Wednesday, April 06, 2011

Coffee Obsessive

I'm currently stuck in Mexico City after a mechanical problem with the airplane forced a two-hour delay, missing my window to connect on a flight back home to Baltimore. Granted, if I'm going to be "stuck" anywhere, Mexico City is about as ideal as it gets.

To my own surprise, this blog was mentioned in the article about me and my little company, Spro Coffee, in Baltimore. For those of you visiting us from the Washington Post: welcome.

I first was introduced to Martha Thomas about nine months ago in June 2010 where I received a phone call during my trip to London for the World Barista Championship. That's where the article you read in the Post all started. Over the next nine months, Martha and I would chat on a regular basis regarding the article and she came in several times to see just how we do what we do in our little shop in Hampden.

Martha joined us for a cupping with Joan & Ralph Gaston of Rusty's Hawaiian Ka'u Coffee where we sampled a range of coffees, including samples grown by Lorie Obra (Joan's Mom) - who is an amazing scientist turned coffee farmer on the Big Island. Martha later joined us in a demonstration on how we select a brewing method that "pairs" with a particular coffee. It seems that in the translation of the article, a little bit of both events were mixed together.

As with any article written over a long period of time, some details may have been a little jumbled with the passage of time. I wanted to take a moment to clarify some of the details:

- A visit to Anthony Rue's Volta Coffee & Tea in July 2009 was instrumental to the direction we decided to take Spro Hampden. Had it not been for Anthony, our approach of multiple brew methods throughout the day might not have happened. If anything, we might have ended up "cheating" like many shops in the country by batch brewing coffee during the morning "rush" instead of taking the time to prepare each cup by hand.

- Much of what we do is inspired by others. Almost nothing is truly original. From Ichiro Sekuguchi of Tokyo's Cafe de L'ambre to John Sanders of Origins Organic Coffee, Spike Gjerde of Woodberry Kitchen, Aki & Alex from Ideas In Food, and fellow baristas like John Lewis - all and more have had an impact on me and the way we approach and present our coffees.

- In the article I'm quoted as saying: "We have no loyalty to any one roaster." Honestly, I don't think I ever said that - especially since loyalty is something central to what we do and own approach to doing things. As a company, we're very loyal to our vendors. We maintain long-term relationships with all our vendors. A great example of this is Origins Organic Coffee. We've been buying their coffee since 2004.

What I did say is that we do not maintain roaster exclusivity with any one roaster. In the coffee business, the typical model is for a retail shop (like Spro) to purchase all their coffees from one coffee roaster. It's a limited way of doing business that is slowly eroding in these modern times (although one of our original six roasters, Counter Culture Coffee of Durham, NC recently told us that they would no longer sell to Spro for three reasons, one of which was that they were returning to the roaster exclusivity model).

Roaster exclusivity is simply ludicrous. It's akin to walking into your local pub and only finding one brand of beer or alcohol. We are unable to do business with companies that insist on roaster exclusivity and we're very appreciative of the companies who started with us and believed in supporting our approach - and those companies are:

Origins Organic Coffee - Vancouver, BC
Barefoot Coffee - San Jose, CA
Ecco Caffe - Santa Rosa, CA
Stumptown Coffee - Portland, OR & New York City
Intelligentsia Coffee - Chicago, IL

- In the article, Ryan Jensen (owner of Peregrine Espresso in Washington DC) cautions about claims of singularity. While our model of multiple roasters, multiple coffees paired to multiple brewing methods, made by hand, day-in and day-out, is still the only one in the industry, I certainly hope that this anomaly is short-lived.

Seriously, Spro Hampden can only make so many coffees per day and we can only impact a small segment of the coffee drinking public. For our notion of quality coffee prepared without compromise to be tasted by the larger public, more shops have to take our approach. We cannot and do not want to be the only kid on the block serving our kind of coffee.

However, to do what we do takes a certain level of commitment and skill. Ryan Jensen has both of those and with his opening of a second Peregrine in the coming months, I'm hoping we'll see a more in-depth approach to their coffee program - because I think he's the best coffee operator in The District.

- The article mentions my judging experience. While I have judged barista competitions across North America, Central & South America, as well as Africa, I have not judged a competition in England. My visit to London last summer ended up with me as a spokesperson for Reg Barber Enterprises during the World Barista Championship.

From 2004-2007, I served as a volunteer director on the Executive Council of the Barista Guild of America. I have also served as a volunteer for the United States Barista Championship regional competitions and as a volunteer trainer for the Specialty Coffee Association of America. And in three weeks, I will serve again as a volunteer panelist speaking on multiple brewing methods in a cafe environment at the SCAA's annual trade show in Houston. I will be one on a panel with Anthony Rue (Volta), John Piquet (Caffe D'Bolla), Kyle Glanville (Intelligentsia) and Tracy Allen (moderator).

So, despite my criticism of the SCAA, I'm still willing to support and help out when I feel that I can lend something of value.

Well, that's about all I have. It's humbling to be written about in the Washington Post and I'm truly honored, but much of the credit goes to the people around me. My staff of baristas are some of the best baristas I've ever known and worked with, they ply our craft with humility and honesty in an unassuming manner absent of pretense and condescension. My non-coffee friends and family keep me grounded. My mentor, John Sanders, who has been instrumental in my learning of coffee and sense of duty to get involved in our industry. And many thanks to my friends in and around the business, without whom I never would have done what we do.

And of course, thanks to Martha Thomas for noticing and taking interest in what we do to take it to the Post. She's been fun and easy to work with and I wish her the best in her writing career. Same goes to the editors, staff and Marvin the photographer from the Post. Always professional and always easy to work with.

Thanks to all of them and thanks also to you for reading the Washington Post article and then this lengthy blog post (btw, I write about more than just coffee here). I hope you'll find your way to visit our little shop in Baltimore (or at least your local specialty coffee purveyor) where we look forward to making you a cup of coffee in a manner we hope you will enjoy.

Best regards,

Mexico City
6 Abril 2011