Saturday, July 10, 2010

Welcome back

It's good to be back. I have missed working with coffee.

Monday, March 02, 2009

Fair Trade vs. Cup of Excellence

No, this is not so much a debate between the two, as I very much think both have their place in this vast world of coffee.

Mark (CoffeeGeek) had a Twitter post that tipped me off to this article, in which I found a pretty offensive and disturbing quote that begs to be confronted with such cheesiness as "Why can't we all just get along?".

Gasp, Guffaw, I know. Me? Saying something like, "Why can't we all just get along?"?

Yes, and if you think this is inconsistent, then you've probably misread, or have been a part of the audience who may or may not be defensive of comments or thoughts I have had in the past.

Really. Why CAN'T we all just get along?

Okay, enough of the lengthy prelude.

Here is the quote:

Simon Wakefield is sceptical of the elaborate tasting notes which accompany the Cup of Excellence auctions: “It is clever marketing. But after the beans have been roasted, ground, kept on somebody’s kitchen shelf, made into coffee, and then milk and sugar have been added can you really tell me that you can taste a difference?”


Which seems like a nice enough article
, but at what point does it become necessary to bash the Cup of Excellence as nothing but marketing?

It seems pretty clear to me that this guy has either never tasted a cup of excellence coffee, or he has an agenda to promote certification LABELS over Quality. (which would be to the benefit of many FT coffee sellers, as well as TransFair.. and let's not get into the discussion of why Fair Trade is not always fair, and how there are purchasing practices that are far more fair than Fair Trade)

I mean, really, how many of you readers have ever thought you might one day buy an extravagantly priced coffee, just so you can have it pre-ground for you to make at home. Oh, and you'll naturally add milk and sugar to this high-priced coffee, because it's "just coffee". And, since it's "just coffee", it will taste like "coffee" (whatever that tastes like), and even pre-ground, it will exhibit no brilliance beyond what an ordinary "good" coffee can offer.

I have tasted some CoE coffees, and they are high priced and scored highly for a reason. Marketing was NEVER the purpose, and Mr. Wakefiled is most probably aware of this fact.

So, my question is this. What does he hope to accomplish with this comment? Especially when there are others saying things like this about Cup of Excellence in the same article:

“It is the absolutely highest echelon of quality coffee,”

As stated by Stephen Hurst, the founder of Mercanta. (If you live in the US and don't know about Mercanta, you probably will soon, and if you don't, then you should)

Now, I'm not saying that Fair Trade sucks, or that Cup of Excellence is the premier coffee solution for everyone, but I don't see any major buyers of CoE coffees smack-talking Fair Trade in public articles from financial publishcations.

Someone send this guy any CoE coffees you have left, and film the tasting. I fail to see how supressing the reward incentive for quality can be of benefit to ANYONE (except for those who build a profit based on a label and misdirection of good will).

ugh. Thoughts? ..ugh.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

WRBC 2009 Trailer (?)

This is pretty sweet. Barista competitions now come with trailers? Hmm...

WRBC 2009 from wrbc on Vimeo.

This blogger sucks.

And why you may ask? Well, if it isn't obvious, it's been months since I've revisited the ol' coffee aspirations blog. This blog is where I documented my venturing out into the world of specialty coffee a few years ago, and I've been trying to keep it rolling ever since.

Since starting this blog, I've gone on to a number of other things. For one, I started For another, I started, which is where much of my time is spent, and most of my blogging efforts are put to use.

Being a semi-public figure in coffee, I've found it harder and harder to express my personal feelings towards things for fear of accidental defamation, pissing off people who have been around the industry for longer than me, and for just plain not wanting to give the wrong impression about myself in the eyes of others.

Things have been slow with this economy, and it's just now that I'm starting to see retailers recognize what they need to do to survive. It's taken months, but they're coming around... at least, the ones who have come to realize that they need to focus on quality and value ahead of every other principle are.

