It's been a while since the last Coffee at the Moment article, and that doesn't mean the coffee world stood still - if anything, it's been going at hyperspace the last little while. So many happenings, both good and bad, but since the more controversial stuff is saved for the State of Coffee column, I'll focus on some very cool things that have happened in the last six months.
Interview with a CoffeeGeek
Probably one of the coolest things for me in the last little while was finding out that the lead singer (well, former lead singer) of one of my favourite bands is in fact a CoffeeGeek, and a regular visitor to this website. I'm talking about Steven Page, former lead singer of the Bare Naked Ladies and now pursuing a solo career. I had a chance recently to chat with Page about his passion for great coffee and espresso.
CG: Would you classify yourself as a true CoffeeGeek?
StevenPage: I don't think I'm knowledgeable enough to truly be a CoffeeGeek. I'd say I'm more like a "fan", although I do get pretty obsessive about the perfect shot sometimes.
CG: What setup do you have at home for making coffee/espresso?
CG: You're in good company on the Chemex, it happens to be one of the favourite brewing methods for some serious coffee people, including Jim Hoffmann, the 2007 World Barista Champion, just to drop a name. When you work with the Chemex, are you using the Compak grinder?
StevenPage: For the Chemex or for the press, I use a Cuisinart burr grinder. It's a little uneven, but I'm pretty happy with the coffee I'm getting out of it. I should try the Compak with it, though - does it grind coarsely enough? I've so far only used it for espresso, and my grind adjustments are all relatively fine.
CG: The Compak should grind well enough, but the problem may be doing a big adjustment range - something to try though. More on the Chemex though, it has its own little rituals - especially the paper fold technique - and some believe the paper makes all the difference in the taste. What do you like best about the method of making coffee?
StevenPage: Well, I've read about the perceived differences between the bleached versus the unbleached filters, which I haven't yet compared. I've been using the unbleached and am really happy with the flavour. Although I've yet to do any serious cupping, I come from a wine-tasting background and really love the learning process involved in trying different regions, roasts and the blenders' art. Although intellectually I feel like I should object to the use of a filter, I love the clean taste of the Chemex coffee, and feel I can get a good honest picture of the coffee I'm drinking.
CG: Moving back to espresso, do you have your own ritual / technique you've worked on for espresso making?
StevenPage: Well, I'm lousy at latte art, or lart, as I call it. Usually it comes out looking like pornographic graffitti from a dressing room wall. My girlfriend's the one who likes the milky drinks. I aim to perfect it one day.
As far as espresso goes, it is truly - as they say - all about the grind, the tamping and the temperatures - I monitor the Vivaldi temperatures closely. When working on tamping, I've stood over a scale pressing 35 pounds for longer than I care to admit - then I press in the north, south, east, west fashion, and give a quick spin of the tamper.
If you were to walk into our kitchen, you'd often catch me hunched over, staring at the naked portafilter, checking out my tiger stripes with pride. Or dumping a cup and starting again.
CG: I don't know how you cannot call yourself a "geek" - that kind of attention to tamping and machine temperatures is rarely seen for mostpeople making espresso in the home! With your Vivaldi, it allows a lot of experimentation because of the temperature controls - is that part of the fun here, or can it be frustrating, dialing in a great shot?
StevenPage: It's absolutely the most fun part - I used to have a super-automatic machine, which will remain nameless, but realized that I craved the variables and control that the supers don't offer. Maybe one day I'll graduate to a manual machine!
CG: What do you do when you're on the road for a the quality fix?
StevenPage: Well, I do a lot of internet searching, and hope there's something decent that's accessible. But remember, everyone has different tastes. There are lots of places that have lousy coffee, but people just love them regardless - I'll leave these places nameless!
CG: Did you have your own coffee 'epiphany moment'? A time when you had a shot or a cup where you realised coffee was more than just a wake me up?
StevenPage: Most likely it was the first time I was in Italy, back in the mid-1990s, walking into a bar and ordering a coffee. Upon coming home, every espresso I ordered was compared to coffee in Italy. In the last couple of years, however, I've had the great opportunity to have fantastic coffee all over the world, particularly in Vancouver, Toronto, Los Angeles, and Portland, Oregon. Always on the lookout!
CG: Sticking with Toronto and Vancouver, can you mention your favourite cafes in these cities? And do you go for ambiance and the "vibe" of the cafe as much as the taste?
StevenPage: Well, in Toronto, there has been a real explosion of quality coffee joints in the last couple of years. My personal "local" is Mercury Espresso, which really does a great job. They take the coffee seriously, but it's relaxed and easy-going. I think some people get intimidated by the hipster vibe, but really, that's their own issues. The baristas are nice folks, and like any other type of bar, they happen to be more familiar with the regulars.
In Vancouver, last time I was there, I had a bunch of really good americanos, you know sometimes, I like to nurse a coffee... from JJ Bean, though I've had lots of other great coffees there over the years. I've also had some mind-blowing espressos at Intelligentsia in LA, though slightly less so for some reason at the Chicago location I visited once. Also can't forget Stumptown in Portland, Oregon.
