Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Stroke Par to Green, Then Two Putt

A visual reward at the end of a long round.

My father, a true lover of golf, has remarked that a bad day on the course is better than a day at work.

He lies.

The Bob is in town and wanted to play a round. Never mind that it's a blistering 100F with humidity and direct sunshine. Never mind that sane people consider this suicide. It's all good, no matter what happens.

I knew it was an off-day the moment I started on the small basket of balls at the driving range. Everything except that satisfying "clink!" of the club against ball. Chops, curves, hooks and slices. Ugly.

On the course it was worse. If I was lucky, the ball would hook. Heat exhaustion and fatigue set in quickly and dogged me the entire way. After three holes, a pattern began to emerge.

Stroke Par to the green then two putt.

Meaning if the hole was Par 5 then it would take me five strokes to reach the green and maybe two putts to sink the ball.

Perhaps not the most inspired game of golf in my life...

Monday, August 30, 2010

The Bob Returns

The Bob attacks at DiPasquale's.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

The Ideal Barista

Bullet points on becoming a Spro Barista.

Over the years, I've enjoyed the opportunity to train baristas near and far, for my own companies and for others. Training can be fun and exciting, but it can also be challenging and frustrating. Whether it's to my own standard or someone else's or to a more general standard, the training environment is always interesting and unpredictable, though I do find it a bit more difficult training people to a standard more open to interpretation, like the SCAA standards.

Within our own world, the standards become more defined and the sway room more narrow. When training to a specific standard, one can be more rigorous and exacting and I kinda prefer it that way.

However, standards do change from time to time and year to year. The more we learn, the more we refine what we do and that standard changes. It's most evident in my own baristas - whether from Jay's Shave Ice or Spro. Now that I've got eight years of training experience behind me, I can look back on our baristas and see the evolution of our style and standards.

While we continually push ourselves to become better and we retrain certain aspects of technique, I can look upon each barista and see details of their style and technique that says what era of our company they learned the craft. Perhaps it's a little flair here, or a particular tamping style there, but it's obvious to my eyes.

The interesting thing is that while the techniques may have evolved, the general base standard for preparation has not. Whether we're talking 2004 or 2010, we're still looking at a base standard espresso of 1.75-2.0 ounces, delivered in 25-29 seconds. The goal remains the same while the way we reach that goal has evolved.

Jeremy teaches Mia and Mia the AeroPress.

I got to thinking about this the other day after I had assigned the training of new baristas to our current baristas. Our new training program now begins with 20 hours of basic instruction and then a minimum 20 hours production experience before a candidate will be eligible to take the barista examination - a four hour marathon of coffee making that comprises both oral and practical skills.

After the new candidate's first day, I was working in the lab the next morning when I noticed the notes written on the white board.

I've long pondered exactly what the baristas I instruct learn and pickup. While I may talk about hospitality, accommodating the customer, hyper-excellent quality and doing whatever it takes for the customer to leave feeling "stoked" about visiting us, one can never be sure if they're absorbing it verbatim (as much as I would prefer it to be digested verbatim) of if I'm missing the boat completely.

The notes on the white board were a fascinating journey into how one barista has internalized, digested and then communicated "our way of doing things" to the next generation of barista. In reading the notes, part of me is touched, part of me is amused, part of me is honored and even a part of me is a little bit horrified. "Is this how they are interpreting my words?" Yet, I'm assured on a regular basis by customers that indeed they have digested my teachings while interpreting it through the prism of their own experiences.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Not The Baltimore I Know

National Bohemian beer for $4.75 at Dick's Last Resort Inner Harbor Baltimore.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Vacuum Cold Brew

Jeremy and Linsday prepare the coffee.

Some discussions the other day over the internet prompted me to ponder the potential for vacuum brewing cold coffee. If marinades could be infused into proteins, pickling juice into vegetables and compression to fruits, what possibilities would vac bagging coffee yield? Could it lead to properly extracted cold coffee in a short time period?

