Monday, November 16, 2009

Hola Managua!

Dons Octavio, Julio and Dona Rouki explore the sushi boat at the Barcelo Resort.

I've landed in Managua where our host, Julio Peralta, has informed us that, once again, we're expecting: A) Riots, B) Revolution and maybe even C) Civil War.

When we were here last November, the elections had just passed, tensions were high and protests closed parts of the city around us, always threatening to escalate into something I hadn't experienced before. Turns out that the supreme court has decided that it's constitutional for the current president to seek re-election and that has the opposition a bit upset and ready to protest.

Interestingly enough, protests of this nature don't happen spontaneously and just erupt. Seems like they are well planned out so that the local citizens can prepare alternate travel routes or stock up on supplies. The protest is scheduled for Saturday outside of the mall where the barista championship will be held. Because of this, they've decided to cut the schedule short with the championship on Thursday and Friday so that on Saturday we can either head for the hills or watch Managua burn from our hotel vista. Either way, it beats another lazy afternoon in Baltimore.

Meanwhile, the hotel seems to have lost Scott Conary at the airport and Jose is scheduled to arrive the next evening. All in all, it just seems like another day for the traveling barista judges. Happily, the hotel pool is refreshing and there's lots of fresh fruit juices here in Central America.

Convenient! Arrive E11 Depart E10

Friday, November 13, 2009

Waiting To Be F24

Whole Foods Aged Coffees

Oh look: Roasted on October 2, 2009.

I'm driving around Baltimore seeking out coffee from local roasters and it's days like this that I really start to feel that "Smalltimore" is really "Sprawltimore" as there is no concentration of coffee roasters in one part of the city.

First, it's down to Highlandtown to pick up a coffee from Higher Grounds where the coffee had to be roasted that morning because it's still warm in my hands. Then, after a little sleuthing, it's over to Greektown where I've found the roast facility for Bluebird Coffee in an industrial complex that is both scary and the perfect movie location. Sadly, Bluebird is closed and it doesn't look like they keep any sort of regular hours making it near impossible to plan a visit for coffee.

And here's one from September...

However, Bluebird's website states that I can buy their coffee at the Whole Foods in Mount Washington, so off I go. Now, some of you in Baltimore may be asking "what about Zeke's?" that now famous, nearly ubiquitous Baltimore coffee roaster. Zeke's is located way over in Lauraville, which is a bit of a pain in the butt to drive to and since they're still at the Towson Farmer's Market on Thursday, I'll just go there.

My intent really is to go to the roasters themselves and ask them, much like I asked the girl at Higher Grounds, which coffee are they most excited about this week? Which coffee best exemplifies what they do? Whatever that coffee is (as long as it's not a blend or flavored), I'll take it. It's why I drove down to Highlandtown and Greektown and why I'll wait for the Zeke's guy to set up his booth in Towson.

Then there's the well-known Baltimore Coffee & Tea in Timonium. I've been going there for miscellaneous odds and ends for years but I fear going there because every time I leave I smell like chemical flavoring. In the showroom, they leave their coffees in open-topped barrels for all to see and they have a sea of flavored coffees, filling the space with the noxious aromas of inter-mingling hazelnut, peppermint and whatever ungodly chemical concoction people like having their coffee sprayed with. If only they had cap hop service...

Wow. May. Wow.

Figuring that I might as well go for it, I reluctantly head to Whole Foods. To be honest, in spite of my penchant for quality, I almost never shop at Whole Foods. I much prefer what's fresh and in-season at the farmer's markets to the rabidly overpriced, rich white suburbanite and sanitized experience that is Whole Foods. That's not to say that the stuff they sell isn't of decent quality but I have to be in a real pinch to go there.

And here's the reason why. Lameness. White Suburban Lameness. A visit to their coffee rack and they've got a selection of local roasters like Mayorga (DC), One Village (Philadelphia), Higher Grounds and Bluebird. On Bluebird's website they list a selection of single-origin coffees but at Whole Foods all they offer is blends.

Blends. The choice of Lame Suburban America, which really isn't a choice. Hell, I don't think these people can tell the difference between Dodge Podge and Shorebird blends. Arrgh - I'm not going to get into it but there are no single-origin coffees to choose from.

