Saturday, January 30, 2010

ph: The Saturday Jet

Morning coffee service drills at project hampden.

Lately Saturday mornings at project hampden have come to mean brewing drills and coffee service. Anyone finding themselves in the vicinity of project hampden have been invited via Facebook (and the evil Twitter) to stop by and have a coffee on us. With the espresso machine finally installed and (most) of the plumbing completed, we're ready, willing and able to rock-n-roll with most of the drink menu.

Whether it's Aeropress, French Press, Clever, Chemex, Vac Pot, Eva Solo, Pour Over or espresso, cappuccino or latte you crave, project hampden is ready to deliver.

Artichoke Sorbet.

The basic drill goes like this: the crew breaks up into teams of three or four and the rest act as customers ordering coffee. Of course, the friends who find their way here are tossed into the mix. The "rush" lasts about fifteen minutes and then the team can concentrate on getting all the drinks out. It's a decent way of conditioning the teams for service, but I'm concerned that the narrow "rush" window is inadequate. What we're doing with project hampden is unprecedented: six coffees and seven brewing methods - all done by hand, to order, a la minute and by the cup.

In the drills, the person designated at the register takes the orders then passes them on to the rest of the team. Once that person has taken all the orders, she can then help the others completing those orders. But in a sustained rush, with real customers on a time schedule, that luxury disappears. The only way to test their ability to deal with a sustained rush is to open and wait for the tidal wave to hit.

Tasting the results.

Meanwhile, we had some beakers freezing at Anisha's since our freezers haven't arrived yet. Thursday nigh, Lindsay whipped up some tests of Chocolate Ice Cream, Brown Sugar & Cinnamon Ice Cream and Artichoke Sorbet. After 24 hours in a deep freeze, they're ready to play.

First up was the Artichoke Sorbet. Crazy strange. And the texture was too powdery. Needs work. Brown Sugar & Cinnamon had too much sugar and was loose and runny after being "Pacotized." And while the Chocolate whipped into a luscious looking cream, it was both too airy and too fatty and didn't have the proper ice cream texture. More like a thick, smooth semi-freddo mousse than a proper ice cream.

Chocolate ice cream.

Certainly, none of the three tests were ready for the menu but they were a step in the right direction. From my readings, the formulation for PacoJet ice cream is a bit different than one you would toss into a batch freezer. Tighter control of the fats, for one. More experimentation is sure to come.

But where else in the coffee business do you get your hair and makeup done for a photo shoot one day, then eat ice cream all day the next?

Brown Sugar and Cinnamon ice cream.

Friday, January 29, 2010

The Glamorous Life

The coffee lab becomes "Lamarie's House of Style."

Every now and then, I like to gather my crew together for a "cast photo" of sorts. While most baristas and coffee people want to photograph themselves doing something coffee-related, I don't. The interesting thing to me about my people is their interests outside of coffee. Someone that's wholly focused on coffee and nothing else means their probably a "geek" and increases the chance that they're unable to interact socially. I've met many people in the coffee business that are so focused on coffee that they're literally unbearable to be around in a social setting.

Even I succumb to The Chair.

Anyone can sit around an "be" coffee. I want to see the crew from a different perspective, which is why we've never followed traditional models of everyone standing around in a group setting. I see our lifestyle as glamorous - we work with some of the best ingredients in the world and are pursuing the highest levels: the essence of glamour.

Bex demonstrates the Vac Pot a la Rachael Ray.

Awhile back, Tilly (knowing my penchant for dramatic photographs) asked me to keep her in mind to shoot the opening of project hampden. I've come to admire her work and her eye for details. While her main focus is children's portraits and weddings, the images I've seen from her portfolio show a unique perspective and I was thrilled when she asked to shoot for us. But rather than just shoot the opening, why not shoot our opening crew?

A little time between setups.

I think deep down inside, each and every one of us knows that we're hot and sexy. But our repressed, puritanical society (with its stupid ideals on what's hot and what's not) force most people into self-hate and loathing because they don't "conform" to those malnourished, famine-stricken ideals of fashion and beauty foisted upon us by 7th Avenue and Hollywood. Meaning that most people live their lives feeling fat and ugly. Well, FUCK 7th Avenue and Hollywood. Fuck them and their mores. There's a world of hot and sexy people out there and I want them to be unleashed!

Work it!

The height of glamour.

Tilly shoots The Spro Lifestyle...

Kimmy and Lindsay waiting their turn.

Getting "The Treatment."

