dirty == chocolate?

So I've been running a little experiment over here.

You see - due to the combination of thanksgiving chaos and work chaos I screwed up recently and didn't backflush my machine for a couple of days. Those who know me have heard endlessly about the importance of a clean machine - and about how I backflush with detergent daily. In this case, however, I didn't have the chance. Sure, I rinsed - but no full clean.

On the third day, I pulled a shot of Ecco espresso and got a very unusual flavour profile. The shot was incredibly chocolate-dominant. I realized that the shot tasted the way home baristas on the internet keep describing "comfort food espresso" tastes. Various folks have described espressos ranging from the Four Barrel to Stumptown to even Ecco in this manner. I never really got this profile and assumed that it was either due to different prep or just the subjectivity of taste.

Home baristas also seem to clean their machines rarely.

Hmm... I wondered... could there be a causal relationship here?

So I've been experimenting with a dirty machine. And the results are very interesting.

First of all, almost all the espressos I've tasted end up tasting similar. They mostly turn into chocolate dominant shots with very little clarity or separation of flavours. Fruit notes are preserved although often translated into darker (or dried) versions of the same flavour.

Secondly, while I think that in milk drinks this profile is often very nice - I feel like the uniqueness of the espressos is lost (the coffee is "dumbed down" in a sense). I could see how someone coming from a coffee background that is based on roast flavours might like this.

Third, the results are pretty much universal for blends. For single origin shots, however, the results seem to be more positive with some regions (Brazil and Ethiopia for example) and far less positive with others (in particular with more delicate central american coffees).

Finally, this seems to work best with lighter roasted coffees. Darker roasted coffees seem to "foul" the machine more quickly - yielding shots that taste dirty and "fish oil" nasty.

I think this is a good example of needing a similar context and perspective in order to share opinions. I know understand why a lot of home baristas describe some coffees the way they do. I understand why most home baristas feel cleaning daily is a waste of time. I even understand (a bit better) why some coffees are so prized by home baristas.

Personally, I'm glad to have the experiment over. I'm looking forward to a nice, transparent and clean coffee tomorrow.


33 Coffees

I'm glad to be able to announce that my long dreamed of product is now available.

For those who know me, you've probably been subjected to my excited ramblings about the 33Beers book / journal (and its companion the 33Wines version). Some of you might have heard me say that there should be a coffee version of this lovely and useful tasting notes keeper.

Well... now there is.

Dave (of 33 Books) has done an amazing job creating what I think is the single best tool for tracking and managing your coffee tasting experiences.

For me this is an absolute "must have" item for those who love coffee, taste coffee a lot and who care about coffees.

It's important to note that, while the book would be very valuable for pros, it's designed for consumer use. It's easy to understand and easy to use. It's affordable and fits in your pocket.

Full disclosure time: While I am not affiliated with 33Books and have no financial arrangement with or compensation from 33Books or 33Coffees, I did provide advice on the content development for 33Coffees. And Dave is a friend of mine.


Another fun cupping

Now that was a nice table!

I just had the opportunity to cup a dozen coffees from various roasters - and it was a very good experience.

Inspired by some conversations with Mat Honan - he, Jim Kennedy, Doug Jamison and I got together to compare a whole bunch of coffee from various roasters. The idea was to bring together disperate perspectives and points of view (journalist covering the space, wine and food professional, home coffee fanatic turning pro, pro coffee guy turned home fanatic) and see what we learned.

Coffees cupped were from Intelligentsia, Sightglass, Stumptown, Blue Bottle, Ecco and Four Barrel. This list was not selected for any specific reason - but rather based on roasters we wanted to check out. Cupping was blind, in random order.

I'm sure Mat is going to blog about his experience - but I have to say it was really cool to have another (new) perspective. And - to be honest - it was great to see him soaking up knowledge like a sponge.

In my usual manner I guess I'll start with the good news. It was a great table and there were four coffees on the table that were truly world class and which we were unanimous in our admiration of.

The top four coffees (in no order) were:

Intelligentsia Ethiopia Sidama Homecho Waeno - The shocker of the table. None of us would have identified the coffee as a Sidama. Wonderfully clean sophisticated in the cup. Buddha hand, light dried fruits, crisp tropical citrus and a wonderfully round and almost oily mouthfeel.

Stumptown Kenya Ngunguru - Stunningly sweet and dense, this coffee was another that was top two for all cuppers. Blackberry molasses, kumquat marmalade, tropical fruit and an amazing buttery thick mouthfeel. Layered flavours that keep opening as it cools.

Ecco Kenya Kangocho - A wonderful and complete cup that improved considerably as it cooled and ended up as one of everyone's top two coffees. Nuanced and balanced notes of bitter orange, blackberry, pluot / apricot and light cassis.

Stumptown Ethiopia Yirgacheffe Tumticha - Another cup that improved as it cooled. Tons of jasmine and assam tea melded with sweet berry notes and a crisp grape-like acidity that rounds and mellows as it opens up. A very elegant cup.

All four of these coffees were truly amazing (stopping most of us in our tracks each time while cupping).

For the bad news... every single roaster had a "problem coffee." I guess the good news is that only one of these problem coffees was problematic at a green coffee level - and only two (out of twelve) were what we decided we'd call "objectionable."

The rest were minor or slight roast defect issues that impacted the quality of the cup.

So... what did we learn from this experience?

First - I continue to be impressed by the results from cupping blind with a cross section of divergent perspectives. While this isn't how I'd evaluate coffees in a professional setting, it is an amazingly powerful tool for learning.

Second - related to the first point above... non-coffee people have far more tolerance for scorching, tipping - over-roasting defects you could say - than they do for under-development. A coffee that coffee pros would consider ashy or smoky and thus objectionable isn't seen as that bad - while a coffee that might be slightly under-developed (but still enjoyable) by the pros is seen as "harsh" and "sour" by the non-pros. Given some of the trends in the industry, this could be a growing problem soon.

Third - I wish that more journalists covering coffee were willing to engage and discuss and share the learning process about coffee in a manner like Mat just did. I think it would yield huge dividends (for all of us).

Fourth - Steel Pulse is very good cupping music. Almost on par with Prince.


Good Food Award judging

As mentioned earlier, I was lucky enough to be selected as one of the judges for the coffee track of the Good Food Awards.

I was honored and flattered by my inclusion - and a bit intimidated by the list of other judges. As a result, I went into the experience looking to learn as much as I could from the opportunity.

In the end - that was a good thing, as there was an enormous amount in the process and experience for me to learn from.

A day later - with marginal time to think and digest I admit - it feels like there are a couple really big take-aways (for me) from this amazing experience.

Taste truly is subjective

I have, for years now, told everyone that taste is subjective and that universal pronouncements about taste are pointless and incorrect and perhaps destructive.

But this event brought home not only how true this really is - but also how little I'd actually accepted the truth of the statement.

It was incredible to see a single coffee get scored 90+ points by one judge and 80 or below by another -- and to have each judge present a compelling, rational and well-reasoned argument for why their scoring was correct. It's amazing to realize that both judges can, in fact, be correct -- despite this enormous disparity in judged value.

It was even more incredible to see these judges make their arguments - while respecting the differing opinions.

This made me realize that while taste is (really and truly) subjective - opinion is not of equal value. Someone presenting a clear and complete and logical argument for why something I hate is actually good results in my respecting their opinion and the truth in their judgement (while not changing my own opinion at all). On the other hand, someone agreeing with me but being unable to give any clear and enunciated explanation for why has little to no validity.

The so-called "under-development epidemic" might be overstated

Development (full, under, "proper") was definitely a topic of discussion - and was a source of enormous controversy at times. But the number of coffees that were severely under-developed (in my opinion) was actually quite small. Out of 51 coffees, there were probably less than 10 that were really under-developed and fewer than 5 were severely so.

Now... what was most interesting is that there was only once coffee (to my recollection) that was under-developed and was an average or inferior green coffee. The under-developed coffees were more likely to be very (very) high quality green. This is (obviously) a concern. But it also points to a possible conclusion - that much of the under-development of these coffees is due to fear or timidity when roasting.

That being said - the controversy around under-development was very real - and there were judges on both sides of the argument.

Technique is objective, style is subjective

Perhaps the single largest challenge of judging this event was figuring out how to approach the stylistic differences issues.

There are styles of coffee that each of us prefer - and styles that each of us doesn't like. I (for example) really don't like dark roast indonesian coffees. That is a stylistic preference.

The problem is that there are those who love that style. So how does one judge a style that you simply don't prefer?

In the end - I had no choice but to try and judge against the style rather than just my preference. In other words, I tried to look at the coffees and evaluate the technique behind the coffee rather than the style of the coffee.

