Thursday, December 24, 2009
When you speak to seasoned baristas regarding proper espresso preparation, they speak often of strict dosing levels, proper tamping pressure, shot timeframes and the like.  Problem is, if you watch them for long enough, you're apt to see the same baristas up- and downdosing, pre-infusing, pulling short shots and constantly tweaking their grind levels.  What in heaven's name are they doing, you may inquire.  In short, they are looking for that sweet spot in any coffee that produces what some call the "God Shot," or perfect shot of espresso.

It is important to know what each stage of tweaking will do to the final product and how to use these techniques to your advantage.  There are certain standards that form the foundation for all espresso preparation.  In short, these are:

Dose = 7 grams/single, 14 grams/double
Extraction Time = 18-35 seconds
Grind Level = whatever facilitates the above.

Some variables do not change.  You will always tamp at 30 lbs of pressure, and your machine will always be calibrated to push 200 degree F water through the coffee at 9 bars of pressure.  These things you won't really ever change, but the dose of coffee you use, the extraction time and the grind level are all fair game to change as you wish, within reason.  Basically, if you follow the above levels, you will get a palatable shot of espresso.  But these are just GUIDELINES.  In fact, if you look at what baristas are doing with coffee these days, you will often find an 18 gram, 18 second shot as commonplace, whereas tradition would dictate this severely updosed and quite short volumetrically. 

So, with such standards in place, why do baristas feel the need to constantly tweak their settings?  Why is updosing becoming commonplace in today's coffee culture?  Why are ristretto shots preferable to long shots? 

Are roast levels changing?  Are our palates fatiguing?  Where does the madness END?

I think perhaps both situations are true.  Coffee today is trending towards single-origin espressos, which tend to have a rather limited flavor scope, necessitating compensation in the intensity of the shot.  You see, a finely balanced espresso gives the drinker a complex map of flavor notes to explore, minimizing palate fatigue.  Practically, blended espressos are harder to tire of because there is so much going on in the shot, whereas these single-origin varieties, with their limited flavor scopes, have a tendency to get old fast.

One great example is an espresso a local shop was pulling for a while, Idido Misty Valley, from Sidamo, Ethiopia.  The espresso, like many Ethiopian coffees, was exceedingly floral, with strong notes of strawberry and blueberry.  It blew away many a barista with its almost brashly bold flavor profile.  This was a sharp, intense shot of espresso.  It was refreshing in that it tasted like no other espresso blend you've ever had.  But, because of this intensity, it tended to grow old to the palate faster than most well-balanced blends.  It is almost as if it burned out in its own glory.  Adding to the problem is the fact that baristas began pulling 19 or 20 grams of the stuff at a time, for 18-24 seconds, producing a super-short, super-intense drink that could only be handled in moderation.  It was an interesting excursion.  The coffee was an inspiration, not only to experiment more with single-origins, but also to experiment more with dosing and timing, squeezing every little bit of flavor out of those 18 grams.  Many a coffee-geek got over-caffeinated while that coffee filled grinders across the nation.

But what did this over-tweaking do for coffee nuts in general?  Did it wear people out or did it spark the interests of marginal coffee drinkers?  This is the question, in my opinion.  In my experience, that one coffee intrigued literally every barista I come into regular contact with, but at the same time, I knew plenty of moderate coffee drinkers who were utterly turned off by the intensity of it.  It was TOO different.  It was TOO intense.  The updosing and decreasing shot volumes that shortly followed became too much for casual espresso drinkers to take, and it scared some folks off.

Okay, that was a fine rant, but let's get back on topic.  Traditionally, espressos are blends that go through EXTENSIVE testing in order to produce a complex and full coffee experience when pulled according to the above parameters.  Ideally, tamping pressure and shot time should be standardized so that the only modification necessary is that of grind level, taking into account ambient temperature, humidity and atmospheric pressure, all of which can throw a shot off.  Ask any barista out there and they will tell you the same thing.  I believe the reason we have grown accustomed to tweaking levels to the extent that we do is that taste is such a subjective sense.  For instance, barring any abnormalities, blue looks like blue, sand feels like sand, an E note sounds like an E note and a rose smells like a rose, but taste is an entirely different beast.  Everyone's palate is slightly different, and so every barista strives to adjust his or her espresso to personal preference, oftentimes alienating the customers' tastes. 

The question - and I suppose I went around my elbow to get to it, as they say - is why do we demand such stringent blending practices from our roasters when we're going to tweak the blend beyond recognition on the bar anyway?  Is it the nature of the barista to seek out perfection, or should we show some faith and restraint when dealing with the artistry of the roasters blends?

As usual, I invite commentary.


