January 18, 2011
For anyone that may have been misguidedly following this blog for some odd reason, I am here to tell you that it has moved on to bigger and better digs over at baristamichaelphillips.com feel free to swing by and marvel at how I have spontaneously managed to find things to talk about.
September 30, 2010
Please dont make the mistake of thinking this small blip of blog life is any indication of a revival as you will most certainly be disappointed in both the short run and the long run. It is simply me latching onto the great ideas from one of my favorite irishmen. For all of you in loop you have probably already guessed that I am referring to that all around great guy who goes by the name of Colin Harmon. He just a bit ago made the genius decision to share his score sheets from competition with the world and was soon followed in suit by James Hoffman and Gwilym Davies. So in my typical late to the hip barista party fashion I have dug up my finals for the WBC this year to throw on the pile. Once I have a bit more time if there is interest i could put up more perhaps? Time will tell… until then, enjoy folks.
February 25, 2010
Life as an Intelligentsia educator (my modestly appropriate job title) is anything but slow now and days. Between working on a new grandiose training program to working at events out of state to raising my shops next generation of baristas I hardly have time sit down and drink a cup of coffee. The funny thing is that no matter how busy I am, it only takes a whispering about going to Origin for me to clear out some room in my schedule. Just a few weeks or so ago some of that very whispering made it’s way into my ears.
Most any one reading this probably has already been inducted into the indulgently studious and fanatic world of specialty coffee, but in case there is a chance some of you have not heard of barista competitions, Let me explain… Crafting specialty coffee is a difficult task that takes a long chain of actions to be completed successfully. The last and most visible link in this chain is often times the barista who prepares the coffee for you. Specialty coffee has constructed a competition to both advance the knowledge of this last step and also to select a champion of the barista community to serve as an ambassador of sorts to the world at large. A great many countries have their own competitions to find their champion to represent them in the grand daddy of them all, the World barista competition. The trip to origin that was offered to me was based around training baristas there in the fine art of competitive coffee making. Despite just finishing up with the Chicago in house barista competition, leaving for 9 days to go to a little event called TED as well preparing for the great lakes in early March I had to sign up for it.
The training was to happen in Costa Rica. We have been working for a long time now with Coopedota, an outstanding cooperative based in Santa Maria in the Dota Valley. Some of you have had our Fletcha Roja offering in the past, that’s these guys. This has always been a stellar coffee and this week I was lucky enough to get a glimpse as to why it is a coffee we buy year after year in increasing quantities.
So first off, the point of the trip was to train 5 of Coopedota’s baristas in order to ready them for the Costa Rican national competition. This is a bit involved. While they all had a definite skill base we had to go from basic run throughs, to selecting coffees to developing signature drinks and final polishing all over the course of 3 days. Throw in tours of the mills, farms and several wonderful meals and the trip was full indeed.
The first day was settling in, finding my room and meeting my esteemed host Roberto Mata, the manager of Coopedota. A quick run down on Roberto is impressive indeed. Riding through town with him in the car and you get the feeling he is the captain of the football team, the mayor and everyone’s personal best friend, all rolled into one humble package. In the 16 years he has been at the helm Roberto has brought Coopedota into the magical world of micro lots, insane levels of transparency and lot separation, roasting, sponsoring local educational programs and running two cafes. We all have a lot to learn from this man.
Day 2 is when it all got rolling. I met with the baristas by 7:30 in the training space bellow Coppedota’s café. We introduce ourselves, talk a bit about competition and then jump right into tasting some coffees. I requested before coming that they roast and age whatever selection they were interested in using so we could get a good look at things. This left us with 5 coffees processed four different ways to play with. One by one the baristas did a basic from scratch routine serving espressos and cappuccinos while talking about their coffee. This gave us a good base to see where everyone was at and also to taste a different coffee with each run through. Everyone had something they did well giving the session some good legs to stand on. The coffees also showed great promise.
