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?

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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.

Your new Irish Barista Champion….

I’m writing this from my hotel room in Sao Paulo with large jet planes flying by meters from my window. I flew in a few hours ago, and feel quite lucky to have slept most of the direct flight from Frankfurt. You may be wondering how I’m writing yet another post that doesn’t fit what I promised to deliver in the poll a few posts back, but please know that I am writing that one up and will post it soon.

The reason for this post is to congratulate Colin Harmon on becoming the new Irish Barista Champion the day before yesterday. Colin works for Karl Purdy of Coffee Angel, himself a past Irish Champion who placed 15th in Bern. I was fortunate to be the head judge for the finals; a first for me but a task I now treat with a lot more respect – bloody difficult. Colin did a great job especially when he realised his incredible strength and yanked the left pf in so tight that he couldn’t get the right one in on the two group machine. He went to call a technical time out but a second later said he’d just go on, and ended up finishing well under despite having to use just one portafilter for his entire routine. Seems obstacles are to be a theme for Irish Baristas in this competition.

You can read more about Colin’s build up to the competition and I’m sure his preparations for Atlanta here.

I will post either about something from the poll or Brazil soonish.

Alright, Alright

So I haven’t forgotten your demands, but I’m gonna just write this quick in between post.

I’m in LA at the moment helping Intelligentsia prepare for the Western Regional Barista Competition. With 5 of the 6 finalists in the USBC last year hailing from this region, the competition is due to be tight.

In addition, the good people who’ve been working towards this for months have got some really cool events planned and a little bit of innovation in the layout of the whole thing. The event will be uploaded live on ustream, and theres already a blog where you’ll find lots updates in the lead up and throughout the competition.

Theres talk of me emceeing, along with my good pal Kyle Glanville and I’m told they’re working on finding translators for my thick brogue for the poor LA locals.

 

A new post.

I’ve been struggling to write anything for this in a while. The reason for this is not anything to do with my recent change of employment, but rather its got more to do with just not being quite sure what anyone’d be interested in hearing about. 

As you can no doubt quite easily believe, this is quite a quiet blog, both in output and readers. And while I’m aware this year I’m having is fairly unique and may be of some interest to someone, every post I start to write feels a little too familiar or samey.

I’m writing this on my first ever flight with Alaska Airlines, from Chicago to Seattle. Between this paragraph and the last I spent 25 minutes wondering what to write and trying to read what the person two rows ahead is typing on her laptop. I suspect, from her attire, its a fantasy novel, probably her first. I hoe it works out for her.

So heres what we’ll do. Seeing as I’m an indecisive, nosy individual, I’ll let you decide what you’re possibly interested in hearing about. I promise I will write a decent post on whatever you choose, and should numbers be very low, it will confirm my long held belief that no one really reads this or is bothered to hear what I’ve been doing anyway.

Which would you rather hear about?
1) Meeting Roberto Diaz, the farmer of El Bosque in Guatemala
2) Lets Talk Coffee in Armenia
3) A week with Geoff Watts in Cali.
4) The farms, consejos, cafes, baristas, personalities and varietal garden of El Salvador, some of them at least.
5) 10 days in Taiwan
6) My New GS3
7) The Canadian Barista Competition
8) Where I now work.

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edit: I must apologise, the only new employer I have is myself. I had heard rumours lately of where my new place or work might be, and seeing as they were all news to me, I thought it’d be funny to throw it in as an option. So baring that in mind, the next highest post is my week in Cali with Geoff.

I’m currently in Tacoma Seattle, helping judge the NWRBC. I may even post about it, but I’ll leave it a few days to see if any other option other than ‘my new job’ gets requests.

Seemed like a funny idea at the time, sorry to cause confusion. Its like the ‘news to me’ thing all over again.

Bittersweet Developments

This week, I decided to step away from my role in Square Mile Coffee Roasters. It wasn’t a light decision and resulted only after long discussion with James who has already announced it here.

I have been involved in Square Mile from the beginning and stepping away now just as the business is really establishing itself in London and contributing heavily to the burgeoning coffee community does seem a little odd. I have learned much from James and Anette and still feel incredibly excited about what Square Mile will achieve over the next few months and in the future. It has been a great honour to work with both of them and consider them close friends.

However in the last few months, I have been traveling extensively and learning at a rate thats been both daunting and inspiring. As wonderful as this has been, it has resulted in a very diminished role in the company preventing me from contributing as much as I’d like.

Being the last champion, James was very keen to allow me to get the most out of this year and avail of every opportunity and very kindly gave me that freedom. Knowing I might never have a year like it again, I have been able to visit  four origin countries in the last three months alone and discover all over again just how little I know about coffee, certainly on the agronomy side at least. 

I have come to realise that I want to maintain this rate of learning, continue to travel and still make time to see my family and of course Jenny who is really far too patient and understanding to deserve a big lump like me. To have that and still play an effective role in Square Mile Coffee is just not possible, and it is for that reason I decided it was necessary to leave.

Questions?