Thursday, December 17, 2009

Roasting @ The Roaster

Where I left off on my trip to Kaldi's Coffee Roasting facility was after the different varietals arrived. Picking up from here, we moved directly into the good part, the roasting. Joe Marrocco, partially pictured to my left, gave me great treatment and shared answers to just about everything I could think to ask, and many things I didn't think of. I'll walk you through some of the more memorable insights.

When I arrived I immediately saw the mammoth Probat roaster- much larger than other operations I have seen- which gives Kaldi's the ability to roast greater volume and sell to a larger market. This is minuscule compared to the volumes of larger companies like Ronnoco or Starbucks, but these companies drop SUBSTANTIALLY in the quality department. The Probat was manufactured in the early 1920s and made out of cast iron at least 1/2" thick, probably much thicker. This substantial construction allows the machine to use less fuel in heating because of shear residual heat buildup. On the opposite side of the Probat, the cycling of the barrel is driven by old-style belts (the belts need no restrictions or guides to keep them aligned simply due to superior construction). The beans are cycled around in the barrel-style bin for very precise amounts of time and in varying levels of heat. As pictured first, I had the opportunity to help track the heat variance on a very small batch of Ethiopia Yigacheffe. This experience really illuminated the process of addition of heat and the process of watching the batch roast develop.

Heat is applied heavily at the beginning to around 410 degrees, the coffee is then dropped into the barrel, and the temperature drops to its lowest point of 200 degrees because at this point the beans have absorbed initial heat. After this absorption period, the temperature begins to rise rapidly back toward the 350s. The "flame" is dropped in proportion to the heat increase within the roaster itself. This may sound paradoxical, but it really does make sense: the coffee begins to roast itself from within- like a miniature candy factory in every bean. The beans increase in temperature on their own during the caramelization process, from the "first crack" (the beans expand and a cracking sound is produced) to the "second crack" where caramelization ceases and carbonization begins (where the sugars produced through roasting begin to burn). After the beans have reached their optimum roast level, they are dropped into a cooling tray. This cooling tray has a reverse fan sucking air from above the beans in the tray, through the beans. At the same time, there are swirling arms that stir the beans, further cooling them and stopping the roasting process within the beans. During this time, the roaster will observe the beans and try to pick out any outstandingly over-roasted beans that may have gotten stuck against one of the iron sides within the barrel.

Kaldi's has another roaster, a smaller San Franciscan, used for small batches like the one I got to work on. It is around 30-50 thousand dollars to buy. This sounds like a lot until I asked what the Probat costs. If you can even find one for sale, the Probat is around 250 grand to start. Wow. Here's a picture of the smaller (more realistically priced) roaster:

Lord, thank you for the great experience and new knowledge. I pray I can do something like this myself. Even if I don't get to have my own roaster some day, I still want to serve You. Keep my head deflated and on straight. Here we go.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

My Review of Burundi Kinyovu

Originally submitted at Coffee Review

Co-cupper Jim Reynolds (95): "This coffee scored well in every category. I especially liked the floral acidity - a nice vanilla and chocolate aspect to the flavor complemented the smooth - very smooth - mouthfeel." Ken's praise (94) was nearly identical, though he added "spicy fr...

Burundi Loving

By Espresso Vein from Columbia, MO on 12/12/2009


5out of 5

Pros: Balanced Acidity, Attractive Mouthfeel/Body, Smooth Taste, Exceptional/Interesting Flavor, Not Bitter, Pleasing Aroma

Cons: Roast didn't add anything

Best Uses: Manual Pour-Over/Drip, Gifts

Describe Yourself: Coffee Professional, Coffee Connoisseur

I used this in a Chemex (pour-over) and it was fantastic. I used to work for Kaldi's, but am now running a competitor shop. I still must admit, this coffee was fantastic.


Roasting Expedition

I was invited to spend the day at Kaldi's Roastery in St.Louis, so I took advantage of the opportunity. On the trip, I was shown the inner-workings of the roasting facility, trained in Kaldi's roasting practices by the award winning roaster and barista Joe Marrocco, and experienced a quality-control cupping- the likes of which are held there almost daily. Experiencing so much in one day will require more than one post to share adequately.

Where to start? There was just so much information imparted to me! Until yesterday, my experience was largely limited to barista experience, managing and marketing, brewing techniques, and training. Yesterday, I was shown so much more of the coffee world! The roasting process was amazing and describing it seems empty, but here I go anyway. I think simply starting with the beans' arrival at the roaster and following their progress through the roasting process will be the easiest way for explanation.

Kaldi's receives hundreds, even thousands of pounds of green coffee beans weekly. The day that I was there, it was a "light" roasting day- not roasting much for their standards, only staying busy roasting for 5-6 hours of the day (that's still amazingly large quantities). These beans arrive in huge 60 pound burlap sacks transported directly from their processing facilities in the origins grown. Only very select coffees are chosen by specialty roasters like Kaldi's for production. Something like 1-3% of coffee grown meets the very strict standards of specialty coffee. In fact, Kaldi's was roasting a Costa Rican coffee that was the best lot of its class- a Cup of Excellence coffee, which are very pricey. Kaldi's is fairly unique in that they rarely pass on the extra expense to their customers, even when buying the most premium of the specialty coffees. One example I'm familiar with is the Burundi Kayanza single origin coffee that scored a 95 on the Coffee Review- instead of selling this very high scoring coffee for high prices (some as high as $60/10oz), which would be expected, they sold it for the standard $11-13/lb that their other coffees go for; this is an effort to make even the best of the best available to everyone.

Moving the coffees to the scale comes next, weighing them raw to then be transported in correct quantities to the roasters in batches. These two roasters in use were very different- one was a San Franciscan, the other a Probat. The San Franciscan was around the 25lb barrel size, the Probat a 75-100lb mammoth. This is where I will pick up next. Pictures and more detailed descriptions to follow!

Lord, thank you for the opportunity to obtain more knowledge about this fine product and thank you for those at Kaldi's willing to take the time to share their insight. Also, thank you so much for a wife interested enough to spend the whole day along with me, experiencing the roasting. Keep my head deflated and on straight. Here we go.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Flat Out Doubtful

There is no way the Flat White is produced properly by Starbucks. No Way. I'm rarely so confident in my judgments that I make wide over-arching blanket statements without even stopping to see for certain that I'm right, but this is one exception. Starbucks, as you probably have heard already, is officially introducing the Flat White to their menu. This extra-specialty drink originated down-under in New Zealand and popularized in Australia, then quickly spread to Great Britain and now to the Pacific Northwest empire of Starbucks.

Why am I so certain that Starbucks has bitten off more than they can chew? Because they have already proven that high quality drinks such as the latte, cappuccino, and even as basic as the traditional espresso shot are out of their reach. The machines used at Starbucks retail outlets are those that are very similar to McDonald's and even some gas stations. The "Barista" pushes a button, then a watery slurry of coffee flavored nastiness jettisons out into the cup (their so-called espresso). Then the "Barista" supposedly steams the milk for the drink, but most often scalds, burns, or outright ruins it. Then the two mutilated ingredients are mixed and served to you in exchange for your $4.00. Pathetic.

So, with the addition of the Flat White to their menu, their lack of skill will be exasperated further. The Flat White requires even more attention to the milk steaming process. This drink requires little to no air injection during the steaming process, a lot of milk circulation in the pitcher, and steaming for the proper time duration. If Starbucks cannot meet minimum quality standards with their regularly produced menu items (and they most certainly cannot), what makes anyone think their Flat White will even resemble what it is supposed to? My prediction is that the drink will be very difficult to distinguish between the regular latte or even cappuccino. If anything, Starbucks will mandate an "extra" shot into their drink sizes to bolster the Flat White's coffee flavor strength. Ridiculous. Most small independent coffee shops already offer more espresso per drink anyway- this would simply put the giant chain store a bit closer to par.

