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.