After the run throughs it was onto skill building. Core barista techniques of adjusting the grind and dose to find the perfect extraction consistently and without waste are what makes or breaks a barista in competitions and in their shops. Focus on this and milk technique ate up the rest of the day as we hammered toward precision. This was a serious crew with last years Barista champion from Costa Rica among them. Being so close to the coffee for so much of their lives, these baristas have a coffee authority that you just cannot gain living in North America or Europe.
As a barista I consider the advantages a company like Intelligentsia has to be… well… considerable. The options I found at Coopedota are in some ways mind blowing in comparison. The green coffee options we had far exceeded our ability to taste it all and the sample roaster was mere feet away from the espresso machine. The baristas themselves each had convincing stories as well. Almost all of them are related to a producer, two of them graduates of coopedota’s 2 year coffee education program, another is the young up and coming roaster… All of them invested in a serious manner.
Later that evening Roberto showed me the milling operation of Coopedota. The level of thought and invention incorporated into facility still has me scratching my head in wonder. Costa Rica is a very well run country comparatively for central America and its citizens reap those rewards. The people of Dota are blessed with all the modern conveniences from cell phones to cable to college degrees. They have a good life and thusly tend towards good wages. This means labor is not cheap and the processes at the coopedota show respect for that. It is highly mechanized in ways that reduce work load and environmental stress while pushing the quantity and quality of processing farther than I have ever imagined. They have a very large high volume mill and a much smaller mill used for small lot separation. Both keep a quality standard and provide options that are hard to match. Inspirational material to sleep on.
The third day was spent looking a bit more at the processing and patios along with touring a few of the 790 farms that are members of Coopedota. There is a prevalent sense of intense care that pervades all throughout the valley. Careful selection of shade trees and the height to which they are pruned, intensive reuse of organic fertilizer made from the milling process byproducts and a farm owned by the Coop itself used to perform experiments to help further their knowledge of how to better grow their crop. It was difficult to not spend the whole time smiling from ear to ear. Roberto also pointed out how Coopedota is working with buyers to do specific experiments such as this Full natural processing of strictly Yellow cherry.
After the tour Roberto drove me into San Jose where we would cup 40 or so lots that were in contention to be part of this coming years Fletcha Roja project. You could see the trademark effects of slightly over ripe cherries that are common in Coopedotas crop offering a very wine like quality to the acidity. These were over all rather juicy coffees with excellent sweetness, one of the qualities we look for first in any coffee.
Day four was all about the full run through. During the day I had spent touring fincas and cupping, the baristas all gathered together elements for a signature drink, used our day 2 notes to flesh out some talking points and then dove head first into putting it all together. For those that have never done it, the simple act of serving the three rounds of drinks to a panel of your peers who are tasked with evaluating you is rather daunting. Sounding verbally articulate while executing complex physical tasks is enough to rattle most anyone. Each barista had their own take with no ones signature drink seeming old hat. The feedback they gave each other was probably the most valuable learning that happened the whole weekend. After having gone through all of them we went back to touch up on technical stuff and talking about different ways to tighten it all up.
At this point I have a few rounds of competitions under my belt to pull experience from but don’t think that means there was nothing for me to learn here. The simple perspective difference of a barista at origin who has known coffee for as long as they have known how to walk is not one to under estimate. That last night all of the baristas, Roberto and WIlliam got together to make a variety of traditional foods that they had been talking up to me the whole week. We gathered at ones house and proceeded to eat and drink the night away, them telling stories and me interjecting with my broken Spanish whenever I heard a word I understood. The entire week was one long continuous example of kindness. Roberto and all of the baristas shared any and everything I could possibly needed. Sitting there in their home, eating food they cooked sharing in their lives after having only meet them a few days prior felt marvelous.
