Thoughts from the 2005 USBC - Part Three

And finally, here is the third in my three part series focusing on the 2005 USBC. I figure that I might as well make some general (and specific) comments on the state of espresso in Seattle.

I doubt I’m going to offend anyone with this (which is a relief after the previous two bits). Regardless, please understand that what I’m writing here is not only just my own, personal, opinion on things but that it’s entirely not personal and not directed at any person or people.

Seattle Espresso – tasting notes and opinions

I’ve spent a fair amount of time in Seattle drinking coffee in the past. But it’s been a while, so I thought I’d do my best to check out some of the past favorite haunts as well as some other places I’d not been to before. So here we go…

Hines Public Market Coffee – The first night we were in Seattle there was a party thrown by Stumptown and Intelligentsia at Hines. Everyone was there. It was so cool to catch up to folks I’d spent time with in Iceland, others from previous events or visits. People were generally in great spirits, beer was provided by Elysian, there was sushi and shots were flowing from the mighty five group (with it’s newly installed PID system). Super fun – especially after the incredibly high quality tequila made its appearance. I talked to Bronwen for a bit and discovered that she would we working the next morning – so I made immediate plans to be there. Woke up, caught a cab out to Hines.
First… some general thoughts on the feel, vibe… the place that is Hines. I’m sure all of you have a local mellow and laid back coffee bar with thrift store furniture and lots of neighborhood regulars. Well… imagine the ultimate dream version of that experience and you have Hines. It’s just like your neighborhood coffee bar, but with a Probat in the corner and a 5 group Linea and trophies and certificates from competitions on the walls and an amazing collection of demitasses from all over the world. It’s just like your neighborhood coffee bar, but Bronwen is pulling incredibly smooth and sweet shots that have perfect fruit high tones and the intertwined spice to balance it all out. This is not “shock and awe” espresso. It’s complicated. It’s complex. It’s challenging and interesting. It’s not a chocolate bomb, it’s not intense or “extreme.” It’s not a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup in a demitasse. I love it. This is espresso for people who love coffee. And this is a coffee bar for people who love espresso.

Lighthouse Coffee Roasters – The second night, there was a big dinner party with hilarity and revelry aplenty. Part way through the evening (well before the bar hopping or the disco dancing) a plan was hatched to meet the next morning at Lighthouse for a traditional Sunday AM coffee and newspaper session. Needless to say, the next morning it turned out that 75% of those who were planning to join up were still in bed nursing hangovers for the second straight morning. So it was just Bronwen, Valerie and I. Walking into Lighthouse was weird. It was like entering a parallel universe where Stumptown was still just the Division location and I didn’t know anyone there. Like traveling back in time.
Like Hines, this is another neighborhood bar from your dreams. It’s a little less mellow and funky than Hines but still super welcoming and obviously a part of the neighborhood it’s in. The espresso was good, but far less consistent and spot-on than the shots at Hines. Bronwen’s drink was excellent, mine a bit less good and a bit unevenly extracted and Valerie’s was the weakest – just sneaking over the “acceptable” bar. The espresso itself was light and fruity, with some nice spice and a hint of brown sugar in the finish. This was a soft espresso, unthreatening and simple. Sitting here at the bar, drinking espresso and chatting with the baristas while reading the Sunday New York Times – everything felt just right. This is one of those coffee bars that is homey and is about that feeling of belonging.

Espresso Vivace – After leaving Lighthouse we decided to take a run over to Vivace as Valerie had never been there. Our plan was to hit them up and then Victrola, but as it turned out we ran out of time (d’oh) and were not able to get to Victrola (next time – I promise). Vivace is such a class act. David Schomer has built a pretty amazing business there. They’ve replaced their two suped-up Mistrals with two Synesso machines, but otherwise it’s all much the same. Same staff, same layout, same consistently heavy business. Nice. The shots were excellent.
David’s espresso is somewhat controversial. There are people (like me) who really like it, and then there are people (including many who I really respect) who don’t like it at all. On this day the espresso was very very sweet and caramel toned, with a thick and syrupy mouthfeel. There was just the hint of brightness to give it some balance and in the body there was a touch of woodsy funk. To be honest, it tasted exactly like it did from the Mistrals, but that’s another topic. Valerie and Bronwen both had cappuccinos, and while the espresso was just like mine, the milk was a bit under-stretched and as a result not quite sweet enough and created a thinner mouthfeel than one would desire. Still, a great experience again. Valerie felt that this was her favorite space of the three and commented that it was the most European of the three.