Obviously, I'm against Starbucks introduction of the Flat White into their menu. I hold to this view not out of some kind of necessary hatred for the coffee chain, but out of respect for the specialty drink and industry itself. The Flat White is not that special, but specialty coffee is. Starbucks, in my opinion, slanders specialty coffee by continuing to claim that it is what it once was- special. Here's a Link to the blog post that started this rave of mine. Do you agree with me, disagree, and why?

Here's another great Article on the Flat White's new found popularity.

Lord, thank you for a little bit of snow today. It was enough to make me enjoy winter, and not enough to make me late for work. Perfect. Keep my head deflated and on straight. Here we go.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Tanzanian Trial

I tried Lakota again today. Every once in a while I work up the courage to cross the street and order a cup of coffee from Lakota Coffee. The courage is necessary because I have never had a good beverage experience there before. Environment, service, and price are not the issues to overcome here, those aspects are just fine- in fact, they are outstanding (not the decor, that is a bit weird). The actual product is what is holding me back.

So, like I said, I tried it again. I was actually just there to meet Vida's roaster, another Brian, of Northwest Coffee from St. Louis. He was bringing me the pound of Guatemalan I had ordered for dispersion into gift baskets for family Christmas gifts. Again, I digress.

While waiting for Brian, I ordered a cup of black coffee. Their setup is a self-serve bar of air pots, all of which are pump style and kind of cheap. The coffee can stand brewed in those pots for well into three hours (grossly over-kept). So, the coffee is already fighting an uphill battle by the time it reaches my palate. I tried a Tanzanian varietal since it is a rare find in Columbia- also I hoped that since I had limited experience with this varietal I would be less disappointed by Lakota's product. Good logic, but still an unfortunate result: badly over-roasted coffee.

This is the same trend I have noticed and heard repeated by other coffee drinkers, "Lakota burns their beans." I know some coffees need longer roasting times, I'm not ignorant to this; I am more the opposite in fact. For Lakota though, they at best critically injure all their coffees before they are even brewed with their over-roasting policy. They roast in-house, a plus. They also roast in-house badly, a HUGE negative. In essence, every coffee offered is a different form of French Roast, Italian Roast, and Viennese Roast, with little effort for differentiation. The Tanzanian had a small spark of life left in it when I tasted it, but the true intensity of the brew was sapped by the charring effects of its roast. Poor beans.

I'm not trying to go on an all-out rant against Lakota, really and truly. What I am trying to do is shock them into realization that they suck at roasting toward the heightening of the individual varietals' best features. Instead of putting the roaster on French Roast cruise control, pay attention to the best roast methods for each individual bean type. Pay attention to the roasting practices of the best roasters in the world like Intelligentsia, Square Mile, Kaldi's, or Vida Coffee Co's provider, Northwest Coffee Roasters. And for goodness sake, pay attention to your customers.

Lord, thank you for great coffee and the ability to change. You are unchanging perfection, please help us change; help us change to be more like You- perfection. Keep my head deflated and on straight. Here we go.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Traditional Cappuccino

I went to Kaldi's again. I couldn't help it! On my second, second anniversary date with my wife we stopped by and picked up two lattes. They were offering a single origin Costa Rican espresso, so I asked for it- it's kind of my new obsession. Anyway, after tasting this Costa Rican espresso, I was hooked! It was too beautiful. So soft and caressing, yet aggressive in the finish. Obviously it is a different process of evaluation due to the addition of milk, but still- delicious!

So, as I was saying, last night I went back for more. This time I lowered the milk content to a traditional 6oz cappuccino, but kept the single origin espresso. Again, I was blown away with its sweet gentleness. As i was drinking this divine creation, I took note of a few elements of the drink I appreciated. This rating system is not official in any way other than for my own purposes of organizing espresso experiences: I give 10 points to four areas of the drink, then take the average of them all and calculate the final score:

1. Milk Foam Preparation
2. Steamed Milk Preparation
3. Espresso Preparation and Taste
4. Presentation

The first category of milk foam is important because milk based drinks really have two separate sections, the steamed and foamed sections. The cappuccino shows these two categories off most explicitly. So, for milk foam, the barista received a score of 7 because the foam "cap" was about 1/3" thick- a bit much, but still decent.

The category of steamed milk was much better. The steamed milk section was near perfection, deliciously warm, not scalded- not easily done on a 6oz drink! Therefore, a score of 9.5.

Section 3 received a score of 10 for reasons previously discussed. The espresso was amazing. So soft and balanced for a single origin!

The last section of presentation earned a score of 7.5 for decent latte art, but not great and for the demitasse cup, spoon, and chocolate covered coffee beans. Latte art is not an easy feat ever, let alone on such a small drink like the cappuccino.

The total rating ended up as a 8.625- not bad at all. Any score lower than a 5.0 overall is something not even deserving of the title specialty coffee, so nicely done Kaldi's! Thanks for the great experience. I'll be back again I'm sure. Keep that Don Mayo going!

Lord, thank you for the ability to go and pick up such great products. My health, the freedom to do so, and the shops that provide it. Keep my head deflated and on straight. Here we go.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Jewell of the Broad Ripple District

Hubbard and Craven's coffee shop in the heart of the Broad Ripple district in Indianapolis was fantastic. It reminds me a lot of my last employer, Kaldi's Coffee Roasters based out of St. Louis. Both are dominant artisan wholesale coffee roasters in their cities and surrounding region. Both have a handful of coffee shops under proprietorship. These two companies are dedicated to quality and I love it.

Last night, Hubbard and Craven's really impressed me. I decided to give it a shot because it looked like a classy place (and my only other option was St*rb*cks). I walked in to the shop with my wife, expecting to have to order a standard latte, etc. because traditional drinks are usually a foreign idea to midwestern coffee shops; this was not the case at Hubbard and Cravens.

I was met with a classy environment with a very developed menu. They offered a large variety of in-season varietal coffees, traditional espresso drinks, and even a CLOVER coffee brewing system! I had never gotten to try a clover cup of coffee, so obviously this is what I chose. My wife and I bought two different types of Guatemalan coffee; one had an overt chocolaty taste and heavy body, the other was much more floral and had a lighter body and more citric taste.

We were charged a reasonable 2.15 for the 16oz cups of very specialty coffee. To be honest, the coffee produced by the Clover was not shockingly superior like I had expected. By no means was it bad, but it simply did not live up to the hype I guess. I would buy it again, but mostly because it was brewed to order- the same reason why I would purchase a Chemex cup of coffee or a french press. At any rate, it was a great cup of coffee and a superior coffee shop with great service (the barista was cleaning up shop getting ready to go home when we walked in- no hesitation to dirty up the Clover for us).

Lord, thanks for the great coffee last night. Please keep my head deflated and on straight. Here we go.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Farmers' Plight

I thought this article was great at encapsulating the idea I want to address today: A farmer's struggle selling his produce at fair prices. A lot of us in coffee retail simply do not understand the issues that go into growing and selling coffee, and for obvious reasons. The first part of this article found on the Coffee Politics blog was very helpful in illuminating the farmers' fight for fair prices, so I'll bring it to you. I'm definitely not saying that I agree with all of the points argued on this blog, but this specific illustration about coffee pricing is very good.

