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Coffee at the Moment by Mark Prince
October Coffee Discoverings
Posted: November 5, 2007
Article rating: 8.5
feedback: (14) comments | read | write

Yes, I know discoverings is not a proper word ;) So hello again for another Coffee at the Moment article, this time covering some interesting coffees, events, products and musings that happened in October.

Trade Shows No Go?

We recently ran a short review from Liz Clayton about the Toronto Coffee and Tea Expo (see here) that is probably the least read article this year so far on CoffeeGeek. And it's no knock against Liz - she's an amazing writer (read her report from the Canadian Barista Championship for an example of her great wit and style). And last month, I posed the question - should CoffeeGeek be covering trade shows as much as we used to - and even though I repeated the question in the forum thread associated with that article, no one responded one way or the other.

I did get a couple of emails on the subject however. The typical theme in those emails were "I don't want to ruffle feathers publicly, but..." and it went on to say that in general, the show reports were pretty boring for most consumers, or that the stuff we cover is boring, or a combination of the both. Basically it seems like there's very little desire amongst the bulk of our readership to read these kinds of things. Considering what it cost in 2006 (and 2005) to cover these things, including barista competitions, I'm going to guess the public has spoken - except for the SCAA show, which is kind of de riguer, coverage of trade shows will be of less importance on this website for the time being. Or at least coverage that costs a lot of dough. We will have some additional coverage from the Toronto show (the social events), from Milan (two guest authors on scene for that one), and possibly from the CoffeeFest show in a week's time, but I'm not attending them.

But I'll throw the question out there once more, quite plainly - do you want CoffeeGeek to continue to cover trade shows, barista competitions and barista jams like we did in the past? A visit to the Show Reports page details our history of covering these events, including years past when we had four, five or more reporters crawling the scene. Please make your opinion known in the forum thread for this article.

Francis! Francis! Espresso cups suck no more!

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A very welcome package arrived from long time site supporter 1st in Coffee, containing not one, not two, not even three, but four cups brand new out from Francis! Francis! called mou.

These cups are a radical departure from the "let's pretend this is tea" cups that Francis! Francis! commissioned in the past. Those cups, which are visually quite striking and beautiful, are unfortunately not very suitable for espresso and its demands that 30 mls (1oz) of hot liquid require to, well, stay hot for even a minute or two.

I'm a total nut job when it comes to espresso cups. I have easily over 750 individual cups - probably more than 1,000, and I'm slowly documenting them on flickr. (I was actually also counting cups mentioned right up to this one, getting up to 77 on the thirteenth photo, but that kind of defeated the purpose of actually photographing a cup a day, so I stopped the "description count" after that one).

I say this because, being the espresso cup collector I am, these are some of the most unique, yet still most usable cups I've ever come across. Here's some great things about these cups - some obvious, some not so obvious.

Thickness Super, duper thick. some of the thickest espresso cups I own in fact. The porcelain thickness is on par with the thickest-walled ACF cups that are preferred by many espresso aficionados.

Artwork. Espresso's a beautiful work of art when it is done right. You wouldn't put a Degas in an Ikea frame - I'm a firm believer that a great espresso cup just enhances and completes the overall sensory experience that is a great espresso. The artwork here is by Ron Anderson, and in some ways, reminds me of another set of cups I believe he's done for Francis! Francis! (Zig Zag), and also along the same lines of abstract, colourful and visual art that Peter Roesch used in his Illy Schwung cups in 1999.

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Stacks Nicely
The saucers tack nicely - you can see the thickness, and bowl design here as well.

Inner bowl. One of those subtle things. Outside, the porcelain features fairly straight walls. Inside, the porcelain is a proper "bowl" shape preferred by many for great espresso.

Weight. Along with thickness, these are some of the heaviest espresso cups I've ever owned or used as well - especially considering there's no handle. Mitterteich , the German porcelain maker, is responsible for these cups, and I'm quite surprised that Francis! was able to convince them to go so thick. German porcelain makers pride themselves on the normal "holy grail" for porcelain - as strong as possible, but as thin as possible too. Italian porcelain makers don't have a problem going 'thick' and heavy, but that hasn't always been the case for German makers. We see this in Illy cups all the time - the consistently heavy ones are made by IPA in Italy; the Rosenthal variants are usually 20%, 30% lighter, and thinner porcelain. But much better finish than IPA's cups. These Mitterteich cups for the mou set are both thick and finished nicely, even in the cup's "shoe" or base, where it makes contact with the table.

