First, a small introduction. This is a new column space on CoffeeGeek, the goal of which is to bring you the latest, most topical events in the world of coffee and espresso, especially where things like culinary, quality, and cultural aspects are involved. Opinionated commentary will be kept at bay (but will creep in, as usual).
My hope is that, in this column, you'll discover some new and cool things about coffee, be it in your own neighbourhood, online, or half a planet away. When coffee related events crop up, I'll try to include some discussion about them. When new and exciting coffees make it to my cupping spoon, they'll be talked about. When new and different products arrive that can't be reviewed, I'll try to make mention here. If a cultural event involving or revolving around coffee takes place, here's the spot to find out about it. And when really standout examples of "coffee as a culinary thing" happen, I'll do my best to let you know.
So with that introduction out of the way, let's get into this groove.
Tale of two extremes in Vancouver this week, and a barista competition to boot.
In what was one of the more busy, coffee-event-filled weeks in Vancouver in recent months, the week of August 13th to 19th saw a new Western Regional Barista champ crowned (one not from Vancouver!), the opening party of Vancouver's newest quality driven café - in quite literally the poorest postal code in the country - and the introduction of $15, 240 ml (8 oz) cups of coffee and $135 per lb bags of coffee - some of the most expensive coffee in the world.
Western Regional Barista Championship
First up was the third annual Western Regional Barista Championship, held at Heritage Hall in Vancouver on Wednesday, August 15. It was a popular event, with twelve competitors (compared to SEVEN in last year's national championship). The competitors were:
Ken Gordon - Habit Coffee & Culture (Vancouver Island) Zachary Simon - Habit Coffee & Culture (Vancouver Island) Stefan Morales - Soma (Vancouver) Donald Wilson - Soma (Vancouver) Layla Osburg - Blenz (Vancouver) Ryan Crawford - Blenz (Vancouver) Brette Richard - 2% Jazz (Vancouver Island) Tiffany Malley - 2% Jazz (Vancouver Island) Logan Gray - Discovery Coffee (Vancouver Island) Paul Reimer - Discovery Coffee (Vancouver Island) Cady Pei - Wicked Café (Vancouver Island) Derek Lucas - Buon Amici's Coffee (Vancouver Island)
Notice any prominent coffeehouses missing? For me, not seeing the cafés we boast about most - Artigiano, Elysian, Prado, Bump and Grind, Continental, JJ Bean, Re-Entry, and others - is a letdown, I have to admit. Artigiano and 49th have decided to wait and enter the National competition; as far as I know, none of the others will be entering the nationals. I can't hide my disappointment over this. Each of these shops have stellar baristas and excellent coffee; for them not to appear in competition speaks volumes about several things that, perhaps, I'll pick up in the Rant and Rave (soon to be rechristened State of Coffee) down the road.
A few of these cafés / businesses did help out at the competition - Alistair Durie of Elysian Room was a judge, Macchiato Matt from Elysian manned the Clover station at the event, and the wickedly funny and cool Jones brothers co-emcee'd the competition. Barrett (ex of 49th Parallel and Artigiano) and Colter (Artigiano) did a fantastic job. I'm really serious here - they were so good and so "on", I think they'd be brilliant doing some of the emceeing at the World Barista Championship. They were extremely respectful of the competitors, very knowledgeable about the process, but had fun pokes at the judges during introduction and handled a lot of sideline colour commentary, off the cuff kind of stuff, in between competitors.
The competition was tight in staging and execution - 12 competitors, one set of judges, spittoon cups required. All the baristas who competed represented well, and it was so good to see so many new faces compete. I have to give a special shoutout to Cady Pei for representing Wicked Café in their first competition entry, and to Layla Osburg and Ryan Crawford for representing a fairly sizable BC chain for the first time. (No word on whether there was another huge cash prize up for grabs via Blenz and their entered Baristas, though I wouldn't be surprised if there were.) It was also good to see Soma Café step up - there's a recent push there to amp up their coffee presentation, and entering these competitions is part of the process.
