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

Saturday, April 29, 2006

Phoenix Inaugural Barista Jam

We set a new Phoenix record for the most number of lattes made and consumed consecutively, although we really weren't counting. It was an endless stream of lattes at the Superior Avenue cafe Friday night. After nursing newborn Gabriel (five weeks old!!!) Julie Hutchison sauntered up to the espresso machine and made a perfect rosetta without even trying. Amazing. What a talented woman! Kiley, Jeremy, Adam and Britton also made some pretty ones.

I learned a great tip from Kiley to get the large bubbles out: change directions of the milk whirlpool midway through the rolling phase. This takes finesse, because you have to understand where to place the steam wand in the steam pitcher. I must admit my latte art attempts are still pretty unsucessful, I usually get distracted watching the espresso coming out and fail to pay adequate attention to the milk texturing during the crucial initial stretching phase.

If I can get some photos off Kiley's camera, I'll post some pictures.

Wednesday, April 26, 2006


Laura Bennett co-founder of Embrace Pet Insurance (former regular customer at the Lee Road Phoenix, before she moved to Chagrin Falls) turned me on to Seth Godin's blog. I liked a lot of what I read. But I really liked this:

"The enemy of creativity is fear... In the long run, the enemy of fear is creativity. I'm sure of it."

I'm sure of this too. I had come to the first part of it on my own, that fear stifles creativity. But the second part, while it definitely follows, has taken longer to make itself apparent.

It is this second part that makes it almost imperative that people who are interested in confronting and eliminating the controlling role that fear plays in many of our lives find some creative outlet.

I have learned that I like to write. I find it empowering, and the longer I write, the better mood I'm in. Because bad moods are really just caused by fear. I get cranky because I start to think that life is going to be difficult, fearsome, awful. And then, voila, life is difficult, just like I thought. But this only lasts as long as I indulge in it. Sitting down to write can drive away my most oppressive bad mood. It's just getting myself over to the computer, or getting the pen and paper in hand, that can be tricky.

Sunday, April 23, 2006

Phoenix Posse at Field of Greens West Palm Beach

Back from Florida

I'm back from five days in West Palm Beach, Florida. Of course we brought our own private coffee stash, which we brewed in a practically antique Melitta travel coffee maker in our hotel room. Although I did sample the coffee at Cappuccino's, an Italian restaurant on Okechobee Blvd, and it was disappointing. They charge $4.75 for their cappuccinos. At that price, the cappuccino oughta dance right into your mouth! However, I opted to not try one, since the drip coffee was bad, I figured the cappuccino would probably be worse. Although I admit I was curious. The food was pretty good. I guess it'll have to wait until next trip (I go to West Palm generally every year or two to visit my in-their-90s-grandparents).

The best find in West Palm Beach was "Field of Greens" cafe, at City Place, 460 South Rosemary Avenue, owned by Debbie Lakow and David Steinhardt, brother and sister team. The food was refreshingly good, (crisp, interesting salads, good smoothies, satisfying soup). Carl and I bonded with Debbie and David, talking about the importance of friendly service. Plus, Debbie said she liked the coffee we left for them. I think it was Red Cape Blend. Who wouldn't like that?

The last morning Carl and I realized that we were out of filters for our brewer. So we had to settle for the restaurant's liquid coffee, which was drinkable. Not good, just drinkable. Then there was a Starbucks latte to the rescue at the airport. Should I admit that I drink Starbucks? Well, I do when I'm desperate. We noticed that this particular Starbucks had not one, but TWO Caffina C-5 automatic machines. These machines are so sophisticated that they make it really hard to screw up the coffee. Dennis, our Espresso Wizard, fixes these, and Will, our in-progress Espresso Tech, just completed a seminar from Michaelo Espresso on how to repair these complex babies as well. So I'm all for the fact that Starbucks uses these superautomatics. It keeps the espresso repair folks like us in business!