So a well-executed dark roast east african natural (while not to my own taste) would score well if the technique were ideal and the beans well selected (again for that style).

The idea is that the technique of roasting (the craft) should be universal and tangible - while the style of the coffee can be personal and subjective.

This is not the way any of us have been trained to cup - and it's a hard shift to make.

The largest problem in US coffee is old green

It was shocking to me (and I think to many of the judges) to encounter so much past-crop or baggy or just old green coffee. I think I probably cupped more baggy coffee yesterday than I've cupped in the last 2 or 3 years.

The old coffee issue was (for me at least) more of a problem than roast degree and more of a problem than dirty coffees and more of a problem than any stylistic differences.

If I were going to give one single piece of feedback to roasters in the US based on this event it would be, "stop buying / selling old coffee." I don't know if the issue is that roasters are buying more than they can sell before the coffee goes off - or if the roasters are buying old baggy coffee from the importers. But it doesn't really matter in the end. What matters is that the consumer is being sold inferior coffees.

If roasters want to move the needle the most with the least effort - this is where they should focus. Stop selling old coffee.

Finally, a couple side notes.

1 - The judges were amazing. Honestly, it was amazing to cup and have these conversations with such incredible people. I am not worthy. I was probably the least experienced cupper of all the judges. But I was welcomed by all. It was great. Thank you.

2 - I have to give huge props to the folks responsible for this event. To the organizing committee... to the volunteers... you all rock. And big thanks to Peter Guiliano for your fantastic facilitation efforts and to the crew who worked all day Saturday to select the top 50 for us to judge. Most of all, it absolutely could not have happened without the incredible hard work of Brent and Mie. Thank you too so much.


Good Food Awards

I'm incredibly honored to be judging the coffee category for the Good Food Awards.

But I'm also quite nervous. If you look at the list of people I'm judging with - the bar's being set quite high. I'm confident in my palate as a general rule - but this is a whole different ball game.

On the other hand, it's also a chance for me to learn a ton. Some of the coffee cuppers I most respect in the world will be judging with me - and that's an incredible opportunity for me.

I'm planning on posting some thoughts on the experience, the coffees, etc - probably later this coming week. With luck I'll be able to steal some of Tonx's photos to illustrate....


"An Epidemic of Underdevelopment"

Anyone who pays attention to coffee will have noticed the (welcome) trend away from darker roasted coffee in the high end ("craft") segment of the speciality market.

It's incredibly nice to be able to taste the coffee - rather than just tasting the roast. It's incredibly nice to be able to experience more of the full range of flavours the coffee can represent (rather than tiny permutations on a roast flavour profile).

But all is not rosy in the world.

I've been quietly talking to various folks in the coffee industry for a bit about some of the negative experiences I've been having with coffee recently. I tweeted about this a little while back when I noted that there seems to be an "epidemic" of underdeveloped coffees.

Now Vince (the genius behind ExtractMojo) has shared his own (scientific) insights into this topic. In this (fantastic) post, Vince clearly illustrates that the (sensory) perception that I (and many others) have noted can be quantified and measured. We now have evidence to back up opinion.

Given this... here are some quick observations and opinions on the topic (in no particular order).

  1. While underdevelopment is in no way tied to light roast degrees, roasting light is harder than roasting dark. I've had underdeveloped coffees roasted to a Full City+ roast degree - and I've had coffees that were roasted to a Cinnamon degree and were wonderfully and fully developed. But it does seem like a lot of the underdeveloped coffees come from folks who are (bluntly) still learning how to roast to a light degree.
  2. That being said, there are even more underdeveloped coffees coming out of roasters who only think in terms of roast degree and have a black and white simplistic view of coffee (light roast degree == good; darker == bad). These roasters do not seem to have "development" on their list of things to care about.
  3. There is a large segment of the coffee industry that follows short-term trends. These folks seem to be following the over-simplified "light roast degree == good" roasters without really thinking about the implications.
  4. A huge challenge is that there is a somewhat large (and vocal) group who are unquestioning cheerleaders of the "light == good" school. I've had folks defend severely underdeveloped coffees with statements like "grassy can be good - like fresh cut lawns" and "well that coffee just tastes like lemon and artificial sweetener."
  5. And of course - perhaps the largest challenge is the (never-ending) culture in speciality coffee of not airing dirty laundry in public (and never speaking ill of your competitors). This lack of honesty continues to do immeasurable damage to the entire industry.

I'm really glad that Vince wrote this piece.
Given the credibility he has in the industry - I honestly believe that the simple "that's just your opinion" knee jerk response can now be dispensed with.

It's time for us to address this issue.
It's a real, legitimate, problem.
And we need to be honest about it.


Sweet Shop

James from Square Mile sent me some coffee last week.

Now... he's sent coffee before. And I've always liked it. In some cases a lot.

And the coffees of theirs I had in London were excellent.

But seriously. Nothing prepared me for this.

It was called Sweet Shop.
And it was amazing.

Sadly, this was a single batch. From a single day. And there is no more.

Sadly, because it was one of my favorite espressos ever.

It was one of the most heavily fruited espressos I've ever had - and not fruit in the thin sharp green way that you get some times. And not one massive single fruit flavor. No... this was a deep and rich and heavy and ridiculously sweet coffee with layers upon layers of different fruit. From blackberry molasses to cassis jellies. From pear hard candy to butterscotch toffee. From kumquat to raspberry to apricot to melon. It was all there. And all anchored by a spine of red wine and leather with a semi-sweet cocoa finish.

Absolutely stunning.

Not a coffee I'll soon forget.


Portland - Coffee

While I'm sure that some folks (especially those in Seattle and in Chicago) would argue, I think most of us would agree that Portland has had a special role in the high end of (what I'd call artisan) coffee in the US.

Many of us would argue that Portland was the driving force for artisan coffee over the past 5 or more years.

I've always wondered, "why Portland?"
I mean.... it's kind of weird for such an obscure town to have such an out-of-scale impact.
I've run through all sorts of theories - but in retrospect I think I was simply too close to the situation to see the realities.
Now that I've been gone from Portland and gone from coffee for a while - I think I have more perspective. And a recent trip up there (I think) has kind of proven the point.
I think I'm starting to figure it out.

So... why Portland.

To explain I'm going to tell a couple of stories first.

The first night I was there we were wrapping up late dinner at Biwa and it was suggest we go check out Tommy Habetz' new place Bunk Bar. Tommy is a bad-ass cook and chef who's run a couple of my favorite kitchens in Portland. He's the kind of guy who pretty much could be cooking anywhere and doing anything. When I asked a little more about Bunk Bar I was told that it's a bar where they have a walk up window that sells sandwiches. A little confused but intrigued I said this sounded good and off we went. Late night, bar, waterfront, packed with a mix of hipsters and folks just out drinking... you can imagine the scene. And sure enough, walk up window with a sandwich menu. But OMFG the sandwich. Pork Belly Lettuce and Tomato. The sort of BLT that the gods eat when they're hanging out on Mt Olympus. A sort of Elizabethan ideal of the BLT.

The second day I was there we decided to grab a beer after lunch and went by Apex. Apex is a beer bar. And that's all. It's clean and airy and open. Their beer menu is insane - some sort of madman is curating that list because it's just not normal. Your average person (someone who is not a beer fanatic) would be entirely confused and might not even realize that the place was serving beer. There were beers from everywhere - including a beer from the Bay Area that I can't find on tap here. In San Francisco. The lines were clean, the bartender knowledgable - and the beer was about 2/3 or 1/2 what I'd pay for it here.

These are both successful businesses.
As are other places in Portland like Pok Pok (incredible thai food without the usual standards like Pad Thai and with half the seating outside in a shed) and Le Pigeon (where they're likely to play Ramones in the dining room and serve the best beef bourguignon in the US).

These are places that do things that seem crazy at a business level. That make no sense. That violate some of the things we assume are business rules. And yet they're successful.

It's clear there is a pattern here.
Things are working in Portland that we all think shouldn't work.

So the question becomes... is Portland just different? Do the rules not apply to Portland? Or are we wrong about the rules?

This last trip made me realize something.
Some of these crazy ideas fail - even in Portland.
But Portland is the kind of safe place where you can still try the crazy ideas. Portland is the place that says "rules are bullshit - do what you want to."
The people in Portland don't judge if the idea is crazy - they just try it and see if they like it. They've got a sort of indy / DIY thing going on that's deeply embedded in the culture there.
So there is a kind of "why the fuck not" attitude there that allows (and even encourages) people to try crazy shit.

Plus... it's cheap there so there isn't so much financial risk.

But... none of this says that the rules simply don't apply to Portland.
It's simply that Portland is a really great petri dish.

