moving on

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 feel free to swing by and marvel at how I have spontaneously managed to find things to talk about.




catching up…

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.


FINALS USA-Michael Philips-HeadRD

FINALS USA-Michael Philips-SensAP

FINALS USA-Michael Philips-SensJG

FINALS USA-Michael Philips-SensSH

FINALS USA-Michael Philips-SensMM

FINALS USA-Michael Philips-TechMY

FINALS USA-Michael Philips-TechDM

home away from home

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.

It has been sufficiently long enough since the end of the WBC to do the proper things of thanking and congratulating those that are due…

First off, congratulations to the 2009 World Barista Champion Gwilym Davies.  For anyone who has meet him the only thing surprising about his winning is that that it goes against the pessimism we all have about good people getting to the top.  He is the definition of a genuine person and from what I saw is certainly a skilled coffee professional not to be doubted.  I wish him all the luck and fortitude of strength he will need in this coming year to try and maintain the good life I know that he prefers.

A close second to congratulating Gwilym is doing the same to the other 50 competitors.  As is always the case some folks were obviously better prepared than others but the overall caliber was certainly impressive.  I sadly did not get to see as many performances as I would have liked and am basing all of this off of tasting coffee back stage and talking shop with everyone, but in those experiences it was easy to see the over all passion.  I left the weekend wanting the chance to go work in a dozen different shops to see a true picture of these professionals in action.

With the congratulating done I now need to say thank you to some folks.  I am unquestionably a lucky man when it comes to the support I have in my company.  Doug Zell is pushing forward a revolution in the way a company should treat its staff with how well he supports and invests in us.  Thank you for that.  The rest of the Intelly machine from our roasters to our production team to our west coast all stars to my “nose to the grindstone” Chicago shop comrades, thank you for putting up with and helping along all this hoopla.  One fellow in particular, Charles Babinski deserves singling out due his enormous effort invested.  When I trained he trained, when I stayed up rethinking each step he stayed up thinking about what I might have forgotten, when I got sick he got sick.  This last month he proved how valuable a coach and team mate could be.  Thank you sir.

Being on home turf I also had the support of an entire country it seemed.  My folks made the drive from Michigan to be there which was certainly special to be able to share something like this with them.  So many coffee icons I have looked up to ranging from my favorite barista Scott Lucey to the dozens of other folks I have learned from over the years were there cheering me on and offering to help in anyway I needed.  Two folks in particular here however stand out… Everyone’s favorite photo blogger and international coffee reporter Liz Clayton came aboard the 2009 US barista team as our official press ambassador.  She also got us food, drove us around and pretty much kept the team together in times of weakness.  This woman is fantastic and you should all love her.  The other person is Atlanta’s very own coffee superstar Danielle Glasky of Octane.  With her busy schedule of being a barista buddy for 3 countries, running multiple workshops, working shifts at her bar, throwing parties and winning a global latte art throwdown she was still able to find time to fill in any blank we needed.  Danielle is the future of coffee and anyone thinking otherwise best be ready cause shes gonna school all of us one day soon.

There are some really neat things just on the horizon for Intelly and I am hoping to get a chance to be involved in them.  If and when something worthwhile gets “declassified” I promise to put it here first.  Here is to an exciting year folks.

Thanks everyone,

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

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.

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.


the pressure builds…

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…

No really, it happend…

March 27, 2009

Okay so I am narrowing the gap… only 5 months since my last post.  I can say however that the clip of the last 5 months has been higher than any in my life so far.  A short recap is in order…

November 08 – Intelligentsia Chicago had it’s annual in-house competition.  Blood, sweat, tears and the like were all spilled with the end result being a nice cast of new baristas getting their first taste with a few old hats sneaking into the top slots.  Jesse C., Talya S. and then myself placing 3,2,1 respectively.  We all went on to comprise the Chicago regional team.  This is also the month I saw my amazing friend and peer Talya move into the position as manager at my shop… Stellar.

