Pumpkin Spice Done Right

As coffee professionals, we tend to think pretty highly of the coffee we make, and therefore believe everyone needs to drink that, and only that. No cream, no sugar.

If bar tenders acted the same way, how would you feel? Imagine walking into a great cocktail bar, and being frowned upon for ordering a martini. A world where bar tenders only pour whiskey is a somewhat boring place.

Yeah, your paying closer attention to the worker at the source of the whiskey, but this is not a fun experience. I doubt it would be a very profitable experience in todays world either.

Join the La Marzocco crew this Friday, from 8-9:30 AM for our first Frou Frou Friday. Come see how much fun coffee can be.

Third Wave Coffee

If you are reading this, then you, like me, may have faced a similar challenge to what I’m about to address. Maybe you’ve been asked to write for a publication, or maybe you are writing a business plan, and you are trying to describe this movement in coffee which we are a part of. We’re a movement involving single-estate coffees, a myriad of brew methods, and an emphasis on transparency and telling the story of where the coffee has come from.

To some, we call this Specialty Coffee. But this term really doesn’t do us justice. Specialty coffee is really a coffee that cups better than an 80 on the cupping table, assuming there are minimal defects to be found. Starbucks is specialty coffee.

The term that was coined awhile ago, is Third Wave Coffee. But many have become resistant to the label. For some, it reflects a movement in coffee where baristas believe they are kings. Espresso is never to go, sugar is evil, and we feel that Third Wave gives us the soapbox upon which we can stand to deliver our dogma to the masses. I’ll agree, these are all very negative connotations I have with the words¬† Third Wave.

However, to the public and thanks to folks like Liz Clayton and Oliver Strand, Third Wave is probably the most publicly recognized label for the kind of coffee I am talking about. With this in mind, I propose that we, as a movement, need to embrace the term Third Wave.

It’s important to recognize what Third Wave coffee is. The Wiki link is a good place to start, but even more so, it’s important to recognize how young this thing is. If you consider how we define the first and second waves, then you can understand that Third Wave is maybe just beginning to take it’s first baby steps as a child. As such, I look at the early days of Third Wave and espresso snobbery as being a young, ignorant mindset… One we are growing out of.

I would even go to the point of saying that no truly Third Wave coffee bar existed until Intelligentsia Venice opened in 2009. Bear with me… But until that store, we all built bars with comfortable elements meant to mimic the atmospheres found inside a Starbucks or Peet’s location (which are both 2nd wave retail brands). The experience offered at Venice was the first to test the boundaries of customers, breaking the mold as much as possible. Another fine example of Third Wave retail would be the Square Mile experiment with Penny University. Though, this may not have been the most profitable business operation, it again broke the mold of most coffee service experiences.

I recently had a conversation with the manager of an espresso machine repair company. The conversation drifted to the idea of how valuable Third Wave coffee was in a world where coffee retail is still dominated by the Starbucks, Peets, and Caribou’s of the world. I explained that as I see it, Third Wave coffee is the other big name in that pool.

You see, none of the Third Wave companies on their own are going to cut into a larger corporations market share. However, I do believe that as Third Wave coffee grows, and more Third Wave companies exist, the movement of better coffee is slowly going to cut further and further into the market share of these larger corporate coffee companies. I see Third Wave as almost a brand opportunity, a network. 

It happens all the time where your customers come in and tell you they are going to Miami for spring break. Before they even finish their sentence, you’re blurting out, “You gotta go to Panther Coffee!” Sure, your customers might get lazy and hit a Starbucks a couple of times on their trip, but I bet if their accustomed to drinking your stuff, they’ll probably venture out of their way at least once for a cup of the good stuff. Next thing you know, they’re telling their friends (Who don’t drink Third Wave coffee) about this awesome spot they have to stop by in Miami. And it grows from there…

So, all in all, what I am saying is, Third Wave is not some badge of shame. It’s an opportunity. Sure, we can let it be defined as ego’s screaming from behind a grinder. Or, we can look at it as a chance to push the boundaries of coffee. To be creative, and to grow… But to grow together. To acknowledge that this thing is still young, and definitely has some growing up to do. But, if we own the term, we can shape how it is defined.

Pressure & Flow Pt. 1

I’ve just returned from an unforgettable past 5 days. We (Scott, Whitney, Megan, Mike Lanz, and myself) have officially completed the first half of our Pressure & Flow tour, including dates in Los Angeles and San Francisco.

These trips involve a ton of work, little sleep, and definitely take a toll on the body. However, the people we encounter and interact with along the way really make for a special experience.

Los Angeles was fantastic because I got to introduce Megan and Whitney to all that is delicious about G&B Coffee. It’s also fun to show NW folks how different espresso is in Los Angeles. Extractions are larger, coffee is aged further, and all in all, the espresso reflects more of how the coffee cups (and if you attended one of the tour dates, you know this is a thing for us).

Another highlight was the after-party in Los Angeles. Attendance wasn’t necessarily high, but small company present made for some interesting and enjoyable conversation.

Leaving Los Angeles is never easy for me… But being in a cramped box truck didn’t make it an easier. Scott and I hit the road and spent last Thursday driving to Santa Cruz. Traffic wasn’t too heavy, and the sun was shining, so we made the best of the situation.

In Santa Cruz, I was blown away by the Verve roasting facility and the newer Pacific Ave. store. Having enjoyed so much coffee in the original store and roastery, it’s really impressive to see how this company has ‘grown up.’ Though things have grown, the coffee is better, and the people remain as genuine and sincere as ever. In fact, you have to begin to wonder what exactly is going on. I’m yet to see another company whose baristas just seem so happy. Then again, that’s sort of Santa Cruz. It’s like it’s own little world where life just slows down, and that was exactly the feeling that Scott and I needed at that point.