We also hit a few other places that will go unnamed and un-reviewed. I feel like I’ve been negative enough of late as it is.

Some final thoughts. I recently made a comment wondering if Portland is replacing Seattle as the nexus for US coffee. This visit brought back the differences to me in a very clear way. First of all – Seattle is a city; Portland is a town – and the coffee businesses in each place reflect this. Seattle has incredible neighborhood coffee bars – many of which roast their own beans. There are far more good coffee bars in Seattle than there are in Portland (which makes sense given their different sizes). For coffee freaks, there is no dominant coffee business in Seattle (and no, for us Starbucks doesn’t count). Everyone has a personal favorite, they all have different styles and flavours, so our choices can match our preferences and tastes. In Portland, it’s all about Stumptown. Of the top 7 coffee bars in Portland, 3 of them are Stumptown locations and the other 4 use Stumptown coffees. In Seattle, there is (mostly friendly) competition that pushes people forward. There is a far larger community. And there is a resulting sense of the role of ‘barista’ that is wonderful. In Portland, Stumptown seems to be really pushing things by themselves. The community is very small and circles around a couple places and people. And there doesn’t seem to be a widespread understanding within the community of the role of ‘barista.’ End of the day… Seattle is still the King, but Portland is the Punk Rock Ace of Spades.


Thoughts from the 2005 USBC - Part Two

(Important note... this was written a while back. I've been thinking a lot since then about whether or not I really want to share it with everyone. After a lot of talk and some input from people whose opinions I value and who I trust, I've decided to post it. Please keep in mind that this is just my opinion, does not represent any sort of official viewpoint or statement by my employer or any organization.)

Here is the second section of my post-USBC report. As I’ve mentioned, it’s taken me a while to wrap my head around what I experienced in Seattle.

As a warning, I am 100% confident that I’m going to manage to piss off a lot of you at some point in this. Please understand that what I’m writing here is not only just my own opinion on things but that it’s entirely not personal and not directed at any person or people.

Specialty Coffee in the US – thoughts on the community, the people and the structures.

The coffee industry in the US is filled with some of the most incredible, passionate and intriguing people I’ve ever met. And there is a community here that is wonderful to be a part of. For me, the best part of events like the USBC is getting to be around all these amazing, committed people. I loved looking up at the top three finishers getting their trophies and realize that all three were people I like and respect – people I care about and consider friends.

This also clearly demonstrates that this is a very small world as well. Everyone knows each other, there are a lot of incestuous relationship. There is a lot of baggage.

It’s also a very young community. While there are the old-timers and the gray hairs, a huge number of the people in this industry are young. The energy that results is amazing.

Looking at all this I see the potential for the most amazing industry and a community of business leaders who really care about doing the right thing and who are really pushing to get coffee in the US to the next level.

The trouble is that this potential is not being realized.

The combination of the incestuous nature of the industry, the youth of the industry and the politics that currently exist seem to, instead, be creating a community that is fragmented and which spends more time fighting itself. The infighting and political gamesmanship that goes on in coffee right now is, in my opinion, not only juvenile and pointless – it also has the potential to be profoundly destructive.

As with any community, right now there are two loosely definable forces within specialty coffee. The first could be defined as Defenders of the Status Quo while the second are the Outsiders. The former tends to focus on incremental change, protection and exclusivity. The latter, obviously, tends to focus on revolutionary change.

From everything I have written, you can draw the easy conclusion that I tend to be more aligned with the forces of revolution. In my opinion, in the current business environment, specialty coffee cannot afford stasis. Stasis will equal death for most high-end and quality focused coffee businesses. In addition, on a personal level I’m far from satisfied with the current state of the industry. If I were to grade specialty coffee in the US as a whole, I would give it an F. There is so much that is wrong, so much that is bad, and almost everything needs to be improved.

Being at the USBC brought this all home to me.

It was incredibly frustrating to see the horrible, destructive and profoundly unprofessional political nonsense that was going on around me. Comparing this to the wonderful people within the industry and the enormous potential for good was enough to drive me into a depression. We should all be supporting each other rather than tearing each other down. There are far fewer people trying to do the right things with coffee than there are greedheads who just want to drive the c-market down another point so they can skim some more money off the near-indentured servants that are growing cheap robusta.