December 08/January 09 – I worked like mad trying to figure out the 5 million details of how to pull a store anchored in the past through a remodel that push it to the edge of the future as I knew it.  Switching espresso machines, figuring out how to order/make/use ganache, learning how to dial in 6 coffees every morning, changing the way the customers in my shop order and what they expect when they receive their order and then transferring all of this knowledge to 15 other people…  Nothing in my life to this point has asked more of me than this remodel did and there is little else that has been as rewarding.  I highly recommend the experience to anyone who has the chance.

February 09 –   The Great Lakes Regional Barista Jam managed to sneak into this month.  It is hard to imagine that the skill level of the golden days where names like Matusak, Sather and Riddle were givens in the line up for the GLRBC finals could be matched, but this year I feel like the talent was there.  Talya, Jesse and myself all threw our hats into the ring regardless of how much time we had on hand and went against the best in the region.  Talya and myself, still a bit winded from the remodel did not show perhaps as well as we might have liked but were able to at least see good friends be rewarded for excellent displays of skill.  Husband, father and new shop/roaster owner Trevor Corlette broke into the finals and earned 3rd, Jesse (first time competitor) delivered an awesome 2nd place finish and a man more deserving than any I could imagine, Scott Lucey finally took the crown he has worked diligently for over the past few years.  This was not a field that just anyone could walk onto this year and that makes me smile.

March 09 – Sooooooo.  There was a meager amount of time between the GLRBC and the USBC.  For a second or two there it appeared that I might not be able to even attend the USBC.  Luckily for me fate grabbed me with force, shook off my disappointment and replaced it with a solid fire to try and redeem myself.  With the good graces of Intelly I used the week of training time I had to make a few tweaks, found a way and a place out there and packed my bags.  It was a whirlwind that still really hasn’t stopped yet.  I met amazing people, tasted amazing coffee and did my best to deliver what I could once given the chance.  Turns out it worked and I received what is probably the greatest honor that can be symbolized by a large silver trophy in the shape of an apron… I actually won the USBC.  It is to this point the most stunning and unexpected moment of my life.  The number of people who made it possible are vast but a few really stick out.  Talya and Charles, my Chicago anchors who supported, propped up and pushed me all the way through… Marcus Boni for being the first person to say there was no way I was going to get away with giving up after the GLRBC, a person who is constantly always amazing in general.. and last but not least Doug Zell.  In my life he has changed roles a few times going from coffee celebrity I read about on blogs to scary boss/company owner I avoid in the roasting works to competitive coffee maverick pushing boundaries where ever he can while taking along who ever is willing to push with him to the latest role of a good friend who knows when to give me the space to brush myself off and then the support to push further.  For all of these people and all of this success a lucky man am I.

Thank you everyone.

PS  hopefully some of these sections will be expanded in the not so distant future….

from the ashes…

October 16, 2008

It has not been a year since my last post so I’ll consider this blog still alive with this addition… on life support, but still alive.  I could claim being busy with various activities such as heavy investment in last years USBC, taking my position as in-store trainer as serious as limits allow, pulling together old friends and new to host a very well attended regional coffee jam and in general restructuring my whole life… but sadly all of these except the last item would have been good fodder for discussion and sharing here.  My apologies folks.  Better late than never…

In a mere 6 hours I will be getting on a plane to head to LA with my wonderful friend and cohort in the great battle for good coffee, Sarah R.  We will be playing the gracious guests of USBC champ Kyle Glanville as he shows us the various elements that have made our store in Silverlake a smashing success.  Aside from being the “it” place out in Los Angles, our Silverlake shop is also in the vanguard of specialty coffee making dreams like serving only freshly brewed to order coffee, small espresso drinks and the best beans a reality.  Our Broadway shop and the company in general is currently engaged in a quest for positive change.  Hopefully after this trip Sarah and I will be bringing back some of these positive changes to our shop.

Many of the details of this trip are still “to be announced” sort of things but much of it will just be the solid basics of great coffee.  How do we in Chicago make the transition to only brewing coffee to order?  What are the training elements we need to develop a staff capable of working with multiple espresso options, brew devices and world class coffees?  What type of service do we need to offer to make being a barista the type of career path that it is evolving into at this shop?  The game is changing and for once in life I feel like I am on the right team.

More to come.