Report - Day Four (Monday, 18 April)

monday is a blur - created by the combination of a wicked hangover, super high stress and a sense of dislocation.
the hangover was the result of days of drinking too much beer at night and too much coffee during the day with the sunday night party hopping and resulting switch from beer to bourbon being the capper.
the stress came from the looming deadline - the party at Stumptown and subsequent tour.
the dislocation was the natural result of spending time at a tradeshow, coupled with the strangeness of the WBC.

anyway... the day started with a quick trip to Victrola with Bronwen and Jeremy. Victrola is one of my favorite coffee bars in Seattle. i love the vibe, the people are super cool and the coffee is really good. i had a couple nice espressos and a very good shot of Rwanda Gatare.

and i had a great talk with Tonx there about my issues with grinders (grin).

we then ran over to the WBC where i had a chance to watch some of the best competition baristas in the world strut their stuff.

in the end there were two big shocks.
1 - the competitor from Japan took second. while he looked really good, smooth, polished and professional, and his milk looked great - i have to say that his shots didn't look all that great. they seemed to go blond super early. from watching, i'd picked him to take 4th.
2 - Sammy took third. his shots looked amazing, his drinks seemed great - both Bronwen and i picked it to be a toss-up between him and Troels for top spot.

anyway... from here it was back to the show floor and a total nightmare experience at Versalab. a total demonstration of what not to do when it comes to either/both customer service and sales. they should be ashamed.

then more shots at the BGA booth (mmm...). too much fun!

a quick visit to the Probat booth (envy, desire), a quick stop by the Espresso Parts booth (cups, tamper brackets, nice people) and then over to the Espresso Vivace booth for an incredibly good IPA. David Schomer really knows his beer. Honestly, I think he might even be better with beer than with espresso. It was such a tonic - such a relief from the way the show had treated me (so to speak). Just standing there, drinking a gorgeous PNW IPA with lovely grapefruit tones and shooting the shit with someone I respect.
I could breathe again.

then rush to the train, head to Portland and panic a bit as the phones start to roll in about the CoE judges and roastery owners and superstars from all over the world who are showing up in the Stumptown cafes.

soon i'll re-cap the whole SCAA and WBC thing with a cogent document describing what i've learned, what i think, the highlights and lowlights.


Report - Day Three (Sunday, 17 April)

Day three started just like day two... with the Beginning Espresso Lab.
This time was a bit rougher than the previous day as my ankle was noticably more sore - resulting in a lot of hopping and one legged tamping.
At the same time - it was another good chance to have a positive impact on coffee. This time Andy from Barefoot and I co-instructed which was super fun. We both have very different styles (of teaching and when it comes to being a barista) but I felt like we reached an easy set of compromises and the folks in our group seemed to really enjoy the experience.
Again, as with the previous day, there were far too many people acting as instructors who were doing more damage than good.
The BGA really needs to own the espresso labs. Seriously. I've said it before but I can't say it often enough or loud enough.
Oh... and whoever stole my nice heavy leaded glass shotglasses sucks.

Anyway, did the quick wrap up and clean and cruised to the BGA booth. This was one of the highlight times of the weekend for me. Working the booth - playing around on the Synesso - serving luminaries, stars, heros, peers and coffee folks of all types good espresso. So much fun! I freaked a few folks out with my whole "what flavour profile do you want from your shot" spiel. It's really odd that more people haven't played around with the effects of different styles when it comes to extraction. Being a barista is all about understanding all the levers - the inputs - the variables. If you can understand them and their inter-relationships you can start tweaking the results. I pulled some shots for Kees. I pulled some shots for various alt.coffee folks. I pulled some shots for JimmyO. I pulled some shots for some Colombian producers who had never really understood espresso (very cool). I felt pretty good about the shots all things considered. It was weird to be on a totally new machine, a totally new grinder and with coffee I'd never used before. I think next time we might want to do things a bit differently.
The Synesso was pretty damn cool. I still am not a fan of their pre-infusion, but otherwise it's a damn fine machine.
All the grinders pretty much sucked. Then again, all the grinders available right now pretty much suck - so...

Actually, this is probably a good time to talk about grinders.
Espresso grinders were a constant theme throughout the show. Pretty much every single good barista at the show expressed a huge amount of frustration with the grinders that are currently available. And all the grinder vendors at the show showed no real interest in meeting our needs or listening to our feedback.
I don't understand what the problem is. Seriously. I mean - it's all very clear to us. Grinders right now all have two huge failings. First - the doser mechanisms (regardless of type, style, whatever) are all terrible. Second - they cook the coffee. The solutions are also pretty damn clear. First - they need to build a doserless grinder that doesn't clump and doesn't spray. It needs to drop the coffee directly into the basket without imparting a huge static charge and with decent distribution. Second - they need to decouple the motor and the burrs.
Imagine a Mazzer Robur in a wider case with the motor offset to the side and a clutched belt to connect the motor and the burr set. Now imagine it with a doserless system that meets the above requirements.
done. fixed. solved.

