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

Sunday, January 29, 2006

Scrounging church pews

Band name alert: "Scrounging Church"

...I guess it's not technically scrounging since I paid for them, but Carl and I just finished hauling two very heavy solid oak church pews from the now defunct church at the corner of Lee Road and Washington Blvd, into our seats-removed mini-van and down to the Superior Avenue Phoenix. Kiley called shortly thereafter and said he liked them, which is a relief since Carl and I practically had a marriage meltdown muckling the 7 footers (did I mention they're solid oak) down the tight cornered stairs that descend from the church choir balcony to the narthex. Carl had one end of the pew on his shoulders, his sweaty head leaning to one side underneath the angular wood seat. I had the other end in my hands, awkwardly descending the stairs backwards while trying to support the pew and make Carl's burden easier. He heard his knees making popping noises and we both freaked out. The second descent was much smoother since we both understood the awkward physics a bit better. But thank goodness a kind stranger offered to help us get the second one down the broad cement steps that lead from the narthex down to the sidewalk and the waiting mini-van, because my wrists were not happy at that point.

Where are my superbarista super powers when I need them? Isn't my red cape supposed to help me out in situations like this?

We arranged both pews along the wall at the cafe, with three 2' x 2' tables in front of each of them, and chairs along the opposing side of the tables. It looks cute. Which is really good, because Carl would not be too happy if I wanted to move them anywhere else right about now. They're going to look even better when we paint the white uprights on either end red with purple trim, just perfect for the Phoenix Church of Coffee.

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Mug Shots

My children's faces, cut down to 2" by 2", with shadows behind their hair, peek out at me from underneath a messy stack of downloaded and printed passport application forms. My old passport is tucked into an envelope that is addressed "National Passport Center Lockbox" along with a check for $67 and a reasonably good 2x2 likeness of my face.

We spent yesterday evening engaged in a comical ritual that involved the white wall of our house's entryway, a digital camera, a floor lamp with its shade removed, one squirmy seven-year-old with flattened hair, and a nine-year-old with a tendency towards plastic Cheshire cat grins and an impatient husband taking the pictures.

We are getting out of the country this year, or early next year. I just have to get face to face with a coffee plant again. I want to feel those smooth, juicy red berries between my fingers and breathe the humid, thin air that surrounds these tropical, high elevation plantings. I want to feel the fog around my shoulders as we hike. I want to be challenged to figure out how to tell the hotel clerk that the toilet in my room doesn't work, in Spanish.

And this time, I'm bringing my family and as many Phoenixers as possible, although we still have to have someone run the company while we're gone. And coffee fanatic customers would be welcome, too.

I'm thinking Costa Rica.
Guacamayo Arenal coffee is cultivated in the Arenal conservation area near the Monteverde Cloud Forest. The Rainforest exhibit at the Cleveland Botanical Gardens is I think modelled after this particular forest and a "scientist's" study of the wildlife there.
Here's some info about the coffee cooperative from TransFair.

Wouldn't that rainforest humidity feel good on your winter-dry skin right about now?

Friday, January 20, 2006

Do not pass GO

  • Your espresso machine dies, pay espresso repair man $650.
  • You're closed for the 4th of July, don't collect income next time someone lands on your property.
  • Local paper runs a story about your coffee shop. Collect $500 in extra sales.
  • Pay handyman $125 to fix broken toilet.
  • Power outage. Pay $400 in lost revenue and spoiled milk.
  • Utility company is testing the water main, and water is off. Lose $450 in revenue.
  • You hire a stellar new employee. Get an extra improvement on one of your locations (collect more rent when someone lands there).
  • You sell a home espresso machine. Collect $600.
  • Lawsuit. Give 3 of your properties back to the banker in order to pay your legal fees.
  • Coffee shop down the street closes. Collect a new "improvement" for one of your properties.
  • Employee you just hired quits. Pay $200 for all the wasted training time.
  • Pay $75 for new espresso training video and add an "improvment" on one of your properties.
  • Collect some warm fuzzies and pride when the health inspector gives you a perfect report.
  • Pay $200 to have your carpet cleaned.
  • Quote on your first catering job. Collect $450, but disburse $425 back to the other players since you don't actually know how to make money on catering.
  • Someone breaks in and steals employee tip money. Pay $300 to bank for repairs and $50 to each player.
  • You hire a manager who gets all the other employees excited about selling more Jamaican coffee. Collect $200 extra dollars each time you pass GO for the next four turns.
  • Fuel prices skyrocket. Pay $10 each time you roll the dice for the next 5 turns.
  • You win the golden cup award. Your store looks great. Your customers tell more and more other people. Collect $1000.
  • One of your coolers needs a new compressor. Pay $800.
  • HA! You think that the player with the most money wins! But in this game, the winner is the one who retains his or her sanity the longest!

