Wednesday, September 07, 2011

Improving Clarity

When it comes to coffee and espresso, clarity is important. We've had the same filtration system since we opened, and it's time to improve it. I've been wanting to upgrade our water filtration for a while now. I've ordered two Everpure Claris filter systems.

It is an adjustable filtration media that includes a five stage process for eliminating scale, dirt and fine particulates, odors/off flavors. I believe that for the money and simplicity it's the best system out there.

The Claris uses a Hydrogen (H+) ion exchange rather than a Sodium (Na+)exchange.

"The Claris resin is loaded with hydrogen (H+). The hydrogen ions dissolve the carbonates (CO32- and HCO32-) , and the resin then removes the calcium and magnesium ions (Ca2+ and Mg2+). This process also lowers the pH."

I will soon find out how it tastes.

Saturday, September 03, 2011

A Continuous Journey

I started roasting in 2005 on a little one and a half kilo roaster from Korea.

The IMEX Digirosto 1500.

It came with three main profiles, each which had a multitude of roast levels -- about three or four, were actually useful. In addition, it could entirely manual as well. For me, it was about setting the profile to what I wanted, and controlling the beginning and the end of the roast. If the roaster did it's job during the bulk of the roast, the results would be good. Great in fact. Now I might have skipped over the 40 to 60 pounds of charred, unusable, and just plain wrong batches that I slogged through. But it forced me to understand the balance between technology and craft, between science and art.

You can poke your finger and it won't hurt a bit, but that's if you poke it with a marshmallow. Poke it with a pin, it might be a little uncomfortable, but you'll draw blood.

Understand the tool you are using, but more important, produce results.

In late 2007, I had the opportunity to install another roaster. Because there is no need for venting, and the technology intrigued me, I knew that the best roaster for my needs would be the one from Fresh Roast Systems.

This roaster is precision quantified.

Made primarily for use in large high-end markets where venting is not possible, I was one of the first small roaster-retailers able to use one.

And like anything else, it's a tool.

While it's initially simplistic in it's operation, it's nothing but simplistic.
I could now roast with much greater precision. Airflow. Drum speed. Drum charge temp. Roast start temp. Roast finish Temp. All comprised within the Roasting Profile to the second. What you have to remove is your ego. Understand that those things that you think you are detecting, you're not. How to blend, how to change a roast, that's mostly art. The process itself is more science than art. As art it's more intuition than definition.

Understand the capabilities of the tool. Use it to its potential.
As a roaster, it involves no less thorough study.

But with greater capability for precision there was a need for greater investigation in profiling. Peaberry, Pacamara, SHB, Medium-soft Brazils, Wet Processed, Dry Processed... and any other permutation and combination of cultivar and processing method.

There's always more to learn, and it's that continuous thirst for zeroing in on what's important and discarding the tasteless overly intellectual pablum that keeps me moving forward.

In the end, the results are in the cup.

And the journey will continue.

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Espresso: Too soon is never "too soon"

Sometimes espresso is too fresh to use. But there are times when I need to pull shots sooner than expected. I usually wait several days after roasting before testing my espresso, but since we we're sold out on whole bean espresso, I needed to test a couple days earlier than usual.

At altitude espresso acts differently than at a lower elevation. What might be good at three to five days rest near the coast might need closer to seven days at altitude. So testing at less than 48 hours here involves some forecasting and manipulation.

I grind on the ultrafine end of espressodom, and knowing my components, I say 17 grams. Now keep in mind I'm just looking for tasting notes, not perfection at this point.

I pull the first shot and the crema is outrageously wild.

I tighten the grind a little more.

The crema is manageable and the aromatics are off the charts. Smell. Sip. Pause while my brain runs through my limited tasting vocabulary. Sip. Develop a mental tasting picture of the espresso. Finish. Ponder.

Now I stop pondering to think, and as I ponder my thoughts, I

Name it. Write it. Bag it.


"Soul Finger" -

This jazzy cacophony of flavors will leave you shouting joyously to the open ears of frantic handless pantomimes.

This three bean blend brings coffees from Sumatra Mandheling, Ethiopia Guji Quto Suke and a wonderful coffee from San Martin de Leon Cortes.

In the cup it's rhythmic raspberry and stone fruit with a punctuated praline-toffee sweetness.
Recommend: 198.5 – 199F, 17g, 28 S.

And it tastes exactly like it sounds.

This will be something special.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Good Methodology = Good Espresso

I love testing new espresso. I also love testing whether or not something will work as a Single Origin espresso or as a component for espresso. Today I had some extra Guji Suke Quto from last night's tasting class. Now I've used this as a component of an espresso, but I haven't really tried it as a Single Origin. Golden opportunity. This allowed me the opportunity to test without roasting an entire new batch, and if the roast level I used for the coffee will work or not.