So from this - it's hard not to conclude that, in fact, the rules do apply to Portland and Portland is where we're figuring out that some of what we think are rules are lies.

And that is why Portland is so important to coffee in the US. Because 10 years ago all of us in coffee were following the rules. And the rules were 75% lies. But we didn't know that. We were blind. But there were some crazy people in Portland who either didn't know the rules or didn't care about the rules. And now we all know that most of those rules were bullshit. And freed from those rules - coffee in the US has exploded.

It's no shock that the paid shills for traditional coffee are out in force saying that what we're all doing is wrong (and evil). Just as it's no shock that we're angry at them for lying to us for so long.

And for that... we own a debt of gratitude not just for all the people who've ignored these rules - but also to that crazy petri dish that we call Portland for allowing us to experiment and discover.

Personally... I can't wait to see what Portland spits out next!!!


Portland (intro)

I'm just back from Portland OR and it's clear I need to post about it.

Less about the coffee, however, and more about the place / people / culture / market.

I need to formulate my thoughts and then will write something up.

I will - however - say this much (as a teaser)...

Apex is one of my favorite beer bars in the world.
The Pork Belly Lettuce and Tomato Sandwich at Bunk Bar is sick.
To understand why coffee in Portland is what it is, you need to understand the weird mix of DiY/indy and taste/flavor and passion/craziness that drives people who create places like Apex and Bunk Bar (and Pok Pok and Le Pigeon and and and). And you need to understand the people in Portland and why the support these lovely lunatics.

Let me ponder and expect something odd soon.


Anfim (at home - v Robur)

So... as if it were not absurd enough for me to have done a review of the Robur grinder at home (see here for final conclusions) now I'm going to spend some time sharing thoughts on the Anfim Super Caimano (modified).

This is the new v2.0 modified Super Caimano (digital timer, cooling fan, some changes to things like the number of adjustments available for the grind, slower speed motor, purge button).

I've been using it for about a week now, and have some initial conclusions. I'll break these down into three sections. First - the grinder. Second - the grinder at home. Third - the grinder vs the Robur.

The Grinder

For someone (like me) used to Mazzer grinders, the Anfim takes some getting used to. It's a stepped adjustment grinder. It's much smaller than the Robur. The doser feels "weird" at first. Figuring out the whole digital timer thing seemed fiddly and tweedly at first.

Once you get used to it - you start to see the strong points of the grinder (and the weaknesses start to emerge as well).

The primary weakness of this grinder is stability on the counter. The grinder "walks" across the counter when dosing (and no joke we're talking about something like 6 to 8 inches of travel). This is obviously a major issue. You can work around it by wedging the grinder in place or by extending a finger from the hand holding the portafilter to brace against the fork. Now... all this being said, I'm told that there is a retrofit for the grinder that adds different feet to it and makes it very stable and fixed in place.

The secondary weakness is the stepped adjustment. While there are now a ton of steps, changing from one step to the other is still an est 3s change in a shot. Again, you can work around this by changing dose when you change grind - but I'd love a worm-drive non-stepped adjustment!

The final weakness is the throat from the burrs to the doser. A lot of coffee gets trapped in here. The grinder ships with a small brush to help clean this - and the new purge button allows you to purge stale coffee - but it's still a PITA. Out of curiosity I measured total grinds trapped in the Anfim and compared to the Robur. What is interesting is that they're roughly equal. It's just that you don't see all the grinds with the Robur (whereas you do with the Anfim).

In terms of the strengths of this grinder...

First (and foremost) is the quality of the grind. The Anfim produces a fantastic output. Shots were incredibly transparent and lacked any muddiness. Shots were sweet and very aromatic. The Anfim's grind quality is at least on par with if not better than the Alinox (IMHO).

Second, the Anfim doser is massively superior to other dosers I've used. Drop is clean and centered. Combined with the quality of the grind, this makes distribution ridiculously easy.

Third, once you get the timer dialed in your waste goes down dramatically. I set it to give me a tiny bit more coffee than I need, but that's largely 'cause I'm a control freak. I could see wasting only a tiny amount of coffee if I didn't do this.

The Grinder at Home

It's just a silly idea.


Between the amount of coffee trapped in the grinder and the challenges of dialing in the dose timer and grind (and their interaction) and the fact that you really cannot use it in a single dose manner this grinder is arguably as poorly suited (if not more poorly suited) for home use than the Robur.

The Grinder vs the Robur

First... this is kind of an unfair comparison as the Robur costs a lot more than the Anfim. And it's kind of a silly comparison because they have such different approaches to solving the problem.

That said... my thoughts...

1. If I were running a high volume coffee bar I'd use the Robur as my workhorse grinder.
2. If I were running a high volume coffee bar with a blend and a single origin espresso, however, I'd use the Anfim for the single origin espresso.
3. The shots from the Anfim to me had better clarity, better sweetness and better aromatics than from the Robur. I'd never really noticed the muddy stuff going on with shots from the Robur before - but now I taste them consistently. The Robur produced shots that had more low end body than the shots from the Anfim showed.
4. If I were running a lower volume, high touch ("luxury") coffee bar - especially if I were serving expensive coffees - I'd use the Anfim.

At the end of the day... I like the taste of the shots from the Anfim more than the shots from the Robur.


Time... perspective

I should have done this earlier, but before it's too late (I hope) I'm going to take a little time off from participation in the various coffee websites etc.

My frustrations have recently spilled over and been communicated in manners that were not productive and I need to step away to gain some perspective. My hope is this will allow me to re-engage in a manner that is more productive and respectful (for all involved).


the torture never stops

Really Salon?

I could see The Atlantic falling for this shit - they're practically paid coverage at this point - but honestly I expected better from you.

Rather than going through the two or three dozen specific fails in this piece - I'll simply point the readers to my comments on the two previous pieces in the series (by which I refer to Illy's 2 "paid" pieces in The Atlantic here, and here). And then I'll make two "meta" comments.

First... Salon... you know better. You should have talked to a couple folks on the "other side of the table." This looks like chumming for attention now. Come on. Don't be pathetic.

Second... I guess this means that speciality coffee in the US has grown up. We now have one of the largest espresso companies in the world investing money on a media and PR tour hoping to counter-market against the growth of these new competitors. Congrats. I guess.

Update: If you're interested in this topic, you should read James Hoffman's post on the subject (and participate in the conversation about it).



A few weeks ago I had the chance to spend almost a week abroad - in Paris, London and Amsterdam. While much of the trip was dedicated to vacation activities in general (and eating amazing food in particular), some of the trip was intended to be about experiencing coffee. In particular I was looking forward to hitting up Penny University in London and Stumptown in Amsterdam. In both cases, I was going to be sneaking in under the wire - as both of these businesses were pop-ups (and would be closing soon after my visit).

What I experienced was both very much expected - and yet also a total surprise.


Rather than going into detail I'll simply sum it up with a heartfelt plea to quality coffee roasters and coffee bars.... Please open a location in Paris. Please for the love of god, give the poor people in Paris decent coffee.

Paris is one of the greatest if not in fact the greatest food city in the world. Paris is a great walking city and the people understand that quality costs money. And yet I've had better coffee in small mountain towns in the US than I've found in Paris. The coffee at the airport in Pisa is better.

Please. Paris deserves better.


We took the Eurostar train from Paris to London. In looking at the schedule I'd figured out that would would arrive into London about 1 hour before Penny Lane closed - forever. We were arriving on the last day they served coffee. So the extra 35 minutes spent in the boarding and security process in Paris - resulting in a departure time a half hour late - caused me some stress. After dropping our bags at the hotel, we rushed out, grabbed a cab and literally ducked under the closing garage door into Penny University. Whew...

In talking about Penny University I'm going to divide my thoughts into three different areas. First, I'll share my opinions on the place and the experience. Second, I'll talk about what I think we should learn from Penny University. Third, I'll talk about the coffee (and some implications).

I'd seen pictures. I'd read blog posts. I thought I had the idea. But the reality was different than I'd predicted. First, the neighborhood and the building set the stage far better than expected. There was a sense of seriousness and focus and energy that started before entering the space. Inside it was like some sort of hipster coffee lab spa underground mens club. There was a sense of ceremony and o a sense of reverence that I really liked -- largely because none of the ceremony or reverence was directed at the people who worked there. Instead, it was clear that this was about the customer - and the coffee. About making the introduction, facilitating the discussion but at the end of the day letting the customer and the coffee have the relationship. That's very important and very unique. In talking with Tim and James and everyone, it became clear that working at Penny University had turned out to be incredibly challenging. "Like doing your 15 minute barista competition performance but having to keep doing it all day" as it was expressed to be at one point. Being able to do those introductions and do that facilitation - being able to provide that level of customer service and assistance - and doing so in a manner where you really engage with each customer over a period of time (as opposed to "fake smile is that for here or to go it'll be $3.50 thank you") - is clearly exhausting. I can only barely imagine - and even then it scares me. But as a customer... it was a truly incredible experience.