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Paco Jetted

The Box thawing from the cold on my kitchen floor.

The message in my email box this morning said that the box had been delivered to project hampden yesterday. Huh? That can't be. I was at project hampden all day yesterday and we received nothing.

Did they deliver it to another address? Did someone else sign for it? Did someone actually steal it? Crickey, that would be bad news. I omitted other necessary equipment in order to secure this luxury unit.

Yes, refrigeration is important, but do I go with the Rolls Royce of refrigeration if I can get the Toyota of refrigeration and have extra money for fun toys? Toyota so I can have fun toys wins out, hands down.

When I checked the FedEx website, they evidently had attempted to deliver to project hampden but found that the address did not exist but somehow found my home address and delivered it there - unsigned. They left it at the front door.

Now, I don't live in a bad area. And it's unlikely that someone would steal the box, but it is out in the open and who knows who might happen onto the box sitting by the front door and take it home as a souvenir. Heck, I don't use the front door to my house so conceivably, a package could sit there by the front door for a month and I would never know.

My lonely box, sitting by the front door, longing to be let in from the cold. How lonely.

Ah, PacoJet! Arise!

Back in the project hampden lab, we opened the box with all the anticipation of the Ark Of The Covenant in Raiders of the Lost Ark - of course, I was Indy.

Eight beakers, some blades and a bunch of contraptions fill the box, along with a very serious and stern warning about completely understanding how to properly use the PacoJet otherwise you risk "expensive and costly" repairs. They stressed the expensive and costly part.

Lindsay prepares chocolate ice cream, artichoke sorbet and caramel ice cream for "pacotizing."

By the end of the day, Lindsay had returned from the grocery store with bags aplenty. After some makeshift magic with a borrowed cutting board, a Sitram pan, an induction top and a dinner knife posing as a whisk, four beakers of paco mixes chilled in the refrigerator. In the morning, we'll take them over to Anisha's and freeze for 24 hours before giving the PacoJet a proper shagging.

More to come.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

ph: Welcoming Visitors

Fred and Allie come by for a visit before Nicholas flies back to New Mexico.

Even though project hampden still isn't open yet, we still welcome visitor with open arms, and a cup of fresh-brewed coffee.

Marlon, Nick and Kitt survey the vac pots and how to present them.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

The Joy of Barista

Rebecca, Ilenia and Devlin through the looking glass.

Maybe I've said this before, but I sometimes wonder if my crew knew what they were getting themselves into when they started down this path with me. Most baristas know how to make coffee using an espresso machine but few of them know how to tear one apart, move it and install it somewhere else.

Most baristas know how to wash their dirty cups in the sink, but few of them know how to install the sink and the plumbing to the sink.

And most baristas know how to work in a space, and few of them have learned how to build that space.

Jess, Kimmy and Jeremy install water lines to the lab sink.

For project hampden, it seems like they've done it all. Installed PVC piping, ran cable, pulled electric, wired boxes, painted walls, installed trim, painted floors, installed sinks, installed waste lines, fresh water lines, disposed of rats, patched walls, fixed toilets, installed shelves and even went across the street to install and hang a door, patch wall and trim work, install wall mounted tables and electric fans.

They're so handy, next week I'm sending a team to a Barn Raising!

Jeremy pulls the first shot of espresso in project hampden.

And finally, after a couple of delays, Lindsay finished installing the Linea 3AV and it was time to make coffee. Jeremy was the first barista to pull a shot of espresso in project hampden from Tulsa, Oklahoma's Doubleshot Coffee. Nice!

Monday, January 25, 2010

Riding In Cars With Grinders

The Mahlkonig VTA-6S on its way to project hampden.

It's corny, I know. But there's something about guys and their toys. Since I started learning about the coffee business, there's always been one grinder that I've secretly lusted after: the Mahlkonig VTA-6S. It's sheer, brutal grinding power unparalleled in a tabletop grinder. It's a monster and it weighs like a beast.

I had the opportunity to pick this grinder up over the summer and I couldn't let it by. It's a three-phase grinder, which means I still need a frequency converter to power it from a single phase source but someday...

Meanwhile, the dream lives on.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

ph: Trial By Fire Saturdays - Sort Of

Kimmy and Jeremy in hope of customers.

Since October, Saturdays are for training and today was no different. Well, sort of. After quite a delay, the plumbers have finally returned to bang, hammer, drill and saw their way through project hampden to finish running all the water and waste lines. With all the hellish cacophony going on, we sought refuge across the street for an impromptu breakfast at The Breeze Restaurant to pass the time.

