Experiment and Explore Coffee: The Depths

It seems my ability to write and publish here once a week has come to a halt. Recently it’s been more like once every two or three weeks. This is due to an odd feeling I only recently identified, a feeling that is the opposite of what I expected.

The more I learn about coffee, the less qualified I feel to write about it.

My coffee journey of late has taken me from the old forum of Coffeed, tracing the footsteps of some of specialty coffee’s big names, to the wild west that is coffee roasting chemistry in the GreenCoffeeBuyingClub.com forum. Despite all that I’ve learned from these treasure troves of knowledge, I haven’t felt the adequacy to write even an introductory post on a more advanced topic.

It’s simply too complicated for me to wrap my mind around, but I can’t stop trying.

This’ll Blow Your Mind

  • The soil moisture, soil type, and available nutrients matter to coffee.
  • The average rainfall, humidity, and amount of sunshine matter to coffee.
  • The altitude, air pressure, and oxygen concentration matter to coffee.
  • The plant height, varietal, and age matter to coffee.
  • The time of year, the ripeness of the cherry, and the hands that pick it matter to coffee.
  • The style of washing, the length of drying, and the thoroughness of defect testing matter to coffee.
  • The packaging, the shipping container, and company of trans-ocean travel matter to coffee.
  • The speed of the importer, the warehouse of the distributor, and artificial climate of the roaster’s storage matter to coffee.
  • The experience of the roaster, the patience of the bossman, and the quality safeguards matter to coffee.
  • The size of the drum, the smallest temperature adjustments, and the degree of roast matter to coffee.
  • The type of packaging, the speed of the postal service, to the temperature inside the box matter to coffee.
  • The grinder’s uniformity, the water hardness, and water temperature matter to coffee.
  • The pour-over cone shape, the barista’s technique, and his standards of quality matter to coffee.
  • The elixir temperature, the environment it’s drank in, and the drinker’s palate matter to coffee.

And That’s Only the Beginning

There’s so much to know, and so much more than is unknown to anyone. So I ask for your patience in producing quality content that appeals not only to professionals and enthusiasts, but also to the average home-brewing coffee lover. I am determined not to back away from the ocean of mystery that is coffee.

Next time you brew a delicious cup of coffee, watch the entire thing happen. Incredible, isn’t it?

Don’t leave without checkout these posts:

Summer Barista Sins: 5 Mistakes I Made As A New Barista

Having been a barista at Yellow House Coffee now for close to ten weeks, I’ve committed my share of barista sins. Though most were fairly innocent and understandable for a half-trained barista, some of them were just downright stupid. For your enjoyment and my future reference, I’ve decided to tell some stories of this summer’s barista sins.

An Apology to the Victims

My sincerest apologies if any of these crimes were committed against you. My mistakes were unnecessary and should have been prevented by clearer and calmer thinking.  I appreciate your incredible patience, friendliness, and forgiveness.

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Cinnamel Latte

Right when I began espresso drinks a man came in and ordered two caramel lattes to go for him and his lady friend. Being the noob I was (some would say I still am), I shot in some cinnamon syrup instead of caramel. In my defense, they look almost identical. The man walked right out the door and drove away. Poor fellow had to deal with the wrath of an angry woman who wanted caramel.

The Weight of Brown Sugar

There are a couple women who regularly order brown sugar lattes. These lattes are sweet, but not quite as aggressively sweet as the flavored lattes. I tared the scale, threw some brown sugar in the cup, and began the pre-infusion. I noticed that the shot had pulled way too fast and heavy, so I dumped it and tried again, thinking I had pre-infused way too much. The second shot I apparently didn’t pre-infuse enough, although the weight and time aligned how they should have. Happily, I delivered the latte.

Then it hit me.

The reason the first shot seemed to pull so fast was because I hadn’t zeroed the scale after inserting the brown sugar. The mysterious extra weight was the brown sugar, not over-extracted espresso! So what happened the second shot when it pulled the correct weight? The espresso was actually pretty under-extracted. Blast.

Lost Shots

One day I prepared two iced caramel lattes for a gentlemen. Except I forgot to pull the espresso shots. Syrup and milk – yum.

Steamed Iced Latte

I also tried steaming and pouring milk for an iced latte once. You can probably imagine the look on my manager’s face as I poured a heart into a clear, plastic cup, and then was confused about where to put the ice.

Oops Art

Before my milk was consistent, I had a problem with over-aerating. On one occasion the extra foam in the milk pitcher blobbed into the latte cup in the shape of a not-so-innocent male body part. Gave it a swirl with the whisk and all was good.

