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

Friday, May 26, 2006

Ethiopian blueberry heavy-tones

I brought some Ethiopian Sidamo coffee from Stumptown Coffee Roasters (Portland, Oregon) home from Switzerland. Apparently someone from Stumptown had brought a whole bunch of coffee with them, and didn't need all of it, so they left the extra out on a table for folks hanging around the Barista Championship to take home. I gladly took a bag, thinking that this would for sure be interesting, since Stumptown won Roaster of the Year from Roast Magazine.

We heard a lot at the Barista Championship about the blueberry overtones of Ethiopian coffee. What's the difference between an undertone and an overtone anyway? Anne Lunell, Swedish Barista Champion, highlighted these blueberry overtones in her sig bev (signature beverage). Several baristas mentioned blueberry at the USBC. So since this seems to be such a THANG right now, I had my nose ready to smell blueberry when I opened the Stumptown bag. And smell I did. Wow. It was strong. Almost smelled like blueberry flavored coffee. And when I brewed it, same thing. Way strong on the blueberries, a little light on the actual coffee flavor. The body and acidity were so delicate, so as to make way for the blueberries, that I missed the rest of the complexity that I expect with our Ethiopians, roasted Sivetz-style. (Phoenix has a Sivetz fluid bed roaster, Stumptown must have something else). Day 2 of drinking this coffee with breakfast, and my impression was even more of the same. I was so impressed that Stumptown can bring out that blueberry flavor in that pronounced of a manner, but it was almost too much. Now I'm curious to try more of their coffees. Or at least to drink some of our Ethiopian just for comparison. We happen to have Harrar in stock right now. That's what I'll be drinking the next several days!

Thursday, May 25, 2006


After a week with the Superbarista, I am back home and reeling from a spree of espresso, all-night talks about the coffee industry, and some fine barista performances. Sarah has given a pretty thorough view of the winners of the WBC, but I have to say that the whole thing is so much fun when you're there, watching the baristas do their thing. I also should mention that I went to the WBC with very little real knowledge of what a barista championship is about, and I've come home full of respect for the work that baristas put into this event. I believe that Klaus trained for eight months for the WBC (and it really paid off!).

Now that I've caught the coffee bug, I think I may have to keep learning more and more about espress and the world of baristas.

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Klaus Thomsen, 2006 World Barista Champ

From my point of view as a prep timer, Klaus was one of the easiest competitors to work with. He was respectful and gracious. Focused on his performance, but generous with courtesy nonetheless. Big points in my book for that. His accessories featured natural wood texture and clean, Scandinavian lines, reflective of his Danish culture. Klaus and Matt Riddle both trained with Fritz Storm, a barista trainer from Denmark.

The Danish fans waved flags and cheered loudly during Klaus' performance, adding to the energy and fun. When I spoke with Klaus after his performance, he was still in awe of his win, saying that he didn't think it had really sunk in yet.

Sammy Piccolo, Canadian Barista Champion

Sammy had an amazing command of the audience, the judges and his coffee. His espresso blend contained the only washed coffee from Papua New Guinea, Australian mountaintop coffee, Ethiopian longberry Harrar and two different varieties of Brazil. His signature beverage (called Synergy) involved steeping cardamom in steamed milk, fresh mango puree and bittersweet chocolate whisked together, and having the judges chew a salted orange before they drank his beverage. The cool thing about it, he said, is that the espresso rose to the top of the drink.

Sammy and his brother Vince just opened a roasting business in British Columbia, Canada. This was Sammy's third appearance at the World Barista Championship. He came in second and third in his previous performances, and came in second again this year.

James Hoffman, UK Barista Champion

James Hoffman used an "unproven technology" for creating his signature drink. He created two "stationary gels" that solidify when they are still. One was flavored with Glug, a Swedish liqueur. The gels were separated vertically (see picture) with a plastic divider which was removed after they had solified, creating dramatic eye appeal in the glass. The gels stayed separate in only one of the four drinks in his final round, however in the first round, they all worked. James did a great job at getting the audience excited about whether or not the drink would "work". After removing the plastic dividers (and a loud cheer from the audience) he combined espresso and honey with a small amount of cream in a whipped cream charger to make a mousse which he poured on the top.

James had a lot of smile and sparkle, along with a great pink and black striped tie, and he placed fifth in the world.

Anne Lunell, Swedish Barista Champion

Anne is pictured here during the final round, answering questions from Nick Cho, the MC. Anne's mother is a pharmacist and her father is a doctor, which helps explain the creative way that she presented her signature espresso drink. She made a blueberry syrup and served it in pipettes, a tool generally used in a chemistry lab for measuring liquids, alongside her espresso, which she said contained blueberry overtones. Anne placed fourth.

