I hope everyone had a lovely Thanksgiving yesterday. I did!
I wanted to do two things with my Coffee of the Week posts, acknowledge the best roasters, growers, importers, and baristas who enliven my every week, and to give myself a venue for spouting off on different topics. So while I have a desire to write about new and interesting things I haven't covered in the past, I'm just going to have to repeat myself this week: the Zoka Kirkland store is fantastic.
As I mentionedbefore, I have been going there quite a bit and have yet to get a single sub-par cup. Contrast this with another Seattle area coffee shop with a good reputation which will remain nameless where I went recently and had a terrible cup of coffee. This hasn't ever happened to me at Zoka. Everything is up to snuff every time. I don't even really think about it anymore. I just walk in, get my coffee, and walk out happy.
This week the coffee that made me happiest was a caffé macchiato I had there on a gloomy, rainy Tuesday afternoon.
I'm talking about a small, northwest-style macchiato that is served in a tulip cup with an ounce and a half of espresso and wet steamed milk poured to the brim. (Just to clear it up... since there are so many wildly different versions of the macchiato out there... a topic for another post.)
Kyle Glanville used to say that the macchiato was the purest expression of the barista's art. The espresso forms the biggest part of the flavor, and so your shots have to be perfect. There's no room for hiding less-than-delicious espresso like people sometimes do in a 16 ounce monster vanilla latte.
But a good macchiato is tougher than making a good espresso, because you also need to nail the milk just right. Put those two basic elements together in their most basic, naked form, and you have the macchiato. When a macchiato is bad, it's really bad; and when it's good, it's really good.
Well, my macchiato was really good. Once again I didn't get the barista's name, but everyone there has been great. I'm officially relocating to the west side of Lake Washington in about three days, so I suppose this will be the last time I write about Zoka Kirkland for a while. Certainly it makes coming out to this side of the lake to visit my family just a little bit more pleasurable. Thanks and kudos to them.
For those of you who don't live around Seattle, these little coffee shop reviews might be less interesting, but I have an overall comment on the industry to make here. I'm going somewhere with this, I swear.
As I've mentioned before, I'm on the road for an extended time right now, in the Seattle area and then to make one or two origin trips in October and November. While in Seattle, I'm staying on the Eastside, where my parents and sister live. I've gotten to know the booming little suburb of Kirkland.
Now, no one's going to mistake downtown Kirkland for a chic neighborhood like Greenwich Village in New York, or an urban-grit-cred one like the west side of Capitol Hill in Seattle, but it's not quite what you expect in a suburb. It's a dense little pocket of housing, retail, and mixed-use buildings. The downtown core is very walkable, and indeed you see people of all ages walking there, especially on the weekends. Just a few miles south, in downtown Bellevue (by all measures a much larger city, though with similar demographics), the only place people walk is within the confines of the mall.
I didn't grow up around here, but my sister has lived in the area for a few years now, and I've become accustomed to spending time in Kirkland. One of the biggest changes to the neighborhood since I was last here was the opening of a huge, beautiful third-wave coffee shop right on one of the busiest corners (for foot traffic and for cars) in town: Zoka's new Kirkland location.
Zoka has been making good coffee in Seattle for years. Their Greenlake and U-District locations are neighborhood anchors. They're one of the original cluster of Seattle-based companies that have been doing specialty coffee in the "Third Wave" style. I remember driving in Ravenna one time years ago and hearing a radio spot on KCMU — er, KEXP — inviting people to come in and try Zoka's Ethiopia Yirgacheffe. That was the first time I'd ever even heard the work Yirgacheffe spoken outside of a coffee shop or roastery.
Well, flash-forward a few years and now Zoka has locations in Snoqualmie and Kirkland in addition to the two Seattle stores. I've been to the Kirkland store several times now, without announcing myself (I know, bad form), and I want to say a few words.
First of all the overall quality of the coffee is very good. All the espresso beverages and brewed coffee — and I have had several of each — have been somewhere on the scale from good to fantastic. I've had cappuccinos, espressos, and Melitta-style pour-over coffees.
The store is pretty glitzy and shiny on the inside, but not overly so. It actually fits in quite well in Kirkland. (The mark of a good shop is that it feels congruous with it's surroundings... this store would feel out of place in Greenlake, and vice versa.) It's got a big interior space, with lots of display given to beans and equipment. There's a big video screen that plays a slideshow of coffee photos from origin.
