Saturday, January 26, 2008

James Hoffman and the Siphon Bar

Pre-reading reading: James Hoffman on Italian Terminology
Blue Bottle's New San Fran Siphon Bar

Both of these posts excite me in different ways. Here in the Beaver Valley, drip brewed coffee is king. Espresso, far from being a novelty (we have Nuova Simonellis in our gas stations), is still viewed--it seems--as a fancy-schmancy way to act "above your place." Many folks just want "a regular cup of coffee," which is just fine with me. Espresso, while being a fine way to brew coffee, is not for every palate and is too easily susceptible to being masked by sugary syrups and too much milk (I had a nice, chocolaty macchiato earlier today--just right). Plus, I'm not too sure it is the "pure essence of coffee" as every brewing method (whether technology driven or not) produces different aspects of coffee, with none that I have tried bringing all out at once.

Since the crew and I have started working/experimenting with manual methods we have seen a rebirth in our palates towards non-espresso coffees. This is part of the reason that we will soon be adding Aeropress, Chemex, and (someday, if I can get my Schyndel on) siphon options to compliment our Americano, drip, and French Press methods already available.

To bring James Hoffman into this, his post concerning our way of using Italian inconsistently brought to my mind the problem of American coffee culture: we don't have one. The Blue Bottle piece talked about importing a Japanese siphon bar (even thought siphon was very popular in the U.S. before the "convenient" percolator); Starbucks made Italian-style (or -esque) commonplace. But distinctly American coffee culture, as far as I can tell, is still in its infancy, if not in utero. We should not, in my opinion, be totally enamored with one culture's coffee style. Much like our post-modern sensibilities, our fusion of many may produce something even better. Having such varied local cultures (which are, again in my opinion, of much more importance than our mass, national culture), different ways can certainly thrive and change for the better in our places. What about integrating Turkish/Greek/Cypriot/so on into our offerings?

I see, everyday, people becoming more educated about coffee in this area. When we introduce our varied ways of getting your "regular cup of coffee" I hope to see a veritable renaissance in coffee-brewing, as each method produces something different for different palates. Also, it will cause the perception of barista (or, as I'm thinking about it more and more, bartender) to be enhanced, since they will have skill sets not usually seen in coffee bars. Lastly, it will cause an increase in the quality of roasting since defects are more easily seen using different methods--especially as home-brewers become adept at using their favorite methods.

The espresso craze, if it is coming to an end, might well be replaced by the Chemex or Siphon or French Press craze, but hopefully we can get off the pendulum swinging from culture to culture and settle down with our favorite method and favorite coffee for a good cup and a good conversation.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

All right!

Finished installation of the roaster today and "test" roasted 15lbs of beans; Colombian, SWP Colombian, and Papua New Guinea (a kind I've never had before). Still a few kinks to work out with the exhaust (and that fire code inspection, of course), but otherwise all systems go.

Time to think philosophy. What sort of things am I going to be stringent about, what sort lax? How much sorting, how many defects, how many blends? For whom am I roasting? And why?

Monday, January 21, 2008

The New Era Starts Tomorrow

Sigh. Roaster installation is harder than originally anticipated (as always). We've run out of pretty much every coffee we have, so I roasted some in my faithful-but-struggling popper on the stove in the house (too cold to do it outside). Enough to get us through to tomorrow? Don't know yet. Hopefully.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

The New Era Starts Now

Jake and I brought our new (used) Ambex YM-5 back from Chicago yesterday and got it put in Hwaet Books & Games, waiting for install and inspection on Monday (maybe Tuesday). Good trip, but the cold was just atrocious.

We stopped at The Coffee Studio, a good little place off of Bryn Mawr in Chicago. Good coffee from Intelly through a Synesso, highly recommended if you are in the area.

I'll post when our roastery is open for business once I find out. Jake will be posting some pictures here soon.

Monday, January 14, 2008

The Most Exciting Thing

Well, Jake and I leave for Chicago early Saturday morning and should return late Saturday night with our new Ambex YM-5 roaster. Unfortunately, we will be missing the grand opening of Hwaet Books & Games, a wonderful new shop here in Beaver Falls. We will, however, be working closely with them in two regards: Hwaet will feature BFC&T coffee in their game-playing, book-reading area and we are housing our roasterie in the upper-back portion of their shop. Eventually we would like to host semi-public cuppings/tastings, but for now I think I'm just going to try and keep my head above the waters.

