company - education - coffee

Friday, April 24, 2009

Get the coffee right

We have been very conservative with our approach as new business owners. We took our time and have been careful, not gotten greedy or tried to force things to happen. We consolidated where we were at and waited until we felt our roasts were very consistent and of a level we felt comfortable with every week. Getting enough roasts under your belt that you fear no coffee is a great thing.

It seems to be that we are ready for the next stage (or stages rather). This weekend, the bar will get finished or pretty close to it. It will need a paint job and some shelving work but that will happen sooner than later. Shortly after, our hours of operation will firm up to reflect what we are. What we were was a wholesale roaster who happened to be open to the public during limited hours. We are now about to become a kiosk that will represent our coffees and tie together a few important items. Syphon, v60 pour overs, and espresso. No air pots, nothing but fresh brewed coffee.

To show what your coffee is, you either need competent representation (we have had that so far) or internal representation. We want to showcase a lot of brew methods and spend our time focused on the resulting cups at the shop and change the dialogue.

We came from an outside view of the dangers of rapid growth well beyond the ability to have effective quality controls. It was like watching an evolution where a multitude of compromises led to coffee in bins, black label blends, pre ground, hidden roast dates, and almost every single pitfall short of flavorings known to quality roasting. There was no feedback loop with accounts as to the results, no training, and very simply put, no barismo.

Our approach is going to be a direct response to those lessons which were taught indirectly. We are going to focus on training, focus on methodology, and most importantly taste. This is a mission statement in itself of making sure our coffees are executed at every step as well as we can influence it.

There is a time when the realization comes that you are surrounded and supported by an amazing group of people and the mix just needs to be fitted together in the right way. For that, we will be adding some new members to our family in different roles over the next few weeks. There have been more than a few phone calls in the last few days made to reach out and find the right mix.

I want to say thanks for all those who have supported us through the changes and see the potential in our style of coffee. To those who have hung around and been there at tastings, chipping in a thanks, or have been spreading the word, we appreciate it.

The kiosk is on the way. See you there soon barista.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009


Ben K. and I are headed to Atlanta for a few days. We are there as a part of the anti boiler project and the icing on the cake is getting to hang out with old friends and contacts.

The shop will be open 12-6 this week though may close an hour early on a few days. We had a ridiculously full roast session so expect there to be plenty of coffees. The SOMA is so good, I don't expect there to be a whole lot left by the weekend but Simon's has guest of it and some Nimac as espresso this coming week. We are going to limit SOMA to the kiosk or as a guest for other cafes right now. Hoping the kiosk will progress farther after a return from travel and we can showcase this blend a little more. It is the most complex espresso we have roasted yet.

See you next week barista.

Espresso pack

We have a new espresso blend, SOMA, which though we are about to run out of some of it's components in the next month as new crops arrive, it's pretty darn good. I think that after all the time we have spent with these coffees, at a certain point we understood them well enough to know the pontential in these coffees as a roaster. There are few things we haven't tried to get more out of these coffees and this blend is a culmination of these lessons.

The blend consists of 10% Nimac Kapeh, 15% Kiandu, and 75% Cardenas. That's two Guatemala Atitlans and a Kenya Nyeri.

Sweetness, viscous mouthfeel, and ripe fruit dominate the cup character. Balance from top to bottom makes this smooth blend less challenging but still overtly complex. Front of the mouth cask conditioned red wine yields mid palate to soft cocoa, then finishes with sweet lingering spiced fruit jam.

It's a thick dark red shot that pulls well as a 19 gram double @ 201.5f and at shorter volumes.

During the WBC we are offering an espresso pack where you can pick up our three current blends at a reasonable price.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

How I spent Easter

I admit I was so wrapped up in getting John Pierre's roasts done and helping get him a good base for what will be a crazy experience, I only had a few moments to watch the zombie Jesus parade as it was on the way to Harvard Sq. I didn't really know what it was but wasn't the least bit fazed as is often the case when you live in a place like Cambridge for very long.