It's good to be back in Cleveburg. I spent the plane ride home reading about Costa Rica and working on refining our itinerary for next January. It's going to be a great trip! Stay posted for more details.

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Berne, Switzerland, here I come!

I just bought my ticket to Switzerland. My friend Danielle offered to cover the hotel for me, in exchange for my assistance with information for her article on coffee/baristas/coffee culture, so I went ahead and booked it.

Yowsa! I have never been to Europe! Now that I found out I have quantifiable TASTE, I guess Europe is the next logical step. (Joke)

I am also now planning on being a judge for the WBC in Tokyo in 2007. I'm hoping Shane and Ai will want to meet me there, and also, hopefully I can bring Charlotte and Veronica and Carl. I guess that means I have to sell some more coffee in the meantime. I gotta pay for all these trips somehow.

Saturday, April 15, 2006

Our passports arrived! So now I can take my children out of the country legally...

And now I'm thinking about going to Switzerland for the World Barista Championship. Danielle is relentlessly pursuing the idea of writing about the event for a magazine article. It would be great national press for the Barista professional and the coffee community. Although it looks like there is quite the waiting list to judge at the WBC, so superbarista might be out of luck.

Thursday, April 13, 2006

A Barista competes

Barista practice area for the USBC (in the prep room)

Kiley and the 2005 USBC Champion, Phuong Tran

Friday, April 07, 2006

Day 3 of the USBC Judging Experience

I got the joyful news at 10:00 last night that I would be judging today. When I reported to judges chambers for my judging shift, and looked at the list of prospective judges who had passed the sensory skills test, my name was written in neat print at the top of the list. The last time I was that happy to see my name on a list was in 1989, when I stood near the back door of Hawken School and looked at the list posted on a bulletin board by Theatre Arts director, Roger Atwell. It was a list of the students who had been cast for roles in Spoon River Anthology. I was a junior, and I got to play Sarah Abernathy and other characters, which meant a got a lot of lines. So there I was, in the convention center of Charlotte, NC, 34 years old, looking at my name on the list, feeling like I just got cast as the lead in some high school play. I will admit that I came back to the clipboard in the judges chamber more than once, just to see my name at the top of the list again. I didn't even have to hunt for it, there it was, right at the top. Delicious.

I immediately wanted to call Charlotte and Veronica (my nine and eight year old daughters) since they are two of my biggest cheerleaders, but quickly realized that they were in school and not available for phone calls. So I called Phoenix Central (the Roastery) and told Dennis and I called Carl, and I called Steve, who was roaming the SCAA show floor nearby. During all these phone calls, I had to keep giving myself permission to revel in my tongue's victory over the sensory skills test. It's not like I had just passed and IQ test. This was a taste test. So now I know I have taste, objectively verified. It's OK to be proud of that.

Soon I had to reign in my small celebration and focus on getting my apron on, finding a spoon, and a sharp pencil with a healthy eraser, putting my hair in a judge-like ponytail-bun, filling in the names on my judges score sheets, and calming my nerves to get ready for my first shift as USBC judge. And, of course, running to the bathroom at least once. Would I be able to tell the difference between a "3" cappuccino and a "4"? How deep was the froth supposed to be, again? The head judges had assured us that everything would come together, especially when we were watching a really good barista perform, we would just know.

A few minutes later I clutched my clipboard under the glare of a dozen spotlights and looked into the eyes of my first competing barista. He had curly dark hair and a blue button down shirt, and a tie. He was nervous, but composed. The second barista was very sweaty and had shaky hands, and almost forgot to pour water for the judges; he remembered JUST IN TIME, thanks to the ESP message I sent him, I think. The third barista seemed to have coffee flying everywhere as she pulled her shots. The fourth barista was polished and calm, miraculously enough. The fifth barista was dressed head to toe in brown and made good coffee. I can't really write more about their specific performances, because I think I might get in trouble with my fellow judges.