Instead, we get "oh, it would be too expensive" and we get "we'd probably sell 12 of them in the world" and we get "no-one really needs that."

Our complaints are not minor. When I say that the doser mechanisms are terrible what I mean is that all of them either:
1 - are designed to not grind to order and as a result, when we do grind to order, they trap stale coffee, they get dirty and compromise flavour, they create additional waste, they break due to metal fatigue and require expensive replacement and they result in RSI finger injuries.
2 - clump and/or spray coffee and create static charges which results in poor distribution and the resulting inferior shots, result in additional waste and create terrible problems with grind adjustment.
When I say that they overheat and cook the coffee I'm not exagerating. Some examples:
1 - With any of the grinders used in the booth (and the other two top tier options out there) the coffee is coming out of the grinder hot to the touch after less than 30 minutes of use. Not warm, but hot. Obviously, this not only compromises the resulting coffee but also creates terrible grind and extraction problems.
2 - When you disassemble these grinders after heavy use, you will find a hardened, baked-on crust of coffee slurry around the burr set areas. In some cases, I've needed to use a screw driver to chip it off.

Espresso machines have advanced dramatically in the last 15 years. Grinders, in the same time, have seen (at best) incremental progress. Someone needs to fix this.

After a great time at the BGA booth I ran over to the WBC to watch some more competitors.
Then back over to the show floor with Lizz and Steve from Stumptown.
Then back to the WBC to see the announcement of the finalists.
It was heartbreaking.
Phuong was in 7th - a half a point out of the finals.
She did such a good job. At the point where you're a half point out of the finals, you have to know it all came down to a roll of the dice. It all came down to the randomizing influence of judging selection and subjectivity.
She did a great job and should be proud.

Then off to the BGA party at Gameworks.
This had some highpoints without a doubt (sitting around a table, shooting the shit with various peers like Jay, John Hornall, Jimmy et al - talking about grinders and about beer and realizing yet again how different Stumptown really is). But it also had some low points ($5 bad beers and a space that made it really not feel like a party per se).
Wrapped this all up and took off for more drinks at Del Rey with Alex et al from Royal, Doug and the whole Intelligentsia crew and Duane and Jodi.
Actually... I think this was the first time all weekend that I got to spend time with them. It's weird to think that we were at the show together - they were so focused on the green bean/producer side and had so many meetings and I was so focused on the barista/espresso side and had all the classes and booth duties... it was like were at two different shows.
Had the first good beers of the day (thanks Alex) and then over to the Cyclops where the party was RAGING.
More beer, Nick doing an amazing impression of Dismas, various Australians out of control, various baristas misbehaving in public, a long talk with David from Counter Culture and a really great conversation with Doug Zell about the common issues facing our cafes. I think Intelligentsia is probably one of the few companies that has some of the same challenges we have. I really hope we can work together to solve them more effectively.
Eventually, Bronwen gave me a ride back to my hotel and I passed out.

A long day.


just got back from the doctors'

Good News: out of cast, starting physical therapy next tuesday, able to stand
Bad News: not really able to walk yet (they allow it, but I can't) and soft tissue damage and suspected nerve damage (they were not willing to say anything - wanted to wait until the PT looked at it - but warned me recovery might be longer than expected)

Report - Day Two (Saturday, 16 April)

For me the second day of the show was really the first day of the show. As you could tell from the previous report - Friday was a bit of a wash.

Saturday began for me with the Beginning Espresso Lab, where I was a station instructor. In many ways this was a great experience. The highlight came when, after tasting some correctly steamed milk, two people in my group realized they had never been served a proper Latte in their lives. As many of the people in this session are owners of coffee bars or are soon-to-be owners... it's an amazing opportunity to influence coffee in the US. I only wish that more of the serious baristas and espresso "thinkers" would get involved in these courses. Seeing folks like Aaron de Lazzer there was great - but honestly there were far too many people teaching who simply didn't know what they were doing.

On a negative note, one of the folks in my group managed to give herself second degree burns on her hand mishandling the steam wand. A scary and traumatic experience.

I have some general suggestions in regards to these courses for the future.
1 - the machines need to be set up more carefully. My machine initially had a misplaced steam boiler probe that resulted in the boiler being entirely full. In addition, the pump was set to provide 10.5BAR of pressure. The good news was that I arrived early enough that I noticed both problems and we managed to fix them. The bad news was that my machine was far from the only one not calibrated well.
2 - three hours is simply not enough time to cover everything from espresso to equipment to milk to drinks to cleaning and maintaining equipment. Not even close. This results in a very rushed experience and likely limited retention. I'd suggest either more time or a less broad curriculum.
3 - the BGA should own these courses.