The next day I left early for the airport in the capable hands of William Solis. The drive from Santa Maria to San Jose is about two hours worth of priceless. Its one long cruise up from the Valley and through the mountains on winding roads with scenery that your eyes ache to see going by constantly. It was a great moment for reflection of where I was. I wasn’t simply at origin in Costa Rica, I wasn’t just touring a coop in the Dota valley of Tarrazu, I was somewhere far more elusive and special. I was in the very heart of Coopdote if for but a brief time, celebrating its traditions of kindness, family and coffee. As William said on the drive, I was home… and it would always be open to me.
April 15, 2009
It is easy for folks involved in competition to take it to the extreme. Constantly practicing, developing tunnel vision, trying to achieve some unattainable sense of being prepared for something that you can never be fully prepared for. Because of this fact of life part of me really appreciated the grueling short season this year. It limits exactly how long you can put yourself through all of this nonsense. However even in this compressed time frame and with the stakes as high as I feel they have become for myself, once in awhile you just have to take a second to breath. I did this sometime last week when I endeavored on what is fast becoming one of my first rights of spring, a trip to grand street gardens to pick up my first mint plant of the season. For those of you who do not know, I have been looking forward to this day for months. Softly daydreaming of that small pot of Kentucky colonel and the joy it would bring. You see, fresh mint leaves in my household (while having some small place in cooking) are the crucial ingredient for my favorite drink of summer… The lovely and timeless mint Julep. Now before you gag, giggle, snicker or gasp too deeply at this, realize that most people have never had a proper mint julep. Most any Julep inside or out of Kentucky is horribly prepared, cloyingly sweet at best and tinted some awful green color. A true mint Julep maintains little if any resemblance to it’s far more common kin. I could argue it’s virtues and haggle about it’s history with you for paragraphs (and I will someday) but the hour is late and I am off to Atlanta tomorrow so we shall both be spared. I will however leave you with a picture of one of my favorite things, the first Julep of spring (and the plant who gave it life).
see you in ATL
April 8, 2009
Baristas involved in coffee competitions, if they have some experience and want to do well, usually have a good deal of their routine set well ahead of the actual comp. Signature drink, talking points, Espresso, special equipment, etc… Most have this all hashed out by regionals and if not by then they are almost certainly there by nationals. Every once in awhile though, there is some little detail that creeps up a week or so before the competition that you just cant help but fiddle with in the hopes of making the whole thing a little better. For me, two weeks before the great lakes that “little detail” was my sig drink. The one I spent the month previous developing was tossed outright and the one that carried all the way through nationals was born. Apparently I just get antsy in anticipation of these things because last week I found myself in the middle of another inspired moment. The “little detail” I have changed this time is my coffee… ummmm… yeah. As for my beloved Bolivia that I had held onto so dearly despite what everyone said, like the girl with the tattoos and piercings that you bring home and your parents just don’t approve of… I have moved on. I still have a deep affection for the coffee (and for girls with tattoos and piercings), I just came across one that I could not say no to last week and now have to figure out how to make it work.