Steven Page is on Twitter these days, if you want to give him a follow. We really appreciate him taking the time to chat about coffee. Here's a recent song Page showcased on YouTube, with his Vivaldi in the background.
Judging Sammy Piccolo
For the what is probably the tenth time in my life, I had the immense honour and pleasure of judging Sammy Piccolo... judging his skills and coffee output as a competition barista. I've judged him in Canadian regional championships and Canadian National championships, going back to 2003; this time around, I was able to judge Piccolo twice over two weeks in preparation for his fourth run at the World Barista Championships going down April 16-19, 2009, taking place in Atlanta, USA. Piccolo is now a four time Canadian champion, and one of the favourites going into this year's WBC.
Crowd for Samm's First Run
Piccolo Starting Up
Judges Watch Warmup
Judging Piccolo's Competition Run
Dosing and Tamping
Serving the Judges
Pouring at Table
Brewing for Signature Drink
Tasting the Drinks
It's interesting to see Piccolo's evolution as a professional barista over the years. Back in 2003, he won the competition in Canada by a half point, but went on to place second best in the World, finishing closely behind the 2004 WBC champion Tim Wendelboe. It showed right there and then that he was a massively skilled barista and had a deep ability to learn and improve.
In 2004, Piccolo won the Canadian National Championship again, quite handily, and went on to finish third in the 2005 WBC. And in 2005, Sammy once again won the Canadian championships handily, and went to Berne, Switzerland in 2006 where he again finished second, in a hotly contested competition that saw Klaus Thompsen crowned champion.
Piccolo took a few years of, call it retirement, and it had several effects. First, it showed baristas and espresso experts around the world that Canada wasn't a one man show (Canada's entrants into the WBC finished 7th in 2007, and 5th place in 2008). Second, it made Piccolo hungry for one more run, one more run to this time - perhaps - take top spot at the 2009 World Championships. But for Piccolo the WBC wasn't on the radar in 2008 - winning the Western Canadian Regional was. And he did. Then winning the Canadian National Championship was the only goal, and again he did, handily.
Only then did his focus shift to the 2009 World Championships, and as this year progressed, I saw two things in Piccolo that were a bit different than previous years. I saw a kinder, more mature guy who still wore his emotions on his sleeve, but those emotions were more evolved and tempered. And I saw a hunger. A desire. A calm fire that wanted, once and for all, to come out on top.
This progressed through the spring months. Piccolo is quite fortunate that he has one of the best roasters in North America, if not the world backing him up - 49th Parallel Coffee. He has access to a staggering array of coffees to choose from, and I know first hand the 49th Parallel team and Piccolo's own competition team from Caffe Artigiano went through the entire gamut to find something special and unique. Roasting times were tweaked. Blend ratios were entirely tested. Even the specific aging of the coffees, in specific bags were tested to find the absolute sweet spot for these coffees.
Talking to the Judges
Working his Signature Drink
I finally got a chance to taste those coffees the past two Mondays when Caffe Artigiano organized full blown, full audience competition practice runs for Piccolo to do. He had the services of three former and one current World Barista Championship certified judges. He had an amazing support team working every aspect of the 15 minute competition run. He had as much as 30 to 40 people sitting as an audience, watching the event and cheering him on. It was as close to competition as possible.
And Piccolo brought it.
As I said at the top, I've judged Piccolo over 10 times over the years - sometimes in practice, and sometimes in competition, and never have I seen him so polished yet relaxed and almost casual. Never have I seen him so confident yet humble. And never have I tasted drinks like the ones I've tasted these past two Mondays. Piccolo gave me true epiphany moments with his espresso both weeks. He also gave me true epiphany moments with his cappuccinos. So much so that for the first time judging Piccolo in almost seven years now, I gave him some sixes. I never score sixes. But his shots and capps deserved it.
I did my best to do what I do with Piccolo during these judging trials running up to national and world championships: be as critical as possible. But this time around, especially the second Monday, there was so little to find fault with. I had the immense pleasure of being served by one of the best baristas in the world.
Sammy and Andrea Piccolo
If he doesn't win, watch out!
Crowd for 2nd Run Through
Table Side Pouring
Judging Sheet - Lots of 6s
Sammy Piccolo competes on Thursday, April 16 at the World Barista Championships in Atlanta, USA. If he moves on to the finals, his second performance will be on Sunday, April 19. Sammy is the lead trainer and a full time Barista for Caffe Artigiano in Vancouver
Great Coffee Stuff
So many other awesome coffee things have happened in the past six months, and I do it no justice at all just by bullet pointing these things, but I did want to share regardless.
