As per normal, we're brewing up another coffee and food event in New York. Bobbie Marchand and I are planning something for the first weekend in August. Plan on coffee, plan on Bobbie's delicious food. Where and when? Stay tuned.
(Incidentally, I made a video Thursday night of me roasting up the coffees for the cupping on Saturday, but YouTube didn't like how big the file was and I haven't had time to play around with editing or condensing it. If I post it now, it will be like a bit of time travel, but perhaps I shall do it anyway...)
Saturday was quite a lovely cupping at Beer Table in Park Slope. We had about 25 people in there on a positively sweltering Saturday late morning. Jenny from Beer Table was kind enough to open up the joint early for this. I led the group in a cupping of three great coffees, old friends of mine: Lensamo Lamisso (ETH), SMS Korate (ETH) and Los Naranjos (SAL).
I would say that about two thirds of the people were newcomers. That makes me really happy! Rachel Graville, who set this whole encounter up between the Coffee Society and Beer Table, brought homemade scones and candied ginger cake (bomb).
And Koji gave a great demonstration of a Japanese-style pour-over drip method of brewing coffee, with an assist from his wife Saiko and friend Maki. It's a lot like a Melitta-style pour-over set up, but the shape of the cone and the filter is different, as is the filter material (a less-offensive tasting paper). Koji, who sells this equipment in Japan, had a very formal way of cooling the water slightly and pouring in a very controlled manner. The result was a very smooth, clear cup of coffee. Even the dark roast coffee that I brought him (at his request) came out quite lovely. Very impressive.
After cupping our big group split up into the beer group at Beer Table and the brunch group at Little D across the street (where Rachel works). Since moving a couple of blocks three weeks ago, I am rediscovering how great this little section of Park Slope is.
Yesterday evening I went for a run in the park as the sun was going down. It was hot as hell and I was soon drenched in sweat, but there was a nice little breeze. Fireflies were lighting up all over the place in the cool greenery beneath the oak trees. Taking it easy on the last half-mile back to my apartment, I ran past the bandshell where they have concerts all summer. I had planned to just go home and call it a night, but something made me stop.
They were showing Enter the Dragon on a gigantic screen, with live music by the electric-tabla fusion musician Karsh Kale. You can watch those videos one after another, but I can't really explain to you how cool it was combined, especially during the extended fight scenes between Bruce Lee's sister and Oharra, and between Williams and Han, and the sections where Bruce Lee is sneaking around the palace. I stood there and made some cool new friends (Hi Jackie! Hi Kate!) and we all just watched the show in the warm, breezy twilight, fireflies twinkling all the while, all of us lighting up every time the Little Dragon flew through the air.
It was the kind of day and evening that makes you happy to be alive, happy for the people around you who make life so interesting, who are so interesting themselves, and happy to be able to experience all the wonderful things that humans (Lensamo Lamisso with his gorgeous, sweet coffee; Bruce Lee with his martial arts, his intensity and his oddly angelic presence) can do, and grateful for this imperfect (way too hot and humid yesterday!) and yet infinitely lovely (fireflies!) world.
Hi y'all. I am thinking of starting a regular video segment to this blog. I want to do some educational videos for people who are interested in different coffee topics. There are some obvious (to me) ones, like "How do you make a proper french press?" and "How the heck does that little Gene Café machine work?" But I am interested to hear any requests that people have. Please post them in the comments section of this post. I will keep the comments open indefinitely, so if you come upon this post 6 months from now, please do leave a response, as I promise to read it and take it into account. Thanks.
I hope to have the first video instruction up later this week. Peace.
Come to Beer Table in Brooklyn this Saturday, July 19th, for the next New York Coffee Society cupping.
We'll be exploring how different roast degrees and styles affect the flavors and aromas of coffee, and checking out a super-interesting and rad Japanese style of preparing brewed coffee. Festivities get underway at 11:00 in the ay-em. We'll start with coffee, and perhaps end with beers.
