The summer's finally over, and it is over with a bang here in Vancouver - it seems in one short week, Vancouver went from having our dry season (little or no rain, temperatures in the low 20s Celsius) to being cold, damp, and rainy. I guess the wet season is upon us here in our little patch of rainforest.
August is also normally a very slow month in the world of coffee, with things not really picking up till mid September, but this year it seems different. Maybe because the World Barista Championship was held so late this year, and maybe because there were many coffee events I've attended (and missed, like the Canadian National Championships, held mid September in Toronto), but the little breaks I usually get to enjoy in the annual coffee calendar seem to be getting shorter and shorter each year.
The schedule coming up is pretty intense. I'm still waffling on whether or not I'm going to Milan in a few weeks for the bi-annual Hosts Expo, which is such a huge hospitality trade show (stretching across 12 buildings, and some booths can cost up to half a million dollars), it makes the SCAA show look like a yard sale. Also in October, I've got a variety of small tastings planned, sessions with one of Vancouver's top bartenders (if not one of the best bartenders in all of western Canada) about kick-starting the Mixology column, and at the start of November, the Seattle CoffeeFest show, which I'm not sure I'm attending or not.
In fact, I've been having a hard look at attending industry only events as of late. This entire year has been a bit of an introspective look at how important industry events and shows are for the audience of CoffeeGeek. I know it serves the professional community well, especially those who cannot attend the show - seeing a full blown report of these events helps fill them in about what they miss. But I looked back at our budgets in previous years, especially heavy years like 2005 and 2006, where CoffeeGeek paid about $12,000 just for travel expenses to cover these things, and I wonder how much of that money served this community well. It served me well, being able to establish new contacts, meet old ones, hang out with friends and have a good time. Along the way, I've been able to improve my skills as a judge, evaluator, and overall coffee and espresso appreciation, but there's other ways to do that. If I had $6K per year to spend on making CoffeeGeek better, is it still best spent attending all of these industry things, or is it better spent doing direct consumer oriented things, sponsoring consumer oriented trainings and events, and just filtering that money into things that affect the majority of the site's readers and contributors?
I actually don't know the answer to that, but it's been weighing on me a lot this year.
Some Great Coffees
Ever since I started thinking about this new "Coffee at the Moment" column, one of the features I've wanted to do was talk about some particularly great coffees and blends that have come across my testing tables. The big thought was, do I just try to be an alternative to Coffee Review, or... what. In the end, I realise that I have no where near the adequate skill to professional cup and rank coffees in a public forum such as this, but I do have the benefit of being exposed to literally dozens of different coffees every month, and some are good, some are great, some are absolutely fantastic, and some are, well, not liked so much.
What I decided to do was not officially rate or "cup" the coffees, but give you my short list of standout coffees I try every month, along with some tasting notes I've kept from enjoying these coffees as press pot brews, vacuum coffee brews, manual filter, or as espresso shots. Basically, if I list them in this column, they're available via mail order, and they are coffees that really impressed my palate (meaning my own personal likes and dislikes in coffee and espresso). And no, I don't take money for reviews!
So with that said, here's some real standouts I've had in the last month.
| Aaron and Miguel Meza |
Chillin' with the cigars, enjoying some Havana Reserve.
Havana Reserve Espresso Blend, Paradise Roasters, $20.95/14oz
I almost didn't list this one, because while it's an adventurous, admirable experiment in an espresso blend, on its own, it didn't really appeal to my taste "likes" in espresso. To explain this further, this is a very citrusy acidic blend - think sweet lemonade. It was also a difficult blend to dial in. But here's why I think it is special, and worth trying (and you should try quick, since there's only 250 bags of it!): This is an experiment pairing espresso with something... and that something is a cigar. And let me tell you... it works.
Miguel at Paradise is particularly proud of this blend, and I understand why, after enjoying it with a few of my favourite cigars - Thomas Hinds Nicaraguan Maduro Coronas. Hey, we get plenty of Cuban cigars up here in Canada, but the Hinds Nicaraguan is one of my personal favourites. Enjoying a shot... or two, or three, or four, with the Hinds as it flows through its progression as a cigar was absolutely brilliant. The lemon citrus notes of the shot, especially if you add just a tinge of sugar, played so well off the creamy buttery texture and flavour in the Hinds that it was one of those "moments" for me in espresso enjoyment.
