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

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Slippery java and New Guinea vanilla highlights

Today I went through and tasted and brewed 13 of our coffees. It was an adventure. I have never tasted that many coffees in one day, and it was probably too much. Thank goodness for the lunch break. Then I spent the afternoon trying to normalize my heart rate. Whatabuzz.

Joanna, Leah, Dawn, Will, Brenden, Carl and I had a great time coming up with new ways to describe coffees that we experience on a daily basis. It was such a treat to focus on the precise sensations that make up each brew; there are myriad components to each one.

Some highlights..

  • Costa Rican has a penetrating, sweet acidity that lingers on the end of your tongue.
  • We found a pleasantly starchy aroma in the Mexican.
  • The Monsoon Malabar has an interesting and very distinct ferny, almost wheatgrass aroma.
  • I got a distinct blueberry taste and aroma in the Yirgacheffe.
  • And Java is almost slippery in its texture. How does that coffee do that?
  • I smiled when I sipped the Sulawesi. Nothin' more to say about that other than I just love it.
  • Guatemalan is as rich as their traditional, colorful weavings, from body to acidity and aroma, that coffee has it all. No wonder Carl loves it.
  • Papua New Guinea has a subtle vanilla aroma and is reminiscent of good Hawaiian coffees.
  • Colombian smells better than any other coffee. It just smells exactly how you want coffee to smell. And it has a concise flavor profile. So it's good for gulping.
  • Kenyan is a pinky-lifting coffee. Elegant.

Here's the complete list of what we tasted today...

Brazilian Cerrada
Celebes (Sulawesi)
Colombian Supremo
Costa Rican SHB
Ethiopian Yirgacheffe
Guatemalan SHB
Hawaiian Kauai
Hawaiian Kona
Java Blawan
Kenyan AA
Monsoon Malabar
Papua New Guinea

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Tapping the portafilter creates channeling

Dennis, our frequently opinionated Espresso Wizard, expressed concern to me today that our baristas are tapping the side of the portafilter with the tamper after they tamp and before they polish. This did not come as a surprise to me; I also tap the side of the portafilter after the tamp and before the polish. Dennis says that this is a "No No" because the tapping action ruins the carefully and uniformly tamped coffee matrix that you have just created, and makes channeling (uneven extraction) very likely. I understand why he says this, but I don't agree quite yet. I have to check it out for myself, which means pulling two shots with the same grind, dose and tamp, one without the tap and one with the tap.

Any thoughts, baristas?

Friday, June 09, 2006

The mystery of dark flecking

I figured it out. Who-hooo! I now know the secret of the dark flecking that is required in order to score anything over a "2" in a barista competition. At least I figured it out on an Astra machine. On our Astra Gourmet machine, that we have at our training center at our Roastery, in order to get a crema that has all three required colors in it, you have to use a bottom-less portafilter. And voila, dark flecking.

The colors that are required are hazelnut, dark brown and reddish reflections. The "dark brown" refers to the elusive dark flecking.

I stole this picture from James Hoffman's blog, because it illustrates the colors I'm talking about.

I was practicing pulling shots with Caitlin and Meri at the Roastery and we got it, thanks the "naked" portafilter. It's so sexy watching the shots out of this thing, too.

Alba at Astra told me that the naked portafilters that they made for their machines because I asked for them have been selling like hotcakes! I thought that was cool. Now I need to get them in use at all of our stores. Because that's apparently the only way we are going to get dark flecking. We can get the hazelnut and the reddish reflections, just fine, but the dark flecking has been baffling me. Especially today at the Superior Ave cafe. All the shots I pulled had pretty much monochrome crema. Bummer. Maybe it's that machine, I'm not sure. It's the Saeco/Gaggia.

The other exciting thing that happened today is that I got a complementary Duet tamper from Reg Barber. I brought it to Lee Road with me immediately and tried it out. Yowsa is that thing sexy! Reg and his crew turn each tamper by hand on their lathes in their shop in British Columbia. So cool. It feels like something that was made with love.

Thursday, June 08, 2006

Phoenix Lee Road Baristas, photography by Charlotte

On a beautiful Wednesday Open Mic night, here are some pictures that Charlotte shot of our glamorous Lee Road staff...

Michella and Chaya
Caitlin and her puppy Luna

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

10 things to build coffee culture

What can coffee fans do to build coffee culture?
  1. Talk to the baristas in the local coffee places. Ask them questions about coffee. Leave them a nice tip.
  2. Meet the owners of independent coffee shops. Ask them what they love about their job.
  3. Learn more about coffee origins. Example: if you like Colombian, is it wet or dry processed?
  4. Host a coffee tasting in your home. Brew up a few different ones side by side and compare.
  5. Buy a French Press and use it. It'll become your best friend.
  6. Show up to the events that your local coffee place hosts.
  7. Tell your friends about your favorite local coffee place and why you like it. Invite them to meet you there for coffee.
  8. Plan a trip to a coffee origin and tour a farm or plantation while you're there.
  9. When you go out to eat, ask your server what coffee they serve and what they know about it, including who roasts it and what kind of bean it is.
  10. Visit coffee shops in other cities and ask them questions, too.

Sunday, June 04, 2006

Costa Rica or Bust

We're officially announcing our trip to Costa Rica in January of 2007. We're going to be visiting Fair Trade Coops and small farms around Costa Rica, as well as a dry and a wet mill, as well as doing some touristy things, like the cloud forest, beaches, hot springs, and horseback riding. Details will be posted on the Phoenix website soon, but the bottom line is that $1988 includes your airfare, lodging, ground transportation and most meals for 7 days. Plus, you get to enjoy our sparkling Phoenix personalities all week long.