I fear a lot of people are going to treat the Penny University experience either as a model to strictly follow or some sort of mythical icon to strive for. I think it would be far wiser to simply learn from the experience. Now... to be honest, until James and Tim post up their own learnings from doing this - my comments are only slightly grounded in reality (a couple half drunken exhausted conversations is what this is based on) and are far inferior to anything they might come up with. Given that I'm rarely unwilling to share my opinion.... here goes. There is a segment of the buying public who is dying for an experience like this. The good news is that they are also for the most part the people who not only can pay for such an experience but really don't care that much about the cost. The bad news is that it's a very small segment of the market. That last statement has just slammed the door in the mind of many coffee professionals - who think "if it doesn't have enough volume you can't make money in retail." That's bullshit. This, to me, is the biggest thing to learn from Penny University. As with any other type of business, there are generally two ways to make money in retail coffee. You can sell a whole ton of it and make a little money with each transaction - or you can sell very little of it and make a ton of money on each transaction. The former describes nearly all coffee businesses in the world. The latter was something that existed largely just in theory for me prior to seeing Penny University. This is what we need to learn -- you can make money doing a very high touch experience offered to a small but discriminating customer base when you charge a high premium and plan your operations accordingly. Basically, there is such a thing as luxury coffee. Sure... just like you wouldn't open a Vuitton boutique in Fayetteville, WV there are specific locations and markets that are best suited for a business of this type. The big question for me is.... what form is this luxury coffee going to take? I know all the characteristics of a luxury business, a luxury brand, a luxury experience... but I still can't guess what this is going to end up looking like. What I can say is that Penny University has shown that it is, in fact, possible.

The coffee was beautiful at Penny University. That being said... I love the Square Mile coffees, so this wasn't a huge shock. And the reality is that the Chemex of Tegu I had wasn't objectively better than the same Tegu I'd cupped a couple of weeks prior. But subjectively? Much better. The experience elevated the coffee (or perhaps for the first time the experience didn't damage the perception of the coffee but instead lived up to it). I also realized something interesting about the Square Mile coffees as a result. I've noticed an evolution in the coffees over time - and I don't know if it was conscious or not - but my theory is that Penny University (and in particular the range of brew methods and tight interaction with customers about the coffees) created a beneficial feedback loop which resulted in the changes in these coffees. If this is true - it's got some very interesting implications for roasters who want to emulate this kind of approach.

Thanks to Tim. Thanks to James. Thanks to Tobias. You guys rocked it.

Other than Penny University - the coffee I had in London ranged from mediocre to world class (by my standards). The two worst shots I had were both marginally drinkable (on par with a slightly below average shot from a decent coffee bar in the US). The best shot was served to me by Gwilym. It was at Prufrock @ Present and was a shot of the Square Mile Summer Espresso. It was quite literally breath-taking. In fact... I think I simply wandered somewhat shell-shocked from the business without even commenting to Gwilym (or thanking him). I might still have had the demi in my hand for all I know. It was one of the top 5 shots of espresso in my life. Thank you Gwilym. Thank you Anette. Thank you James. In general, I would say that the coffee is slightly better than the coffee in San Francisco. It seems like the biggest weakness in London is on the roasting side. There were a ton of shops that seemed to know how to pull decent to good shots (far far more than what we have in SF). But the vast majority of these shops serve Square Mile. That's great in the sense that I like their coffee. But it's bad in that there is no range as a result. There is no competitive play. And that hurts coffee in London IMHO.


I arrived at Stumptown to discover that the espresso machine had broken down just prior to my visit - and to discover that I was hitting the coffee bar on the second to last day. Feeling a bit like some sort of coffee Angel of Death - I tried to help diagnose the problem with the machine. After several experiments we actually managed to get the machine back on line at the right temp. And as a result... my visit to Amsterdam started off with a lovely shot of Hairbender.

After the first couple of hours in Amsterdam the Stumptown pop-up suddenly made sense to me in many new ways - while also clearly not making sense in a few new ways. I'd never spent real time in Amsterdam - especially not in the area Stumptown was located in. That part of Amsterdam on a sunny summer afternoon is stunning and wonderful. Everything - from the design sensibility to the cultural values; from the pace of life to the street culture; from the beer cafes to the coffeeshops -- it all says "a coffee bar like Stumptown will fit RIGHT in here." And then I ate some food. And then I had coffee at a different coffee bar. And then I tried dinner at what was said to be a very good restaurant. And I saw the problem. While Amsterdam is culturally a great fit for a Stumptown location - there is an enormous disconnect under it all. Stumptown is about flavour as well as experience and values. The food and coffee in Amsterdam make it clear that flavour is far far lower in importance.

I think there is something important to learn from this. I think that a coffee business that is about experience and values (and who has a great match-up with Dutch values and culture) would do incredibly well in Amsterdam. But I think a business that is first and foremost about taste is going to struggle.

Summing up

I think we're about to see a radical change in coffee in Europe. It's already started in London - where the coffee has progressed more in the last 5 years than I could have believed possible. I think that it's possible to see the same changes occur in Paris and in numerous other European cities as well. Eventually, cities like Amsterdam will also likely become viable markets for change.

If I were going to start a new coffee business right now - I'd start it in Europe.



Yes... I admit it. I plead guilty.

I pulled shots of espresso using the Stumptown Panama Esmeralda Especial Mario Carnaval.

And I don't regret it.
Not for one minute.

I can hear you right now... "you pulled shots with a high grown, washed geisha?!?! one that is auction only?!?! and which sells for $75 for 12oz!!!!!!"


And it was fucking glorious.

Initial impact is the aromatics. Orange blossom, bergamot, jasmine, grapefruit zest. As you sip there is a rapid double hit of flavours. First you get intense fruit - tangerine and navel orange and mandarin. Then this is followed immediately by intense orange blossom honey that coats the entire palate. The honey softens into papaya with lime and the inimitable moscato d'asti flavours. At the finish a lovely sweet cocoa note appears and the lingering aftertaste is droste orange and champagne and lime blossom.

It's not fair to rank this in terms of espressos I've had.
Instead I'm going to rank it as a coffee experience - against all coffee experiences.

It was in the top 5 coffee experiences in the last year for me (a year with a lot of great coffee experiences) and in the top 10 in my life.

So no... I have to regrets and I offer no remorse.

Should you be tempted to be as crazy / criminal as I may have been - here would be my suggestion for how to prepare this coffee as an espresso:

200f brew temp
19.5g dose (LM or Simonelli double basket)
very slow flow
95% brew ratio
1.25oz volume
29s extraction


Quick Thoughts

I just returned from a trip to France, England and the Netherlands - and there is a long post coming about my experiences. First, however, there are a couple small thoughts that I wanted to share (springing from discussions had on the trip).

Taste and De-Sensitization

I had a couple of great conversations with Tim and James at the last day of Penny University. One topic that came up was the role that de-sensitization plays in taste and cupping. Put simply, I'm talking about the way that - after repeatedly tasting something - you start to "filter out" certain dominant flavours.

The example James used was very dark roasted coffee. A company like Starbucks that roasts quite dark has numerous employees who cup this coffee. For someone like me, cupping a coffee that darkly roasted would be frustrating at least as all I would be able to taste is the roast. Someone who cups daily at Starbucks, however, is unlikely to even notice the carbon and smoke notes and as a result will be able to "see past them" to other flavours.

Another example would be very light roasted coffee with strong "green" and vegetal / straw notes. Someone who works at a company that roasts to this profile will, over time, start not tasting these notes and instead will be focusing on all the other flavours in the cup.

This can be extended to people who cup a ton of natural processed coffee, or who cup mostly lower grown pulped natural from Brazil... in fact to any type of coffee or roast which has a specific strong flavour element that is outside of the center of the bell curve. In all these cases, the process of being acclimated to this flavour through repetition allows you to taste other things -- while those who have not gone through this process are at least distracted by the dominant flavours.

This makes conversations about these coffees often difficult and in the end turns those conversations into ones of a philosophical and abstract nature quite often.

Espresso and Palette

A coffee being used for espresso (be it a blend or a single origin bean) presents a barista with a palette of potential flavours to work with. The better the barista the more they can manipulate this palette to create a pleasing end product. To me, this is in fact the motivation for becoming better at being a barista - gaining more and more control over what I can do with the palette given me by the coffee.