Looking around me I came to realize that things really need to change. And I see only two ways that this change can occur for the better.

Option one is for the existing organizations and structures that represent the companies in this industry to see a radical shakeup and restructuring. Option two is for the companies that are opposed to the status quo to leave the current organizational structures and create something new.

Obviously, I vastly prefer the former solution. We’re two small to survive a schism with any focus or power or leverage. So we need to shake things up. How?

Well… the SCAA needs to change (first and foremost). I have a ton of respect for the employees of the SCAA. Folks like Michelle Campbell are the life’s blood of this industry. But the current governance, board and committee setup is severely broken. To a large degree it seems to be geared around protecting existing power bases and reputations and egos – around supporting and abetting conflicts of interest… in other words, it is your traditional profoundly corrupt political organization. There are some people involved who are trying to change things – there are some good politicians. But they are the exception.

As a result of the corruption and political nature of the organization, you see things like the institutionalized lack of interest in communication with and education of the consumer base. You see things like the pandering to certain vendors and the undue influence of certain vendors and organizations. You see stagnation in programs and offerings. You see an organization that is not leading the industry, but rather trailing the industry (and in the cases of the quality focused coffee companies, doing so rather severely).

These are all bad. And they are all a profound failure of the mission of an organization like the SCAA.

Given this, we really need to see not just a change in personnel at a governance level but also some structural and procedural changes as well.

I had some hope with the recent elections, but even that was (honestly) a long-term and incremental change that was unlikely to solve anything in the immediate future. Now that the results have come out, it is clear that nothing is going to change in the near future. As one person said, “the trouble with the old guard is that they all vote.” So now what do we do? People have to change. It didn’t happen in the election so I guess it’s going to have to happen in a bit less orderly of a manner.

When it comes to structure and procedures, we really need far more transparency and far more accountability. At a certain level, there is a Kremlin-esque quality to the SCAA that is really disturbing to me. The people working in this industry tend to have no idea what the SCAA committees and boards are doing, what the goals are – and there is little or no accountability when it comes to results.

This then creeps out throughout the industry and infects all other organizations. As a result, the USBC ends up being incredibly secretive, political and insular. I’m afraid we could even end up seeing the same thing happening to the BGA.

Reading back through this I realize I sound very angry. And that isn’t quite true. I’m frustrated. I feel like there is so much potential in this industry and so much energy and passion in the people in the industry. But I feel like the organizations and structures that are in place to support, promote and represent us are failing to help us all get where we need and are instead creating a junior high school sideshow drama that is getting close to the point where quality focused companies have no choice but to simply jump ship.

Honestly – given the caliber of people in this industry – we deserve better.


Thoughts from the 2005 USBC - Part One

(Important note... this was written a while back. I've been thinking a lot since then about whether or not I really want to share it with everyone. After a lot of talk and some input from people whose opinions I value and who I trust, I've decided to post it. Please keep in mind that this is just my opinion, does not represent any sort of official viewpoint or statement by my employer or any organization.)

Ever since getting back from the USBC I’ve been struggling with how to express my experiences at the competition and my reactions to those experiences. I think I’ve finally got a handle on it. So… what I’m going to do is break it all out into three sections. The first section is A Report on the 2005 USBC – observations, conclusions, and the state of the game. The second section is Specialty Coffee in the US – thoughts on the community, the people and the structures. The third section is Seattle Espresso – tasting notes and opinions.

As a warning, I am 100% confident that I’m going to manage to piss off a lot of you at some point in this. Please understand that what I’m writing here is not only just my own opinion on things but that it’s also entirely not personal and not directed at any person or people.

A Report on the 2005 USBC – observations, conclusions, the state of the game

This was an incredibly stressful and tense experience. Not just for me but for everyone (or so it seemed). When looking through the folks who were entered, it became clear well in advance that there were going to be some really good baristas who didn’t even make it to the finals. In fact, after the semifinals were completed a couple people noted that there were three of four baristas who could be considered candidates to win it all who would not make it to the final round.

This, obviously, is a huge change from previous years. Across the board, the skill level of the baristas has increased dramatically. And that made this the most competitive and most compelling USBC yet. I was really proud of so many of the baristas in attendance. They worked so hard and represented their craft so well. My thanks go out to all of them.