Saturday, January 14, 2006

Another word for backflushing could be "polishing the ruby" (much more poetic)

Today our Espresso Wizard (Dennis Skitzki) conducted an informal seminar on the basics of espresso machine mechanics. We disrobed an Astoria single group machine (recently de-throned from its perch at the Yours Truly Chagrin Falls) and had a look at its innards.

We traced the path that water in the coffee brewing circuit takes as it goes through an espresso machine. This water is separate from the water that enters the boiler and is eventually used for steaming milk. The water in the coffee brewing circuit never enters the boiler. Instead, it goes through a heat exchanger, which is a pipe that runs through the boiler.

  1. Water for coffee brewing first goes through the flow meter, which measures 4 cc's of water for each rotation. This flow meter is only present on machines that have the portion control feature (we call these machines "automatics").
  2. Then the water proceeds through the heat exchanger, which is located in the boiler. This is how the water gets up to temperature.
  3. Then the water enters a copper line that goes from the heat exchanger to the brew head.
  4. Then I think the water gets pressurized somehow. This particular machine had an internal pump that is used to pressurize.
  5. Inside the brew head, the water passes through a screen and a giggler that actually slows the water down before the water hits the screen and shower.
  6. The flow of water in the brew head is controlled by a three way valve (the "brew valve") that turns the flow of pressurized water on and off.
  7. The water is disbursed by the shower and finally passes through the screen before it comes in contact with the coffee in the portafilter.

We spent quite a bit of time on the features and characteristics of the three way valve, or brew valve. We learned that this is the valve that discharges the pressure that is generated in the portafilter during the brewing process. It has an armature in it that is made of synthetic ruby. This ruby is actually grown from pure oxides of aluminum in a "furnace" that reaches approximately 2000 degrees Centigrade. The reason a ruby is used is so that the coffee oils and/or other substances in the water do not stick to the armature and therefore impede the smooth operation of the valve. Apparently synthetic ruby is a very inert, hard, strong substance.

More information on synthetic rubies from the US Geological Survey

We learned that when we backflush an espresso machine, using espresso machine cleaning soap, we are actually cleaning this 3 way valve, and the ruby armature inside. So another word for backflush might be "polishing the ruby". That's much more poetic and noble. Backflushing (or polishing the ruby) removes any coffee oils or residues from this 3 way valve. The armature inside has very close tolerances and it won't seal positively if it has too much coffee oil or residue on it. Dennis recommends backflushing without soap in the blind portafilter throughout the course of the day, and certainly after a busy period of espresso machine usage. Then, backflush with soap once a day, and be sure to brew a single espresso and discard after use. This reseasons the shower, screen, and the 3 way valve. If you don't reseason, your espresso will tend to have a metallic, stripped down taste.

A few other tidbits...

  • Water in the boiler is pressurized by the heating element, not the pump.
  • Lighter roast coffee (like our blonde espresso) will actually expand more when it is brewed, as compared to darker roast coffee. Lighter roast coffee retains more cellular structure.
  • Some machines come with an automatic backflush program, but they don't actually seem to help that much, because people still don't follow the directions.
  • Espresso machines should indeed be left on overnight. This is because of the following reasons:
  1. Espresso machines that are left on overnight have been shown to use 30% less power than machines that are turned off every night.
  2. Turning off your machine stresses the heating element unnecessarily, since the most stress is incurred when you turn the machine back on.
  3. Espresso machines are made of dissimilar metals, so the temperature flux is inherently bad for the machine.

Astra espresso machines and some other brands keep the group head warm and keep the coffee in the water circuit at a constant temperature by utilizing thermo siphon or thermo circulation concept. There is a closed circuit of water between the heat exchanger in the boiler and the brew head. As water in the brew head cools, it sinks, and recycles to the heat exchanger to reheat. As it warms, it rises, and circulates back to the brew head.

La Marzocco espresso machines, considered by many to be a top of the line espresso machine, are still manufactured with double boilers. Dennis considers this old technology. There are two boilers, one for the water for brewing coffee, and one for the water for steam.

Our Espresso Wizard really outdid himself, with the endless fountain of facts and information. Thank you, Dennis!