- I am really excited by the uber boiler project going on right now. - 2008 again was the "year of the Beloya" for me, so many amazing Ethiopian Yirgacheffe Beloya lots out there from a variety of roasters... truly a special coffee. Sad it's going bye bye in 2009, buy it and drink it now! - The press pot is coming back in a big way, and many forward thinking people in coffee are exploring new ways to use this brewing method. - The vacpot (siphon coffee maker) saw a massive resurgence in 2008 and early 2009. One of my favourite things - Billy Wilson's new cafe BARISTA in Portland has a siphon coffee station. - We've seen the introduction of the Vario grinder by Baratza and it's turning heads and impressing the cynics. I just love the fact that I finally have a sub $500 grinder I can wholeheartedly recommend to restaurants. - speaking of restaurants, 2008 saw some great improvements by restaurants, at least in the Vancouver area, for at the very least recognizing coffee is culinary. We still have a long way to go though. - 2008 saw a major renaissance time for coffee - so many amazing coffees coming to the fore, and I almost see a tipping point with foodies - they're finally recognizing regions, farm names even. We're truly in a golden age for coffee. - illy released what is possibly one of the most beautiful sets of espresso cups ever - and ones marking their 75th anniversary. Pic below doesn't do them justice; they are silver coated and reflect art on the saucers.
Coffee Tastings I've also been very privileged to have tasted and tried over 100 different single origins and blends in the past six months; my informal and formal cupping / espresso notes show 112 different coffees rated. I talk about them as they are tasted on my twitter feed (subscribe!) and always have the best intentions of writing them up monthly here, but it doesn't happen, so I wanted to just list a few standouts (there were many, but I'll list a few) and save the cupping reports for next article.
From PT's Coffee, The Beloyas, the Sidamo Special Prep, the Finca El Molino from El Salvador, and especially the surprising (for me) Sidamo Special Prep Espresso Roast single origin, the first single origin espresso I've scored 80 points in over a year. 80 = very good / excellent on my espresso scale.
We did a tasting with Counter Culture Coffee's offerings last fall and a real standout for me amongst truly great coffees was the Finca Mauritania Peaberry Microlot. Beautiful coffee. Another was the Aida Grand Reserve which, if still available is a must buy.
Intelligentsia Coffee Roasters continues to deliver the goods. I am blown away at their single origin offerings; have tasted them all repeatedly, and would recommend any of them. If I had to pick standouts, they would be the Agua Preta from Brazil, the Anjilanaka from Bolivia and the Kurimi Ethiopian Yirg. These are must try coffees. I also have very fond memories of their Christmas blend a few months back, the Celebration blend which unfortunately is no longer available.
A roaster in Toronto, RocketFuel didn't get my hopes up with their naming (I don't like coffee names that imply buzz, jolt, fuel, etc), but once I tried their XXX blend for espresso, I was quite surprised and impressed with it. I ended up scoring it 81 points (excellent), with a big bump upwards when milk was added.
Jim Hoffmann of SquareMile Roasters in London continues to impress with their less than a year old roastery - normally roasters need a lot more time to really gear up and start nailing roasts (49th sure did!) but Jim and Annete are hitting them out of the park. Just yesterday I tried their Spring Espresso blend and scored it 82/84 (excellent!), and even beter, their Colonia San Juan Estrellas from Boliva, and Kopabakagi Rusenyi, Karongi (I don't even know where that is) which would both score some of my highest cupping scores for March/April if I'd formally scored them.
From Coffea Roasterie I had a fantastic roast of Beloya Selection 9 (lot 9), once again showing that Beloya was my coffee of the year. I especially liked Coffea's roast of this bean - they brought out more chocolate and blueberries than other roasters' versions of the Beloyas offered.
My roaster of the year, 49th Parallel Coffee (if I were to do another 'best of the year awards) garners that opinion from me not because they had the best espresso I had in the past six months (they didn't); nor because they provided me with the most epiphany moment single origin (that came from Ecco Caffe). No, 49th Parallel is my choice for roaster of the year for two reasons. I did not have a single coffee from them (or blend) that I could rank less than 80 points on the espresso scale, and very few below 90 points on the cupping scale. And second, they were so consistently great the entire year, especially on their blends, that it kind of reset the standard for me on how a roaster should do. Throughout 2008 and now well into 2009, I've had Epic Espresso, their signature blend on a weekly basis, and saw the blend start out last year great, and only get better as time progressed. It never had a downtime. I can't say that for any other blend I've tried more than once or twice last year.
I also had some of the best single origin brewed coffee of my life last year thanks to their offerings. Standouts include the Beloyas (still available!) and the Aricha, both from Ethiopia, but also some great finds like the Costa Rica Herbazu Estate, the Kenya Rioki Estate, and the totally bargain priced Ethiopian Ademe Bedane (this drinks like a $40/lb coffee, for $16/12oz). I could go on, but if you haven't tried 49th Parallel yet, you're missing one of the best roasters in Canada and the US.
Intelligentsia Celebration Blend
Coffees of Counter Culture
Coffea Roasterie Beloya
Square Mile Spring Espresso
PT's Coffee Bella Vita Americano
Finca Mauritania Microlot and TinTin
There's so many other excellent coffees I've tried in the past six months. Never been disappointed with anything from Batdorf and Bronson, which offer some of the best value priced culinary coffees in the US. And so many more to mention, but I'll get to them next time, I promise.
Column Description Whether it's up to the minute, happening this day, this week, or in the recent past, this column's goal is to present coffee and attempts to make the experience truly culinary. You'll find short reviews about past events, interesting coffees coming on the market, new and different ways to enjoy espresso and other brewing methods, and give an insight into efforts around the globe to make coffee a truly culinary thing. Column written by Mark Prince.