In the end, the top six was a mild surprise, but a very pleasing one. Derek Lukas of Buon Amici Cafe in Victoria took first place with a very polished and well presented performance, Logan Gray from Discovery Coffee, also in Victoria, took a close (1 point behind) second place. Cady Pei, an absolutely fantastic barista in Vancouver, (formerly of Artigiano, currently with Wicked) took fourth, and I gotta tell you, she's definitely one of my fave baristas in town to get a shot from. I hope she goes on to the National competition in Toronto this fall to try again.
Barrett, mugging Hard to tell here, but Barrett was full on in Frank Sinatra mode during this pic.
Dosing the grind Cady Pei doses her grind as tech judge Les Kwon watches
Viva Barista! Nic Fortin, currently of somewhere in Alberta foothills, but soon to be in Quebec City doing good coffee, was very helpful at the competition.
Cady Starts Cady Pei, getting ready to start her competition round for Wicked Cafe.
Face of Concentration Cady had nerves early on, but settled in soon enough.
Cady's Tamper Cady's tamper, custom ordered by her trainer. Way cool, all glass, but she suffered on technicals because of it's inconsistencies. I'd sure like one though.
Derek Lucas Derek Lucas, the eventual Canadian Western Regional Champ, sets up his serving at the judges' table while Barrett and Colter look on.
Derek Derek's cafe is in Victoria, called Buon Amici. Here he's setting up his sig drink as the judges take notes.
Cappuccino round? I'm going to guess Derek was setting up for his capps here. He was a great barista this day, and deserved the win.
This event isn't just a barista competition. It's two days, featuring workshops, discussions, and exposition about coffee. I know it can be bigger than it is; that it is not is no fault of the local organiser, Les Kwon, who worked his butt off. In fact, a big part of the fault probably lies with me and with some of the local shops that could have done a better job promoting this event. A few local cafés did do a great job putting up posters in their shops, handing out postbills, informing their people, but some of the shops I listed above (and many more not listed) had nothing on this. No posters. No excitement building. No buzz.
Jones' Bros. Dangerous men of coffee. :) Barrett's the evening manager at a top eatery in town (Metro - guaranteed good coffee); Colter's one of the best baristas on the planet.
Competition Machines The two group Aurellia machines in semi auto format. I really like the action on those two way progressive steam levers.
Competitor setup Matched cups? Hell no. And you know what? As a judge, I wouldn't knock a single point for that. Adds "texture" to the setting. Add the well worn tamper, and you know you're in good hands.
But I think the worst failure is me. I realised after the event that, in trying to support interest and education and fun in coffee amongst consumers, I need to follow the "charity starts at home" kind of thing a bit more (well, this isn't a charity, but you know what I mean). I should have done more to promote this, to talk the event up on the podcast, have this column ready to go months ago so I could feature it, etc. I should have volunteered my efforts a bit more. Perhaps gotten back into doing a seminar or educational session. (I don't like doing these, but I used to do them because they fit the mission I set for myself, re CoffeeGeek.) I should have organised, on my own, but with Les' blessing, a full blown consumer education program, and used my resources and connections to make it happen. The space would work well for it. The involvement could have been so much better. The place was nicely packed for the barista competition itself, but it was again a bit more of the "preaching to the crowd" thing, with supporters, friends, coworkers, other industry types in attendance, and only a few consumers coming in, many of whom didn't know what the heck was going on.
I'm often critical of the SCAA, USBC, WBC, yada yada about preaching to the choir, not reaching out to the public, not making these things more public. But as I sit here typing this, I realised that maybe I dropped the ball a bit locally.
I had a chance to get involved, not in the competition itself (I'm retired, and no matter what Barrett Jones wants (LOL!), I'm not coming out of retirement when it comes to competitions), but in the events and space around the competition. I could have used my own local contacts to get more vendors to the show - consumer vendors. I could have talked to my local media contacts, and gotten them to the event. I could have gotten the word out on the floo network... er, CoffeeGeek website about "you know what - are you a consumer? Live within 50 kms of downtown Vancouver? This is a must-see event." I could have pulled several file folders out of my coffee-stuff file cabinet that have training and hands on seminars I've already done in the past, updated them, and done half day, quarter day, full day consumer hands on training. I could have gone in to cafés saying, "this is it folks - this is the 'it' coffee event of the summer. You have to be part of it."
