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.

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