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Rainforest Alliance Coffee (a Fair Trade alternative)


Colombian coffee from Mesa De Los Santos in Bucaramanga, Colombia. We are roasting it just past Full City, almost French, and it is quite good. I poured myself a second cup the other day. Good acidity, crisp but just full enough body, clean finish. Well balanced. And it is Certified Organic, and certified by the Rainforest Alliance. This is an interesting organization who works to ensure that coffee is produced via thoroughly sustainable methods... workers are paid fairly (well above Colombia's minimum wage), educated and given proper medical attention, as well as conserving ecology. Thousands of farms have been certified in 12 countries. Check out the site.

We will be serving this coffee at our upcoming seminar on Monday February 13th from 6:30 PM to 8:30 PM at the Phoenix Roastery. We will be brewing this coffee via six different methods (french press, neopolitan pot, auto drip, espresso, stove top espresso, vacuum pot) in order to explore how the brewing method alone can change the flavor profile. We will also spend some time learning about the Cafe Mesa de Los Santos Finca (farm) and the people who produce the coffee and the methods they use. If you are interested in attending, please let me know, space is limited (email Sarah).

Barista Song

Jeff Hess sent me yet another cool link. This one is for a song about being a professional barista. Check it out.

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Heat exchange technology as applied to espresso machines

Yesterday, while speaking with a representative for an espresso machine manufacturer, I learned about heat exchange technology. This is a term I have heard more than once, but did not necessarily know what it described. Well, in layman's terms, here goes...

All commercial espresso machines have a boiler that contains hot water. When the hot water is used by the machine to brew espresso, cold water, through the supply line, must be brought into the tank. Maintaining a constant temperature in the boiler is a desireable state, as this constant temperature would result in more consistent brewing temperatures. So instead of having the cold water enter the boiler directly, in machines that have "heat exchange" technology (which I'm guessing many or most machines do now) the cold water lines first go through the middle of the boiler, being heated by conduction, and then empty out into the boiler itself, after the water has been somewhat heated. In so doing, warm water is emptied into the boiler directly, rather than cold water.

Elegantly simple. Now I get it and can use the term "heat transfer" somewhat intelligently.

A shrewdness of apes and a business of ferrets

While dropping off at school this morning, I learned that Veronica (age 7) is studying the collective nouns used to describe groups of animals. I got such a kick out of these two (listed above). The collective noun somehow gets at the essence of the animal, in a way that makes me smile.

Here are some others

  • A bloat of hippos
  • A leap of leopards
  • A scurry of squirrels
  • A pounce of cats
  • A streak of tigers

These nouns need to find ways into our everyday conversations more often. Maybe we should make these trivia questions at the cafes for a while.

So what would we call a group of baristas?

  • A press of baristi?
  • A pour of baristi?
  • A jitter of baristi?
  • A puck of baristi?

Monday, January 09, 2006

8 ounce beverages

Jeff Hess sent me a link to an interesting article about ordering 8 ounce cappuccinos from Starbucks. It's timely that he sent this, because over the past couple of months Julie (owner of Phoenix Lakewood) and I have been discussing the value of 8 ounce beverages. We feel that serving 8 ounce beverages would help us to do our part to counteract the supersizing of America. In general, I only drink about 8 ounces of coffee at a time anyway, and I think others might enjoy a smaller size as well. Of course, the author of the article is correct. The profit margin on an 8 ounce beverage is smaller than the margin on a 12 or 16 or 20 ounce beverage. But we still think that the benefits might outweigh the smaller margin. We would be one of the only places with an advertised 8 ounce beverage (ours would make the menu board, I think). So I made a call to our paper supplier to ask if he could get the ball rolling on printing 8 ounce cups for us. He hasn't gotten back to me even though I called him before Christmas. I'll keep bugging him, though.

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

I think I need an Architect for Lee Road Redesign

As a few of you know, we are beginning the process of redesigning our Lee Road Cafe. This store is doing great guns business and our awkward configuration just doesn't quite support our new volume of sales. Originally, I was feeling ambitious and was going to do the design in-house, using a CAD program. Steve even went so far as to attempt to enter the dimensions into a CAD program. But then we found out that the drawing is wrong and we need to start over. Coupled with the fact that the program is awkward to use and Tina and I both would have a steep learning curve, I'm thinking we might have to hire an architect. I would rather enlist the assistance of a design professional who patronizes the Phoenix and already understands our quirky nature. So please forward your suggestions! Who is the perfect architect for us?

In the meantime, I'm researching pastry cases. At the very least, we need a new dry pastry case. So far, the favorite is model HUDLR4852 by Structural Concepts.