This is where comes in. If you are a retailer, and you need to revamp the quality or approach to spark new life into your coffee program, or if you just need to get an edge on your competition in an effort to survive this economy, there is no better investment than an investment IN YOURSELF. (or so many professors have told me throughout my college career, and I'm inclined to believe it to be true)

You and your people are the best tools you have, and to invest in your company's people is the best mode of investment possible. It's better than advertising. It's better than shiny new equipment. It's better than impulse buy products. Sure, this is a shameless plug, but it's more than that. It's the truth. The companies that are thriving in this economy are the ones who have already done just that, and if you find your business struggling, and you aren't quite sure what to do, consider bringing in a consultant or professional skills trainer. (like myself) Usually, they'll talk with you to see if they can help in the first place before you spend a dime. (I know I do)

Most of us got into this business to help others succeed primarily, and to make a living secondarily. I love coffee, and I want to see the progress of coffee do well, and I want to see businesses who dream of coffee to see this progress in the realization of their dream, as well as in their proverbial pocket book, without which, no dream can survive for long.

Until next time, enjoy your espresso, and savor the flavor. I hope readers of this blog fare this recession well.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

The SCRBC is just around the corner.

And, as expected, I don't feel ready. Does anyone ever really feel all the way ready for these things? My guess is "no".

A few more competitors this year than last. A few repeats as well, which is good to see.

This year we have Isaiah from Double Shot in Tulsa Oklahoma competing. Go Double Shot!

We also have Andrew from Stompin' Grounds in Cabot (outside of Little Rock) Arkansas. Hurray for more states being represented!

We still don't have any love from Louisiana, but hopefully they'll warm up to this whole coffee minus chicory thing soon. ;o)

The SWRBC is being held at the same time, same place, and the only company being represented is Coffee Cartel Lab, owned by the gracious Mexican hot-dog host Jason Silberschlag who took Edwin Martinez, David Latourel and me in the back seat on a pretty hectic drive through Tucson back at the AZ jam in '06. He then went to the first FVH trip and chatted with Jaime V.S. about training, and my name popped up. Of course, it never happened (and I'm not even sure it needed to happen, but it's a fun fact nonetheless).

Competing right before me is Mr. Sean Marshall of Catalina Coffee in Houston, but also of Fusion Beans, a coffee consultancy he co-runs(co-ran?) with a partner. What's interesting is that Sean contacted me a little over a year ago with a request for training. We were on, but funds were tight. It never happened.

But what I am most thrilled about on a personal level is that Nat Long and Skylar Stevens, both from Sugar Brown's Coffee will be competing. Rock! I am no longer the phil-proclaimed "Lubbock Lone Ranger". Yes, I know, you can't believe it. I have friends. In Lubbock. That care about coffee quality. It tends to happen, you know? You show a bunch of people a good thing, and eventually some of them start to catch on.

SB is the birthplace of the concept for this year's signature drink, and I am happy to see them represented at this year's SCRBC that they came to Dallas to watch last year.

I think they'll be running some coffees from Brown, and interestingly, I think they are coffees that were purchased (by Brown) with the intention of use in my competition blend. A lot of people are benefitting from a couple of good ideas here, it seems.

One thing I did happen to notice is the sheer number of competitors who will probably be using Cuveé coffee. 4 competitors from Caffe Medici, one from Cuveé, and one from Jupiter House in Denton, TX (another Cuveé account). That's about 35% of the mix using the same, or a slightly modified version of Meritage. Wowsers. I hope the judges like Cuveé's roasting style! Although, I'd be willing to bet that Clancy will be running his own blend, considering that he is now the roaster at Cuveé.

I'm also quite happy to see Ron De Young of Texas Coffee Traders on the list again this year. Soft-spoken, the farthest thing from arrogance you'll find, and the shot I had off his practice session last year was brilliant. We were all nervous and shaky for last year's competition, but some of us shook more than others. Ron was one of those. I hope he kills it this year.

I'm also looking forward to seeing Ashlind McAshan again. She's competing as an independent this year, after having competed in a couple of out of regions and the USBC last year after the shock of the SCRBC. This woman is freakin' determined, and she doesn't give a damn about what you, me, or anyone else thinks. She's told me so, and she gave me an extra copy she had of God in a Cup. Her home Starbucks is being closed, and today (the 22nd) is the last day of operation. If you need a good director of coffee, lead barista, manager, etc.., she will be for hire soon, and I know she would LOVE to find a great job doing what she loves. (those are extra difficult to come by in the north Dallas area, let me tell you.)