It’s Only the Beginning

There were many other sins committed this summer, most of them in the form of mis-delivered drinks, forgot orders, and spilled milk. But that’s the way of learning, I guess.

It’s unfortunate that several guests had to be on the receiving end of my poor thinking and lack of skill, but those days are passing away. I haven’t committed a barista crime as serious as these in weeks, and my general confidence and problem solving skills have increased dramatically. Although mistakes are bound to happen every once in a while, the days of frequent remakes and awkward service are over.

With Autumn fast approaching comes the rush of thirsty students. I am ready.

A Third Crack at Home Roasting

I’m determined to be able to produce consistently enjoyable coffee using my home roaster, a West Bend Poppery. I didn’t have great success with my first attempt, but the results were satisfying, because, of course, it was only my first attempt. Round 2 wasn’t all that wonderful either. There had to be something I could do to improve my amount of control and consistency.

Enter Mods

There are several resources around the web on modding the West Bend Poppery to dramatically increase control by separating the heater and fan and assigning variable control to each of them independently. So whereas before I simply turned on a switch to power the heater and fan, I now am able to control the amount of power delivered to each of them, thanks to simply adding a dimmer switch and plug to the fan and a router speed controller to the original plug (now connected only to the heater).

west bend poppery mods

The guides I found for doing this were not very clear at all, but I was able to piece together information. Maybe I’ll make my own tutorial in the future.

Roasting with Increased Control

For my first roasts with this new level of control I chose Rwanda Karenge Coffee Villages from Sweet Maria’s and gave two 115g batches a shot. Here they are:

First Roast

115g in, 101g out
First Crack: 12:15
Drop: 13:30
Cooling: 5:00

Temperatures
Preheated to 200F
0:30 – 153
1:00 – 172
1:30 – 181
2:00 – 186
2:30 – 193
3:00 – 200
3:30 – 205
4:00 – 216
4:30 – 227
5:00 – 238
5:30 – 250
6:00 – 264
6:30 – 281
7:00 – 300
7:30 – 313
8:00 – 318
8:30 – 325
9:00 – 342
9:30 – 357
10:00 – 374
10:30 – 390
11:00 – 402
11:30 – 415
12:00 – 421
12:30 – 426
13:00 – 430
13:30 – Drop

Results
Bitter citrus slight maple middle, minimal aftertaste, somewhat balanced but not great, on the right track

Rwanda Karenge Coffee Villages 1

Second Roast

115g in, 101g out
First Crack: 8:20
Drop: 9:30
Cooling: 5:00

Temperatures
Preheated to 200F
0:30 – 158
1:00 – 182
1:30 – 191
2:00 – 196
2:30 – 201
3:00 – 206
3:30 – 215
4:00 – 239
4:30 – 270
5:00 – 299
5:30 – 328
6:00 – 355
6:30 – 382
7:00 – 398
7:30 – 404
8:00 – 410
8:30 – 411
9:00 – 413
9:30 – 415, Drop

Results
Slight over-acidic front, muddy citrus apple middle, bad aftertaste

Rwanda Karenge Coffee Villages 2

Forward!

Initially I bought a bean sampler from Sweet Maria’s, but now I see that I will learn more from a 5lb bag of a single bean. 1lb just isn’t enough to get to know how a bean works and behaves.

I am optimistic that my skills will be able to be honed by my new ability to control and manipulate fan and heater power. Of course my beans won’t ever match those of Counter Culture’s, but I’m committed to getting as close as I can!

My First Week As A Barista At Yellow House Coffee

As many of you saw on Twitter (follow me!), I recently was given a job at a local coffee shop, Yellow House Coffee. The shop isn’t grand in size, but the quality of the coffee and the community make up for that in a heartbeat. Yellow House opened almost a year ago in the Summer of 2013 and has made quite a name for itself in the Lubbock community for serving incredible coffee, and not lacking a welcoming spirit. I am very proud to now be a part of this team.

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I began training with the owner, Lance, last Tuesday, and have learned bookoos of things concerning customer service and preparing product. I’ve had many successes, but I’ve also had a pretty good share of mistakes. I present to you a recounting of my first week:

Day One – Tuesday, the 20th of May

My first day was better than I could have imagined. I am an espresso prodigy. Just kidding. I’ve barely even looked at our machine.

Lance, my fearless leader, was extremely patient with my nearly complete lack of knowledge of Yellow House’s procedures and walked me through many of the basics. Engaging with customers, using the register, and preparing simple drinks and pastries were on the list for day one. It wasn’t difficult, but I did experience a jolt of adrenaline when half a dozen people walked through the door only ten minutes into my first shift. Talk about having to learn the register quickly!