Daniel Stewart Mueller at 8:48 PM | 1 comments
Tuesday, December 22, 2009
 it's been a while since my last post, so i'll start by trying to get you guys up to date.

the past couple weeks have been a whirlwind of work things and christmas preparations.  with the big holiday right around the corner, i've been struggling to get my ducks in a row.  i think i've gotten all of my shopping done, and i've had a little time to reflect on the past semester at school and hash out some ideas i have for the future of the coffee program at my shop, cafenineteen.

this past semester has been enlightening, and one of the most enjoyable of my college career.  my advertising class was a blast and i'm stoked to be taking another course on the subject in the spring.  my international business classes were interesting, though they didn't hold my attention quite the way my ad class did.  as i am pursuing a minor of sorts in IB, i feel obligated to show up every day and at least TRY to enjoy the material.  nonetheless, i have a hard time getting excited about business abroad when i have much domestic business to attend to.  a couple courses just didn't capture any of my passion.  marketing research and buyer behavior are interesting subjects to know something about, but aren't really where i see the focus of my studies going.

this brings us to my domestic business, the coffee program i'm developing at cafenineteen.  a lot has been happening in coffee lately.  first and foremost, our cafe has been branching out a bit more in local competition.  the december match-up at octane coffee's thursday night throwdown saw some pretty impressive pours.  octaner dale donchay took the prize with a series of tulips that were nothing short of masterful.  the following tuesday i poured at element coffee's first ever throwdown and brought the prize home for the cafe.  again, the competition was fierce, but i had a good night and won with a pretty solid rosetta.  the shop up there was very cool.  it had clean, minimalistic design elements and served intelligensia coffee.  their signature espresso, black cat, is a fantastic shot.  in fact, i think i drank two that night.

barista comp is the word of the day, i feel, for a few reasons.  reason number one being that i now have a couple baristas under me that have begun to compete, exposing not only the baristas to the competitive side of the industry, but also exposing the rest of atlanta coffee to our store.  the competitions are a great tool for getting our word out there, letting the atlanta bean-kids know what we are all about, while at the same time keeping the area baristas on top of their game.  it's hard not to get behind the comps, especially in a coffee environment as nurturing as atlanta's.  in the coming months i will be hard at work training for the southeast regional barista comp in february.  this will be my first major barista competition and i will be going up against the best the southeast has to offer.  from what i understand, there are some pretty intense competitors coming from south carolina and florida.  i'm a little nervous, but it's also an exciting proposition.

the idea of hosting a comp at cafenineteen has arisen on a few occasions, and it's looking like it may be a real possibility in the coming months.  the format has yet to be decided.  with latte art throwdowns popping up all over the metro atlanta area, i was thinking perhaps a french press or chemex comp might add a bit of flavor to the comp circuit.  whatever the case, there will be jameson on hand.

that's pretty much it for now.  i will conclude by making several promises to you, my readership.  an upcoming post will delve into the dichotomy between the philosophy of standardization of the espresso preparation process and the natural tendancy of the barista to tweak each component of the mix in search of a more perfect shot.  also, i will be posting some sketches i drew up of a couple machines that might just revolutionize the way coffee is prepared in the future.

stay tuned!


Daniel Stewart Mueller at 2:44 PM | 0 comments
Saturday, December 5, 2009
A couple thoughts today.

First, I spent a hot minute in a local coffeeshop, Tilt, yesterday. The shop is located in Castleberry Hill, on Atlantas southwest side.  It's Atlanta's loft district, I suppose, with loads of historic manufacturing and warehousing spaces having been renovated in years past.  The district itself tends to be rather slow, with regrettably little foot traffic, but opens up a few times a month when the district puts on loft and art strolls for the public. 

Anyways, Castleberry aside, Tilts space is fantastic.  I believe the space was converted from an auto mechanics shop or something, judging by the large garage door that makes up the front of the shop, which is opened up on nice days letting a little fresh air into the place.  The walls are lined with these sleek floating tables, suspended from the ceiling with sturdy metallic cord, like a robots fishing line.  Also lining the walls are the artworks of local artists, with a budding art program that cycles fresh work in monthly.  The rest of the space is taken up by minimalist contemporary furniture in neutral tones so as to emphasize the color of the art on the walls. 

The whole of the space was well-thought-out and inviting, for all the modernism of the decor.  A back room holds a few couches, some flat screens and a bar/counter with stools.  This area is used sometimes as a second gallery, sometimes for conferencing, sometimes just as spillover room during the busier art strolls.  The store itself took its name from the iconic floor, which declines at a very modest grade.