What really blew me away when I first walked in were the five (5!(¡cinco!)) Mazzer Robur grinders lined up in a row. I have no idea if Zoka plans to offer five espressos side by side, but they sure seem set up to do so. They have been offering two right now (an S.O. Brazil and S.O. Kenya) plus, presumably, a decaf (I didn't ask). Add in a Slayer espresso machine and that's-a spicy-a meatball-a. So they're decked out as far as equipment goes.
The staff has been friendly, fast, and knowledgeable every time I've gone. They wear smart-looking black and white clothes, which really adds to the whole feeling of professionalism.
But of course a professional look is nothing without professional execution. Happily, the Zoka Kirkland baristas make excellent beverages. Well-executed cappuccinos and sweet-tasting espresso.
Specifically: I had a shot of the single origin Brazil the other day, a pulp-natural coffee. The barista handed it over on a little tray with a gibraltar cup of sparkling water. As I lifted it to my mouth he started to tell me the flavor profile of the coffee, starting with "plum sweetness." I cut him off with a sidelong glance and a, "Just wait... I don't want you to color my perception," which came across much more rudely than I had intended. He smiled and nodded respectfully.
There was indeed a stone-fruit sweetness to it, plus a dry nuttiness like walnut skins. Overall it was fairly grassy, in a pleasing, fresh-cut grass kind of way. The total volume of liquid was just about one ounce, which always kind of disappoints me, but then, I'm back in the Northwest where the super-ristretto originates. But a good shot, overall, and knowledgeably prepared.
The real star of my visits to Zoka, however, has been the Colombia single-origin brewed coffee. Served as a pour-over cup of drip coffee, the cup I had on Saturday morning was a top twenty in my life kind of coffee. One of the most cherry-rich coffees I have ever had. All the best characteristics of high-grown Colombians with none of the nasty biting greenness or dirtiness. Deep, deep sweet chocolate and about three kinds of cherry flavors. I did not want that cup to end. Lucky for me, Zoka is just a few blocks from where I am staying, and the Colombia is still on the menu.
Sometimes people seem skeptical that great coffee will ever be anything other than a micro-niche, especially people outside the industry. It's not surprising that super-specialty coffee got its start in über-hip places like the corner of Denny and Broadway on Capitol Hill, or downtown Portland. And the urban hipster vibe is still crushingly strong in the overall industry. But Zoka Kirkland is proof that great coffee is about quality of ingredients, professionalism, care, execution, and love. Not your zip code. I'd put their quality up against just about any other shop in the country.
The best coffee I had at all of Coffee Fest last week, and therefore last week's Coffee of the Week was a shot of espresso I had on the trade show floor on Friday afternoon.
I had this espresso at the Synesso booth. Synesso is a manufacturer of fine, state-of-the-art, hand-built espresso machines here in Seattle. The second-ever unit they built of their signature Cyncra model sits in Victrola Coffee on 15th Ave, where I got my start as a barista. I did some tech training at their plant in south Seattle with owners Mark Barnett and Sandy Schneiter. Mark and Sandy and everyone at Synesso are all great people.
When I moved to New York to help with the Manhattan Café Grumpy location, we installed one of the first Synessos on the whole East Coast. Mark did a lot of hand-holding over the phone for me as we frantically got everything ready for the big opening.
Many years ago, at my first-ever Coffee Fest I actually pulled shots of espresso at their demonstration booth. Back then, the temperature stability and digital control (not to mention the cool steam wand activators) that Synesso pioneered was a brand new thing. At this show, I got to be the one tasting the shots, and pulling the shots were none other than my good friend Jeremy Summer. I met Jeremy years ago when he was working for Hotwire coffee. Now Jeremy builds machines for Synesso! So cool... he's got a hand with technical stuff that I just don't. Plus he plays nice music.
Alongside Jeremy was a man who should need no introduction, industry legend David Schomer. I'll leave it up to you to follow that link or google the man yourself. Now that I'm in Seattle for a bit, maybe I'll take time out and do a Coffee Person post on David, who really deserves his own post.