An hour later, we return when the plumbers have descended into the lower level to connect the lines, leaving our bar area in working condition to do brewing drills. It's a relatively lazy Saturday training session of brewing drills highlighted by lots of photography, Trickling Springs butter and crusty old bread.

Lindsay takes orders.

Ilenia and Kimmy brew coffee.

Album cover art.

Jeremy Hyman.

Lindsay Wailes.

The Onocoffee.

Devlin Rice.

Ilenia Madelaire.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Stew II

The 2640 dining space for Stew II

Since November, Spro has sponsored the coffee for Stew - a food and arts project fundraiser from the crazy minds of Dane Nestor and crew. Charm City denizens may remember Dane, Nick and crew from the blistering cold nights on The Avenue in Hampden where they sold grilled cheese sandwiches and french fries from a cart until 4am on weekends last year. This year, they've turned their attention to the more hospitable climes of the 2640 St. Paul Space and the culinary high stylings of Woodberry Kitchen's Matt Day.

I've known these guys for a few years now and it was an honor to be invited for the original Stew in November 2009. Due to previous commitments, I was unable to be there for Stew, so when Stew II came around tonight, I just had to be there.

Jeremy and Kimmy rock out coffee for 120 people in twenty minutes.

Unlike most charity fundraisers that require attendees to have deep pockets, Stew II cost ten bucks for a five course dinner (BYOB), some entertainment and a chance to donate to some worthy charitable organizations in Baltimore. Over a hundred people sold out the event.

For me, it's absolutely thrilling to watch Kimmy and Jeremy in action, brewing coffee in a near frenzy to serve all the guests in as narrow a window as possible. The action started off slow, with not much coffee going on through most of the dinner. Then, as the dessert course neared, the orders started flowing in from the tables.

A coffee here, a decaf there. Four decafs. Another coffee, or two. Suddenly, the intensity ratcheted itself up a notch: 21 coffees, six decafs - and it skyrocketed from there. In an instant, it went from more than enough coffee to a two press pot shortage.

At this point, lesser baristas might lose their cool, lose their focus or just crumble altogether. My natural inclination was to step in and direct, but I also knew that it was time to sink or swim. They had to make it happen on their own. If I stepped in, that would put off their rising to the challenge. I stood back and watched them in action.

Chef Matt of Woodberry Kitchen confers with Katie of Charm City Cakes over dessert.

I've been there. I've been caught up in the rush of things, way over my head, barely treading water while caught in the weeds. Sink or swim. Do or die. In many ways, 120 eight ounce pressed coffees in 48z press pots is easy peasy - especially when compared to what they will attempt to surmount in project hampden, but it's a matter of keeping cool under fire, managing orders, keeping your mise together, going with the flow and working your way through the weeds.

In our little hamlet of Baltimore, there's been a growing anticipation for project hampden. Evidently, people have been talking about it and waiting expectantly. They're looking to see how we will execute and tonight our reputation is very much on the line as many of tonight's guests will be tasting our coffee for the very first time.

Secretly, I'm a bit on edge. But after all these months of training, I know they're ready for this challenge. In the end, I'm excited by their performance. Stoked, really. Proud? Very much so. They're dazzling and brilliant, and I can't wait until the day comes that we finally open the doors for people to try our coffee for themselves made by the hands of these fine baristas.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Visitors from Afar and Anear

Jeremy and the Cuban Extra Turquino Lavado.

In his other life, Jeremy is the drummer for Baltimore's Ponytail - a band described by the rock media as either being on the cutting edge of avant garde music today or something not suitable for pregnant women. Over the holiday season, Jeremy and Ponytail toured Australia and New Zealand where he picked up a bag of Cuban coffee (the bean not the drink) from Wellington's Havana Coffee Works.

Whether it's Cuban cigars, Cuban rum or Cuban coffee - as long as it's contraband and considered illegal for consumption in the United States, we're game to try it. The coffee itself wasn't bad but we couldn't tell how old the coffee was or how it should taste because all the bag had on it was a "Use by February 17, 2010" stamp. Oh well, it wasn't bad.

Isaiah visits Lamarie at The Spro in Towson.

Also on today's docket was a surprise visit by Isaiah Sheese from Tulsa, Oklahoma's Doubleshot Coffee. A few years ago, Doubleshot owner Brian Franklin made national news when he beat coffee behemoth Starbucks lawsuit over the name of his company (as though the public would confuse his company with their bottled coffee beverage). But recently (like this week), Doubleshot rocked to notoriety once again with the blog posting over their recent experience at the South Central Regional Barista Competition and telling my former podcast co-host to piss off.