With that in mind, we gathered the Ethiopian Yirgacheffe from Origins Organic Coffee that we're brewing at Spro in the cold brew tower. It's become our de facto standard iced coffee this summer with a crisp fresh flavor profile featuring notes of citrus and a reassuring familiar taste of "coffee." It's light and easy to drink and has been the panacea in Hampden for our hot Baltimore summer.

Ready for the chamber vacuum.

For this initial test, we chose relatively simple parameters: 48 grams coffee, 24 ounces cold water, vac bag at 31 mbar and just wait.

Initially, I was planning on leaving the bagged coffee overnight and then pull it out to see the effect. The concern there was that if I was going to let it steep overnight, then it doesn't really offer much of an advantage over the brew tower or other long-term brew methods.

Water temp 70.3F but I it feels cooler.

Instead, I opted to let the bag steep for ten minutes and then pull a sample. While the thermometer shown displays 70.3F I'm hard pressed to believe its accuracy because it was pretty cool to the touch.

Perhaps I should note that while it is possible to bag water and coffee with a Food Saver type of vacuum sealer, it is difficult and chances are that you won't get the proper flush of air from the bag, nor will you be able to set the vac pressure. A proper chamber vac allows greater control of the vacuum environment as well as a complete vacuum being set over the liquid.

Filtering the coffee with Hario V60 and AeroPress.

After ten minutes it was time to cut the bag open and give it a taste. However, the coffee needed to be filtered and we tried two different filtration methods: simple paper filter in a V60 Pourover and a pressurized filtration through an AeroPress.

The problem with pouring out steeped coffee are the sediments which gather in the filter. Normally, these are dispersed throughout the coffee bed, but lacking the coarse ground coffee, the fine sediment clogs the paper filters. The pressure from the AeroPress only improved filtration speed slightly.

V60 and AeroPress filtered with the brew tower control sample.

The results themselves were less than stellar but proved insightful. At ten minutes under pressure, the coffee had been extracted but was still underextracted. The color variations in the samples above demonstrate this. The flavor show hints of the tower brew but was very faint.

No conclusions as there's still much to be tested and tried, but it's a good start. Some thoughts were to go with hotter (100F) water or longer times. In the coming weeks we'll sample more and see how it goes.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Tapa Tradition

Filipino food and Baltimore are words that haven't really gone together in my lifetime. It's almost non-existent. Until recently when my mom and aunt started making noises about some rotisserie chicken place that now serves Filipino food. Hmmm.

The timing is interesting because I've been thinking about tradition because of another discussion elsewhere on the Internet. The Power of Tradition. Filipino food has a tradition. And Beef Tapa in particular has a tradition. There's a certain flavor profile that must be met. More so if it's beef tapa as part of Tapsilog - that very Filipino meal of beef tapa, garlic fried rice and fried eggs. People live and die by that dish.

For me, the quintessential tapsilog place is Rufo's Makati in Metro Manila. It's a simple joint that's open all night long. I'm usually there around 3am. It is the gold standard of tapsilog.

Could this Mama Rosa's version stand up? While the eggs were nicely cooked, the sinaag (see-nah-ahg), or garlic fried rice, was cool even though it had come straight from the steam pan (it was only 11:10am). Then there was the beef tapa.

Tapa is meant to be marinated in Chinese white wine, sugar, soy sauce and a couple other ingredients then dried under the hot sun. The beef should be sliced thin for the best texture. These were merely marinated strips of sliced beef.

But in spite of all this, the flavors came together - especially when liberally doused with sukaang maasim or chile spiked vinegar. So while not completely traditional, it maintained much of the traditional flavors nonetheless.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Living The LB Loca

Bex, Martin, Jeremy, Lindsay and Devlin ponder the meaning of hot water.

Received a message the other day that Ben and Andrew were going to be in town for a day and perhaps we might be interested in having a look see at their LB-1 Water Delivery System prototype.

As you'll see in the photos, this iteration of the LB-1 is a bit more industrial looking with design cues that reminds me of the Slayer espresso machine. Large, brushed metal panels, polymer ribs and a style that looks chunky while remaining quite svelte. Spro Hampden is a muted space with cream colored walls, mahogany cabinetry and dark granite countertops but the LB-1's industrial look surprisingly did not look out of place on the brew bar.