The Saucer. Also extremely thick and well finished, and entirely unique. The cups actually sit in a recessed "bay" in the saucer that otherwise is very flat on top. The bottom has its own details (ribs, angles, etc) and is also signed by the artist. These are probably the most unique saucers I've ever seen, easily trumping Illy's "floating cloud" saucer design. There's only one drawback. Because the top of the saucer is flat (except for the cup "bay" area), it makes keeping a spoon in place, esp. if you're hand-serving the saucer and espresso, difficult - the spoon will slide off the saucer easily. Well, if you use a Thomas Vario flat espresso spoon (or the much less expensive Bodum Barcelona Spoons) it will work out fine.

Stacking. The saucers and cups stack very well - the saucers especially. It's little things like this that impress me about industrial design.

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Mou Cup - 160g
Very heavy cup for sure - 160g, and no handle
IPA Illy Cup - 145g
And that's with a handle.
Rosenthal Illy - 117g
Rosenthal's lighter, thinner porcelain is still great for espresso.
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Mou + Saucer - 358g
Nice, substantial weight. About 3/4 a lb!
IPA + Saucer - 328g
These IPA saucers are pretty thick on their own.
Rosenthal + Saucer - 268g
Rosenthal's cup and saucer package is 90g lighter than the mou cups.

These cups are actually quite reasonably priced, at least as far as "collector espresso cups" are concerned - $60 for a set of four ($15 each is the breakdown) which is substantially less than the $100-$140 that current-day Illy sets cost (Illy's no longer including the coffee with some new sets).

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They make a great gift for anyone really into espresso. I highly recommend these.

Great Coffees in October!

Another month and another big lot of really interesting coffees coming across my tasting table. I've been sharing these around town to, mainly to heaps of applause for the unique tastes. Before I get into this month's recommended coffees, I want to remind all these are not official cuppings or ratings of coffees. These are some of the coffees I've tried in the past few weeks (and generally available still as of this writing) that really stood out for me.

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Ethiopian Biloya Selection One, PT's Coffee, $23.14 / 12oz
I said it on a recent podcast, and I'll echo it here. Biloya could possibly be my coffee of the year in the Single Origin category. I've had it from two roasters so far, and was blown away to try it from a third one in October - PT Coffee's presentation of this phenomenal bean.

The coffee arrived still fresh, and when I opened the bag, the immediate nose and aroma was heavenly - and it got better when the coffee was ground. Apricots and tropical fruits danced around me - making me want to get it into the press pot that much quicker. I pressed it and vac potted the coffee, and both had a fairly unique presentation of similar flavours, with the press being more body overall. In the cup, the tropical fruit melange became very pronounced, especially early on.

As the cup cooled I started getting more blue fruits and what I can best describe as a "comforting" taste. This is a very mild coffee, but also reminiscent of syrups, which normally are mutually exclusive. The acidity balance with the body was pretty much perfect.

I highly recommend this coffee - it's a weird, super light roast from every roaster I've tried it from so far, and a definite culinary experience. $24 for 12oz is a steal, in my opinion.

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Las Termopilas Nicaragua CoE #4, Intelligentsia Coffee, $24.99 / 8oz.
This is one of my favourites from this year's Cup of Excellence - Nicaragua event, and in my tastebuds' opinion, was a close second to the winning coffee (the winner went for $48 a lb green!). When I got two half pound bags from Intelligentsia of this coffee, I was happy at the chance to compare it to my hazy memory of my own roasts of the CoE samples from the late spring. And it proved to me again what a great roasting company Intelly can be - they represent this coffee phenomenally well.

Brewed as a press, there's just a huge whallop of raspberries in the initial taste, followed by a bit of a morph into citrus fruit. The finish is like a bittersweet chocolate infused with raspberries. As it cools, the raspberries go away and it becomes a much more pronounced chocolate. When I use the term culinary coffee, this is exactly what I mean - this is a show stopping coffee that deserves respect and care in the brewing and preparation methods. Brew it literally seconds before brewing, and for gosh sakes, keep it away from the espresso machine - it gets obliterated and dulled by espresso's torturous brewing. This is a delicate, sing a song for you coffee.

It's expensive, at just under $25 for half a pound, but another must try - and it's going to be gone, very, very soon.

Ambergris Espresso Blend, DoubleShot Coffee Company, $15 / lb.
You may or may not know the DoubleShot guy Brian (maybe via his podcast). I can't believe there's someone out there more opinionated than me, but Brian fits the bill - you should hear how he sets weird rules for his customers sometimes lol! But for a small roasting operation (DoubleShot is essentially two employees - Brian owner, and his lead barista Isaiah), they can put out some pretty good coffee.