"Will The Real Poor Farmer Rise"

"'A few days back, I had a rare and wonderful opportunity to spend time talking to coffee farmers in Yirgachefe, where about two hundred had gathered to greet ECX as we visited a coffee washing station owned by a prominent coffee exporter. As I stood taking in the absolute beauty of the sun starting to set over the terraced hillside where row after row of coffee drying tables loaded with beans in their golden parchment were aligned nearly perfectly, framed by dense coffee trees, while the wet mill processor creaked in the background, Ato Tadele came to greet me. We bowed to each other. He said he was a farmer who sold his red cherry to this private mill owner. I asked him how things were going. He said okay, but that he wished he could get higher prices. I laughed and said any farmer worth his salt would say the same, anywhere in the world. Then I asked what today’s price was. He said the farmers had negotiated a price of 4.35 Birr per kilogram from the miller’s starting offer of 3.50. I asked how they came up with that price. By now, we were surrounded by about 50 farmers all wanting to chip in. They said they had heard that prices in the city were getting higher. I asked them how they knew. They said they had heard on the radio. I asked them where those prices came from. A small pause. Somebody hesitantly said, the new coffee market in Addis? I said yes, breathing an inward sigh of relief. Just to make sure, I asked what time they listened to the ECX daily price broadcast. Ato Tadele brightened and said, at 8 pm. Some said, 7 am, and others, 1 pm. Now I really felt good. Then I asked if the broadcast was easy to understand. Then a lot of discussion came up, about too many prices, too fast reading, not very easy to understand. Okay, I said, let me introduce Ahadu, our market data officer, standing right here next to me, he wants to hear you on this and it is his job to get it just the way you need it. And so it went.'

'The point is that Tadele, and many more like him, take their red cherry or dry beans to the nearest market outlets, with just the faintest idea of what their coffee is worth or what the world out there, or even the national market, looks like. Our challenge is that we need to figure out, as a country and as a national marketing system, how to empower Tadele and others like him to make meaningful choices of where to sell, when to sell, at what price to sell, and to whom to sell, so that he can maximize his returns and improve the quality of his life, send his children to school, make sure they get health care, and break the vicious cycle of poverty in which he is trapped.'"

So, as you can see, the farmer faces an uphill battle. The least we can do as consumers and retailers is to be aware. This is our first step. Lord, thank you for great coffee and those who labor to produce it. I pray we are able to be just in our relation to others. Keep my head deflated and on straight. Here we go.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Sick Without Coffee

I've been sick for the past five days. Yes, all five. I've got all the troops out praying for my recovery now, so it shouldn't be long, but I did realize something very interesting and disturbing this morning. I have gone without coffee for the past four mornings! Something about not eating but 300 calories worth of bread and drinking just enough water to swallow Tylenol just takes the motivation to prepare delicious coffee in the morning right out of me. To be honest, getting out of bed was not even physically possible for the last 3 days- 103 degree fever with all the amenities. I've got the fever down now, but still no desire for the good brew. I'm scared.

Not being able to smell a thing may have some part to play in the lack of coffee crave. With this specific beverage, the smell is at least a third of the enjoyment. I'm taking Tylenol anyway, so I'm not getting the headache from caffeine withdrawals. That explains the physical side of my non-need for coffee. What about the psychological? A caffeine addiction only lasts for about 24 hours typically- it's the habitual practice of drinking coffee in a routine that takes longer to break. Have I really gotten past this? I just purchased what many consider the best espresso machine in the world! Can someone who just bought a La Marzocco 4 Group Linea for their HOUSE just sweep past an addiction like their morning coffee!? Maybe I'm reading to much into this, and I hope that is the case. I truly do hope I can get over this head mess soon because I think my habitual coffee intake obsession may be the greater victim if I don't.

This Linea I mentioned before is going to be the focus of many posts to come. I'll be dissecting the machine top the bottom, inside and out. If you choose to follow, we will explore the inner-workings of the most important espresso machine of the third wave coffee revolution. Here is a picture to tickle your fancy:

Thank you Lord, for the awesome new toy that I definitely did not need. I pray I'm responsible with what you've given me. Please heal me of my sickness. Keep my head deflated and on straight. Here we go.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Home Espresso

This post has been inspired by my sister-in-law who is addicted to her $3.00+ sugary mess of a espresso drink. She came up to my house to visit last month and while there. she and her husband (an avid coffee drinker himself) asked my opinion on home espresso equipment. Instead of limiting my response to them, I think I'll share this with you all. I'm not saying I'm the ultimate resource for coffee related questions, but I do have a well developed opinion on most subjects, so here we go.

I have three different categories for home machines:
1. The Best of the Expensive
2. The Best of the Not Cheap
3. The Best of the Economical

There are a vast selection of these small home units. I am going to eliminate from my discussion espresso machines that are clearly commercial quality: any machine with more than one group (place where the portafilter is installed and shots are pulled). There are some one group machines that are nearly commercial grade, but are clearly more suited for residential use than any multi-group machines. These nearly commercial one group machines are the same machines that comprise my first category of home espresso preparation.

The La Marzocco GS/3 single group espresso machine is clearly in the front of the pack for the Best of the Expensive home espresso equipment. This monster machine can pull gourmet coffee shop quality shots every time. Smaller coffee shop operations can feasibly use this machine on a commercial scale, it's so professional. The price tag also proves this point: usually hovering around SIX GRAND! Another machine commonly viewed as world class is the Kees Van Der Westen "Speedster" which runs close to $8,000. Obviously, the average coffee drinker is not going to fork out this kind of dough. There are some cases though, where this machine is not completely ridiculous. Some coffee fanatics I know spend an average of $4.50 a day at my shop. This is not even counting the other half of the household who oftentimes spends a significant amount as well. So, over a year, this family spends around $1,500 on coffee related products. I don't need to explain the mathematics of such a situation to you any further. For those of us without such exorbitant spending patterns, there are other options.

The second category is the Best of the Not Cheap. This category is limited to those machines below $1,000, but above $500. In my opinion, you do not need to spend the maximum amount in this category to get maximum results. There is a clear front runner for me in the Rancilio Silvia. This machine provides exceptional espresso at a more realistic price of around $700. This is well within the reach of the average addicted espresso drink fanatic, like my sister-in-law. If you are like her, you make a stop by your coffee shop of choice (preferably local) and spend your average $3.50 for every working day. This habitual spending racks up a year-end total of around $850 before tax. So, clearly, a nice espresso machine is within reach. But, if you are like me and are skeptical of home espresso quality or unlike me (I'm a professional Barista, luckily), are unsure of your ability to recreate your beloved drink, you still have lower priced options.

My third category is where I landed. I am hanging out with professional coffee equipment all day anyway, so why spend huge cash of my own on home equipment? My personal choice came after much investigation. There were two components I needed: 1. A pump-driven water system and 2. a removable water tank for easy refilling. My final choice landed with the DeLonghi EC155. This machine cost me less than $100, around $80 at the time. I've had it for over a year now and it does a decent job (obviously not a $7,000 job, but definitely paid for itself). The steam wand is designed for the novice- instead of requiring you to inject air into the frothing milk yourself, the wand does it for you. Simply submerge the wand tip into the milk in your pitcher and turn on the steam.

These machines I've listed above may not be your final choice, but I would consider looking at them; perhaps use them as a starting point in your search for your perfect machine. There are many other products you will need as well for producing espresso in your home: a conical burr grinder, a tamping mat, a tamper, knock box, and a milk steaming pitcher to list a few.

Lord, thank you for the great coffee machines available to us. I pray that You bless the searches for the appropriate machines for the readers. Please keep my head deflated and on straight. Here we go.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Quick Note, and Warning

I cannot stand it when coffee is blasphemed. One notable occurrence of this heresy is when the name of espresso is taken in vain. For example, in "Barista Magazine" the October/November latest edition on page 21, the title reads, "The Great Minnesota 'Spro Together." Oh my goodness! Breathe, Brian.

Why do we feel the need to shorten the word "espresso" to "spro," why? That just sounds ridiculous. Let's focus our energies on establishing the actual name of our wonderful beverage, "espresso," before we go on slurring it. Do you realize how many people still think that the word is pronounced (and even spelled) like "expresso?" Please people, have respect for the word, the beverage, and the work we coffee professionals are putting into getting awareness out about this passion of ours we call ESPRESSO.
It is possible I took this a bit hard, but it needed to be said. Let's hold off on the pet names and slang for a few more years. Let's wait on that for a time when people across the country actually know that it is actually called espresso first. Thanks.