As a straight shot, fans of bright espressos will love this. In milk, up to the cappuccino level, it really balances out well, providing, in a sense, a kind of creamsicle flavour that I really enjoyed. This is, I think, a warm weather espresso, meant to be enjoyed outdoors, in the sun, while you're puffing away on a great cigar. Miguel hit a home run with this one.
Ethiopia Natural Limu, Batdorf and Bronson, $11.75 / lb.
First, this coffee is an absolute steal at less than $12 per pound. Next, I have to admit that when I first read their cupping description (before tasting it) and I read "blueberry cheesecake" I laughed a bit. I thought this was a case of a roaster going a bit wild (or mad). Once I tasted it?
Holy cow - blueberry cheesecake!
I should really qualify this. It isn't as if you're literally drinking something that tastes exactly like cheesecake. When I talked about Havana Reserve having an almost lemonade taste to it above, I didn't mean it was lemonade, disguised as espresso. And here I don't mean it's a slice of blueberry cheesecake, disguised as a cup of coffee. In both cases, it's more of a hint, a reminiscence, a floating, tangible element in your tastebud memory stores that brings you back to those tastes. In the case of this Limu, I was getting hints of blueberry, but in a creamy, almost dairy fashion out of the cup. This was black, done in a press pot, and it was delivering up what I thought was the subtlest hint of milk.... in the cup of coffee. The creaminess and texture of the beverage out of the press both gave it impressive body with an overall very pleasing finish. It's not the best cup of coffee I've had this year, but it's certainly one of the best $12/lb coffees I've gotten to enjoy. I've had it both in a press and in a vac pot, and both brewing methods present lots of interesting characteristics in the cup. Buy it fresh, grind it fresh, and this coffee will definitely please.
Guatemala CoE #2 - San Jose Ocana Paradise Roasters, $24.95 / 14oz.
Another one from Paradise Roasters, and roasted lighter than the offerings I've had from two other roasters (multiple roasters got in on this particular CoE coffee this past year) - I think I like Paradise' roasting profile the best.
Simply put, this could be the poster child for "Guatemalan Coffee". It offers everything you come to expect from a top grade Guat, and more. It's got the acidic kick, but there's enough deep body to balance it out. There was a very subtle tamarind flavouring (I have some tamarind juice every few weeks at my favourite El Salvadoran restaurant, so the flavour memory stays with me) with pear flavours, very juicy, and not in a subtle way. I'd put the acidity more in the "just juicy, non citrus" category, and it's not blue fruits either, more tropical fruits. There seemed to be some subtle vanilla overtones on it too, probably more from the aroma than the taste in the liquid. Nice medium body and a great offering. It won't last long, so definitely give it a try.
NB: if you would like your coffee mentioned in this column, feel free to contact me at coffeekid at gmaildotcom for shipping details. You should note that the purpose of this column's coffee section is to talk about stellar coffees I come across. The purpose here is not to promote all coffees, or be a coffee critic with good and bad reviews, so there's no guarantee your submitted coffee will be mentioned in this column.
About two years ago, I asked Wayne Venables, CoffeeGeek's programmer, if we could somehow come up with a way to update a part of CoffeeGeek showing some of my personal favourite blogs about coffee, and when they were updated. This was when the idea of "push" content was out the door (anyone remember that, lol!), and RSS was just starting to become mainstream. We bounced around ideas, but it never went anywhere.
About a year ago, I asked Wayne Venables, our programmer, if we could somehow randomly list updated blogs on the front page of CoffeeGeek. He said yes, but I'd have to redesign the front page some what to do it, and I never got around to it.
Now, we're slowly working on a redesign of CoffeeGeek (I'm not kidding!), and blog-pushing as selected by myself and a few of our most senior site members and moderators, will be a part of the front page. But until then, I thought it might be a good idea to talk about some coffee blogs that have been on my own radar. I have about 75 of them in one bookmarks folder, and subscribe to about 30 of them via my RSS reader (Google), nothing near Jim Hoffmann's 150 in his RSS reader, but that's only because I have a lot of feeds already in my rss reader, accounting for probably 150-200 individual things to read each morning (hint - I scroll through them really fast - thank you "next item" button, Google RSS reader!).