Brian sent me some samples of his current stars last month, including his pet project - his Ambergris espresso blend. It was a tricky blend to dial in, and had the kind of crema I normally see in blends featuring monsooned or aged coffees (that more foamy kind of crema), but once dialed in, it was an exceedingly pleasing blend, and had what I like most in a blend - complexity. It's hard for me to nail down flavours I experienced because it was a fairly deep melange, but the most predominant flavour was a mild chocolate undertone and finish. As a straight shot, it was pretty good, but what I liked most about this blend was its versatility - it was equally good with any additive: milk, in an americano, or as a straight shot. Add a bit of sugar and it morphs and pops. I haven't tried an espresso blend from Doubleshot in over a year (last time around, I got the zany paint cans of coffee from Brian (and yes, I said zany because I know he'll probably read that word on a future podcast - then again, maybe not since I pointed this out lol)).

I'm most happy pointing out this coffee and the other coffees Doubleshot offers because of what the company is - one guy really working his ass off to bring good coffee to his town (Tulsa), and because the product is great.

NB: if you would like your coffee mentioned in this column, feel free to contact me at coffeekid at gmaildotcom for shipping details. You should note that the purpose of this column's coffee section is to talk about stellar coffees I come across. The purpose here is not to promote all coffees, or be a coffee critic with good and bad reviews, so there's no guarantee your submitted coffee will be mentioned in this column.

Coffee bag reading

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PT's Coffee bags
I love this kind of consumer education and information that's showing up on more and more coffee bags.

I don't know about you, but I like reading coffee bags. And trends that seemed few and far between a few years back are becoming more common today - telling the story of direct relationships on the bag, explaining brewing methods, or just having some interesting slogans and looks.

As an instance, I really like PT's Coffee bags - they have some really interesting stuff on them. Brewing Basics on one side, a bit about PT's on the other side, and intro text about relationship coffees on the back. The brewing basics are pretty good info too, stating:

"Start with fresh, pure cold water, heated to just below a boil. Grind your coffee just prior to brewing and select the correct grind for your brewer. The faster the brew, the finer the grind. Avoid freezing or refrigerating coffee. Instead, buy just enough coffee for a one week period of time. Freshness is the first step to a great cup!"

There's a bit more, but this is all great info for consumers to start on the road to having an awesome cup of coffee.

Other companies are doing similar things. Intelligentsia has their "Fresh Brewed Intelligence" on the side of every bag, and some verbage about their direct relationships on the bag of every bag. Batdorf and Bronson's bags are less wordy, but highlight the company's focus on sustainability and ecological concerns, with phrases like "Encouraging healthy ecological systems with a commitment to sustainable and bird-friendly coffees" and "produced with 100% certified renewable energy" on the bag (though I'd like a bit more explanation about the second quote!)

All of these coffees have detailed cupping notes on the front. A recent bag of Yemen Mocha from Batdorf that I tried said "from the Arabian Peninsular comes this complex and intriguing coffee. Our Yemen features spicy flavors of smoky scotch and hints of dry fruit, resulting from their national dry-processing method. At its best, this coffee also unveils elusive notes of cocoa and caramel."

There's a lot to be read in that cupping report. Anyone who really knows Yemen Mocha knows it's a bit of a crapshoot - every cup can taste different, because its one of the most poorly sorted and graded coffees in the world. But that's also part of Yemen Mocha's mystique and intrigue, and one of the reasons why I like it so much. But I digress a bit...

Not every roaster does this kind of detailed education on their bags yet, including a few very famous US-based roasters, but I see the trend growing and growing - and it's all good for the industry and consumers. Getting consumers to understand some basics - the importance of the grind; the importance of good water; the importance of freshness; the importance of grinding just before brewing; etc etc - is something that's happening more and more with a lot of quality coffee roasters.

A ceramic burr hand grinder?

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I bought a JAVAgrind hand coffee grinder from Mountain Equipment Coop this past summer, but only got around to using it in October for the first time (I was basically waiting until I photographed it first before using it). It's a $20, lexan plastic and ceramic conical burr grinder, and different from most hand grinders in that it isn't the traditional "box" design. In fact, you need a separate vessel to grind into. Intrigued, I gave it a go.