Although I had found my way to what is arguably the esoteric center of coffee culture in the US, it struck me that this felt nothing like drinking a good cup of coffee in a cool coffeeshop. Fascinating, exciting, yes, but very different from the subtle pleasure of a gently sweet latte and a riveting book or conversation.

Each barista impressed me with the time, effort and thought that had gone into their performances. As a boss, it melted my heart to see that kind of dedication; that's what I love to see in my employees. It was bittersweet to rate their efforts, as I felt honored to be a recipient of their passion for their craft, regardless of their technical score or the style of their presentation. But as a judge, it was my duty to discern which efforts had better results, from an external point of view, and that is exactly what I did, to the best of my ability.

Thursday, April 06, 2006

Day 2 USBC Judge's Certification: Sarah Slurps Solutions

On Saturday, I was up before the sun, doing yoga and going for a short run to clear my mind before the sensory skills test to be administered that morning. I had no idea what to expect, so it seemed that clearing my mind and engaging all my senses would be the best approach. All the prospective judges for this year's US Barista Championships would be taking the test if they were not already a USBC qualified judge. If I passed the test, I would be USBC certified for two years, and have an increased chance of being able to judge at this year's USBC. If I didn't pass the test, my chances of judging would be decreased.

Joseph Rivera, publisher of and Specialty Coffee Association of America staff member, presented the sensory skills information. He told us that 25% of the population are non-tasters, having less than 10 fungiform papillae (tastebuds) per 2 cm of tongue surface area, 50% of the population is classified as medium tasters (15-30 tastebuds per 2 cm) and 25% of the population are super-tasters, with more than 50 tastebuds per 2 cm of tongue surface area, the majority of whom are women. Furthermore, he told us that as children, most of us had about 10,000 tastebuds, and as we age, that number decreases to around 2,000.
All of this information struck me as comforting. Taste is somewhat genetic; it's hardwired into us by how many taste buds we have. Although I have to admit that I was curious as to why most of the supertasters are women, yet in the coffee cupping field, there are very few women.

Joseph told us that he had been the one to design this test as a way to calibrate people's tasting abilities. He had opted to not use coffee since it is too complex and there are too many variables to isolate. Instead, all of the sample solutions would be water-based, specifically distilled water.

The first part of the test consisted of three solutions each of sweet, salty and sour. To make the sweet solutions, they used table sugar, for salty they used table salt and for sour, lemon juice. Within each taste category were three increasingly concentrated samples, and it was our job to put them in the correct order. We took a few minutes to slurp, swallow and write on our test papers. Then they read the answers outloud, so this part of the test was not challenging. Although I misread the instructions and thought the solutions were already in order of concentration, but my tongue soon told me that they weren't.

The second part of the test was the same nine samples, but they were not divided out by category. So we had to identify the flavor (sweet, salty or sour) and the intensity. A passing grade on this section of the test was 80%. It didn't seem tough to me.

The third section was difficult. There were eight mystery solutions, four of which contained two ingredients (the previously mentioned sweet, sour and salty mixtures) and four of which contained three of theafore mentioned solutions. After half an hour of slurping watery test solutions, I had to pee and I felt queasy. So I took a bathroom break and returned to my table with the cleanest mental palate I could muster, and began to taste. A 70% score was required to pass this section. Less than 1/3 of us would pass this part, I found out later.

Some of the solutions tasted pretty much like water, so I guessed that they contained the mildest solutions. Joseph had also told us that our tongues are most sensitive to sour, as a natural protection from being poisoned, and sure enough, the sour solutions were the easiest to identify. The ones that contained the sour and the sweet were also relatively easy, as they resembled lemonade. Salty was the tough one for me to pick out. I experience "salty" as almost a tactile sensation; salty solutions seemed thicker than the ones without salt.

I filled in the answers as best I could, erasing multiple times, comparing one solution to another, and then finally just turned in my test without much further thought. I figured my tongue either worked or it didn't.

