Monday, March 28, 2011

Running On The Fringes

"Like most pro skaters, I've always been frustrated that skateboarding's mainstream popularity derives primarily from contests, when that's such a small part of what we do. In fact, most pro skaters shun competition entirely and instead build their reps through video parts and skate-mag coverage. That's what makes the sport and the subculture so hard for outsiders to package: At its core, it's about innovation and improvisation. It's about ignoring the rules."
- Tony Hawk, How Did I Get Here?, p.47

On recommendation of The Nacho, I'm reading Tony's new book. For those of you unfamiliar with Mr. Hawk, he's an icon and legend of the skateboarding world. We're about the same age and came up in similar subcultures. The Nacho, The Seed and the rest of our crew skated, surfed and snowboarded (I bodyboarded and nearly was killed at Sandy Beach in 1989) and remained solidly on the fringes of mainstream throughout our development years.

Today, while wearing khakis and Polo shirts, I find myself still on the fringes and having a grand time at it. Which is why I found a connection in Tony's writings. We're pursuing the cutting edge through dogged determination, regardless of what the mainstream of specialty coffee has to say about it.

It's also why I respect and admire others in the craft pursing their own vision on the fringes, ignoring "the rules", regardless of what the "popular kids" have to say. People like Deferio, Rue, Piquet, Lewis and even that guy everyone loves to hate: Carmichael.

It's truly what counterculture (the movement not the company) is all about.

Friday, March 25, 2011


Bread for salad and baba ganoush.

Simon came to town to convert Dianna from his girlfriend to his fiancee. She said "yes."

To celebrate, we met up at Zorba's in Baltimore's Greektown for dinner. Dai's parents-in-law and their clan treated us to some fantastic and classic Greek food. It was all delicious and the octopus was some of the best I've ever eaten. Grilled to perfection.

The food was good. The company was great and we had a fantastic time. I won't bore you with too much verbage. Just be sure to check it out when you come to visit, or propose.

Everyone gathered at the table.

Horiatiki Salata (Greek Village Salad) - Traditional village salad with tomatoes, cucumbers, onions, green peppers, kalamata olives and feta with house dressing.

Fried Calamari. Rubbery.

Spanakopita - spinach, onion, dill and feta baked in layers of crispy phyllo dough.

Mythos beer.

Baba Ganoush.

Grilled Octopus - topped with olive oil and vinegar. Stellar.

Pastitio - noodles and beef topped with bechamel and baked.

Kontosouvli - marinated pork, roasted on a spit.

Rice Pilaf.

Kostas & Petro

Gus insists that I eat more pork. I don't want to be disrespectful...

Galaktoboureko - custard wrapped in sweet phyllo dough.

Zorba's Bar & Grill
4710 Eastern Avenue
Baltimore, MD 21224

Tatuaje L'esprit de La Verite 2008

Totalmente a mano en Esteli.

While in Esteli touring the cigar factory with Pete Johnson, I spied a box for the Verite 2009 line of cigars. He told me about his approach to using tobacco leaf from one farm and one harvest to create a vintage line in the manner of wine production. I didn't really understand exactly what he was talking about but it sounded interesting.

Fast forward to this week and I'm browsing the internet and came across some reviews of the 2008 which spoke very highly of the cigar, my interest was piqued. Hopped onto and ordered a box yesterday. It arrived today.

Details, details, details.

The packaging is very smartly done and conveys the sense of something special. The bands are a little on the simple side but the ten cigar bundle smells and portends of something good to come.

Right from the start, the 2008 hits you full on with spicy notes. It blooms with spice and keeps on coming. It takes a few moments before the body starts to develop but once is blossoms, it's on.

The missing stick.

From there the cigar keeps growing. Continuously increasing spice notes and body maintains smoothness and flavor until it plateaus at a wonderful high and holds.

