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

Wednesday, June 29, 2005

caterpillars and coffee

First we stopped in the Children's section to visit Raisin, formerly under my care, who was happily munching on milkweed. His dapper yellow, black and white stripes were striking against the velvety green, and slightly wilted, leaf. The librarians told me that earlier in the day he took an ambling tour of his new aquarium and seems to have found it satisfactory. For the past three summers my two daughters and I have been raising monarch caterpillars at our house and releasing the butterflies. Yesterday evening we bequeathed one of our charges to a very enthusiastic children's librarian. I hope the library staff gets as much joy as I do out of watching the mystery of the butterfly unfold, and the incidental pleasure of watching children learn and revere the process as well. pictures of monarch caterpillars

Then we moved to a meeting room to talk about the features and benefits of a Saeco espresso machine. We talked about the beverages that the machine will make, including Chai, the sweet and spicy tea latte and mochas and cappuccinos and how much people will enjoy being able to suck back the local juice of Phoenix Coffee. saeco espresso machines on phoenix's website The librarians are excited to promote the fact that the profits from the machine will benefit the Friends of the Library and also help to support a local business. Meanwhile Raisin was downstairs munching away, propelling himself towards the inevitable next stage of life.

Our caterpillars at home decided tonight was the night to construct their silky matrix on the top of the aquarium and to hang by their "toes". Now they have assumed their characteristic "J" shape, and the chrysalis stage is only a few days away. Or even hours away, Charlotte insists. She tells me that they breathe through spiracles and they shed their stripes four (not three) times during their milkweed-munching-caterpillar phase. Then they eat their stripes. When they are first hatched from their egg, they eat the egg shell. It gives them extra protein, just like their stripes. Raisin could well be forming his chrysalis right now. I wouldn't be surprised if the librarians called me in the morning to tell me the news.

If library patrons and staff drink enough of Phoenix's espresso, they just might be able to hang from the ceiling by their toes and form a shiny emerald green, gold-gilded chrysalis of their own. I think John Pichet (regular Phoenix customer and reference librarian) will be the first candidate. pictures of monarch chrysalis

Tuesday, June 28, 2005

Gorgeous Latte Art

Something with a profound taste

Recently, Carol from Cafe Limbo called and said she wanted a coffee with a more profound taste. Limbo has used a couple of different blends; they're still looking for that perfect coffee. It is a Quest, a journey worthy of time and attention, the mission of finding the perfect taste. In this case, I think they are going to end up with either Fair Trade Timor or Celebes. These are profound coffees. Carl still quivers at the thought that I group the Timor with the Celebes... he thinks I'm a bit wacko about this Timor, and I admit, he's right, I am pretty excited about this coffee. At a Timor tasting I once had someone come back and tell me that the timor was the best cup of coffee they had ever had in their entire life, period. And my sister, when she was in town last Christmas, was amazed at the body and the creaminess of the Timor. Normally she puts cream in her coffee, but the Timor already tasted like it had cream in it, even when it was black.

But just because the Timor is wonderful doesn't mean the Celebes is any less wonderful. It was Carl's favorite for many years, probably still is if you press him. I love it, too. We all just wish it wasn't so expensive. It's rich, and creamy, and probably a bit more complex than the Timor since the Celebes also manages to have some interesting acidic notes interspersed that somehow make it even more interesting. Shawn from Expresso Express fell in love with it despite its price. And I think Kiley likes it a lot, too. Tina still prefers Sumatran to Celebes, which I find interesting, but there is no accounting for taste, right?

"Something with a profound taste..." isn't that what we're all looking for?

Friday, June 24, 2005

Melanoidins and Infidels

I like the word melanoidin. It sounds like something exotic, maybe even extraterrestrial, yet endearing. Coffee lovers, caffeine addicts, meet melanoidin and glycosylamine, two reliable porters of pleasure. Melanoidin and glycosylamine, glycosylamine and melanoidin (I am enjoying writing that over and over just so I get to say the words inside my head) are two brown, bittersweet compounds that give rise to coffee's dominant taste. They are produced during the roasting process, when the water inside each cell of the green coffee bean turns to steam, which promotes "diverse, complicated chemical reactions among the cornucopia of sugars, proteins, lipids and minerals within." These are the words of Ernesto Illy, descendent of Francesco Illy, the grandfather of espresso. Francesco patented the first automatic espresso machine in 1933.

