Sunday, April 27, 2008

   from Nick

"I don't read books." - a book review.

Actually, the last time that I tore through a book in one sitting... was reading Hemingway's Old Man and the Sea in 10th grade... and that book is like 12 pages long. I don't read books. I'll grab a magazine (Entertainment Weekly and Best Life magazine are my faves) on occasion, but

Today, I tore through God In A Cup in about 3.5 hours, coupled with a beautiful cup (or two) of Kenya Kangocho Peaberry auction lot #4602. Having that coffee today deserves its own blog post... maybe I will some time.

For now, I have to share my thoughts on this book by Michaele Weissman, food-writer and author of a book she almost called, "On The Road With The Coffee Guys." Thank God someone talked her out of it.

Now I have to make a disclaimer: I'm in the book. Michaele wrote an article for the New York Times a couple-or-three years ago, and interviewed me for it. The prologue of the book includes a recounting of my making for her what Michaele says is her first cup of "real coffee," a 12-ounce cappuccino (yes, 12 ounces... it's on the menu... and yes, we have a 6 oz "real" capp too!), and that it sent her "down the rabbit hole into coffee land." What follows, I can only say that I'm deeply humbled and honored to have played the tiniest of roles in.

Michaele spent the next couple of years working on this book, where she travels to locales as exotic as Burundi and Ethiopia, and as familiar as NYC and Los Angeles, to chronicle the personalities and work of the Third Wave coffee professionals. There are, most who have read the book will tell you, four main characters in the book: Peter Giuliano (Counter Culture), Geoff Watts (Intelligentsia), Duane Sorenson (Stumptown) and a coffee known as Hacienda La Esmeralda Special.

The thing that's striking about reading the book, knowing these folks so well, is how much she "gets it." As affable and bright as they come, Michaele is really easy to talk to, and she approaches things with a wonder and twinkle in her eye in a way that I've mentioned more than once that she is like a teacher at Hogwart's, and you could totally see her schooling Harry Potter and his friends in some sort of hocus-pocus of writing and wizardry.

Starting with introductions of the four main characters, God In A Cup takes us along for Michaele's coffee education. From her first trip to origin, observing a Nicaragua Cup of Excellence competition, to not knowing where her passport is in Burundi, to being awestruck by the beauty of Boquete, Panama, to watching the US Western Regional Barista Competition in California, we read page after page of the sorts of stories that we coffee professionals have heard passed around through our oral tradition, but never in print like this.

There's some amazing stuff in here, that had me grinning from ear to ear. Michaele's description of the discussions during the Nicaragua COE that she attended, are the most "I felt like I was there" depiction of those legendary events that I've ever experienced. Her exposition on Peter and Geoff's dealings with coffee producers and a certain cooperative get into more detail than we're ever normally privy to. Her adventures in Africa made me clench my fists in that, "Dang... that sounds so AWESOME!" sort of way.

There is some stuff that will make folks wince, and might be hard to read for some. Personal stuff that you may not have known about certain people. Stories about rivalries and tiffs between folks. Baristas hatin' on other baristas, and looking kinda stupid in the process.

But none of that detracts from the book, and in fact, it made it all the more real to me. Michaele really does "get it," in a way that I've never read before from an "outsider" to the industry.

It will be interesting to see how our industry reacts to this book. Already, there is some degree of jealousy on the part of certain coffee professionals who feel that Peter, Geoff, and Duane are extolled more than they should be. That some coffee professionals are out there proclaiming this and that without acknowledging their predecessors, who actually pioneered the stuff that newer folks are being credited with. I hope people don't get too distracted with their own bullshit to be able to see and read clearly.

However, it begs the question that anyone on the "inside," will likely ask themselves after reading the book, "Will anyone out there really care about this book? Will it be interesting to non-coffee people?"

To me, the fact that there's a big cup of deep, almost black coffee on the cover, is where the answer lies. As coffee professionals, we can wonder whether or not our customers will be able to tell how great a coffee like Esmeralda Especial is. Some won't, frankly. Some may ridicule, and think it's pointless. But some... and I think in both the book's case and in coffee's case more than we'd think... some are going to read this book and be captivated by it.

Congrats Michaele, our friend and our scribe, on your book. Thank you for capturing the moment that is coffee today in such a special way. God In A Cup is available at Amazon.com, and at your local Barnes and Nobles (you can check stock at a store near you).

