffee gets old. Roasts age and fade in the weeks after roast but more interestingly, unroasted coffees fade and change. So X roaster prints a thousand fancy labels and you buy one bag of retail coffee the first month it arrives. Buying a second retail bag three months later, the chances are it won't be the same but the label won't change because it's cheaper to print labels ahead. Simple common sense tells us that as raw coffee fades in color, something is lost so it should be a given for anyone who reads this blog to accept coffee gets old.
1. Personal palette - I think of some of our west coast friends who caught the light roast bug. They constantly use terms they are familiar with like 'jolly rancher' or 'stone fruit' which is probably accurate but not everyone will relate. Tasting notes can be very subjective simply because your vocabulary is based on your own personal experiences. Worse, some cuppers give you notes that are romantically inclined and can border on romantic imagery vs the impression of a distinct taste.
Personal palette is most often the reason or excuse given when you buy a bag and don't get the taste descriptors. This can often be followed by either delicate or often abrasive critique of your brew method/water/personal ability depending on how customer service is at that roaster. Let's put it simple, chances are you won't get the bag descriptors in your cup.
It begs the simple question, how useful are taste descriptors on the bags?
Thursday, August 07, 2008
We had a lot of Brasil coffee that were worrisome. We transferred them out of jute (as we do any coffee not sealed at origin) and had them in liner bags until we vacuum packed them a bit later when the equipment arrived. It was not fun packing. You really had to be careful how you bagged them and how you stacked them because if the seal broke, the entire purpose of repacking was lost. It took us a while to get a method down so that you could stack the 'bricks' and not worry about the pressure breaking the seal. We used nice bags and though I don't have photos to share, it is impressive to see the pallets of silver bags.
What made the Brasil so worrisome and really bothered me was every time I opened a bag to profile on the Mini, the coffee would change and fade relatively quick. We are talking about two to three weeks of time in my kitchen closet and the coffee just died. Rather strangely, this remarkably clean tasting screen dried natural became a fermenty wild 'strawberry' natural with the bready Brasil character I hate so much. A few times it even became peasy and/or dirty peanut. I doubt I will buy more Brasil in the future if I can get a good Rwanda source but that's another discussion entirely.
The weird thing was going back after six months, the vacuum packed bags are still fine though lacking that fresh character but I have a lot of half opened bags that just went nasty quick. Makes you really wonder what's going on when people say coffee can last so long or be stored in such poor conditions without them noticing an issue.
Jute is out, nitrogen flushing and vac packing is the new progressive standard.
Monday, August 04, 2008
I saw this photo and it reminded me to take a moment and breathe. This is a photo of some of the first Guatemalan coffees to exit Guatemala in something other than jute. We are proud to have a hand in that process and look forward to seeing more lots exit the country that way. Guatemala is such a great place for good coffees. I am told the 18th of this month, our premium Kenyan coffee arrives which is also vacuum sealed at origin. We were lucky on this one because someone else already established the demand. We were all set to have our pick flown in at what is a pretty high cost until we found out vacuum packaging was ready and of course we jumped on it.
People talk a lot about quality but if you really look at the handful of people who have pushed progressive packing, that set the bar for me. Anyone can fawn over 2 buck chuck or overpay for the right to have paid the most but I respect those who put the money into preserving the coffee. How much of that proverbial 90pt+ coffee faded on the boat over bagged in jute? Who is legit if they ignore that, stuff the green in a hot and humid warehouse, then pitch you a romantic story? There is a lot of showmanship and you have to dig deeper to feel out what's behind the bravado.
This is a fun week. Profiling and working on the big roasters. Waiting for coffees to arrive. I owe a lot to Simon Hsieh for giving us a starting point to work from. I don't disrespect the influence he has had among others.
Roasting is complicated. Imagine working three variables: drum speed, air flow, BTU(heat). Now imagine you had no base, how long would it take you to find the right drum speeds, air settings, and gas settings for one coffee? If you apply true scientific method(which almost no professional roasters do), you would only change one variable at a time and test each single variable independently.
Take a basic profile and then test variations with a scientific process and you can progress very quickly gathering a mountain of data quickly.
We have a special roaster which was a great burden but I really believe it will be something great. It is a 4 kilo called a direct flame but it's really a hybrid. The drum is solid cast iron with a couple thousand holes drilled in it so it's not the mesh of traditional direct flame drums. This overcomes a lot of issues in the roast inherent in traditional direct flame roasters. The profile is a combination of an air roaster with a solid drum slash direct flame. You can get explosive aroma, deep sweetness, and the acidity can be decidedly candied instead of sparkling or the more common sharpness. The air flow is amazing and patented by the way. I won't post photos but the mfg developed a manner to make the airflow fairly linear. It operates, in essence, like a camera aperture. Gone are the dorky damper style flaps which are often limited to open, half, or closed where one quarter may not really mean one quarter. The custom air flow has 10 settings of which I use about 5 during a normal roast.
Other specs: variable drum speed, gas gauge, digital bean probe with measurement to one tenth of a degree(can be ported and data logged), and an analog probe in the exhaust. All of those components are controlled on a box that is located about chest high which beats bending over to adjust/log or having a stand with cords you can trip over. The flame pilot and lighting sequence is absolutely b-spec, automated with a flame sensor, timed lighting sequence, and the gas valve has an auto shutoff sequence when it reaches the over temp alarm. The kicker is an external chaff collector which is massive and completely unheard of for a roaster this size.
There were definitely some growing pains but thankfully I had been working the baby version of this, affectionately called the Mini, for half a year previous. The profile scaled up very well so it only took a dozen roasts to get comfortable. Though, honestly, I don't think we will ever stop long enough to really get comfortable so it's all relative.
All I can say is that for the first time in months, I had one of those moments the other day where I was smiling and goofy instead of deep in problem solving mode. It's a good feeling.