Saturday, October 31, 2009

Trick Or Treat, Hon

Joy pours the first press of coffee brewed at project hampden while Jeremy, Rebecca and Kimmy wait to start the vacuum pot and Chemex brews.

Tonight, the very first cup of coffee was brewed at project hampden. A milestone.

With neighbors Ma Petite Shoe hosting the annual Hampden Halloween Costume Contest across the street, what better way to introduce ourselves to the neighborhood than by passing out candies for the children and coffee for the parents? With a bag of the Fazenda San Antonio Brazil from Hines/Origins Organic Coffee in tow, we lugged down to Hampden a setup to brew French Press, Chemex and Vac Pot for our soon-to-be customers.

Truth be told, I originally was only going to do french press at the event. It was our baristas who pushed for multiple brew methods to show off what we were going to be doing when we open. So, along came the Chemex and Vac Pot.

This Is It - Live.

As our team has been getting more comfortable with our methods and practices, I've been stepping back a little to let them run with things. They decided the equipment to bring, they setup and tore down and they did all the brewing and all of the talking. I just kinda hovered in the background in my Wranglers and cowboy boots doing my best Garth Brooks impression.

I have to say: I'm impressed. And proud. Our team greeted the people, talked with them about the coffee and the brew methods and were generally engaging. In essence, they were the kind of baristas that I hoped they would be - and not the typical, chip on the shoulder, pretentious, arrogant, hipster barista you typically find in the "Third Wave."

To be expected, there were a couple of missteps. Maybe a miscue in the brew or a lazy comment, but those were quickly corrected and we soldiered on. It was their first time in the field and I was impressed with their ability to engage the customer and really surprised at how passionately they spoke about the coffee and the brew methods.

More brewing coffee at dusk.

Their choice to bring the additional brew methods was colossal. One coffee three different ways. Now the future customer could taste the difference between methods. No place in Baltimore affords this luxury. Some took the coffee to go. Others stayed and lingered to chat. Some stayed and tried all three brews. Kids came and went. Spiderman, Batman, Scooby, Velma, Parrots, Michael Jackson, Butchers and more. Only two people asked for sugar and cream. Two. Out of maybe a hundred or so served? Not bad.

Most people tried the coffee as is, meaning black. In Towson, perhaps 25% of our customers drink coffee black. Tonight, about 98% of those who came to see us drank it black. I can only guess that it's due to their seeing our crew brewing the coffees, talking about the coffees, engaging the people and developing rapport. Developing comfort and trust with the customer, leading them to giving it a try without sugar and cream.

It's something that I stressed early on. Getting the customer to relax and trust us is key. With that trust, they'll give it a try. That's when we have to deliver - to bolster that trust given us.

It was just a tiny, first step tonight in front of project hampden. But I think it was a great step forward.

Congratulations to Kimmy, Jeremy, Rebecca, Joy and Stephanie for a job well done.

Production Cupping at Spro

The team digs into the morning cupping session.

It's Saturday morning and that's come to mean more training and more cupping. Though this time the cupping is a bit different.

After spending the past few weeks learning how to cup coffees and exploring tastes and their palates, it's time to turn the team loose and start selecting the coffees we will order for the opening of project hampden.

Today we're cupping thirteen coffees from Counter Culture, Stumptown and Ecco Caffe. The program for deciding the coffees goes something like this: 1) cup and taste the coffees and generate flavor notes, 2) develop written descriptions for the coffees, 3) select the coffees for service, and 4) test and determine the "default" brewing method for that coffee.

It's a relatively simple process but, as with most simple things, it's rather laborious and difficult to do. In other words: it's simple, but it ain't easy!

The coffees cupped today (and over the next few days) are as follows:

1 - Shakisso Sidamo, Ethiopia, Counter Culture
2 - Konga Reserve Lot, Kenya, Ecco Caffe
3 - Finca Kilimanjaro, El Salvador, Counter Culture
4 - Finca El Puente, Honduras, Counter Culture
5 - Santa Terezinha, Brazil, Ecco Caffe
6 - Carmen Estate, Panama, Stumptown NYC
7 - La Guatuza, Nicaragua, Ecco Caffe
8 - Gichathaini Reserve, Kenya, Ecco Caffe
9 - La Golondrina, Colombia, Counter Culture
10-Mordecofe, Ethiopia, Stumptown NYC
11-Finca El Injerto Bourbon, Guatemala, Stumptown NYC
12-2009 Holiday Blend Vienna Melange, Colombia, Counter Culture
13-Guayabo, El Salvador, Ecco Caffe

Quite a bit of coffees but there's still more to sample before determining our opening day mix.