I broke a sweat the first time I charged a woman incorrectly. How could I do such a thing to an innocent woman?! At another point I forgot to fill up the rest of a man’s mug (I was waiting for the french press to finish brewing) and I spotted him driving away. He paid for a full cup, and only got three fourths. I beat myself up over that one too. Then I realized some things are bound to happen every once in a while. Staying calm and learn from it.

Day Two – Thursday, the 22nd of May

8908My second day of training was just as great as the first, if not better, but also had its share of mistakes. At one point I delivered a lemonade and a water to the woman who ordered it – or so I thought. About ten minutes later the woman who was supposed to receive those drinks walked to the bar and very politely reminded us that her order hadn’t been fulfilled. Oops. Lesson learned: pay attention to who orders what.

Later on Lance challenged me to prepare three items as efficiently as I could: a cookie, a Clever, and a chai latte. My first attempt turned out well for the products, but it took me a whopping ten minutes. Too long. Upon my second attempt, I broke the cookie, steamed the milk horribly, and knocked over the Clever, spilling coffee all over the counter and floor. But I chopped off three minutes of my time. Lesson learned: don’t sacrifice quality for speed – learn to master both at the same time.

Small mistakes aside, I had a great time. Lance reviewed the brew methods and ratios with me, got me started with a bit of milk steaming, and I became much more confident with the register and pastries. An excellent day two it was.

Day Three – Saturday, the 24th of May

Saturday mornings are typically rush times at Yellow House. Customers pour in by the dozens to experience fresh coffee and cinnamon rolls, and listen to live music. Needless to say, I was kind of nervous. Luckily, there were two other employees with me and the rush was less intimidating due to heavy rain and the exodus of students from Lubbock for the summer.

Still, more people were ordering more products than I had the pleasure of experiencing on Tuesday and Thursday, leading to some great training on time efficiency and multitasking. To my surprise and delight, I was hardly nervous. I was actually quite relaxed, and I think it made a big difference on my performance and on the people we were serving. Customers like to be greeted by happy and relaxed baristas.

I greatly look forward to learning and improving in every way, but I’ve got my eyes set on discovering how espresso works. It’ll be a while before I’m skilled with pulling shots or steaming milk, but I am determined to be the very best I can be.

The Future of Coffee Brew Guides

As you may have noticed, I’ve slowly began turning this site from a stoic “guide” blog, to more of a personal one. I really enjoy writing about my own coffee journey and want to deliver more of that. I won’t drop the guides or news coverage at all – I love that too! But I don’t want to shy away from sharing parts of my life with you.

I hope you will continue to go on this journey with me. I look forward to serving you.

 

Experiment and Explore Coffee: The Advanced Basics

I approach coffee in a way most haven’t yet realized is possible: with excitement and eagerness. With eyes opened to a whole world of flavors, brewing methods, and people, how could I not be excited? The thrill of trying a new coffee (currently drinking a Geisha from Oak Cliff Roasters), a new way, with new people hasn’t left me yet, and I don’t think it ever will. Nor does it have any reason to.

Why should I allow that excitement to dissipate? Because I’ve tried it all? Because it’s just the same old same old? Those are terrible reasons. Life is freaking awesome, with so much to learn, so many people to meet. There’s always more to experience, more to appreciate, more to explore.

I’ve been learning to apply this perspective to all facets of my life. There are many obstacles, such as negativity, tiredness, and complacency, but I’m determined to push through those barriers and enjoy the life I have been given. Coffee has been one of the key ways I’ve learned to do this.

Here are some of my latest experiments and explorations in coffee.

The Siphon

siphon coffeeMy very loving parents bought me a siphon for Christmas. A siphon! It’s beautiful. Two years ago I never would have dreamed that I’d own a coffee brewing device that looks like it belongs on a lab. So cool. Not only is it nice to the eyes, the tongue appreciates it as well. Seriously, that thing produces coffee that blows people’s minds.

Experimenting with the siphon has enabled me to realize my complete lack on knowledge of physics, but it’s amazingly also causing me to become interested in it. In high school I hated physics. Now I am intrigued by it. All because of coffee.

Now brewing with the siphon isn’t the quickest method, it’s fairly high maintenance, and it isn’t an inexpensive device. I don’t recommend it to everyone for those two reasons. But if one of your modes of exploration in life is through specialty coffee, I must recommend getting one. Not because you want to be a snob or an elitist. That’s never a good motivation. But because the world is beautiful and because you want to explore it.

