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Back in the Groove, after SCAA Boston
Back in the Groove, after SCAA Boston
Posted May 8, 2003 9:00pm
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Whew!

Back in the Saddle again, as it were, in Vancouver after many days traveling (11, I think), and many days "recovering". Here's some things you won't read on that other site:

SCAA RoundDown
Probably the most unpleasant experience I had the entire weekend was at a booth for a company selling some moka pots with a piston design in them.

I identified myself as "Press", passed over the business card, then asked for information about what they were selling. I got the worst "used car salesman" pitch of the entire show - the dude trashed proper espresso ("brewing at 9BAR bruises and damages coffee, resulting in a bitter, evil drink"), trashed Illy research ("it's all paid fluff"), and was very disparaging towards Dr. Illy himself ("no one respects anything that guy says, it's all for marketing"). I was intrigued by his products before he opened his mouth, but not afterwards.

Okay, it was late in the show (in fact, they were packing up the booth), I had a short fuse from being over tired and over caffeinated, I didn't get much schwag on the trip this time, but can u believe it? I held my tongue, and I walked away. Well, I did say, before I leave, "hrmm, that marketing pitch is a bit strong, I'd work on it, especially the facts". This drew a sneer and a "who the F*** are you" look.

Other things of interest:

Jim from 1st Line was a surprise and a half and a hoot to boot. WE had dinner with him (Jeanette and I) the first night he was in town, and he was definitely not what I expected. Big, muscular, far too young looking for his 40-something years (heh heh), and a riot to have dinner with. He's always smiling and laughing and ribbing. Great guy. Even greater was the fact that he used some of his travel miles to pay for our (me and Jeanette, not Jim) hotel room for a whopping seven days. He did it as a thing you do for a friend, without strings attached, but I can't thank him enough, or mention it. I probably wouldn't have been able to do this trip if it wasn't for his generosity.

Click for larger image
Judging Coffee
Looking uber serious, there I am judging espresso (in the middle).

Being a judge in the US Barista Competition was both an extreme honour, and something very challenging. I really appreciate the trust and confidence Sherri and Danni Johns had in me to be a judge. I hope I didn't let them down. I'm also going to work with John Saunders, who is a World Judge (and with Hines Public Market Coffee in Seattle) to improve my skills and get up to (hopefully) world standards. I'm a judge in the Canadian Barista Competition coming up in June this year, and I want to do the best, most balanced and informed job I can do at that event.

I said it was "challenging" because I was dealing with so many tastes and experiences, looking for so many things, it gave me a headache. I also kind of lost it when I downed one entire signature drink, called the "Red Eye" which was an espresso shot with cayenne pepper. You're supposed to be stone faced for these things, and I lost it at that point.

The eMember gathering was very cool. I got to "hang out" with Ken Davids for some time, and to have him chat with me and just the sense of it being a "normal thing" (ie, just hangin' out with Ken, talkin' coffee!) was something very cool indeed. I also got to meet many alties and eMembers, and was able to put many faces to names, which is always a great experience. Several standouts for me: Marshall Fuss, who is very engaging, funny and extremely smart; Fortune Elkins, who likes to tease and flirt and make me go all red-faced (grin); Barry Jarrett (yes, I've met him before) who to this day remains my sensei of sorts; Jim Schulman, who's been doing a FANTASTIC job helping out as a moderator over at CoffeeGeek forums, saving me many hours of potential work; and Scott Rothstein, who has been doing an equally FANTASTIC job toiling away on the Coffee FAQ revisions. I've left many names out, and I apologize - it is done due to my horrible memory, not because I want to leave anyone out.

One thing of note - Robert Nelson, the guy running the NCA (the lobby group for the Big Four - Nestle, Proctor and Gamble, Sara Lee, and Kraft - all bad guys in the world of specialty coffee) showed up at the eMember thing. I'll say one thing - it took guts, and I have a whole new level of respect for him (but not for the companies he represents). Marshall also had guts - I overheard him tell Nelson he may be considered the AntiChrist by people in alt.coffee. My jaw hit the floor :) I didn't hear Nelson's response.