The model we played with today is the second generation prototype. Being a prototype, there are some kinks to work out and who knows what the final production model will look like and feature. This one however sports large brush metal side panels and drip tray. The unit is essentially two pieces: the main body and the drip tray. Assembly is surprisingly easy and the unit lightweight and low-profile.

One of the ideals behind the unit is to make it easy for an existing shop to add a by-the-cup brewing device. All the LB-1 needs is a standard water line and a 125v 15a socket and you're good to go. Tapping a T off the hand sink water line took a couple of minutes, plug it in and we were ready to rock and roll.

Andrew and Ben talking the points.

Unlike hot water boilers in the coffee industry today, the LB-1 heats water on demand and we were pulling at temperature water essentially the moment the machine was powered on. Impressive.

Somewhere in the sleek casing of the LB-1 is the heating device, which will either run cold line water through the system or heated water to a tenth of a degree. Simply turn the dial, select the temperature and squeeze the nozzle-mounted button and away it goes. A full screen menu allows you to brew manually or select preset brewing profiles.

Beyond simply controlling water temperature, the LB-1 also allows you to control water flow rate from a trickle to 11 ounces per minute. I've been told there is potential to increase the flow rate but that would also require a power increase. The unit does not allow the operator to set a flow rate faster than the machine can heat the water accurately.

The cell phone import screen is bright, crisp and clear and is hands-down the current best control screen in the coffee brewing marketplace. If only other manufacturers would get into 2007 with GUI screens, then we might have something to get excited about.

Up close and brewing.

The LB-1 GUI is relatively simple and straightforward. A press of the main knob selects the menu options from Presets to parameters and then a twist of the knob inputs the values. A separate, mechanical knob controls the water flow rate - which is displayed on the screen.

A separate button controls additional timer and flow calculation functions but the button had been damaged in transit from Boston and wasn't operative today.

Currently, the presets are limited to straight time and flow. Brewing complexities such as 30 seconds, 2 ounces, stop, then flow 11 ounces for 3 minutes 30 seconds are not possible at this time. It would be a nice feature if the software allowed for complex brewing parameters at varying intervals. Ideally, a barista would be able to select from a menu of presets that are operator labeled. Then you could program the unit with parameters for methods like: "V60", "Clever", "Chemex", etc.

Devlin and Bex work the V60 pour overs.

During one of the tests, I was able to approximate a pseudo-complex brew by programming the unit to flow at a rate of 3.4 ounces per minute, which would result in a brew time of roughly 4 minutes for 12.8 ounces of water into a Beehouse pourover. It worked well enough and lent a good idea the potential for the unit.

The actual brewing is actuated by a button on the control nozzle. Click it once and the unit starts to brew either in manual mode (click once to start and again to stop) or preset mode (click once to start the preset and the unit stops according to the set parameters), hold the button down and it flows on demand - meaning that the flow stops when you release the button.

It's a good idea and works pretty decently but the prototype button demonstrated some difficulty knowing when to start and stop when wet. The nozzle features a nice, ergonomic contour but those used to using a Hario Buono (or similar) kettle will notice right away this prototype's need for a more refined nozzle tip. It's shape means the water stream droops and is a bit messy.

Dispersion of water across the coffee bed is achieved by manually maneuvering the nozzle around and saturating the coffee. This is where we started to see that the unit needs to be "higher" in clearance. Stack a scale, ceramic cup and V60 pourover on the drip tray and you're snaking your hand into the clearance between the lip of the V60 and the bottom edge of the LB-1's top. Want to brew a double 24z Chemex with the unit? Not going to happen - not enough clearance.

Though I should note that the necessity of a scale will probably not be an issue since the unit measures water volume - negating the need for a scale to weigh dispensed water.

Comparative Chemex Brewing.