Wouldn't that be nice?

Monday, January 02, 2006

Ode to French Press

I know you're all wondering what superbarista has been doing in these two weeks since I last posted. Among other things (such as upholding the Santa Claus myth for an increasingly skeptical 7-year-old and a very observant 9-year-old) I have been drinking French Press coffee. It's perfect for the holidays, when we actually have a little more time than usual, and can allow it to steep to its natural state of perfection. French Press is hard to screw up. Actually, that's not true. You can screw it up. But I have been making great coffee this week, even though I am not being very precise about quantities or times. Maybe that's because I' m actually paying old-fashioned attention? The Blonde Espresso that I have been brewing in my Bodum Travel Press has been turning out perfectly each morning.

Here's my routine...
After I let the dog out to empty her bladder and chase a few early-rising squirrels, I dump out the old water from the tea kettle and fill it about half full with fresh tap water. I think previously boiled water has given up all its bling, so I always use fresh. I put that on stove to heat. Then I take some Blonde Espresso beans and put them in the grinder. I am just using a regular old blade grinder. No fancy burr grinder here. The blade grinder works just fine. I fill the chamber most of the way, put the top on, and shake it up and down while it grinds for 20 seconds or so. I feel like I get a more even particle size when I shake while grinding, but I have no real evidence to support this theory. I stop grinding when the "sound" coming from the grinder is right. Then I look inside to make sure there are no big chunks left.

Now comes the important part. I spoon about three heaping spoons of coffee into the bottom of the travel press. When we first got these presses, Julie (Lakewood Phoenix) complained that there was too much room between the bottom of the cup and the screen, allowing the coffee to oversteep. But after this week's experimenting, I think Julie may not have been using enough coffee. After I approximate the coffee amount in the bottom of the press' cup, I go ahead and put the press in without the water just to see how the level of the coffee grounds compares with the location of the screen. They have to be within about 1/4" of each other, I think. That way, the grounds have enough room to expand when they brew, but not enough room to allow too much turbulence and resulting over-extraction.

When the water boils, I turn off the burner and wait a few seconds to let the water cool to about 200 degrees. Then I pour the water into the grounds. This is my favorite moment, second only to drinking the stuff. When the water hits the grounds, they erupt into a roiling mass of bubbles and movement and aroma. I continue to slowly pour more water in, allowing the bubbles to form, then gradually disperse. This can take a while as there is a very large head of grounds and bubbles that forms on the top, particularly if you are using FRESHLY ROASTED coffee that is still in its "giving-off-carbon-dioxide-phase". If you aren't patient here, you don't end up adding enough water and your coffee will be too strong. I know, the press looks full, but you'll see, as the bubbles burst and the grounds sink, there's not as much water in there as you thought. So keep pouring slowly but do not allow the head of grounds to rise too high, because its easy to let grounds up on the side above where the screen will press them down. Then you end up with grounds in your first sip, which is unfortunate. Add new water at the rate that the bubbles and the grounds sink. This gradual water-adding also substitutes for stirring. It gives the brewing chamber more turbulence. Besides, you're forced to give the whole thing more attention, and its the attention that probably makes the coffee taste good anyway.

The whole pouring and steeping process should take about 4 minutes. When I get the water level right, I put the press on top, without depressing it, just to assist with heat retention. Then, it's time to plunge the screen down through the brew. While I do so, I am thinking with warm anticipation about how full and rich that first sip is going to be. I am thinking about the water gently filtering through the coffee particles that the screen is collecting and pushing towards the bottom of the press. It's a beautiful thing.

After the screen has reached its final resting place, having collected all the grounds neatly in the bottom, the resulting brew is taste-bud-scorching hot. Especially if you are brewing in a nicely insulated travel press. My first innovation of the new year.... is to pour the first few ounces out of the travel press and into another cup (brilliant!!! I know!!!). While this does defeat the purpose of having a "travel" press, (and produces another cup to wash) it does allow my taste buds to stay at their sensitive best and enjoy the first sips at a reasonable temperature, since the brew loses a few degrees when it comes in contact with a cool ceramic surface.

After imbibing the first portion out of a separate cup, and the morning mental haze begins to burn off, I then continue sipping out of the press itself, which does a great job of keeping the rest of the brew hot long enough for me to drink the whole thing. I do tend to drink slowly and savor, so heat retention is important. The chewy body and lingering aftertaste of coffee brewed in French press is second to none. Smooth as custard, dynamic as a complex red wine, zesty as key lime pie.