Friday, October 30, 2009

DC Cafe Crawl

Alex Brown leads the Friday Cupping at Counter Culture.

The first stop on our DC Cafe Crawl was to the Counter Culture Training Center in the Adams Morgan neighborhood of DC where customer service rep Alex Brown holds weekly cuppings on Fridays at 10am.

After nearly a month of learning and cupping coffees, and the ever-impending opening of project hampden, I figured it was time to really give the crew a plunge into cupping outside of our little World of Spro. It's one thing to taste and cup coffees in your home environment, but how would they manage outside our world? How would they manage at the lab of one of our roasters, amongst industry peers and colleagues? It was time to sink or swim.

Also attending the cupping were the lead barista and sommelier from the soon-to-open Liberty Grill, as well as an assortment of other baristas and a couple of coffee enthusiasts.

I'm happy to say that our crew performed admirably. With a grasp of the basic protocols, they were able not only to cup to industry accepted practices but also pitched in to handle some of the rudimentary functions of cuppings like filling the cups, skimming the tops and clearing down afterwards.

As anyone who's attending cuppings knows, there's a level of stress involved when discussing the flavors. Did you get them "correct"? Were you on "the money"? Or are you some sort of weirdo who can't or doesn't taste what everyone else does? Normal concerns that are typical with anyone just starting in the practices of cupping.

Clever brewing at Counter Culture.

Happily, our crew joined in the conversation with their tasting notes and identified lots of great characteristics and really added to the discussion. The three coffees we cupped were the Finca El Puente from Honduras, Gayo from Sumatra and Aida's Grand Reserve from El Salvador. Here are some of the descriptions;

Lamarie on the Finca El Puente:
"This fresh, medium-bodied coffee surrounds you with a campfire swirl filled with sweet embedded flavors of vanilla, tobacco and toasted almonds. Finca El Puente's brightness will leave your tongue lingering with a smooth and creamy citrus that blends perfectly for any occasion."

Rebecca on the Gayo:
"This rich and savory cup of coffee is for those who take pleasure in the bittersweet taste of dark chocolate. Filled with a strong, full-bodies flavor of nuts, wood and childhood s'mores, leaving you with an aftertaste of warming spices."

And the Group on Aida's Grand Reserve:
" This unique and complex cup of coffee has an abundance of fragrances including grape, vanilla and cinnamon. The aroma is a pleasant sweet smell with hints of nutmeg. After tasting this delicious and fruity cup of coffee, you'll be left with a cornucopia of flavors that linger on your palate wanting more."

For lunch, we enjoyed a selection of Julia's Empanadas on the rooftop garden overlooking the District.

Hanging at Chinatown Coffee.

From there, we made our day down to 5th and H Streets to visit the very new Chinatown Coffee. Many of you know of the fallout between old friend Nick Cho and myself - some of whom have likened it to the split between Jerry Lewis and Dean Martin, so I decided to fire off an email to Nick before we decided to visit Chinatown. I told him that I didn't want to spring a visit on him and to let me know if it would be uncomfortable for him and his crew if I showed up there. Never did get a response, but I guess that's to be expected. He's got other pressing problems to worry about.

There's only one reason I want to check out Chinatown: the Clever Abid brewer. As far as I know, they were the first shop in the nation to incorporate the Clever (not clover) brewer. Basically, the Clever is a full-immersion brewer with Melitta filter. Simply fill the unit with coffee and hot water, wait three minutes or so, then set the cup-actuated brewing device on the top of a cup and it filters the coffee as it passes into the cup. Clever! I ordered a Kenyan from Intelligentsia on the Clever. Pretty tasty.

Chinatown is a long, deep and narrow space. Black, concrete, orange and fluorescent lighting fill the space. The layout is big and spacious but narrows and feels claustrophobic on the customer side by the espresso machines. The female barista at the register seemed more surprised about our arrival with a "where did you all come from?" So much for "hello, how are you?"