There's been a bit of chatter on the twitterverse about the 2008 splitting. Pete has responded that the 2008 needs 63% humidity to avoid the splitting. About two inches into the smoke, my wrapper started to split slightly. It could be an adverse affect on the cigar's humidity due to transportation but I'm thinking that it has more to do with the speed of smoke.

With a cigar this good, I sometimes have the tendency to smoke it on the fast side. Slight uneven burn and the splitting leads me to believe that these errors were due to my own rate of smoking than anything else.

Starting out.

Some cigars deliver and intense beginning only to develop into harsh bitter notes and sometimes offense aromas of ammonia - not the ideal way to end your enjoyment. The 2008 does none of that. It continues smoothly and evenly all the way through, until you're burning your fingertips and lips because you're smoking it all the way down.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

1 Year = $14 for $1

abc2new's Charley Crowson lines up an interview.

Over the weekend on Saturday we celebrated the One Year Anniversary of Spro Hampden's opening. It's been a fun, exciting and educational year for us. We've been learning how to manage multiple locations, manage a wide array of great coffees from many different roasters, and we've constantly been refining our service and preparation techniques.

Along the way, we've made some great friends and generally have enjoyed a great time over the past twelve months.

Ordering from the Anniversary Menu.

To mark the date, we brought in a selection of coffees from Filadelfia Estate in Guatemala, Cafe ZaJay in Veracruz, Mexico, Four Barrel in San Francisco and the Aida's Grand Reserve from El Salvador - all for just One Dollar a cup!

You know, because One Year means One Dollar, so for the ten year anniversary all coffees will cost ten dollars!

She's a St. Bernard!

Predictably, the AGR sold out within the first 90 minutes. I mean, here's one of the most celebrated coffees that our customers have seen on and they've heard the hype but just couldn't or didn't want to spend $14 on a cup. Now they can come and get it for a buck - half the price of our normally cheapest coffee??? That's crazy! And we blew through the remaining inventory with record speed.

It was a good day with many of our friends, regulars and well-wishers stopping by to see what was on offer. And when the Anniversary Coffees ran out, we ran the Brazil Samamobaia as the Anniversary Coffee so that everyone could have the opportunity to try amazing coffees for a dollar.

Lindsay oversees her last day.

Also, it was Lindsay's last day with us so we gathered at the midday shift change with a chilled bottle of Ketel One and toasted to her future.

All in all, it was a nice way to cap off our first year at Spro Hampden.

Shots of Ketel One to celebrate and bid adieu.



Tuesday, March 22, 2011

With Cream & Sugar

Comparing the coffee with cream and sugar.

Years ago, I used to teach 6 to 12 year olds. It could be tough work, trying to hold the attention of youngsters for an hour at a time. But nothing could be more brutal than instructing high school teenagers.

When people are young, like the 6-12 year olds, they're a little more intimidated by so-called "adults"- the respect is more inherent. However, by the time they get to high school, they've got a little more experience that's just enough to make them think they know it all - and the attitude to go along with that kind of bravado.

This means that in order to lead and discuss topics, you need to be on top of your game. Any doubt, any weakness and high schoolers will eat you alive.

Junior Year Culinarians.

I hadn't really thought of that when I agreed to come and do a Seed To Cup lecture a month or so ago. Old friend, Ron Furman, had roped me into working with these kids in the culinary program at a local magnet school to give them some basic foundation in coffee making and help them prepare for the annual fundraising event in April.

After leaving the studio this morning, I headed over the school only to realize my predicament just before I was to meet the students: I needed to be prepared and confident or I could be shredded into cabbage.

Like any high school, the class ranged from students who were interested to those who didn't care. I had a bunch of slides prepared starting with the flowers on the tree to the finished latte art cappuccino, but as I started I could tell that some of them were getting restless and bored.

There's nothing like a Seed To Cup Coffee Talk to bore the crap out of sixteen year olds.

