July is the month that my wife and I pile our (four-legged) kids into the car and head north. Our destination, specifically, is Cowichan Lake, on Vancouver Island in beautiful British Columbia, Canada. While this seems to have nothing to do with coffee-geekiness, I actually learned quite a bit on this trip.
There is good coffee out there.
From Southern California, we drive up the I-5 all the way to southern Oregon on the first day. We usually spend the night in Grantís Pass, Oregon before finishing the drive to Canada the second day. A pleasant surprise in Grantís Pass this year was Dutch Brothers Coffee. Actually, Dutch Brothers started in Grantís Pass in 1992 and has 30 locations throughout Oregon, but for some reason this year was the first time we decided to stop there for coffee. On our way out of town, my wife and I hit the coffee house location on 6th Street where we discovered an excellent cappuccino and latte as well as tasty cheese filled bagels and very friendly, enthusiastic people behind the counter. Unfortunately, because we were in the ďget on the roadĒ mode, we got all this stuff to go and without getting the names of the folks behind the counter. By the time we realized we had hit on something special, we were headed north at warp speed. Suffice to say that we are making Dutch Brothers a regular stop.
Later in the day, as we passed through Seattle, I convinced my wife that a stop at Cafť Vivace would be necessary. Fortunately, I had bought some of their excellent coffee online before and she had liked it so I didnít have to twist her arm too much. Now Mr. Schomer and his Cafť Vivace are something of a legend in coffeegeek land so expectations were high. I can honestly say that I wasnít disappointed. The lovely young ladies behind the counter were friendly and helpful and even had a few minutes to talk coffee with me. Meredith poured me a latte artwork to photograph (thanks!). So armed with roasted beans, green beans, and a latte so good I didnít need to add sugar, we headed off to the Canadian border.
Cafe Vivace Interior
Barista Meredith pours a rosetta latte
Beautiful, isn't it?
Finally, after crossing into Canada and spending the night in Vancouver, my last stop was JJ Bean in beautiful downtown Vancouver. I say Ďbeautifulí with tongue slightly in cheek because, although I think Vancouver is one of the most aesthetically pleasing cites I have ever seen, I decided to take Main Street across the city and (unknowingly) cross some of the more, um gritty, areas of the city. I later learned that the intersection of Main and Hastings is home to much of the cityís illegal drug trade.
JJ Bean's "mothership" on Powell St., Vancouver
One of JJ Bean's two giant Probat roasters
So after driving very determinedly through the heart of the city, I found myself at JJ Bean. JJ Bean has three locations, but the one on Powell is the ďmother shipĒ so thatís where I headed. Unknown to me, JJ Beanís pretty quiet on a late Saturday afternoon so I pretty much had the place to myself. I had a decent espresso shot and bought more coffee beans all the while talking about coffee to the barista Jade. Iíd like to head back to JJ Bean sometime when the two huge Probat roasters are working, but I can attest to the quality of the beans I bought.
Into the Wilderness
So with the car loaded down with toys, dogs and coffee we hopped on the ferry and headed over to Vancouver Island. For anyone whoís never been to the island, it really is a wonderful place and home to so many contrasts. From Victoria, which is the provincial capital, to dozens of sleepy little towns, you can pretty much find whatever lifestyle you want. Miles of beaches, dozens of lakes and rivers, hills and valleys, itís all there. As stated, our destination was Cowichan Lake where things move pretty slowly. Two weeks without television, internet, traffic, noise and the frustration of urban living are something that my wife and I look forward to all year long. But hey, you still gotta have good coffee right?
In years past, weíve pretty much made due with the whirly blade chopper and drip coffee machine that lives at the cabin year round. This year however, the wife convinced me to drag the olí Starbucks Barista machine thatís been living unused on our countertop for the past six months since we acquired the Livia. And of course, we needed something besides the whirly chopper so the pseudo burr grinder that we used with the Barista went too. The plan was to leave the Barista at the cabin for everyone to enjoy. In retrospect, I think my wifeís ultimate plan was to get one of the espresso machines out of our very small kitchen. Sheís a wise, but sneaky woman.