Isaiah was in town accompanying his girlfriend as she toured the medical centers of the Mid-Atlantic and came to pay a visit to see how we do things in Charm City. It's always a pleasure to have coffee industry friends visit our little hamlet as we showed him project hampden, The Spro of Towson and a little lunch across the street at Puffs & Pastries.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

ph: Stone and Carpets

Joy begins the arduous task of stripping the carpeting from the lower level staircase.

There's nothing like a carpet covered staircase with narrow treads to tempt the fate of tripping and falling down said stairs. With that in mind, Joy started on the final bit of demolition in project hampden revealing a surprisingly nice-looking set of wood stairs.

As the days grind more and more away from our original August 1, 2009 opening date, the list of things "to do" grows alarmingly short as I'm running out of tasks to assign to our intrepid crew of baristas. While many shops talk of their baristas building their business, our crew of baristas are actually physically building the business itself.

Jeremy prepares to apply the final coat of sealant to the stone walls.

In an ironic twist of fate, one of the most interesting architectural features can be found in the bowels of project hampden, and it's a feature I've been struggling to preserve.

Beneath the 1920s era pine floors are the original stone walls that frame a space with amazing potential. Early on, visions of late night, underground dance parties with international club deejays filled the minds eye, but the realities of running a speakeasy set in and I've had to make do with simply keeping the space open and fighting the occasional "suggestion" that we enclose the space with drywall. Yuck!

Descend into the lower level and you'll find large stones embedded into the walls that are the buildings foundation. What was once a dirt-covered crawlspace has been transformed into a cool and sexy, stone-surrounded den. All that is needed is a liberal application of sealant to maintain the stones natural beauty.

At first, we tried brushing to slow effect. Then Jeremy had the brilliant idea of grabbing a compressor and paint gun from his house and spraying the stone with the sealant. In a few quick hours in the haze of air suspended dust and sealant spray, the walls were coated and the dream of an underground speakeasy could live on - if only in the mind.

"Okay, What's Wrong With You Now?"

Ever have those days where nothing major goes wrong but a string of unfortunate occurrences combines to just irritate you immensely? Yesterday was one of those days. It's when you need someone to ask how your day went and what's bothering you.

Days like these are when I call R. because she always seems to know what to say and when to say it. If things are messed up, she'll tell me. If I'm the one who's screwing things up, she tells me too - especially if I'm the one screwing things up. No hiding, no need for games, nothing to be coy about - just the straight dope, as only a woman put it so succinctly and so bluntly.

Perhaps it wasn't just the one day but the culmination of months of buildup. Most of the time, the days irritations never bother me, but tonight I just felt a bit off, like I wanted to pick a fight with someone. Instead, I called R. to see if she wanted to hang out a bit - happily, she always makes time for me.

"How are you? What's going on?" is how she typically starts things off. Like any self-aggrandized male, I give the terse "I'm fine" in reply. She's good because she can usually tell the difference between the normal "I'm fine" and the "I'm fine" that means I'm really running at 85%. "Okay, what's going on with you now?" and then we're off to the races.

I don't always need it, but it's nice to have someone who knows you enough to know when you need someone to listen to you bitch for a little while.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

More Techie Geekiness

Jessie waves from behind the "nine group" La Marzocco.

The day that Lamarie has been fearing has finally arrived: the Linea 3AV has left the building.

Time to juggle the Lineas around a bit. Over the years, I've managed to collect a small number of La Marzocco Linea espresso machines: a 2AV, 3AV and 4EE. All I need now is a single group Linea and I will have the entire lineup. Crazy.

The 4EE has been sitting in storage for the past three or four years and with the 3AV moving to project hampden, I thought this to be the perfect opportunity to pull the 4EE out of storage and place it in Towson - where the bar is longer and can readily accommodate a four foot long espresso machine.

Unfortunately, when we first installed the 4EE last week, it leaked like a sieve and we had to return the 3AV to operation.

Lindsay replacing the steam wand assembly, sight glass and prepping the Linea for installation.

Today, we brought the 2AV for Towson to use while the 4EE gets serviced and the 3AV moves to Hampden. A quick replacement of the steam wand assembly and the steam boiler sight glass, along with a new drip tray and the machine was up, running and at temperature in 45 minutes. Not bad for a quick swap including shut down, cool down and draining of the 3AV.