Anyway, David was making shots of his own espresso there on Mark, Sandy, and Jeremy's tricked out machine. It was sweet, mellow, nutty, and very flavorful. Right off the first sip it had the flavor of baker's chocolate and walnut skins, then immediately it settled down and gave me a rich, buttery, and sweet overall sensation. Did the fact that the shot had such an inimitable pedigree influence my experience? Perhaps. I will admit that both David and Jeremy were all smiles that day. If, on top of their expertise and their skill, on top of the actual flavor characteristics of the coffee, I was tasting a little bit of the legend and the reputation, well then... both men have earned it.
There you have it... last week's Coffee of the Week!
(this week's header: experimental coffee hybrid seedlings in El Salvador)
I drink so many great cups of coffee every week, I thought it would be a fun idea to introduce a "Coffee of the Week" feature to the blog. Every week I will choose one memorable cup that I had and write it up here. This could be an espresso or cappuccino or cup of drip coffee at a coffee shop. It might be something I discovered on the cupping table. It could just be a nice cup I drank at home while watching the Seahawks administering a beatdown on the hated Rams.
I got this idea while having an espresso at Third Rail Coffee in Manhattan. So it's only right that said espresso be the inaugural World of Coffee, Coffee of the Week.
Saturday afternoon I stopped by this brand new shop on Sullivan Street near NYU. The owner, Humberto Ricardo, was one of the very earliest members of the New York Coffee Society. He and longtime New York City barista world fixture Dan Griffin have been working together a long time too, and Dan now helps out Humberto with Third Rail.
It's a small shop, but very well designed, with lots of light and beautiful small touches. They rotate in different coffees from different roasters for their brewed coffee offerings.
Humberto was in the shop when I stopped in, and he made me a dead-perfect shot of Black Cat espresso. As you know if you read this blog, I have practiced a lot with the Black Cat in the last year or so, and I've rarely made shots that were as spot-on as Humberto's. It was sweet, chocolately, nutty, slightly fruity, sweet, smooth, and oh yes, sweet. Color me very impressed.
Plus it came with the friendly faces and environment. A little perfect pick-me-up on a rainy Saturday afternoon in crowded New York City. That espresso is exactly the kind of thing that made me want to go into coffee in the first place. This week's Coffee of the Week! Thanks Humberto!
Sometimes we are in such a frenzy to discover the next big thing that we miss the gems right in front of our faces. In the spirit of counting one's blessings and appreciating the tried-and-true, I paid a visit yesterday to the original super-specialty coffee shop of New York City, Ninth Street Espresso.
These days it seems a new specialty coffee shop pops up in New York City every week. I have a hard time keeping up with it all, and I do this stuff for a living. Don't get me wrong, I'm absolutely thrilled to witness the changes that have taken place in the last three years. But it wasn't so long ago that the only place to get a true American style super-specialty espresso beverage in the whole city was this little outpost in the East Village. Owner Ken Nye's been doing things righer and longer than just about anyone else you can name.
In fact, my traveling companion is a huge coffee lover, and she'd never even been to the original Ninth Street Espresso. There was a time that I made pilgramages out to this place, but lately I've been negligent, seeing as there are so many quality joints that aren't 50 city blocks off the closest subway line like Ninth Street is. But I realized I was cheating myself, and so both of us made the trek in the fine early September evening weather.
A few months ago, I actually got to see up close part of the development of Ninth Street's signature Alphabet City blend. When Ken Nye made the switch to Intelligentsia, Kyle Glanville and the boys out in Los Angeles sent us several candidate component beans, along with suggested blend percentages. David Latourell and I then spent time in the lab in SoHo pulling shots and tasting them and tweaking these blends. Ken himself then came in and directed us further and the end result was the return of "Alphabet City," a sweet, drinkable, chocolatey and nutty coffee that Ken likes to call "Snickers in a cup."
Yesterday evening I was an especially hard-to-please customer because I was just off a five hour day of tasting some pretty gnarly coffee. The last thing I needed was more coffee compounds on my tongue. But I have to tell you: my shot was sweet, drinkable, fruity, and chocolate candy-like. As was my friend's.
Afterwards, across the street drinking sangria at Esperanto, I remarked that it's amazing that such an intense beverage as espresso can be so smooth and drinkable when done right. But Ninth Street does it reliably right.
The shop on 9th and C has also, incidentally, undergone a minor remodel. The tables are long community tables now, and the whole place looks cleaner and crisper, with better lighting and paint. But the overall aesthetic is unchanged: simple black and white, no frills, no BS.
