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State of Coffee by Mark Prince
Peet's, Baskets & Italian vs. N. American Blends
Posted: September 1, 2007
Article rating: 8.8
feedback: (55) comments | read | write

So first of all, I've decided to change the name of this column. From now on, it's going to be called State of Coffee, and for me, it's going to be about as raw as possible. Stuff I normally reserve for my long tirades and rants to some of my closest coffee-related friends on the phone or via the internet. When I taste new coffees, I'll talk them up here, good and bad. When something's on my mind about coffee or espresso, and I want to shout it out, this is the spot. The column's literal focus will be on the state of coffee at that time and date - all opinion, all the time. The kinder, gentler me will be found over at Coffee at the Moment (notice the similarities in the titles? I didn't even plan that!), but here, in State of Coffee, just about everything will fly around. So let's get into it.

Passing of a legend

Alfred Peet
Photo borrowed from the Peet's Blog site.

It is with great sadness that I report the passing of a true legend in the world of specialty coffee - indeed, if any one person garners the title "Father of Specialty Coffee", it would be this man. On Wednesday, August 29th, 2007, Alfred Peet passed away.

Alfred Peet started his coffee roastery in 1966, in Berkeley, California. The concept of "specialty coffee" was almost completely unknown in the US at the time (and the term itself hadn't even been coined yet), what with all the major national brands moving to more and more generic coffee styles, and the brewing method of choice for most Americans being the percolator for its convenience and ease of use.

The Dutch-born Peet grew up in a family immersed in the business of coffee, and he emigrated to the United States in the 1950s where he continued the family trade, working in coffee for major national chains. As the 1950s and early 1960s progressed, Peet became more and more disenchanted with the state of "generic" low grade coffee used by most roasters at the time and the lowering of the quality of coffee for the home, so he made a move in the mid 1960s to go into business for himself. Memories of the better quality central American coffees his Dad used to source and roast back in Holland were still vivid in his mind, so he started sourcing his own quality coffees and helped to start a revolution - bringing back the words "quality" and even "culinary" to coffee. He, along with people like Erna Knutsen (the Mother of Specialty Coffee, still with us, and the originator of the term "specialty coffee"), fostered in a true renaissance time for coffee.

Peet's influence is far and wide. George Howell, arguably the father of specialty coffee on the Eastern US side, discovered great coffee at Peet's Berkeley shop. The founders of Starbucks fell in love with Peet's coffee and roastery and got to know Alfred personally. Once they moved back to Seattle after attending UC Berkeley, they opened up their small roastery in Pike Place market, introducing specialty coffee to the Seattle area in 1971.

I asked George Howell about Peet's early days roasting coffee and his own memories of it: "I remember the first Peet's in Berkeley, back in 1968, when I saw people standing outside holding porcelain cups with long stems as there were no paper cups back then!" Howell said. "It seemed to be some kind of art gallery gathering and I parked my car and walked toward the action. And voilŠ, an alchemist's dream: a wealth of exotic-shaped coffee machines and accessories in a refined dark space anchored by a long counter with a panoply of glassed-in panels of roasted coffee blends labelled with exotic names."

"Alfred Peet was a born marketer; he was the first to effectively, elegantly and publicly celebrate coffee, for the benefit of a young curious public seeking new experiences. He caught our generationís imagination and we have not looked back since."

When asked what kind of influence Afred Peet had on Howell's own drive toward bringing specialty coffee to the masses, he said "the Coffee Connection (Howell's roastery and line of cafes in Boston in the 1970s, 80s, and early 90s) was my take and expansion on Alfred Peetís original vision. He was the foundation stone."

Speaking for myself, I count myself as being very, very fortunate to have met Alfred Peet on a few occasions. He was opinionated, cantankerous, and ornery, (he even admits all of these himself) and absolutely sharp as a tack, right through his 80s. He always had a monster palate and always maintained a deep love and passion for coffee. Many of us have been extremely lucky to have met and talked with the man, and for me personally, I feel very gratified that I had a chance to thank him in person for what he's done for coffee.

Much of our love and joy for true culinary coffee today can trace its heritage back to Alfred Peet. If you're sitting back today, enjoying a great cup of single origin press pot coffee, or pulling a delicious blend off your espresso machine, raise a cup to Alfred Peet. If it weren't for him and his influence, chances are today your cup may be a cup of Nescafe or Maxwell House.

Fix those damned baskets!