As background, I thought that, prior to the Livia, I had learned how to produce a decent shot with the Barista and the pseudo burr. I learned how much coffee to use, how hard to tamp etc. to get the elusive 25-30 second double. Well, I was wrong. In spite of the great, fresh coffee I was using, every shot that came out of that machine was absolute swill. I came to a few conclusions.
*Grinders really DO matter.
Along with the Livia, I bought a Mazzer Mini grinder. Going back to the pseudo burr/Barista combo, I realized how much of the shot quality that I have become used to at home is a product of the wonderfully fine, uniform grind coming out of the Mazzer. Even at the finest setting (where Iíd always ground before), the pseudo burr simply couldnít get fine enough to produce the slow, oozing shot that results in good flavor and body. In fairness it should be noted that the Mazzer costs about a million times what the pseudo burr costs. Also, I would hate to adjust the Mazzer to do anything but espresso since with the infinite adjustability is actually a hindrance to grinding for more than one type of machine. So with the Mazzer you pretty much have to have a second grinder for drip, press pot, etc. All in all though, it shows that making a decent shot is as much about the grinder as it is about the espresso machine.
*Crema enhancing portafilters suck.
The Barista comes with one of those spring loaded nightmare portafilters, guaranteed to spit out something that looks just like crema, no matter how crappy your beans are, how badly theyíre ground etc. The first indication that this stuff isnít crema is the fact that it disappears faster than the head on a warm Diet Coke. The second indication is, of course, the oh so bitter flavor of the beverage. This is in spite of ultra fresh beans (three days old) and a good vigorous tamp. If I ever had to go back to the Barista, or any other machine using a crema enhancing portafilter, Iíd go to the ends of the earth to find a non-pressurized portafilter to fit the machine.
*A good cup of drip is better than a bad espresso
With the crushing disappointment at the hands of the Barista, I turned sheepishly to the old drip machine that had served us in past years. Thank goodness I had the foresight to buy some beans for drip. So I cranked the pseudo burr to a slightly coarser setting and fired up the dripper. I have to say that I had some of the best drip coffee in my life, first making some excellent Papua New Guinea then some Sumatra Lake Tawar, both from JJ Bean. To JJ Beanís credit, both beans were roasted to a light city roast and were excellent, exhibiting body, flavor and aroma that were simply intoxicating.
Upon my return home, I fired up the Livia and ground up some Vita blend from Vivace (we also stopped on the way home for fresh beans). Now thatís what espressoís supposed to be like: rich, lingering, red-brown crema, thick, gooey body and a wonderful bittersweet flavor. Actually bittersweet isnít really the right word. Itís more sweetbitter since the bitter part is easy and the sweet is what sets a good shot apart from junk.
I know that I havenít really learned anything I didnít already know on some level, but this trip really drove home a few basic points. First, if attention to quality is your first priority, you can produce an excellent coffee beverage in a commercial setting. I often forget that there are people out there who love coffee, and love serving really good coffee to their customers. Sure, Dutch Brothers, Cafť Vivace and JJ Bean arenít the vast multinational conglomerate that Starbucks is but that really is the point of the whole thing. The boss has to know whoís pulling the shots and the person pulling the shots has to know that the boss is watching. Second, as far as making quality coffee at home, Iíd rather have a plain old pour-over cone type coffee maker and some excellent beans than second rate equipment for espresso making. Unfortunately, it is fairly difficult to produce a decent espresso in the home, and even more so if you have poor equipment (like crema enhancing portafilters and whirly blade choppers).
Thanks to the folks at Dutch Brothers Coffee in Grant's Pass, Meredith and the rest of the crew at Café Vivace in Seattle, and Jade and the folks at JJ Bean in Vancouver, BC.