So, in mid stride, I scrapped most of the slides and changed course. Let's talk about the coffee you like to drink. Let's talk about the best coffee. Let's talk about the worst coffee. Hmmm, maybe we're getting a little traction now.

The benefit of instructing culinary students: Fried Chicken.

But where it really started to pique their interest was when we started talking about my travels with coffee. Africa, Asia, Central and South America - exotic places that they've only heard about. What was it like? Can you imagine living in a world where your friends actually killed people in a war? Places and things so far away from their world that they seem almost mythical.

Then when it came out that I did movies before coffee, the questions really started coming. Have you met this celebrity? Yes. That celebrity? No. What about this one? We don't get along. Or the other? He's a jerk. Is it true actors are hard to work with? True.

Somehow, we got to talking about my adventures than the coffee itself.

Then we came back to the coffee with a demonstration. I had the final and last 24 grams of the Aida's Grand Reserve that we didn't use in the tv broadcast. These students would be the last ones to taste one of the greatest coffees in the world today and brewed it in the Beehouse pourover (the device we're going to use at the fundraiser).

The comments ranged from gross to delicate and sweet to floral to tea-like and complex. Most of the students are Starbucks Frappuccino drinkers but they were surprisingly receptive and able to discern more nuance out of the coffee than I expected. After their initial tasting, (WARNING: Hardcore purists should close their browser now) they wanted to try it with cream and sugar.

I'm heading back in April.

Bright Lights, Big City

The lights of the studio shine down upon us.

It's 6:30 in the morning and both my alarm clock and iPhone are honking. For some reason, I always feel tired before media appearances, no matter the media. This time, it's off to Channel 2 for an appearance on Good Morning Maryland and I need to shower and get myself ready.

It's nice to be recognized by the media and it seems that every time we offer the Aida's Grand Reserve we garner more media attention than usual. There's something about a pricey cup of coffee that catches peoples attention. Last year, it was the $13 Grand Reserve that brought us to and this year it's the $14 Grand Reserve that's brought us to Good Morning Maryland.

No matter how you slice it, we've brought quite a bit of mainstream media attention to Aida's Grand Reserve.

Getting ready to go live.

Way back when I started out in The Business (and way before I ever thought about coffee), I did live television. While not for some people, I like live television. There's something exciting and almost out of control about live television - as though things are just on the verge of crashing and burning. Sure ENG, episodic or feature work is fun, but few things are as exciting and challenging as live television - especially when something goes wrong.

My package is early in the 9am broadcast and I'm the first setup on the set. For the live demo, I've brought along some of the Grand Reserve, a water kettle and a vac pot setup. While the vac pot is how we actually brewed the AGR at Spro, I chose it for the broadcast because it's unique, sexy and theatrical. Nothing like some sort of contraption that's part bunsen burner and bong to capture the viewers attention.

One of the problems with the butane heater is that I can never really tell when it's going to go out. I tried topping it off with a canister but I'm still not confident in its veracity. As a backup, I bring along a Beehouse pourover setup, just in case.

Live on avi...

If you've ever worked with cameras you'll know it's a bit strange to be in a quiet studio, looking at the black lens and speaking naturally and normally. In the studio, it's quiet and it feels weird talking to a camera. There's no audience feedback. There's almost no noise at all.

You just have to imagine the reality: that beyond the lens, there are literally millions (or hundreds of thousands) of people watching you right now. They're watching everything you do and everything you say. Scratch your butt and your nieces laugh at you. Say something stupid and your mom's friends are calling her. Drop a revelation about President Obama and you could be going national. Otherwise, it's just a bunch of talking to a camera lens and you really don't know anything else.

For the most part, I spent those television years working behind the camera, as operator, technical director, director or producer. Once in a while, I would do a stint as the on-air "talent" and talk mindlessly into the lens. On the technical side, things sometimes seem like they're dragging on forever - especially when things go wrong. Not so much on the on-air side.

On the abc2news set.