On our lunch break, I tagged along with Liz from Stumptown Coffee Roasters, Eileen Hassi from Ritual Roasters in San Francisco and Scott Lucey from Alterra Coffee in Milwaukee. We found a cute cafe on North Tryon. On the way back, I asked Scott about his plans for training baristas at Alterra Coffee. He talked about first using a written test, then only scheduling baristas during slower evening shifts and requiring them to demonstrate espresso proficiency before they were scheduled during a busy morning time. He also talked about his recent epiphany that a semi-automatic espresso machine was preferable to the more expensive automatic machine, as the lack of portion control forced baristas to pay closer attention and resulted in better quality shots. Scott and I bonded because during the introduction to the seminar, we both listed Sulawesi as being our favorite coffee. :)

After lunch, we did some mock judging. My first station was with Nick Cho from Murky Coffee in Washington DC. We were supposed to judge Nick on his Overall Presentation skills, professionalism and passion. His first performance was bare bones; he included little coffee information, he put his fingers in our cups as he "served" them (pantomime) and made little eye contact. We gave him 1's and 2's. Then he repeated the performace with pep and zing, coffee education information, eye contact, humor, and sparkle. We gave him 4's and 5's.

Throughout this phase of the workshop, the head judges were judging the way we completed our forms and how we conducted ourselves, as part of their assessment of who would be assigned to actually judge in the real competition. It was hard for me to practice my "poker face" and not crack jokes. I was giddy, surrounded by other intelligent coffee professionals, my peers in the indstry, both the baristas and the prospective judges, and my natural instinct was to reach out to them, to entertain and to be friendly.

Bronwen from Zoka and Aaron were the dueling cappuccino station. One was supposed to make flat, lifeless capps and the other was supposed to make great ones. The difference was tougher to distinguish.

Two baristas, one of whom was named Steven, were supposed to demonstrate the difference between a bad espresso and a good one. Problem was that they were all terrible. I was distraught.

My last station was Phuong Tran, last year's barista champion, demonstrating her signature beverage. This was by far the sweetest stop of my mock judging rotation. Watching Phuong at the bar was like watching a well choreographed ballet. Every movement had a sweet, efficient quality. I wanted to sing. And the beverage was exquisite. She steamed coconut milk mixed with regular milk, added espresso and a little cane sugar syrup and zested lime over the top. She coordinated the color of the lime zest with the color of the green dots on her ceramic cups. Simple, delicious, fascinating. I gave her a five. And now I'm thinking about adding this drink to our menu. Yum.

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Report from Day 1 of Judges' Certification

First, for the folks I met.
I had dinner with Sandro and Spiro from Caffe ArtJava in Montreal. They just opened 8 months ago and are already selling more than a bag of coffee per week. Wow. They have a four group La Marzocco espresso machine and lines out the door. Sounds like a road trip to Montreal is in the offing... who's coming with me?

I sat next to S. Lee Walter, North Central Regional Sales Manager for Espresso Specialists, Inc, distributor for Franke and La Marzocco. He has been a judge at a Regional Barista Competition before. He and I both think we aced our written exams today.

Some of the most interesting things that I learned today had to do with the technical aspects of the competition and how the baristas are actually scored. There are so many aspects of espresso preparation that are a matter of opinion, all the way from shot time to dosing method to crema color to foam consistency for a cappuccino. On one hand, I was amazed at how technical the discussion was... like for example, we discussed how much milk should be left in the steaming pitchers after cappuccino preparation. We agreed that if a barista left less than one finger's width of milk in the bottom, that would qualify as "good" (score 3 out of 6). Previous judges noted that it's important to be observant, because baristas often try to discard the milk quickly so as to minimize the perception of waste. We talked about how much to dock a barista if they leave pucks in the portafilters after their set up time. We talked about how baristas should use only one dedicated cloth to wipe the steam wand, reserving other cloths for wiping the counter.