The store uses Counter Culture Coffee, a local favorite.  They practice fair-trade, direct trade and support organically-grown beans.  All fantastic practices which I will discuss in more detail in a moment.  I had a total of four shots of Espresso La Forza, a Seattle-eque espresso heavy in veggie notes and dark chocolate notes.  It's a savory shot that took a moment to acclimate to, but once I got past the fact that this wasn't going to be a particularly SWEET shot, I started to notice some of the more subtle flavors.  It was a bit lemony, the finish a bit caramelly.  It had a thick crema of rich browns that wasn't half bad all by itself.  It was a little less bright than some of CC's other espresso offerings.  Overall, the espresso was good, if not just a tad too dark for my liking.

Besides espresso, the shop makes all manner of milk-based drinks and does pour-overs for everyday foot traffic.  I believe the barista on hand mentioned they make an airpot of brew for the heavier morning traffic, but then phase that out in favor of pour-over as the day wears on.  This is a good practice.  It saves the subtleties of the coffee by sparing it the abuses of a burner and time to go flat.  If you're hungry, they have pastries, sandwiches, soups, salads, snacks and smoothies.

All-in-all, Tilt is a great little shop that is coming into its own.  The baristas have a passion for their craft and fully support their product.  It's not too noisy, so it makes a great place to spend a dreary afternoon, at least until the rest of Atlanta catches on and gives Castleberry the attention it deserves.

And now for the heavier stuff: Sustainability practices and how they apply to third-wave coffee!

It's necessary to define some terms.

Fair Trade
Direct Trade
Organic Farming

It is becoming commonplace to describe retail coffee efforts in terms of mainstream consumption surges and their overall dedication to craft.  Together, these two abstract descriptors of coffee are dubbed "waves." 

As a basic breakdown, the first wave occurred in the late 1800s and early 1900s as companies like Folgers and Eight O Clock Coffee became common staples in both grocers and pantries across the country.  The first wave is typified by low-quality beans purchased and roasted en masse, and sold affordably to the average coffee drinker.  These products make for a passable morning drink, but manage to commoditize coffee in the process.

The second wave of coffee occured in the 1960s with the explosive retail expansion of Peets Coffee in Washington State and Dunkin Donuts across much of the South, and continued with Starbucks and Caribou in the late 1980s.  Recently, McDonalds has expanded its coffee program, stepping up its game in an effort to remain competitive in the beverage industry.  It is in the second wave that you also see brands such as Illy, that have made a name for themselves by providing one high quality blend on a mass scale.  More care is given in the second wave to compensating growers than is in the first wave, and the focus of the drinks rides a fine line between quality and profitability.

America is now in the throes of the third wave of coffee, a movement mirroring the "Slow Food" craze in the food industry in the 1990s.  Companies like Counter Culture Coffee and Intelligensia are developing lasting relationships with coffee growers around the world, going to great lengths to provide applicable and meaningful feedback to farms in an effort to produce the best quality coffee possible.  Also riding the third wave are the independent coffee shops across the country that choose to roast their own beans, or focus on the craft of making espresso and coffee drinks, rather than moving mass volumes of product.  Shops such as Victrola Coffee Roasters in Seattle, Stumptown in New York, Intelligensia's outposts in both Chicago and Los Angeles, and even San Francisco Coffee Roasters in Atlanta all roast their own beans, in house, in an effort to find the best possible roast profiles for each of the beans they import.  Shops in Atlanta such as Aurora Coffee, Octane Coffee Bar and CafeNineteen differentiate themselves by, among other things, pouring Latte Art.  It may be thought of as the signature on a potable piece of art.  For a more detailed description of the technique, refer here.  There are even popping up regarding shops and roasters using environmentally-conscious facilities in an effort to combat needless waste.

It is this attention to detail that epitomizes third-wave mentality.

Now, it isn't enough to simply roast your own beans in-house, or pour latte art, or to provide cups and lids made from recycled products.  Sure, these practices could better the industry in the long run, and a bit of social consciousness is good for the environment as well, but cherry-picking ones favorite third-wave practices while dispelling others is no way to further specialty coffee as a whole.  These days, coffee people understand that a good cup is as much about the journey of the bean, from plant to mug, as it is about the end product, and that the painstaking detail that goes into sourcing and roasting and brewing all ultimately lead to an exemplary cup of coffee.

The question I ask is, is it possible for a company to employ these often-exhaustive "third-wave" practices and still remain profitable.  I would certainly like to think it is.  It strikes me, as a coffee person, that it is worth paying a premium for a product made with care.  A shot of espresso and some hot milk are nothing special in and of themselves.  Rather, it is the connection the consumer makes to the journey of the bean and the rich history of the drink that makes a cappuccino or a french press worth paying 5 dollars for.  It is the idea that those small beans are being handled and prepared by one whose life is dedicated, at that moment, to presenting to you the finest beverage you have ever consumed.  That sort of passion does not go by unnoticed, and there will always be a market for it.

I invite commentary.


Daniel Stewart Mueller at 3:26 PM | 2 comments