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

   from Nick

God In A Cup... the BLOG

Check out Michaele Weissman's new book-related blog at: http://michaeleweissmanwrites.com/godinacupofcoffee/

Sunday, April 20, 2008

   from AndyS

Novo La Alondra Espresso: first impressions

I love to try single-origin espressos, but sometimes I fall victim to "Ethiopian fatigue." What I mean is, although often good, Ethiopian SOS are very common -- and from time to time I crave something with a different flavor profile.

I recently bought a Novo coffee from Colombia called La Alondra Espresso. Apparently alondra is Spanish for the small bird that Stevie Nicks calls skylark.

This Novo coffee makes an espresso, that is, you could say, a bird of a different feather.

Using my typical 14 gram dose, I mostly pulled shots in the 16-19 gram range. This made the brewing ratio around 75-85%, which is what many people would call a "medium ristretto." La Alondra produces a crema that is extravagantly luxurious, although paradoxically, it doesn't seem to last very long.

The beans are roasted a little darker than many single origin coffees. So the first thing that hit me -- "like a bell through the night" -- was a very pleasing, pungent spiciness: cloves, if you will.

Interestingly, when I went up to 200F from 199F, the spiciness dropped off. The same occurred going down to 198F. So, without getting too Chris Tacy on you*, the temperature seemed fairly critical. Of course, on a different machine, or with a different dose, or with different taste buds, the recommended temp might be quite a bit different.

I liked the bittersweetness of this coffee; a little bit of bitter, a little bit of sweet, a pleasingly sophisticated zing on your palate.

The body was pretty much what you'd expect from a Colombian SOS. A little light, but decent.

This is a nice espresso. It is nice to see people working with many different origins in the pursuit of delicious SO espresso.


* Chris, if you happen to read this, where you been, man? Missin' you....

Sunday, April 13, 2008

   from AndyS

Brewing Temperatures, Brewing Ratios

Over on home-barista.com, I posted the results of a little experiment on brewing temperatures and brewing ratios. The article attempts to correlate observations that I previously made here and here.

The HB post has pics and graphs and all that stuff, but perhaps the executive summary is something like this:


Even if your espresso machine delivers perfectly consistent brew water temperatures, the average temperature at which your espresso extracts is much lower for a ristretto than for a "normale." Baristas should take this into account when dialing in coffees to taste.

This may have been obvious, but I'd never seen it mentioned until Scott Rao pointed it out in The Professional Barista's Handbook (which, by the way, Scott recommends that you buy :-)

OK, I recommend that you buy it, too!

Friday, April 11, 2008

   from trish

More Low-tech

My buddy shows us another incredible feat of non-technology.


Saturday, April 05, 2008

   from AndyS

Got Fresh Beans?

There's a good thread on coffeed.com discussing a technique that Scott Rao promotes in his book: you grind a pot's worth of coffee, then let the grounds sit for a while before brewing them. It's supposed to improve the result by reducing excess amounts of CO2 in the coffee, therefore allowing better water/coffee contact.

This technique is, of course, heresy; everyone "knows" that you always should grind immediately before brewing!

A big part of the Coffeed discussion revolves around what exactly goes on with the coffee in the interval between roasting and brewing, and how pregrinding makes these things happen much faster (desirable happenings as well as undesirable).

Whether the coffee is preground or not, there are a great number of terms used to describe the changes that occur. You know some of the typical ones: "degassing," "aging," "staling," etc. The variety of terms we use reflects the complexities and controversies that surround the aging of coffee.

In these matters, it's always helpful to see what Illy says in Espresso Coffee: The Science of Quality. And sure enough, he has quite a bit to say. Bear in mind, even though it's edited by the famous Andrea Illy and presented as "Science," everything in the book should be subjected to our own verification.

Now, for the sake of discussion, I'm going to stick my neck out and try to distill this controversial subject into a few oversimplified, over-opinionated and (hopefully) over-the-top paragraphs! Many of you, especially those who are more knowledgeable and more widely read than I, will scream bloody murder at my inevitable blunders. But it's all in the spirit of free and open discourse, no?

The most obvious thing that goes on as beans "age" is degassing: the CO2 produced in the roast process is gradually lost. This is usually considered to be a good thing, because the copious amount of CO2 in very fresh beans makes good extractions problematic, and most people don't enjoy the extra "fizz."

