Monday, October 25, 2010

On My Own...

World Barista Champion Stephen Morrisey plays piano...

While Marus Boni sings showtunes in the lobby. Late night.

La Barra

Scott and Marcus focus.

Left to our own devices, our intrepid group of merry coffee people make our way down Carrera 7 in search of a restaurant I spied while visiting last year: Restaurante Diana Garcia. Chef Garcia has a great reputation for great food and I remember seeing it not too far from our old hotel, which means it's only a few blocks from our current hotel. Unfortunately, when we get there, it's closed.

Not closed for good, just for the day. But it means that we're S.O.L., hungry and in need of food. Luckily, I remember a series of restaurants a couple blocks away featuring a plethora of choices in this fashionable Zona G neighborhood on Calle 69A.

Here we find an assortment of restaurants and settle on the Spanish restaurant, La Barra. There's outside patio seating but it's a little chilly and we opt for the second floor dining room where we simply order a barrage of dishes to satiate the hunger of our crew.

Ian and Brent chowing down.


Mashed potatoes

Patatas Bravas

World Barista Champion Stephen Morrissey

Robo de Toro con pure de papa blanca

Chorizo Iberico Picante en Vino Tinto

Morcillo, blood sausage with Torta Espagnola.

More gambas


Paella Valenciana

Touring The FNC

Discussing the categorization of the coffees.

The FNC. Federacion Nacional de Cafeteros de Colombia. The Juan Valdez people. In a nutshell, the FNC controls most of the coffee in Colombia. Even though they only purchase 25% of production, they seem to have their hands in all of it somehow.

Which is not a bad thing. It is what it is.

Luis Fernando has arranged a tour of the FNC laboratories for us and we're eager to see what goes on behind the coffee colored curtain. Will we see the Wizard? Or will we find more coffee?

Last year, we enjoyed the hospitality of Alirio Laguna at the Tolima Comite of the FNC. The labs in Ibague are a bit smaller and less high-tech than here at headquarters and the scope of what is done here turns out to be quite impressive.

The main cupping room - where upwards of 64 samples of each coffee may be tested.

Those of us in the niche of specialty coffee like to throw around the quote that coffee is the second largest commodity after oil. Whether that's true or not is really irrelevant. What we do seem to forget in our niche is that this means that coffee is Big Business.

National coffee organizations, like the FNC, may find the specialty trade interesting, curious and beneficial, but they probably don't consider it significant. What's at stake here is the export trade of the entire nation and the FNC has its control over critical components of that trade.

For example, all coffees are inspected and graded by the FNC. Any Colombian coffee for export must meet certain criteria as established by the FNC. This is to ensure general uniformity and consistency of "Colombian Coffee" and this is where the FNC runs into opposition with specialty.

The roasting lab.

Within the niche of specialty, operators like myself, want to see the uniqueness of a farm or process in a cup. One may wonder how a natural processed Colombian will taste - the FNC and the system in Colombia is designed to prevent that from happening because it's not specified as Colombian Coffee.

At first, it's easy to take offense but as our tour of the facility continues, one sees that all of this is in the interests of commerce and producing a traceable, consistent and predictable supply of coffee.

While companies like Intelligentsia may roast two million pounds this year, it's still peanuts compared to commercial roasters. Coca-Cola alone may purchase two million pounds of solely Colombian coffee, dwarfing the production of specialty darlings like Counter Culture.

And when Coca-Cola is buying coffee for use in it's Georgia brand of coffee beverages, or as a component for Coke itself, it's looking for a decidedly consistent and predictable flavor profile. Unlike the specialty niche where we celebrate the seasonal differences in coffee, companies like Coke demand a consistent flavor profile year to year for their products.

And let's be honest, if Coke changed flavor slightly year to year because of these seasonal differences, you'd be unhappy about it too.

My expertise is called upon to settle a production issue.

A massive part of the FNC is to aggregate the years coffee crop, identify, quantify, categorize and track so that their customers can be delivered a consistent product. Everything going on in this laboratory is designed to facilitate that mission. And to me, it's massively impressive.

Impressive that anyone can take a crop that changes from year to year and cultivate results that are consistent from year to year. Some may think that this is terrible commercial industrialism (and it probably is) but I tend to view it as the artisans at the great Champagne houses in France who blend wines together year to year to produce a consistently great champagne. The work is truly remarkable.

Ian cupping for a second opinion.

So much is going on that it's difficult to absorb it all. Since my days developing syrup flavors for Jays Shave Ice and making cabernet sauvignon in the backyard, I've always admired and been fascinated by this kind of work. Perhaps one day, when I own Coca Cola, I too will return to cup coffees and place our order for ten million pounds of high grade, pure Colombian.

Luis Fernando demonstrates the new packaging.

Cafe Crawling Bogota

Danilo and his espresso from Oma.