And I didn't do any of it. But maybe next year. Would you drive out of your way to go to a very consumer and professional oriented (in a harmonious sort of way) two day event during a nice Vancouver summer week? Would you want to get hands on with machines like an Elektra Micro Casa a Leva, Olympia Cremina, La Marzocco GS/3, Rancilio Silvia, Nuova Simonelli Oscar, Krups XP4050 (and make the coffee coming from it sing), and a whole whack of consumer and professional grinders? Would you like to learn the absolute basics of making a good cup of coffee in the home for a $100 total investment? (tip: 95% of the cost is in the grinder).
I'm betting a lot would. And then tie them into the barista competition? Have the consumers stay around, and watch some of the region's best (or at the very least, most enthusiastic) baristas work their art?
I'm betting yes.
Coffee replacing the heroin needles
Something special happened in the city of Vancouver on Tuesday, August 14. And where it happened made it even more special, because it happened in what is possibly the worst corner, of the worst street, of the worst postal code in the entire country of Canada.
When I heard about this location, I was determined to go, because my good friend and serious coffee guru (I mean that in about fifteen different ways) Jon Lewis was coming up to attend. Problem was, I wouldn't bring my car down there. I had Beata drive me down and drop me off. If you know me, you know that's pretty harsh - normally, I'm not afraid of going anywhere, and rarely get concerned about things like my car being broken into.
The neighbourhood isn't very dangerous for the average Canadian - not many places in Canada are - but it is an area that has more soft and medium crime (drugs, theft, robbery, beatings, prostitution, etc) than anywhere else in this country. Leave a bike chained to a post and 15 minutes later, it just may be stripped to the frame. Stand outside having a smoke or some fresh air, and you'll be offered everything from hits of heroin to stolen bags of Starbucks coffee (seriously, this happened that night!). Stand outside for more than 30 minutes, and you'll witness things like drug shakedowns, drunken fights, cops questioning almost everyone at some point, and a lot of misery. Peter Le Grand, the new owner of Radio Station Cafe, even talked about how part of his open routine is sweeping the street and alley of drug needles.
But inside this café, something special is happening. Part social experiment. Part anthropology study. Part striving to provide a safe third place. Part bringing quality... nay, culinary coffee to the lowest on the social pole. And part love: love of community, love of quality coffee, love of helping out. The goal, quite plainly, is to do something that certain cafés have done all over the world for centuries - transform neighbourhoods, one person at a time. The goal is to provide something different. The goal is not to gentrify a neighbourhood (and if you knew the Main and Hastings area, there's nothing that will truly gentrify it), but instead, peacify it. The goal is to bring and deliver respect to those who have so little respect from most average citizens. To show people there's something calm and relaxing in a stressful, miserable area. To bring culinary coffee to people who otherwise would never get a chance to try something culinary.
It may sound a bit overdramatic, but the evening was a bit magic and special for me. The moment I walked in, I saw so many familiar faces and so many new ones. I saw Jon and walked over briskly to embrace him and welcome him back to his second home (and one of his own "third places"). I saw Kendra, Jon's partner, and their child, and embraced again. Then I turned and saw a face I didn't expect to see - Billy Wilson, making the unannounced and very welcome drive up from Portland to attend this event (and also to be part of the Western Canadian Regional Championships, and to do some rock climbing in BC).
Then, as I turned around to take in the atmosphere, I saw a spartan space with a renovated and reclaimed La Marzocco Linea, simple fridge, quality grinder, great coffee, a few tables, and lots of glass, and a lot of hope and joy. I made a private wish that Peter's social experiment works for him and really does work to transform this neighbourhood just a bit, a customer at a time.
Jon Lewis Jon, talking up the culture and community surrounding coffee.
Aaron De Lazzer Aaron from Ethical again talking about some great things in coffee.
Paul Reimer Paul, from Discovery coffee, working the machine and talking coffee.
Shot pull Some of the test shots pulled in the espresso throw down competition.
Peter La Grand Peter, of Radio Station Cafe, pulling some pretty wicked shots.
Billy tastes Billy was all fun and smiles this night, save for judging, which he took quite seriously.
Greg from Ethical Greg, who is now with Ethical, is one of Vancouver's top baristas.
Chris Morgan Chris, from JJ, just a kid to my eyes, and one helluva stellar barista.
