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Coffee at the Moment by Mark Prince
From Alberta to Esmeralda
Posted: August 26, 2007
Article rating: 8.8
feedback: (21) comments | read | write

I'm finally getting a chance to write about my fun times, good times in Alberta a few weeks back, plus there's also some further thoughts about the (real) Esmeralda Especiale Auction Lots coffees, and more (gasp) discussion on the dreaded single origin shots.

Coffee near (and in) the Rockies

You know it the moment someone says "oh, you live in Vancouver? You're so lucky! All that good coffee!"

Coffee as a culinary thing either has a long, long way to go in other parts of Canada, or the perception people have of Vancouver's coffee scene is way out of whack. I think it's a combination of the two.

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James Ng
One of my favourite all time baristas and chefs, James Ng used to run a shop in Steveston, but now calls Calgary his home.

I recently got back from a six day tour of Calgary, Banff, Lake Louise, and Jasper, all in Alberta. In many cases, coffee is indeed a commodity in this part of the Canadian landscape, but that doesn't mean a few hardy stalwarts and forward thinkers aren't trying their best. I got an indication of this my first full day in Calgary... except it wasn't in Calgary where it happened. It was in Cochrane, Alberta, a town about 30kms west of Cow Town. And the place was Java Jamboree, a small and very tastefully decorated cafe next to a Safeway in a mini mall (address: 312 5th Ave W., Cochrane, AB). The owners Les and Ottilia were our hosts, and where I was expecting a gathering of maybe 10 or 12 serious coffee aficionados having dinner with Beata and I, there were maybe 30 or more people, all very serious about quality coffee in Alberta, including a good range of baristas from around the region. And one of my favourite (ex) Baristas, James Ng, who used to run a great shop in Steveston, BC, but now lives in Alberta, was there, taking part.

I got to meet some long time CoffeeGeek members for the first time, including several consumers and baristas (hi Jason - though technically, I met you last year lol), and was able to get into some really interesting discussions about coffee and espresso. Les and Ottilia serve up Josuma Coffee's Malabar Gold blend (Les, very much like Murky Coffee's Nick Cho, got his original inspiration about quality espresso from Espresso Vivace in Seattle, and for him, going the Dr. John / Malabar Gold route was a natural).

The highlight of the night was the "impromptu" Latte Art Throwdown. I say impromptu in brackets because, I'd fore-planned it with Les, but few there knew it was going to happen. Fifteen names were in the hat (I was the sixteenth, but as the judge, my entry was automatically invalid - but it didn't matter anyway - I completely blew my pour). $5 a head, but I kicked in a $20 and Les kicked in even more to make the pot $150 for the winner, take all. Because we had many amateurs and baristas who had never poured latte art, I created a second winning catagory - best first timer attempt, and it garnered... something. I can't remember the prize! I brought a lot of shwag with me to give away, and gave away something cool and zesty to the amateur winner).

The eventual winner was a local Calgarian Barista named Will Thorburn, eked out a close battle for top spot. Many top latte art pourers in the Calgary area did some great pours, and some, well not so great.... thanks in no small part to all the eyes, camera flashes and pure pressure, and possibly also because of the level of trash talkin' going about - mostly from me, the judge (everyone got a friendly dose! Sorry folks!).

Two notable pours: Phil (of Phil & Sebastian Coffee) did a nice pour that tied for second place with another combatant; however my buddy Peter (ex of Wicked, sometimes of Phil & Sebastian) who is an awesome latte art pourer... well this night just wasn't his night.

I got to meet many new people (to me at least) who were passionate about coffee. KeenBean (Jordan), a forum participant. The zany Jeanette, barista tour de force from Java Jamboree. I heard that Jeanette was one of those crazy-serious baristas, and I spoke with her a bit after the event about anything and everything coffee. I love those kind of convos. Another person I met was Elyse the photo snapper, who works at Bumpy's. And many more.