If you have never heard of him, Simon Hsieh is someone to check out. His passion and dedication to coffee is legendary and an inspiration to me as I'm fleshing out my roasting philosophy. My neighbors and friends don't deserve anything less than the best coffee that I can provide, so why wouldn't I take a clue from this master? The idea of a consistently good cup of coffee, with fewer variables running rampant (defects, in this case), fills me with great excitement. If you are drinking a cup of coffee, would you want defective, off-tastes in your cup? Hopefully not. If you aren't sure what "off-tastes" would be, hopefully I can show you what a good (and someday, God-willing, great) coffee should taste like. If I can get a small cadre of folks around here to care, then I've reached an important place. From there, it spreads.

Today has been, sort of, "gourmet day" for me. I've done research on roasting technique and philosophy, researched distilling liquor (and why not?), and seen our sandwiches housed in a much more attractive (and environmentally friendly) wrapper as opposed to the plastic clamshell. I'm looking forward to a great day behind the bar, especially since the students of Geneva, my alma mater are back. The students bring an energy to the shop that is more muted over breaks, which in turn gives us more energy and zest. I'll finish my day with making scones and possibly another round on biscotti--I'm using some new techniques with the scones, which, in my opinion, has greatly improved both texture and flavor of an already exceptional pastry. I'm also starting to dream of "choose your filling" pate a choux (as known as cream puffs). I'll go through a whole box of store-bought-frozen ones in about an hour (yes, I know gluttony is a sin...cream puffs excepted), so I think that home-made will be even better. Plus, if you can choose your filling, how could that not be, in the famed words of Peter Griffin, "freakin' sweet"? Top this off with my new quest for a great Muffaletta recipe and you'll complete this "day of food".

After writing that, I think I need some lunch.

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

MickiD's and the Third Wave

A lot of internet ink is being spilled about McDonald's plans to add full espresso drink service to all 14,000 US locations. The question that comes up for shop owners like myself is the quality of the coffee served and how their ubiquity will influence perception of what "coffee" is.

In an area like Western PA, where perception of coffee quality often goes no further than Eight o'Clock supermarket blends, this is a big issue. I've had many customers tell me that they didn't come into the store before because they considered coffee to be coffee. When they do come in, we have a chance to change their minds, and thankfully many folks have switched. However, for many that pass by everyday, the Sheetz gas station/espresso bar is more convenient and lower cost--quality doesn't even factor into the equation.

The question of quality, though, is slippery too. Many "third wave" coffee folks talk about how "its all about the coffee," but I think that is too nebulous. What does it mean to be "all about the coffee"? A lack of customer focus? No to-go drinks? Just standing bars with no food? It seems to me that a focus on coffee quality is part of a package deal, at least at the cafes and bars I've seen: customer focus and interaction, skillful preparation, great food, options for beverage enjoyment, options for different levels of coffee for those of different means while still keeping the taste level high and consistent. Thing is, though, McDs has many of those in spades. I wouldn't have one as a third place myself, but there are many folks who I'm sure do. What is better: to have a friendly place that will serve a consistent and non-pretentious product (even if the flavor quality is not top-notch) or a place that is committed to quality but is arrogant, too expensive, or down-right rude--all of which are common perceptions of coffee shops (which, of course, does not necessarily make them true, but we still have to battle them).

My hope for all of this is that more folks in this area will try the McCafe scene and then try us; I think we can win them over, even without egg McMuffins.

Monday, January 7, 2008

A Great Day for a Roast

Today the weather was perfect for something I hadn't done in a long time: roast coffee beans.

But once I learned about the conditions outside (around 5pm--I don't get out much), I took my little Chefmate-voided-warranty-popcorn-popper to the back porch and let 'er rip on some Royal NY supplied Yirgacheffe. The beans were evenly roasted and had a distinct caramel note after the first crack. In fact, the smell was so sugary-sweet that I had to double-take--I thought I was making it up in my head. But both batches had that sweet smell. Makes me very excited to try the brew tomorrow morning. Also makes me wonder about the sugar content on these specific beans (just to note, no sugar was added to the green or roasted beans--I'm speaking of natural sugars in the beans themselves)--I've never smelt caramel in a roast before.

Add to this that BFC&T just acquired a roaster, an Ambex YM-5, that we are going to start roasting on in the next couple of weeks. Fresh roasted coffee all the time here in the almost makes me want to cry.