Saturday, January 22, 2011

Use it or Lose it?

I've noticed that when it comes to fine skills, if you do not use them, you will soon lose them. This principle definitely translates to the preparation of great coffees, too.

A year ago, when I stopped working as a barista at Kaldi's Coffee Roasters, I began work on starting a new coffee shop on the University of Missouri's campus in Columbia, Missouri. After nine months of footwork and ground-breaking, Vida Coffee Co was born. This endeavor created in me many new skills through experiences I had not had prior.

When Vida opened at the beginning of the 2010-2011 school year in August, I took the position of Head Trainer and coffee orderer (Vida is supplied by Northwest Coffee Roasters in Saint Louis). I got back behind the bar for the first time in a year. I expected to pick up a portafilter, grind, dose, and tamp just like I had used to do. I thought unconciously, "I know how to grind perfectly, dose precisely 19-20 grams of espresso (for a double shot pull), and tamp at exactly 20 pounds body weight." These are all actions essential to pulling great shots of espresso- and this is all before you even have any water meet the ground coffee! I had assumed that since I had been able to do these actions hundreds of times, identically, and without fail, thanks to Kaldi's impressive training methods, I would be able to recall this same training a year later. I was wrong.
Chemex Drip Coffee Carafe - 6 Cup
Not only was it surprisingly difficult to replicate what I had used to be able to do easily, I could not perform other tasks that I had always considered simple- such as steaming milk or manual pouring the correct amounts of water into a Chemex Drip Coffee Carafe - 6 Cup. You would think that the lesson would have become clear then- if you do not use your skill, you will lose it- even in specialty coffee preparation.

On Tuesday, I received a new popcorn popper in the mail for roasting coffee at home. The last one I bought was super-charged or something. It took good grean means and burnt them into charcoal, or worse, Italian roast, in two minutes flat. My replacement works better. The problem with insanely fast roast times is that the beans do not have a chance to roast thoroughly all the way through. They become "tipped" and undrinkable.

So, with my new roaster, I felt invincible again. I roasted a practice batch of machine-harvested Brazilian coffee to make sure that the popper performed. Since it did, I switched to my favorite coffee of all time, Organic Honduras Marcala. I picked it up through Sweet Maria's. I had about a pound and a half left from September- right on the edge of it's lifetime- so, I roasted what was left.

It is significantly less-amazing. The beans looked a bit yellower than they had a few months ago, so I chalked that up to their added age. I began the roasting process and noticed at once that the beans were not behaving in the same way as they had previous. First crack almost never came. Months ago, first crack came at about 3 minutes in, then second at around 4 minutes and 15 seconds. I used to stop the roast at 3'55". This round had to last clear into 6 minutes. Even then, the coffee looked under-roasted. And let me tell you, it definitely tastes like it too! It was terribly astringent through my chemex. After another two days of aging, I tried it through my mokka pot. It was a bit better, but not dramatically. This morning, as a last ditch attempt, I brewed the Marcala through the French Press- my least favorite method. It worked the best yet, salvageable. "Salvageable" is not what I want what was my favorite coffee EVER to measure up to. Embarrassing.

Honestly, I think that the age of the coffee had something to do with the outcome. The change in popper could play a part in the slew of variables as well. Nevertheless, I feel that my two months out of the roasting game bore negative effects on the product as well. So, again, if you fail to use your fine skills, you could very well lose them. Fear not though, I have worked through my "roasters-block" and produced a very nice Tanzanian coffee, again, sourced through Sweet Maria's.

A great program idea that many specialty roasters are starting up is coffee education events. These are short tutorials or brewing exposes for both their baristas and interested customers. The Roasterie in Kansas City and Kaldi's in St. Louis held similar events just last night. Here's a graphic for Kaldi's event:
 And The Roasterie's event:
I encourage you to attend events like these if you wish to develop and maintain a strong skill of tasting and/or preparing specialty coffee yourself. If you're in Columbia, stop by Vida Coffee Co, or give me a call and we'll do something similar.

Lord, thank You for the ability to learn, especially from our mistakes. Please help me to learn more every day and sharpen my skill to use it, somehow, for Your glory. Keep my head deflated and on straight. 

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