I have my favourites, and ironically enough, they change over time. Some become favourites simply because they update often enough with some interesting content, and some, well, they lose favoured status because the bloggers lose interest in blogging. (Yeah, I'm talking to you, Tony Tonx!). Right now, the blogs that I'm digging on, are:
The Shot.CoffeeRatings. (RSS).
Let me get this out of the way right away. I don't normally like anonymous, or pseudo anonymous opinionated blogs (except for maybe FSJ Blog). I like it when someone has enough balls, for lack of a better word, to put their (real) name behind all the words they write, either online, or whatever. And it's possible The Shot's author does have his name somewhere on the blog or people know who he is (heck, it's possible he's emailed me in the past), but I don't know him (or her), don't know where they come from, don't know much at all about them. And when I was thinking a year ago about doing that front page random RSS feed in thingie, I wouldn't have included this blog in the mix.
Okay, with all that said, I have to say that the quality of the posts, as opinionated as they are at times, has been on the upswing as of late over on this blog. I don't always agree with what they write, in fact some of the posts kinda tick me off, but overall, it's turning out to be a good resource, and sometimes, really inspired writing. Even when I don't agree with what is written sometimes, it's good to get a different viewpoint of the coffee world.
And as a bonus, as wired as I am into the happenings of coffee and espresso, this dude (or dudette) manages to usually find something interesting and insightful that I wasn't previously aware of. The writing is also getting better all the time, and, bless the stars, the author writes in proper syntax! (hint - I'm getting fed up with reading websites that refuse to use proper capitalisation, paragraph structures, and punctuation! Enough of the lol hey! cats already - and yeah, I'm talking to you, Ben!)
If this blog isn't in your RSS feed already, I recommend you give it a try. But also, maybe an organized call out to this person to be up front about who they are, right on the front page, and tagged to every entry.
The Coffee Collective (RSS)
I say, the Nordics are awesome. And they're awesome because, even though they have some of the most beautiful languages in the world, both in writing and in sound, many of them blog in our old, crusty, anarchistic language called English. And the Coffee Collective is just such a blog. It's the blog of a new coffee venture happening in Coppenhagen by serious espressohounds Peter Dupont, Linus Torsater, Casper Enger, and one of the nicest guys in coffee, 2006 WBC champ Klaus Thomsen.
When the blog started, I thought it would be solely about their coffee venture, but quickly I found out that wasn't right - sure, they do talk about their business and goings on, but they also talk a lot about the coffee scene in general in Denmark, and special events, like the recent Nordic Cup. Anytime Klaus has something to say about espresso, I want to read it.
Pour Quality (RSS).
This one's a bit self-serving, because Luca Costanzo, the author of the Pour Quality blog, is also a CoffeeGeek Forums Moderator - in fact, he's the sheriff of our Australasia forums, and I really appreciate all he does.
But I'm not listing his blog because of that. I'm listing it because while Luca doesn't update his blog often - maybe 3, 4 times a month, when he does, it's almost always some insightful look into the Australian (and Melbourne) coffee scene. Being a student of cultural anthropology, one of my favourite things about coffee is finding out how coffee is perceived in different cultures - indeed, I like to see how the coffee culture itself is different around the world, and Luca's blog helps keep me on top of things like that. He also blogs about really interesting trends and Aussie viewpoints, and sometimes, has really intriguing looks into things like coffee's perception and marketing, like he did in this blog post. Again, one of my faves, and one I wish was updated more often!
There's many more blogs that stand out for me, and in future Coffee at the Moment articles, I'll talk about them.
Canadian Barista Championships
You're going to hear a lot more about the 4th Annual CNBC in an article coming soon from Liz Clayton (not to mention a future podcast co-hosted by the winner, Caffe Artigiano's Mike Yung), but for now, I'd like to share a short Q and A I did with the runner up in this year's competition, Cady Pei:
| Cady Pei |
Runner up in this year's Canadian Barista Championships, in a field of 20 great competitors.
Q: What is your background / history as a barista?