There are no baristas, however, who can make the coffee taste like something outside of this palette.

I feel like many learning baristas fail to grasp this. Instead of trying to first understand what the palette they have been given offers to them - and then trying to work with this palette to create something they enjoy -- they decide what they enjoy and try to force the coffee to that flavour. When they have a coffee that doesn't give them the flavours they want from this palette, they call it "bad" coffee.

If you have a limited range of espresso flavours (the output in the cup as espresso) that you enjoy you should simply limit the coffees you try to use for espresso. If you're more open-minded about the espresso, then you can try other coffees -- but I suggest first understanding each coffee's unique palette.

Coffee and taste experiences

This trip solidified my belief that people who are truly gifted when it comes to coffee are always (100% of them) crazy about taste experiences. Doesn't matter if it's food or beer or wine... whatever it might be. If you meet someone who is into coffee but isn't into taste in a broader sense... I'd be suspect.

Conversations with coffee people about taste are some of my favorite experiences. Even chefs cannot wax so poetic about the taste of a single bite of some meal they had years before...


Cupping, Home-Barista, Incredible coffees...

I've managed to finally start to really process the whole Home-Barista.com coffee event. I'm going to write about it over a series of posts (I hope). This is intended to be the first of the series.

I'm going to start with the context and then the conclusions.


On Saturday there was a get-together of non-professional coffee fanatics (organized on Home-Barista-com). The goal was for people to meet each other, learn from each other, share with each other and have a good time. My objective was for people to grow in their understanding of coffee.

Given my objective, I pushed for a structure that started with coffee cupping before moving to espresso technique and tasting. My hope was that cupping in a non-judgmental and low-pressure environment where everyone cupping were peers would enable people to quickly discover how much fun cupping is - and how much you can learn from cupping. My dream was that this would make the discussions about coffee and taste as opposed to gear and technique.

I solicited coffees from a large number of top roasters - and they came through (in spades). The resulting table on Saturday was 22 coffees deep and of extraordinary quality. I owe a huge debt of gratitude to the roasters.

Because I knew that I wouldn't really have a chance to taste and consider these coffees in a thoughtful manner (given that I was running this large cupping), I also planned to cup the coffees the following day (on Sunday) with a very small (3 people) group of coffee professionals.

The idea was that this would allow me to really focus on the coffees - but would also give an interesting data point when it came to the expected differences of opinion between the non-professionals and the professionals.

In addition, by taking the input from the first day of cupping, I could adjust the table for the second day (in terms of coffees on the table as well as sequence of coffees).

The coffees cupped over the two days were:
  • Tim Wendelboe Panama Hacienda La Esmeralda Mario San Jose
  • Tim Wendelboe Honduras Cielito Lindo (CoE #5)
  • Tim Wendelboe Brazil Santa Barbara
  • Ritual Kenya Karimikui
  • Ritual Colombia La Orquidea
  • Mecca Kenya Mtaro Estate
  • Mecca Bolivia Mondo Novo (CoE #7)
  • Four Barrel Kenya Kangunu
  • Four Barrel Colombia Cauca Norbey Sancho Microlot
  • 49th Parallel Kenya Handege AA
  • 49th Parallel Costa Rica Finca Roblas Microlot
  • Ecco Kenya Kiunyu
  • Ecco Kenya Kangocho
  • Olympia Costa Rica La Mirella "Honey"
  • Olympia Colombia Finca La Florida Manuel Antonio Ovies
  • Barefoot Costa Rica Herbazu Honey
  • Barefoot Costa Rica Cerro Paldo
  • Intelligentsia Honduras La Tortuga
  • Intelligentsia Kenya Thiriku
  • Square Mile Kenya Tegu Kirimukuyu
  • Square Mile Ethiopia Yirgacheffe
  • Stumptown Colombia La Esperanza
  • Stumptown Kenya Kangunu
  • Stumptown Guatemala Finca El Injerto Bourbon


In the end the experience (for me) was incredible and very rewarding.

The table was the most incredible cupping table of my life. But that's not what was most rewarding. To me, the truly incredible part was sharing the process of discovering cupping and discovering the relationships between coffees and flavours that most if not all of the non-professionals went through in that 4 hour period.

I've pulled shots with home baristas a number of times. A major frustration for me in the past has been that it's always defaulted to discussions of gear and technique. It's really never been about the coffee. This time was different.

We walked from the cupping into the espresso lab - and the conversations were all as follows
The shot you pulled tasted like this - the one I pulled tasted like that - what do I do to make my shots taste like yours?
The shot of coffee X tasted like this - the shot of coffee Y tasted like that - what caused the difference?

In other words.... the conversations were about taste. And about coffee.

I had the biggest shit-eating grin on my face.

And then we had the door-prizes. And it was clear that the most desired door prizes were not the demitasse sets or the cool t-shirts. They were the cupping spoons.

And my grin got bigger.

After the event was over various people who had been there got in touch with me. Some of the thanks were gratifying, of course. But the most rewarding thing? Almost all of them said, "I'm going to try and cup at least once per week from now on."

I can't stop smiling.

Cupping is great. And coffee is incredible.
Getting people to the point where they are comfortable cupping coffee and exploring it and discussing it... priceless.

On a less selfish note (grin)... I think it was rewarding for the folks there as well. At least, some of them have said it was!

Finally, the opinions of the folks there in terms of the coffee were really interesting. Keep in mind that the cupping was blind.

I think that palate fatigue played a part in the end results (22 coffees is a lot for a seasoned cupper much less a novice one). And I think that such a large table (with so many amazing coffees) tends to skew opinion towards the coffees that really stand-out (the cupping star coffees).

In the end we had a consensus that the top three coffees (in order) were:
  1. Tim Wendelboe Panama Hacienda La Esmeralda Mario San Jose
  2. Tim Wendelboe Honduras Cielito Lindo (CoE #5)
  3. Stumptown Kenya Kangunu
What's really interesting (to me) about this result is that the Wendelboe coffees were very light roast and very bright (the sort of coffees that, in the past, have performed poorly with consumer cuppings). Now... to be fair, I actually considered leaving the Esmeralda off the table given that it will dominate basically any cupping table. It's just such a powerful and unique coffee that it is guaranteed to stand out. Perhaps this is simply an issue of the difference between "consumers" and coffee fanatics? Or perhaps it's the difference between cupping and drinking? Or maybe it's just that these coffees, while light roast, were so good that the roast was irrelevant? Or perhaps the whole "roast degree" thing is over-rated and consumers are, in fact, ready for lighter roast coffees....

The next day (the professionals cup) was an equally incredible experience for me. Cupping that first day was very superficial for me. I didn't really get to dive into the coffees. You cannot imagine how much I was looking forward to really focusing on this incredible table.

And it didn't disappoint.

The coffees were almost all very good or better. The best coffees were truly incredible.

And, again, we came to a consensus on the top three coffees on the table. These were, in order:
  1. Stumptown Kenya Kangunu
  2. Stumptown Guatemala Finca El Injerto Bourbon
  3. Tim Wendelboe Panama Hacienda La Esmeralda Mario San Jose
I think a large part of the difference between the results of the two days had to do with the familiarity (or lack thereof) with the Esmeralda. I can remember the first time I cupped this coffee and how it blew my mind. Now that I've cupped it over a number of years, I'm a little less shocked by it and as a result can put it into better context. Yes. It's a truly glorious coffee. Don't get me wrong. But I understand it a little more.

I think the second largest contributor to the difference was palate fatigue (or the lack thereof). A coffee like the Injerto isn't going to jump out at you on a table like this. As such, if it's later on the table and your palate is starting to go - you're going to have a rough time really appreciating it. I think the pros were able to handle the size of the table far better, and the results show this.

My notes on the top three coffees were as follows:

Stumptown Kenya Kangunu - An incredibly complete coffee. It not only has both of the common Kenya classic flavour profiles - it integrates them. High-end contains lovely clean citrus and cassis acidity and aromatics of black currant, lively berry and lime zest. Middle of the profile is a gorgeous melding of huckleberry compote and cassis syrup and caramelized brown sugar. The low-end is rich with leather and tomato paste and demi-glace. Incredible green coffee, wonderfully roasted. Would be ideal brewed in a Clever brewer or Chemex.

Stumptown Guatemala Finca El Injerto Bourbon - A classic example of the central american bourbon cultivar. Wonderfully balanced and nuanced. High-end contains sweet lime, kumquat and blackberry and has aromatics of jasmine and raspberry jam. The middle of the profile is rich with amaretto and brandied raspberry and nectarine / pluot. The low-end is dense dutch processed cocoa and ganache and hints of macadamia nut. Resembles a chocolate raspberry truffle. A gorgeous, near-perfect roast of a wonderful coffee. Would be great in a Chemex or a Hario brewer.