Circa 1600, calling it "the bitter invention of Satan", advisers urged Pope Clement VIII to reject the favorite drink of the infidel Ottoman Turks. Instead he decides to give papal authority to coffee, making it acceptable to Roman Catholics.

Infidels! Melanoidin! I thank you for your existence and your contribution to the cause of coffee!

Thursday, June 23, 2005

On the way home from the Roastery

Last night there was a film crew at the Roastery, filming a short segment of a possible documentary about Carl, coffee, and the search for freedom. I brought our two daughters to the "set" so that we could see Dad get filmed. We couldn't stay since it's difficult for a seven and an eight year old to execute Absolute Silence as defined by the sound crew. We left, not knowing that the drive home was going to become the evening's entertainment.

It started mundanely enough with some Grade A Prime level whining from both Charlotte and Veronica.

Mom, I wanted to stay to watch Dad. Yes, I know you did. I'm sorry we couldn't stay. Mom, you made me leave with my roller blades on and now I have this ice cream sundae in my hand and I only have one hand left to take off my roller blades and I can't get the roller blade off and my foot is hot. I could hold the sundae for you. No, it's OK, I already got the roller blade off, nevermind. Mom, Veronica elbowed me hard and it really hurt. Veronica, please don't elbow your sister. Let's listen to the radio. How about Radio Disney? No, we don't want to listen to the radio. Veronica won't stop saying the same word over and over. It's sooo annoying (subway, subway, subway, subway....) I got an idea. Let's play 50 questions. Who wants to think of the first person? It's 20 questions, Mom, not 50, and I don't want to play. Veronica is still elbowing me."

My attempts to stop the momentum were like sticking a brittle twig into the spokes of speeding bicycle. Just then we saw a police car in the right hand lane, with lights flashing, parked behind a formerly unsuspecting motorist.

"You guys need to stop the whining or that policeman will give you a ticket for incessant whining and fighting."
"Mom, Police don't give tickets for that."
"Oh, you don't think so? Well, let's just see about that."

So I begin to maneuver from the far left lane over to the right lane where the police car is parked. My first attempts are unsuccessful, but the more C & V question if it possible to get a ticket for whining, the more determined I become to safely maneuver my car to the right lane. I feel a sense of yogic patience descend upon me. Like I could wait with my blinker on for an eternity. Maybe even in lotus position, since with my head craned over my right shoulder, watching the oncoming traffic, the position is reminiscent of a spinal twist.

The traffic thins enough for me to move over to the center lane and from there its easy to pull over one more lane and glide to a stop behind the police car. I am a bit incredulous that this charade is actually playing out, but here we go. The policeman is not visible, since he is hovering near the vehicle belonging to the detained motorist, presumably giving said motorist a ticket. An involuntary smile breaks across my face and I begin to chuckle nervously at this unlikely situation as the policeman appears, walking back towards his car, and towards ours. By the time I get my window rolled down, he and I make eye contact, and there are peals of laughter emanating out the window, mine and the girls. With each step closer to our car, my mindset changes from "What the hell have I gotten myself into" to "this is going to be fun" and I laugh harder.

As he approaches, I can see that he has now also started to grin, which makes me laugh even more. Every other time I have had a policeman walking towards the open window of my car, it has cost me over $100, so the smile is reassuring.

"It is so nice to see someone smiling and laughing, especially since the man in that car up ahead is so mad at me right now. My name is Officer Johnson. What's your name?"

"Sarah Wilson-Jones. Nice to meet you." I manage to say between giggles, while I shake his extended hand. I feel like a teenager.

But then I'm all business: "Officer Johnson, we stopped because these two children in the back of my car have been whining incessantly all the way down Chester Avenue and I told them that I would pull over and have you give them a ticket for whining and fighting with each other."