I'm about to consider a blend when I spot the roast date on the bag of Santa Lucia Estate Coffee: October 2. Please tell me that's October 2, 2009 and not earlier. It's the middle of November. That coffee is dead. I decide to check the other bags of coffee and it only gets worse. September 19th on a bag of Bluebird but the one that takes the cake and breaks the back is the bag of Higher Grounds Coffee dated May 2nd. I left empty-handed.

Glad that I went down to Highlandtown for my bag of Higher Grounds...

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Letting Your Chickens Run Loose

Kevin Shaar - from the Barista Del Mundo episode "The Wife Works In Town"

I just read an article that forecasts difficult times ahead for farmers and those of us who prefer thoughtfully produced food. Joel Salatin, owner of Polyface Farm in Virginia and featured prominently in Michael Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma relates difficulties he's faced with neighbors, suppliers and even the government regarding his decision to raise farm animals humanely, feed them natural food, and raise them naturally.

A critic of Salatin's, who refused to sell him sawdust, criticized him stating:
"You let your chickens run loose. You abuse your cows because you don't vaccinate them. You don't want your cows taking antibiotics. I hate everything you stand for."

Wow. My first reaction was to compare Salatin's experience with that of our local farmers, such as David Smith of Springfield Farm, whose desire to build a farm store on his farms' property has been met with tremendous resistance and outright hostility by his neighbors - mostly ex-suburbanites who moved to Rural Maryland seeking the idyllic "farm life" but who would rather live near places that look like a farm rather than a real, working farm.

The problem we face here is that while we have farmers such as Joel Salatin, David Smith, Edwin Shank (The Family Cow Farm) and many others in each locale, we collectively face the industrial agriculture behemoth that is Purdue, ConAgra and Archer Daniels Midland - industrial corporations whose purpose is to provide as much food as possible at the lowest price and greatest profit margin. This has led to the confinement method of raising animals that most of our nation eats.

And, like any conglomerate, these corporations would prefer that all of us consume their products and not turn to small, local farmers like Smith, Salatin and Shank - who collectively, are a potential threat to their profitability.

Which makes it increasingly likely that these conglomerates will turn their machinery against us and begin spinning hype in the manner of the sawdust supplier above. That these natural methods of farming are actually "bad" for us and threaten our way of life.

A great example of the industrial agricultural machine and how it treats our American farmers was most apparent during our visit to Wisconsin in the Spring of 2008 when we visited Kevin Shaar and his family on their dairy farm. At the time, Kevin was 29 years old and had worked his farm for fifteen years. They owned a herd of mostly Holstein dairy cows (most milk production per day) with a few Jersey and Guernsey cows thrown in for good measure. Milk production is measured in pounds and for every 100 pounds Kevin and Mary produced the local dairy would pay them the commercial rate of seventeen dollars.

Span that out over a thousand pounds and they're being paid $170 per thousand pounds of milk, or $1,700 per ten thousand pounds of milk. Not too bad for a couple of days work, right?

Back then the price for a gallon of milk had doubled at the grocery store, Kevin's cost for feed had rocketed from $80 per bag to $200 per bag. His cost for fertilizer per ton had tripled, the cost of fuel hovered over five dollars per gallon and his price per one hundred pounds of milk had fallen from $20 to $17 per hundred pounds.

When I asked him if it was "sustainable", Kevin said that they needed to make over $20 per pound of milk in order to break even - meaning that for every pound of milk they delivered to the dairy, they were getting screwed and losing money. Perhaps a government can operate at a deficit, but real people cannot. Kevin's situation isn't an isolated one and is the classic example of how our industrial agricultural system has gone wrong.

It's ironic in the coffee business that so many of my colleagues give so much lip service to "the farmer" and getting the coffee farmer more yet so proudly champion the American industrial agricultural system that sticks our own American farmers in the neck.

The situation here underscores that we need to remain vigilant about our food supply and educate those around us about the benefits of natural farming practices. Letting chickens and cows roam on pasture and letting pigs forage is not a "bad" thing. It's what they were meant to do and that needs to be celebrated, not destroyed.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Let Them Eat Bread!

Damage. Done.

Today was baked goods day and I'm feeling slightly ill.