Stepping out onto the streets of Bogota in front of the Federacion Nacional de Cafeteros de Colombia building where our judges certification class is being held, we feel a sense of freedom washing over us. For the past seven days we've been the guests of the coffee association, which entails being looked after by two lovely coordinators, shuttled around in private vehicles and generally taken care of.

And while this is a lovely and luxurious way to live, ensconced in high thread count bedsheets and all the bottled water you can drink, it leaves us a bit disconnected from the countries we visit. By now, I've seen quite a few places in the world and have navigated my way through some interesting cities, but since we've been judging coffee competitions, it feels as though we're truly foreigners in a foreign land.

Our selection of drinks from Oma.

Our daily routine comprises waking up and having breakfast in wonderful hotels, then being whisked to the competition venue in private vehicles, then out to eat and party at night, but nary are we set free to roam the wild tundra. Because of this, there are times when I feel disconnected and even apprehensive about venturing beyond the pale.

Don't get me wrong. I'm not complaining. Our hosts are wonderful, gracious and very generous. We're well-kept when traveling. But one of the jokes passed around by the judges is that they've traveled the world and seen the best convention centers the world has to offer. Ironic, but there's a bit of truth to that. So much so, that we've started to make a point of it to tack on a day or two to our itinerary just to have the opportunity to see more than the different venues of the world.

Ian enjoying the mild Bogota weather.

So, stepping out onto the streets of Bogota by ourselves is almost exhilarating. Free from the control of schedules, we're free to engage the public, visit shops and taste coffee other than competition coffee. Our first stop: Oma Coffee, just down the street.

Bogota is a cool place. Literally and figuratively. There's an energy and a bustle to the place. Cars careen in a seemingly random and haphazard manner. To the average American, it seems like madness. Walk across the street in that entitled expectation that pedestrians have the right of way and you're gonna get flattened. By a bus.

Danilo and Mauricio from Mexico City.

Truly the biggest problem with working in coffee and working with some of the best talent and best coffees in the world is the conundrum of going out into the world to drink coffee. For the past week, we've been working with national judges who seem to have a very different preference for their coffees, based on the way they interpret the drinks we sample together. It's a bit perplexing and we've been wanting to get out there to the cafes to see exactly what the typical Colombiana is drinking.

At Oma the coffee is remarkable. It's dark. It's bitter. It's difficult to drink without sugar. My cappuccino needs a couple to three sugars. Round and round the world we go and the coffee is usually about the same: difficult. The curious thing is that coffee is usually of lower quality within producing countries because they export their best stuff for the highest prices.

Our selections at Juan Valdez Cafe.

Happily, Bogotanas like outdoor seating and we've landed ourselves at a nice table to sip coffee, munch on baked goods and generally while the afternoon away. Day One of the WBC Certification Class is over and we're reflecting on the experience. Ian is the only candidate up for re-certification, the rest of us are first-timers.

Sitting out in the cool weather as the shock of traffic flows by and the lovely Colombianas walk past, we're reminded that all is nice in the world. We're out in a different part of the world and hanging out with friends. Not a bad way to go about it.

At Juan Valdez, we find David.

After a little while, we walk across the street to the JW Marriott where a large Juan Valdez Cafe is situated. It's busy and throughout this trip it's been clear that Juan Valdez is a focal point of national pride here in Colombia. During the competition, Mauricio Romero, the 2009 champion, was surrounded by people who looked as though the entire hope of the nation rested on his shoulders. That look of pride and expectation, seems like a lot to carry and is something you don't see in the USBC.

The Juan Valdez Cafes are similar in nature to those of Starbucks. They do very similar executions of coffee and do so in a very modern and efficient environment. So efficient in fact that the Juan Valdez at Andino center in Zona Rosa does US$150,000 per month in revenue. At two dollars average for a cup of coffee, that's upwards of 30,000 cups per month. Insane.

The staff is unhappy with my picture taking and I don't understand why. In fact, I never really understand why operations gets upset with photo taking. It's not like they've got anything to hide. I think for a moment of pushing our connection as guests of the Federacion but that would only make me look like a jerk. Instead, we take our coffees and bump into David.

The instructional bar at Juan Valdez Cafe.

David is there holding a meeting with some colleague when we run into him. David has been one of our hosts during the competition and with his business completed, we sit down with him for a bit of coffee. Here I'm having a simple brewed coffee that's pretty decent - if you add a little sugar and cream.

We sit for awhile and chat while awaiting our 4:30pm appointment to tour the laboratories of the Federacion.

WBC Judges Certification

Welcome to class - suckers!

It's Monday morning in Bogota and I'm slightly stressed.

Today is the first day of certification class for the World Barista Championship (WBC). For those of you unfamiliar, the WBC is the top level of barista competition in the world and two years ago they instituted a Judges Certification Class. Two years ago, I had the credentials to take the class but thought it was stupid and decided against it.

Now, two years later, the certification has generated some value and since I was already going to be in Bogota judging the competition, it made sense to take the class as well.