"Oh, is that so? You two have been whining?" He cranes his head in and looks at the two girls in the back seat. They simultaneously point at each other and say "She was whining." He continues to smile and laugh under his breath. He continues "Well, I have to say that your good moods have been infectious and I am no longer feeling the need to give Mr. Watkins (the detained motorist) a ticket."

I say "Yeah, go easy on Mr. Watkins. But be sure to give Charlotte and Veronica a ticket. They deserve it. We probably don't need to go as far as handcuffs, but they definitely deserve a ticket."

"OK, I'll go back to my car and write them a ticket." He says.

"But you really don't need to give one to Mr. Watkins, he didn't mean to do it."

"Yeah, I could probably let him off this time. And I guess we could give you girls another chance, too. I'll be sure to give them a ticket next time, though." He says, peeking back at the girls and smiling.

"OK, it's a deal." I respond. "Have a great afternoon, and go easy on Mr. Watkins."

"Believe me, he's going to be very thankful that you ladies stopped!"

Officer Johnson walks away, back towards his car, and I turn around and look at the girls. The laughter starts all over again. I pull back into the stream of traffic, and just as we pass Mr. Watkins car, Officer Johnson turns towards us and gives up the thumbs up sign, which I mirror back to him. Then, pulling up further, we see Mr. Watkins lean both arms out of the car and wave enthusiastically in our direction, mouthing the words "Thank you!!" The three of us waved back, laughing the rest of the way home.

Monday, June 20, 2005

Time to put the red cape back on

Today I walked in to our Superior Avenue store with a prospective wholesale customer, Bill. Bill and I had gone over to the cafe because he wanted to try a bubble tea; he's interested in selling it at his cafe (which will be called New Earth Cafe and they will be located in the old Liquid Planet location on Detroit in Lakewood). I went behind the bar to make the bubble tea, made a stop at the espresso machine to check if the portafilters were empty. Empty portafilters are important in a self-respecting espresso bar. Why? Because full portafilters mean that the spent coffee grounds are baking into the screen and the brew basket of the portafilter, causing the oils to collect on the hot metal. This is not only a maintenance problem (the baked on oils clog up the holes in the screen and the portafilter gasket resulting in uneven extraction) but a taste problem. So whenever I go into the stores I check the espresso machine to make sure the puck from the last shots has been emptied into the knock box. My staff knows I check this. I bug them about it.

It is always nice to find empty portafilter baskets like I did this time. Clean, shiny metal. Good. I said to Tina R. and Kiley, "Nice and empty baskets, guys". To which Tina, the ever-so-witty replies "Well, Sarah, I saw you pull up..." implying of course that she only empties the portafilter baskets when I am around. Hmmm... :) I then proceed to make Bill a green tea honeydew bubble te, which he enjoyed, and then I felt inspired to experiment with another idea I had for a frozen mocha type iced drink. So I went back over to the espresso machine and began to pull a shot, since my brilliant idea (which turned out to not be so brilliant) involved adding a shot of espresso. As the shot poured, I could see that it was coming out too fast, I hadn't tamped hard enough or added enough coffee. In my haste to end the brewing, toss the shot, and of course empty the portafilter basket, lest one of my staff (gasp) discover that I too can err and leave the spent coffee in the basket, I removed the portafilter from the brew head too soon. The pressure in the brew head had not yet dissipated, and I had a mini-explosion. Coffee grounds and espresso were all over the drip tray. I started chuckling at my mess as I grabbed a rag to clean it up. Kiley saw my mess and said "Hmmm, Sarah, I guess it's time to put the red cape back on."

But it gets worse. I laughed and agreed that superbarista was not at the top of her game today and proceeded to pull another shot, that was acceptable. Anxious to get back to my original idea, about Phoenix's new fabulous frozen mocha (which it wasn't) I took the shot of espresso to the back counter (away from the espresso machine) and began formulating my concoction. Meanwhile, Kiley gets an order for an espresso drink and moves over to the machine and discovers a spent puck of coffee in the portafilter handle! With all his characteristic humor and sass, he says "Gee, I wonder who left this puck in the portafilter? Tina, was that you? Will? Lamont? Oh, Lamont isn't here... Gee, I wonder who it would have been? Anyone? It's sure a mystery to me who would have left this coffee in here, since everyone around here knows that is a definite No No..."