On the other hand, I was amazed by how much of the judging is left up to the judge's discretion. For example, judging the signature beverage is very subjective. Although, the guidelines try to make it clear what we are looking for: well explained and presented, appealing look (elegant, clean, good use of cup/glass) and creativity, as well as taste balance. One of the most important characteristics is that the signature drink is supposed to be ABOUT COFFEE rather than about other fru fru ingredients. Phuong Tran, last year's USBC champion, is in my class of judges. She spoke a little today about her signature drink, the crimson sage, and how long it took her to perfect it. She said she had to try many many ingredients before she found something interesting and harmonious. I don't doubt it. Her drink consisted of espresso, white pepper, sugar cane juice and milk infused with sage, topped with paprika for color, served in a red glass.

Finally, another nitty gritty issue we got into today is the long debated difference between a latte and a cappuccino. We finally put the old definition of a cappuccino (1/3 espresso, 1/3 steamed milk and 1/3 frothed milk) to rest. This definition just doesn't work. The new cappuccino definition is much more subjective and relative. Contrary to the "traditional" cappuccino served in Italian restaurants and most coffee shops, cappuccinos are not supposed to be all white on the top, some crema should show around the edges. From the judges' handbook: "the taste balance should be a harmonious blend of the sweetness of the milk and the espresso as a building block. The drink should not be too milky; a distinct taste of espresso should be present." This definition does not strike me as being very scientific or technical. It seems that a cappuccino should have more persistent and voluminous foam than a latte, but still look like a latte, a la latte art. So Latte Art could also be called Cappuccino Art. I have had other astute baristas point this out. Properly made latte art is often not very latte-like in consistency because that High Definition Foam also is tenacious. It sticks around, making the drink more like a cappuccino than a latte.

The most frustrating thing about Day 1 is that we didn't drink any coffee. We studied the score sheets, filled out worksheets, looked at slides of espresso shots and cappuccinos and signature drinks, and took the exam, but at the break, I ran across the street to the local coffee shop to get a latte! While I was there, I warned them about the conglomeration of coffee geeks across the street. They seemed glad to know we're in town.

Tomorrow the other Phoenixers arrive... Kiley the Renaissance Barista, Steve the Espresso Evangelist, and Will, Espresso Tech Extraordinaire.

On my way to the US Barista Championship

Rivulets of white suds stripe my square of a window; I look up and see an airport worker in a cherry picker bucket with a high powered sprayer bathing the outside of the plane. Then suds give way to rinse water. A few minutes later, we're taxiing, and despite the plane's bumpy movement, the pattern of water droplets and ribbons are stationary. One droplet breaks free and fetches diagonally across the glass, gathering others and growing in size.

"Please be seated for take-off."

I ignore the rapidly passing landscape and watch the vertical ribbons of water magically sprout smaller and smaller sucker-like horizontal runners, pushed by the wind. We're airborne. Above the clouds, there is the remaining glory of sunrise's backside. But I am fixated on the precisely parallel tiny stripes of water on my window. They aren't frozen, but they are still. Slowly the sun catches them, and imperceptibly heats them into molecular specs, and my observation is over.

My mind turns to the day ahead of me. I arrive in Charlotte, North Carolina around 9 AM, check into my hotel, find lunch, and find the Charlotte Convention Center. The judge's certification workshop begins at Noon.
  • Will I taste espressos this week that rival the smoothness of Phoenix's espresso blends?
  • Will I pass the sensory skills test?
  • Will I learn more about the parts of my tongue?
  • Will I be able to taste the difference between bitter and sour?
  • Will I emerge with a more precise taste vocabulary?

Precision is helpful when tasting coffee. But sometimes any description of coffee flavor is just cumbersome, especially when dealing with really dynamic, complex, fantastic tasting coffees.

I know, no matter what, that I will meet some interesting, kind and dynamic people, since that is exactly what happens every time I attend a coffee conference. I renew acquaintances and always meet new people.