“natural”…”processing”?

Ever wonder why Brazilian naturals taste nothing like Ethiopian naturals? Turns out the two processes are nothing alike. Or, rather, in the case of the Brazilian coffees, the term “natural” apparently refers more to the picking practices than the processing.

Check out this li’l blurb by Peter Giuliano – definitely one of the clearest pieces of writing on coffee processing semantics I’ve come across:

http://petergiuliano.tumblr.com/post/28285358972/a-response-to-chris-schooleys-confused-naturally

And for further reading, check out the post from coffeeshrub that led to Peter’s response. And Tim Hill’s article on processing from the April/May issue of Barista Magazine is a good read for more info on various processing styles.

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The Coffee Brewing Institute presents: THIS IS COFFEE!

“Is this coffee? Well, no. This is coffee.”

I first came across this 1961 video by the Coffee Brewing Institute through Bon Appetit, and I decided I ought to write about it after my brother (not a coffee pro, but a designer) tweeted a link at me:
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The video is hilarious for its campiness, but is also surprisingly relevant to coffee brewing today. The influential SCAA publication The Coffee Brewing Handbook by Ted R. Lingle “is based on the initial research of Dr. E. E. Lockhart, compiled while he served as Scientific Director at the Coffee Brewing Institute” (p.ii), and the CBI was also responsible for brewing control charts and the standard of 18-22% extraction which is so often referenced today.

The video cites three “elements” of coffee brewing: water, coffee, and time (the most metaphysical of the three).

These elements seem a bit strange compared to the way we talk about coffee brewing today. Water and coffee are ingredients, while time is something we look at as more of a “variable.” But if you listen to the breakdown of the “elements,” you’ll find the other most familiar variables as well:

On the topic of water, we hear about the amount of brew water and the temperature:

Too much or two little? Boiled first or later or not at all?

On coffee, we hear about grind and dose and the familiar concept of matching grind setting with brewing device.

On time, we hear about stopping the process when “all that is good has been extracted.” one of my favorite dramatic elements here comes with a close-up on a spent coffee bed:

From these grounds there remains nothing more to gain but bitterness. No amount of cooking can extract another ounce of good taste – not another iota of good flavor.

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The first time I watched, I was somewhat confused by the menacing intro – the music, the disorienting camera angles. The narrator’s cynical musing: “Is this coffee? Well, no.” Only upon rewatching did I realized what made this non-coffee’s preparation different (and apparently horrifying): nothing is measured.

And for the CBI, coffee’s secret wasn’t the “three magic ingredients,” but the care with which they are measured:

water, fresh and carefully measured; coffee, the proper grind and carefully measured; time, carefully measured.

Despite the hilarious kitch factor in this video (or perhaps augmented by it), I find something both heartwarming and strange in it. Even as technologies evolve and coffee nerdery flourishes, there is something simultaneously encouraging and uncanny about looking into our industry’s past and seeing that our practical understanding of how tasty coffee is made really hasn’t changed so much in half a century.

In the end, it remains a simple thing – easy to obtain, well made, and well enjoyed: a good cup of good coffee.

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TNT boston at Voltage

So, Calen Robinette took it down last night. Here is a photograph of the lovely final round : Calen (right) v. Ryan “Soeder Pop” Soeder (left).

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Calen, who works at hosting shop Voltage, also helped out by pulling shots all night for the event.

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Good game, y’all. Good. Game.

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Providence Tulip Tuesday whaaaaaaaat

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Hey you guys! On my way back to Boston from PVD’s tulip tuesday at New Harvest’s training space! Boston crew had the best time there. I was planning on doing a fun li’l recap, and then I won and now soon a recap feels like tooting my own horn. So here are some highlights jn photos!

Simon’s surprise post-pour party:

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everything else
Ryder and Jay arrive by bike from the train station!

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Ryan Ludwig rockin it

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Final pour! Me in foreground, Jen in background. FUNNEST CORTADO BATTLE!!!!!!!!! (sorry for blurs, tipsy and shaking….)

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gratuitous
Me with the green jacket. (the robo-claw is part of the jacket). Stole this photo from Ryan Ludwig.

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Thanks providence – It was fun! I’ll come up with something dope to add to the jacket by the next throwdown.

Peace n love!
-Wolf

PS see y’all at TNT Boston at Voltage!

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earning trust, OR knowing your shit [without telling everyone about it]

In honor of Bloom’s day, I’ve been thinking a bit about Irish barista champion Colin Harmon’s WBC performance.1

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If y’all didn’t see Colin Harmon’s recent WBC performance, please go do that. It was awesome. The theme of his presentation was trust, and that trust is necessary for developing relationships with customers in the context of specialty coffee. He says that the coffee he is working with “has loads of little small details that make it interesting” (processing, variety, versatility, unusual grind setting), but goes on:

“But I sometimes feel that we’re never really going to get those things to our customers until we’ve earned their trust.”

Of course, he’s right. And – if we’re going to be real – when we fail at this, it’s nearly always because of our tendency to overshare information without first gaining that trust.

So let’s be real for a minute.

oversharing

When I train baristas, I’m careful not to give too much information too quickly. I teach new baristas the mechanics of being on bar, the motions, before moving on to basic brew theory and then more advanced theory. Before moving on from each stage, I try to allow time for practice, the development of muscle memory and the setting in of ideas. The idea is to teach at the barista’s level.2

I don’t want to extend the metaphor so far as to imply we are training our customers. Don’t do that. But I do think that we should be cautious of sharing too much information too quickly with customers as well. Oversharing of information is generally read as pretentiousness and is detrimental to the building of trust with customers over time.