When you think about it, three and a half minutes doesn't seem like a lot of time but on television, it's quite a bit of time. Compare that to the typical motion picture that takes about two days to shoot 3.5 minutes worth of footage and you can see that three and a half minutes can be quite a bit indeed.

A vac pot takes about one minute thirty seconds to brew. Two minutes is ample time, as long as everything is prepped. As we moved to the package and closer to air, I made sure the kettle was boiling, filled the vac pot and hit the gas on the burner. It looked strong and I was as ready as I would ever be.

But the kettle had to go back to its cradle on the floor at my feet, so when you see me going down as we go live, I'm actually putting the kettle back. Drats.

Three and a half minutes seems like a long time but when you're actually doing it, it blows by at an incredible rate of speed. I really don't remember what I said and some people have asked me if I was scared to be on television because I looked a little stressed. Truth is, I wasn't stressed to be on television, I was stressed because the water was not boiling and the flame on the burner was dying. Crap.

These are the moments when you Do or Die. Freeze and fold? Or charge. Luckily, I had the pourover at my feet, so I bent down again to grab it and the water and kept on rocking. I still don't remember what Charley and I were talking about, I was just concerned about finishing the demo and made some comment about Julia Child and her souffle.

Finally, I got the coffee finished and off to taste. I tasted it after we went to break and it's was okay. Not as rounded and developed as it would be at Spro - but considering that I poured it hard and rushed the extraction, it wasn't bad.

Next time, I'm going to have to bring an assistant and a stylist.

Thank you, Julia Child.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Pissing Off The "Gods" Of Coffee

I received a rather interesting phone call today.

It was an industry friend calling to tell me that the coffee company he works for no longer will sell my company coffee.

Turns out that the company he works for is unhappy with the way we have been representing their coffee at The Spro. The company? Counter Culture Coffee.

Evidently, there are three reasons why they no longer will sell to us:

1 - They are unhappy that we started serving the Aida's Grand Reserve in February.

2 - They say Aida Batlle (the producer) is unhappy that we are serving her coffee.

3 - I have made disparaging remarks about Peter Giuliano (SCAA President and CCC owner).

There were a couple of other minor issues that were also included in the discussion (I'll go into those later).

For sure, Numbers One and Three are all true. We started serving the AGR on Valentine's Day after freeze storing it since we received the coffee in late September/early October. And I have been very critical of Peter Giuliano (as the SCAA President) of late - especially with the recent discussion on Barista Exchange (sorry, I just put the link to the thread, you'll have to scroll through to see the action - it's quite entertaining, maybe).

As for Number Two, I can only guess. We released the AGR the day that I left for El Salvador to volunteer my time judging their national barista championship, and I even sent a message to Aida that I was going to be in San Salvador and if she might have time to meet up for a visit. She said she was busy at the farm and that it wouldn't be possible. I figured that if she had a problem she would have said so - or maybe not.

To be honest, I'm actually surprised it took this long for Peter Giuliano to pull this one. I expected this to come much earlier since I have been quite critical of his handling of SCAA affairs over the past year or so.

Quite seriously, I don't really have a problem with this. It's what I expected and seems to be par for the course (you know, agree with us, or else). To my mind, any and every company has a right to sell (or stop selling) to any outfit it desires. They want to sell to us - cool. They don't want to sell to us - that's cool too.

Some of the other tertiary issues that were presented as reasons why Counter Culture no longer will to sell to us are that: a) CCC is moving away from the multiple roaster model and only wants to pursue the roaster exclusivity model (which is something Spro does not do), and b) we don't buy enough coffee.

"A" is a curious reason since a year ago they said that they wanted to pursue the multiple (non exclusive) roaster model. Maybe they've really changed their minds. Afterall, when a client uses multiple roasters, they're not buying all their coffee from one roaster and it's less profitable to that roaster. So note to those of you planning on opening a multiple roaster coffeeshop: Counter Culture is not interested in that model.