The crew at Chinatown is decidedly murky coffee. If you're a fan of murky and their methods and service, then you too will be a fan of Chinatown. We enjoyed our drinks, the cortados were nicely done but the female customer huffing and puffing because the girls were taking pictures in her vicinity made me chuckle. Here's yet another "customer" camping out all day on her computer, taking up real estate, sucking down electricity and consuming bandwith with a nearly empty cup on the side that looks two hours cold, huffing and puffing.

It's people like her that are the reason we will not have Wi-Fi, Internet or electricity at project hampden.

Jeremy and Jenny sample one of Peregrine's signature drinks.

From there, we piled back into VanSpro and headed past the Capitol and up The Hill to the now legendary Peregrine Espresso.

I openly admit that I had not been to Peregrine in the 14 months they had been open. Many of my friends had encouraged me to go, but I couldn't. I had to stay away.

Don't get me wrong, Peregrine owners Ryan and Jill Jensen are great people whom I consider friends. I have to ill-will towards them and always look forward to seeing them again. The truth is that back in early 2008, I led a small investment group in a campaign to put a coffee shop in the same space after murky coffee had been seized by the DC Government for tax evasion. Without knowing that we were bidding against Ryan and Jill, it was a heated battle and a personal one for myself. In the end, Ryan and Jill won the space and put in a great coffee joint. For me, I was a bit burned because had the property owners been upfront about who they wanted instead of asking our group to jump through many hoops, we wouldn't have wasted so much time and effort on the project. It left a distaste for their practices and I felt no compulsion to return.

It's been many months to soothe my senses and I wanted to visit Peregrine because I've been hearing that they're simply the best coffee place in Washington DC. Walk into the shop and it's immediately apparent that while Ryan may have come from a murky lineage, he's shed the murky vibe and gone for a place with clean design, bright, shiny and filled with passionate and friendly baristas.

In fact, it was the friendliness of the staff that our crew noticed the most about the place. Add to that a daily selection of signature drinks for the customers to try and you've got a winner.

Even though he wasn't there when we arrived, Ryan soon appeared after making a delivery and regaled our crew with Peregrine stories and philosophies on our craft and coffee. It was a good way to spend our afternoon.

Barista Champion and Peregrine principal Ryan Jensen busts out science to the Spro crew.

Originally, I wanted us to visit a couple of other places like Tryst and Big Bear but since David was out of town and Lana was no longer with Big Bear, it didn't make any sense to visit unless we could meet with the people that made those places. That's especially true in the case of Lana who built not only Big Bear but resuscitated its' Bloomingdale neighborhood in the process. Quite simply, Big Bear isn't "Big Bear" without Lana.

Moving right along, we headed out to the NorthEast Badlands along H Street to Sova Espresso & Wine. I had been hearing about the opening of Sova for what seemed like years from owner Frank, who spent a bit of time in the murky coffee scene learning about coffee, and was excited to check the place out.

Lamarie, Lindsay and Kimmy chillin' at Sova.

But sadly, I have to write that I was disappointed. Maybe it's because of the hype, but Sova did not live up to my expectations. Listening to Frank regale me with his plans for a place that would be part of the NorthEast revival, visiting the Sova website and just the general feel of its' reputation and I was looking forward to a very slick, clean, hip and modern espresso and wine bar. I was expecting something that I hadn't seen before. Visit the website and it looks very slick. Visit Sova itself and it comes across as just another coffee house - like a fancier murky Arlington. I was disappointed. It was hyped so much in my mind that perhaps no place could live up to that expectation.

Of course, it didn't help much when we rolled into the place and the one barista was busy on the telephone. Too busy to acknowledge that ten people had just rolled into her shop. Not a very good sign. On a positive note, at least when she finished her phone call she didn't give the same gasping expression that the barista at Chinatown gave us. This one, when off the phone, was at least a bit more accommodating.

Much to my chagrin, some of our crew decided they wanted to try a couple of drinks out of the ordinary for us (though more ordinary for most): a mocha and white mocha. I wondered how they would like them. Others went with cappuccinos and I went for the Fetco brewed Nicaragua.

At one point though, I think it was Becks who asked for the brewed Kenya featured on the wallboard menu, only to be told that "someone" had forgotten to change the sign since that was yesterday's brew. Perhaps not a big deal at 7am, but not to have noticed all day long (or worse pretended not to notice) that the sign needed to be changed - it was 3pm.

