Uppers & Downers

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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.

Vessels.

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.

trip

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?