Highlights of the day were taking JP for lunch at what was his first try at Mexican food and then getting his reaction as we dropped into a couple of cafes. Much of the day was spent trying to get a firm idea on Rwandan cuisine, comparing roast styles, pulling shots, and the likes. On a personal level, it is great to work with people who want to learn and willing to absorb anything you can throw at them. So much of my time gets spent dealing with drama and non coffee stuff that it's refreshing to just work on the coffee.

The big lesson was that this is something we do enjoy doing. While Ben K. might occasionally risk burning down Hi-Rise for forgetting to turn off grills and be averse to mops, he is good at training for competitions. On the oddball notes, JP brought only a small amount of his competition coffee, Kivu with him so we had to arrange a little more coffee. Ben K. contacted his friend at Terroir and got a little of their current Rwanda for JP as a backup. I was not prepared for how difficult this coffee would be to roast. It was not anything in the behavior itself but the oddity was in coloration and the core of the roasted bean. It was hard not to burn and strangely difficult to roast. I have no real clue why but it was a bit like if Rod Serling wrote the script and we suddenly were having tipping and scorching when the roast should be too conservative as is. There is a lot of pressure when a last moment competition roast comes in for the World Barista Competition. We did get him a solid roast to work with and JP will have many other things to think about besides the coffee in the next few days.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Three barismo things to think about

We are doing some training sessions with the current Rwandan barista champion in shop right now and were put in the position of roasting his competition coffee last minute. That brings about one phrase that is funny to type, 'Rwandan green coffee sourced by Terroir, roasted by barismo.' Half of the green will go back to Acton but we will probably host a small charity event for the leftover espresso from his competition batch at a later date. We will also give Jean Pierre a tour of Cambridge cafes tomorrow so keep an eye out for him. We will be in Atlanta for the WBC soon so I am not sure of the time line on the charity stuff.

The anti boiler prototype got us thinking that it could revolutionize how we look at manual methods. Instead of trying to automate, use science to refine and support the execution of methodology. A firm time line for production does not exist but it really does hold some incredible potential.

The weather stinks right now but later this week you will be able to try a new espresso blend that will be available only as a guest at Simon's and Hi Rise on Brattle St. We need to settle it a little more but the espresso currently called SOMA consists of Cardenas, Kiandu, and Nimac. Depending on the feedback and final results, this will be a stock barismo blend going forward. As new crops come in, we will be running more SOE offerings and playing with experimental blends at shops that are geared up to run two espresso simultaneously (a guest/SOE being the second offering). Since our espresso machine is somewhat offline right now, we will see how things go but there will not be any on site activities at the lab until the kiosk remodel is finished.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Let the line flow

Just saw Simon's finished remodel and it looks like a change for the better. It was progressing in several stages but we helped a bit tonight in passing by taking some shelving down. His standing bar on the side adds a lot to the space and really opens it up with better light and a more comfortable feel without the shelving adding shadows. That and the new paint job is really helping.

Knowing how cafes run and having ideas on how the lines flow is a tricky business. The design Simon originally had was not his own, he took over another shop and did only superficial changes. After years of watching the customers cluster and have trouble moving the line, he made some nice changes in this remodel. In an interesting way, it is a parallel to what we are going through in the lab right now.

Ben Chen pointed out to me today that the barismo layout is pretty symmetrical with our new counter installed. It still lacks a counter top but his estimation is correct. When you first walk in the door, you walk right up to the counter where ordering happens. It's a subtle thing but it influences the flow. Order with the person pulling shots, pick up on the other side of the machine down the counter, then pay a little further down the counter. At each of those moments, a step forward. Don't underestimate the psyche of a customer. Something as little as making a step forward every now and then feels like progress where as standing and waiting can feel frustrating.

The worst thing I see in cafes is when a line backs up at the drink pick up point and there is a small group of customers waiting for drinks. There will always be the person who hears exactly what you said and will still pick it up regardless of how wrong the size is querying 'Is this mine?' More times than you would like, this person will walk off with the drink forcing the staff to remake drinks and do damage control.