Of course, with Spro they don't have all the extra expenses of the exclusivity model. We don't ask or expect barista training, machine service or all the extras that roasters usually have to provide on a somewhat complimentary level. They simply sell us coffee at the price specified and we pay. We don't ask for anything extra or anything else - just quality coffee, at any price. In fact, the only time we take of their customer service rep is when he comes in to hang out, have a coffee and chat. We're very "low maintenance" - partly because we prefer it that way and also because we respect that with exclusivity comes those service "perks".

As to "B", I guess we don't buy "enough" coffee. From the opening of Spro Hampden through this week, we've only purchased about 400 pounds of coffee from Counter Culture, at a total revenue of just under $3,300.00 (at least that's according to our QuickBooks report).

Honestly, I can admit that it's not much. We're not the 300 pound per week account that roasters dream of claiming. We're a small coffee shop with a heavy focus on delivering a variety of quality coffees to a burgeoning coffee clientele. We source coffees from multiple roasters and brew each cup of coffee one-at-a-time.

But since they said that they're basing their decision to not sell to us based on the AGR that we offered starting on Valentine's Day, I thought I would have a statistical look at the numbers.

For the AGR, we purchased one eight ounce tin for a landed price of $26.95 - that's $17.95 for the coffee and $9.00 for shipping. This translates into .008281% of the money we've spent or .000152% of the poundage we've purchased over the past year with Counter Culture. Surely, for even a small company purchasing a small amount (read: not "enough") of coffee these percentages are a microscopic reason to tell us to piss off.

So, less than one percent of our purchases and less than one percent of our purchased weight in coffee and we're not representing their coffee properly? Curious.

Makes one kind of wonder if they hold such a hardline on their accounts that brew the coffee in airpots and let them sit around for who knows how long. Or the accounts with bagged coffee sitting around for a bit of time. I can only guess that those coffees account for more than one percent of those account purchases...

The interesting thing is that even during this period where I have been critical of Peter Giuliano, I had thought about discontinuing our purchasing from Counter Culture based on those criticisms. However to me, agreement is not a prerequisite for a relationship or doing business. Counter Culture offers some fine coffees that my staff was excited about and we continued purchasing their coffee because we felt that we could offer them to our clientele in a thoughtful and engaging manner. I would not allow my personal thoughts regarding their owner to cloud our way of doing business. It wouldn't be professional and would just be childish.

Besides, there's lots of great people working for the company and it would be just wrong to cast doubt on any of them merely based on my criticisms of their boss or his desire to get rid of me based on the reasons above. I like all of them and wish them the best - though I do suspect that I'm persona non grata at Counter Culture events now.

In the end, I'm more amused than anything else. Disagree and criticize the President of the SCAA and get told by his company to piss off?

I'm only surprised that it didn't happen sooner.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Espresso Tatuaje

The espresso machine at Tatuaje HQ, Hollywood.

After a morning in the valley visiting old haunts Location Sound and Birns & Sawyer (where I've spent way too much money on production equipment), I've found my way to Hollywood for a visit with Pete and Andy at Tatuaje Cigars.

It's interesting to come full circle with Tatuaje. I first tried Tatuaje through The Porn King and Marvin during a holiday in Honolulu back in 2004. That Rare Cojonu 2003 was an immense treat and I've always had a fondness for Tatuaje ever since.

Then after visiting with Pete in Esteli a couple of weeks ago, having a smoke in Bethesda, now I find myself in the back room of Tatuaje trying to explain the finer points of espresso making to Andy in a compressed 40 minute session. There's nothing quite like trying to jam years of experience into a short period of time, but it's all good.

With a bag of espresso from Four Barrel in tow we make good progress and I think I've helped Andy ante up the quality of espresso at HQ. From there it's time to sit with the boys in the lounge and enjoy a Tatuaje Reserva until it's time to go home.