Nine groups of delicious goodness.

Riding In Cars With Machines

The Linea 2AV during a Home Depot pit stop.

At heart, I'm just a tech geek. Give me more toys and I'll be a happy boy. Atari, Colecovision, AutoCocker, La Marzocco - I just want more and more. As a techie barista, nothing seems to warm the heart as much as driving around town with a La Marzocco Linea Espresso Machine loaded into the back of the truck.

The Linea 3AV being unloaded at project hampden.

Monday, January 18, 2010

ph: Juice, Sun, Rat

Jenny and Rebecca clear what will one day be project garden.

With temperatures threatening to hit 60F, it was a good day to get some cleaning done in project hampdens backyard. What will one day be a garden oasis in the middle of the city is today filled with vine clippings, broken concrete, soil, miscellaneous rubbish and a dead rat. Kudos to Jenny and Rebecca for cleaning things up and disposing of the rat - not girlish work, to be sure.

The electricians juice up the brew bar.

Meanwhile, our electricians were busy at work inside finishing up all the details that needed attending. Rewire the brew bar to accommodate the Fetco hot water tower, rewire the lab for a 30amp espresso machine, add a couple of outlets in various places and install the proper outlets for the 240volt equipment.

Now, it's just a matter of getting the plumbing squared away and installing the equipment.

Everyone comes outside to enjoy the sun and warm January weather.

Friday, January 15, 2010

ph: Through The Looking Glass

Dai ponders a future drinking coffee in project hampden.

"If you build it, they will come"

As the days grind forever onward at project hampden, I notice more and more people peering through the doorway for a looksee at what's going on inside.  Usually, they can see lots of dust, mess and perhaps a glimpse of what's to come, but not much.  The frosted glaze over the storefront windows obscure all but the tallest (or highest jumping) of gawkers.

Today I let loose Rebecca, Jenny and Ilenia on the interior polishing the floors, cleaning the bathroom and prepping some equipment in anticipation of our first group training tomorrow.  The Saturday sessions we've been holding in Towson will move tomorrow to project hampden - even though there's still a bit more plumbing and installations to be completed.  Time to get everyone used to the space they will be inheriting as their home in a couple of weeks.

While there's still much to be done, I thought I'd give the readers a glimpse of what the public sees when they peer through the glass entry doorway into what I'm hoping will be an exciting experience for them.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Ye Olde Ebbitt

A plate full of oysters.
It's been a long time, but last night after a visit to the Thursday Night Throwdown - that monthly gathering where baristas drink and hold latte art competitions, we hit the Old Ebbitt Grill.

For the uninitiated, a latte art competition is simply that - pull a shot of espresso, steam some milk and pour the milk to create nifty little designs in the cup using the contrast between the espresso crema and the milk foam as your medium. This was my first ever Thursday Night Throwdown and I never made it to my pour.

Unlike the other latte art throwdowns I've experienced both as a barista and judge, this one has the barista make the art then submit it to a panel of judges for scoring instead of the head-to-head, sudden death style of the others I've participated. Sadly, this scoring format takes longer to administer and doesn't generate the excitement or hold the interest of the sudden death style where each new latte art is pitted against the current winner creating tension and the agony of defeat with each successive pour. After nearly two hours waiting, we decided that it was time to head out and do something else.

That something else was the Old Ebbitt Grill and their half-price oysters after 11pm.

It's the not-so-secret hidden gem of DC's restaurant scene. The Old Ebbitt sources oysters from around the nation and at 11pm each night, that twenty-two dollar plate of oysters drops magically to eleven dollars per dozen.

Time to run to the Old Ebbitt again...

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Thank You Baby Jesus

My phone has been quiet lately and I've been wondering why.  No more incessant messages about whatever stream-of-consciousness BS someone out there in Twitter-Land is tweeting about.  No more non-stop messages to my iPhone about @this and @that person, or "re-tweets" - Good God, I've had enough!

Twitter is much more enjoyable in small doses, and this morning I logged in to the web interface to see what's been going on with the people I know in Twitter-Land.  Nice to see that some of my friends are doing fun and interesting things, while others continue on their daily diatribe, publishing tweets every 33 seconds.

As I logged in, I noticed the message above.  They tried contacting my phone but were unable to and suspended sending me Tweets... THANK YOU BABY JESUS!

Now the only time my phone beeps is when the chicks are texting.  A much more satisfying method of communication...