I've been trying to figure out how to recap and summarize everything from the last few (incredibly hectic) weeks.... Following is my best shot.
Highlights - For me, the highlights this year were the BGA Booth, the Probatino, the Bolivia booth, a couple of the products at Espresso Parts and (most of all) spending time with various really great people.
The BGA Booth was amazing. It had great buzz, really good coffee and gave a focal point for the show if you were really into espresso. People were able to evaluate different coffees from different baristas and different machines. Baristas were able to check out a couple of the top machines out there, and got to play around with tons of different coffees. The booth was a huge success and everyone seemed really happy about it. Because of the booth, I had the chance to meet a ton of people that I'd heard about or exchanged emails with but had never met in person. Very cool!
The Probatino is a complete object of lust. If you're into coffee, this thing is like a head-sized rock of cocaine to a crackhead. Not only does it look incredible, it's got all the bells and whistles you really want with none of the crap you don't want. And it's made by Probat. Someday...
The Bolivia booth was such a cool experience. Not only did I get to cup some great coffees, I met one of the top producers and talked to tons of really interesting people. The folks who worked the booth were both knowledgable and humble (a serious contrast with some of the other producers' booths). The coffee was really good. I'm starting to think that Bolivia has some real serious potential.
Espresso Parts had a couple great products. In particular, I love their mountable tamping brackets (which allow you to tamp lower than your counter and minimize both mess and grounds transfer to the spouts (or bottom of basket if you've gone naked). And they had some really perfectly shaped cappuccino cups. Terry and his crew always bring their A game to this show, and this year was no exception.
With each show, the big highlight is always the people - and this year was no exception. Not only did I meet Kees at last (and let me tell you, I was in awe) but I got to have some incredibly motivating and informative discussions about coffee, equipment, baristas, you name it, with some of the best and brightest of this industry. To be honest, this is what the show is all about, and this is why it's worth spending the money to go to the show.
Lowlights - This year there were a number of serious moments of frustration and irritation. The biggest sources were grinder manufacturers, the SCAA and Versalab.
Grinder manufacturers seem to have little to no interest in hearing anything critical about their products. And it's not like the problems with their products are minor or our complaints are insignificant. It's not like I'm asking for a liquid-cooled, vertical burr set, doserless, belt drive, diamond burr, auto timing, fuzzy logic grinder. I just want a grinder that doesn't suck. I realize that the manufacturers are behind us, and that baristas in this industry represent the leading edge. But our requests are really simple. We want a grinder designed and built to grind per shot, which doesn't heat up and cook the coffee, that doesn't trap grounds and which is durable enough to handle up to about 75kilos a day. The first one to stop ignoring us and/or treating us like children and actually deliver such a product wins. And by wins, I mean wins. Look at the position La Marzocco has in the espresso machine market as an example.
The SCAA is always an easy target to pick on and I'm fully aware that no-one is ever satisfied with the work they do when it comes to these shows. That being said, this is supposed to be the Specialty Coffee Association of America. Specialty as in not pods, not vending machines, not automatic froth producers and other stuff more suitable to your average MiniMart than a coffee bar. Coffee as in not the thousand different weird and entirely uninteresting if not outright stupid products that were on the floor. More importantly, as a professional barista I found it incredibly insulting to find that there were more sessions dedicated to professional coffee photographers than there were to professional baristas. We represent a huge chunk of the industry and we're being ignored or treated like an amusing but not particularly important sideshow freak. It's getting tiring.
Versalab... what can I say. These folks have been picked on for over a year now. And they deserve it all. I've never dealt with more arrogant people on a show floor. I honestly don't understand why they bother paying for a booth if they just want to insult potential buyers. I'd comment on the products but I wasn't allowed to actually evaluate them in any real way.
In Summary - The SCAA show was totally worth going to - but pretty much only because of the people. The good things were the sort of small things that you can experience throughout the year. it was the combination of all these people in one space that made it worthwhile. The rest of the show was just the excuse.
The WBC was a lot like the SCAA show in that the competition was, for me, an excuse. Even more than the show, the WBC draws my peers into one location. This is invaluable. Now... that being said... there was some amazing stuff to see and experience and learn from at the WBC this year. I love the "jamming with the champions" thing (though I wish there had been some more options on coffees) and the general level of skill amongst the competitors was up (again).
I had the chance to taste shots from some of the competitors - and I wish there was some way for more people to be able to have this experience. Tasting shots from folks like Troels (the evenual winner) was amazing. What was particular interesting was that Troels was using an espresso that I've tasted in the past - but in his hands it tasted like an entirely different coffee.
In the end, one of the favorites one. Troels' victory was no shock. His level of polish and professionalism was incredible. And having tasted his espresso, I have no doubt that his sensory scores were very high indeed.
The one thing that was a bit dissapointing was the judging situation. I know I've harped on this issue before, but I find it really depressing to see people judging in the World Barista Championship who I have little to no confidence in. It is so unfair to the competitors. The current judging situation needs to be entirely overhauled and rethought. The idiotic Sensory Skills test needs to be dumped, a training program for judges needs to be developed and a testing program which includes espresso defect identification and a mock competition judging needs to created. Until then, there will continue to be an unacceptable level of chance in the results.
Three themes developed for me through the course of the (long) weekend. First was the state of grinders in the industry; second was a discussion about dosing practices, methods and amounts; third was how different Stumptown is from most other coffee businesses.
Grinders... well, I've covered this at length. It needs to be fixed.
Dosing... I'm of the (strong) opinion that there is no black and white here. There is no right and wrong answer. Each coffee has a huge number of potential flavours and flavour profiles. By adjusting a combination of dose and extraction volume we can focus the resulting shot of espresso on a specific profile. By creating arbitrary rules about the "correct" dosing we are merely limiting the way we can express the coffee in the cup.
It's become clear to me that Stumptown has challenges that other businesses do not (in particular as relates to our volume combined with our business practices and values) and strengths that others are sadly missing (our incredibly high quality green coffee, a committment to excellence above all else). There are companies that we share things with - and we're developing close relationships with them. But it is no shock that vendors and manufacturers as well as other companies act like we're insane much of the time. Just as it should be no shock when someone freaks out the first time they taste our coffee.