There were more real things going on as well. Much discussion and bon vivant in the atmosphere. There were hardcore and serious baristas, many of them not entered into the Western Regional competition the following day; instead, they were here at this event to share and discover great coffee and some really great people involved in coffee.
An espresso-shot-pulling throwdown was the highlight of the night, with baristas deciding via a cupping which of four coffees they would use to pull shots. A $2 ante bought them in to the battle, and they could go with as many or as few rounds as they wanted. Three minutes, three shot pulls, decide which you like best, and hand over to the informal judges for each round. As Jon Lewis explained to me:
"We felt it was important to have at least one judge who was familiar with the coffee in each round, so I judged Bumper Crop along with Billy, then Greg from Ethical Bean along with another fellow judged the E-Bean round and finally Paul from Discovery coffee with the help of another judge took care of that round. In the final round, it was up to you and (David) from JJ Bean, when the final three had their shot pulls."
The winners of the first three rounds, Jon Lewis of Bumper Crop down Oregon way, and Shawn Barber and Chris Morgan, both young-gun, hot-as-heck baristas from JJ Bean, stepped up for a winner-take-all pull off at the end of the night, working the Espresso JJ Blend. All three presented wickedly sensational shots. But one, the fellow who really embodies espresso as art and culture, as something organic beyond the bean being "organic", the guy everyone knows and loves in this business, did something really special with his shot pulls. He made magic happen in the cup.
Jon Lewis, Master Barista in so many senses of the word, was the King of East Side Vancouver Espresso that night. A special night indeed, and I have a bit of YouTube goodness for you to experience some of it. (The music in this video is by Peter La Grand, of Radio Station Cafe.)
But I can get Timmy Ho's for $1.17!
That was the final image on CBC's national news when they ran a story on the other major coffee event I experienced this week. And the event was so much more than that. The event was Caffe Artigiano's rollout of the real deal Esmeralda Especiale, Best of Panama coffee. No "Esmeralda Especiale", or "Esmeralda Second Lot", or 'Esmeralda, the best coffee in Panama".
(Seriously, there need to be some naming re-conventions south of the border when it comes to all this second lot Esmeralda that Price Peterson is selling to some quality roasters. Even I got confused, getting some coffee that I thought was the auction lot coffee, when in fact it wasn't. As a side mini-rant, how about some sort of agreement for 2008 and beyond to call only the auction-winning coffee "Esmeralda Especiale", and call any other second lot stuff something else, like Esmeralda Aseado or something? Anyway, rant mode over. I completely digress.)
I was very honoured and delighted that I was asked to attend an invite-only event on Wednesday, August 15, to the Hastings Artigiano location (on a much better part of Hastings compared to the previous story) to sample, share, and discuss this exceptional and even controversial coffee. In attendance were some of Vancouver and Canada's most seasoned culinary press, along with a few from the US, and this night, the discussion did steer toward coffee as a culinary item. Sure, some talk passed around about the whopping price, but by and large, that discussion was left for the more mainstream press who saw the price as the story, instead of coffee as the story.
In fact, for the previous two days, the Canadian press was filled with articles about Artigiano's $15 cup of Esmeralda Especiale. Coverage ranged the gamut from the CBC, which did great interviews with Vince Piccolo and the Artigiano staff and then went downhill by doing a price comparison with the likes of Starbucks and Tim Horton's, to the Globe and Mail, which again captured a few quality driven soundbites, but then quoted a customer suffering some ignorance about it all, saying "$15 a cup? I can get a lip gloss for that!" I have to say I was pretty saddened by it all.
Back when the Panama auction was live, I said as much on another web forum:
"Whenever coffees go for this much, I have many worries... (most stripped from this quote). Another big worry is how the press is going to perceive this. Facing facts, whenever a Kopi Luwak story hits the press, it's all about price, and maybe about a sole importer claiming it's 'the best ever'. What happens when this coffee, which would retail at around $200 or more per pound, and sell for $15, $20 a cup if brewed in store, is covered by the press? It'll be a circus, I'm betting. It'll be all about the price. It won't be about the farmer (and besides, price isn't a poster child for the poor farmer), it will barely cover the uniqueness on a quality level this coffee potentially has to offer, and it won't be about pushing coffee as a culinary thing (to clarify, my comments are addressed at the hypothetical reporters covering this, not the vendors selling the coffee).