Even superbarista has her moments of weakness. Tomorrow will be a better day. It will.

Sunday, June 12, 2005

So you wanna be in the coffee business?

It looks easy, doesn't it? Pulling espresso shots, pouring coffee, it seems like a simple thing. It seems like something that you ought to be able to pull together in a week or a month. This week alone, I met or spoke with a total of nine people who are opening coffee houses or establishing a coffee concession in an existing business. One is buying an exisiting operation.

Here is my dilemma. I have been in this business for 12 years. I love this business. I love the complexity of coffee, the science, the people, the art, the style, the lingo, the aroma. I love to help people get started in this business. And I appreciate ambition. I even appreciate a cavalier, can-do attitude, since I tend to be somewhat cavalier myself at times. But I must admit that I have a difficult time dealing with it when people tell me that they are opening a coffee shop and they want to buy coffee from me and they want to be open one week from now. Actually, it's not the coffee that's the problem. I can get you set up to brew regular coffee and have you even be somewhat knowledgeable about what you are doing within a week if we spend quite a bit of quality time together. It's the espresso that's the problem. I can't tell you that I can have you brewing great espresso in a week. Especially if you want to buy or you already have a traditional espresso machine. Learning to brew great espresso with a traditional machine has a pretty steep learning curve. I think it took me years to get the concept behind it, and I think, Julie, the owner of our Lakewood store, would agree. She recently told me she had an "aha" moment when she realized that espresso is actually emulsified. And she's been doing this for years!

So maybe here's the answer. Buy or lease a superautomatic espresso machine if you are in a hurry to get open. Don't go traditional. Thankfully, most of my new customers who are coming on board, and who are in a hurry to get open have taken my advice. They're going superautomatic. There's still a learning curve, but it's soo much easier to educate you on a superautomatic machine than it is to show you how to do great espresso with a traditional machine.

I'm glad to get that off my chest. For every problem there is a solution, and to the problem of the in-a-hurry coffee shop owner, superautomatic is the way to go... Saeco, Astra, Nueva Simonelli, they all make machines that work well.

Monday, June 06, 2005

What's better than espresso training? Brainwashing of course!

When I say that Phoenix Coffee offers "espresso training" to its customers, there is a mixed sentiment behind the statement. I feel primarily proud that we are able to offer this "training", based on years of experience and experimentation (what good is experience without experimentation?). But I also feel that training is not enough. Sure, I can show you the mechanics of making a good espresso. I can show you the myriad pitfalls... the crooked tamp, the cold portafilter, the grind-thats-too-coarse, the grind-thats-too-fine, and many more. But can I communicate to you in one "training session" the ethic that art of espresso making is an important and worthy endeavor? Because it is this ethic that will drive you to continue to ask questions, to experiment and to maintain good espresso practices for long after the "training session".

In most cases, instilling such an ethic would involve brainwashing. First the brain must be washed of all the previous impressions of espresso. Espresso is not simple. It is not easy. It is not automatic. And it is not trivial. Espresso is rewarding and complex and dynamic and challenging. Oh, and delicious, when it's brewed correctly. That's the rewarding part.

So I think that's how I'm going to start my next training session. I'm going to start with a good brainwashing session, of deconstructing espresso and then reconstructing it again, in concept, before we even get into the specifics. Just to create the appropriate mental "soil" in which the "seeds" of espresso wisdom (laying it on pretty thick here) can be sown.

Now I just need a coffee shop or restaurant owner to volunteer his or her staff for such a brainwashing, so I'll have some live subjects to experiment on! Such fun! If I don't get any volunteers, I'll have to use my own staff! Watch out Phoenix Baristas...

