My perspective on Unification

Disclaimer: I work part-time as Senior Creative Advisor for SCAA, a role that began last August.

I work in coffee because of the people in coffee – the great coffee is simply a benefit. It’s taken me around the world and connected me to an incredible community that never seemed to recognize borders, certainly I never did.

From the early days of Flickr, the community has always been at once global and intimate to me. We connected because we wanted to learn more, and knew we were the minority in a big industry. From there, technology, events, volunteerism and friendships kept us in touch.

To me, SCAA and SCAE always felt like two departments of the same vision, except each one spelled a word differently. My involvement in competition, and subsequently with World Coffee Events – a company co-owned by both associations, showed me what a unified model would look like.

With staff spread across four continents, and the support of the parent associations, and impassioned volunteers, the WCE is able to produce events that engage coffee communities all around the world, providing valuable exposure and connectivity to producers, roasters, baristas, importers, allied companies, local communities, and home enthusiasts. It works great.

I’ve been fortunate to travel a lot in my career, and often feel the perspective shifts resulting from such travel invaluably inform my professional competency.

I’ve worked in Dublin, London, a few weeks in Canada and Chicago. Volunteering and events have allowed me to travel the world and learn first hand about the beauty of our diversity. Engaging that diversity taught me a lot,  but also emboldened me to hang on to my preferences,  something I was most recently chided over when Charles Babinski mocked my preference for the single-shot 5 oz cappuccino during our live-commentary for the WBC in Dublin.

I cherish the things that make us different, it keeps things interesting. I oppose anything that would seek to homogenize our industry and do not accept that this proposed Unification would do that. I mean for goodness sake, it’s Specialty Coffee. It’s the idea that not all coffee tastes the same, that some is really delicious from one part of the world made by one bunch of people, and another tastes really delicious but different because it was grown in a different part of the world by a different bunch of people. In what world would anyone act to blend it all together!?

If they did, I wouldn’t work for that association, and I wouldn’t be a member. I joined SCAA as an advisor last summer, and saw first-hand how committed the staff and leaders are to embracing and promoting diversity. The constant conversation is ‘how can we better serve members, how do we get stronger but stay local’. I knew SCAA had good people, but was genuinely blown away by how true their intent is. Any of my close friends reading this will have heard me report as much over the past year.

Bringing the associations together seems like a no brainer to me and I’m yet to hear a convincing argument why it shouldn’t happen. It’s an important decision, and there should absolutely be discussion, but I have little time for fear-mongering and personal attacks.

If you are in a position to vote, or in a position to encourage the person at your company who is able to vote – I encourage you to learn about the SCAA and SCAE’s proposal at SCAAUNIFICATION.ORG. If you are curious to hear an opposition argument, you can find one here as rebutted by Nick Cho, and another rebuttal of the same post by Heather Perry – here.

Please vote. Thanks


Uppers & Downers

Photos by Eva Dietch

I haven’t had a chance to write about this before, largely because my co-conspirator Michael Kiser always does it so much better on his grown-up website, yet Uppers & Downers is something I’m extremely proud of and excited about. What started as a fun partnership a few years ago during my time at Intelligentsia, has grown into an ongoing series that’s returning in February and going new places in 2016.

Coffee beers confound me. I love coffee, I love beer, and I want to like when they come together but I often don’t. I often find that the final product is just fine, fine meant in a somewhat anaemic sense. Too often they feel like craft beer appropriating craft coffee, but using it in a commodity fashion. Instead of tasting qualities that make specialty coffee interesting, many beers that boast the inclusion of a certain roaster or specific coffee just manifest a note of roast in the final drink. There are certainly exceptions however, and what has always excited me most is the opportunity to create something delightful, something better than the sum of its parts.

