Saturday, March 28, 2009

Thinking In A Vacuum

Getting close to the action.

Now that I've returned from my trip to the Pacific Northwest for the United States Barista Championship, it's back to work. Back to doing the things we do best and part of that is getting ready to push new levels of coffee service.

For the past couple of years, while the trend of American Third Wave Coffee Shops has been to embrace automated technology (a la Clover) or low tech versions of brewing methods we've been moving away from (pour over), I've been seriously pondering the implementation of the vacuum pot brewers or "syphon" as many call them.

Wildly popular in Japan, vacuum brewing is relatively unknown in America - even though the technology itself is about 100 years old. Truth be told, it's a cumbersome, messy and somewhat lengthy method of brewing coffee. Compared to Clover's push-button simplicity and the pour over ease of use, vac pots are downright lunacy in a commercial setting - I've never said I was smart.

What I like about vac pot is the drama. The theatrics. The visual stimulation of brewing coffee. It's interactive. It's entertaing. It's educational. Instead of being a button pusher or just some knob pouring water into a paper filter, the barista is working alchemy and creating magic for the customer. There's a bit of mysticism in the whole glass contraption and boiling water thing. Best of all, the flavor in the cup can be quite stellar indeed.

But there's a downside.

Achieving that miraculous cup is elusive at best. Evidently minor variations in dose, grind and stirring technique can bring a brilliant cup of coffee crashing down around you - leaving you with a customer wondering what kind of hocus-pocus you're trying to pull on them with this dreck you call coffee.

When the time came to build a new coffee experience, I knew that we had to take our concept at The Spro and push it even further. Replicating The Spro would just be boring and wouldn't push us to grow. We needed to build something new and different and while some of my friends pushed the pour over pretty hard, I knew vac pot was the way to go.

Don't get me wrong, pour overs can make some very nice coffee. But, quite frankly, it's just boring. How much of a tool does it take for some schelp to stand in front of a cone filter and pour hot water over coffee? Yes, it's to order. But is it theatrical? Is there any drama? Does it really take that much skill? Is it even exciting? Well, it was for me back in 2005 when I saw them doing it at Royal Coffee in Berkeley. But today, in 2009, as a "new" brew method? Not so much.

Listening to the pour over pundits and you'd think pour over is the Second Coming of Christ Almighty (well, now that Clover has become their Judas). For my money, I might as well go out and buy a Fetco Extractor brewer because it delivers the same thing and faster.

A variety of tests at The Spro.

Over the past few months (and especially the last couple of days), I've been testing different vac pot brew methods and I've heard the gamut of approaches. From the seriously technical who insist that the coffee must be stirred X amount of times, to the Japanese who don't really care about the number of times stirred - just that a stirring and mixing occurs. I've tasted very light, tea-like coffees and extremely heavy, over-extracted coffees. I've read lots of online resources about technique and listened to quite a few baristas waxing poetic about their methods.

Quite frankly, it's bewildering.

Instead, I've taken the old-fashioned approach. Coming up with a baseline of standards and then running test variations from there. A little more coffee, a little less coffee. A little finer grind, a little coarser grind. Stir here, stir there. Crisscross here, make an "X" there. Some were good, some were bad - some were really bad. In the end, I decided to call up a friend.

For a long time, I knew that vac pots were the way to go. I wanted the new place to offer only vac pots. Gone would be The Spro's method of French Press coffee service. I envisioned a multi-unit vac pot station with many pots brewing simultaneously to service the morning rush. It would be immense. People would line up hungry for a cup of beautifully handcrafted coffee. Angels would trumpet our arrival and women would throw themselves at my feet and tear at my shirt.

But that location and a few others fell through and we've been in a holding pattern ever since (and I have a case of new shirts waiting to be torn).

John Piquet prepares to attack.

Fast forward to the waning hours of 2008 at the end of December when I flew out to Salt Lake City to check out what John and Yiching Piquet were doing at Cafe D'Bolla. It was there that I formed a new vision for what vac pot service could be. For Cafe D'Bolla, vac pot coffee meant you sat at the syphon bar and your coffee was made to order just for you. You sat there and conversed with John about the coffee. A dialogue ensued with one of the most hardcore operators in America.