The second worst flow is the criss cross design. A condiment station or drink pickup area that forces customers to flow back through the line that moves forward to access the station. Having a register past the espresso machine but drinks are ordered at the register is always a fun thing to watch as a customer. The old shout out to figure out who went and sat down leaving the abandoned drink for half an hour only to come back later confused they did not have their drink yet.

Shop design is tough and there are few places that really nail it. I guess we are looking to maximize customer space in a tiny shop and move the line. I have learned some lessons from the other shops I've worked at or visited and I decided to keep it tight and efficient. No barista self indulgence this time around. Resulting success still to be decided.

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Changes on the horizon

Silas is back in town for a little while and we just picked up a sales person to help work on account building later in the month. We are growing slowly and making certain we focus ourselves well as we expand.

Part of that means the shop is an incredible mess but the barismo remodel is at a stopping point for a few days. That means after a cleanup, we will have a few days to catch up. A new counter, shelving, and a multitude of little organization projects will keep me busy pre World Barista Championship travel. After that, we should be up and running to get the kiosk cranking. Shots, cappuccino, cloth pour overs, and Syphons oh my!

Simon's has a custom version of the L. St. espresso blend forhis main espresso more focused on body and mid tones. Ask for it short and you will be rewarded. I am pretty excited by some of the shots Lauren has pulled me there lately and I recommend looking for her to pull your shot. She really seems to be an up and coming barista to keep an eye on. This week, Hi-Rise on Brattle St. will have Nimac by the cup in pour over. Judson is slowly developing his mix of coffees for per cup offerings there and it will take a little time to see it expand but I am hopeful that it will be something special. My former workmate already has good espresso (classic Linnaean St.) and teeny tiny cup sizes but the per cup program looks like the real wild card. On the other side, Vicki Lee's is half way through a long training schedule and will be an interesting test of what we can do in a lunch type setting. In time, we hope to do something very creative with them but they are just some of a few projects we have right now that we are very proud of.

Things in this town change quick and the barista jam was one of those that shows there is promise here. This town isn't locked in yet to any one style and there is much more yet to be written. Who the players are is the real question to be answered in the next few months.

Sunday, April 05, 2009

Flawed brews and the benefit of understanding

I have been thinking a lot about how quickly methodology can become inherently flawed by a series of estimations. Empirical observations where we use a vague understanding of science and develop a creative theory to justify method. This can be a disastrous approach. Starting with an off premise and then adjusting to compensate leading to a series of hacks to adjust for the initial flaws is very common. Making it worse, it is inherent in our barista culture that ownership of a method means making changes or adjustments. Adopting a method that may not have been fully understood becomes an exercise in tweaking which is often thought of as improvement though it may have simply been mere compensation for early flaws.

What I am getting at is that in our young coffee culture, our methods shift too often for reasons that are little more than a flawed initial interpretation.

We started with a version of pour over that was acceptable but have been playing with new equipment for the kiosk that makes me think we had ventured in the wrong direction for a little while. It happens a lot. Right now, the brews are coming out as good as our Syphon brews but with a different profile emphasis.

Coffee isn't simple, in fact, it's more complex than it should be and that's the basic problem. Our barista culture is always looking for the shortcuts. Skipping steps, trying to create a new approach that is simpler, easier, or gets results quicker. There is an inherent danger in this. As I see it, an inflexibility happens with ownership of a method. By changing the original method, it becomes personal, therein defense of the method becomes rigid even in the face of contradicting results. In short, we change it, we own it, we then defend it even though it may possibly be wrong. What's worse is there are very eloquent speakers in our community who pass prose for science but it's little more than empirical data given romantic aspirations.

This is a flaw in our current coffee culture which is justified simply because there is a very weak base which the new wave of coffee people can build upon. There are no forefathers of the pour over movement around on bar to give advice. No syphon masters locally to compare notes with. This is good because there is no rigid methodology and the options are wide open but bad because there is nothing to compare to. There is no great coffee culture here beyond the multitude of faceless airpot brewers which are often programmed with refractometers and spreadsheets. How does it become that taste is no longer part of the equation but graphs and charts are the end measure in many roasting outfits? What should we as barista gain from this?