Boy meets Rwanda…
The coffee landed in our roasting works on Thursday 3/26. I knew slim to nothing about it other than it wouldn’t hurt to at least taste a roast. Our guys roasted a batch the next Monday. I came into the works and before I even made it into the lab 3 people stopped to asked if I had taste the Rwanada with giddy/shocked looks in their eyes. I began to get nervous and excited at the same time. I had a week turn around time between my regional and the US comp where I needed to make some big changes and that definitely kept me off balance. Switching coffee at this point would be forcing a revamp of much of the set. Add to that the fact that this coffee is from Rwanda, an origin known to have an issue with the dreaded potato defect… For those that don’t know, coffee from Rwanda, Burundi, Uganda and some other areas in Africa suffer from airborne bacteria that is introduced to the coffee cherry once it has been attacked by a bug. This bacteria then causes the coffee to smell and taste of potato in a very bad way. It is virtually undectable until you grind the bean and release the aroma, and certainly once it has been brewed. Using it as a coffee would pretty much be a competition version of Russian roulette, the defect could be in any bean in my hopper. For that reason I was pretty much dead set against this coffee as an option from the second I heard it mentioned. I dialed in the Bolivia at two different levels that had been tasting good that week and they were doing their standard thing, juicy, berry like acidity, green grape, fig… I then tried a Brazil that came in with the Rwanda, it was an excellent espresso but just not as full of character as the Bolivia. I then moved onto the Rwanda. Wow… If there is such a thing as love at first sight, I experienced it that day. This coffee as an espresso has a level of complexity and clarity that is simply fantastic. It has that really big red fruit that I would sometimes get from the Bolivia but in this it was consitant, cleaner and filled out with so many other flavors. The mouth feel was also unique. It has a definite presence but is not heavy, more so velvety and slick. The crema was even fantastic from the get go. After sampling it out to a few folks it was decided and there was no going back. I ran through close to 5 lbs that day trying different parameters to get a feel for it and yes, I did have two “potato pucks”. I was able to catch them right at the grinder however and avoid them getting into a cup. A bit scary but believe me when I say this coffee is worth the risk.
A bit of information about the coffee itself. It is a small lot of a washed Bourbon that comes from the Maraba co-op in Rwanda. The full name of this co-op is Abahuzamugambi Ba Kawa which roughly translates into “ together we work the coffee” (awesome…). They are tied to the very beginning of the Pearl project in Rwanda that helped groups of farmers start to really focus on increasing the quality of their coffee. This co-op in particular holds the honor of building the first modern washing station in Rwanda. This lot comes from their Sovu washing station in the southern province and district of Huye. Our green buyer Geoff Watts has been part of some amazing work in Rwanda and could have talked to me for hours about how far not just the origin but this particular group pf farmers has come in the last several years. The washing station is immaculate and the level of care they put into the processing is high. It feels great to be able to be a part of the story of success that this group is by getting to use their coffee on the global stage that is the WBC.
So yeah, with two weeks left I decided to replace the engine driving this whole mess forward. It feels risky to make this big of a change now and begin using a coffee that has time bombs hidden inside, but believe me when I say it is worth it. I rarely have gut instincts tell me to do something so decisively as this. Now lets just keep our fingers crossed.
April 3, 2009
Okay, so partially to help get the thoughts organized in my own head as well as to answer a question I have gotten a bit as of late, I am going to take a second here to breakdown what I am doing with the signature drink I am using in this years competition. The concept is easy and based on an exercise that anyone looking to really understand an extraction better should try. The exercise has you split a single extraction into several increments by switching the cup every 5 seconds or so. Some folks are lucky enough to use handcrafted overly verbose tools like this one but simply swapping shot glasses quickly by hand will suffice. When the shot is finished you can easily see and taste the changes that occur throughout the life of the shot. For the drink I am using in competition, I have decided to simplify this and split the shot into just two segments, using the beginning for a hot drink and the end for a cold drink. I then pair each half of the extraction with flavors and textures that I feel match up with and amplify qualities found in my espresso.
The Hot Drink: In the beginning of the extraction I find a darker sweetness, some savory elements, a bit of a nuttiness and texturally rich quality that ties it all together. To work with this I combined a dark muscovado sugar with an 82% bittersweet dark chocolate, some black sea salt and finely diced roasted almonds. All of this is steeped together in heavy cream for about 12 minutes. I strain off the result and add the beginning of the extraction to it. The flavors meld together wonderfully with just a little stirring. Being the small drink that it is very little amount of each of the ingredients was needed. Balance is key.