Lord, Thank you for coffee. Thank you for the professionals who prepare and write about it. Help keep my head deflated and on straight. Here we go.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Vida Mobile

I had such a great time on Saturday. Missouri's homecoming parade with football game against no. 3 Texas (not so great game) made for one exciting prospect of a day. When you add into the mix the start up of the new promotional "Vida Coffee Co Mobile," the day was bound to be awesome. And it was.

Starting on Thursday evening, I had the idea to hook up the coffee equipment temporarily and use them for promoting the opening of the new coffee shop on campus, Vida Coffee Co, a few months early. After mulling the idea over with some associates, we decided to prepare a temporary setup on an existing cart designed for serving specialty coffee. I'll save you some of the dryer details of the next 48 hours worth of labor preparing the cart for action and skip to Saturday morning serving coffee during the parade.

My family arrived at the 812 (the building's name) at 8am. I continued preparing the cart for active use, tested out the machine, etc until the arrival of the dairy products and some extra cups a lids. At about 9:30 we opened up Vida Mobile, ready to serve small espresso drinks free of charge, promoting Vida Coffee Co.

The word "cart" as you can see, is a bit of an understatement. It is a completely self-contained, fully operational, specialty coffee preparation unit. These are utilized widely across europe by the likes of World Barista Champion Gwilym Davies and the Coffee Collective from Sweden. The concept just is not real popular in the United States yet, unfortunately for Vida Mobile. My next goal will be convincing my board of directors to allow the temporary Vida Mobile to continue to function, perhaps even opening as an early form of the shop, continuing to promote the eventual "real deal" inside the 812 itself in January of 2010. I must say, my latte art progressed very nicely throughout the day:

Some more pics of Vida Mobile:

Lord, thank you for the great time on Saturday and allowing me to serve such great coffee to so many great people. Keep my head deflated and on straight. Here we go.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Basic Training Part 6: Barista & Espresso Evaluation

For this, my final Barista Training post, I will very briefly discuss what is expected from the espresso bar Barista in terms of espresso quality. Please remember that these training posts are extremely abbreviated and simplified, so do not stop your process of developing your coffee knowledge and experience after these posts.

Baristas are responsible for the delivery of high-quality coffee beverages. Their skill in preparing these delicate drinks determines a large part of the overall outcome of the drinks prepared. Evaluating the Barista is done in conjunction with evaluating the drinks they prepare. This is how we evaluate espresso, a large part of the Barista’s job:

Espresso is pressure-brewed coffee. This method’s purpose is to extract vital oils and aromatic gases by forcing water under intense pressure through very finely ground coffee- creating an emulsion. Extracting the coffee’s oils and aromatic gases, suspended and infused within the water, creating a beverage that tastes just like how freshly roasted coffee smells, is the essence of espresso.
Four components for evaluating espresso (ordered by importance):

Taste: A Barista must know what proper espresso tastes like in order to replicate it properly.
Pour: The ideal pour will begin slowly, with a few drops, but will quickly become a thick and steady stream- like honey. Near the end of the pour, the color will shift to light amber from the original dark red. Extraction beyond this change will draw harsh flavors- called “over-extraction”. Pay close attention to the color, texture, and flow of the steams to control shot quality.
Crema: This is the foamy substance created through the release or coffee’s aromatic gases while trapped by the natural oils also released at the time of extraction. The desired crema will have identical color to that of the perfect pour. This color is a dark red with flecks of rust brown. If the crema is stirred, it should not dissipate, but recover.
Time: Shot timing should only be viewed within the context of the other factors. The ideal shot should take 20-30 seconds.

Lord, thank you for creating the person who invented the espresso machine and the magnificent coffee creation that it produces. Keep my head deflated and on straight. Here we go.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Basic Training Part 5: Planting, Growing, & Harvesting

When the ripe cherries are picked they are soaked. Lower quality seeds with often-times rise to the top of the soaking bath, to be separated from the rest of the crop leaving only high quality seeds to be planted. The remaining seeds are quickly planted in very rich soil called humus. As the coffee bushes grow to 10-15cm they will grow their first leaves. After the young trees have produced not only leaves, but branches, a few of those branches will be cut off and transplanted into nurseries to develop into coffee producing trees themselves. Once a tree begins to produce fruit, which takes at least 10 years, the tree will continue to produce fruit for 40 years.

Growing conditions for coffee plants are very precise and the slightest detail can affect the overall production and quality of the fruit it bears. Nitrogen and Potassium content, slope of the land, amount of exposure to the sun or frost, and even the direction of the wind all have parts to play in the overall quality of the coffee grown. Covering coffee trees with tarps or mesh blankets, effectively shading the plants protects them from damaging sunlight. Coffee grown like this is known as “Shade Grown” and is worth premium prices for its increased quality. Depending on the amount of rain a particular region receives, coffee trees can produce multiple times a year. In regions that experience multiple rains per year, the trees will produce cherries 7-9 weeks after each rain. Regions that have one primary rainy season will produce one crop at the end of the season.

There are three main methods for harvesting coffee. The first and most labor-intensive method is hand-picking. This method is tedious and time consuming; therefore it requires a large workforce for even mediocre sized farms. This is the only method that ensures the greatest percentage of ripe-fruit harvesting, which leaves unripe on the branch. Only harvesting ripe cherries produces the best tasting coffee product after the roasting, so much of the gourmet coffee industry demands this method of harvesting. The next method is called Stripping. Stripping involves removing entire branches of a coffee tree and does not search for only the ripest cherries. Machine Picking is the final method. Machinery is used to harvest on a huge scale and is usually reserved for lower quality distributors.

Lord, thank you for great coffee and the people who propagate and harvest it. Please keep my head deflated and on straight. Here we go.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Basic Training Part 4: General Information and Propagation

Growth and processing of coffee is made up of many steps, but can be organized into four categories: proliferation, harvest, processing, and grading (some also include a decaffeination step). Coffee is classified in the family Rubiacee, in the Genus Coffea, and is divided into two main species: Arabica and Robusta. General characteristics of each are:

Growth Climate: tropics near equator at altitudes between 980 yards to 1.2 miles at a temperature between 59F and 75F.
Characteristics: can grow to be 3-6 yards tall. Arabica prefers climate variation, but are less resistant to disease. Arabica produces a less bitter smelling or severe tasting product than Robusta. Also, Arabica is self-pollinating.

Growth Climate: tropics near equator at altitudes between 220 to 660 yards at temperatures between 75F and 84F.
Characteristics: can grow to be 8-14 yards tall, but are trimmed to 4 yards on plantations for harvesting convenience. Robusta prefers steady climates, but is more resistant to disease. Caffeine content is about 2-3% higher than Arabica. Also, Robusta is pollinated by insects drawn to its flowers.

Depending on the origin of each coffee, its character will differentiate. From spicy and smoky notes to fruity and flowery, each coffee’s profile will be unique based on its growing season, roast, and preparation. Every coffee tree grows flowers that last a few days. After the flowers wane, a cherry (or drupe) is produced. The cherry develops gradually: from green to yellow, to dark red when ripe. If the cherry is left on the tree too long though, it will begin to degrade into a dark brown color. The cherry itself is made up of five main components.

The first part of the cherry is the outer covering, the exocarp, which would be considered the “fruit” section. Immediately underneath is the mesocarp, a very thin jelly-like layer. Still inside are the seeds, or beans. The beans are wrapped in a substantial white colored endocarp, commonly called the “parchment”. Beneath the endocarp, totally encasing the individual beans is a thin layer called the silverskin. Finally, wrapped in the previous four encasings, are the beans. Arabica seeds are usually elongated with an “S” shaped crack down the middle. Robusta seeds are much more round and have a straight groove down their middle. They are usually grayish brown instead of Arabica’s blue-green tint.