26 Beach - As Always

House Blend Salad - baby lettuce, feta, chicken, mushrooms, walnuts, fresh berries, sun-dried tomatoes, and served with raspberry vinaigrette.

Cesar Salad.

Chilaquiles Diablo – tortilla chips pan sauteed in our diablo salsa sprinkled with queso seco, mozzarella, red onion, cilantro, a scoop of guacamole & sour cream.

Tuna Burger

Chicken Curry Royal – eggs scrambled w/chicken, snow peas, bean sprouts, and topped with coconut curry sauce & served over brown rice.

P B & J – creamy Skippy’s peanut butter & Knott’s Berry strawberry jam.

Pepperoni Pizza.

Peaches N’ Cream – 2 French “croissant” toasts topped with caramelized peaches, a scoop of vanilla bean ice cream & melba sauce.


The Verry Berry – French toast topped w/an assortment of fresh berries & warm chocolate sauce, pecan syrup or melba sauce

The Polar Bear – 2 French “croissant” toasts with a scoop of vanilla ice cream, fresh berries, melba sauce & grated white chocolate.

26 Beach
3100 Washington Blvd.
Venice Beach, CA

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Intelligentsia Pasadena

Menus Intelligentsia.

When it comes to interesting interior design in the coffee business, I think Intelligentsia has done some truly interesting things over the past four years. From Silver Lake to Venice Beach and now the new Pasadena location, the design has been interesting and even innovative.

Unlike the Venice Beach location, Pasadena doesn't go overboard with the Gee Whiz design approaches, like the hard concrete bleachers, odd espresso pods and underused "Slow Bar." Instead, Pasadena borrows heavily from the current Farm2Table fad of repurposed chic urban style and traditional bar design - which is probably better because it's not causing customer traffic jams at the entrance.

It's Sunday afternoon and the place is hopping. A short line and a rather friendly girl greets us. She takes our order and we're on our way. The service is friendly and efficient. LAWeekly writes about the pretentiousness of The Intelligentsia Experience, I can't comment on it because I've already been recognized by Phil.

The girls consider the offerings.

For me, the new Intelligentsia shops have become "must visit" shops whenever they open. While I may not agree or think that the designs are the best, they certainly are different and progressive, which I think is something to be celebrated or, at least, investigated.

Where Pasadena doesn't go for innovative interior design, they've worked some truly nice touches into their bar: integrated drip trays line what seems to be the entire run of the bar, allowing the baristas to spill, drip or dump liquid at any point with minimal cleanup or fuss. Water gooseneck dispensers are strategically placed, as are pitcher rinsers at every workstation.

While I'm starting to tire of the reclaimed wood and artifact style of urban design, the lineup of three larger scales that act as both weighing devices as well as a worksurface for the hand brew bar is a nice touch. Maybe even nice enough to riff on when we build the next Spro.

A cappuccino from Phil.

Our drinks come and we retreat to a table in the back. The interior is nice and I'd tell you more but if you've been to any of the new farm2table style restaurants in the last five years, then you know exactly the interior of Pasadena.

As always, the drinks are solidly executed. My brewed coffee is sweet and tasty and it's been another nice visit to a new Intelligentsia.


Tuna with soy sauce dressing.

Sometimes even chain restaurants get it right and the Shin-Sen-Gumi chain is one of them. Great tasting Japanese cuisine all across the L.A. area. We've been to the Gardena location before and this time the girls were in the mood for the shabu shabu teriyaki combination of their Monterey Park location. Enjoy. It was tasty.


More meat.

Ian ready for it to begin.

Salmon Egg bowl.

Beef Bowl.

Fried Chicken.

Fried Oysters.

Fried Gizzards.

Beef Heart Yakitori.

Grilled Fish.

Yakitori Assortment

The hotly contested Yuzu Pepper.

Black Sesame Ice Cream.

111 N. Atlantic Blvd.
Monterey Park, CA 91754