While we're used to pouring water over the coffee bed by hand, I'm wondering if there is a way to create some sort of "showerhead" that will disperse the water over the coffee bed evenly. As we were brewing, I noticed different patterns in the "crema" of the brewing methods, as well as the way the coffee rested on the filters as the coffee drained through.

Our first test brew was to pit hand brewed V60 pour over of Barefoot Coffee's San Jose Rojo versus the LB-1. One of the potential problems we face in the current state of by-the-cup brewing is the constant loss of water temperature throughout the brew cycle. The LB-1 delivered water at a constant 92C for this test and the LB-1 brew was the everyone's choice as "better" than the hand-brewed.

With that in mind, it's easy to think that the LB-1's flat temperature profile is the trump card, but I'm not so sure about that. Differences in agitation, water temperature and flow rate may have skewed the results. One of the biggest concerns I have with the Hario V60 is probably the reason why baristas nationwide seem to prefer it: it can brew coffee faster than the Beehouse.

The V60's large orifice and turbofan design means that you can brew a 12z cup of coffee in under two minutes. The restricted orifices of the Beehouse forces a longer brew time. Certainly an argument can be made that a skilled barista will time their V60 brew out to 3-4 minutes, but the pressure a line can too easily translate into fast brews.

Presetting Beehouse brew parameters.

The difference in taste between the two cups was dramatic and I have to admit that it was the first time I have ever thought that the Extract Mojo would have come in handy. It would have been helpful to test the brews and see the differences in solids extraction.

Before anything definitive can be stated, it's going to require more thorough investigation and testing with the unit, but the results so far are at the very minimum "interesting" if not outright "promising."

Bringing the LB-1 into a working service environment proved useful in a number of ways. Not only were we able to "play" with the machine but we were also able to brew coffees for customers under the pressure of a surprisingly peppy afternoon service.

Letting it flow at 3.4 ounces per minute.

While we only had the machine on the brew station for a couple of hours, some thoughts come to mind specifically for service at Spro. Since my experience with the LB-1 at SCAA Anaheim and the Uber Boiler at LM Out of the Box, I've been a bit skeptical about the applicability of these brewing units in our service environment.

First off is cost. At just under six thousand dollars and a boiler that takes 4 minutes 16 seconds to recover after dispensing only twenty percent of it's capacity and rendering the unit useless during the recovery period, the Marco Uber Boiler can prove to be a customer killer. It's simply an eternity in the heat of service for a machine to be down for that long - and since it's unlikely that a barista will recharge the system after only using a liter's worth of water, chances are that the barista will run the boiler down to 10% capacity before recharging. And if 20% took just over four minutes, I cringe to think how long 90% will take to recover.

Here the LB-1 has an edge. Current estimates project the LB-1's MSRP to be roughly half that of the Uber Boiler. Add the on-demand water feature with no recovery time and the LB-1 has another edge over the Marco. Smaller footprint and lower power requirements both best the Uber Boiler again.

But this really isn't about the LB-1 beating the Uber. Compared to a Fetco FWB-5, they're both expensive and a considerable investment. Neither can match the flow rate of the Fetco (or any standard water tower, for that matter), but they do offer greater control.

Ben and Andrew with Matt from Gizmodo.

One of the biggest problems with either the LB-1 or the Uber is that they can only brew one coffee at a time. If you're a shop offering only by-the-cup brewing, you could be screwed. The pundits will tell you that it's easy to overcome by purchasing more units. At six thousand dollars a pop for each Uber Boiler, that's craziness. Not everyone has Intelligentsia kind of money.

And where counter space is a premium (read: every shop I know), does anyone really have the space to drop two or more Uber Boilers into their operations? Consider that the Uber demands not only the counter space but the cabinet space below it as well.

In these situations, the LB-1 might have the edge as well. It's sort-of modular design means that they can design a multiple head drip tray and you simply bolt the additional brew units into place. It could be narrower saving counter space and since it's completely tabletop you don't lose cabinet space below. While cost is always a factor, the theory is that you could get two LB-1s for the price of one Uber Boiler. I don't know if that's really a bargain but it sounds pretty good.