"I'm really worried that, when this makes the mainstream press, it's going to be about snobbery, about ludicrous pricing (as perceived by the public and journalists), and other than perhaps establishing a shop or two as the "it place" to get that ultra premium cuppa, it won't do much to sway the general public to the idea that coffee is culinary."
Enough of that. I have my worries, but that's the end of them in this article. Now for the good stuff. Have a look at some photos first. NB - all these photos were taken by Barrett Jones, as I was too busy "jonesing" myself on the Esmeralda to snap pics. Huge thanks to Barrett.
Lindsay leads cupping Lindsay from 49th Parallel leads the cupping with some selected press members. Note the wine glasses for aroma sampling.
Detailed Notes Every Artigiano serving this coffee will have detailed notes that stress the culinary aspects of this coffee. Again, not wine glass. Willie Mounzer, new owner of Artigiano, in the background.
Press does well I was very impressed with how the press took in all the culinary aspects of enjoying coffee, including some great cupping work skills.
Master Barista There's maybe five or ten "master baristas" in my book in active duty right now - Vince Piccolo is definitely one of them. He's pouring me a cup.
Slurp Tasting my first example of Mike Piccolo's roast of the Esmeralda Especiale.
Willie, Lindsay, Vince I was so happy for them this day... it's awesome when you have a group of people (the press) you talk to who "get it", and this is what Vince, Linsday and Willy were probably feeling during this picture.
I've been truly blessed to have been able to try the Esmeralda Especiale for three years now, from close to ten different roasters, including my own roastings of samples prior to the auctions. It really is an exceptional coffee, and this year could very well be the best it's ever been. In fact, to really enjoy this coffee, you have to approach it not as coffee first, but as something culinary and exploratory first and foremost. Once you get that hurdle, a whole new world opens up.
Most of my tasting notes are based on Mike Piccolo's roasting presentation of this coffee, and the half pound bag they gave me at the invite only event. (Mike is the head roaster for 49th Parallel Roasters, the exclusive roaster for Caffe Artigiano.) I have had this roast from a few other buyers, as well as some green (and a lot of the "second lot" Esmeralda this year).
I have to say, I think Mike nailed this roast, because it has just a near perfect dancing acidity (I normally don't like much acidity in my coffee), that starts out with an almost grape / blue fruit / flower taste, surprises with a middle tone of tangerines that changes into mandarin as the drink cools, and a finish that came very close to reminding me of this super-delicate Hawaiian macadamia honey that I buy regularly at a local foodie shop - a very subtle, creamy honey. (I assume the bees get the flowers on the macadamia trees.)
Did Artigiano succeed in making people think coffee is indeed a culinary, seasonal, inspirational and most important of all, different item each time you try a different single origin or blend? I think they managed a fair amount of converts, and especially amongst some of the more educated palates and writers who were in attendance at the Wednesday invite-only event. In the next few weeks, I expect to see more researched and detailed articles about this coffee, and I sincerely hope some of these reporters get it.
What should they get? Well, I have no illusions that price is the door crasher, but once that door is down, and you're on the inside, you should get that there's not just the Esmeralda Especiale out there. You get that this coffee may be the top in price, but certainly not the only thing "culinary" or exclusive about quality coffee. If you take the time to rummage around - sometimes at Artigiano, sometimes at 49th, sometimes at one of dozens of other quality driven roasters (and I mean that in the real sense of the word - not "quality" as a marketing term) you'll find these surprising, impressive, and singular coffees all over. There's the Biloya Estate that brings hints of honeydew melon in the finish. There's the Panama Bambito that, when in a skilled roaster's hands, delivers this sublime citrus blossom sense with a lot of middle tone evident sweetness. There's the India Elkhill Estate Peaberry, which was probably my biggest "surprise" coffee of the year so far, with a kind of peppered caramel dance throughout the cup. And there's the Kenya Karatini 2007 crop that just delivers a wallop of red and black currants throughout... just to name a few. The bonus? All of these coffees can be had for less than $30 a pound, and in some cases, much, much less.
My hope is that the more educated writers that attended the invite-only event will prove my predictions wrong, and that the story won't be so much about the sticker shock, but about opening a door to a wide range of quality, culinary coffees for the public to discover. Ones that won't break the bank either.
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.