In spite of the fact that I was disappointed that Sova looked more like a fancy murky arlington than a slick and modern wine bar, we made our way into the back lounge where we enjoyed our final coffees of the day amidst convivial conversation. Drinks were passed around and some noted how they no longer found the mocha/white mocha to their liking. Too sweet.

Hmmm, a mocha now tastes "too sweet"? That's the kind of barista talk that makes me proud...

Barista Road Trip

In the van zooming down the highway at 110mph.

Way back in May, when I first started envisioning training our new baristas, I imagined a two week session of classroom and hands-on workshops where the team would gather on a daily basis and learn the barista craft. Instead, design delays, building delays, permit delays and more delays than I've ever encountered previously, kept pushing everything back until I could wait no longer before hiring the people that would comprise the first barista crew for project hampden.

The first training session started on October 3rd and it's turned out to be group sessions on Saturdays, then smaller, intensive sessions during the week. This has allowed us to discuss common issues as a group, while spending focused time individually to work on skills. Not what I had originally envisioned, but much better than the old espresso workshops I used to teach at the SCAA - those were just madhouses.

And I think the quality of the training is much improved over those days instructing at the SCAA. Back then, I was really just a neophyte, with a year or two of experience. I didn't/couldn't have much depth or understanding of our craft. Today, I feel very different. I've had six years experience as a barista and ten years experience in the field. My understanding of the nuances is much better and I'm better at communicating to our crew what I want.

As such, these training sessions have been a lot of fun and I haven't experienced the frustration I experienced in the past when training baristas. Not to say that the other baristas were worse, because they're not. I think part of the difficulty was that those were all intense, one-on-one sessions, which puts tremendous pressure on everyone. Those sessions were intense and I limited them to two hours per day because I couldn't take more of it - and I'm sure the barista couldn't take more as well.

These sessions have been much longer (up to six hours) but they feel easier, more relaxed and I think the quality of instruction on my part is better. For this group, I've gone outside the box. I've tried to push it beyond what I was comfortable with. Let's give these new barista candidates greater information and control over the tasks at hand. Rather than just tell them about the coffees, let them taste and experience it for themselves. Rather than dictate specifications, let them test and hammer it out. Four weeks of training and no one has completed the espresso requirement. That's major.

Major because espresso has traditionally been our focus. It's what their predecessors spent the most time training. It's still paramount to our program but I've been pushing them towards understanding the flavors of coffee. Week after week after week, it's been cupping, cupping, cupping. They've cupped, tasted, brewed, tasted, tested, tasted and tasted coffee some more. Time to put them to the test.

Sadly, as much as I like my city, Baltimore is very much a cocoon. Six years into coffee and there still isn't another coffeeshop that pushes the envelope of coffee. Sure, there's the fabled Woodberry Kitchen and the ever-striving Atwater's Belvedere Square, but we still don't have a core of places like many cities enjoy. And if you're a barista who wants to see and experience other similar-minded coffeeshops, you have to go elsewhere.

With that in mind, we loaded into VanSpro for a road trip to Washington D.C.

First stop: the Counter Culture Coffee training lab in Adams Morgan for their weekly 10am cupping.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Too Black, Too Strong

"It's just like when you've got some coffee that's too black, which means it's too strong. What do you do? You integrate it with cream, you make it weak. But if you pour too much cream in it, you won't even know you ever had coffee. It used to be hot, it becomes cool. It used to be strong, it becomes weak. It used to wake you up, now it puts you to sleep."
- Malcolm X

Saturday, October 24, 2009

(It's Going To Be) Late Night Mah Jong

Just after 11pm at the mah jong table - the night is still young...

My cousins from San Francisco decided that they would do a weekend trip to Washington DC and stay overnight at the house. Evidently, this means serious mah jong. For money.

Now, I've played quite a bit of mah jong, but these were usually friendly games where we didn't know all the rules. My cousin knows the rules and, obviously, plays quite a bit for money. With specific payout rules for bunot, escalera, doble, secreto and the number of games you've already won as multipliers, even a one dollar game escalates wildly. Good thing I didn't push for a twenty dollar game.

Luckily, I didn't lose money. I made seventy-five cents!

Friday, October 23, 2009

I Must Be Desperate

The Aricha Natural brews away.