I'll be competing against two near-trainees, and two baristas from a shop I have a good relationship with. Interesting times for Jason. Do I mention the fact that I trained both Nat and Skylar on the basics about a year ago? Do I mention the fact that I have judged an in-house latte art competition for their shop a few months ago? Do I mention the fact that they call me all the time to ask questions and invite me for special cupping sessions, like the first one they held in which I lead a cupping of the much-touted Panama Esmeralda Gesha non-auction lot from PT's? (yes, it was every bit as good as they say, though I still gave it a 94-95, rather than the 97 Ken Davids decided it deserved. I'm too damn critical. I know it, my girlfriend knows it, my friends know it, and there's not a thing I can do about it. Oh well.)

Enough of this rambling. I saw a quote on Blanco's blog that caught my attention.

It is repeated below. (

"Space is the enemy here, and geopolitical boundaries seem to be the enemy of our coalescence. Because the entity is known as "Texas" it seems to make sense that we should all be one big happy family. But as the interstate sign makes clear as you cross into Texas from Louisiana, this really is a big, big place. The sign reads: WELCOME TO TEXAS! Beaumont = 15 miles; Houston = 150 miles; El Paso = 798 miles. Thus, we have to make the best of our situation by grabbing every opportunity for community, no matter how frequency and geographically-challenged and those opportunities are." - Aaron Blanco
Amen to that. You couldn't sum up the reason for the existance of Texas Coffee People any better than that.

Stay tuned for the results of the 2nd annual SCRBC in just under two weeks.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Blend development... on the way.

Coffee on the way for sampling to develop the competition/production blend with Brown.

Watch out. It's not ready yet, but when it is, I can guarantee it'll rock your socks.

In tandem (if the experimentation/development goes well) the "Top Secret" project will begin actual development as well. Yippee! New drinkware is required, and I think I've figured it out, though I'm not sure. New/more bar tools will be necessary as well. This should get interesting. New toys make for a lot of time-wasting.

I'm trying a new approach to this year's competition. I've learned to transcend previously held obsessions in favor of a more subtle stance on things. Strong opinions gain attention and spark debates, but are often abandoned upon enlightenment. I'm tending to lean more towards the acceptance of the fact that nothing is concrete. It's a new direction for me. We'll see how it fairs when the hammer drops. I tend to have strong opinions and very firm stances most of the time.

Oh, right. You may have seen my pretty face in the Bar Tools article of the Aug/Sep'08 issue of Barista Magazine. No, microfiber isn't as fun to read about, but if you haven't yet, you really should give it a try. Steam wands, counter tops, filter baskets, polished surfaces, glass surfaces, the list goes on. David L. (Clover) almost tried to steal a couple at the TX Jam back in '06 after using some that I had lent him for the Clover demo. The secret has been out for awhile ever since. Behold, the origin of the Microfiber love: my former experience as a part time freelance (aka, on the side) auto detailer.

I am also absolutely thrilled for my virtual good friend and coffee mentor Jaime Van Schyndel and crew for the opening of their roasting operation in Boston. Big congrats!

Thursday, September 11, 2008

WBC Fires Michelle Campbell

Wow. Just, wow.

Read about it here:

If you have ever competed in any SCAA Regional, the USBC, or the WBC, you have seen the handiwork of Michelle Campbell. Nothing but love for the amazing work she's done over the years. She's left some gigantic shoes to fill that I don't think the board recognized the proportions of when they made this decision.

If you, like me, oppose this decision, you can write to the members of the WBC Board of Directors.

They are:

Monday, September 08, 2008

The SCRBC is Coming...

And I'm gearing up for this year's competition which will be held in Austin along with the SWRBC. Awfully nice of Cuveé to play host for both of them just so their region could have time and a guaranteed second year.

First things first.

The espresso blend. I'm working with Brown on a blend for this year's regional. It's looking to be quite nice, and something I would be happy to drink on a nearly daily basis. That's a rare statement to cross my lips.

Since the blend is being tweaked, but the flavors are fairly certain, I've begun working on a signature drink. As you can see, it was written away from access to writing paper, and is intended for certain eyes only.

That's right. This message will self-destruct in 10... 9... 8... 7... etc...