So the question I am asking is, "Does it work?"

I'm pretty systematic about my testing. I know what range of grind to target, so I pick a midpoint and start from there. I keep the Synesso at the temperature set for the current espresso (199 F). No need to change until after I taste... but that's still a bit away.

One step at a time.

I tare the portafilter and grind. How much? I guess and see where I'm at. 17g. Ok. Tamp. And as Captain Picard says, "Engage!"

First I'm just watching for flow. It's too fast.

I adjust the grind a little finer. I dose the same weight. Looks a little better...
I'll give it a taste. Sip. Mild citrus, hint of nut. ... good, but it seems like it's lacking something. It's not a one dimensional coffee. I know there's more there. I just have to find it.

Let's approach 18 g.

Puck looks pretty good.

I always pull a second one so I know if it was a fluke or not, and it looks the same.



First sip - Candied ginger, sweet citrus and jasmine. Second sip - warm spice, a touch of bergamot, honey sweetness. Finish - dark honey to maple sweetness, restrained citrus, hint of spice.

Does it work?

I'd say, "Yes." But it's not that simple.

All coffees aren't this easy. Even when they work. Sometimes I go through ten or twelve shots and I'm about to give up, then everything comes together. And then it fades. The real question isn't "Does it work?" The real question is, "Can I do that again?"

Well, can I?

Grind. Dose. Distribute. Tamp.


And the answer is



Sunday, August 21, 2011

How to name an espresso: a study in serious amusement

We roast a different espresso every seven to ten days. About twenty-five percent are Single Origin, and the others are blends of three or less various coffees. I do in the neighborhood of thirty-five to forty various blends per year, and aside from the challenge of finding things that work well, there is the challenge of naming my blends.

I used to have only one espresso blend, "Mountain Mambo", and I did experimental blends now and again when I couldn't source what I wanted. I numbered those blends up until fifty-three, and then I decided that having new espresso was not only more challenging, but more rewarding to our customers. Over the past several years, I've named everything. Sometimes there is a rhyme or reason, and usually that reason is to amuse myself.

Here is a random sampling of some of our espresso over the past year and the rationale for naming them. Tasting notes are included so you know what you've been missing.

A Shot for Rita - Java Kopi Sunda and El Salvador Santa Rita. A cup of coffee or coffee being simply known as "java" led to this extrapolation of a shot of espresso, and hey, since Rita is here, it should be for her.

In the cup: Orange peel, plum, caramel sweetness w/ bittersweet chocolate finish.

Best Pancakes Ever! - Sun-dried Brazil Bahia and a micro-lot Colombia peaberry from Tolima. This tasted like an awesome syrup that would rock on pancakes. 'Nuff said.

In the cup: Dark berry syrup, warm fruit, caramel sweetness and a touch of cinnamon.

Luigi's Obsession - Brazil Yellow Catui and Uganda Bugisu. Luigi loves his plums!

In the cup: Italian plum and lemon with dense chocolate and caramel sauce background.

Baskerville - Regional Brazil from Minas Gerais and Kenya Kirinyaga Peaberry. Release the hounds! The huckleberry hounds.

In the cup: Raisin, peach, macadamia, with huckleberry highlights throughout.

The Odd Couple - Sumatra Takengon and Kenya Kirinyaga Peaberry. The size difference in these beans prompted the name.

In the cup: Fig, tropical fruit sweetness, and warm spice.

Braz in Pocket - Brazil Fazenda Aurea, PNG Kimel, PNG Baroida. BRAZil and PApua New Guinea. PA sound like in "pocket".

In the cup: Cocoa, clove, ginger, citrus finish.

The Hammer - Brazil Fazenda Colina, PNG Baroida Plantation. This was an intense espresso. A lot coming at you. When I think of intensity I think of strength, and a lot of strength from steroids. BaROIDa reminds me of steroids. So who historically was almost superhuman and could have possibly been on steroids, but we just don't know. John Henry, the steel drivin' man, he died with a hammer in his hand.

In the cup: Intense pecan and hazelnut with candied orange peel. Fruit and chocolate highlights.

Dodgy Jam - El Salvador Finca Matalapa Puerta Zapa, Costa Rica Finca La Ponderosa. When I tasted this espresso it was a funky Euro Pop beat with a twist. Imagine Rowan Atkinson and John Cleese dancing with a club full of fiery German and British youth.

In the cup: Mango, dried peach, blackberry, hazelnut background.