In fact, I can't think of a better description of Ninth Street than this picture of the machine area as seen from the customer's eye view. A simple, no-frills Marzocco, a classic grinder, a clean countertop, and their simple coffee cup logo. It embodies what this place is about: great espresso, clean and simple. I'll be sure to make the gap between my next visits much shorter.
When I do trainings, sometimes I have students who don't normally drink straight espresso. But, I tell them, drinking straight espresso is now a part of your job. "You don't drink espresso? Well, you do now!"
Think about it: would you want to eat at a restaurant where the chef created specials that he sent out to the guests without ever tasting the recipe once?
Some people are very sensitive to caffeine, and I understand that. For those people I recommend they try small sips of espresso which they can then spit out into a cup. If you want to be really careful about it, you can follow this up by rinsing your mouth out with water or, even better, sparkling water.
Every barista should be tasting his or her espresso every day, without exception. As you taste more and more shots, you start to build a vocabulary for how to analyze the taste. And you begin to notice correlations between certain aspects of the appearance of the espresso and the tastes that go along with it. And, of course, you can track changes as they happen to the blend over time.
When someone drinks a straight espresso for pleasure, I would never dream of telling them how they should or should not consume it. Personal preference! But if you are sampling an espresso purely for flavor evaluation, I have a couple of pointers.
First of all: understand that espresso is a strong beverage. People often react to a strong-tasting compound by calling it "bitter" without reflection. But bitterness and strength are two different things. Try to "taste through" the initital strength of the beverage. Of course, many espresso are bitter, but we want to be able to separate these from those that are sweet, or sour, or salty. So be brave and keep tasting after that initial shock.
The second pointer I give is to always taste beneath the crema. Good espresso should have resilient crema. It's a sign that the fats have been properly emulsified, lending to a rich, smooth mouthfeel that you only get in espresso. But it can taste radically different than the rest of the brew. Essentially, each cup of espresso is two beverages laying one on top of the other, like a black-and-tan: the crema on top of the darker espresso. The crema is CO2, particulate matter, and oils. The darker liquid is mostly water and solubles, with some oils blended in. They taste very different. Always be careful to poke a hole in the crema by blowing on it or scooping with a little spoon.
And that's it! All you need to know to become an expert taster of your own shots. The best lessons come from real life experience, so get out there and start tasting.
For a bonus, check out this interesting video from former World Barista Champion, James Hoffmann. h/t to Nigel.
After next week, I'll be taking a short break from teaching public classes. If you've been at all interested in taking a class during the summer, or if you'd like to come by and visit me and talk some coffee, I've got the following public coffee events/appearances planned for the next ten days. Next chance might not be till fall!
Friday, August 15. 10 am- 6 pm: I'll be making espresso at Ost Café in the East Village.
Tuesday, August 18. 11:30 am: Public cupping at Intelligentsia's Soho lab.
My friend David Latourell just came back from a week in Scandinavia and he brought back some treats for us. David's friends with just about all the top coffee people in Copenhagen, which just might be the top coffee city in the world. So these roasters, taster's champions and World Barista Champions sent him back to New York City arms laden with all kinds of beautiful beans.
The New York Coffee Society will be tasting these coffees (including 3 espressos!) on Saturday, June 6, at 2 pm in Soho. The location is Intelligentsia Coffee's cool little shiny white coffee laboratory on Broadway just south of Houston.
The address is
594 Broadway, Suite 909A
Just take the elevators on the right side of the lobby on up to the 9th floor and follow the smell of coffee!
This event is open to amateurs and professionals alike; there is no charge, and as always it's a non-commercial event (no selling stuff or advertising allowed!). We'll be tasting two different roasts for the same natural-process Ethiopian coffee (from Bagersh), in addition to pulling shots on our GB-5/Robur-E set-up.
RSVP to email@example.com if you would like to come. We're going to cap it at around 20 people. As always, there's a high likelihood of tacos and/or beers happening afterwards for those who want to take the edge off the caffeine buzz.
I had a lot of fun at Rockefeller Center taping this segment for the Today Show yesterday. It aired today and I have to say it turned out better than I thought it would. Of course 3 and a half minutes is too short, but that's the nature of TV, I suppose. You'll see how it cuts off at the end right before I pour the latte. Which is ok, because it wasn't exactly the greatest latte I had ever made.
Anyway, for what it's worth, here's me on the Today Show... enjoy!