The equipment sponsors for this year's WBC, and by extension, the USBC and US Regionals are Nuova Simonelli and Mahlkonig.

This means that the LM GB/5 is out, and the NS Aurelia is in. I'm not really sure how I feel about that. I like the Aurelia. For a heat exchanger, it's a great machine. It's easy to work with, the steam lever is handy, and like most other Nuova Simonelli machines, from a technician's standpoint, it's easy to work on. But hidden in that slew of descriptors lies a phrase that says it all: "For a heat exchanger."

Naturally, heat exchangers do have their setbacks... like the lack of a reliable brew temperature. If you are not used to a double boiler, you can work out at which temperature your coffee tastes best using other methods... like, say, cupping, aeropressing, or any number of manual brew methods.

When you're working with a heat exchanger, unless you are quite familiar with the particular machine, it's almost a guessing game. How much water should be flushed? How much water does the heat exchanger line hold? How consistent is the brew temperature from flush to flush?

Lots of questions come about, and while I have no doubts that Nuova Simonelli will do everything in their power to make the competition Aurelia the best darn heat exchanger ever-to-be-used-in-a-competition that they can, the fact remains: It's still a heat exchanger.

With fun features like active cup-warmers that are, supposedly, going to be on during the competition and cool-touch steam wands, it at first appears to be a a tad easier on the competitor, however, I'm not really sure many people would even notice features like these in a competition setting. In a retail setting, however, these things can make a lot of difference. Generally, I would expect the skill calibur to be a a step or two higher in the competition arena.

On to the grinder. This year the grinder will be doserless. Why? Because that's what Mahlkonig manufactures. The K30 platform will be available for competitors to use. A few thoughts here.
For years, grinder dosers have been "the norm". In such a situation, the concept of "waste" carries much meaning, as does tidiness of the work station. Not all dosers are created equal, however, and with the advent of the newer Anfim models and precise electronic timers for espresso grinding, the "waste" category seems to wane a bit towards uselessness. Not to mention the fact that we've begun to see competitors skip any manual distribution whatsoever becuase their grinder drops the grounds "straight down". That's for another discussion, but it weighs heavily into the work station tidiness concept.

Honestly, I wouldn't mind the doserless grinder so much, except for the inevitable demon that seems to accompany every doserless grinder at some point: clumping. Is it better to sacrifice shot quality for "points" found in the waste category, or is it better to suck it up for the coffee and risk having a sub-perfect score for waste from your dosered grinder?

I know other baristas will say that the flavor from a non-distributed espresso is grand, and there is no reason for post-dose distribution. If all you had done is taste the result, I can understand how that conculsion can be derived, however, despite the all-too-common belief that "Taste is the only morality," if you had ever actually watched the pour from a shot prepared in this manner, any informed casual observer would be sure to tell you that something is amiss.

Are we expected to respect the product itself or the resulting liquor derived from its being? I tend to lean more towards the former, however, it seems there is a growing number leaning towards the latter. This is evidenced not necessarily by what is said, but rather, by what is practiced. I say this not in an effort to belittle, demoralize, or defame anyone in the quality sector of this wonderful industry in which I have found my way, but to question things yet again.

Unfortunately, the philosopher in me is never content with any answer or paradigm, and I will always question the way things are.

I realize that equipment sponsorship is needed, and that it is often driven by wealth (currency, if you will). Is it enough to meet base-level expectations? Is this enough to show due respect to the product this entire industry is built upon? Are we finding ourselves in an industrial slump much like the automotive industry where new ideas are existing, and yet, not being utilized in an effort to save companies or jobs? Frankly, I don't think we're there yet, but I would not be surprised if we found ourselves in just such a predicament as time moves forward.

I have much to say about ethics of competition, but this is neither the time nor place to say it. As they say, nobody likes a critic.

In the mean time, it's time to get my act together and start putting in some serious practice time. 3rd place last year. I had the highest score in the first round, and the competition... and it wasn't that high at all. My goal is to somehow find the balance between the retail ethics of coffee and the competition score sheets for maximum points while maintaining my personal integrity as a coffee professional, and a self-appointed coffee ambassador.

Halloween weekend, it's all going down.