2014-03-25 20.18.22Cupping

I once saw a video of people cupping and thought, “What? This is dumb. Coffee is coffee is coffee.” I was so wrong. Little did I understand, that the bowls, spoons, and slurps all play an important role in the specialty coffee industry. It took me a while to accept this practice as legitimate, but when I did, it allowed my progression into the world of specialty coffee to accelerate dramatically.

Just a couple months ago I performed my own coffee cupping with a few friends. It didn’t exactly turn out how I wanted it to, but I was inspired to try again, and to keep growing. Realizing that cupping is a current weakness of mine has challenged me to press on, to continue adventuring into the unknown. I want to be able to taste coffees and pick out specific flavors. I want to be able to appreciate coffee that way.

Not because I want to be a snob or an elitist. That’s never a good motivation. I want to do these things because the world is beautiful and because I want to explore it.

Roasting

West Bend Poppery 1Roasting coffee is very new to me. I’ve only tried two 3oz batches so far, and they didn’t turn out too bad. My eyes have once again been opened up to a plethora of new knowledge to discover and moments to experience.

People sometimes ask why I want to roast my own beans if I can just buy them at a shop. My answer is always the same: I want to experience the art of roasting myself. I want to smell the aromas of caramelizing sugar in coffee beans. I want click the on and off switch on the popcorn roaster.

But I don’t want to do any of that to be a snob or an elitist. That’s never a good motivation. I want to do these things because the world is beautiful and because I want to explore it.

Don’t Stop, Never Stop

I don’t know why we allow ourselves to stop playing. With all the tools and opportunities this world offers us, why would we ever choose to stop having fun with what we do? Whether it be with coffee, music, teaching, building, running, programming or photographing, I pray that we never lose our sense of play.

For me, that play is exploring the specialty coffee industry. How do you play?

5 Ways to be Super Awkward in a Coffee Shop

5 ways to be super awkward in a coffee shop 3Coffee shops are places of community, peace and growth, but every once in a while they all become the venue for sickening awkwardness. It’s only natural for us humans to experience moods and attitudes that lead us toward odd and abnormal behaviors, but it doesn’t have to be commonplace.

Consider these five ways that a coffee shop is transformed from a center for gentleness and learning to a cave of tension. You have probably witnessed some of these events, and maybe even been the perpetrator. But now is the time to humble yourself and take very intentional steps toward avoiding these not-so-normal encounters. I advise you to not do the following.

1. Stop up the toilet, walk out nonchalantly

We all stop up our share of toilets. Most of the time it just isn’t our fault. Although there are ways of minimizing the risk of over-stuffing, such as a healthy diet and using conservative amounts of tissue paper, this event just happens. It’s awkward to begin with, but the common occurrence of simply walking out like your business left no mess is simply insulting to the establishment, its employees, and your dignity. Don’t be that guy. Own up to your messes.

For extra points, carry one of these around.

2. Meet EVERYBODY

Coffee shops tend to be pretty chill most of the time, with the occasional event that brings a more social atmosphere. While meeting people and progressing the community is generally encouraged, it can be taken too far. There’s always that extremist who wants too badly to meet and know everybody in the shop. He’ll interrupt your homework, he’ll interrupt the musician, he’ll interrupt the baristas. It’s good to interact with fellow coffee drinkers, but remember that they are probably there with purposes of their own.

3. Go behind the counter uninvited

If your brother owns the shop and you have all the baristas over for game night once a week, you’re probably good to behind the counter as you wish. If you’re a random regular who’s barely on a first name basis with a few of the employees, just stay your distance. Many shop owners are territorial and will feel invaded if you intrude on the employee’s space. It’s simply an odd thing to do and not really necessary in almost every circumstance. Chances are you are not the coolest guy around, so don’t assume you can go wherever you please.

4. Flatulate very loudly

It’s natural, you don’t have to fear it. But really, if you’re gonna let go and it’s going to bed an audible one, nobody will blame you if you take a quick stroll outside for some fresh air. If the problem persists, visit the restroom for goodness sake. Just remember to claim your stopped up toilet if it comes to that.

5. Tell everyone about your relationship problems

I’m sorry your boyfriend is sending you mixed signals and appearing uninterested. I really am. But what you need to do is ingest a chill pill, take your coffee cup that’s been empty for two hours to the counter, and take a walk outside. No offense, but it’s your boyfriend who needs to hear how you really feel, not the entire coffee shop.

Be patient with those who may act against this advice I am offering you, they are human too. But always be prepared to fight against the urge to be that guy. You are now enlightened. You now have no excuse. Bring enlightenment to all of those around you by sharing this article and participating with Coffee Brew Guides on Facebook, Twitter, and Google+.

Happy brewing!