Beer Table, if you don't know it, is a frickin awesome place to get beer in BK. They have a monstrous menu of really fantastic, unique beers from around the world, in bottles and on draft. The staff knows their stuff backwards and forwards. It's also about 70 yards from Coffee Scholars world headquarters, which is nice.
1) Conde Nast traveler visits the New Amsterdam Market and name-drops the New York Coffee Society. This will give you an idea of what's stirring at the South St. Seaport lately. Crappy sound quality, unfortunately.
2) Willem Boot sends this video of Geisha seedlings growing on his farm in Panama. If you have never seen a baby coffee plant before, this is fascinating. Warning: the kind of lingering shots here that scream out "Proud Papa!" like someone filming their kid's piano recital.
There is the great Erin Meister. Meister has been a good friend of mine ever since I first relocated to Gotham. She was instrumental in turning Joe into the famous joint it is now, as a barista, as a trainer, and as an organizer and hostess of public events. When I first came to NY, all I had was one great friend in Brooklyn, 6 previous (brief) visits, a job at Grumpy, and my (tiny, tiny) good name as a top guy out of one of Seattle's best cafés at the time.
I owe my success here in NYC in large part to people like Meister. She and the boys at Gimme! (specifically Mike and Chris), and my good friends at Grumpy were all I had. Danger Dan came along and helped me too, and Jack and all his posse. But Meister was there right from the start. If you don't know her work already, check out her blog on my blogroll at right, or go straight to her non-consulting consulting business here.
The NY Times article a few weeks back, by the intelligent and thorough Hannah Wallace, set off a mini-firestorm of interest in what I and others are trying to accomplish with great coffee in New York City, as Grey Lady articles are wont to do. I'm indebted to Hannah and the Times for covering our little niche, but there were a few things that bugged me about the article.
Meister, as a genuine coffee person in her own right, recently took notice of my reaction to the article on her blog. In the spirit of friendly interchange, then, I would like to take the opportunity to respond to her response to my response.
Still with me?
Good. So my primary objection to the way coffee-tasting was presented was that it seemed from the article that we were just making all of this up. If you talk to any great coffee cupper, more importantly if you spend a lot of time cupping coffee yourself, you realize that there's no BS involved at all. I understand why people are skeptical of how coffee cuppers pick out flavor profiles and aromas in coffee. For so long coffee has been an undifferentiated product. This is an old hat argument for the evangelists of quality coffee.
But I strongly feel that to truly move the general public to a truer understanding of coffee, we have to stick to the actual truth. So for a neophyte cupper, attending her first NYCS cupping, it's perfectly fine to express something a little off-the-wall, like, "This coffee reminds me of my Grandma's cinnamon cookies." I welcome that.
But for those of us with real training, it will serve us far better in the long run if we know how to relate those vague sentiments to the actual chemical components of coffee. Lasting paradigm shifts are always built on truth. Fads are built on fun. There's lots of lip-service paid to the idea that those of us in the wealthy world of specialty coffee are directly or indirectly helping to improve the lives of poor coffee producers ("farmers" is a sloppy term in this regard). I don't think this is BS at all. It's real. But if we want to make sure these trends are long-lasting, we have a duty to base them in real fact. Are you interested in feeling good about yourself, or in real, lasting change?
When I was in charge of cuppings (for staff-only and for the public... with this guy) at Victrola, I welcomed the strange descriptors. Rebekah Winters is one of the most astute cuppers I have ever cupped with. And I have cupped with Geoff Watts, Peter Giuliano, Mané Alves, and Willem Boot, among other greats. Rebekah, with no formal training beyond her barista training (provided by this guy, as long as I am name-dropping) and her own passionate love for great coffee, used to come up with the descriptors that nailed the coffee even though they were vague... I remember once she said, "Like love in a log cabin," and all nine cuppers present just nodded and smiled. I LOVE this. But it's got to be more than that. We need Winterses and Wattses.