I spent the morning driving around the city picking up various baked goodies for evaluation this afternoon with Ilenia, Lamarie, Rebecca, Jeremy and Joy. Baguettes, croissants, conchas and more - all piled up with butter, butter and more butter.

First stop: Patisserie Poupon to pickup some croissants, almond croissant, chocolate croissant, chocolate chip cookies, brioche, walnut tart and apple tart.

From there I headed down to Fell's Point to pick up a baguette, croissant and almond croissant at Bonaparte Bakery, then over to eastern Baltimore's Pastelleria Vargas for some fresh out of the oven conchas.

With the truck filling up with buttery goodness, it was back to Hampden and across the street to Puffs & Pastries, where I planned to put Anisha's croissants head-to-head with Poupon and Bonaparte's, but she only had some over-proofed nuggets that they were about to discard. I tried one and even though it was yeasty, the butter still tasted good and I swiped a couple to use as a comparison.

Last stop: Woodberry Kitchen where Spike, Isaiah and I have been discussing the possibility of them baking baguettes for us. The baguettes Bev and Isaiah are producing are more like batards but the crust covering the bread is baked to deep golden perfection. It just looks intoxicating.

The question facing our crew was simple: which tastes best? The baguette would be tasted three different ways: plain, with butter (Trickling Springs Salted) and warmed strips dipped in hot chocolate (for a proposed Chocolat Chaud & Baguette breakfast offering). The majority of the crew loved the Woodberry baguette over the Bonaparte, except in the chocolate category where they felt the Bonaparte demonstrated the sweet complexity of the chocolate better. But plain or with butter, it was the Woodberry batard that won hands down.

In the croissant competition, the surprising votes went to the Puffs & Pastry sort-of baked in a jumble 'til golden thing-a-ma-bob. In a flat out taste challenge, it beat the rest- though some of them did note that they liked it better because it was so different than the regular croissant, which some of them found to be too plain (the notion of croissant, that is).

Almond Croissant - the majority chose the Bonaparte over the Poupon. More complex and subtle in flavor than the bold and astringent-finishing almond croissant from Poupon. There's something about their almond paste that ends sharply.

The rest of the samples didn't have challengers and were more to explore flavors and the possibilities. All of them liked the Vargas concha - which is something I'm dying to bring to the menu, whether brought in by a bakery like Vargas or Hermanos Navarro, or baked in-house.

What they didn't really get into was the apple tart from Poupon. They just didn't like it.

Oh well. Time for more exploration.

Saturday, November 07, 2009

The Saturday Cup Continues

The sunlight flows as the morning cupping gets underway.

We're back at the Towson espresso bar cupping coffees. This time we're cupping a couple of selections from Greencastle Coffee Roasters, whom we found after yesterday's lunch in Greencastle, Pennsylvania, a selection from Starbucks and a surprise reappearance of Aida's Grand Reserve from Counter Culture.

In support of our cupping efforts, I've decided to create a blog that will chronicle our cuppings and coffee tastings. Originally, we were compiling these notes in a separate database then realized that it would be better to share our thoughts candidly. The site is open for all to see: staff, friends, roasters, vendors, customers - whomever.

On the new website you'll find cupping notes for the past few sessions, back to our visit to the Counter Culture Training Center in Washington, D.C. However, I just decided to change the format with the 11/7 cupping. Now you'll get to see all of our tasting notes verbatim on a per coffee basis. From the flavors and aromas detected, to their likes and dislikes about the coffee, to their descriptions of the coffees and my thoughts on the coffee as well.

There are some brutally honest comments within the notes and if you're easily offended, I recommend reading The Coffee Review. The notes you will be reading are the exact notes that we will be using to evaluate the coffees and determine which of them we will order for service to our customers.

The Aida's Grand Reserve that hit the table today was a bit of a curve ball. It is the same bag of coffee from the DC cupping over a week ago - a coffee that many of them raved about. The coffee was kept in the bag at room temperature, with no method of preserving it beyond squeezing the air out of the bag. Did the coffee maintain its' zenith of dazzle or fizzle out completely? Find out now!

Friday, November 06, 2009

Touring The Family Cow Farm

The intrepid barista candidates of project hampden cross the vast expanses on a milkquest.