Lord, thank you for this amazing fruit. Please keep me learning and advancing my understanding of it. Keep my head deflated and on straight. Here we go.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Time Out @ St*rb*cks

This last Sunday morning, I got up early to go get some coffee. Yes, I usually do this same thing, but this Sunday was different. I went to Starbucks. WHAT?! Yes, I really did. I had taken the family to see the great-grandparents, grandparents, and aunt and uncles over the weekend. Where I'm from originally, there is Folgers and Maxwell House to choose from; there may be a Starbucks if you're lucky. So, the circumstances for my trip there are understandable, I think.

My brother-in-law is a Barista for Starbucks in the 6th richest county in the United States, in Overland Park, Kansas. He knows my thoughts on Starbucks, but due to the circumstances I relented and we went to get coffee together before church. What follows is the account from that morning.

We left my parents house at a quarter after 7. The drive to his particular retail store was about 30 minutes, so we chose to go to a closer location, about 15 minutes away. During the drive, we discussed several things, but mostly coffee- a mutual interest, but for me a passion. I schooled him a bit on what a proper Ristretto, or "restricted" shot was like. I told him this would be the first thing I would order when we got there. He assured me that Starbucks knew what this drink was and would make it well for me- I doubted. You see, I have ordered this drink just once before, the first time I visited Starbucks- the "Baristas" there did not even know what I was talking about.

A Ristretto is an espresso shot, the beans are ground a bit finer, the dose is likewise a little higher, and the tamping pressure is greater. All these factors added to the fact that the shot is only pulled for about 20 seconds makes for a very sweet shot, measuring about .75 or 1 ounce, since the more bitter elements are extracted later in a regular shot. Most straight espressos in Italy are Ristrettos. The shot should have a dark rust red crema almost completely covering the surface instead of the usual "Longo" 1.5 ounce shot which just has rust colored speckles.

We did eventually arrive at the Starbucks storefront. I ordered my Ristretto and the Barista behind the counter actually knew what I was talking about! Well, she acted as though she did anyway. I was served my Doppio Ristretto in one eight ounce paper cup: ugh. I took the plastic lid off the cup to view what I was about to drink and saw a perfectly average regular Starbucks espresso shot. These Baristas had no idea what a Ristretto was and even if they did, they had no way of producing it since their espresso machines are pre-programmed for a standard Longo espresso shot for the sugary, dairy-based drinks soccer moms have come to know and love. I was served one regular espresso shot that was highly watery, bitter, and had little crema. When I swirled by cup a bit, the crema disappeared. Just what I expected.

After explaining what the differences were between what should have been served and what was served, even my brother-in-law saw the light. He was so moved by the difference in quality I was explaining between local shops like my Vida Coffee Co and Starbucks, that he actually decided to start looking for a job at a local place (there aren't any around, or else I would have been there).

My brother-in-law redeemed his free pound of Starbucks coffee and gave it to me that morning- thoughtful. I chose an Ethiopia Sidamo. My logic was this: it had the latest "expiration date" (rediculous since all coffee goes stale 10-14 days after roasting- apparently Starbucks thinks 4 months is a good limit) and because Starbucks chars their beans. Ethiopian coffees are usually roasted very lightly since it compliments their natural floral notes. So, my bet was this will be my best shot at a decent cup of Starbucks' coffee. We concluded the trip by going to Target. I bought him a grinder for his coffee- he did not have one and was having it all pre-ground at the store before he took it home: awful.

I suppose if there is a moral to the story it is that Starbucks has its market: those who do not care about the coffee as much as they do the social value of carrying a cup with the mermaid logo will love it. Those few like me who value great coffee had better bring some with them the next time they go visit grandma and grandpa.

Lord, thank you for coffee, even if it isn't always great; the same for relatives. Keep my head deflated and on straight. Here we go.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Basic Training Part 3: Taste

There are four categories for the taste of coffee. These four categories are distinct and separate, although they are highly dependent on one another. A simple metaphor for coffee’s taste is: the Lord is One, yet contains three distinct persons; coffee is similar in this aspect for it has a taste to be described, but can be shown to have four elements. These four parts are:

Aroma: This is the first element to meet your palate. As you move to take a sip, what smells do you sense rising from your cup? Is it bitter, sweet, aggressive, muted? Are there hints of herbs, berries, tobacco, or chocolate?

Flavor: No surprise here; the first thing you will taste as you sip your delicious hot beverage is COFFEE! Coffee taste is very powerful and can, if you do not harness it, cause you to miss many other tastes. Beneath the first coffee taste, you may be able to distinguish tastes like wine, chocolate, berries, spiciness, or earthiness.

Acidity: This is the bite at the back of your throat. Before coffee is roasted, its nature is very acidic. As the coffee is roasted, it is progressively mellowed out, which is why the darker a roast gets, the more smooth and less acidic the coffee tastes. Although much of the acidity is removed during the roasting process, it also loses substantial amounts of inherent flavor.

Body: Body is the most abstract of all the elements compromising coffee’s taste. How does the coffee FEEL in your mouth? The beverage’s body will answer that question. An easier way of conceptualizing body would be to imagine what drinking water feels like compared to milk, then honey, then perhaps, motor oil. Which feels the heaviest in your mouth; what feels the lightest? The heavier the sensation in your mouth, the more body the coffee is said to contain.

Here are some typical taste generalizations (and I emphasize "typical" "generalizations"):

Central American: Nutty, smooth, and fragrant with average acidity levels.
South American: More mild and soft with significant acidity levels.
African: Sharp, aggressive, robust, and assertive with a great crisp finish.
Asian: Smooth and syrupy with lower acidity and higher body and flavorful notes.
Indonesian (yes, this is Asian, but worthy of separate description): Very similar to Asian, but spicier with a complex earthy body.

Lord, thank you so much for great coffee. I especially appreciate that coffee can grow in so many places with so many tastes. Keep my head deflated and on straight. Here we go.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Basic Training Part 2: Differences in Roasts

The roasting process allows for the controlling of the inherent flavor of each coffee bean through roasting away negative qualities, while enhancing the pleasant ones. In the darkest roast varieties, the coffee is actually given a smoky taste. There are five roast levels commonly identified: Light, Medium, Medium-Dark, Dark, and Very Dark. Specific roasting styles are included as sub-groups of these levels.

Light roast styles include the “Cinnamon” and “Half City” roasts. These roasts are the lightest and require the least time in the roaster. After a few minutes in the roaster, the beans will “crack”. This “first crack” is accompanied by a visual increase in the beans’ size and is usually the first indicator for lighter roasts’ completion. Most mass coffee producers use roasts like this for its cheaper production costs. The surface of the bean is still dry with a light brown color. The end product has very high acidity and virtually no indications of having been roasted.

Medium roast styles include “Full City” and “American” roasts. Medium-Dark roast styles include “High”, “Viennese”, and sometimes “French” roasts. Medium and Medium-Dark roasts begin the process of truly roasting the coffee. Medium roasts highlight the coffee’s naturally flowery and spicy notes while Medium-Dark matures these developments. Medium-Dark roasts begin the oily development of the coffee bean. At the Medium-Dark stage, the coffee beans will have their “second crack”. This cracking is the indicator that the coffee has reached this Medium-Dark level. Premium coffee roasters from the American northwest often prepare their coffees at this level. Medium roasts will have a more balanced acidity than that of Light roasts. Medium roasts will have nicely developed aroma and body with moderate complexity. Medium-Dark roasts will result with a somewhat spicy, heavier bodied feel, lacking in the acidic bite. The roasting aromas and flavors and very evident and enjoyable, but some caffeine content is lost in the process.

Very Dark roasts offer exclusive tastes such as rich smoothness, bittersweet caramels, chocolates, and low acidity. Roasts such as “French” and “Italian” arrive in this category. The smoky-sweetness of Very Dark roasts offer coffees that are light-bodied, but still quite intense. At this stage the bean’s sugars begin to carbonize; if roasting continues too much longer, the bean will develop distinct “burnt” tastes (Starbucks is known for this quality, giving them the nickname Charbucks). If properly roasted, Very Dark roasts can be very enjoyable due to their notable roast characteristics.