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Jason from Bumpy's
Jason, from Bumpy's, and a CG regular, is getting a major dose of trash talking from me and others right about now.
Dialing it in
The rule was, one shot, one steam, one pour - Jason's dosing it out now.
Pouring the art!
Pouring it out, it's looking good....
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Jason's pour
It was a really good latte art, but we said use whatever cup you want, but it's gotta be full, and this one wasn't!
A bunch of CG member / consumer enthusiasts were at the event, and gave their try. Here's Jordan, Keenbean on CG, having a go. He won the best "never poured a latte art before" side contest.
Jeanette from Java Jamboree
Jeanette wanted calm and normal barista conditions, so she pretended to answer a call while pouring. It didn't work out though :(
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Rocky steady
Nic, barista in training in various parts of BC and Alberta (and soon opening a cafe in Quebec) showing steady hands.
Java Jamboree!
Pretty much all the Java J employees stepped up to give it a go. Here's one of them....
Java Jamboree
... and another... everyone had a blast.

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Ottilia Steams
The co-owner of Java Jamboree, stepping up for the latte art throwdown.
Ottilia's Pour
Really nice pour overall, and this one was a tied for second place because of the nice crema.
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James Ng's Pour
You know, for a guy who hasn't really poured latte art in like, 2 years, this was really good. Third place!
Elyse, from Bumpy's, getting ready for her pour. I trash talked it too much - it wasn't pretty lol ;)
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Will's Espresso
Will Thorburn's espresso pours as he steams on the Synesso
Will's Pour
The pic is not the best, but overall, the judges (me and Beata) picked this as #1 by a hair.
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Phil's Pour
Phil, from Phil and Sebastian's Coffee, and his pour. It had interesting texture and look, and was tied for esecond place.
Jason Snaps
Jason from Bumpy's taking photos of the happenings.
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I thought I established a rule at this event, no pictures of the CoffeeGeek. Elyse snapping away with her new Pentax.
Will Wins!
A close race, but Will Thorburn wins the $150 put up for the latte art throwdown, Les the co-owner hands over the dough.

So on my very first full day in Calgary, I got infused with a hyper-cool sense of culinary coffee possibly being on the rise, and things looked great. I got this sense that I was there for maybe the start of some kinda revolution. Local coffee aficionados and pros got together and discovered this was something pretty cool. Maybe, just maybe it will happen again soon - local organized Jams, more local meetups (though they've already been happening, if you read the CG forums for Western Canada), and, dare I say it, a Rockies Barista Championship? All I know is this - a lot of people who maybe haven't met before got a chance to meet and greet, and it was a great time. I think it's going to happen more and more often, because Calgary and environs are already on their way to becoming another coffee mecca in Canada.

My next few days in Calgary and area had more coffee highlights. Right off the top I have to mention Phil and Sebatian, and their cafe in the Calgary Farmers' Market (address: Old Currie Barracks, 4421 Quesnay Wood Drive SW, Calgary, AB). I didn't get a chance to see the cafe actually open, since the days of operation are Thursday to Sunday (I visited on Tuesday). But Phil did take me over to his cafe, and gave me a sense of this little island of culinary coffee in a sea of Tim Hortons wannabes (or as we like to call it back east: Timmy Ho's). Clover: check (gawd, why! lol). La Marzocco GB5: check. Dual, no triple Anfim Super Caimano grinders: check. Fast and slow bar sides: check (if don't know what this is, I ain't gonna explain it). Education about culinary coffee all over the place: check. I wish to God I'd seen this place in action. It's gotta be intense.

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Phil and Sebastian
Their cafe in the Calgary Farmer's market. Love the setup and the fast and slow stations (slow's on the right)
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Help Vince!
Phil on the phone to Vince Piccolo to find out Vince's idea on brewing Colter's competition blend at 1 mile above sea level. Eventually, we made some cappuccinos and espressos, and Phil said it was the best capp he had ever had.

There's also the aforementioned Bumpy's cafe, where Jason (CG Member coffeeactivist) and Elyse work. Elyse scored a pink tamper, one of the prizes I brought with me to give out at the meetup and she brought it in to her first day back. Great cafe - they use a local coffee supplier (name's not coming to me at the moment but I'm hoping Jason can fill us in, in the comments), and Vancouver's 49th Parallel Coffee (disclosure - 49th is as of this writing the new sponsor of the CoffeeGeek Podcast)... though on the day I visited, they were out of 49th's Epic, and I got shots of the local coffee - it was a a fairly bright and tight shot, perhaps a bit too bright for my personal liking, but easily the best shot of espresso I had been served my entire stay in Calgary, at least from a cafe that was open (lol shoutout to Phil). Jason pulled it for me, behind the hectic and crazy bar at Bumpy's, on a two group Elektra that looks puny in this space, given the traffic they have.