We've just finished pulling shots of E-squared, a blend of two regional Ethiopian coffees - Yirgacheffe and Guji Suke Quto. lots of sweet bergamot and floral notes, with a dark honey and malt sweetness.

When it comes down to it, the flavor is what drives what beans can join in harmony. The naming, that's just self amusement.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Espresso is a harsh mistress

Are you thinking about having a shot of espresso? You should be! Espresso is quick, small, packed full of flavor, and when you sip you can hear a heavenly chorus in the distance, and you know the wonderful experience unfolding before you. At least, that's how it should be.

I am amazed and bewildered at what people have accepted as espresso. Bitter. Sour. Thin. Unpalatable. And it's usually because there is little respect or understanding for the ingredients being used.

Yes, espresso is a harsh mistress, fraught with eccentricities that make her either a delight or a beast. Dismiss her complex nature, and she'll bring hell upon you. But make no mistake, if you tame her, she will bring you pleasure beyond compare.

So the next time you are looking to have a shot of espresso, make sure that she is being treated with the respect she deserves. You will be kindly rewarded.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Roasting with a friend

I love to roast for the experimentation and for the discovery, but outside of that, it's fairly routine and mundane. I roast as needed, and that usually means Saturday or Sunday night plus one weekday. Most of the time I have a loose idea of what I will be roasting. We usually try to keep two or three different coffees plus one espresso for sale. It tends to be quiet while I roast because it's best to do it afterhours.

This week Yama, our white dog, wanted to come to the store to assist. Now of course he is not that familiar with the roaster, so I just let him guard the empty jute bags so that no one would try to sneak something inside them while he was on top.

Roasting, cooling, labeling, bagging was par for the course, but between every step, there was my friend looking for an answer as to why all those people are walking on the street at 11:30 at night, and why is it raining so much... and Hey! Where's my cookie? I didn't have any good answers for the first two, but sharing the cookie was easy.

Yama has yet to try his paw at the roaster, but it's the familiar pitter patter of his dancing paws, like the sound of cement raindrops cascading across the floor, and his excited laugh-like pant that made it a wonderful night of roasting.

Wednesday, August 03, 2011

Taming the Roast

A recent visit to a couple of *very* well-known coffeeshops out of town got my mind thinking about a few things.

Coffeeshop A hit the scene first. They roast their own coffee. And they do a fantastic job. Coffeeshop B came about a few years later. They also roast their own coffee. But the word on the street, and from what I tasted from both shops, Coffeeshop B has the edge. (As coffeeshops, I would rate both very highly... in fact, I like the vibe at Coffeeshop A better.. but this post is not about that)

Why? It's the roast.

I've been roasting coffee for our caffe for a little over five years now, and although constant improvement is necessary in this business, I'd like to think I'm pretty good at what I do. One thing that catches my attention is when I taste something in an espresso that I know is difficult to do.

Many of the progressive shops, for good or bad, have a "me too" thing going on. The current "me too" is bright and sweet espresso. The result rarely seems to match the intention. Both of these shops do such an espresso. One is clearly better at it. In this case, I'll call it "taming the roast". And the reason this is important is that it carries through to all of their coffees. I don't have to taste them all to know they will be good. The display of skill in the espresso says everything I need to know.

When roasting bright and sweet coffee or espresso, there seem to be three tiers of roasters.

The Third Tier roaster will make the mistake of roasting too fast and too short of time. This will leave the coffee underdeveloped and often have a sweet grass essence, or a best a tangy lemon acidity that manages to shroud everything else in the cup. I've tasted many of these. I've been there myself. It's a great step to get past.

The Second Tier roaster has a better grasp on things and manages to concoct a very respectable citrus sweet espresso...that's often one dimensional. And I have been there too. There are some coffee that aren't kind to me if I try to roast them too light. So I don't. I believe many coffees have multiple sweet spots. But not all coffees have multiple sweet spots. Trying to force a coffee to taste how you want it isn't always the best idea. Taste it. It will tell you what it wants from you. Sweet and bright is often dull and boring. It's like a Reisling that hasn't matured. You're sure there's something magical, you can almost taste it. Almost.

The First Tier roaster understands how to coax the nuances out of the bean. They take the brightness just to the edge, and just when you think it's too much, another subtle layer of flavor steps in and takes over. It's an mesmerizing dance of roasting magic, and it transforms a single note offering into a symphony of flavors.

In my mind, the current roaster at Coffeeshop A has passed the Second Tier, but has not yet figured out how to consistently cross the threshold into the abode of the First Tier roaster. And this is actually the third time I've had their espresso. It's always been good, but right now, there are subtleties that Coffeeshop B understands how to capture better.