A: I began working as a barista at a small cafe. No one at the cafe really know that much about coffee, so I had to go to different cafe in Vancouver and also read a lot of books / magazines and online articles about coffee, to learn as much as I could about coffee from other cafe.
After that, I began working at Cafe Artigiano, and started to learn more basic skills and knowledge as a barista. I then went to JJ Bean, where I learned more about coffee roasting skills. Finally, I ended up at Wicked Cafe, and that's where I started training to compete in the Canadian Championships.
Q: This was your first national competition - what was the experience like?
I was both excited and exhausted! I was excited to see many top baristas from around Canada coming together to compete and I thought it was fun. However, I was also exhausted and I did not sleep really well, so I had to take some days after the competition to recover.
Q: Can you tell us what your signature drink was, and how you came up with it?
A: My signature drink is called "Precious Moment." The top of the drink is infused jasmine tea with milk, and I added espresso to a base of dark maple syrup and hickory.
I knew that Intelligentsia (the coffee that Cady uses, and Wicked Cafe imports into Canada) had many excellent teas in addition to the wide coffee selection they're famous for, so I wanted to combine the flavour of the tea in my signature drink. I discussed this idea with my trainer and we came up with the drink together.
Q: Any standout things happen when meeting these other baristas in Toronto? What's your best memories, besides competing?
A: During the competition, there weren't enough volunteers, including runners (people who quickly clear off the tables during competition) to help the barista during their presentations. Fortunately, almost all of the baristi themselves were really nice, and we helped each other out as runners, even though we were competitors. There was a real sense of community, and that was a great experience.
Interesting Coffee Device of the Week
A few articles ago in State of Coffee, I showed off a ludicrous microwave moka pot that jokester and heckuva nice guy Les Quon gave me. This time around I want to talk about a nifty little device that I bought on a lark, but one that turned out to not be so much of a lark after all - it has some serious potential. It's the Brewt "Brilliant" coffee maker. There's an interesting story here. I first saw the device at the Canadian Coffee and Tea Expo last year, and honestly, didn't think much of it. Then I read about it again on Jimmy Oneschuk's blog, and thought, hrm, maybe I should have tried that device. But I didn't.
Then I was at the opening of 49th Parallel's cafe (more on that below), and stopped by one of my favourite kitchenie stores, Ming Wo. There was the Brewt on the shelf, and it was $25. Remembering the fun times I had with the microwave moka pot, I decided to buy one in order to poke fun at another gizmo coffee device, and something funny happened along the way. It actually seems like it can brew a pretty decent cup of coffee (but I think it needs some work - see below)! And it's convenient (said with a very new yorker nasally twang).
Here's what it is. It's an infusing type of brewer - does coffee, tea and, what? Chocolate? Well, I don't want to do chocolate in it, and I don't know what tea is, but I sure like the words "infuse" and "coffee" used in the same sentence. It works much like any manual drip coffee maker, but with a few twists - there's no paper filter, instead a nylon (and potentially flimsy, though I haven't ruined it yet) circular filter near the bottom. It's also designed to be drip proof until you put it on top of a mug - sitting it on the counter keeps it drip proof (see photos for more detail). Initially when I saw the device I was thinking, well, the first cup from this is going to be too rich, and the last cup too weak and bitter, but that was when I thought this was a flow-through device like most manual coffee drips. But it's not a flow through filter coffee maker. It's an infusing filter coffee maker.
You put your measured scoops of coffee in the device, and add water just off the boil. Then you let it steep for 2, 3, 4 minutes, whatever turns your fancy. Grind is probably best on the coarse side of "drip". When you're ready to drink, get all your cups ready (or 1/2 litre or bigger thermal container) and just put the device right on the cup's rim - coffee will flow out, and with enough light in your room, you should see how much is flowing out (though the first few times I used it, I overfilled my cups). Using clear cups obviously works best. This device can brew a maximum of 16oz or 500ml of coffee, enough for two generous sized cups (heck, anything over 6oz is a "generous" size in my household).