Lord, Thank you for the great coffee and the ability to choose for ourselves which roast we prefer- free will is a great gift. Keep my head deflated and on straight. Here we go.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

The Cupping Recreation

Last night I had an amazing coffee nerd experience, I went to a cupping. I'll use today's post to try and convey the experience to you the best I can; tomorrow I'll pick back up with the basic training in coffee. These cuppings are wondrous events that display awesome coffees along with the geeks who adore it- in all their nerdery. We all (about ten of us) sat down at the tables together, each with his/her own set of three small bowls with three different ground coffees in them. We awkwardly looked around the tables, eying one another hesitantly, trying to determine which one of us was the superior coffee Jedi. I, of course, was this uber-Jedi; this fact was quickly discovered as we began to discuss the coffees we were cupping.

There was a Costa Rican, an Ethiopian, and a Sumatran coffee provided. I had some inside knowledge of what each would taste like before hand because I have significant coffee tasting experience to start with; it was obvious that some there did not. This lack of knowledge cannot be considered somehow bad or embarrassing (maybe a bit embarrassing) it simply shows a lack of experience with the process and with specialty coffee in general. As we all know, there is only one really effective way to boost experience and knowledge- to do it.

So, back to the account. First off, smelled each of the ground coffees: quick short sniffs, like a dog. Then we poured water at about 200 degrees over the three selections, totally immersing and soaking the grounds in water. Over the next 3 minutes, we allowed the grounds to steep in the hot water. During this time, the grounds release carbon dioxide in large quantities, as well as other oils. These gases and oils intermix and coalesce into a crust that covers the surface of the coffee. At the end of this steeping time, we all took flat spoons and "broke the crusts" of each of the coffees (rinsing the spoon between each cup so as to not pollute the single origins). As we did so, we again, smelled the gases released by breaking this crust. These first gases are the most intense aromatics possibly derived from a coffee- very essential to the overall taste since 70% of taste is made of smell. During this whole process, we coffee geeks had to keep our opinions to ourselves so as not to influence the highly impressionable new people.

Next, we began tasting the coffee. We obnoxiously slurp the coffees in order to spray the liquid across the entire tongue, effectively coating all taste regions: sweet, sour, bitter, etc. These tastes are done quickly, then spit out and tried again a few more times, all the while we build our opinions of the coffees. Again, we rinse the spoon we are slurping with so as to avoid cross-contamination. Also, cold water is provided to rinse the palate before the next origin is tried. The obnoxiousness continues as we spit out the coffee slurped so that we don't go into a state of caffeine shock. This goes on for about 5-7 minutes. We continue tasting while the coffees cool because over different temperatures, the coffees can begin to taste differently. In fact, the optimum tasting temperature is right at body heat, 98 degrees, since our taste buds can receive the most stimulation at their own degree.

After the 5 or so minutes pass we begin to share our experiences with one another. Usually the new people use very standard and boxed in descriptions for coffee, the most green usually just say it tastes like coffee- and that's fine for that stage. I'll share with you my thoughts now: The Sumatra was roasted very darkly, which I actually appreciated because it had been roasted far too lightly in the past. I must say though, my taste preferences are changing. It has taken two years, but it is definitely occurring. What I think is happening, and what happens to a large degree with all coffee fanatics, is that over time a preference for lighter roasts is developed. I believe this occurs because darker roasts "cook out" most of the more interesting and complex floral flavors that give coffee its 800 or so taste characteristics we nerds find so fascinating to describe.

At any rate, the Sumarta was good, but clearly not the best. Its rogue wildly woody and charred taste got boring very quickly. I moved into liking the Ethiopia next. It had an extremely sweet blueberry sensation at about 180 degrees that caught my attention. As it cooled the sweetness increased to the point of displeasure. This won't be the case for most people, but for me it is a dessert coffee at best. Finally though, there was the Costa Rican. It proved much more challenging than the other two. Grown at over 3,000 feet, the cherries produce high density, large beans which generally equals higher quality (the elevation has a huge impact on this, I'll explain another time). At first it was mean, containing a strong acidity, like that of a car battery or highly carbonated water- standoffish. But, as it cooled a bit that acidity turned into a lighter, more flowery, lemon-like, front of the tongue, pleasurable taste. Light body and easily swallowed (I did swallow a bit of this one to get the aftertaste). I almost felt like I was eating a very interestingly flavored flower petal- crazy. Anyway, the taste that lingered left me wanting to try some more- the exact sensation desired.

Anyway, we all shared our experiences of each. Most of the new people had simple descriptions and enjoyed the dark roast for its lack of acidity. I was the only one besides the officiator who preferred the Costa Rican. What can I say? It was a great, well balanced cup. I almost bought some.

Lord, thank you for the great coffee and for the geeks who make it okay to slurp and spit. Keep my head deflated and on straight. Here we go.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Basic Training Part 1: Processing and Roasting

Over the past few months, I've written up a training manual for my new employees at Vida Coffee Co. After thinking it over, I think that this very basic knowledge of coffee could be better utilized posted and available for all those who are interested- you, the reader. So, this is what I have done. The first section focuses on the processing and roasting of coffee from its origins to the roasters.

Coffee is grown in four main areas around the world: Central and South America, Africa, Asia, specifically Indonesia. People in these regions must pick the coffee fruit from the trees by hand (the fruit looks something like a cherry and is often given this name). There are two main ways of initial processing employed by the coffee growers.

The first processing method is called the “dry” method in which the newly picked fruit is laid out in the sun to dry after the fleshy portion of the fruit is removed and the coffee bean is left by itself. After the unwanted debris are winnowed out of the bean product, the desirable beans are spread out on large concrete or brick patios to dry, sometimes taking up to four weeks; then they are shipped.

The second processing method is called the “wet” or “washed” method in which the newly picked and de-pulped fruit is dumped into water and allowed to soak. During the soaking, the coffee beans are sorted by size and density. The low quality, low density, beans are removed easily from the tub because they rise to the surface. The beans are then de-pulped further through a process of fermentation or machine washing. Either method removes any remaining pulp adhering to the bean's silverskin parchment jacket. The fermentation method requires significant monitoring so that the fermentation does not produce unwanted taste characteristics.

After the new batches of coffee are processed by their growers, they are packed and sold to coffee roasters. The “green beans” (coffee not yet roasted) are roasted according to each roaster’s standards. Larger coffee companies use enormous mega-roasters that are computer automated and have a lower roast quality due to their hands-off methods and huge quantities. The individual connoisseur could buy a batch of green beans and roast them on their own using a barbecue grill, but will oftentimes result in low quality coffee due to lack of appropriate equipment.

The answer to both of these imbalances is to find a roaster with the proper equipment and skill to provide the perfect coffee product. These roasters will usually employ barrel roasters that roast 50-100 lbs of coffee at a time. Coffee is checked frequently to oversee its roast progress, enabling the master roaster to achieve their perfect result. This is the type of roaster Vida Coffee Co. uses. After the coffee is roasted, it is air-cooled and shipped to coffee shops.

Lord, thank you for the great coffee, those who grow it, and those who roast it so well. I pray you would keep my head deflated and on straight. Here we go.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Tainter Container

We all know there are many different varieties of coffee containers available. Most thermos carafes use glass insulates and most traditional and "for here" mugs are ceramic. There is one arena with some serious variation though and that is travel mugs. They can come in many shapes and sizes, without much relevance, but their construction material is another story.

I own several travel mugs: a few are made out of plastic, yet another is stainless steal, one is aluminum and copper, one has glass interior lining, and the last of the bunch is ceramic. Why are there so many different types offered? Well, probably because there are morons like me that think they need to have a few of every building material known to man- I'm getting a wood and brick travel mug for Christmas, I think. The bigger question I think, is which type of mug is best and why. As usual, I have a hypothesis.