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There I was, showboating at Frankie's Specialty Coffee Solutions shop and café (Frankie is the La Marzocco distributor in BC), trying to show Les Kwon (organizer of the western Canadian barista events) and Frankie how pulling shots is done (hint, eventually I did! Well, sorta). I eschewed Frankie's triple baskets he has running on his absolutely luscious Mistral 3 group machine and asked for a traditional La Marzocco double basket. I grabbed the nice 2006 Canadian Barista Championship Reg Barber tamper that Frankie had on top of his machine. I dosed from a Mazzer Major, using some Black Cat Frankie had, levelled my bed of coffee, and went to tamp....

And the friggin tamper got wedged in the stupid La Marzocco double basket.

And I just started to laugh. I couldn't stop for a while. Immediately, thoughts went back to poor Kyle Glanville at the 2005 Pacific Northwest Regional Barista Championship in Seattle, where he had his own tamper get wedged like glue inside a La Marzocco double. I laughed because I've had talks with my friend Bill Crossland at La Marzocco about this very issue and was told "we don't make the baskets". And I laughed because, with all our micro-focus on PIDing machines, on measuring doses, on critically analysing techniques... all our focus on telling the grinder manufacturers to get their bloody act together, and the focus on measuring not only shot volume but the weight of shots (again, a big shoutout to Andy Schecter - yo dude!)... all this focus, and the push towards espresso excellence is done in by a couple of $5 parts.

I'm talking about you, filter baskets. I'm talking about you, dispersion screens.

Filter baskets are a particularly favourite topic of mine. I've written about them frequently here and there, and even gotten into little petty flame wars with people I shouldn't even be bothering with about them. I love pretty much most things La Marzocco, but I no longer have much love for their double baskets. In fact, I use the heavier gauge, better QC controlled, smaller 14 gram baskets that Synesso ships with their machines. Not the 18g baskets that everyone with a Synesso seems to be using, but the 14 gram baskets (which, showing some weird science, can have up to 17g stuffed into them, and even more if you updose - the 18g basket can hold up to 22g or more!).

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Won't come loose!

And I don't think for a second that the actual manufacturer of these baskets does much QC on them. I'm betting Mark Barnett at Synesso probably goes through each and every basket to make sure they have all their holes punched, have a proper centering pattern, and no marks or cuts on them. Rumour has it these filter baskets come from Spain. Specifically Ascaso. Dunno for sure, but if true, at least it's outside the scope of the Italian duopoly on filter baskets (more on that below). Anyway, these baskets are more a case of "the best of the worst" than "the best".

Same goes for the dispersion screens that Mark has sourced for his Synessos. They are clearly better than the ones La Marzocco and almost every other company uses. The radial pattern of the holes above the mesh just seem to allow for more of a shower effect. It's a damned shame you can't use these baskets in a La Marzocco. They buckle and invert because of different dispersion blocks and dispersion screws.

And then I'm thinking... this isn't bloody rocket science. A little thought, effort, trial, and tribulation could be put into making the better basket. Making the better dispersion screen. Working it so that extraction from the baskets is ideal. Maybe even thinking "outside the box" somewhat and just come up with a better basket and screen that just works and is well made.

More questions: Why, for example, was it arbitrarily decided that all the holes in a filter basket have to be the same size? Why do some feature straight sides, some slightly curved bottom edges, and others more drastic curved sides? Which one works best? Why are most baskets one gauge of metal (though the Synesso sourced baskets I like are a heavier gauge)? Why why why? I'll tell you why.

For whatever reason, only a couple of Italian based companies, unknown, unnamed, unmentioned amongst consumers and most professionals, are the makers and manufacturers of virtually all the commercial filter baskets and dispersion screens in the world of coffee (name them!). And because of this virtual monopoly, what happens with most monopolies is happening here... a seeming lack of care about the quality of the products and a lack of care about any kind of innovation and advancement in the product. I guess they feel they designed the perfect baskets back in the 1950s or something, and that was that.

And then I was thinking... wait. There's been innovation in filter baskets. Lots of it. You've probably heard about them. Pressurized filter baskets. A big meh. Innovation designed to take the most stale, most skank, most top cupboard shelf-aged beans, and froth their brew up into a fury to produce what looks like pale blond crema (hint: it ain't).

If you can believe it, all of this was going through my head in the fifteen seconds I was laughing at a 58 mm tamper being stuck in a "58 mm" basket. Then I tried to remove it. And it took some doing. I ended up actually scorching my hands, because I ran the stuck basket (full of coffee, with tamper attached) under the steam wand to help expand the metal, after I removed tamper + basket from the portafilter. What a joke.