I'm stressed because even though I've judged national barista competitions on three continents, they've always been at the invitation of the national body hosting the competition and now it's time to put my skills to the test - and I'm worried that I might come up short.

I mean, consider that I lead a team of baristas back home in Baltimore of whom I consider to be some of the finest baristas in the industry today. They work day in and day out, crafting drinks to my standards. What does it say if I am unable to successfully complete a judges certification - after judging competitions for so many years?

It's stressful.

Especially since I've recently discovered that you need to know each line of the scoresheets and must complete a blank scoresheet by hand.

For years, I've relied on the English (and sometimes Spanish) language to tell me the scoresheet categories. Now, I'm screwed.

The Examiners.

Within a matter of hours, friends and fellow judges are turned into evaluators and candidates. A division forms as the judge candidates gather. It's been a long time since I've been in this position and I'm finding it slightly uncomfortable - mainly because we're not sure what to expect.

Two years ago, the WBC had a 98% failure rate. During the first certification class in Guatemala in 2008, only one person passed: Adriana Hid of Mexico. The test back then was grueling, uncompromising and did nothing to encourage the candidates to pass. In fact, the reports I heard made it sound like it was designed to fail everyone.

Later, the WBC would have to relent on its testing procedure by suddenly declaring many of those who had failed the certification test as "passed" and then "certified" to judge. Probably because with a 98% failure rate, you simply won't have enough "certified judges" to conduct the competition. That would be bad.

Were we to be subjected to the same test, with the same failure rate? No one really knew. And no precedence had been set since this was the first certification class and we were its guinea pigs.

Danilo, Lauro and Ian doing Technical practicals.

The class of candidates was small. Eight in total. Four of us, Lauro Fioretti, Ian Clark, Danilo Lodi and myself, had just come off judging the Colombian Barista Championship, while the other four flew into Bogota from the Ukraine, Mexico, United States and also Bogota. It was a small class, but also a cross section of judges from around the world.

In order to qualify for the class, the individual must have two consecutive years experience judging a national barista competition. Luckily, I've been judging national competitions for the last four years in Ethiopia, Canada, Mexico, Nicaragua and now Colombia. Of the class, I think only Lauro, Danilo, Ian and myself had judged competitions outside their home nation - and I think I'm the only judge NOT to have judged within his home nation. This mainly due to the fact that I'm tired of American coffee politics and also spent the last six seasons as a competitor in the United States Barista Championship.

WBC President Mark Inman works fastidiously on foodservice problems.

After a light breakfast of fruit and oatmeal, we're off to class. The morning is spent in lecture and open discussion about the test, its requirements and what's going to happen during the test. The class will be broken down into three groups that must successfully complete three test sections. Each judge must choose one discipline: Sensory or Technical, as their specialty. However, each judge candidate must successfully complete the entire test in order to pass.

That means that each of us must pass both technical and sensory tests.

This would be achieved in three sections: 1) Practical, 2)Written and 3)Sensory.

The practical section would be somewhat the easiest since it's essentially what we do as judges. A mock competition presentation is staged (this time with former Colombian barista champions, Ever Bernal and Mauricio Romero) and you evaluate and score the presentation as given.

The written section is both a multiple choice and fill in the blanks type of test, including a written test of the scoresheets. Over a hundred answers must be completed. The written also includes a sensory portion where you must identify different characteristics of a brewed coffee presented to you for evaluation.

The sensory section is multi-faceted. First, a series of videos are presented to you where you must identify problems or answers to questions regarding the video performance. The second set of videos present you with snapshots of drinks that you must score appropriately based on visual appeal and texture.

The second part of the sensory section comprises triangulation eliminations. Three samples are presented and you must choose the odd sample of the three. During the open discussion, the samples are widely varied and easy to pick out. During the actual examination, the coffees are much closer together in character and are harder to discern. Those who are familiar with Q Grader Certification will be familiar with this test methodology.

World Barista Champion Stephen Morrisey and Jose Arreola waxing judgement.

Originally, I didn't know what to expect. In some ways, I was expecting the worst. This is the WBC, afterall - I typically don't have high expectations for these kinds of things. However, I thought the class was very good. I found it educational, invigorating, challenging, difficult, tough, enlightening and really quite enjoyable.

Gone is the system designed to fail the candidates. Instead, the open discussion was informative, educational and helped us prepare for the examinations. Attitudes were positive. The test was difficult. It was challenging. There could be no short cuts. You either knew the material when you walked into the class, or you didn't.

Truth be told, I don't know if there's any real way to prepare for the class, other than studying the rules and knowing them thoroughly. Everything else is based on your experience level. Two years consecutive judging experience is a must and is probably the only way to really be prepared for the class. Your sensory skills need to be experienced. You need to be able to discern flavors and coffees. After taking the test, I realize that four years judging experience was probably about right.

And I still thought I could fail the class.