Tim Wendelboe Panama Hacienda La Esmeralda Mario San Jose - One of the greatest green coffees in the world. A stunning flavour experience that is like no other coffee. Completely unmistakable and amazing. The high-end is incredibly complex and layered with an incredible citrus fruit medley of bergamot and tangerine and papaya and candy sugar and elderflower. Aromatics are of bergamot, jasmine, orange blossom, tangerine, papaya. It's a very sparkling and effervescent coffee on the palate. Middle of the profile is orange marmalade and orange blossom honey and mango and champagne grape. There is little on the low-end other than more sweet citrus (sour orange, sweet palestine lime, buddha hand) and tons of honeyed sugars (reminding me strongly of Moscato d'Asti). One of the greatest coffees ever. Guaranteed to dominate any cupping table. Would be great in an Aeropress or a Hario.

What's crazy about this is that some of the coffees that did not make the top three were truly world-class coffees (the Square Mile Kenya Tegu is a singularly strong example). That's how good this table really was.

To sum up....

This was an amazing experience and I am incredibly humbled by it. I need to thank all the participants (from both days) for sharing with me and for teaching me and for allowing me to be along for the journey. I need to thank Doug from Fullsack Coffee for the use of his space for Saturday's event and to thank Valerie for letting us spend all day Sunday taking over her house for that event. And most of all I want to thank all the roasters for their involvement, their love of the coffee and their commitment to quality - and the growers and producers for all their hard work, their sacrifices, their love for what they do and their dedication to producing the world's greatest coffees. Each of us are just trying to do justice to what you give us.

Thank you.


more H-B.com event stuff (the coffees)

I'll try to write up cupping notes and thoughts be EOD tomorrow.
In the meantime, here is the list of coffees tasted.

  • Tim Wendelboe Panama Hacienda La Esmeralda Mario San Jose
  • Tim Wendelboe Honduras Cielito Lindo (CoE #5)
  • Tim Wendelboe Brazil Santa Barbara
  • Ritual Kenya Karimikui
  • Ritual Colombia La Orquidea
  • Mecca Kenya Mtaro Estate
  • Mecca Bolivia Mondo Novo (CoE #7)
  • Four Barrel Kenya Kangunu
  • Four Barrel Colombia Cauca Norbey Sancho Microlot
  • 49th Parallel Kenya Handege AA
  • 49th Parallel Costa Rica Finca Roblas Microlot
  • Ecco Kenya Kiunyu
  • Ecco Kenya Kangocho
  • Olympia Cosa Rica La Mirella "Honey"
  • Olympia Colombia Finca La Florida Manuel Antonio Ovies
  • Barefoot Costa Rica Herbazu Honey
  • Barefoot Costa Rica Cerro Paldo
  • Intelligentsia Honduras La Tortuga
  • Intelligentsia Kenya Thiriku
  • Square Mile Kenya Tegu Kirimukuyu
  • Square Mile Ethiopia Yirgacheffe
  • Stumptown Colombia La Esperanza
  • Stumptown Kenya Kangunu

  • Ritual Lloyd Dobler
  • Intelligentsia Black Cat
  • 49th Parallel Epic
  • Ecco Espresso

pics from the H-B.com event

What an extraordinary experience!!!

I want to thank all the folks who attended. All of you brought open minds and fine palates. Thank you!
And big thanks to Doug for the use of the space, all the hard work, etc. And to Luca for the hard work and assistance.

Most of all - huge thanks to all the roasters. Your generosity is so appreciated, and the quality of the coffees you provided was humbling.

To put it simply... the was the best cupping table of my life.

I'll post more thoughts later.


crappy mobile phone photos

tomorrow promises to be one of the best cupping tables of my life.

don't believe me?


Home Barista event (more updates)

The coffees (and gifts) have started to arrive for the Home Barista event.

So far we have:
- Tim Wendelboe (Oslo, NO)
- 49th Parallel (Vancouver, BC)
- Barefoot (Santa Clara, CA)
- Olympia Coffee (Olympia, WA)
- Stumptown (Portland, OR)
- Ritual (SF, CA)
- Intelligentsia (Chicago, IL)
- Mecca (Syndey, AUS)
- Square Mile (London, ENG)
- Ecco (Santa Rosa, CA)
- Four Barrel (SF, CA)

SUPER cool.


For those who are coming to the H-B.com event, I was asked to provide a picture so people could recognize me.



(Update) San Francisco Home Barista Get Together

The tentative list of roasters providing coffee for this event is insane!!
I'm so excited.
And the list isn't even complete yet (I'm waiting for responses from 4 other roasters).
Update: while I haven't received the coffees, the below is the final list of confirmed roasters.

Right now the list looks like The list is:

Four Barrel (SF, CA)
Ecco Caffe (Santa Rosa, CA)
Barefoot (Santa Clara, CA)
Intelligentsia (Chicago and LA)
49th Parallel (Vancouver, BC)
Square Mile (London, UK)
Tim Wendelboe (Oslo, NO)
added: Mecca (Sydney, AUS)
added: Olympia Coffee (Olympia, WA)
added: Stumptown Coffee (Portland, Seattle, NYC)
added: Ritual (San Francisco)

So... if you're in the Bay Area and you're passionate about coffee - you NEED to be attending. This should be a sick cupping table is all I have to say!!!


SF Home-Barista Get Together

I'm really excited about this.

I'm taking part in planning the first in a planned series of Bay Area Get Togethers for Home Baristas.

This event could be really cool.
And the series could be amazing.

These events are intended to be partially social - partially educational.
It's a chance for consumers who are passionate about coffee to get together, share, learn and meet each other in person.

The first event is going to focus on Tasting and Technique.

By starting off with these fundamentals, I think we'll all start growing together.

Personally... I've long said that the single most valuable thing anyone can do to better develop their understanding of coffee and their palate for coffee is to cup coffee. Regularly. With other people.

So, the Tasting part is going to be mostly about cupping. And I'm really (really) excited about that. I love to cup coffee.

More than that, however, I feel like one of the last remaining really big gaps when it comes to the conversation between professionals and amateurs in the coffee world revolves around cupping. There isn't a serious coffee professional in the world who doesn't cup at least once per week. Many cup every single day. This not only develops palates - it gives everyone a common metaphor and a common platform and a common language for exchanging opinions and making decisions and providing feedback.

Even the most serious consumers are unlikely to cup every week. In fact, many very serious coffee consumers - seriously fanatical coffee enthusiasts in fact - never formally cup coffee. This is not a judgement on these enthusiasts. But it does create a gap between these enthusiasts and the pros. This gap is semantic. It's palate. It's preference. It's philosophical. It's cultural. And it's a values thing.

My hope is that we can do our little tiny part to change this. Given that almost all top coffee companies now offer free public cuppings (many days I think there are at least 2 held here in SF) people have many opportunities to continue to cup and develop their understanding. Even if you live somewhere without these public cuppings, the investment in doing your own cuppings is minimal (especially as compared to the investment required to make espresso at home). Instructions are available all over the internet.

A chance to create even just a little change is priceless. Very cool.


The Italian Barista Champion Fights Back!!

A couple weeks ago, The Atlantic Magazine published a (puff) piece by Giorgio Milos (Illy employee and former Italian Barista Champion). This piece was... umm.... insulting to many people in the coffee community. I wrote about it in my Cultural Imperialism bit.

Well.... Giorgio is back.
And this time he's a lot less condescending. Which is nice.
But he's still kind of missing the point.

Note: I am assuming that some editor at The Atlantic actually came up with the title of the piece ("Espresso 101: An Expert Responds to Readers") - but if not then I'll retract my above "less condescending" comment.

Anyway... to the piece and my point...

He starts off with a long bit on his background, his credentials... basically defending himself and establishing that he actually does - in fact - know what he's talking about.

At the center of my 20-plus years of training and knowledge is illycaffè. Certainly my views on coffee have been influenced by the company's scientific environment, created by three generations of chemists; a research and development unit covering agronomy, botany, physics, chemistry, biology, statistics, and computer science; and laboratories dedicated to dedicated to the study of coffee, in areas like sensory perception (not just taste, but aroma as well).

The thing is... none of us were arguing that you don't know a lot about Italian espresso. I mean... come on. Illy is arguably the most respected coffee company in the world when it comes to the science of coffee. And you're the Italian barista champion. So we already knew that - if we had any questions at all about Italian espresso - you're the shit.