Unfortunately, as CO2 is lost, so are many volatile compounds that give coffee its distinct and delightful aromas. According to Illy, CO2 and volatiles leave the coffee at about the same rate. After 50% of the CO2 has departed, for instance, 50% of the desirable aromas have also left. It appears that this is a win-lose situation: we want to get rid of some CO2, but we inevitably lose some aromas. More on this later.

Another undesirable process that occurs during bean aging is oxidation. Many compounds that are key to imparting fresh coffee aromas and flavors are chemically unstable, and they are very susceptible to oxidation. (This is what Neil Young was referring to when he said, "Rust Never Sleeps.") To the extent that we takes steps to exclude oxygen from our roasted beans in storage, we can avoid a lot of the flavor deterioration.

The aging process includes oil migration, the familiar phenomenon by which coffee oils move from the interior of the roasted beans to the outside, where they can be easily (and undesirably) oxidized. CO2 pressure seems to be the main driving force here.

Another phenomenon, this one unfamiliar, is what Illy describes as the incorporation of volatiles into the structure and oil content of the bean. It means that aromatic volatiles are adsorbed, absorbed or dissolved in various coffee bean structures or substances. This is interesting and desirable, because it tends to save and protect the volatiles from being lost and/or oxidized.

Given all the factors that detract from the quality of our beverage, how can it be that we ever manage to have a good cup? Probably everyone who visits this site has had a least one good coffee in their lifetime. Even Howard Schultz got one when he made his now-famous visit to Cafe Grumpy!

Well, as far as the CO2/volatiles "win-lose" situation is concerned, it's a matter of finding a good compromise. There appears to be plenty of space along the timeline where enough CO2 has departed and enough desirable volatiles are still left to make a great cup. In fact, there may be many points where the balance between the two yields different but still very good results; this happy result may occur surprisingly far down the timeline.

In addition, there are several techniques that attempt to optimize the situation of degassing, volatiles loss and oxidation. It depends on how exquisite a job one wishes to perform. They include:

1. packing the coffee in paper bags and allowing the evolving CO2 to displace oxygen

2. packing the coffee in sealed barrier bags with one-way valves that prevent oxygen re-entry after evolving CO2 has displaced it.

3. flushing oxygen out of one-way-valve-equipped packages with an "inert" gas (CO2 or nitrogen) before sealing.

4. performing the procedure in #3, except with a rigid package that retains about a half bar of overpressure before the one-way valve opens. This strategy, which Illy uses, supposedly keeps more oil and volatiles inside the bean where they are protected from deterioration. After 10-15 days in this moderately pressurized environment the beans are supposed to be better than when they started. Wouldn't it be something if it actually worked as advertised?

5. storage of beans at freezing temperatures greatly slows down all the aging processes. Especially when combined with oxygen exclusion, beans can be kept in "almost new" condition for a much longer interval than normal. Thank you, Mr. Sivetz.

6. use of moisture and/or oxygen scavengers: mysterious little packets that say "Do Not Eat" in English and "Are Americans Stupid Enough to Eat This Packet?" in Chinese. They are available in oxygen-consuming and moisture-removing versions, and they never sleep.

Well, OK, now for a few questions:

1. How many roaster/retailers out there follow Sivetz's recommendation to store their roasted coffee under freezing conditions (with or without removing oxygen first)? If not, why not? You don't think it would be worth it? Why not sell "flash-frozen" coffee beans in a sealed bag with the admonition: "Warning! Allow contents to warm 12 hours at room temperature before opening! Once thawed, store in a cool, dry place outside of the refrigerator."

2. How come some very excellent roasters still sell their retail coffee in plain paper bags, with no moisture/oxygen barrier and no one-way valve? Have they tested it and convinced themselves that it makes no difference?

3. Obviously, Illy Caffe has a proprietary interest in promoting their pressurized storage method, but who has independently tested it with their own high-quality roasted beans?

4. How come I'm asking so many questions, and providing so few answers?

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

   from Nick

Happy Birthday Caragay

You're the best rabble-rousing controversy-stirring cigar-tobacco-infusing anti-griddling ice-shaving Clover-bashing banana-republicking Ferrari-driving ono-grilling food-blogging girl-chasing Phobe-Cates-dreaming podcasting co-host that ever was. Happy Birthday today!