Anyway... from here I ran through the show floor quickly and then to the WBC.

Some initial impressions from the floor...

1 - the vast majority of the booths were showing product that was either total crap or incredibly uninteresting. Thousands of different blended drink mixes, syrups, baked goods and non-coffee beverages combined with cafe roasters that don't roast and espresso machines that make bad coffee and knicknacks and wifi for your cafe. Bleh.
2 - there was no break-through product in the one area where we need a breakthrough. All the new espresso grinders were either just variants on the same types of design (with the same inherited flaws) or were slight evolutions (with a combination of some of the old flaws and newly introduced ones). More on this later.
3 - The Probat products are awesome.
4 - for the first time ever I was able to get good coffee at the show (from multiple sources). I was served some good espresso at the BGA booth, at the Intelligentsia booth and at the Vivace booth. I cupped some lovely coffee at the Bolivia booth.
5 - some of the producer booths were great (Bolivia for example) and others were really lame.
6 - Terry at Espresso Parts had the only two products at the show that I'm going to buy.

Anyway... the floor was what it was. Too big, very strange... I honestly think that a show with none of the crap would be a far superior show (albeit less impressive).

So on to the WBC... what can I say?
It was a barista competition - but on a larger scale with the best baristas being far superior to what you normally see. On the other hand, the weak baristas were really weak by comparison. It was clear that there were about a dozen really amazing baristas (truly the best in the world when it comes to competitions) but that the drop off in talent from there was enormous.

Rushed about some more... (on a side note, being on crutches at the SCAA show is a nightmare)

Then there was the BGA meeting... I have one quick negative... all of you BGA members who didn't bother to show up (and there were probably at least 100 of you)... you have officially given up any right to complain about anything the BGA does for the next year. Seriously. I mean, what the fuck? Other than the board and the chapter reps, there were like 5 people there. This is a volunteer organization - if you aren't going to be involved you won't get anything out of it.
Now that that is done... the meeting was OK. We covered what's been done, the election results and what is being done next. Shrug.

Then off to dinner with some folks from Transfair (another side note... trying to find somewhere to eat on Capital Hill on a Saturday night when the SCAA show is in town is very difficult to say the least). I had a really nice cask-conditioned ESB at Elysian. Actually... I had several (grin).
Talking with the Transfair folks was an interesting experience. It was the beginning of a trend that extended through the show. I came to realize that Stumptown really is different and that our needs, issues, goals and methods are not common to the vast majority of the industry.

It gets a bit blurry at that point but eventually I went to bed.


Report - Day One (Fri, 15 April)

crossing my fingers and holding my breath i took the morning train to Seattle. deep down in the pit of my stomach there was such dread... how would the cafes perform? what would people think?

perhaps i should explain... a while back Duane decided that the best thing to do, given that many of the people in the coffee business who are respected here at Stumptown would be in Seattle for the SCAA show, would be to throw a party down here in Portland after the show ended. this plan grew and mutated in in the end become much more than a simple party. instead, it was a large party at our downtown cafe followed the next day by a guided tour of all our cafes and the roastery.

we really didn't want to let Duane down. the nightmare in the cafes was the idea that someone we care about might comment about a "not so good" drink.

i had a hard time sleeping.
i had near panic attacks.

and now i was going to be going away from town for a long weekend right before the whole big deal.

so up to Seattle it was (i'll skip the screaming children and my thoughts on parents who buy business class for their brats).
and then over to the conference center itself for a quick immersion in the chaos that was the show floor in setup mode.
then across the way with Boothmaster Jay to the WBC area. i got to taste some shots from a bunch of competitors who were practicing. Troels (from Denmark) was using an espresso from George Howell that was very nice indeed. I've tasted this espresso before - but found it a bit flat. This time it was quite lovely. Sweet, creamy, with some lovely aromatics, a touch of fruit and a warm peanut note.
i then ran into some friends there and decided to go to dinner at Lark (IMHO the best restaurant in Seattle and which lived up to that billing on that night).
exhausted and stressed, a few drinks, some scattered party trawling and then to bed with thoughts of the next morning's sessions and my busy schedule and looming stress combining with alcohol in my stomach in a most unpleasant way. sweet dreams indeed.


it's been an insane blur.
the SCAA show is over (it was huge).
the WBC is over (Troels won).
the Seattle visit is over (so many parties).
tonight is the Stumptown party. tomorrow is the visitors' tour.
once it is over and i've slept for 48 hours i'll start posting some more detailed thoughts.

in the meantime, some quick and random notes:
- Kees is the man.
- any time you get folks like Jimmy, Alistair, Jay, Bronwen et al together the conversation goes uber-geek in about 3 seconds. and it's fun.
- the BGA booth rocked!!