With this new tide of seasonality in coffee brings scarcity of the coffees I seem to enjoy most: Africans. While I know quite a number of people detest or despise the fruity natural process of East African coffees, I tend to like them Stumptown's 2003 lot of Ethiopia Harrar and Caffe D'Bolla's 2009 lot of Bonko Black Sun were particularly memorable coffees for me.

Lately, it's been non-stop Indonesian and Central American coffees. Non-stop. One after the other. Over and over again. I'm awash in earthy and bright coffees. And I'm getting tired of it.

Yes, this movement towards seasonality is a good thing, but while I've been able to process and put down foodstuffs like corn and preserves, this whole seasonal coffee thing is still new and storing coffees for the lean times hasn't come to fruition (yet).

Meanwhile, the parade of Central American and Indonesian coffees continues and I'm starting to drag. I need variety and I'm starting to despise this whole seasonality thing. At least when it comes to corn in February, I've got frozen stock from the height of summer to enjoy.

Desperate for some relief, I dug into the deep recesses of the freezer at The Spro looking for something, anything that would offer me a respite. Even that Target Archer Foods brand 2009 CoE El Porvenir was looking tempting. But lo and behold, tucked into a deep corner of the freezer was a little black bag with the green "TW" logo of that Swedish barista champion cum coffee roaster Tim Wendelboe.

Tim had given me this bag back in April while attending the SCAA conference in Atlanta. It was a bag of his Aricha Natural and there was just a little bit left. Maybe I could get a small press pot out of it and onto the scale it went.

Six grams.

Ugh, six grams. Six. Grams. That's not even enough to make an eight ounce cup. Crap, I'm doomed. Maybe I should toss it. Oh no, one whiff of the berry explosion and I had to have it. Six grams be damned, I'm gonna drink it all.

After a quick (and careful) calculation, I determined that six grams would produce 3.3 ounces of coffee. Should I run it through the pour over? Ugh, no. French press is my preferred method of brewing and french press it would be.

In the end, I had about half a cappuccino cup of the Aricha Natural. Delicious and beautiful - even after all this time in frozen storage. Thank you Tim Wendelboe and may I have some more, please?

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Loving Your Chemex

Multiple brew samples from today's Chemex run.

In spite of a fellow up north's encouragement for the industry to hate their Chemex brewers, we've decided to embrace it and bring it into our fold. Barista Candidates K. Eliot and Lindsay have been busy testing and developing chemex brew standards and the results have been surprising.

It seems that the Chemex is a finicky beast indeed. Just a couple of seconds too long during a step and it all goes to hell. The barista is under the gun to brew the Chemex within parameters or face a difficult tasting cup of coffee. Because of its' inherent difficulties, I can see why the guy from up north would encourage people to abandon it, but I'm finding this to be an exciting reason why we need to forge ahead with exploring Chemex and implementing it for production.

The more difficult it is, then the greater the accomplishment should we be able to execute it successfully.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Elation Over at Serendipity 3

Drinking monster "Frozen Hot Chocolates" at Serendipity 3, Caesar's Palace, Las Vegas.

It wasn't until Verna and I were sitting on the veranda outside of Seredipity 3 with the sun on my face that it hit me: freedom.

I was free, and I didn't know what to do with myself.

Unlike employment, running your own business is a 24/7/365 affair. The weight of business is always with you. Even on weekends at home, there's something to be done. There's always something on the mind. It's relentless and exhausting. And it's only something that owners know and feel. When you have a job, you go home and it's pretty much out of mind. When it's your company, there is no escape.

Which is why moments like these are rare. Usually when I'm away, there's some sort of issue that still needs addressing. There's still something on the mind. I haven't taken a real "vacation" in years - no matter where in the world I've gone. A "vacation" meaning a trip void of concern, thought or worry about business.

That's why it hit me so hard sitting there in the sunlight. All of a sudden, I felt as though a tremendous weight had been lifted from my chest. I was released. I was free. I literally floated.

The feeling itself is difficult to describe. Elation comes close. A burden gone kinda tells the story. No worries. No troubles. No thoughts. Just pleasure. Pure, unadulterated pleasure. Nothing to do, nothing to think about, nothing to worry. Amazing. I hoped it would last forever.

It was right about then when Arianna called with scheduling issues. Elation over.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Cupping The Barefoot

Jeremy, Ilenia, Lamarie and Nikki cup samples from Barefoot Coffee.