The problem is that you still don't seem to get that Italian espresso is not equal to espresso anymore. Espresso is global now. We all have our own styles. We owe a debt to Italy for creating this incredible way to prepare coffee. Thank you. But we're doing our own versions now. And, sadly, it seems that not only are you not an expert in other styles of espresso - you still don't even see that there are (in fact) other styles of espresso.

And so we get to the main points.

But some baristas prefer making double espressos with more than twice the amount of coffee--20 grams, not the 14-18 the SCAA guidelines would suggest--and only the amount of water for a single espresso, one ounce. The idea is a power-packed espresso, with half the one ounce of extraction being crema. It might sound good to espresso fans, but this idea has numerous problems.

Not to be a dick here, but 20 is not twice 14-18. In fact, 20 is only roughly 12% greater than 18 (not 100% greater). So, in fact, if one were to dose 20 grams rather than 18 grams (the upper end of the commonly accepted scale), one would only be increasing dose by roughly 12%.

Now... I agree that a 1oz shot from a 20g dose is unlikely to yield a good flavor experience (not impossible, but unlikely). But let's be realistic here... 1oz doubles are very (very) rare among good coffee bars. What is more common here is the 1.5oz double ristretto from 17.5 to 18.5 grams of coffee. While this is, in fact, slightly outside of your range for both volume and potentially dose - the variance is extremely small.

But anyway, what are these "numerous problems"? Well... it seems like there are two (not exactly "numerous" but whatever).

First... the "too much caffeine" problem.

No matter what you call this concentrate, the caffeine content is much higher than what we have come to expect with a traditional espresso. For years people thought espresso contained more caffeine than brewed coffee. Now, most professionals and coffee lovers know this is not true of Arabica espresso prepared with the traditional formula, which contains 60 to 70 milligrams of caffeine. Overdosing the espresso, even using Arabica beans and not higher-caffeine Robusta, the caffeine content could reach 200 milligrams. As logic would dictate, extraction time--how long coffee and water remain in contact--is a major factor.

As the editor (finally doing his job - thank you) correctly points out - extraction time in fact does not impact caffeine (at least within the range of variance we're talking about).

What the editor fails to point out is yet another math error. So... let's assume the same (gasp horror) 20g dose. This is an increase (as noted) of around 12% over the "accepted" range. The high end of the range he provides for caffeine is 70 milligrams. To get to 200 milligrams of caffeine, we would need to increase dose not by 12% but in fact by almost 300%. In other words, the dose would have to be roughly 50 grams.

Okay, so he's wrong about one of the two "numerous" problems being increased caffeine (or at least increased beyond an additional 12% or so.

What's the other one of these two "numerous" problems then?

For a double espresso, the formula calls for using twice the amount of coffee and twice the water. If the water isn't increased in proportion, the resulting extraction will have too little liquid and too much crema, as in the photo here. The beverage is too concentrated, its aromatic components not optimally released and mixed. Effectively, the aromas overlap with one another, creating issues like an extremely sour taste that can be perceived as salty. With this overconcentration, only a few pleasurable notes can emerge in the cup, masking others produced during roasting like chocolate, toasted bread, cocoa, and caramel. Lost is that ideal balance of bitter and sour.

The above statement is 100% accurate.
If you're using Illy coffee.

The problem is that leading non Italian coffee companies have diverged from the Italian traditions when it comes to the formulation of their espressos. Not only are more and more of these companies working with single origin (not blended) espressos, but the blends are also diverging further and further as well (with a larger and larger percentage of the coffee being washed coffees and fewer and fewer roasters working with lower grown natural and pulped natural coffees from Brazil for these espressos). These coffees are not stored and aged. They're not selected purely for their stability and low acidity.

Because the beans being worked with are so different from what Giorgio is used to - and because the flavor profile of these beans is wildly different -- the method of extraction has to be different.

The result in the cup is - logically - very different from what you would get from Illy. But this is not a barista error. It is the result of a series of conscious decisions (from bean selection, through blending, through roast style, to preparation and drink style) all to get a desired coffee experience.

The result is highly unlikely to taste like Illy.
That doesn't mean it's "wrong".
And it doesn't mean it is not espresso.


Thank you sir may I have another

Another day.... another chance to beat the snot out of mainstream media...

Today's contestant?
Esquire Magazine.

Actually.... let's be fair here... in this case Esquire is largely the patsy. They're the rube being taken advantage of by the smirking carnie. And that shifty half-assed conman? No other than everyone's favorite has-been coffee guy Todd Carmichael. In case you don't know (and believe me - the fact that you don't know is the big issue for Todd), Todd is the unbearably louche and jaded founder of La Colombe Torrefaction.

La Colombe was once the shit. Like a east coast Torrefazione Italia before Starbucks bought them. Back when everyone still believed that slavish mimicry of Italian traditions was the only possible way to create good coffee - true coffee. But time has passed La Colombe by. Unlike Torrefazione and Seattle's Best - they didn't sell out to Starbucks. And the new breed has left them behind. They're no longer cool. They're no longer the shit. Hell.... they're no longer even good. And Todd... bless his aging hipster little self... Todd is kinda bitter about this.

Todd's now written two "pieces" for Esquire. The first was snide and annoying and self-serving. The second is all that and also bitter and angry -- and wrong.

The problem is that Esquire is the publisher - and conning your publisher always creates problems. The goal of the publisher is NOT just to give you a soapbox. It's also there to make sure you don't make mistakes and don't step off the soapbox and fall off a cliff in the process. To illustrate, I'm going to do what Esquire should have done (if, of course, they hadn't just been your clueless mark).

Listen, the espresso machine was invented for a reason: to be "espress," a.k.a. fast (and, ironically, to replace the siphon and slow-brew.) Listen up, geeks: Drop the slow-brew renaissance and pick up the pace. We have work to get to.

First of all.... you're missing the point here. As mentioned above - time has moved on. As Starbucks has become ubiquitous folks like you (those who serve a quick pharmaceutical product for consumption on the way to work) have ceased to be the cutting edge. There is no point in competing with Starbucks for this market. The cutting edge has moved. You're no longer cool. Convenience espresso is now a commodity.

Beware the presence of the $17,000 coffee machine. It's a lot like the fad of the $100 hamburger: The beef may be good and the press may love it (at least for a day), but if you order it, someone in public relations will be laughing at you. No one was actually supposed to buy it.

An example of how one plays editor... "Todd... what are you trying to say here?" I mean - seriously. Are you saying that you can only get good coffee from cheap espresso machines? So... you spend a lot of time trying to come off like a bargain basement Tony Bourdain. You want to be treated like you're a chef - and spend energy implying that you've got the same sort of chops, approach and cred. So let me ask you a question.... do you think chefs don't care about their tools? Do you think chefs think spending lots of money on the "right" knives, the "right" stoves etc is "a fad?"

Beware the barista who goes techno-nerd on you when describing how he makes coffee: heat-surfing, pre-infusion profiling, tamp-dialing. Seriously, and how would you describe the act of opening a beer, liquid-load pressure breaching?

This is a great analogy - as it gives amazing insight into your mindset Todd. You are, in essence, comparing the skill required to make a good shot of espresso to the skill required to open a beer. A barista - to you - is completely unskilled labor.

I'm not going to defend some of the behavior of current baristas. I, too, rapidly tire of the near total lack of understanding of what a good customer experience is like. I'm bored and annoyed by the lack of professionalism and the record store clerk mentality.

But even the Italians understand that a great espresso is one part machine, one part coffee and one part barista. You've now dissed two out of the three parts. Are you going to go for the trifecta?

Super-geeks love to claim their coffee hails from single-origin Valhalla, unapproachable for any other roaster. Truth is, we live in the computer and commuter age; the world is tiny and coffee only comes from the small band around the middle. We all have access to the same beans.

Yes.... yes you are. So the machine doesn't matter (just a fad - buy something cheap). The barista doesn't matter (if you can use a bottle opener you can make espresso). And coffee is just a commodity that all of us have (and it's all the same). The trifecta. So much for respecting the Italian tradition there my boy.

But more importantly... now this is where you're showing your age there Todd.

Once upon a time, "we" did all have access to the same beans. We'd all call up Royal or Holland America and say "send me the offering sheet." That started really changing about 10 years ago now. At first, only a few smaller niche players were sourcing outside the spot and commodity markets and from outside the traditional exporters. Around 5 years ago - things really took off. Even the big guys started buying outside the markets - auctions become more and more common - and Direct Trade got big. Now - the whole coffee world is centered around the fact that we all do not have access to the same beans. Getting access, locking up sources and production... this is the new name of the game.

Todd... I'll put it bluntly. The coffees you have access are the coffees that everyone else has picked over and passed on. Your coffees are the ones that other roasters have said are not even good enough to put into the house blend.