Matt Riddle, US Barista Champion

Here is Matt Riddle (US Barista Champion) wheeling his prep cart into the performance area. His accessories were gorgeously arranged and chosen, (I loved the red accents) despite the fact that some of his cups were broken in transport, and his hot plate was damaged. He and his girlfriend, Melissa, had an adventure in the Swiss department stores trying to find appropriate replacements for the damaged items. But, it all came together as you can see here. Matt went on to place third in the overall World Championship, which was very impressive for his first run at this.

Danielle and I had dinner with Matt and Melissa the night before his first performance, so that made it even more fun to cheer him on the next day.

Ingibjorg Jona Siguroarsdottir, Icelandic Barista Champ

Ingibjorg (in the white shirt) preparing for her performance in the finals of the World Barista Championship, and also pictured with her coach.

Monday, May 22, 2006

back in the U S of A

Now posting from Washington Dulles airport after 15 hours of traveling. I have no idea what time my body actually thinks it is. I'm ready to be home!

The results of the World Barista Championship:

6th place Iceland
5th place United Kingdom
4th place Sweden
3rd place Matt Riddle... USA
2nd place Sammy Piccolo Canada
1st place Klaus Thomsen, Denmark

All the competitors were amazing. The young lady from Iceland was particularly sweet and earnest... wait till you see the pictures of her and her coach.
Sammy Piccolo is the Greg Norman (golfer) of the WBC. This is his third time coming in second! That must be so frustrating.

I got to time the competitors during their 15 minutes of prep time directly preceding their performance time. I looked very official standing on stage with my stopwatch. Klaus Thomsen had me tell him his time remaining for every minute during the last five minutes of his prep, as did Matt Riddle. All of the competitors were completely ready when I told them to step away from the machine. Champions, all of them.

More later; time to catch the last leg of my journey into Cleveland and reconnect with my cell phone and my laptop as well as family and Phoenixers. I missed the latter two but not the former two!

Friday, May 19, 2006

Friday afternoon at the World Barista Championships

I just spent two hours as a "prep timer" at the WBC here in Bern, Switzerland. This means that I was reponsible for timing the competitors preparation times and giving them warnings e.g. "10 minutes remaining", "5 minutes remaining", all the way down to 30 seconds and then call time and ask them to step away from the machine after their 15 minute allotment has passed.

I timed for the Guatemalan, Hungarian, Finnish, Costa Rican, Kenyan, Danish and Russian competitors. The Kenyan competitor was particularly colorful, with her traditional Kenyan head dress, complete with strings of colorful beads hanging across her cheeks. She warmed my heart and brought tears to my eyes with her sweetness and earnestness... I actually had to turn away so no one would notice my shining wet eyes. I was rooting for her, even though after her 15 minutes of prep she hadn't quite completed her grind adjustment. Her supporters yelled loudly and cheered "Go Kenya" as she competed.

The Danish competitor, Klaus, used very Scandinavian styled accessories, smooth, clean lines, natural wood, clear shining glasses, carefully rolled white napkins. His preparation was crisp and he moved like a champion. He actually reminded me of Matt Riddle's performance at the USBC.

Mate, the barista from Hungary, wore a cheery orange shirt and striped orange tie. He has only been a barista for a year! He chatted with me as he did his prep and really impressed me with his friendliness. I must admit I broke my professional barrier and whispered to him to clean his knockbox. He thanked me and promptly wiped it out. The judges look at the cleanliness of the area before the performance begins. So maybe I helped him with an extra half a point.

The Costa Rican and Guatemalan competitors didn`t speak English, so I got to practice my Spanish numbers "cinqo minutos" remaining, etc. They both had translators as did the barista from Finland.

More later! I think Danielle and I are going to dinner with Matt Riddle, the 2006 USBC Champion. I wonder if he has an advantage since so many of the judges are American?

News from the WBC in Berne, Switzerland

There was a big crowd cheering on the German contestant today and the Australian barista, during their respective performances. Lots of great energy and excitement. Danielle and I got lattes from the Hungarian and the Russian and the Guatemalan competitors, from the practice arena. If it weren't for that, we would be without coffee so far today. It`s actually difficult to get a cup of coffee at the WBC believe it or not. It's torture to watch all this coffee being made and not be able to taste it. Good thing we can get in behind the scenes.

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

we're off to bern for the world barista championships

17 hours of flying and layovers ahead of me. i'm meeting danielle there on may 18th at 7pm swiss time. i'll post as soon as i can from some cyber-cafe! how do computers run on 220 volt swiss electricity anyway?

