blog from the ceo & superbarista of phoenix coffee, home of the best baristas in cleveland, ohio

Tuesday, May 24, 2005

Benny is right

I was talking to Benny Teresi, chef/owner of Tutto Giorno on Murray Hill in Little Italy this evening, after a wonderfully satisfying meal of Chicken Vesuvio (think rosemary, butter, garlic and white wine sauce) and house salad with excellent mango dressing about why he buys coffee from us.

"It's like I told you when you first called on me, Sarah", Benny says, "Coffee is important. Great coffee and dessert are the last thing people taste before they walk out the door. I figure after the food, if I can get them to try the coffee and Ron Seballos' pastry, they're gonna be hooked. They're going to come back." (I couldn't have said it better myself.)

Benny is such a sweetheart. He's a great customer. He runs an excellent business. He understands the concept of running a quality-oriented establishment. He is proud of what he serves and how he serves it. He works hard and he is going to be successful, sooner or later, in a big way. He has all the right qualities.

Benny spent some time in Chicago, so he is familiar with the restaurant scene there. He feels that the restaurant community there is more supportive of each other and more creative than the community here.

Tutto Giorno is off the beaten track of Little Italy. But it is worth finding. You'll love the colors and the decor, it's as creative as Benny's food. And he gets lots of compliments on his coffee.

Friday, May 20, 2005

beaker of coffee in an ice bath

Welcome to my glamorous life as a certified brewing technician (and superbarista). Today I journeyed down to Muggswigz in Canton with Steve Goldberg, my fearless companion, and there I met Alex, Muggswigz' proprietor. The three of us brewed countless batches of french press coffee in an effort to acheive perfect extraction and therefore obtain a sample of optimal brew for Golden Cup Certification, through the SCAA. At first the samples were testing at too low a TDS (total dissolved solids) so we adjusted the grind and the brew quantity in an effort to get an optimal sample. Of course, we overcorrected, and suddenly the coffee was testing off the charts. So we then re-adjusted the grind, chose a different variety of coffee, and again adjusted the quantity. Finally our efforts did pay off and we were able to get a sample with 20% extraction and 1.2% dissolved solids, clearly in the acceptable range! Alex has made an adjustment in his ongoing dosage for every day brewing, so his customers might notice a small difference. Hopefully the SCAA testers will arrive at the same results we did and award Alex with a nice Golden Cup Certificate for his cafe's walls!

Thursday, May 12, 2005

It's mysterious, it's frustrating, it's glorious, it's espresso...

Does it have take years to learn how to make a beautiful shot of espresso? Maybe it does. Maybe it can't be learned in a seminar, or in a day, or in a month, or in a year of days, or a year of months. I know it took me years to just start by just giving up. I had to give up my notion that espresso was a formula. I had to give up my idea that I knew what I was doing. I had to give up the precious thought that espresso was simple. Give up that espresso is linear. Give up whatever grasp I had on it and start over. Pretend like I know nothing. Pretend like I'm a beginner. And then the new and unknown can begin to operate and interesting things happen.

I wanted espresso to be something that I could show other people how to do in a one-two-three manner... i.e. follow these steps and you'll have it. In fact, I do hand out a sheet to espresso enthusiasts that is called "Ten Steps to a Perfect Espresso". But its really an oversimplification. I could spend all day just exploring the variable of the grind. Each variable in the process could take an entire day to explore. Let's take the consistency of the crema for example. One day Dennis (espresso technician extraordinaire) and I spent the best part of the day experimenting with different blends of coffee and different pulls of the shot, different tamps, different coffee quantities, in order to acheive the consistency of crema that we were looking for. It took over 10 pounds of coffees before we learned anything substantial or came up with a recognizable result.

And I will admit that when I pull a shot I still have to taste it before I can be completely sure of its quality. Sometimes even when it looks like you have done everything right, the flavor still isn't there. It's mysterious, it's frustrating, it's glorious, it's espresso. It is a process that responds well to love and attention. It's a process that gives you immediate feedback on how well you just spent the past 60 seconds of your life. Did you pack the basket correctly? Did you tamp correctly? Was the polish complete? Is the blend optimal? How about the grind? Was it correct, given all the other variables? All these questions and more are answered immediately after you finish the brew and taste the shot. No waiting around, just immediate, unfettered feedback and experience. It's not like baking or cooking where you have to wait to find out how you did. With espresso, you know as soon as you complete the swallow.

Wednesday, May 11, 2005

Steel on steel, clink goes the portafilter

Sometimes the espresso comes out of the portafilter spout too quickly. The stream is too thick, too fluffy and you can tell that the crema is going to shrink. So what is a superbarista supposed to do in an instance like that? You might say adjust the grind, but I found today that just packing the portafilter handle differently was all that was needed. After I dosed out the usual amount of coffee, I tapped the portafilter handle on the stainless steel counter. This is an additional step in my usual basket packing procedure. But it can make a big difference. After the tap on the counter, the ground coffee settled noticeably in the portafilter basket, making room for me to add more coffee and then tamp and polish. After fixing the basket in the group head, I saw that the stream of espresso looked denser and came out at a more appropriate rate, with better extraction. The latte was divine. Heretofore I have been against the tapping-on-the-counter methodology since it seemed that it would introduce another unnecessary variable. But today I learned that it can be a viable solution in lieu of grind adjustment which can be tedious and which can also need to be readjusted in a matter of hours. The skilled barista can add this to his or her bag of tricks for acheiving perfect extraction.

Friday, May 06, 2005

Socrates Cafe

So I think we are going to start these at the Lee Road store, and I just emailed Julie to ask her if she wanted to also do them at Lakewood. What a cool way to develop genuine dialogue and communication between people. I heard about it on NPR. The Society for Philosophical Inquiry, founded by author Chris Phillips and his wife, provides a guide for facilitating these discussions. It sounds ambitious but important. Anyone interested in facilitating one of these discussions? Read the guidelines posted on the website.

Tuesday, May 03, 2005

From Earl Grey Green to Sweet Ginger Peach

We started with the Earl Grey Green. I steeped it for two minutes, according to Steve's timer. When I removed the bag, drippy and full of bright sodden green leaves, aromatic in their wetness, I poured the tea into sampling cups. And Mary sipped. Steve sipped. I sipped. We remarked at its lightness, its fragrance, and enjoyed. The table was round, the conversation was light, respectful. Round tables are good for meetings, softer than square. I explained to Mary that we flavor the teas ourselves now, using and Oil of Bergamot that we chose from several others, for its fragrance, flavor and also power of endurance. The Oil that we use is the real stuff. Its fragrance endures. Oil of Bergamot is made from an Italian citrus fruit in case you didn't know. The Earl Grey Green is made from Japanese Sencha. Sencha has to be removed from the hot water after two minutes or it puckers your mouth. It lent a grassy, subtle flavor to the unmistakable Earl Grey flavor.

Then we moved on to the Sweet Ginger Peach. That steeped for longer than the Earl Grey Green, since it's a black tea. The liquer was light and somewhat fragrant. I dripped on the table as I poured from the steeping cup into the sample cups. But spills and drips are part of coffee and tea tasting. That's how the coffee and tea spirits get their libation.

The other teas we had brought, White Coconut Breeze, Irish Breakfast, Peach White, Ruthie's Herbal, were spread on the table. The aromas were astonishingly refreshing, the lemongrass from the Ruthie's, the Coconut, the Peach, and the soft round black tea aroma. AAAH!!!

Tea. The spirit of tea is a benevolent thing to taste on Tuesday afternoon at a round table.