Given this, it's easy to throw out everything and rewrite the book as you see it. To adopt your own independent methodology over how you brew. The problem is that without a base to begin, finding a good method or approach is about taking a lot of wrong turns. A good method is built upon scientific method, testing, repeating, and analytical approach. Most people in our culture don't have the time or patience to spend months roasting before going into production. They don't have time to pull a thousand shots or brew hundreds of brews to figure out and refine a single approach. They wing it, adjust, and all too often fall in love with their own approach even if there are gaping holes in it.

I think it's good to have true peers to give you a reality check. To tell you your pour over is just under extracted or that your bar routine is too inefficient. To pat you on the back when you make great gains or represent yourself professionally. Without that, the route to getting better is a longer tribulation than it should be and may be full of dead ends. Getting better depends on having respected peers be they in Taiwan or across the town line.

This is why I believe in a local community. If we simply hole up in our spaces behind terminals on the internet, we can debate all day and make careful arguments. Mostly rubbish but furiously typed nonetheless. It has little worth because of the distance of contributors and the lack of a commonality, the shared cup of coffee to sample. If we do not venture from our own cafe, how do we ever really experience this?

Our real peers, those that can taste our coffees and may then understand us, are the ones that matter most in our improvement. They may not agree but they can taste what you taste and that's the real key to getting better and raising the proverbial bar. Method grows from competition and understanding. The base of knowledge is built on a foundation not within a single roaster/cafe culture but in competitive improvement across many. To get better, there is a certain point at which we must understand others and learn from them, even challenge them and tell them they are wrong once in a while.

Growth is not always a singular movement. Often, it is a shared movement whether we like it or not. Those who benefit are often those who participate and the real challenge is to participate. To grow may in the end require that others grow with you.

Saturday, April 04, 2009

The big jam in review

We had barista from A&E, 1369, Diesel/Bloc 11, Hi Rise, Simon's, Espresso Royale, Bonhoeffer's, Cafe Fixe, Amherst Coffee, Formaggios, as well as Taste and barismo! I hope I am not leaving anyone out but that's what I remember after that crazy night. Quite a few crews showed up in force putting to shame those who snubbed the invites.

Rene from Hi-Rise brought lemon Meringue pies, Gus of Toscanini's dropped off a special coffee ice cream, and Zack from 1369 came bearing gifts with a special bottle of Bourbon. The pourover bar was well manned and a big thanks to Ben Chen and Chris for offering our coffees up. A heaping big thanks to Fazenda for donating the tampers. That added a lot to the event and was very generous. A big thanks to High Lawn milk for donating a few cases of their 100% Jersey milk and sending out a rep to attend the event. I guarantee a few shops are taking a long look at upgrading their dairy to a local quality focused farm like High Lawn after this.

The place was really packed and a big thanks to the staff at Taste: Jason, Jamie, Clare, Logan, and of course Nik. It was a big mess to clean up, a lot of things to keep track of and they did a great job. Professionals to the letter.

Out of 20 some competitors (Nik will update this in detail later) in the latte art throw down, the six finalists were:
Jess (Diesel)
Ethan (A&E Roasterie)
Clare (Taste)
Emily (Diesel/Bloc 11)
Simon (Simon's)
Nik (Taste)

The overall winner was Emily (pour pictured at left) who took home a pour over kit from barismo and a red powder coated tamper from Fazenda. Second went to Clare, who took home a Rosewood handle tamper from Fazenda. The most creative award went to Simon who took a bumper tamper from Fazenda back to his shop.

For those curious, the winner of Kranky's latte chug contest was Logan (Taste) who took down a 12oz latte in 3 seconds flat.

I was very happy to see our community come out and represent. It is already making a difference and bringing new ideas to discussions on everything from milk to gear and of course, the coffee.