Saturday, May 13, 2006

rosetta latte epiphany

As Superbarista, I probably shouldn't be admitting that I have not yet conquered the rosetta latte. I should be an expert at it. But alas, I am not an every-day barista, I am only a guest barista at the Phoenix cafes from time to time, so I have not yet perfected my rosetta skills, despite the fact that I have been attempting rosetta lattes for YEARS now. One day last year, my kids had the day off from school and the three of us spent all day on the espresso machine at the roastery, we went through four gallons of milk, and the closest we got to a rosetta latte was the one Kiley poured, when he dropped by near the end of the day. Drat!

At Phoenix's April Barista Jam, I had a quiet epiphany that I didn't share with anyone. Eric Coble stood next to me and watched me pour three lattes, none of which were successful demonstrations of latte art. It was a little embarrassing; I wanted to strut my stuff, like Julie, who sauntered up to an unfamiliar machine and made a gorgeous one on the first try. While Eric was standing there watching me, I realized that my latte art often fails because I watch the espresso while I am frothing the milk, rather than focusing completely on the milk texture itself, which is what really makes the latte art. So I vowed that I would shift the emphasis of my attention away from the espresso (which feels like a sacrilege) to the milk itself.

This past Thursday, at the Lee Road cafe, I was working the counter, and Jack Kleinhenz, local economic guru (formerly with REI) stepped up to the counter and ordered his usual small latte. I wonder if he could sense my tingling glee as I turned towards the espresso machine. I got the espresso dosed and tamped, fixed in the machine, turned it on and forgot about it. I even used the automatic dosing mechanism, which I usually don't, so that I wouldn't have to worry about stopping the pour at the required volume. In general, this is not a good idea; you always want to watch your espresso, to make sure the stream of coffee looks right! I poured the milk in the steaming pitcher, thought better of the amount I had poured, and added more. There is nothing more frustrating than misjudging the quantity and running out of milk prematurely. In went the steam wand. I stretched briefly, then rolled, all the while watching like a hawk to make sure there were NO BIG BUBBLES (the enemy of latte art). When the pitcher was nice and warm, verging on hot to the touch, I stopped the rolling, turned off the steam wand.

Meanwhile, the espresso was finished. It looked great, despite my purposeful inattentiveness. I poured it in the cup, then started with the milk. For the first part of the pour, the espresso and the milk married and mixed into a light brown. When I saw the HD (high definition) foam (as David Schomer calls it) appear, my heart jumped. Was this going to be it??? Optimist that I am, I started the back and forth sloshing motion that makes a rosetta. The coffee cooperated and stripes began appearing! As the level of liquid reached the top of the cup, I ran the stream of milk down the middle, and a small but identifiable rosetta smiled back at me. I picked up the cup and set it in front of Jack, telling him that this was my first rosetta ever. I wanted to cry, and take a picture, but I didn't think Jack would be up for that much drama first thing in the morning. He just wanted his coffee. He did agree it was pretty, though. And, after his first sip, he even said it tasted good.

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Letter from a superbarista wannabe!

I met Sarah Wilson-Jones last year and my world changed forever. Then, I was a writer struggling with the publication of her first book, the mother of two, and (although a lover of espresso) I made coffee on a stove-top Moka and thought I was was making real espresso. I was utterly ignorant of the nuances of great espresso! I didn't have a clue as to what I was missing! I was desperately in need of guidance.

When we met through a mutual friend, I knew right away there was something special about Carl and Sarah, the owners of Phoenix Coffee. First of all, they had brought their espresso machine with them to the cabin we were all sharing in the Adirondacks. They made my husband and I espresso and we talked late into the night and it seemed, well, pretty perfect.

Since then, my book has been published (it's called "Falling Through the Earth: A Memoir") and I 've begun a quest to understand the richness of Carl and Sarah's lives through the pursuit of their shared passion: coffee. I will be contributing to this blog as a 'sub' superbarista, or superbarista in the making ( I have a feeling that becoming a REAL superbarista takes years and years!). I'll keep you up to date on all my adventures in the world of espresso.

Next week Sarah and I are off to Switzerland, for the World Barista Championships! We'll send back photos from the event and watch the US Barista Champion, Matt Riddle, do his stuff.

If you'd like to tell me about when you realized that you were missing out on great coffee, and decided to change your life, please leave a comment or contact me through my webpage (link below).