I'm putting the call out to you, La Marzocco. I know you don't make the baskets. But you're a quality driven company that prides itself on being on the bleeding edge of espresso technology. Yes, I know you're tiny compared to the Cimbalis and Saecos and even the Rancilios of the world, but when you want to, you innovate like crazy. Time to put your foot down and your engineering hats on. Put some science and then put some effort into bringing filter baskets and dispersion screens into the 21st century. No more BS about "well, tell the baristas to bring 57 or 57.5 mm tampers" to barista competitions. Update and completely revolutionize the filter baskets and screens. Specific, scientific, accurate to within 10 microns kinda stuff.

I'll take that over temperature profiling (or even pressure profiling) any day.

Scary coffee inventions that should never be

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...and probably costs all of $1.42 to buy from the supplier.
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Massive holes in the filter. Even normal ground coffee falls through.

So, something popped into my mailbox recently (actually that's not true - it was given to me, but the person who gave it to me would kill me if I said who it was), and I was very... amused.

It's a microwave Moka Pot. From China.

There's just some things that should never be made. And it's not like a microwave "espresso" maker hasn't been tried before. There's the suitably horrible Expresso Mio from Black and Decker (thankfully gone). There's this thing called Mamy Microwave Espresso Maker which I haven't tried (and their online website vid doesn't seem to work), but I can only imagine.

Then there's this thing, pictured to the right. I haven't been able to find much about it online (Google sleuths? wanna give it a try?), but I have found two references to it, or devices like it - one is under "deGalicia", and the other, in Australia, is sold no-name style on Australia's eBay.

There's so many things wrong with this. Let's start with the big picture.

- if you start with cold water, you're microwaving the ground coffee. Microwaves vibrate water molecules, as well as fats and oils - and they are in the ground coffee. Yetch.

- as the water heats up, and starts to boil, it will kick up into the ground coffee and the top pot, but it is continuously boiling, because that's what microwaves do - vibrate water molecules and make them boil, whether they are in water form or brewed coffee form.

- if you start with hot water, it's fast, but it's like a percolator - boiling and reboiling the brewed coffee.

For smaller picture things, this is a pretty horrible design. It's 100% plastic and the filter holes are way too big for a moka grind. Result? Even using a drip grind got coffee grounds into a) the bottom part, and b) the brewed coffee part. I don't know if there are supposed to be paper filters with this or not, but it's a really bad design in terms of filtering ability.

Anyway, I did brew one pot. With Epic Espresso. Ground to a drip grind. Using hot water to start. The result? Well, it's a site policy to not show pictures of me if I can help it, but if I did take a picture of me drinking this stuff, it could possibly be the ugliest picture of an (already) ugly guy you'd ever see. Horrid. It destroyed the Epic.

Why.... why... why? Oh wait, I know why. I'm taking one for the team. I'm torturing my taste buds and sensibilities so that you, dear reader, will never have to succumb and try one of these devices out.

Italians kick the buttocks of US Coffees

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Some of the Italian Combatants.
Here's some of the Italian combatants for the upcoming CoffeeGeek battle royale, featuring Italian blends vs US and Canadian blends.

So I'm on the phone with a very prominent specialty coffee roaster and he goes "seen Ken David's website recently? The Italian vs. US espresso blends? Can you believe Black Cat gets an 88, and Segafredo gets a 93? Or that five Italian blends scored higher than Black Cat?"

I remember getting the monthly newsletter from Coffee Review and remember a brief glimpse mentioning espresso. I put a little checkbox in my brain to go back and read it in full, but like most of those little checkboxes, it got misplaced. So I went back and read Ken's article and his subsequent reviews. It got me so worked up that a few days later, I visited on of Vancouver's top importers of all things Italian (Bosa Foods), and had a long chat with one of the owners and principal buyers about Italian coffee blends. The talk was very educational and very helpful for me, because I plan to put Ken's tasting and comparisons to the test somewhat and do my own coffee review of some top Italian blends vs. some top (North) American espresso blends. And no, no Starbucks or Peet's in the mix (though, with the passing of Alfred Peet, maybe I'll include a Peet's blend if I can get it, for honour's sake).

That'll be the subject of the next State of Coffee, but I'm typing this a) after I've bought all the Italian blends, but b) before actually doing the test. So right now, any comments I make are preconceived or pre-established opinions on the coffees that got ranked so highly by Ken Davids.

Before I say anything else, I have to say this (and it's so important, you're going to see this mirrored in the actual article testing the coffees):

I admire, nay, revere Ken Davids and his books.