As we grind closer to the opening of project hampden, the crazies at Barefoot Coffee were excited to send us some samples. I've known Andy Newbom, owner of Barefooot, since I really started getting into the business in 2004. He's a crazy guy with whom I haven't always seen eye-to-eye with (mainly when we served on the Barista Guild of America's Executive Council). Regardless I've always liked the guy and have always respected his passion and the company he's worked so hard to create, which is why it's now an honor to work with Barefoot for project hampden.

If you ever have the chance to visit their original cafe in Santa Clarita, I think you'll find a remarkable place. Dab smack in the middle of a very suburban strip mall is Barefoot - an urban oasis of bohemian coffee amongst soccer moms and technology wizards. The first time I visited in 2004, Andy was just getting started and it wasn't too radically different than most Third Wave shops at the time. When I stopped by again last December, I was amazed at the transformation. That it was possible to create an urban oasis in the middle of suburban hell.

When I went to visit Barefoot again during my brief four-hour stopover in San Francisco this past August (on the way home from the Western Canadian Regionals), I found Andy and company in a mission-style mansion not too far from downtown Santa Clara where everything was churning along. Since it's forty minutes each way, I only had about fifteen minutes to stop in for a chat and a quick tour. After meeting much of the crew and chilling with Andy, I was on my way back to SFO.

Like I said, Andy is a crazy guy. To my mind, there is no one coffee professional in our generation crazier than Andy Newbom. The guy is completely psycho about coffee and creating a rock culture of passionate coffee people. Which should have prepared me for the day that our Barefoot account rep Tony Serrano came-a-calling.

There was Tony, on the phone and just as crazy passionate about coffee as Andy. He was hyper excited about coffee and working with us, which in turn made me even more excited about working with them. Speaking through the phone, across America, in a high-speed, rapid-fire staccato about sending us an assortment of coffees to try. I was so swept up in his enthusiasm, how could anyone say no?

Not that I wanted to say "no" but I wasn't sure if now was the right time to start bringing in coffees for operational evaluation. We don't have a firm opening day yet.

Needless to say, the coffees started arriving and we started cupping. Many of the roasters we work with provide tasting notes with their coffees and Barefoot does the same. However, I think it's important for our baristas to know the coffees so, instead of memorizing the note cards and giving rote recitations of the descriptions, I have them cup the coffees, identify the characteristics and develop a description of the coffee based on their own tasting notes.

I tend to withhold the roasters' tasting notes until they are finished with the descriptions so as not to color their interpretations of the coffees. And while the differences can be starkly different, the commonalities are what I find most interesting. Here's Ilenia's description of Barefoot's Sumatra Gayoland Water Processed Decaf Coffee:

Barefoot Coffee's Sumatra Gayoland Decaf delivers a delicious cup of coffee with milk chocolate flavors and hints of fresh-cut honeysuckle. This crisp, yet thick but never heavy cup leaves a lasting aftertaste that will leave a spritely punch of rich, dark chocolate notes."

Now, here's Barefoot's description:

"Deep and earthy, heavy body and low bass notes heavy chocolate, rich nuttiness, loamy power creamy cherimoya and hints of tropicals."

Saturday, October 10, 2009

The Brew Challenge

Writing their cupping notes on the 8 Estrellas.

Training continues in Towson for our new group of baristas. This weekend's exercise was to cup a coffee, identify its' components, develop a unified description of the coffee, then pinpoint that coffee's preferred brew method.

All of these steps are going to be an integral part of the barista's work. Our baristas need to taste the coffee, identify the flavors and discuss those with interested customers. They also need to understand why a particular brew method has been selected as our "default" choice for that coffee.

Let's say a customer walks in and wants to try the Aida's Grand Reserve. Our baristas have cupped that coffee and identified a brew method that we feel best exemplifies the flavor of that coffee. Of course, our customers have the prerogative to choose any of the brew methods available to them, but we will offer a brew method of our choice for that coffee for those who don't want to ponder aeropress, french press, chemex or eva solo.

Writing descriptions based on their cupping notes.

We started off by group cupping a lot of the Bolivian 8 Estrellas coffee from Square Mile Coffee Roasters in London. James and Anette were kind enough to share some of this coffee with us and I let our candidates loose on the cupping table. It was their second formal cupping and I think they're starting to get the hang of things.