UppersAndDowners_Chicago15-82.jpgCoffee culture shares wonderful parallels with beer culture, parallels that I cherish just as much as the contrasts between them. I think coffee has a huge amount to learn from beer, but I think beer has a lot to learn from coffee too. I admire so much about how breweries work alongside one another and the way they distinguish themselves in such a crowded market. Yet I think coffee has a stronger focus on ingredient, what we lack in controlling process, we somewhat make up on by identifying the source of quality.

Uppers & Downers is an event series designed to explore the marriage of coffee and beer. It takes shape in different forms, pub quizzes, fun merchandise, intimate events and big events, namely our festival – which is returning for its second year on Feb 20 in the beautiful Thalia Hall. We’re partnering with Intelligentsia, the great people at La Marzocco, and a host of other fantastic roasters and brewers to give guests a dynamic sensory experience that’s unique, fun and delicious.

Read more about it at Good Beer Hunting, tickets go live tomorrow. See you there?UppersAndDowners_Chicago15-147.jpg

Next steps

July 31st will be my last day working for Intelligentsia Coffee. I’m leaving to focus on a new project I’m creating here in Chicago. It’ll be a little while ’til it opens, but in the meantime I’ll be working with some friends in the industry, and spending more time with my family.

Intelligentsia has been an incredible company to work for, and I firmly believe its best days are ahead. Doug Zell created a culture that was inspiring, demanding, and rewarding. He gave a long leash but told you to hustle. He empowered you to succeed and instilled a sense of self-critique that’s impossible to switch off. Intelli’s successes sometimes led to a perception of arrogance, and while there were certainly moments of swagger,  there was never anyone more sensitive to our missteps than Doug and the rest of us.

Bolstered by giants like Geoff Watts and an incredible team too many to mention individually, Intelligentsia taught me so much about what coffee can be, and how business works. At a time when exciting coffee things are happening everywhere you look, Intelligentsia has always been the place I felt I could learn the most. A lot of friends have benefitted from this culture and either went on to do other things, or continued the endless pursuit for better at Intelli. I’ll miss my colleagues, but I’m excited to keep drinking the coffee they make for many years to come.


I think my favorite vessel for drinking brewed coffee is glass. I’m still looking for the perfect one, but I like when they only hold a few ounces. There’s something about how it celebrates the colors of the brew, and as my friend Geoff said at work, it makes you want to drink that last mouthful where sometimes the same mouthfeel at the end of a deep mug can seem less appealing.

I’ll always like mugs, and enjoy the range thats possible. But I think I enjoy having a mug rather than drinking from it. I look at sites like this svpply or this gem, and imagine myself sitting in my minimalist apartment drinking another roasters coffee, trying for the third time to read Freedom and sipping from my charming mug. It’d be a Sunday or maybe a less interesting public holiday, and I’d probably consider trying to capture the whole thing on Instagram.

The reality though is that my cupboards are full, and I don’t have room for all these fucking mugs. When I drink  my attention is split between how it tastes and whatever it is I’m working on – normally a mix of dealing with green card forms, wedding plans, trying to figure out just how much I spent over Christmas, or what the dreaded inbox looks like this morning. The point being that I don’t look at the mug.

Its the same at work – I grab one of the many mugs at work, or whichever one I left on my desk from the evening before. There are certainly some I prefer more than others, but if can’t find them its not really of any consequence. I just grab whatever, steal a cupful from whoever made a chemex last, and then go back to figuring out what type of wood grain the next app should be.

The absence of pride of possession at work is not that remarkable though. I work with people who judge you on what you do, not what you’re wearing, no matter how powerful and imposing your new Red Wings look. Which leaves two other environments, coffee shops and coffee to go.

I think the choice of what to serve coffee in is a significant one, and tells something about an operator. I’m slowly wearing of the thick lipped diner mugs that dominate the US. They hold the coffee just fine, and are nice to hug but they tend to make me dribble while I sip too aggressively – something I understand is not exclusive to me. I hope.

Paper cups? I go back and forth on these.