At the D'Bolla bar, your coffee was exquisitely prepared and served in estate Noritake china cups of a very specific shape, size and porcelain density. It was specific because John had spent untold years researching and testing the proper vessel to carry your coffee and deliver maximum flavor. This was thinking about coffee beyond how I thought about coffee. This guy was operating on a wholly different level.

And when I say that John is the most hardcore operator in America, I mean it. Lots of people in this "Third Wave" of coffee position themselves as being "hardcore" - only to find out that their cafes look like hell, offer commercial syrups and 20z cup sizes just like every other Tom, Dick and Harry in the coffee business.

Piquet isn't like that. He's so focused on quality in the cup that he runs the place by himself: to control quality. Sure, you can have one of the finest brewed cups in America at Cafe D'Bolla but if you're expecting to add milk and sugar, think again. This guy has gone toe-to-toe with customers over that kind of breach. Never mind that the guy with the latte can pull some sugar and cream from the condiment bar, the vac pot customer is expected to be there for the full sensory experience of the coffee.

There are times when I know my business partners (or proposed business partners) must think I'm absolutely insane. Vac pot service has got to be one of them. Why make it more difficult? Why not just go out and get a drip brewer? Or stay with what you know and have proven (french press)?

Well, why not? Are we not striving to be the best at our craft? Are we not striving to offer the highest quality? Then why would I spend $11K on a push-button automatic machine and not a similar amount on a push-button Franke super-automatic espresso machine?

We make it harder because we strive for excellence.

I'll admit though, there is something alluring about the simplicity of pour over. Just bang, bang, bang and you've got four filters filled with a slurry of coffee and water, and a few minutes later, you've got four cups of coffee walking out the door. It's nice. It's fresh. But God, is it mind-numbingly boring to do and to watch. At least when you watch a Fetco Extractor brewer there are blinking lights to entertain you.

Jay Egami rocks the bar at SCAA Minneapolis.

Rewind a bit to early December 2008 when I took a trip out to San Francisco solely for the purpose of meeting with UCC's Jay Egami and to see the vac pot bar heating system he is currently importing into the United States. It's a very sexy-looking multi-gang halogen light heating bar that can brew three or five vac pots simultaneously. Honestly, there is no vac pot heater that looks better or dazzles people more. It is true Coffee Porn. It's Coffee Sex on Cocaine. I would love to have one, but at $20,000 for the five group, one must consider ones' money market account.

Watching a true syphon barista work one of these bars (like the Japanese Syphon Champion at last years SCAA Trade Show) is simply amazing artistry. The stirring, the motions, the pouring. It's like Coffee Kabuki. It's the kind of interaction I want to bring to the next coffee experience.

At The Spro, I'm starting to get a bit fizzy with all the coffees I'm tasting. Seven tests and counting. Soon the count will escalate to eleven and beyond, but for now, I'm feeling a bit stuck. Minor variations in grind setting and dosage are yielding wildly differing results. One notch here on the Mahlkonig Kenya and that delicate balance we might have been approaching in the last test has been lost. I'm feeling wonky and decide that I need a little help.

When one thinks of Florida one doesn't think "coffee." Gainesville has more to do with Gators than Gethwumbini but not too far off the freeway is the lair of Anthony Rue and Volta Coffee. It's about 10:30 in the morning, I give Anthony a ring and he answers on the fourth ring. Hmmm, he answers his own phone, nice touch.

Of all the people I know in the coffee business, Anthony is the only one who seems to actually "get it" when it comes to bringing together coffee and cuisine. His depth and understanding of cuisine and ingredients never fails to surprise me - and he's the only one to get that As The Veneer Of Democracy Starts To Fade is from Mark Stewart.

While in Portland for the USBC, we had some great discussions about cuisine (and sometimes about coffee). One of the most interesting discussions was the grasp of baristas over how coffee goes with cuisine and, perhaps more importantly, whether or not the judges themselves understand coffee and cuisine (and how it goes together) to accurately assess a signature drink.