This morning, I was running a bit behind. I did not have time to pour my coffee into my vacuum glasses by bodum. I was forced to take a travel mug, never my first choice for reasons I'm about to discuss. The only mug clean was the stainless steel and copper mug I bought from Kaldi's Coffee while employed with them. It keeps drinks very warm due to the copper exterior and has a superior rubber lining around the lid which never leaks, even after a few years use and washing in the dishwasher. However, I have always noticed a little bit of a twang from this mug. The stainless steel interior, I believe, taints the coffee's taste just enough for noticing. It adds a hint of alkaline flavor that disrupts my black coffee bliss- I don't think I'll be able to use it again.

My other mugs don't fare much better, I'm afraid. The plastic mugs do not stay warm for long and the parts do not do well in the washer- not to mention a bit of a sterile taste in the coffee, especially noticeable in lighter roasts. The only mugs I've really been able to enjoy are the glass insulated and ceramic. Glass insulated are usually harder to clean due to small openings and are rarely given removable lids. Ceramic is great, but can stain if you're not careful. The stains themselves can alter the taste of your hot brew, so clean them promptly. All in all, my recommendation is to drink your coffee at home, in your own personal ceramic or glass mug and wash it before you leave the house. We early risers have to try extra hard to accomplish this.

Lord, thank you for the coffee, even if it was tainted. Keep my head deflated and on straight. Here we go.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Bottomless Joy

There are not many things in this world better than a bottomless cup of gourmet coffee. I'm telling you, if you find a great coffee shop, a shop that brews great black gold, cherish it. Finding a place that just nails black coffee seems to be so rare lately. I suppose that goes for many items, not just black coffee; finding a place that is spectacular is a lot of work. The fact that the bottomless is a never-ending purchase highlights the greatness of good coffee or the awfulness of bad. A great bottomless cup means that over a few hours of work, my beverage never goes empty, but beyond that, I never get tired of it! Conversely, if the brew is terrible, I just purchased a ball and chain, a key to Pandora's box of coffee terror. Choose wisely.

Today's purchase, as you may have guessed was a bottomless cup. I have my choice of a very lightly roasted Costa Rican coffee and a Sumatra Gayo Mountain (they also offer a flavored coffee and a decaf everyday, but I refuse to waste my time on those- I will address that issue some other time). Of course, I've tried both. The Sumatra, with its volcanic earthy soil taste is best roasted darker, for a heavier body and rich woody taste. This Sumatra at Kaldi's is roasted a bit too lightly. It allows for all the volcanic earthiness, but without any of the increased body, resulting in an overly flowery taste and lighter feel- it competes with the natural heaviness of the volcanic soil too much for comfort.

The Costa Rican coffee is lightly roasted as well, but due to the higher elevation growing conditions and different soil makeup, this coffee is deliciously prepared as a light roast. Kaldi's is a light roaster though, so it's hard to expect them to adjust greatly for the Sumatra. I bellieve their typical roast is closer to a City or even Cinnamon in some cases than the Full City roast most popular in America. The self-serve is nice here- I'm up refilling my mug every 20 minutes or so.

All-in-all, I'm satisfied. A great Costa Rican in peak season with a bottomless cup. Fantastic.

Lord, thank you for the great coffee. Keep my head deflated and on straight. Here we go.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Value Added

My son kept my wife awake and busy downstairs, so naturally I couldn't sleep well without her present. As I lay awake last night, my brain ran wild. I started thinking about coffee, go figure. The work I'm involved in now, starting up a brand new coffee shop from scratch, keeps me thinking. What methods to use to be most profitable were swirling in my mind in the early AM's. So, what are these methods? Well, last night I was thinking of just two: Quality product or mass appeal. Yes, I know it is possible to have both, but there is always a slant.

Vida Coffee Co is located on the biggest, most populated college campus in Missouri. It is filled with college age people, most of which are just beginning their exploration into the coffee market. None of this is bad in any way, but it does force me to choose a direction. Does Vida go with a highly "value added" approach or one of mass appeal like Starbucks' drinks? I think we all know what I mean by mass appeal- lots of sugar and dairy, easily identified with what is already available at huge coffee chains, and less dependent on the integrity of the coffee beans' quality, etc. The term "value added" may be a little more abstract.

You may have guessed simply from reading previous posts that I am not a mass appeal sort of coffee enthusiast. I insist on must-have coffee. If I'm going to pay that kind of money for it, it has got to be jaw-droppingly well prepared. Value added concept encapsulates this premise. Let me give you an example to help explain. If you came into Vida Coffee Co and ordered a cup of Kenya AA and really liked it, I would offer to explain a bit of the growing and harvesting process to you. Then if you were still interested, I would proceed to show you a French Press and explain how it would help you brew that Kenya AA in an even more delicate and precise manner. If you continued to show interest, I would then offer to sell you a French Press. This is where value added really starts to show up: I would sell you that French Press, then give you a tutorial on using it, give you some fresh Kenya AA to practice with, offer to help you maintain the new press, show you personal grinders that could help you get even fresher brews, and all the while impress on you how this coffee is to be made more meaningful and valuable.

Mass appeal does not even begin this conversation. Mass appeal stops at the cash register. Mass appeal leaves the customer in the dark. It even hopes that you as the customer stays in the dark about coffee- to continue spending money on those unnecessarily sugary, milk laden, value-minimal drinks. Don't get me wrong, those drinks serve their purposes, but to leave people in the dark about the possibilities of coffee just seems wrong. It is possible to appeal both to the masses and add some value to their ideas of coffee, but it is very difficult. I suppose if I must err, I choose to show people enthusiasm for coffee, not just for their money.

Lord, thank you for the great coffee. Keep my head deflated and on straight. Here we go.


Is being a coffee "snob" a bad thing? I have got to say, "absolutely not". Let me explain, though. If a person's admiration for coffee in general motivates them to appreciate good coffee, to desire ever higher standards in their personal preparation of the beverage and that of what they purchase, being a coffee snob is great and I applaud my fellow snobs. However, if being a coffee snob means you begin to judge other people for their "underdeveloped" or "less refined" or even "cheap" coffee palates, you've shot past the realm of coffee snob and into the the region of mere snobbery.

Let me tell you a true story from an experience in my life in the last few days. My wife just gave birth to my son, Levi. I had not had the opportunity to get out and go downtown for a classic coffee drink for a few days. When I finally did get to go, I ordered a traditional cubano macchiato prepared delicately by a great barista from Kaldi's Coffee House. The crema was solid; when stirred it did not dissipate, but would recover. It had a velvety texture and abundant rust colored speckles- all great indications. The first sip went across my tongue with a particularly crisp sensation of hazelnut- somewhat unusual, but not unpleasant. I attributed this to the lack of grind readjustment for the incoming low pressure system, but I cannot expect everyone to be that attentive. Anyway, the point is that I ordered my espresso and loved it. It lasted about 4 minutes, then I read my early middle ages textbook while I listened to Beethoven in my earphones (no I'm not really THAT nerdy, I just like his stuff).

So, about 15 minutes into my stay, I returned my demitasse to the counter, so that the espresso residue could be cleaned off the rims without staining the cup. I stayed at the shop though, just sitting, enjoying the semi-peacefulness of a place without a 4 day old boy. A few minutes into this, I noticed "those guys" walk into the shop. See, I used to work at Kaldi's, so I am very familiar with these particular patrons. These are the immigrated Italians who stop by from time to time, who think themselves very superior in every way to the unrefined American coffee drinkers. They usually give the baristas an overly difficult time, oftentimes returning drinks just to spite them, demanding new ones.

So, they get their traditional drinks and walk by my table. Of course they recognize me and also notice that I do not have a traditional cup on my table- I must be unrefined vermin. Now, I exaggerate a bit, and I'm sure that not all Italians are uber-snobs, but these guys are eccentric as you will see. I did have a orange sunkist soda that I was drinking- yes I drink stuff other than coffee. They sit down close by, and begin to look over at me and laugh. I really don't care, I'm an adult and am secure with my Sunkist. I don't need the approval of those snobs. BUT, they go one further.

