Thursday, November 29, 2007

Man, Machine, Coffee

Check out this picture here.

The Clover, the hottest toy in the coffee world, may get picked up by the world's largest coffee chain. The Clover is capable of producing some stellar brews and (of course) some lackluster ones. I've had both from well-trained professional hands. For the largest chain, this move makes a lot of sense: mechanical brewing that gives a concentrated amount of face-time with the customer. While the Clover does require training, I'm sure that it can produce brews up to the quality standards of said chain with a bare minimum. Not the full potential, mind you, but that isn't what mass marketing has ever been about.

As one astute commenter notes, if the chain picks up the Clover for all of its stores, it will introduce a new, potentially quality-increasing product to a large audience, which then will switch (statistically speaking) to the independent shops. Seems good for all.

However, my thought in general, not just about the Clover in particular, is that the introduction of mechanized technology into the equation does not make sense until the fundamentals of manual technology are at least understood, if not mastered. A Clover can produce a fine brew, but I've had just as good from a Chemex in regards to cleanness and just as good from a vac-pot in regards to taste clarity. In fact, I prefer almost all manual methods over commercial scale drip brewing (its that scale factor that gets me) and many over (shock! horror! gasp!) espresso brewing.

No doubt technology improves over time, but as Wendell Berry might say (if he were a Coffee Geek), the change from manual to mechanical isn't an improvement, it is a whole 'nother category. Technological improvement from manual methods involves redesigning carafes, fiddling with filters, and lots of training and cupping.

This isn't to say that mechanical brewing methods don't require skill: they do, even though an executive at the large aforementioned chain said even a "monkey can pull a double-shot" (don't get me started!). Pulling a shot of espresso is easy, pulling a decent (not to mention excellent) shot is doggedly hard. Manual methods, though, require a different skill and knowledge set than mechanical means. I think that, for the future of BFC&T at least, manual skills are what will set independents apart from the big boys, whether it is chains or grocery tin-cans.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Pittsburgh Bar-Hopping

Jake, Erik, and I went bar-hopping today. Coffee bar-hopping.

Started at Tazza D'Oro in Highland Park. Hip joint, hopping when we were there. Couple of shots and a soy cappa (a huge number of our staff is lactose haters, I just don't get it...). Good espresso, the milk foam was sweet and almost looked like peanut butter. Still trying to figure how they did that.

Next was 21st Coffee & Tea. Cortado, cappa, and Clovered Kenya Chemo auction lot. Black Cat, from Intelligentsia, is good, but a little bitter for my tastes (I still like it though). The Kenya tasted just like pink grapefruit. For all of you who don't believe that coffee can taste like anything other than coffee, try this Clover brew. It will shock and awe you.

Third was La Prima. No drinks here. The line was incredibly long and we were pressed for time. Next time.

Fourth was AldoCoffee. Had lunch and then a semi-public introductory cupping. Went very well. Had more Kenya Chemo, although the taste was different because of the brewing methods; Intelly's Nicaragua, which had heavy dark chocolate notes (I love dark chocolate); 8 o'clock regular blend--I kid you not it tasted like cigarettes, it is one of the most popular mega-mart offering, question is, "why?". Finished with a vacpot demitasse of Peruvian beans from Caffe Amadeus in Indiana. Fresh-roasted salted peanuts was the dominant flavor.

Thanks to all the shops for letting us in and talking with us (if possible). A special kudos to Aldo for holding the cupping! Pictures from Jake are forthcoming, so stay tuned.