Anyway… so Valerie and I hopped on the train in Portland on Friday midday. Oh… by the way, the train is definitely the way to go. Especially if you have a broken leg. After a rather pleasant ride up, we got to Seattle. A quick side note… the Seattle train station is horrible. It reminds me of the Bridgeport, CT Greyhound station (and no, that’s not a good thing). Anyway, got a cab ride (scary – living in Portland means you forget what city cab drivers are like) over to the Hotel Andra (super sweet). Settled in, made some phone calls, co-ordinated some stuff and then went out for a fantastic meal at Lark.

So now it’s Saturday and it’s the semi-finals. I’m chatting to various people, getting the reports on the qualifying rounds. Two things become clear. First – the baristas are polished and pro (though the espresso is inconsistent). Second – the politics behind the scenes are crazy. I try to calm things down a bit – as much as I can at least. The performances are underway and baristas are looking strong. Everyone has patter. No-one seems to be doing obviously stupid things. Wow. I’m starting to get stressed.

Heather Perry comes out and does an incredibly professional performance, but she seems to be making some uncharacteristic technical mistakes. None the less, she is so polished it’s amazing. Jennifer Prince does an awesome job. Super elegant and smooth. Jon Lewis wows the crowd with his off-the-wall, entertaining and brilliant presentation skills but suffers a blow-out with his seltzer bottle for his specialty drink. Kyle dons his Assassin Face and stuns the crowd with his spiel (first time in my life I’ve seen all four judges totally empty the signature drinks). Billy is charming and slick. The difference between last year and this year for him is immense. Ellie is the picture of calm professionalism. Phuong seems uncharacteristically shaky but gets through her routine.

Afterwards I talk to some competitors and get their thoughts. Most are uncertain, nervous and stressed. Ellie and the other Intelligentsia folks seem to be the most confident. Poor Phuong is super bummed and heads off to the hotel to pack her stuff so she can leave.

I talk to some judges and to spectators and we do some odds-making. Everyone pretty much figures it’s going to come down to Ellie and Kyle with Jen Prince and Billy being the dark horses.

When the finalists are announced there is shock amongst the spectators and the competitors. While Ellie made it, Kyle did not. And while Billy made it, Jen Prince did not.

In some ways, this could be seen as a good thing. For the first time ever, you couldn’t pick out who was going to win without tasting the drinks. Still shocking, and people are beginning to comment about drinks they’d tasted, unusual explanations of scoring… and politics rears its ugly head again.

Folks go out to various parties. The vast majority of people are not competing on Sunday, so the alcohol consumption is high and the hour is late. The mood starts to turn, the community pulls back together.

Sunday morning comes around and the finals begin. Everyone seems to be doing really well. Brownen and I kibitz colour commentary. We’re noticing that most of the competitors are having issues with their shots. A lot of people are pulling shots with the grind just a bit fine, leaving them with low volume and some visible extraction issues. For a couple competitors, we also see some dramatic variance from shot to shot. Nerves? Unfamiliar machines? Hard to know, but it’s clear from our better vantage point that the espresso is turning into a struggle for a lot of people. The standout performances seem to be Ellie’s and Billy’s. Ellie is just as smooth and inviting and professional as in the semi-finals. Her shots seem to be a little over-extracted from where we sit, but otherwise she knocks it out of the park. Billy’s performance seems really solid. He’s charming and we don’t see any flaws from where we sit. His shots look the best from our viewpoint – thick and heavy and creamy, with perfect flow – and he cuts them off before they get over-extracted (unlike some of the other competitors). Phuong does a beautiful presentation. Incredibly smooth and relaxed. Night and day from the semis – such a great thing to see.

Again, we do some handicapping and agree that it’s likely to be Billy or Ellie. But no… Phuong comes in first!! So cool. To think she thought she was going home just 24 hours earlier, and now she is the US Barista Champion. She looks totally shocked and overwhelmed. I try to talk to her, but she’s like a deer in the headlights. And then someone from the SCAA comes up to her and says, “We’ll need a phone number where we can reach you at all times for the next three days. We have a bunch of media calls to set up” and you can see the reality begin to set in.