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Bumpy's cafe
Fast and hectic place, with happy clientele. They use Macap grinders, a very tiny (for the traffic) Elektra 2 group, and very cool - most stay in espresso is served to the table - see those tiny cereal boxes? That's how they identify you and your order - you get a little frosted flakes, they bring the drink to you.
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Love it!

Another stop for me, as recommended by locals, was Cafe Beano, which I was told was under new management and on an upswing. When I went in, I saw a PID'ed La Marzocco Linea (the PID box was on a long tube, a la Mars Invades! style spaceships); they also grind on demand, a very good sign for any consumer to see when going into a cafe.

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My Americano at Cafe Beano
Love this cafe's space. It's too bad none of these staff knew about the big meet and latte art throwdown the night before - it would have been cool to have some of them there.

The staff really seemed to be trying to produce good coffee, and my espresso looked visually good, but I could tell just from the aroma it was a fairly dark roast, and the taste confirmed it - again, personal preferences here, I'm not a fan of overly dark roasts. The thing is, I could tell from the barista actions and the setup that they probably got the best they could out of that blend, and darker roasts certainly have their fans. I saw several orders for short drinks like traditional capps, macchiatos, and the occasional espresso while I was sitting there. The dark roast blend was probably much better in milk based drinks, but I was on a straight espresso mission (mish) while I was in Calgary. I did also order an americano, and the blend worked well in that with a bit of cream. I didn't get a chance to talk to the owner or manager, so I don't know what coffee they were using or who was roasting it,  but I did leave some coffee behind anyway (I brought 25lbs of coffee with me to Calgary).

As a side note, I couldn't see much literature or information in their shop about the coffee, other than having vague recollections of roast styles and types...  If the desire is to make coffee something culinary, we have to move away from descriptives like "bold", "dark roast", "mild", "mellow" and and maybe even move away from roasting profiles that end up only giving a coffee that roast profile's taste (hint - the darker a roast, the more the resulting coffee is just going to taste like that roast, instead of having its own unique tastes that can br brought out at lighter, more careful roast profiles). There are signs of things changing in Calgary, with some cafes and some roasters talking up the coffee more and more, and educating consumers about the culinary aspects of coffee. I think places like Beano are at that middle step - amping up their calibre of Baristas, which is always a great thing. Now it's time to work with their roaster to amp up the transparency about the coffee (transparency = coffee treated as a culinary thing, at least in my book).

One more side note. One very cool thing I've heard that just a few roasters around the world are doing is bringing the "flight" system to the world of quality coffee. This time around, the flights are different roast levels of a coffee. Not for the roaster / buyer / cupper to experience, but for the coffee consumer to experience. Here's something someone in Calgary could do even before it happens in Vancouver - approach your local roaster, and ask them to do up small (5kilo roasts?) roast batches of either a specific blend or a single origin. Then roast it again two, three, four more times, each with a different roast profile. So that you end up with 3 to 5 batches of the same coffee, but with different roast levels and profiles. Be as transparent as possible - provide literature (pamphlet, booklet, card, whatever) about the roasts, the origins, the works. Sell them in little 150g bags, in a box that contains all 3-5 coffees. Sell it as a "flight" of coffee for tasting. Go from the lightest cinnamon roast the roaster is happy with, to Charbucks level roasting. Then let the consumer decide which roast style represents that coffee best - maybe have a mail in card so the consumers can freely mail in their thoughts about the coffee, and offer a free 1lb bag in return for submitting the comments.

Coffee Flights... think about it. Especially companies that like to dark roast some amazing green. (hint hint).