The ring leader walks by me and actually says these words to me in semi-English, "you pathetic drinking pop in coffeehouse. get balls and order real drinks like us...". Wow. Really? What am I supposed to say to that? What do I do? I get instant flashes into my brain like, "dump it on him". But, instead I listen to the voice of Truth and say nothing. I let him get his jollies by dogging on me. Seriously though?! Really?!

Lord, thank you for great coffee and great people. I pray those that don't know You or Your peace will at some point and if you use me in that process, I pray I'm ready.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Coffee Shop Indicators

There are some hugely influential indicators I use when I walk into a coffee shop to size up their product and service before even tasting the coffee. Are these signs that set off alarms in my mind okay? Should I be attempting to curb these natural reactions? I suppose it is alright to keep my coffee assumptions fully charged and running as long as they prove accurate. I'm going to discuss a few- I repeat, a few- of these now. It is possible you may disagree with me. In that case, comment below. But, more likely, you'll read of these indicators and have flashbacks to the shops you've visited and sit in awe of my ability to size places up.

First of all, there is the machine. There is almost always one straight giveaway- if the place has a La Marzocco, they will probably know what they are doing. They will know how to pull a shot generally. Their grind will be decent at the minimum and will have a respectable crema. A quick glance to the top of the La Marzocco will show that they have traditional drink cups: 2oz, 6oz, and 10oz cups for espressos, Americanos, Cappuccinos, and Lattes. No viewing of the menu is necessary if these cups are present. A shop serving traditional drinks well will have a consistent customer following drinking those beautiful creations, so check the tables.

On the other hand, a place sending off red flags will almost always have a two group machine, never a La Marzocco, and usually will be badly organized and dirty around the grinder and espresso machine. Their syrups used will be something cheaper (this does not mean that the syrups have to make the drink taste bad, but does show the shop's lower dedication to quality ingredients and preparation), usually DaVinci or Torani instead of 1883, Monin, or Ghirardelli. The types of coffees used will not be displayed proudly, with a short description of their origin or blend type if of high complexity- this will almost always be present at a higher quality shops.

Things like cleanliness, coffee scents, and welcoming customer service are all obvious factors of great coffee shops. With these few points in mind: espresso machine, traditional drink cups, syrup type, coffee description display, and of course cleanliness, scents, and service are all telling factors of a coffee shop's quality. I'm not saying become such a snob you'll walk out of a place without even giving it a chance, but maybe these tips will allow you to prepare yourself for a letdown. Perhaps these indicators will help you choose how much money to spend a location on a first trip. More than anything, if you find a shop with numerous red flag signs, it may be smart to not get your hopes up.

Lord, thank you for great coffee and the shops that serve it. Keep my head deflated and on straight. Here we go.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Americano or Black Coffee?

I've been trying my hardest to get my father, an entrenched black coffee drinker, to try and start ordering Americanos. Black coffee is perfectly respectable, but it is my desire to see him step outside his normative coffee box, the small cup of black coffee, into the light of wider cultured coffee drinks. This first step into the larger world of espresso based coffee drinks, I believe, will be best handled by the Americano in this case. My dad, used to black coffee will most readily identify with the Americano due to the similarity with black coffee. I finally got him to try one this morning.

His reaction was just as I thought it would be: Awe. The Traditional Americano, as discussed before, is simply two shots of espresso with 3oz hot purified water. His assessment was one of near disbelief. He said, "this is just as strong as my black coffee, but tastes better." My question to him was how exactly does this taste better? His response was something like, "it's just fresher, more lively, and complex." Just as I expected.

What makes an Americano "fresher, more lively, and complex"? The answer is all in the espresso. The beans are usually ground 10-30 seconds before they are extracted. This quick timing leads to the extreme fresh taste, as well as helps produce the complex taste of the crema. The liveliness of the Americano is easy to explain. His usual black coffee is a home drip brewed Millstone whole bean coffee- not the greatest, but an attempt. If my father is feeling really ambitious, he will get a standard Pike Place roast from Starbucks; now it's easy to see why he thought the Americano was so lively! Starbucks' black coffee is usually ground and brewed hourly, but can sometimes be left for up to three hours before a new batch is brewed! Also, the coffee can be up to 2 months old before it even reaches the stores! This is all going without saying that the roast Starbucks uses is extremely dark, eliminating most of the more interesting taste qualities of lighter roasted coffees, including the caffeine content.

All in all, I think that this experience was pretty enlightening for him. I challenge any of you standard black coffee drinkers to step outside of the box some morning soon and get yourself a Traditional Americano. See how fresh, lively, and complex coffee can truly be.

Thank you Lord for the great coffee, my children, my wife, and another day. Here we go.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Baby Boy! Now, What to Brew?

My son, Levi Anthony Thayer was born this morning! He's healthy and kinda weird looking, just like they all do brand new. Obviously today's post will be abbreviated due to more pressing matters. I did want to share one interesting story.

Right after my wife, Micalah gave birth to Levi (no kidding, 5 minutes), she looked at me and asked for some good coffee. Ha! What an amazing woman she is; her priorities are in perfect alignment: Baby Levi's BIRTH, then coffee. Wonderful.

I think I'll take her out and buy her the best thing I can offer her- a Traditional Cappuccino and biscotti of her choice. Yeah, I think that ought to cover it. For every successful delivery, a cappuccino.

Levi Anthony Thayer
6lbs 10oz
Here's a quick pic, right after he was born- gooey stuff still on and everything:

Lord, thank you for my son, for great coffee, and for my beautiful and strong wife.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Traditional Macchiato

What a beautiful ugly morning it was! Nasty, rainy, dreary, and dark. BUT, I got to have a wonderfully prepared traditional macchiato this morning from my current favorite shop in town, Kaldi's Coffee Co. Kaldi's is the best in Columbia at the moment for two reasons: One, they value high quality drinks like the traditional espresso drinks and two, they have the best training program for their baristas- resulting in the best prepared coffee drinks. I am a bit biased, I did work there before I started Vida Coffee Co. I can honestly say though, that if I was going to go somewhere other than Vida for seriously good coffee, Kaldi's would be the place. Enough promoting my competition.

The macchiato is what needs the attention today. This morning would have been a guaranteed downer without this beautifully crafted espresso blessing. Let's talk about what a macchiato is, shall we? Starbucks' macchiato is not what should be thought of when the word is used. We are not talking about a 12oz+ size syrupy mass with plenty of dairy and other additions. A true macchiato does not have size options, milk variations, nor syrup choices. What I am speaking about as being the other other "light to the world" is none other than the 2.5oz, 95% pure espresso shot majesty with a dollop (1 Tbs) of frothed whole milk on the top. Sound boring? Let me explain.

The macchiato Starbucks hooks unfortunate people on is a dairy/sugar slurry. They'll add just enough coffee "shots" to the mix to make them think their $4.50 was worth the while. What these unfortunates do not realize is that they have been sold a falsity- a lie. They have been duped into buying a truly tasteless mass of sugars and artificial syrups; a fake, a sugar rush. What these people are missing are the amazing natural flavors of the coffee itself, the natural sweetness of the steamed milk froth, the amazing genuine rush that caffeine provides- swapped for an impostor phony. This is a true tragedy.

My beautiful traditional 2.5oz macchiato cost me just under a quarter the price of a medium macchiato from Starbucks and tasted at least four times better. I wholeheartedly beseech you to avoid these syrupy blasphemies. If you cannot break away from your sugary enslavement, I pity you. Remember, those of you who are trapped in your sugary deception, you're hurting yourselves- and you're supporting the abuse and mistreatment of coffee beans everywhere.

Lord, thank you for the great coffee. Please keep my macchiato traditional and honor intact.