We can’t demand the kind of understanding from our customers that we expect from our baristas, who are payed for their skill and knowledge and have the advantages of a training structure. I think Colin Harmon is going in the right direction by striving to earn the trust of his customers rather than to educate them.

So, effective communication of the “little small details that make it interesting” requires some level of trust from the customer. I’d like to add that it also takes a certain degree of knowledge of the barista’s part, and empathy.3

knowing a lot to say a little

I’ve been talking to Daria a lot about this lately, and the ideas in this section are mostly hers. Her main point is that you have to know a lot to most effectively communicate very little.

Here’s what I mean: Daria ran a blind cupping recently for several employees in her store. At each stage of the cupping, each person contemplated and wrote down some sensory notes on each coffee before sharing as a group. By the end, the group had built up a list of notes on fragrance, aroma, taste/flavor/mouthfeel.

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By the end, when everyone felt they had a pretty nuanced understanding of each coffee, Daria asked how they would describe each coffee to a customer, in just a few words. The circled bit in each column is what they came up with:

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A barista who hasn’t given a coffee much thought may rely on the tasting notes from the bag if pressed to describe a coffee. It will sound forced and rehearsed and insincere – because it is.

Alternatively, a barista who has really contemplated a coffee, and has been encouraged to taste with intentionality, may remember smelling chocolate, tomatoes, spices, coffee cake and walnuts and tasting almonds and Snickers bar, but will be able to describe the coffee with sincerity as “on the sweet side, and nutty.”

Know a lot. Say a little. Communicate effectively.

the art of saying nothing

Now, if this whole post has been about communicating very little in a way that fosters trust in customers as a sort of investment in future communication opportunities, I’d like to end with a seemingly contradictory4 point: that you don’t have to say anything. Serving with kindness and quiet reservation is always an option.

I am reminded of this everytime I go to my (as of recently) favorite cocktail bar, Drink (on Congress St. in Fort Point, Boston). Jeff has been my bartender there each time I’ve been. He’ll often make me a drink after only discussing with me what spirit to use and maybe whether I’d like it to be sweet or dry or whatever. Especially if it’s busy, he’ll serve me my drink without even telling me what it is, then help someone else, and only then come back to ask how I like it and then I ask him what it is I’m drinking.

Of course, this particular exchange requires a relatively high level of trust. But it reminds me that when handing someone a cup of coffee, it’s pretty much always better to hand it off kindly with quiet reservation than to say “here is your x(process) y(variety) microlot from a(farm) in b(country).” (and worse yet to get into the technical aspects of preparing the beverage).

Even an informed and interested customer will appreciate a low key handoff. People are usually good at indicating whether they’re in the mood to learn more. We just need to pay attention, and talk shop with people only when they want to, and on their terms. If we do that, and consistently deliver on our promises of quality, that’s how we’ll gain trust for specialty coffee.

So thanks, Colin, for getting us thinking about this stuff. And happy Bloom’s day!


  1. to see what this blog has to do with James Joyce, read my first post.
  2. The structure of my training program was in no small way informed by this post by James Hoffman.
  3. For the empathy bit, I’ll refer again to James Hoffman – this time to his Tamper Tantrum lecture on customer service.
  4. To awkwardly continue my Joyce theme: “Do I contradict myself? Very well then, I contradict myself.” Ok, Joyce was actually himself quoting Walt Whitman there, but whatever.
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Is most coldbrew disappointing?

First of all, I apologize for adding to the tiresome coldbrew debate; but recent experiences led to contemplation, so, dammit, I must.

a brief anecdote

We run “Japanese” iced coffee at Pavement year-round. Bostonians love iced coffee and we sell a lot of it. We have also regularly run special coldbrew offerings in the summer each year, and that has been very popular as well.

When considering whether or not to offer coldbrew again this summer, I was in the unusual position of never having been responsible for making coldbrew in the past. I didn’t know our recipe or methods, and I decided to keep it that way.

I started with what seemed like a pretty reasonable brew ratio and a 12 hour steep time (which made for pretty boring coffee, and a pretty boring post) and dialed in from there over about a month. By the time I settled on a recipe, I had a very high brew ratio and time; the best brews were 110g/L and 24 hours at room temperature.

Most interesting of all, my recipe turned out to be nearly the same as the old Pavement recipe, which was (less coincidentally) pretty much “Cambridge” coldbrew.

coldbrew and espresso

Point 1: coldbrew can’t really be judged with the same criteria we use to evaluate regular ol’ brewed coffee. It’s just a different thing. Like espresso, cold brew breaks the rules we’ve established for brewed coffee (appropriate brew ratio, time, temperature, pressure). Also like espresso, cold brew can be tasty.

Point 2: It’s simply a matter of establishing practices and standards that result in delicious extractions of coffee. That’s all. Espresso breaks the rules established for brewed coffee, but we have done the work of laying out practices that result in tasty extractions. Some of us have done some of that work with coldbrew as well. Some of us would like to keep working at it, too.

Is most coldbrew out there disappointing? Yes. So is most coffee.

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removing stupid coffee urn features makes them cleaner/better

So, you know those Luxus coffee urns that have the digital readout for how full the urn is?20120408-174603.jpg

If you don’t use those, you can disregard this post. If you do have one of those in your shop, this post may change your life. Please read on.

Continue reading

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