Phuong is going to be a really good representative for the US. She’s so professional; she’s so good at what she does. And she is such a wonderful person. Immediately afterwards people start telling her, “If there is anything I can do to help.” Again, the community pulls together. People are offering judging assistance, tasting assistance, coffee assistance. It’s very cool.

So in the end – what did I think? As I said in the beginning – the barista skill level at these competitions has increased really dramatically. The difference between the top 6 and the next 6 was unbelievably small. Only one of the regional champions made it into the finals. This was a tough, tough competition. And, in the end, we have a great champion.

Now that being said… there were some issues with the competition. Some were small and technical but others were more serious. On the small and technical front… you have to wonder why the competitors were using Automatic machines. We all work on semi-automatic machines. If you’re a quality conscious shop, that’s just what you do. Providing competitors with these machines probably contributed to the issues with espresso quality. This may seem like a tiny thing – but there is a reason why we all choose the equipment we use. We want to make the best espresso possible. By forcing competitors to use equipment that is not only not what they are used to but which is a compromise when it comes to quality you are degrading the resulting drinks.

On the more serious side, while the quality of the judging was obviously greatly improved this year, there are still issues. I suppose I’m barista-centric in my thinking, but as far as I’m concerned, I have an issue with there being judges who have never been baristas, who have never worked bar shifts and who I wouldn’t put behind a bar in a shop. I don’t care how passionate about coffee you are or how long you’ve been in this business – as a general rule, baristas know the craft of being a barista best and are best suited to judging. There are, of course, always going to be exceptions but this is my general rule.

In addition, I still have some serious issues with the structure and with the scoring of the competition. I suppose it is the underlying philosophy of the competition that troubles me the most actually. To me, the USBC should philosophically be about rewarding the best baristas. And the best baristas should be those people who make and serve the best drinks in the most appropriate and professional manner. Instead, the USBC seems to have become about identifying the best US WBC competitor. It has always been somewhat divorced from the realities of being a barista in the United States, but this has become more obvious over time. We are in very real danger of seeing “competitive barista” as a job and a pursuit and a passion split off entirely from “professional barista.”

It seems at a certain level like the USBC is becoming the “American Idol” of the barista world. It’s flashy, it’s competitive, it’s stressful and professional and in the end it is about creating the next generation of conservative professional entertainers. It could become very good at identifying and promoting the Kelly Clarkson of baristas. But it will never turn out a Nirvana. It will never discover the next big thing; it won’t push the envelope or create revolutionary change.

Personally, I’m tired of the whole “three star” thing. I mean, let’s be honest… there is not and will never be a “three star” coffee bar. To even suggest such a thing displays incredibly ignorance of what the concept entails. The fact that there will never be a “three star” coffee bar is not a bad thing. There will never be a “three star” bistro either. There will never be a “three star” takeout restaurant or a “three star” beer bar. And when it comes right down to it, I don’t want this whole starched white shirts and bow ties, centerpieces and tablecloths nonsense. What do I want? I want the mythic Peter Guiliano $5 espresso. I want the $7 cappuccino. Does this require polished and professional service? Hell yeah. Does it require more than the usual coffee bar ambience? Of course it does. But most of all it requires incredible drink quality above all else. So things change as a result. Are you going to have to wait a bit longer and would that be okay? Of course (bye-bye 15 minute rule). Is it okay if drinks sit and wait to be served? Of course not (bye-bye 4 drinks served at once). Do you want to be entertained by your barista a la Benihana? Do you want to attend a lecture on the varietal provenance of the beans in your blend? Please – I think not (bye-bye patter). Do I want to be able to interact with the barista, on my own terms? Of course (bye-bye invisible wall).

What do I think would be a solution? It’s time to rethink the USBC. Instead of just following the lead of the WBC and seeing the USBC merely as a way to qualify for the WBC – we need to have the USBC be about crowning the US Barista Champion. On our own terms and in our own way. This might mean drastically changing the current rules. It might mean throwing them out and starting from scratch. So be it. Maybe we end up with a competition where judges order drinks from baristas. Maybe we end up with team events. Maybe it’s just like it is now but with different scoring, people can bring their own baskets and can adjust temp and pressure. Maybe it’s all peer-judged and peer-structured. I don’t know what structure everyone will want – but the current one isn’t working for all of us and is working less and less well for professional baristas here in the US.