So my objection to someone saying "honey smoked barbecue" when cupping coffee is no objection at all if this is a new cupper being welcomed into the fold. I encourage fun with coffee! I have based my whole life around it, basically. But the professionals have an obligation to know what the hell they are talking about.
Thanks to the modern world of blogging, a lot of people like me have reach beyond what we could ever have hoped for just ten years ago. Glorious thing! But beyond fun and self-promotion, if we hope to sustain the industry that currently sustains us, we must be serious about our trade. The variety in coffee flavors is truly astounding, and I feel bad for oenophiles who have yet to experience what true gustatory adventure tastes like. Let's keep it up with a degree of seriousness and professionalism that the producers deserve.
The crisis of the late nineties was bad enough. The C-market price is way up on Wall Street, and that's good. But the price of just about everything is up these days. To truly transform coffee into a quality-based industry (as opposed to a price-of-oil or price-of-water based industry) we have a TON of work to do. I, personally, welcome all players. There's almost literally no harm to be done in being dilettantes at this stage. But if we want it to stick beyond the next price-plummet (and without doubt that plummet will happen some day), we must learn our trade inside and out.
These are my thoughts for tonight. Thanks, Meister, for prompting them.
As I type this I am roasting up a batch of Kenyan coffee for home use. I just got done drinking, over the last few days, a batch of coffee from Los Naranjos en El Salvador, the farm of my friends, the Flores family. Four days straight of that same coffee (I don't think I had a single shop espresso or other coffee this week... amazing!), makes me crave something very, very different. So I dug through my bins of coffee and found a half a pound of coffee that Willem Boot let me have last time I was in California. It's a free-tradefair-trade certified coffee, a "double A" (for what it's worth), and the designation is Gichathainike. I drank this before, in Seattle and California, and it's classic Kenya: bold, super bright, and snappy.
The problem with roasting this kind of coffee on my little Gene Cafe, however, is it really calls for high initial heat. This coffee, like most top-grade Kenyas, is grown at super high elevation. High elevation, even at the equator, leads to exceptionally cold nights, and the cold nights lead to denser, more compact beans. This is part of what gives Ethiopian and Kenyan coffees their distinct acidity... they are some of the highest-grown coffees in the world. Combine super-high altitude with the sheer screen-size bigness of these AA beans, and that's a lot of cell structure in one bean.
You kind of have to hit beans like this with a baseball bat of heat right off the bat. Just blow torch them. In a conventional drum roaster, the idea would be to increase your drop temperature 25 or 50 degrees, making sure you are at 100% airflow right off the bat to avoid scorching. You still want a nice slow roast development time leading into and after first crack. But you want to roast with high initial heat so you can get to that first crack sometime before the cows come home. But in a little electro-gizm like the Gene Café, you have to take the "drum" away from the heat source, open it up, and pour in the beans carefully. During this time the temperature is rapidly dropping.
So I just did my best on this Kenya (I pulled them and set them beneath the cooling fan about a paragraph ago)... crank the heat as high as possible, dump the beans in fast, and whisper coaxing words to them as they roast.
I just popped one in my mouth... I can taste that crisp acidity. I think this will be a good one. But I will have to wait until morning to find out.
I've noticed through the years that Kenyan coffees tend to include an abnormally high number of "shell" beans, even in premium and specialty grade coffees that are otherwise free of defects. This is a minor defect and totally forgiveable; but still I wonder why this is. I can't believe I've never asked around for an answer on why this is! I'm curious if there's something about the varietals there or (less likely?) the processing, that creates this. The simplest explanation I can come up with is that sorters there do not consider this a defect and so they simply leave in the "shell" beans they see. With luck I will be in Kenya in November and hopefully I can find out first-hand, but if anyone reading this knows the reason for this... please share! (shell bean image from coffeeterms.com)