The concern here is whether or not these kinds of brewers can keep up with service. In an environment where one (or two) brew methods are utilized, this can be a considerable problem.

Let's say that your shop offers all coffees brewed with a V60 pourover, and let's say your brew time per cup is four minutes. We'll presume that each cup is brewed to order using either the LB-1 or the Uber Boiler. Now let's say that there are ten people in line who want a brewed coffee. My first thought is: you're screwed.

The simple math says that tenth person is line is going to have to wait 40 minutes for his coffee. God help him if anyone in line orders more than one cup. Add two brewers and his wait is cut to twenty minutes. Tell someone in line that they're going to have to wait twenty minutes for their cup and chances are they're going to walk out the door.

Even if you don't say anything and they do wait, you'll quickly get the reputation that it takes a long time to make their coffee at your shop. At least Starbucks has coffee on demand.

At Spro Hampden, this potential problem is mitigated by the fact that we offer seven different brewing methods, with only a few of them that can take advantage of the LB-1 or Uber Boiler. Methods such as French Press, AeroPress and Vac Pot have no use for those kinds of boilers and take the pressure off both the boiler and the barista.

Our mix of brew methods lends itself well to the notion of placing one of these water delivery systems on the brew bar. However, in our situation, it does not replace the existing hot water tower. At least the LB-1 looks good and fits comfortably on our brew bar.

That said, the LB-1 is still in the prototype stage and there's so much more to develop and refine before the unit is ready for public release. One of the things I'm most intrigued about the LB-1 is its ability to deliver consistent water temperature. Our community has always discussed the "need" for temperature stability but it's been pretty much non-existent until now. Initial tests prove interesting and I look forward to playing around more with the LB-1 to see just where it might be able to take us.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Jade and the Quick Dinner


And the Quick Dinner - Ribeye, Fries & Fried Eggs

Sunday, August 22, 2010


Asya and Chuck Clark's Crispy Squash Blossoms.

We're back out on the hunt for a weekend midday meal and at b bistro in Bolton Hill. It's a nice-looking joint, kinda modern with a promising menu. The squash blossoms were okay but the batter broken and kinda oil laden. Asya's plate was the winner of the meal with perfectly cooked bacon. And while the menu offered a Prince Edward Island mussels in a green curry sauce with fries, I made the dumb mistake of ordering the waffles.

Not to say that the waffles were bad because they were fine - properly cooked. It's just that they were, well, just plain waffles and there wasn't anything very exciting about them. Just plain, old waffles.

No coffee for me, just tea.

Two Eggs, Truck Patch Bacon, Toast & Salad.

Waffles, just plain old waffles.

b bistro
1501 Bolton Street
Baltimore, MD 21217-4275
(410) 383-8600

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Feast @4East

Tomato and Goat Cheese Tart

Sometimes looking for a place to eat is a challenge. Do you go to the places you know to make good food or do you try someplace new? Try a new place and you don't know for sure what you're going to get. Maybe you'll check out that taco joint but they don't have limes - a disappointment for sure.

With that in mind, I started the search for a place to eat wanting to try something new but the call of the familiar and known pulled strongly. In the end, we decided to check out Feast @4East at the 4 East Madison Inn. A menu of local, farm to table American cuisine was a bright possibility and the BYOB menu meant that I could bring some favored wines without breaking the bank.

Adelsheim 2007 Pinot Blanc

Located inside the 4 East Madison Inn, it reminded me of Auberge d'Carcarille: the inn with gourmet meals. Being a Saturday and calling at 5:30pm, I figured it would be jammed and an 8pm reservation unrealistic. However, they had a table for two and we were on our way.

The food was good. Nicely prepared with good flavors. The tomato and goat cheese tart had hints of anchovy. The bison steak was perfectly cooked. The succotash medley was nice and the mashed potatoes had just the right balance of potato and butter.

In all, a nice meal paired with a couple of great wines.

Molly and her 1/2 Roasted Chicken with Garden Herbs.