The Cold Drink: In the end of the extraction the shot begins to lighten in body and color. You find the more juicy berry like parts of the shot transformed into it’s more core elements of a pleasant tartness, a slight bitterness and a nice clean sweetness. I felt that blackberries had many of the qualities that I got out of the Bolivia as an espresso so for this drink I used some of them freshly pressed. To match up with that clean sweetness I added a bit of an Agave nectar. To help give it the lightness that I feel this part of the extraction has I added a bit of the Bolivia brewed up in a café solo that had been chilled. All of this along with the end of the extraction are added to a shaker and agitated. A nice effect that sometimes happens when you shake a juice or espresso with ice is that a slightly frothy head forms on your drinks. In the finished drink this plays nicely off of how the crema is found mainly in the second half of the extraction. The result is cool and crisp, an amplified version of all of those sweet, tart and slightly bitter notes the end of an extraction can hold.
Does this make sense? I am going to have to explain this to an international panel of judges in about two weeks so if any of it seems a bit wonky and hard to decipher I implore you to leave a comment saying how.
While I cant afford to have my own celebrity handler, I have seemed to inspire enough need for help that my good friend and coach Charles Babinski sets up variations on the signature drink without much prodding.
April 1, 2009
I work for a company that is brimming with some amazing coffee professionals. People that I have looked to for inspiration from the very beginning. I am lucky enough to count them as not just peers but friends. One of them based out of Chicago here just so happens to have gone through this whole mess that is the WBC before, his name is Matt Riddle. He currently has the honor of being the Intelly kid who has made the highest mark on the wall of barista fame and glory coming in third place a few years back during the competition in Berne Switzerland. In his supportive way of offering good natured ribbing he mentioned that it would be a weight on his mind if I managed to top his glory and pull into a spot even higher than he placed. So much so that there is a decent chance it would make him grab his old jersey off the wall, lace up his sneakers and hit the court next season, hehehehe. As if I ever needed a reason to try harder for this, the prospect of being able to bring Matt out of retirement is a whole new level of motivation.
Time to practice…
Its gonna be tough considering that even my parents root for matt when given the chance…
January 5, 2008
As a birthday gift of unparalleled proportion, my fantastic room mate Megan, took me to this hidden Gem out the burbs called Hala Kahiki. Some of you may not know this, but I have a minor fetish for Tiki drinks and culture (if you take minor to mean immense) and this bar was the best by far. No Cheesy knock off here and no poorly made candy drinks either. The drink menu is immense and contains most every staple along with a few more obscure concoctions from the Tiki Pantheon. Between the two of us we had a Mai Tai, a singapor sling and a scorpion (took the honorable of being the fairly designated driver) my only beef being the lack of good mugs for the drinks to come in (i believe the store has some but it was closed at the time)that and the long drive. If this were any closer I’d be a regular for sure. recommended for those in the club.
November 18, 2007
November 9, 2007
Today is the day I make the mighty venture North, me and my trusty steed…
I start off at the Denny st. Vivace to get my mind right and plot my course. Using my well defined google map I decide to try and hit the two Zoka stores, Tom Thai for lunch, lighthouse and maybe a Vita. The path north is a daunting collection of hills and busy unfamiliar roads. One of the Vivace employees tries to dissuade me from biking by suggesting a less effort intensive bus option but I am not swayed. I bundle up, adjust my schnazzy new bag and hit the road. The ride is actually rather nice and not even all that confusing. I cruise down and pump up hills, shooting across the bridge and landing the U district in good time. Hunger has made Thai toms my first stop but I was to quick for my own good and had 20 minutes to kill before they opened. I slide across the street, pick up a shirt at a thrift store and find Toms ready to feed me when I am done. I know this is a beverage blog, but I feel that Tom’s needs to be included. This small whole in the wall shop restaurant is fantastic. There is not much seating, it is very crowded and noisy, and possibly the best pad thai I have ever had.
After this extremely satisfying experience I make my way to the Zoka University store… more hills… I cannot believe the tenacity of the single speed bikers in this town, I would have died without gears on this adventure. I have not even locked up my bike in front of the shop before Lindsey, the trainer for Zoka, pops her head out to say hi.