Back to the article...
The last highlight for me on this Rockies / Alberta Prairies sojourn was a smart little shop that opened in April in a town east of Calgary: Bean Dreamin, in Strathmore (address: 95 Brent Blvd., Bay 102, Strathmore, AB). They have a La Marzocco GB5 that they probably need to get a bit more comfortable with, and a Swift, and also serve up Dr. John's Josuma supplied Malabar Gold. The owner Erin is having a struggle. She wants to bring culinary coffee to Strathmore, a tiny little town, and she has a wonderful space to do it in. But she's fighting a community that grew up on Timmy Ho's, and thinks gourmet coffee comes in two flavours: regular and decaf. She does have culinary minded customers, but wants more. Beata and I visited on the way to Drumheller to see the dinosaurs, and ended up staying there for over 2 hours. In my visit, I hope I was able to energise her a bit, and offered suggestions on things to improve (one eg: a milk steaming trick - stop stretching the milk and sink the wand as soon as the pitcher's temperature is the same as your hand), and new things to do, like hold a culinary coffee "tasting" once per month using her very cool dual-counter set up in her cafe (it has two rooms, and the bar itself can access the second room through a hole in the wall type higher bar table). I also passed her card over to Phil and Les in hopes that these two quality coffee pioneers in the Calgary area can help her out.

Honourable mention to The Communitea, in Canmore, which I didn't get a chance to visit, but I hear good things (and Nic Fortin, a forum regular and someone I've met several times, baristas there).

Then there is the Rockies...

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Just a short mention about the coffee scene in places like Banff and Jasper. In a word: bad. In a few words: a golden opportunity for someone quality driven to open up a stellar cafe.

Probably the best of the worst was the coffee I had at a place called Wild Flour, where, well, at least they tried. They seemingly grind to order, but other than knowing the espresso is "organic", there's no transparency or quality pushed about the coffee. And while the PBTC (person behind the counter) was very friendly and patient with me, when I saw my americano order become one press on the espresso machine's auto panel (not a super auto), and I saw it run on for like 75 seconds, as ounce after ounce of coffee, then coffee flavoured water, then mainly water run out of the group, I gulped. But, as I said, the PBTC was very patient and friendly - I asked her to redo it as a straight short double espresso, then add hot water from their tea water tower, and she did it.

The taste wasn't bad, and was probably better than a few cafes I visited in Calgary (but not mentioned in this article). That said, Banff really is a culinary coffee wasteland. I visited just about every place that had coffee, including the Second cup and Starbucks, and things were just horrible.

It got even worse when we got to Jasper. I asked the locals (several groups of them) where the best place to get coffee was. All mentioned the same place - a little shop that did baked goods and coffee on the main strip. We tried it. It wasn't good. It was pretty bad.

Being the tourist meccas both of these places are, I think a truly culinary coffee shop / roastery would be a big hit here. Who knows... maybe in another decade or so.

Esmeralda and Single Origin Espresso

Want a definition of a risk taker? How about someone who pours $135 worth of coffee (and all contained within a 1/2 pound) into a grinder to make a few shots of espresso?

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Ground Control...
to Major Foole.... we're good to go. Mission is go...
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OMG, He's doing it
There it goes, into the Anfim "Best" grinder (shots pulled on the La Marzocco though)
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Dialed in Short double
Dialed in as best as I could, here's one of the better short doubles. Huge Tangerine. Huge.

So I ended up with 1.5 lbs of the Esmeralda Especiale (the real auction stuff, none of this second-lot nonsense (not that there's anything wrong with the second lot stuff)), which was my fourth time around with this bean this year. After giving 1/2 a lb to Billy Wilson (Billy? How'd the coffee go down back in Portland?), I took my other 1/2 lb, plus another 1/2lb graciously given to me by a very generous anonymous source, and started having some fun.

One of the two remaining bags? Well, I cupped it, I pressed it, I aeropressed it, and I made drip coffee with it. Then I went around to some of my neighbours armed with two press clippings (one from the Globe, one from the Sun), and I made them small press pots of the coffee for them enjoy. Let me tell you, there's not many better ways to endear yourself to your neighbours than pouring them a cup of $15 coffee!