Tuesday, May 09, 2006

refurbished La San Marco makes nectar of the gods

It's 5:00 PM and I'm supposed to be leaving the office. Or I should at least be working on distributing these new carrier health insurance applications to our employees. But is that interesting in the least? NOOO... it's not. However, writing about an experience I had with a recently reconditioned (by Dennis, our Espresso Wizard) La San Marco espresso machine, at Banjoe's Cafe in the Continental Concourse of the Cleveland Hopkins Airport is interesting. So I'm doing that instead. I just got back from a follow up visit from Banjoe's, which is why this machine is on my mind. They opened today!!! Hooray for them!

Last week, I visited Banjoe's, before they opened, so that I could do a sort of pre-opening inspection for them. The espresso machine was recently installed and the place was in its pre-opening state of disaster, typical of every restaurant in the week before it opens. My objective was to adjust the grind on their espresso machine and to give Dave and Ben some final tips on how to use the machine. They had already completed some extensive training at the Phoenix Coffee Roastery and also at our Superior Avenue Cafe, so they were already familiar with the basics of espresso preparation. I was just there to impart the finishing touches.

This was my first time working with a La San Marco machine. I noticed that the portafilters were exceptionally deep. I noticed that the portafilters had three ears rather than two, and nicely slanted handles. I noticed that the steam pressure in the steam wand was controlled by a lever rather than a knob. The dosing lever on the grinder was smooth and springy-feeling. All of these features combined to give me a solid, confident feeling about this machine. Usually when I use a new machine, I feel awkward until I make friends with it, but I was comfortable with this machine immediately. The grind at first was a bit too coarse, and the shots brewed in about 17 seconds. But they still tasted acceptable. I adjusted the grind one click finer, and the shot time changed to about 21 seconds. The shot tasted good. One more click of adjustment, and the shot time only increased to about 23 seconds (I was shooting for 25). But the taste of the shot continued to improve. The final few shots I brewed were some of the best I had tasted in a while. Gotta love Phoenix's dark espresso.

The miraculous thing about this is that it is unheard of for a machine to make acceptable shots when the grinder is two clicks out of adjustment. WTF??? On this La San Marco, I would say that the espresso flavor profile improved by about 10% by having the grind and tamp adjusted correctly. On other espresso machines, in other installations, having the grind adjusted incorrectly (which is unfortunately common) results in shots losing at 50-75% of their flavor quality. I can get really excited about a TRADITIONAL espresso machine that produces a good shot of espresso even when the operator is not on top of their game. Maybe this is why Starbucks used La San Marco traditional machines for so many years? Now they have switched to fully automatic machines, which of course are even more consistent, but I am still wedded to the idea of having traditional machines in our stores. Someone has to uphold the art and craft of espresso-dom. Clearly, Starbucks isn't interested in that job anymore.

So you just might see some La San Marco machines at the Phoenix stores. Julie? Ya with me? I think I can get some used ones for us that we can refurbish...

Monday, May 08, 2006

So the drama... of coffee...

Kiley pointed out to me yesterday evening that the amount of drama that he experiences in our coffeeshops is about 10 fold what he experienced when he used to work construction. I didn't argue with him. Although when he was doing construction, he wasn't the manager, and now, as Phoenix's General Retail Manager, he is well aware of the various personality conflicts, the hiring, the firing, the customer stories and the crises that are part of running a coffee shop.

I think I would like to run a business with little or no drama. It would be easier. But where is the fun or challenge in that?

Over the past month, I have had different conversations with three individuals who are interested in somehow documenting coffee or coffee culture... D. wants to write something about it, E. is writing a screenplay, L. is making a film or documentary. Part of the draw about coffee is probably the drama. Like our 2 month old hot water heater breaking on Sunday. Like one of our baristas leaving her shift because her boyfriend got arrested and her dog had to be put to sleep. Like the customer complaining about the barista who wears a dog collar. It never stops. This is a business built on people; our foibles and talents make our coffee what it is.

L. is editing some footage she took of Carl, and trying to determine how to turn it into a film about coffee. We were discussing what else or who else she could put in the film. I told her that I thought Carl is the quintessence of coffee culture. This led to a discussion of coffee culture, and what it is, one of my favorite topics. Laura asked if I thought Starbucks had coffee culture. I said sure, they do, but when you walk in a Starbucks, there isn't that same sense of Something Might Happen that you have when you walk into a Phoenix. Why? Because at Phoenix, things are less corporate, and less structured. The lines are more blurred. Maybe dangerously blurred, depending on your comfort level with these things.

When is a customer just a customer? Some customers verge on employees... like when John Eckendorf goes to get bagels for us. Or just look at how Jeremy got his job at the Lakewood Phoenix. He hung around and helped so much that they decided to hire him. And good thing they did, because Jeremy is awesome. And the line between employee and family member gets pretty blurred too, especially when both of my parents work for/around Phoenix. These blurry lines are arguably both the cause of and the solution for the drama.