I guess the first thing I wanted to check out was the construction and the ceramic burr. It is indeed ceramic top and bottom, but not sharp at all - I've seen the ceramic burrs in the La Marzocco Swift grinder and those are knife-edge sharp by comparison. Even the ceramic burrs in Saeco super autos are much sharper.

I also noticed that my burr set had some "chunks" out of the cutting edges - see the photos below for more detail on that. Ceramic is incredibly hard and one of the reasons why some grinders are moving towards this material; and these are the conditions of the burrs before they even attack their first bean.

This grinder is also a one-spindle design, with the top (and thin) plastic handling the tension of the spindle and the angle it torques at. I had my doubts that this would do a very even grind, because I could envision the spindle moving up and down and sideways depending on how fast or how much "torque" you use when grinding.

It's designed to be camper-portable - the handle reverses and folds into the grinder's lexan body, keeping it secure. The lid also slides open and closed with indents, meaning you can use it to store your coffee on your coupla-day camping trip. The grinder also comes with a loose rubber cap for putting over the exposed bottom conical burr when travelling.

So I put the grinder to use, and sure enough, I noticed a lot of flex and give while grinding coffee - the finer the grind, the more uneven the grind seemed to be. I tightened the tension wingnut to produce a moka-style grind (finer than drip), and the resulting grind was all over the map. What happens is as you turn the handle, you put tension on the grinder's lid, which has a fair amount of flex - put more downward pressure, and the conical top burr, completely suspended from above (and your handle via the lid) moves all over the place - closer to the bottom burr, further away, sideways cantered, the works.

As you go coarser in the grind, it evens out a bit - doing a press pot grind, for eg, didn't produce a lot of dust, but it did produce a widely different "chunk" size. For press pot coffee, this isn't so bad, but ideally you want all the grind particles to be within a few 100 microns of each other (press pot grind is usually ideal between 1100 and 1300 microns in grind size - this thing goes probably from 600 microns to 2000 or more, all in the same grind).

On the upside, it's cheap, it can handle doing press pot coffee while camping, and it seems pretty durable. For press coffee, it took about a minute to do 3 tablespoons of grinds. It took so long to do a moka grind (and the grind was horrible), I don't recommend it at all for this use. For drip, it took about a minute per tablespoon, which is slow, but a good morning workout.

This grinder is actually designed to work in conjunction with GSI's own travel press pot - there's subtle slots in the JAVAgrind to fit into the press from the same company. Using other vessels is a bit more tricky - it tends to slide around a bit no matter what container you slot it into, making the uneven grind a bit more common during operation. The sides are lexan plastic, and don't afford too good a grip - one way the company could improve this product greatly (besides securing the grind spindle both in the lid and the body of the grinder is by texturing or ribbing the outside plastic so that your hand gets a decent non-slip grip when holding it.


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Ceramic Burr
Notice the small nicks and chunks out of the burr? there's a particularly big one at the left edge of this photo.
All the parts
All the parts that make up the JAVAgrind. Including springs, washers, rubber washer, handle, spindle, lid, and body.
Not very reinforced
The conical burr is only really supported by the plastic lid when in place, and the spring brings the burr closer (or further away) from the bottom burr built into the grinder's body.
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Slotted
The handle reverses and slots into place when travelling, also keeping things secure.
Bottom Burr
Technically, when the grinder is upright, this is the "top burr" - the conical one in previous photos sits below this one.
Grind into anthing
Almost anything can act as a receptacle for this grinder, but it tends to slide around, unless you're using GSI's own travel press pot, which matches the grinder better.

Do I recommend it? Well, I'm not a huge fan of any hand grinder - there's a certain romance there, and you can make coffee in power outages (using a vac pot with a cloth or butane burner), and when camping light, this brings fresh grind to the campsite. There are better hand grinders out there, but this one's cheap, and for press pot coffee, it sort of does the job... at $20, it's not much worse than some Peugeot hand grinders I've used and own ($$$), and on par with no-name box hand grinders. If you're into camping, and want an emergency, no power needed grinder, you could do worse.

Wrap up

That's it for this article. Content may be a bit few and far between for the next few months (though we're going to try our best!) because of something I'll write more in the next edition of Coffee at the Moment - we're taking on the six month project of completely rebuilding CoffeeGeek.com from the ground up. There's so many new features, community aspects, social networking, forums enhancements, new content areas and stuff that it'd take me five articles to cover it all! But next issue, I'll talk up some new changes we have planned for the opinion articles section. Till then, drink good coffee, and spread the word!

Article rating: 8.5
Posted: November 5, 2007
feedback: (14) 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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