Without Davids' excellent books on coffee, on espresso, and especially on home roasting, I doubt I'd be anywhere near where I am today in my appreciation and understanding of coffee. I remember getting my first copy of Home Coffee Roasting back in the late 1990s, and for days, nothing else was on my mind - home roast! home roast! home roast! Once I found out Davids' had two other books, one on espresso and one on coffee, I bought copies as quick as I could. And as an interesting side note, Ken Davids owes some of his "birth" into specialty coffee directly to Alfred Peet and his shops as well.

I mention this as a preface, because I want you to know where I'm coming from for the rest of my commentary here. I respect Ken and what he's done for the industry - arguably as much as any other source, including Alfred Peet, and much more than this website has done - to advance the appreciation of quality coffee, especially amongst consumers.

With that out of the way... after reading Ken's head to head testing of the Italian blends vs. the US blends, an opinion I've had about Ken for a few years now is even more strengthened: Ken may have forgotten more about coffee, origins, roasting, and cupping than I've ever learned in my nearly 10 years in the specialty coffee arena, but I think Ken should stay away from any critical discussion about espresso and the evaluation of the beverage.

One key indicator of this was some verbage attributed to Ken Davids on the Aeropress packaging:

"When used properly, AeroPress produces a remarkably good straight espresso and an excellent Americano-styled taller cup. In fact, it produces a better espresso shot than many home machines that cost twenty or thirty times as much."
- Ken Davids

Another is that Ken himself admitted to me that he doesn't consider himself a skilled barista and tends to utilise the services of others for pulling evaluative shots. And there's been other indications over the years that perhaps Ken.... well, perhaps he just needs to stay away from any critical or evaluative discussion about espresso, at least where espresso is today, worldwide (not just Italy or the US).

When reading the introduction on Coffee Review, I noticed there was no discussion (or as I like to put it, "transparency") about how the shots were pulled, dosed, or ground, what machine or what grinder were used, in what environment, nothing. Given that there was a wide range of roast styles on the table, from the uber dark (I didn't say charred) Peets and Starbucks to the extra medium-light Illy and Segafredos, a skilled barista would know that, at the very least, each of these roast levels would need different brewing temperatures. Dark roasts like cooler brewing temperatures. It's one of the reasons that many drip machines can do okay with a Starbucks roast, because their super-dark levels like brewing life in the low 190s and even the 180s. On the other side of the spectrum, lighter roasts typically like higher brewing temperatures - an Illy level roast (or, for instance, Epic from 49th Parallel) likes life in the 198-202F range on an espresso machine.

Add another variable that a truly skilled barista or espresso expert would know: different bean types and different roast levels require different grinds and different doses to get the most out of those blends.  And even other variables come into play. If you're an "any coffee, any machine, any grinder" kinda barista, part of your skill set would be to identify what the bean or blend wants most, then adjust your variables to match. No PID controlled machine? Fine - surf the pressurestat or thermometer when pulling the shot. Can't get cool enough for that extra char... er, dark roast? Cool the portafilter down first by leaving it out of the machine, and let it become a bit of a heat sink for the grouphead. Etc, etc.

Back to Ken and his reviews. If all the coffees were brewed on the same machine, with the same doses, with the same temperatures, and the machine was skewed towards favouring a lighter roast, of course Black Cat (which is roasted darker and darker these days, it seems) is going to fare badly. So is Peets (though it scored higher than BC!!), and for that matter, Starbucks. Any southern Italian style roast will die in conditions that show off a northern Italian blend well.

So basically, knowing what I know about most of the coffees Ken rated (I've tasted and pulled shots with seven of the blends he rates), something appears to be skewed with his method of pulling shots and tasting, based on those ratings.

I was also concerned that a common factor with Italian blends in Canada (and probably the US) wasn't mentioned in the CoffeeReview reviews: age of the beans. At best, with the coffee transported its usual method (via ship containers), any bag of Italian-roasted coffee you'll buy at the store is at least a month old and probably closer to two or three months old. Coffee is volatile and ages. Aging is never a good thing for coffee, and this would be an immediate knock against any Italian blend tried over on these shores.

BTW, rumour has it (totally unconfirmed): all shots were pulled on a super auto. Meh. (Addendum: Matt Miletto of Bellissimo Coffee Group says he pulled shots of all the coffee with Ken and a group of others but does not know if his shot pulls were the ones actually used for the ratings)

Hey - rumours like this are gonna fly around, unless you're completely transparent with your testing methodology and practises! With the article I have planned out, I'll fully detail exactly how we pulled each test shot (with lots of dial in shots to get there, no doubt). I've already bought $90 worth of coffee for the Italian side of the big battle. It should happen in this weekend, and hopefully, the article will be up a week or two after.