Friday, June 03, 2005

Coffee culture and economic development

There is a link between the level of advancement of a city's coffee culture and the city's economic development. It may not be a causal link, it may just be a coincidental link, but if you are looking for a way to gauge the health and vitality of a city's economy, look at how sophisticated their coffee culture is. Look at Portland. Look at the Raleigh Durham area, where the baristas are getting psyched up for the Southwest Barista Jam, look at Seattle, look at wherever in Canada is published (blog). Chicago. New York. San Francisco. AAAAH! The list goes on. These are examples of economically vibrant cities with phenomenal coffee cultures.

So what is Cleveland going to do about this? What is Phoenix Coffee going to do about this? What is Arabica, another one of Cleveland's homegrown coffee companies, and the company that still professes to be the home of the 4 ounce espresso shot, last time I checked, going to do about this development of coffee culture? (Not that they even think it's important)

How do we become more passionate and more dedicated to the art and craft of coffee and espresso in this town? I feel like I have spent the last four years of my business career just trying to catch up to where the rest of the country is. Not that we're totally there yet, but we are gaining on it rapidly. No small amount of thanks is due to our Espresso Technician and Resident Coffee Curmudgeon, Dennis Skitzki. Dennis helped bring Phoenix out of its shell in a big way and I am eternally appreciative.

So now what? We've see the latte art video, we toss around coffee and espresso terminology, we try to get wholesale customers on board, we do the Golden Cup thing, we get excited. Or maybe I should say I get excited. And sometimes I get customers excited for the occaisional hot minute. And sometimes a Phoenix barista gets excited and asks a good espresso question. But we need the next level. We have to keep pushing. We have to keep asking questions, experimenting and inventing. This process has to become more a part of our daily lives if we are going to grow and develop Cleveland's coffee culture.

Maybe we have to begin with defining what coffee culture is. Or at least inquiring into that question, since hopefully it can never really be defined. That's the mystery of culture after all. It can't be totally defined, since it's part magic.

Coffee culture is at least part geekiness, as in science. It requires participants to be willing to measure, track, taste, measure again, taste again, and keep track of the result or lack of result of their efforts. It requires paying attention. Coffee culture would have to also be part art and beauty and flow. It can't be all science or it wouldn't work. This is coffee we are talking about, not some asceptic substance. Another ingredient would be conversation or communication. Inquiry. Excitement. Dialogue. Fascination and dedication. Coffee is so endlessly interesting. It never stops changing and the amount you learn depends first and foremost on how deeply you want to go into the subject.

Once I looked up the word culture in the dictionary. Culture of course is derived from the verb "cultivate". And the Indo European root of cultivate is the root word "kwel-1". And when I looked up what the essence of this root word means, I found it means "to revolve, move around, sojourn, dwell". I think this is a good line of inquiry for discovering what the essence of culture is. We have arrived at some key information here. After thinking about this quietly over a period of weeks, let's take each part of this essence definition one part at a time:

to revolve...
A culture revolves. It changes, but in a circular pattern, like the seasons, the holidays. There is a rhythm to it. At some point, a Cleveland coffee calendar of events would be necessary, but first the calendar has to have a focal point to revolve around. I think it would have to revolve around the celebration of the unknown and unknowable aspects of coffee. Coffee cultural events should be imbued with the realization that no one has all the answers and it is a beautiful thing to know that you do not know. move around...
A living culture moves around. It exists in more than one location simultaneously. In the case of coffee culture, it would have to exist in more than one coffee shop around Cleveland, of course. It would have to be supported by many partipants all over the city, from customers to shop owners, to roasters and baristas.

This word implies that a true culture has a restful, restorative energy to it. A culture is self-sustaining once it is developed. it moves of its own accord and encourages particpants in it to rest and restore themselves.

Now this is interesting. This is the word that lets us know that we have to "live" in the coffee mind-space if we hope to develop culture. We have to stay there and invest almost constant attention in it. We have to dwell on it.

Wow! Thinking about all those concepts and how they relate to the coffee culture in Cleveland, or the lack of it, is a big job. But it's exciting. Sounds like the perfect job for Superbarista.