One of the popular routes this year with competition baristas was to discard that familiar chocolate and cardamom with coffee routine and go for something "culinary" - which typically meant identifying certain flavor components in the espresso, like blueberries, and then adding actual blueberries to some sort of infusion to boost that aspect of the flavor. Interesting? Well, it's cute. Compelling? Hardly. Challenging? Not at all.

After a few minutes of discussion (in the middle of Volta's service), I'm off and ready to blaze new trails in vac pot refinement. Armed with Volta's brewing standards in hand, I give it a try. Not bad. Actually, it's pretty darn good and the best results I've had all morning. A finer grind and restraint in stirring is yielding some tasty results. Not exactly the body and flavor I'd like to present but we're getting closer.

Brewing coffee at Blue Bottle in San Francisco.

Later, I'm on the email horn with John Piquet asking for his syphon wisdom. Again, the approach is a bit different but I'm starting to narrow down even further what and how we're going to do things: 3 cup vacuum pot, hot water from the water tower, boil, connect both halves, allow the water to rise, add coffee, stir to saturate, brew for 35 seconds, stir at the end of brew to create a vortex and pull from heat.

The testing continues over a couple of weeks and untold servings of coffee. During this period, I've reached a level of comfort where it's time to start getting customer feedback and start serving the actual brew to customers using whatever our pressed coffee of the day happens to be.

I've spent a lot of time in other peoples' coffeeshops over the years just hanging out or checking out what they do and no brew method captures the attention and minds of the average consumer like the halogen heated vacuum pot. "It's alchemy," they say. Or they might ask: "Is that a bong?" That, or an over-glorified crack pipe. But since there's no inlet hole, sucking any sort of burning substance out of it is an exercise in futility.

Whatever they might think it is, the important point is that it grabs their attention and they ask. The Spro is located in a public library where hundreds of non-coffee drinkers pass on a daily basis, but one look at the vac pot in action and they want to stop and ask questions It starts the conversation about coffee and what coffee can be.

Once they see the lights and the boiling water, they're fascinated. They get closer. They're ready to chat. From "is it a bong" we can go as deep as necessary to engage the public about coffee and what we do. For most people, coffee is something commercial and anonymous. It's something housed in a black and silver airpot. The brewing of coffee is typically hidden from view but with vac pot, it's front and center - and ready to mingle.

They ask. They prod. It looks cool. It stimulates an interest in the regular person that only the hardcore coffee geek would find in a Clover. And compare it to pour over where the customer has the great pleasure of watching a wet slurry of coffee and water slowly drip its' way into the cup below? Watching the blinking lights on a Fetco is more fun than that.

The attention garnered by the vac pot encourages engagement and generates questions. Suddenly, we've stumbled upon a way to talk enthusiastically about coffee with a segment of the population that had little interest in our product and our craft and now they can see it in a very visceral way. They can see for themselves that this method requires mastery of craft without us having to verbalize it (and thus cheapen its' meaning).

Even the simple and perhaps condemning "why?" is a question that can be used to bring the customer around. Why go to all this trouble? Why use this device? Now, we can discuss how different brewing methods diminish or heighten certain aspects of a coffee's flavor and how some coffees taste "better" with certain brewing methods. Now, we've just entered into a level of geekdom that most people would never have allowed us to engage - and all because its' the theatrics of the method that introduced us to them.

Sometimes as I sit around pondering the future of The Spro, our approach to craft and where we want the company to go into the future, I wonder if vac pot is just batty. It just looks difficult. It's difficult to master. It's quite expensive and I expect the on-going cost to be quite high as well. Worse: it could be absolute hell during the morning rush. And it's going to require a whole new way of thinking to approach vac pot brewing in a production environment.

A number of operators still use other brewing methods as their primary brew, and use the vac pot to augment their production and/or highlight "special" coffees. I like that approach and, if we took that path, would allow us to maintain our french press cup service while offering vac pot. But to my mind, that seems the easy way out for us. The goal is to find the way towards making vac pot service our primary method of cup brewing. That means it has to be efficient and as quick as we can do it without sacrificing quality while still allowing us to engage the customer in a manner that is meaningful to them.

It's still a long road towards that end but we're moving towards it everyday.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...


Can you tell me from where I get the Halogen vac pot heater?