Crossing the soon-to-be-frozen tundra of the "west 40" pasturelands, I wondered just how we got here. Sure, the jokers of the group will suggest that we got there by car (minivan, to be accurate), but just how did we get here - visiting Edwin Shank and his collection of over two hundred cattle, several cats and an untold number of chickens?

It wasn't too long ago that I didn't even think about the milk we were using. It was whole or skim. Needed more? A quick call before midnight to the local distributor and a shipment would be delivered the next morning. Short by a gallon? No problem, they'll send a big truck to deliver it tomorrow.

Reflecting back it's amazing how little thought we put into what we consume. Whatever is there and readily available will suffice, especially if it's cheap. Cheap is good. Cheap is easy. Cheap leaves me with a little more cash to buy a new iPod.

Trudging across the uneven terrain with the cold, frigid air blasting across my face, I realized that this is where we belonged. Here, visiting the piko, or source of what we do.

I've starting using a phrase to describe what we do: Simple, but not easy.

Making coffee is simple. Very simple. Simply add hot water to ground coffee, wait a few minutes and et voila! It's done. But doing well and doing it thoughtfully is anything but easy. It's still simple, but it's very, very hard. Hence our trekking the two hours by car, into the Mennonite wildlands of Pennsylvania to visit a few cows chomping on grass in the middle of cold field, surrounded by cow pies.

It's too easy for a "barista" to sit at home and memorize details about the products they use. Grass-fed, hormone free, antibiotic free, organic, free-range, jersey, holstein, guernsey - blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. Any monkey can sit around the house reciting spoon-fed information about anything. It's a whole 'nother thing to experience it and see it firsthand. It's how I learned about the products we use and it's how I want to impart our crew with their knowledge.

Having visited the farm, met the farmer, frolicked with the cows, toured the creamery and tasted the milks, I think it gives our crew a depth and understanding greater than merely reciting the label on a box of Horizon Organic Milk.

Thursday, November 05, 2009

Adios Chemex 24

Kimmy and Lindsay working out the kinks.

It's been a long time coming and something I knew I should have done last week.

Today, I issued the order to kill our Chemex 24 Program. What we had once envisioned as the way to Chemex brew two servings of coffee at once had turned into a wild goose chase of poor quality, watery brews that just didn't satisfy. Different grind settings, pour amounts, pour times, brew times, stirring and more all resulted in just unsatisfactory coffee from a device that under 8 ounce and 12 ounce servings produced stellar results (depending on the coffee, of course).

We were a bit disappointed since Lindsay and Kimmy have been working so hard trying to make it work. Thanks though to Aaron Ultimo of Phildelphia's Ultimo Coffee for a Hail Mary phone call the other day in a desperate attempt to keep the Chemex 24 Program alive.

Farewell Chemex 24. Hello Chemex 12...

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

They Will Be...

project hampden: ready and waiting...

Over the past ten years, I've built out three shops (the original Jays Shave Ice, the second Jays Shave Ice and the Spro Espresso Bar) - well, four if you count the refit of JSI One to open the OnoGrill, and project hampden has by far been the most difficult. From interior designer lameness to contractor flakiness to city permitting delays to phone line problems - if there was a hurdle to be made, it popped up somewhere along the way. Nothing is simple. Nothing is easy.

When we started to get the ball rolling at the end of May, I figured two months would be ample time to get things off the ground, and with any luck, we could open August 1st. Under that plan, I would hire a crew of baristas by the end of June, train all through July, open August 1st and operate for about a month before I had to jet off to host the Western Canadian Regional Barista Competition and instruct at the Expo Especiales in Ibague, Colombia. We would be rolling, I would fulfill my commitments and all would be well in the world.

Once upon a time, a good friend asked me if I thought he should go into business for himself. I told him no. No because he wanted too many guarantees. He wanted everything to be planned out. He wanted his eyes dotted and his tees crossed. I told him "no" because no matter how much you plan, it all goes to hell and then what are you gonna do? You're up to your teeth in the muck and there's no turning back. Screwed or swim. Better to be a salaried employee working the grind for The Man than to actually try to be "The Man." Too many variables. Too much risk.

Ask anyone in business and they'll tell you - you could write the best business plan in the history of the world, but it all gets chucked out the window the day you start business. The plan and the reality can diverge greatly and may never meet.