When it comes to cuppings with people who are not very experienced, I tend to encourage them to describe the coffee in whatever way they can. I encourage colors, music, rock bands, seasons, whatever. The important thing for me is that they're expressing the characteristics in one way or another. This starts the dialogue necessary for them to develop their palates. Those "eureka" moments when they equate what they've tasted to a description.

And while the cupping itself is done in silence, the discussion afterwards can take a life of its' own. The 8 Estrellas garnered such descriptions as: woody, chocolate, yogurt, sweet earth, yellow, vanilla tobacco, maple syrup, cinnamon, syrupy, mahogany, wet leaves, slight tart, cider, autumn, heavy, wet chalk, semi-sweet chocolate, orange, peppermint patty and caramel.

Tasting the second round of brews.

Once the discussion was complete, the candidates were each tasked with writing a brief and concise paragraph describing the coffee in under four sentences. And while I was pleasantly surprised that all of them were well-written and conveyed the coffee accurately, only one could remain. So, after a couple of elimination rounds, the group collectively decided the final description:

"8 Estrellas is an aromatic coffee with a complex, smoky, yet tangy fragrance. Its' low acidity allows for a sweet balanced flavor concentrated on notes of autumn. A woodsy and full body leaves a pleasant aftertaste of semi-sweet chocolate and caramel."

I had cupped this coffee previously when it first arrived and this is the description I wrote for the coffee:

"...very sweet with strong notes of caramel. Rich and full with a light acidity. Chocolate, vanilla and toffee notes."

After reading the previous description to the group, they were pleased that they could taste very similar notes in their cupping. But the point I wanted to make was yet to come: that description was written on April 24, 2009. Nearly six months ago.

Between myself and one of the coffee growers I deal with, we've been freezing roasted coffee for over ten years now. While many in the business will argue until they are blue in the face that freezing is destructive to coffee, the unscientific tests I've conducted over the years don't support that destruction.

By now (presuming they're reading this), James and Anette are probably cringing at the fact that I've taken one of their wonderful coffees and subjected it to freezing. Rest assured, the coffee is still delicious.

White board filled with tasting notes, the final description, the brew vote tally and the blue notes are from an "identify the ingredients" challenge where they had to taste and identify the ingredients in a hot sauce.

After lunch, the crew regrouped and broke off into two person teams. The task at hand was to take the description and create hand brewed coffees as close to the description as possible. Thirty minutes to brew up to three attempts and bring the best example to the judging table.

The Spro isn't really a small space. As far as espresso bars go, it's pretty spacious. Over twenty-eight feet of linear bar space and a twenty-five foot aisle that's three feet wide with a back counter that's twenty feet long, which is ample for up to four baristas, but when you start cramming ten baristas, plus the actual working shift baristas, it starts to get really claustrophobic behind the bar.

As the girls broke off to prepare examples of Chemex, Aeropress, Eva Solo, Syphon, French Press and Pourover, I started to feel like Gordon Ramsay in the television show Hell's Kitchen during one of the challenges, barking out the remaining time and putting the pressure on. Three attempts at a brew but only one can be brought to the table. Definitely stressful.

With time running out, the girls were doing a good job brewing, tasting and evaluating their coffee, making adjustments and doing it again. As the clock ticked down the drinks started coming out from behind the bar to the judging table.

As we gathered around and started tasting, it became apparent that there were no cut and dry winners in the challenge. No one coffee exemplified what we had tasted in the cup. Back to the brew!

Round Two of the brewing challenge had the teams work up two more brews in twenty minutes, bringing their best back to the judges table. This time, the tastings revealed a distinct winner: french press, with the Chemex and Syphon in 2nd and 3rd. Sadly, neither the Aeropress, Eva Solo or Pourover had any supporters with the 8 Estrellas.

In the real world, a group of baristas will do exactly what we did today: cup the coffee, develop a description and prove the default brewing method for the coffee. Had this been an actual production coffee, the default brew would be french press. Rest assured that the new Spro will not be serving six month old frozen coffee.

Thursday, October 08, 2009

Training Baristas

Ilenia and Rebecca work out details on the Syphon.

I don't think that in the ten years I've been in business have we hired such a large staff all at once. Even in the heyday of Jay's Shave Ice, where our ranks swelled to twenty-five, I don't think we brought on so many people at the same time. With only a few weeks to go and my time split between overseeing the buildout and running the company, finding the time to bring everyone up to speed is proving itself to be quite the challenge.