I hate them, and think they’re a reason we find it difficult to distinguish coffee as something culinary and complex. I love them for how they make something culinary and complex approachable and mobile.  They’re terrible for the environment and mute the sensory experience. I’m excited by the efforts of many to make non disposable options though am yet to see one I’d actually purchase. I love how I can walk around Chicago in the depths of winter, sipping my spud free and stupidly lush Burundi. Is it as good as the specially designed glass that allows me to savor the whole of the coffee? No. Is it delicious and mobile? Yes.

So when we reach that day when coffee enjoys the respect of wine, and has a discerning customer base willing to pay for the really good stuff, what will they be drinking out of? I’d like to think all of the options above will still be in play.

Coffee is a democratic drink. That shouldn’t change.

Brewing at home.

Every morning I make breakfast, and Jen makes the coffee. We rarely have cereal or yoghurt, but opt instead for different things with eggs. This comes from many failed attempts at committing to Paleo or more recently the Slow Carb diet. I’m quite certain that large parts of my being consist of butter, bacon and eggs, and whats more worrying is I don’t feel too bad.

This isn’t what I wanted to talk about though. The point is that Jen makes the coffee, not me. Its pretty much always a chemex, and if we’re feeling particularly groggy after a rager the night before ( read: watched three box sets in a row ), Jen’ll brew a cafe solo. The unapologetic heft from these spendy brewers is so bloody satisfying, but only when I’m in the mood for it. That 19%ish quality of Jen’s chemex’s is our default though, and its lovely.

On days when Jen’s off at zumba or cardio kickboxing or one of the other healthy things she does to combat the fat heavy diet that I’m forcing on her, I’ll brew my own coffee. Here’s when things get embarrassing. I always approach our Vario with a degree of anxiety and dread. Not because of any fault in the grinder, more that because I don’t use it enough.

See when I’m making coffee at work, I’ll use the Guat in the QC lab next to my desk. I like that grinder, and I’m pretty sure it likes me. I know what settings I like for a chemex, or a v60, or a french press. I like the height of it, and how it sort of stares me in the face with its big approachable dial. It has so many great lines and angles – to the extent that I think it would fit in perfectly in a death star canteen. The buttons are satisfying, and I always enjoy pulling that thing you pull to loosen the grounds suspended by static against the interior. I’m conscious however that the lab is the right place for this grinder, and that even if I could I wouldn’t put one in my apartment. No the vario is a fine grinder, but because I don’t use it every day, and because I don’t make coffee at home often, it is the first point of call in whats often an anxious few minutes.

I spend the entire brewing cycle dwelling ( sorry ) about variables. I wonder how much coffee should I use to purge. I wonder did I store the coffee properly, will 2 days off roast have a big impact – should I let the grounds sit a little before brewing or should I brew with hotter water? I wonder should I boil the water in the kettle, and then decant into the buono, or maybe bring all the water to a boil on the hob, I wonder how much water temperature matters anyway – I’m pretty sure Jen fills a cold buono with water 10 seconds off the boil, but her brews are always solid. Shit, what does Jen do agitation wise – why didn’t I watch her stirring technique instead of adding more butter to the scrambled eggs. I used non filtered hot water from the tap to rinse the filters, will I notice that in the cup? How good should I feel about the chemex filters breaking up the longer chains of fat and does that mean I should add some heavy cream to these eggs?

7 out of 10 times, I fuck up the brew. Its nearly always over extracted – chewy and obnoxious. I taste it and I see a dark color – kinda like maroon. Whatever sweetness and acidity I pulled into the water has been sat on by a big fat bear of carbs and blah.

What does it mean when I can only brew well in one location? Thinking back – Jen normally makes the coffee while checking Facebook on her phone. She doesn’t fuss about it, and when I drink it I don’t think about it, and its lovely. I know if I worked on it, I could hone my brewing at home skills, and reduce the margin of error – but I’m not sure which is more disconcerting; that my skills don’t copy and paste from location to location, or that not thinking about all those skills and how they manifest in the cup I’m drinking might help it taste better.