Which has been the case with project hampden. It's gone off the rails, full speed ahead, quite a number of times. Delay, delay, delay - that just seems to be the Order of the Day. The key is remain flexible and go with the flow. I could gnash my teeth, curse the Gods of Kobol and rant and rave about the house, but it does little good. I could get on the phone and scream bloody hell to the bureaucrats in City Hall, but it would do nothing more than cause them to like me less and delay the project further. My friend asking about business likes to throw in my face some of the stances I've taken in the past but fails to realize that this is why I said he wasn't ready for business: business takes flexibility and very thick skin.

Very thick skin because everyone and your mother (including my own) will cast their questions at you. They think you're crazy. That you're going to go down in a ball of flames. That this idea will never work and why don't you just follow Starbucks. Better yet, go work for Starbucks. Truth is, I'm a raving lunatic who is wholly unsuitable for employment - that's why I have to run my own company: no one will hire me.

But one of the most difficult parts of project hampden has been conveying my vision and sensibility for the project. I'm in the "coffee business" and everyone "knows" what a good coffeeshop is all about. It's all about Free Wi-Fi, couches, earth tones, walnut cabinets and either the Starbucks or "indie" coffeehouse design. What "coffeeshop" isn't about is refinement, luxury and fine dining. Hell, it's barely about hospitality much less fine dining and finesse.

Because of this, I've heard all kinds of "suggestions" from flourescent lights illuminating the awning to more calls for free wi-fi to more syrups to interior design proposals that looked like they sat in the Roland Park Starbucks and took notes. Lots of average to mediocre "suggestions" that it's maddening.

Then tell these same people that you're looking do something refined and with finesse and they think you're an insane lunatic who's unsuitable for employment elsewhere.

Meanwhile, the delays keep pushing the opening further back. From October 1st to November 1st to "sometime before the end of 2009." Each day delivers another obstacle, another delay. But, truth be told, it's a good thing. Truth be told: even if project hampden were completed, equipped and fully-stocked today, we wouldn't be ready to open tomorrow. In fact, we couldn't open tomorrow even if I wanted to and our bank account demanded it.

For the past month, our crew of barista candidates have been busy learning the basics of our craft. They've been cupping, tasting and practicing brew methods and slowly learning the finer points of espresso making, but they're not ready yet. Like fine wine, they need time to mature. To hone their skills, develop greater command over the techniques and develop a flow. They need to "feel it" and roll with it. To paraphrase Jon Lewis: they need to Let It Flow.

Right now, they're like Luke Skywalker on Dagoba with Yoda: learning and exploring, yet not ready to take on Darth Vader. But soon, they will be.

They will be. Sometime before the end of 2009...

Monday, November 02, 2009

Eye of the Cam

Way back in February of 2008, I took the EuroStar from Paris to London to visit James Hoffmann and Stephen Morrissey. Upon my arrival in London, I was immediately chastised by both of them for using my iPhone to shoot images for this blog. Perhaps chastise is too light a word, beaten with a lorry is probably more appropriate and I switched from the iPhone to other cameras almost immediately.

Of course, back then I was shooting with a Canon EOS RebelXT that wasn't suitable for everyday shooting or a piece of crap Nikon LiteTouch point and shoot. That camera was the worst camera I ever owned. It couldn't lock focus, had terrible low light latitude and just was too damn slow in all aspects.

Since that time, I've acquired both a Canon G9 and Canon SD790is, which in addition to the Rebel is what has been fueling this blogs' images for the past couple of years.

Well, everything has gone to hell. A few months ago, the RebelXT decided to stop focusing so I sent that back to Canon CPS for a rebuild and haven't picked it up. Then, within a weeks' time both the screen on the SD790 broke, rendering it useless and the G9 just crapped out completely.

That G9 really is a pain in the butt because it freaked out and froze last October while visiting the Trinity Nuclear Site in New Mexico, forcing me to buy the SD790. Lame.

So at the moment, I am without a camera hence the iPhone images. Apologies, I am working on sourcing a new camera while I decide what to do about the G9.

Meanwhile I'm looking for a pocket-sized point and shoot with good resolution, good low light performance and quick focusing.

Better pictures will return because I don't like being bludgeoned by a lorry...