That took care of one of the half pound bags. $135.... never better spent (not that I paid for it in the first place!). The last bag? Well, that was for my own personal enjoyment. I pressed a bit more, and used a Bodum 1 cup dripper to make an 8oz cup. Then, with about 190g left (I was very frugal), I dumped the remainder into an Anfim "Best" prosumer grinder, ready to do some single origin 'spro.

The dial in process was never more crucial. We're talking about $15 per double (16-18g of coffee) shot here. Barista skills, don't fail me now.

I cheated a bit. I have this rather awesome Biloya from Paradise Roasters - about four weeks old now, and definitely past its prime, but the roast level is semi close to the roast that 49th Parallel executed for the Esmeralda. Not identical, and the bean types are also a bit different, but close enough that I was able to "dial in" the grinder somewhat before completely cleaning it out, and adding the Especiale. Because of this cheat, my first shot, a bit updosed, ran a bit fast, and once I dialed in a grind adjustment (two steps - a step on the Anfim Best equals about 2 seconds in shot time difference, with the same dose), and lowered the dose down to about 17g, my second shot was near spot on. Good enough to take a swig and taste an explosion of mandarin orange.

Two more adjustments followed. I brought the PID on the Linea up to 202.5 (offset of about 1.5F) from 200.9 to mute a tinge of sourness I got on the shot, and I upped the dose by maybe a gram in the basket. Third shot pull? Dialed up another 1F, and the resulting shot looked very thrilling, with about 50mls coming out in around 27 seconds, split into two espresso cups. Some tiger flecking and mottling. Taste?

Well taste confirmed why I don't like single origin espresso very much. I'm sure others will swoon and die for this shot, but for me, it was a big time one hit wonder. Well two hits. First flavour that started, continued, and finished the shot was a power-ranger punch of tangerine / mandarin orange... so pronounced that, I grabbed a tangerine I just happened to have in the fruit bowl, peeled it, and took a bite to compare, and wallah, very similar tastes. Of course, the real tangerine was, well, a real tangerine. Not to imply I was drinking a cup of tangerine juice here.... ah, you get the point, right?

Second flavour hit was a very evident sweetness. In terms of coffee, super sweetness. So pronounced that, when I made a shot for Beata, she said "wow, this is so sweet - did you add sugar?". (nb: Beata normally doesn't like straight espresso shots. She enjoyed this one).

But the espresso process did what it always does - finds what is perhaps the most dominant flavour in the cup, and magnifies it. It also takes other things normally found in the cup of a single origin that are more subtle, and sometimes obliterates them. When I cupped / pressed / vac potted this coffee, I got a grapey / blue fruit start to the coffee, the "tangerine / morphs into mandarin orange as it cools" middle, and a very soft, supple and creamy Hawaiian macadamia flower honey finish.

When pulled as espresso, the grape was gone, though I was getting ever subtle hints of blueberry / blackberry. Very subtle and gone very quick. The predominant flavour was the huge, magnified hit of tangerine orange. The cream honey finish? Gone - never there in the cup. And on top of it all, there wasn't much body or big texture to the cup.

This is why I don't like single origins as espresso, at least for pure enjoyment and love of the complex beverage. It tends to single-note (or in this case, dual note) the coffee, obliterating the more delicate flavours that other methods produce. As I type this, maybe 30 minutes after having my last shots of the Auction Lot Esmeralda Especiale, I still have a distinct aftertaste of tangerine orange on the back of my palate. It's not tasting so good any longer. Time to go rinse.

In some ways, I feel like I cheated this coffee. I feel like I didn't give this coffee its chance to sing. Sure, the huge tangerine was nice at first, but this coffee is a thoroughbred that expects to be treated right. And I don't think pulling it as espresso treats it right or gives it the respect it deserves. Now I kinda wish I'd saved that last 180g or so for presses and vac pots. Oh well, it was (again) a learning experience.

Key lesson out of all of this for me? That I must respect the coffee, and respect even more the arcane art and science of the master roaster / blender who is able to make espresso sing and dance as much as a cupping or press pot can make a S/O sing and dance.

Article rating: 8.8
Posted: August 26, 2007
feedback: (21) comments | read | write
Coffee at the Moment Column Archives email author
Mark PrinceColumn 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.

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