While in Santa Cruz, Scott and I had the pleasure of joining Pacific Espresso’s Tim O’Connor and his wife, Paula, for a delightful Valentine’s Day dinner. Also joining us was Pacific’s Hylan Joseph and his wife. Before leaving Santa Cruz the following day, we stopped by Pacific so that Scott could show me what a “perfect parts department” looks like.

San Francisco was a blast. I forget how many wonderful coffee people live there. Throughout the day, we saw so many different friends and made some new ones. The best aspect was how many of the attendees had never pulled espresso before. We’ve been fortunate to have a number of folks who do not work in coffee come out to see the things we’ve been learning.

Our venue, the Guerrero Gallery, was perfect. The walls were lined with bright and colorful art, which formed the perfect background to our machines. There was delicious food in every direction from where we were. The icing on the cake was just how close we were to Heath Ceramics. Blue Bottle has a coffee bar inside this space, and they were incredibly gracious to host an after-party for us there.

I’ve never been a huge bay area advocate… But this trip changed that. This is partially due to the people… Everyone was warm, friendly, and excited to see us. But the kicker for me was the food. Everything I ate in San Francisco was delicious. Already I am planning a way to get back and to experience so much of what I missed, due to time constraints.

Again, this trip was really unique due to the wonderful people we encountered. I owe Devin Pedde and Ben Kaminsky drinks the next time I see them… They were both willing to show up long before the attendees did to help me dial in 16 grinds for 4 different coffees. We also are indebted to the different individuals who helped us unload, build, tear down, repack, and repeat all the gear that we are touring with.

Pressure & Flow’s next stop is New York, and we’re excited to fine-tune the program. We’ve got some great ideas to make this next leg even more epic. To be clear, we do have a system setup on Evenbrite.com. However, if the event is listed as sold-out, that does not mean you can’t come. It simply means you won’t get a t-shirt, or might be limited in schwag. However, we want to share this information and experience with the world, so please come and see us when we are in New York and Chicago.

Before we get to New York, I have the privilege of making coffee at the TED conference in Long Beach. We’ve got a ton of gear heading down this week, and it’s been impressive to see our bench testers, inventory manager, and warehouse manager working super hard to make this happen. Basically, they are making this happen.

Judging

For the first 5 years of my career, I competed in barista competitions. In fact, my competition experience adds up to 22 rounds, 7 judges each, giving me 154 individual score sheets that were filled out by some highly caffeinated human being. I can only imagine how much actual time that equates to when you consider judges calibrations, travel time, etc.

Last weekend, at the Big Central Regional, I began to see what judging a competition really is like. Frankly, I feel like there’s never been a better time to sit at a competitors table.

First off, the rules are more black and white than they’ve ever really been in the past. There’s less room for opinion, and I feel like this makes it easier for both competitors and their judges. As the crew of Head Judges continually repeated, “As a judge you are simply there to record what happens on the stage.”

The process is truly enjoyable as well. In fact, I came away from the weekend feeling like I met more people judging than I ever did as a competitor. Some of this is just me… As a competitor I was head-down, doing what I needed to to prepare to compete. As a judge, however, there’s much more of a social experience. You work in groups, and work to sync your sensory skills. It naturally connects you to new people.

The level of competition has truly never been higher. The “blind” first time competitor is really a thing of the past. There’s enough internet video and connection between baristas, that when someone takes the stage for the first time, they are much more aware of the circumstances than the competitors of the past. I was seriously impressed by the calm, professional demeanor of so many first-time competitors.

All in all, I’m really honored to have been able to be a small part of an excellent competition event. The NWRBC is next weekend, and I’m also looking forward to that as we continue on the road to the USBC. To any past competitors, I urge you to consider judging as well. It’s an incredibly rewarding experience. When I left Kansas City, I left with a somewhat warm, fuzzy feeling- Reminiscent of how I felt coming away from my first competitions, excited, and hungry for more.

I’m A Numbers Guy.

It’s no longer much of a debate, and by writing this, I feel behind the times. As I’ve been toying at La Marzocco, I’m finally getting first-hand experience with a refractometer. Yes, this is far over-due.

What I’m finding so far is fascinating. Brewing has almost become more of a game… Catch the extraction percentage! Yesterday, I brewed 4 V60’s, each with similar pouring technique, but changing other variables, all simply trying to keep from under extracting the coffee. In the end, I landed on a cup that was quite delicious.

That’s just it. Using the refractometer helped me to achieve some of the better tasting coffee I have made in awhile. The numbers guided me to a place of deliciousness that my own palate might not have been able to achieve on it’s own. Without a more scientific guide, I’d otherwise be stuck in my own world of slightly under extracted flavors.

I’ll be honest, I’m off bar. I mean, you can find me on bar a couple days a week, maybe… But for the most part, I make coffee in a lab. That said, I know what good coffee can taste like. But just because a cup I brew isn’t perfect, doesn’t mean I’m tossing it and starting over. If it’s acceptable, I’ll generally drink the stuff and continue typing emails. However, with the refractometer, I’m already less forgiving.

I’m also surrounded by many types of coffee. Origins, roaster, blends, single origins. We’re lucky enough to have tons of coffee from many places at La Marzocco. Comparing the variables from one cup to the next, the consistencies are often minimal. Measuring extraction percentage has helped to taste coffees for their true potential.

Anyway, I know there are some out there that when it comes to the refractometer, they wanna say “Blah, blah, blah… but how does it taste?” Well, dude… it tastes good. In fact, with using numbers to guide me, I make better brewed coffee. From there, if it’s not tasting awesome, I feel like I can at least know it’s not my fault.