Phoenix baristas will be hosting some fun fundraising activities over the next few months, including specially marked bags of Costa Rican coffee, the $ from this coffee will 100% go towards our trip. Also, look for a 50/50 raffle, car washes, a Phoenix patio/basement rummage sale on Lee Road, and on July 13th, Dunk A Barista on Lee Road, for the Cedar Lee Street Fair.

Costa Rica or Bust!

Saturday, June 03, 2006

The yoga of coffee

As a judge at the US Barista Championships in April, sweat broke out on my forehead when I had to enumerate each barista's weaknesses on their score sheet, so as to justify the scores I awarded. As a prep timer at the World Barista Championships in May, my eyes were wet with tears in genesis as I had to force an enthusiastic and sparkly competitor from Kenya away from the grinder, the base still covered with messy coffee grounds. Her time was up. After months of careful preparation, she had failed to allow enough time to properly adjust the grind before her performance started.

My close involvement with the barista competitions has given me the opportunity to look at my relationship to competition. Winning and losing. Comparison to others. My children go to a Montessori school, which means that they don't get grades. I read Punished by Rewards by Alfie Kohn several years ago, and have adapted my business practices to reflect the premise of the book: external rewards (the carrot and stick method) undermine intrinsic motivation. It is important to pay people well, and provide a secure, prepared environment for success. I have seen that short term competitions will undermine long term interest in the task itself (such as selling coffee beans).

As I have watched the baristas practice and perform, I have contemplated competing myself. I have contemplated having a Phoenix barista or two compete. I have contemplated judging at future competitions (Tokyo '07!!!). This also means that I have contemplated the logistics of all of the above... the expense, the time, and the potential rewards and paybacks, immediate, long term, tangible and intangible. The present result of my contemplation has been to identify the question: What would be the most appropriate role for us Phoenixers in these barista competitions?

On Wednesday, I sat with Julie Hutchison, proud proprietor of the Lakewood Phoenix, and her charming baby Gabriel, enjoying the warm vibe of the Lakewood Phoenix and discussed this topic. I told Julie that I have always been more interested in collaboration than in competition. I thought about my opinion that success seems to be a matter of making external circumstances and involvements jive as closely as possible with one's true inner nature, or essence. Success for Phoenix Coffee might not mean that we have to have a Phoenix barista win the World Barista Championship. That's probably not "us". That might be a job for Intelligentsia Coffee. Matt Riddle came damned close this year.

Julie was quiet for a moment. I was quiet, too. Then she said, "We're the yoga of coffee. We practice coffee, we don't compete." This statement rang so true to the nature of the Phoenix. Both Julie and I happen to love yoga. Yoga has no pre-defined outcome; the practice of it is what is so interesting and rewarding, all by itself. Espresso is the same way. When a barista invests attention, intention and love into the process of espresso preparation, and is backed by growers and processors and roasters who have also invested similarly, her tongue, heart and mind are immediately rewarded with dazzling sensation and soulful satisfaction.

Friday, June 02, 2006

Tampers are coming!

Reg Barber tampers with Phoenix logo are about to be ordered... now I just need to figure out what diameter to order. What size are your portafilters?

I sat next to Reg on the plane to Switzerland and had a blast talking tampers. They do custom logos!

Phoenix's Ethiopian brewed in a French Press

I brought home some Ethiopian Harrar beans a few days ago and brewed them first in my automatic drip coffee maker, then in my French press for comparison. In the auto drip coffee maker, the coffee was too underdeveloped to accurately compare to the Stumptown Ethiopian that I brought home from Switzerland. The Stumptown had been underdeveloped, too; all blueberry and not much actual coffee flavor. I think home auto drip coffee makers just don't get hot enough. Furthermore, this brewer has a flat bottomed basket, which I don't like either. I think the cone shaped baskets develop a better flavor for some reason.

So I brewed both in French presses and was not disappointed. French press is always a good method for analyzing coffee flavor. The Stumptown Ethiopian (which I now think might have been mislabeled as a Sidamo; I think it was actually a Harrar) was a bit sour. The blueberry flavors that had been so pronounced in the auto drip brew method turned rancid in the French press. I would conclude that this coffee would be best brewed in a commercial automatic drip machine, which is probably how the Stumptown folks designed it to be consumed.

The Phoenix Ethiopian, which is definitely a Harrar, brewed up very complex and satisfying. I am hard-pressed to describe the flavor more than that, there was so much going on in the cup. There was some acidity, good body (this was French press after all) and the aroma was noticeably present as well. I did detect very subtle blueberry hints in the aroma, but not much blueberry in the cup. I am now thinking that maybe our Sivetz roaster tends to develop all of the flavors in a bean more equally, resulting in coffees that are more similar to one another flavor-wise. Coffee flavor consistency is one of the advantages that Michael Sivetz has always touted, and something that we have always been proud of, but the trade-off for that may be that it becomes more difficult to distinguish one varietal from another. Good coffee should have well balanced characteristics, which this Ethiopian did. I drank all of it, which is another acid test for me. There was no coffee sitting in my cup 20 minutes later.

Carl has been adjusting the water quench level as well as some of the roast temperatures. I am interested to see if his adjustments will bring out any of the coffees idiosyncracies a little more.