I do recommend using a slightly coarser grind than you would for drip - think metal permanent filter, and maybe even slightly coarser. The problem with the filter they're using is that it clogs up fairly easily. A stir of the coffee slurry as it dispenses does help, but I'm very wary of puncturing the delicate nylon filter. I think this device could be improved substantially by offering two filters - one for tea (what the heck is that stuff people keep talking about), and one for coffee, one that's a bit more durable and also has better hole patterns for allowing coffee to properly filter out. But for $25, this is a nifty product.
| || || |
| || || |
| Brewt 16oz Coffee Brewer |
Nice little brewer that has a lot of promise.
| Filter needs work |
The filter seems more optimized for tea - if you use a normal drip grind, or even a slightly coarse one, it tends to clog up - go a bit more towards press (about half way) and it works fine.
| Plunger of sorts |
The bottom is where the device is most complex. Sitting on the counter, coffee stays inside. Sitting on a cup, it opens a valve and allows the coffee to flow thru. Check out all the patents!
| || || |
| || || |
| Using the Brewt |
Grind (slightly coarser than metal-filter drip), and add water.
| Saturate well |
Saturate the grinds well, then let it sit for 2 or more minutes (the coarser the grind, the longer the steep).
| Place on Cups |
Place on top of your cup, and watch it flow. If the filter gets clogged, use a wooden spoon handle to stir the slurry, being careful not to rip the filter.
Oh, and one thing I really like - I dunno if they invented it, just market it, or just import it, but the device is being sold through a Winnepeg cafe and importer called Cornelia Bean. Score one for the Winterpeggers!
Cafe News and such
Finishing off this week's column, I'd like to make some mention of a competition, of sorts, that Krups organizes across Canada - the "Krups Kup of Excellence". It's been going on for three years now. In the past, I did a training session for Krups with the local "celebrity judges" (read: Vancouver foodies and foodie writers) trying to get them up to speed on what quality espresso is all about - and all in about an hour. I also gave them recommendations on what cafes should be checked out (more on that below).
This year, 49th Parallel's cafe won the top spot, barely five days after opening. That in itself would be amazing, but knowing how much of a perfectionist Vince Piccolo, 49th's owner is, maybe not so much - and let me tell you, Vince's brother Mike is just an amazing roaster these days.
The cafe itself is a bit of a different concept in cafes in Vancouver. With the possible exception of the Artigianos, Vancouver top culinary cafes tend to go between the ultra-clean, Scandinavian white and wood look of Prado, to the, erm, best of Seattle / Portland grunge - but the new 49th location stands out. In some ways, it harkens back to the uber-clean look of the 1980s, dark browns, whites, baby blues, and marble and steel. But it's more than that. It doesn't really look like any other cafe in town - it looks more like an extremely upscale S. Granville or Robson boutique. Personally, I really like the look.
That isn't to say Vancouver doesn't have other unique looking cafes, ones that stand out from anything else seen on the wet coast. JJ Bean's Main street location feels like a ski chalet stuck in the middle of urbania. Re-Entry, also on Main Street (4300 block) has this fusion of a 50s diner with 90s high tech, and I really like the space. Elysian Room has a calm and woody clean look that just seems very comforting (Alistair, get your bloody website done already, willya? ;)).
Speaking of Elysian Room, they weren't on the visit this year for the Krups thing. I got them on the list the first year, but they didn't win then - Caffe Artigiano did. I was a bit disappointed that they didn't get a visit again this year.
One cafe that I insisted should be visited from the first year onward was finally visited this year, and made the top five - Continental Cafe. This is a third-generation family run cafe but with a bit of a difference (for Vancouver Italian-run cafes, at least): they aren't stuck in the past, and both son Nick and father Rick are constantly working on and improving their espresso offerings, something I find extremely cool (read: they don't just automatically assume they have the best espresso around - they strive to make it better constantly).
I just stepped in there on Friday and had one helluva great shot - and the kicker was, it could have been even better, because the espresso blend (Portenza) was only 1.5 days off roast! I do a cafe-crawl of "The Drive" in Vancouver every few weeks, hitting as many as six or eight shops, trying out their espresso du jour, and easily the best shot of that Friday's trip was the Continental shot - Chocolate Honey was the first thing that came to mind, and the aftertaste was awesome. I can only imagine how much better it would be given a few more days' rest off the roast. Out of all the shops I hit that Friday, Continental was the only one where I asked for a second shot (not to say the other places were bad - just Rick and Nick were "on" that day, that's for sure!).