Training to be a Barista for the new Spro is not easy. There's a lot to learn about procedures, philosophy, service methods - and that doesn't include coffee knowledge or brewing skills. It's a challenge all the way around. For the new barista candidates, I push on them tough and high standards. I'm expecting and demanding their best. The first round is easy because they're just learning the ropes and receiving the technical details. As the rounds progress, I become tougher and more demanding. I want them to excel. I'm not interested in producing baristas and coffee that's "good enough" for Baltimore. I'm intent on producing baristas and coffee that will be nationally notable.

Lindsay and Kimmy ponder the mysteries of the Chemex.

Maybe that sounds egotistical, and since I don't like to lie - perhaps it is egotistical. I want us to excel. I don't want us to be just another coffee house. If that's the case, then I might as well screw off and go back to making movies - at least then I'll be making wild amounts of money while stabbing myself in the neck waiting for The Lord to call me to Pasture.

Personally speaking, I think the field of candidates we have today is a great one. Lots of energy, enthusiasm and potential. I'm excited and enthused that we have such a great group of people. Back in the day of Jays Shave Ice, I used to do personality tests as part of the hiring process and I found it really quite interesting that most of our people back then fell into a couple of personality profiles. While I'm not doing personality tests at The Spro, I've noticed a lot of similarities in interests and lifestyles amongst the new candidates.

Bonnie addresses the finer points of Japanese-style cold brewing.

Of course, what I'm planning for Hampden is going to be something a bit different than what the new candidates or most people think a coffee house is about. Our plan is to take things further, to refine and finesse what we do - and, to borrow a term from my barista class in Colombia, do things with Eleganza.

There's a lot to learn and I'm excited for them. It reminds me of the time I spent in Seattle with The Two Johns and Bronwen, learning all I could about coffee and the craft of Barista. Those were fun and heady times and I remember them fondly. While my experience was more casual absorption these candidates are learning our ways in a more structured setting. One that I hope has been successfully designed to build upon each other resulting in a Barista that understands not only coffee and brewing but also service and customer interaction.

For me, it's been a tremendous learning experience as well. Unlike the relatively unstructured nature of training a solo barista one-on-one. Doing a large group has forced me to think about the progression of learning, the structure and how to present the material in a manner that is accessible.

Give us a few weeks then come visit and join us for a coffee.

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

First Fire

Attempting to force myself to believe that the heat of fire will cleanse my soul.

I seem to be having a rough (read: shitty) week that seems to compound itself. Yesterday was probably the worst when it became difficult to contain my mood. Today was better since I was able to conceal my thoughts better from those around me.

In an attempt to soothe my soul, I headed over to Bud's house for an evening of raging fires and a big cigar. Here in Baltimore, autumn is looming on the horizon with the leaves slowly turning ochre and the weather teasingly crispy in the evening. It's not cold per se, but it's pretending.

The nice thing about the colder weather are the raging fires at Bud's house while smoking cigars. It's not the dead of winter when it's too cold to do anything outside but it is crispy enough to build fires. Happily, Bud is well equipped for raging fires with piles upon piles of dried firewood. Big fire, tasty cigar and good conversation amongst friends is a recipe for a good evening.

Too bad the evenings' niceties wasn't enough to quell my anxiety.

Spro Swag

A VWR branded PolyScience immersion circulator, Mahlkonig VTA6S, Bunn tower, Tru Bru and a bunch of other gadgets.

One of the best things about opening a new place is the massing of equipment that precedes the opening. Suddenly, there's a need and resources (supposed financing) to buy aplenty. From benign under mounted stainless steel sinks to big, honking grinders, it's fun and exciting - even though it may threaten the company's bottom line.

Meanwhile, the garage is full of equipment waiting to move to project hampden and The Spro of Towson is slowly filling up with equipment that has nowhere else to go.

Here are some of the equipment highlights for project hampden:

Mahlkonig VTA6S
Compak K10 WBC
Compak R80
Bunn G1
PolyScience Immersion Circulators
Brew Towers
Randell FX Refrigeration
Tru Bru
Eva Solo
La Marzocco (duh, of course!)
Liquid Nitrogen Dewars
Multivac C200
Sodir SEM60
Ecco Caffe
Counter Culture