You can call yourself a "neo-traditionalist" all you want (despite the fact that even a half-wit editor would call semantic bullshit all over you for this description).

Me? I just call you old and washed up.


49th Parallel

Just cupped a whole bunch of coffees from 49th Parallel in Vancouver BC.

49th Parallel has been considered among the best if not the best roaster in Canada pretty much since they opened business. Their goals, however, are clearly much bigger than that.

I've cupped coffees from them since the beginning, and have seen them grow as both a roaster and a buyer of green coffee along the way.

This morning I cupped a bunch of their coffees and I have to say I was deeply impressed. They have (in my opinion and to my taste) a very very good North American coffee roaster.

Quick tasting notes:

Colombia Finca Silencio - A lovely coffee. Round, balanced and complete. Gorgeous sugars and fats to fill out the structure provided by the chocolate and tannin notes. As it cooled, tons of fruit emerged (apricot, pluot, tangerine). A really very good coffee. The favorite on the table.

Burundi Kibingo - A unique and fantastic cup. Tons of light fruit to start (cranberry, cassis, kumquat, grape) into a very nice cocoa powder body. The aftertaste, however, is what does it for me with this coffee. Amazing tea-like notes and an exotic almost grenache like flavor. Wonderful. My second favorite - though not a universal choice.

Colombia Finca La Palestina - Great acidity. Tons of citrus (sour orange, ruby grapefruit, bergamot) provide a nice nippy punch of balanced sours and bitters. Very, very clean and crisp. Only critique is that it lacks the sweetness and body to really balance out the citrus. Still a very nice cup.

Tanzania Songea - One of the best coffees I've had from Tanzania. Assam tea, white grape, tangerine zest, sweet marmalade. Aftertaste is incredibly jammy and juicy - causing nearly instant salivation. Becomes a little hollow as it cools.

Between this table - the incredible shots of Hairbender - and the interesting new Black Cat - it's been a NICE coffee week so far!!!


Reviewing Espresso

I've been involved in a really interesting side project of late - and I'm learning some important things from it.

Over at Home Barista I've been collaborating on a series of peer-reviewed espresso evaluations. The structure of these reviews has been illuminating and the results very interesting.

First - by focusing on private and collaborative peer-reviewing before publishing, the usual "didn't really nail the extraction parameters" problems are being reduced if not eliminated. With a bunch of reviewers all working on their own with the coffees (usually from a common starting point), we've been able to rapidly identify one or two "sweet spots" and then focus on optimization and most of all tasting around those parameter sets. This is yielding reviews that are more focused on "how do you get this espresso to taste good - and what does a good espresso from this coffee taste like" than the usual "here is my numerical score and two sentences of flavor descriptors. In other words - espresso is being treated differently from how coffee would be treated when cupped and the specific barista and equipment issues around espresso are being addressed.

Second - directed peer-reviewing like this does a reasonably good job of adjusting for (and making transparent) personal taste. As I've said many times, "just because you don't like this coffee doesn't mean it's a bad coffee."

Third - the wide spread of perspectives, tastes, experience and equipment among the reviewers actually gives a far better picture of the coffee. By getting all the different data sources and results and the combining and correlating - the big picture really does emerge.

It's been a very good experience - one I've enjoyed immensely. I'm looking forward to the future reviews a ton. So far reviews have been of Counter Culture Toscano and Ecco Espresso - with Intelligentsia Black Cat and Stumptown Hairbender coming up this week I believe.

But more then the enjoyment of the experience - I think there is something important to learn here. I think this sort of approach has some real power and validity and I hope it spreads and I really hope that it is adopted by the professional community. I think that this is where it could do the most good. Yeah... it's good that this is being done in the Home community (especially given that something like 70% of the home enthusiasts say their coffee buying decisions are driven by online reviews). But if the Pros got on board with this approach it could not only improve espresso (IMHO) but also start to create more knowledge sharing and more collaboration within the industry. And god knows we need that.

Reviews here.


Cultural Imperialism

Sigh... another example of mass media blowing it when it comes to coffee...

But wait... this one is interesting!
Because this time, the article is written by an Italian "espresso expert."
And as well all know.... no-one knows espresso better than the Italians.

Kind of like how no-one knows beer better than the Germans?


So, wow.
Yeah - the article is largely a promo piece for Illy and the "Illy way."
But none the less... wow.

I'd never really thought about the idea the cultural imperialism could be applied to espresso. I guess I wasn't thinking big enough.

My thoughts (in order and point by point):

Italian espresso (what he calls "traditional" espresso) is different from American espresso.

And to me that's a good thing. Each is its own thing - with its own goals and criteria.

As has been written before, Italian espresso is a cultural product perhaps more than a culinary one. There are rules. It is not a place for experimentation. That's fine.

What is called espresso here sometimes really isn't espresso.

Complaining about the fact that American espresso is different is just silly. It would be like someone from Pilsen complaining about Irish milk stout and saying "it's too dark and too heavy." Yes.... they're both beer. But they are different. And that's fine. They're different kinds of beer.

But what I didn't expect were so many baristas using so many methods to prepare espresso, far from the authentic Italian technique.

The trouble with a piece of food or beverage becoming a cultural artifact is that you end up feeling a sense of "ownership." And you start talking about things like "authentic Italian technique" as if it had some meaning. I'll use food as an example.... If it were not for people who ignored these rules and ignored the "cultural artifact" status quo preservationists, we'd all still be eating Chicken Kiev and Steak Diane. And that would be a travesty.

Yes... here in the US (and big shocker for you - also in places like Australia, Norway, England, Denmark... pretty much everywhere other than Italy in fact) we've been experimenting. We've been breaking the rules. And we've found that there are other options when it comes to espresso - and guess what. We like some of the results better than what you prescribe.

The biggest mistake I've seen is an enormous quantity of coffee being used—way too much. I'm talking about 20 to 25 grams of coffee for a single espresso shot! It is like making a mojito with half a mint leaf, one ice cube, a few grains of sugar, and a gallon of rum. Undrinkable!

Yes... I think we all agree that this is a writing error as I've never (ever) heard of anyone using 20 to 25 grams of coffee from a single shot. But this is the problem with being published when you are not a professional. You miss shit like this - and it destroys the trust in the writer.

Beyond that, I understand the point of hyperbole, but his analogy would only be true if he were talking about making a 5oz cappuccino with 4.5oz of espresso. If he wanted to make the correct analogy, he would talk about the amount of sugar cane used to make the appropriate volume of rum.

More importantly... if the amount of coffee used varies from what Illy prescribes, that is not a "mistake" (unless arguably you're working with Illy's coffee). It's a choice. We're choosing to use more coffee just like we're choosing to not use robusta and we're choosing to experiment with single origin coffees and we're choosing to create blends from 100% washed coffees. It's that that we're unaware of your "rules" - we're just choosing to move past them.

Espresso made this way—well, it's not espresso, but I'll call it that—turns out overly concentrated, and because of that it cannot delight the drinker with the magnificent aromas of toasted bread, chocolate, red fruit, orange, and jasmine flowers that are all present in a high-quality blend.

Three points.

1 - Who the hell is he to tell me what IS espresso and what is not?
2 - If I were to describe the best shot of Illy I've ever had (from Trieste in this case) I would describe it as "caramel, light peanut and marzipan, hints of tangerine zest and light chocolate in the finish." In other words... his own coffee from his own home town fails to meet his "requirements."
3 - On the other hand.... I've had at least 3 espressos in the US that are almost exactly what he describes. One of them was dosed at 17g, one was dosed at 18g and one was dosed at around 19.5g. The flavor has to do with the COFFEE more than the dose.

The beverages I tasted were almost syrups, full-bodied but with a very sour, almost salty taste. I suspect that beans that were roasted too recently played a part. After roasting, beans need a few days to breathe and mature. These too-young beans are a big problem. Also, I've visited too many coffee bars that don't heat cups before serving, and in the process sacrifice flavor and aroma. Or that serve in wet cups, an espresso sin.

And so we get to the point.... Where has he had these coffees? He speaks for ALL american espresso based upon what sample set?

His description (syrup, massively updosed, sour, salty) doesn't sound like the shots from any of the top US coffee bars.

Wow.... beans need to rest?!?!?!?! That must come as a shock to us dumb rubes here in the US.

Listen up buddy.... if you've been getting shots that sound like your description, in unheated cups, from beans that are fresh out of the roaster -- then you've been going to the wrong coffee bars. How would you like it if I went to the coffee bar at the airport in Naples and said "Espresso in Italy sucks."

Oh... and as for your "espresso sins".... yeah... I got your sin right here buddy.

Update: Giorgio has written a new piece responding to the critiques - and I've blogged about it.