2007 Coudoulet de Beaucastel Cote du Rhone

Grilled Bison Steak

Feast @4East
4 East Madison Inn
4 East Madison Street
Baltimore, MD 21202

Friday, August 13, 2010

Any Coffee Any Time

Stopped by the local coffee place today to pick up some filters and what do I see? Seems like everyone is trying to get on the By-The-Cup Bandwagon these days. Was almost tempted to give a 16z a try. Almost.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Waiting at the Apple Store

Ever find yourself at the Apple Store and wanting to entertain yourself?

Whenever I go to the Apple Store I'm usually bored. Honestly, there's very little I can do on a computer at the Apple Store that will give me any real insight into how it will perform in real-life. So like most people, I just stand around trying to look like I know what I'm doing there while really I'm just wasting my time.

But I've found a new way to spend some time at the Apple Store and actually enjoy myself and I'm going to call it: "iSurfing."

Simply walk around the iPhone displays, pick up a random iPhone and go to its photo gallery and browse the photos and videos that other customers have left on the phones. It can be absolutely hilarious and a fun way to spend a few minutes of your time. You might also find a cute girl - and if you're really lucky, maybe she sent an e-mail to a friend from the phone and viola!, you've got her email address.

Which should be notice to the rest of you: don't take photos of yourself or leave any evidence of yourselves on these demo units. You never know who is going to stalk you after you leave...

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Hiding Out @starbucks

As much as a whole cadre of professional baristas like to beat on Starbucks for a variety of reasons I won't go into here, once in a while I like hanging out at the local Starbucks near my house.

It's not too busy. It's only three years old. It's clean. It's comfortable. On blazing hot days like today, it's got cold air conditioning. The black iced tea is agreeable (won't touch the other iced teas - they're abominations and should be banned). But most importantly, the baristas there are always nice and friendly.

Today I'm need of a spot to sit down, check e-mails and analyze reports. Can't do it at Spro because there's a never-ending parade of things to do there. Can't do it at home because inevitably I'll be distracted and end up doing something else, like reading cookbooks, actually cooking or watching back-to-back episodes of The Wire until 2 a.m.

Here I can focus on my reports, figure out what to do with them and generally look like I'm accomplishing something. Add a couple of cute female baristas making my drinks and life is pretty good. Now, if only the Nazis that run the Socialist Demokratik Republik of Maryland hadn't pounded us with draconian smoking laws forbidding me from enjoying a nice cigar with my iced tea it would be damn near perfection.

Saturday, August 07, 2010

Hampden Hangin'

On the street with Kim from Frill and Jack "The Nose".

Thursday, August 05, 2010

Visitors Cupping

It's cupping time once again and this time we're hosting someone from the Washington Post as well as Joan Obra and Ralph Gaston from Rusty's Hawaiian Ka'u Coffee. On the table are Intelligentsia's Edelweiss Tanzania from old friend Kavita Vohora, Counter Culture's Michicha Sidama Ethiopia imported by Baltimore's Samuel Demisse and the 2010 Hawaii Coffee Association Coffee Cupping Champion from Joan's mom Lorie.

Look for these coffees to hit the Spro menu soon.

Tuesday, August 03, 2010

The Travel Of Discontent

As I was getting into the elevator a few minutes ago, I spotted a NOAA pin on the jacket lapel of the gentleman getting off the lift. For some reason, this struck me as odd and I was suddenly discombobulated and lost in the world.

"Where am I?", I wondered.
"What country am I in?"

For a moment, I was lost. I couldn't remember where I was in the world. Was I in the United States?

After awhile, the continuous stream of hotel rooms, no matter how luxurious, begins to blend together. As luxurious as they may be, they're still not home. It's still a relatively generic hotel room - even with the 400 count Egyptian cotton sheets, fluffy bath robe and Aveda products. Truth is, I use L'Occitane products, a t-shirt and satin sheets at home, so it's quite a different experience...

A few seconds later, I had to remind myself that yes, I am still in America and I'm still in Seattle and that I think I'm going home today.

I'm still wondering when I'll actually be able to get some sleep.