On a completely different track: I love Jeanette and can't imagine being with anyone else, but man, if you're a true coffee geek, and single, this show will leave you salivating. I never saw so many beautiful, intelligent, and coffee-loving women at one time in my life. If I were single, I don't know if I could attend the show - it'd be too painful. The politically correct in me prevents me from saying anything more about this.

Jeanette also remarked on the high quotient of gorgeous men (mainly the Europeans, I should note) at the show. One stole her heart, I think, and I'm jealous. Luigi Lupi put his wile Italiano moves on her (which is actually no real move other than charm, wit, and sophistication, along with building her, and I quote "the best damned cappuccino I (she) ever had in my (her) life"). I have to watch out for that dude.

Non SCAA Stuff
I've realised, just today, that my cupping skills still suck. I've gotten better in my tasting skills (they are different), but cupping? It blows.

I just read Ken Davids' new article on his website, Roasting without Stores, and I really benefit from reading Ken's cupping notes. His palate is just so amazing. (I got to buy him a Johnnie Walker and soda, it was a thrill! :)). Whenever I read his stuff, or Tom Owen's cupping notes, I feel so inadequate. I think if I have a chance, I'm going to sit in on the cupping sessions at the Canadian Coffee and Tea Expo coming up this June. I hope my judging duties won't interfere.

I have been developing my tasting skills, and am happy with the progression. What's the difference? Well, cupping is very specific yet unique, and involves fresh roasted coffee, lots of rituals, and specific brewing methods and practices, along with a detailed form to fill out.

Tasting - that's tasting as in espresso tasting. I've gotten pretty good at evaluating espresso, and because there isn't one "set" way to do it, I've developed my own way that I think works pretty good. Basically, I brew seven drinks from each "blend" I'm evaluating:

2 double ristretti, brewed using two packs of 17 grams of coffee (32g total), extra finely ground, resulting in a total of 1 to 1.25oz of brewed espresso. (I make two of these, requiring two portafilter fills)

1 double ristretto, brewed using 17g of coffee, same as above, but with one heaping demitasse of sugar (I always use the same spoon).

2 normal espresso, brewed using 17 grams of coffee, finely ground, resulting in 2 1.5oz shots (3oz total) in two cups.

2 normal, traditional cappuccino, using 1.5oz espresso (a normal double is pulled, giving me two shots), 1.5 oz steamed milk to 155F, and 1.5oz froth, which is spooned (not poured) into the cup.

I drink the ristretto very specifically - first I stir and watch and smell the crema, then I do a wide mouth slurp (with air intake), coat the tongue, swallow to get the full effect. I usually take two sips per cup, drinking about half the ristretto. All the while, I'm gulping lots of air to wash over my mouth and tongue and throat. Once I'm done drinking, I almost hyperventilate to get lots of air flow over my tongue and mouth inside to get the full sensations from the espresso. I finish with a gargle and spit of sparkling water. I've been told this is probably bad due to the salt content, but it works for me.

I drink all the sugared ristretto, to evaluate the start and finish of the shot. I do four slurps, each the same volume.

I drink one of the 2 normal espresso I pull, same way as I drink the ristretto.

I drink one of the two cappuccinos, but first I evaluate and stir the froth to see how the crema interacts with it. The froth must be world barista standard - super dense, little or no visible bubbles, and the spoon test must be passed - scoop up a demitasse of froth, hold sideways - if it falls immediately, too thin; if it doesn't fall, too thick. If it drops and drips after 2, 3 seconds (up to maybe 6), it's fine.

Once I evaluate and smell the mixture, I drink three full sips, evaluating the coffee cutting through the milk.

All while I'm doing this, I'm writing furious notes that more often than not get lots of drips all over them. I write down instant sensations, lingering tastes, high and low notes, then I look for specific ranges of flavours - acidic? Grassy? Chocolate? Burnt? Sweet? Etc etc.

Evaluating espresso this way gives the complete picture. I've found that some espresso is terrible straight, but the most amazing thing when served with milk. I've found espresso that is the opposite of that. And I've found some espresso that more suited for sugar than without.

I think it's a good package to give a full evaluation to espresso. Maybe one day, I'll write a book… :)

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