Conclusion? Slow cooked eggs made with lots of butter go really well with coffee someone else made. Also – it started snowing in Chicago today.


I’m sitting on my first Amtrak train on a warm unexpected spring evening in Chicago. Its chugging along slowly, taking me away from Union Station, back towards the direction of my apartment west of downtown and in a moment, past the roasting works of Intelligentsia Coffee, the company I now work for.

During the day, the two floors of the works are busy with people slurping, hauling, pouring and thinking about coffee as well as an ever growing contingent thinking about tea. Its 8pm and normally the works are empty at this time but as I look out for the now familiar corner of Fulton and Wolcott rushing past, I know that there is one room on the second floor that is not empty.

That room is brimming with a ridiculous collection of spices, glassware, napkins, spoons, cups, sugars, dried fruits, fresh fruits, milk, delicious coffee and coffee machines. In addition there are two friends working tirelessly to perfect a fifteen minute service of twelve plus espresso based drinks in anticipation of the Great Lakes Barista Regional Barista Competition which begins this Friday in Milwaukee, the city I’m currently en route to.

We have three people entering this regional; Charles Babinski, Jesse Crouse and Michael Phillips. They have somehow found time in whats been a hectic start to 2010 to find the right coffee, hone the necessary skills, source the necessary tools and create a signature drink that communicates their approach to coffee, and their mastery of brewing.

If they place in the top three, the company will book their flights and accommodation to go compete in the USBC in Anaheim this April. I think each of them has the ability to do just that but am conscious of the serious standard this regional boasts. Judges will be treated to some of the best in the country brewing drinks with clever but earnest passion.

The train is going a lot faster now and its hard to type. I’m worried the music I’m playing in my poor quality ear phones (I left my Grado on my desk) is disturbing the other passengers. I am the reluctant cliche of an ex pat who starts to cling to his homeland only when he’s far from it; currently Paul Brady’s cover of Arthur Mc Bride is humming away. Despite such attachments though, I’ve been softly informed by my girlfriend that I’m picking up a few too many americanisms and a little too quickly at that. I say ‘right’ and ‘nice’ a lot more than I used to and at unusual points in conversation. I like to think I do it to only to make sure I’m understood ( something thats always been a challenge), but I suspect these habits may become me. I don’t know for certain either way, nor do I know with any certainty how the next few days will pan out.

The only thing I’m assured of is that this weekend, Milwaukee promises good coffee, good people, and a new city. How does your weekend look?

A note on Paris

Its not like I went to every cafe in the city, and I hate sweeping statements more than most, but good lord the coffee in Paris was rough. Its been a while since I’ve tasted really bad stuff and while I sit on this plane to Italy, tapping these words away furiously on my laptop and getting worried looks from my neighbors (the beard has grown), I’m trying to figure out why its bothering me so much…

I was back home in Ireland unexpectedly early last week due to the passing of my Grandad. He was 89, married 63 years and was one of the funniest men I knew, and most likely responsible for my own sense of humor that if nothing else has made me laugh, if often unaccompanied. He wanted us to sing ‘How Great Thou Art’ at his funeral, insisting that we all stand and point at his coffin as he was carried out. We didn’t, even thought the priest thought it was hilarious and thought we should.

It was lovely being home for all the usual reasons. Sadly though, in my absence my parents had gone through the end of all the beans I’d brought home on my last trip and in despair had invested in some pre ground stuff from the local supermarket. I was able to spend the following days surviving on tea refusing to bother brewing the muddy stuff they’d bought which may have been a little snobby of me and I was surprised I was able to go without for 4 days, but seemingly my missing cheap black tea with milk while abroad needed addressing first. It seems they need coffee more than I do.