I met this classy lady last year at the USBC as she was coaching Zoka’s two barista competitors Kyle and Maqui. We chat for a minute and she then takes me on a quick tour of the shop… which is actually kind of two shops. The main original café is large in a long style layout. The large amount of seating is filled to the brim with students and laptops. Tons of wood, great light and a warm atmosphere are obviously factors in the steady flow of people. Lindsey also shows me their new addition to it that is at the moment separated from the main café by a large sliding door. They only recently got this space and now use it for training and overflow during the peak hours. I am treated to a double shot from Roseanna in the main café and then we all split a French press of an Ethiopia Aricha seven…. Simply amazing.
This cup is in contention for the best of the week so far. It is stellar and lively. Very reminiscent of an Idido Misty Valley but far more balanced, in check and clean. I sip on this as she rushes around preparing a barista jammy jam sort of workshop for some of Zoka’s wholesale customers. I also run into Tracy Allen who is a USBC and WBC certified judge that I had met at past competitions. He graciously invites me to participate in a milk tasting they are holding that day. I kill off a little time before this savoring the rest of the Aricha seven and typing away.
The milk tasting is well approached and informative. A representative from Sunshine dairy leads us through the different factors affecting the quality of milk such as farm practices, pasteurization and temperature. We taste four types of milk, ALL skim! Which, while mildly cruel makes sense after a touch of thought. Like cupping, you want to magnify the flaws to see them more clearly and skim puts the bar right up there. Before it is over I have snagged a few ideas to try with blended milks when I get back to Chicago and a new bias against over pasteurized milk. I linger a little longer in the main café as I get my bearings and then proceed to the Green Lake Zoka (which I believe is their original location).
After a few more hills I am soaking in sweat while locking my bike up in front of yet another coffee shop, deja vu is really starting to set in at this point. Given my late start this morning it is fairly dark out already and the warm interior of the shop is very inviting. I find it to be massive.
It is large square layout with the bar along one wall sporting a giant red 4 group FB70. This store also has a clover up and running. I secure myself a double espresso and a cup of a Nicaragua COE finca Santa Isabel. It is a lovely little delicate cup but I still find myself missing that Aricha from the U store. It is very interesting seeing the different ways people take the clover. I would love to see a Clover jam set up where every one gets together and has to dial the clover in for 3 coffees or so and then they are all cupped and scored against one another. The shot I get has a little fuller body than the U store shot but in all other ways is very consistent. The barista Amy (?) humored my nosiness and seemed well versed in the craft. I kick back in a big comfy chair and read an article from the new Barista mag. I coincidentally pick a selection ever so appropriately authored by Trish Skeie (Zoka’s green coffee buyer). Its about helping to train cuppers and coffee graders in Africa and is the sort of feel good inspirational stuff that helps motivate even the most apathetic.
The night is moving on rapidly and I figure I should do so as well. I decide to scrap the Vita stop and head straight to Lighthouse. Interstingly enough they have a Gothot tuck away in back (the same type of roaster we use)
It is a short downhill bike away and I am grateful for that. I am also grateful for skipping Vita as I made it to Lighthouse just minutes before they close. A fellow by the name of Chris is behind the bar and he pulls me one of the best shots I have had all week. The blend (which he knew the details of off the top of his, something I am always grateful to find) was simple, not overly fruity or daring, but a good solid rich shot a;; the same. More than anything he just nailed the extraction effortlessly and you could tell it. We talk for a while and I immediately develop a solid respect for the man. He is utterly out of the loop with regards to the coffee culture drama circle “coffee fest?” but he has been pulling shots for 11 years and has a very solid grasp on what he is doing because of it. Since they are closing, I pack up and head out, another full day of coffee in the bag. The bike back to the hotel is fantastic… all of that going uphill finally pays off as I cruise down essentially one road the whole way there. I take one stop for an interesting photo op. in front of a cable company.
Once I get back in touch with Nick its all burgers and rock n roll. Then we rest.