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 CNN.com 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.