However, when Jen and I set off for Paris last Friday, I must say I was looking forward to enjoying true French pastries and sipping even only OK coffee on the quiet streets of Montmatre or Marais. The first morning, I woke up and looked up the NY Times website and searched ‘best breakfast Paris’ which didn’t come up with much so I looked up ‘best croissant’ and found an article about a boulangerie called Laduree which was only a few blocks away.

Seemingly this place was famous for carrying two different types of croissants, their original recipe, and one brought in by a new owner who thought it needed a change but was greeted with many disgruntled parisians who wanted the old one. So now, you can either try their croissant l’ancienne, or croissant traditionnel. Having always wanted to taste the perfect croissant we set off.

Initially I was a little put off by the extravagant style of Laduree. I suppose it was fitting for Rue Royale with Dior and Cartier across the road, but I was immediately anxious we were about to be ripped off and that Laduree may be just another tourist trap, a classic example of style over substance. The windows are filled with what looked like bars of soaps, colorful macaroons and lots of small pretty packaging, and looking in we could see a throng of people buying goodies over a counter.

We edged our way inside, and found rather than getting take out, we could have a seat and be served by a waiter. To hurry this along and get to the point, the service was a lot more pleasant than many of our other experiences in Paris, but were the others lacked manners, they made up in their efficiency; Laduree took 15 to 20 minutes to bring us a two cappuccinos, a croissant and a pain au chocolat, another 15 minutes to bring the bill once asked, and then another 15 to collect it and bring back change. But the coffee Stephen, and the food,…

As you can see in the photo, the cappuccinos were pretty rough. It looked liked they’d grated chocolate on top, which I guess if you’re gonna use chocolate is probably a nice way of doing it. Jen had asked in her superior french that the coffees weren’t too hot, something I find hard to warrant the delay in preparation but you never know. Maybe its like when you ask for no pickle in your Big Mac and it takes forever, not that I ever go to Mc Donalds….being the slow food bio dynamic creature that I am…….

So moving on, the froth clearly was very frothy. I hate that word. Well no, I hate froth. That horrible aerated hallmark of badly textured, often burnt milk. The word foam evokes much nicer sensory memories. For me, in the context of milk, foam means OK, froth means nasty.

Oddly the temperature was OK, but I think they may have just added some cold milk at the end. The taste itself was just rank. I really really don’t like dirty machines, especially that dirty machine taste. Well this cappuccino just tasted like licking a dirty portafilter basket with a hint of chocolate (from the actual chocolate – not a nuance of the coffee) and a little bit of flat un-sweet froth. Bitter, ashy and wrong.

The croissants however were incredible. Everything from the texture, to the aroma, to the sound of them tearing to the heavenly taste. Has anyone ever put heavenly down as a descriptor for their coffee? That’d be hilarious. Someone should do it in competition, unless their judges are atheists, in which case they’d be looking for a non existent flavor descriptor which might be tough.

So the bill comes, and its €15.70. First reactions are a little alarmed but then we figure well considering our central location in the city, the luxury surroundings and the famed pastries, I guess it was to be expected. However, on closer inspection, we realise that the two croissants came to only €5.10, and that the two cappuccinos were priced at €5.30 each!

Initially I was prepared to accept the cost of the bill. The croissants exceeded my expectations and were clearly the result of quality ingredients, quality preparation and years of tradition and experimentation. I doubt very much that the same can be said for the cappuccinos.

Oddly, Jen and I went back the next morning to try the french toast, easily the best I’ve ever had and priced at only €6.20. Fascinated, we combed through the menu to find that a coke cost €6.50! Why on earth would they charge more for a coke than their french toast. I mean if the french toast was €15, I probably could understand, and honestly would probably happily pay it, but why on earth would you charge more for a coke!

I don’t like naming and shaming, and have never done it before online, but this left me truly baffled. It is unlikely Laduree are aware of their low quality coffee offering, and I doubt they chose to make it so low, however, why they would price the coffee and a coke above their excellent food offering is beyond me.