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Battle Italy Sneak Peak
As a sneak peak, Battle Italy has been done, and as I type this, Battle N. America is about to begin. Vince Piccolo pulled the Italian blends, and a surprise barista will pull the US / Canadian blends. Here, Vince is examining some of the beans in the Illy Medium Roast can.

Incidentally, I didn't go with Ken's choices. Initially I was going to do just that, and source all the coffees he used, from the same sources, but after talking to a few of my Italy-based amigos and the dudes at Bosa Foods, I changed the lineup. I really, really want to give the Italian blends their best shot at besting the select North American blends we'll be using, And let me tell you, getting some recommendations from people with an .it email address in August is damned near impossible - everyone's on friggin' vacation in that country for the entire month.

So here's the coffees we are going with, representing the great country of Italy:

- Pellini Caffe "Top" (website), a 100% arabica blend and the company's top coffee blend - also one of the favourites of pretty much all the friends I polled in Italy.
- Pellini Caffe "Aroma Oro", the company's top blend with some robusta
- Segafredo "Intermezzo", (website), their "standard" espresso arabica / robusta blend, and one of their biggest sellers
- Segafredo "Metropol" (website), considered their best arabica / robusta blend, and supposedly better than the Massimo Ken tested
- Illy "Medium Roast" whole bean, all arabica
- Lavazza "Qualita Oro" (website) considered one of the company's top blends and 100% arabica
- Lavazza "Qualita Rossa", considered their best arabica / robusta blend (and supposedly much better than the robusta-laden "super crema" blend that Ken tested on Coffee Review)

These are mostly different coffees from the one Ken used, with the exception of the Illy. Again I have to reiterate that we decided to go with what was recommended by people I consider experts in the field as some of the best internationally available blends from Italy, or in the case of the Intermezzo, the most popular. As for the testers, well, I'm lining up some pretty strong palates and skills to test out the coffees. I plan to have WBC finalists, Canadian barista finalists and winners, and some master baristas participating. The tests and reporting will be as transparent as possible, and as fair as possible to all the blends. This means each coffee will get its own fine tuning before being officially "tasted". And we'll be doing milk drinks as well as straight shots.

For the US / Canada side of the battle royale, I have the following coffees set up to brew:

- Intelligentsia Black Cat (website)
- Counter Culture Coffee's Espresso Aficionado Blend (website)
- Allegro Coffee's Organic Espresso Bel Canto (website)
- Ecco Caffe's Ecco Reserve Northern Italian Blend (website)
- Ecco Caffe's Ecco Reserve Organic Blend
- Ritual Coffee Roaster's Espresso Blend (website) - hopefully, it hasn't arrived yet
- 49th Parallel Roaster's Epic Blend (website)

Pretty much all of these coffees are done in the "Northern Italian Style" roast (says so right on some of the labels), or are very close - probably the darkest of the bunch is Black Cat, and the lightest is probably the Ecco Reserve, but the colour between all are very, very close.

And one more thing. The only absolutes in our test are this:

- the shots must be pulled from a 14 g Synesso sourced basket (but can be updosed, downdosed, whatever works best)
- the presented shots must be "WBC" style doubles. Meaning the barista has to produce between 45 and 60 mls from one shot pull using the double basket, and the shots are brewed into two cups.

Everything else is a variable the barista can control for each coffee blend - grind, dose, levelling, tamp, brewing temperature, heat of cups, the works.

Anyway, that's the setup. I hope I can write the payoff. I'm also considering giving the Italian blends a bonus set of points, to counteract the age issue - all the US / Canadian blends I have for the testing are between 5 days and 2 weeks old. My best guess on the Italian blends? Youngest is probably 45 days old, but most are 60-90 days old or older.

But the test will be done. Either we'll try to prove Ken Davids does know what he's talking about when it comes to espresso, or maybe that espresso is a brewing method best left to others.

Article rating: 8.8
Posted: September 1, 2007
feedback: (55) comments | read | write
State of Coffee Column Archives email author
Mark PrinceColumn Description
This regular column will tackle the world of espresso and coffee, including all the theories, controversies, changes and structures that make up this world. A heavy emphasis is placed on the online coffee community, and one thing this column won't do is pull any punches. Every week we'll feature the up's and downs, a quick yet detailed rundown of things that are good and not so good in the coffee world.

Read Author Bio

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