The roaster at Coffeeshop B is several paces down the hall of the First Tier abode and is walking slowly but surely to the game room where play time is about to happen. Like all roasters, it's a matter of perfect practice. There's plenty of room inside the First Tier Abode. But it takes consistency to stay there. To those who have mastered the taming of the roast, I enjoy and appreciate your craft.

Tuesday, August 02, 2011

Customer Growth - common mistakes and solutions

Author's Note: Many new shops come and just as quickly as they come, they are gone. 
Nearly all failures can be attributed to poor planning, but improper strategies can be almost as fatal. This short piece is for all new and prospective owners. Dismiss this at your own peril.

You have navigated through all the hoops, attended trade shows and seminars, traveled here and there to gain perspective, and now you've opened your doors. The one issue that sends many new owners in the beginning months into a panic, and a panic that often leads to poor decisions; is "How do I get more customers RIGHT NOW?"

There are several responses to this state of panic. I will talk about the most common, when they can be good, and when they are likely a road to failure. There are a few major metropolitan areas in the country that are also coffee-centric, so it is possible to blindly stumble through a successful run just based on pure numbers. For most of the country, it's a much more precarious balancing act.

The three most common (and misused) responses to "How do I get more customers right now?" are: Punch Cards, Coupons, and Changing the Menu.

Let's look at these.

Punch Cards:

This is perhaps the worst thing you can do in terms of a long term strategy. Can they do some good? Yes. IF you have a strategey in place ahead of time. The strategy is data collection. The end result of a long-term punch card program is not customer retention... it doesn't work that way. They are not loyal to you, they are loyal to the discount.

If Punch cards are brought into play, a better strategy is to use them as a one time thing. One new customer, one punch card. And the card can only be redeemed by having X purchases, and filling out name and email legibly on the back. Now the drink should be "one on us" not FREE.

Words matter. FREE says, "This drink has no value" but if it's "on us", it has a value, and you are gifting it to them. So, you're not exchanging the drink for the purchase of nine drinks. You are exchanging the drink for their information. The other drinks just get them to form a habit. But no second card! Just enough to "thank" the newcomers, and to collect their data. Now you can direct market to each of them. No, don't send them coupons. Interact. Include them on inside information about what you are doing, what coffees you have coming, and pass along a little education. Let them know that you are their Jeeves when it comes to questions about coffee and espresso.


The most often used is the infamous BOGO. Again, not good as a long term strategy, and should never be used outside of your opening months, if at all. This can sometimes be used when you first open to get people in the door, but once again, it's of utmost importance to never use the word FREE in your advertising. Now a number of marketing tomes, most useless, will say that FREE is one of the words that grabs attention. Yes. It grabs the attention of people looking for a discount. "Buy a latte have a second of equal or lesser value on us." would be fine. Have a "One coupon per customer" and to all that is holy, put a freakin' expiration date on it. No more than two to four weeks out.

As a long term strategy, neither punch cards nor coupons are good. And here's why.

Punch cards and coupons are the number one contributors to "The leaky bucket syndrome" -- you keep trying to plug the hole with a discount, but you keep leaking customers because they are NOT customers, they are bargain shoppers. So if you use them at all, use them only as short term strategies. Get their attention, sure, but if you need to offer a discount a second time, then you have to face the reality -- you have a lousy product.

Changing the Menu:

"You should add blended drinks", "How about adding breakfast items", "Maybe you need soup." OR "Your prices are too high".

Changes like this are never good. Does it gain you customers? NO. But it will give you plenty of opportunities to test the merits of Excedrin.

The moment you take these kinds of suggestions from customers seriously is the moment you've signed on for a downward spiral of doom. Those people who want you to change what you are doing are not your core customers, and probably will not be long term supporters of your business.

Have a core philosophy. Know what you are doing as a business and stick to it. It is as simple as that. You're an owner now, act like one.

Raise prices, yes. Lower prices, never. A wise man once said, "I never saw someone go out of business by charging too much" It's about value, and value isn't a number, it's about getting more than they expected. It's about the customer saying, "$4.50? That was fantastic! I would have paid $5"

So the question was, "How do I get customers?"

Have a plan in place.

To expect hundreds through the door on the day you open is not grounded in reality. You should expect to have enough capital to cover all of your expenses for several months out. Didn't do it? The honest answer would be, "Good luck." That kind of situation is why 7-10 businesses fail. It can all be directly related to poor planning. So avoid failure by planning well.

Building a customer base takes time, but panicking never solves anything. With Twitter, Yelp, Google, Facebook, and all the other social media forums, it's much easier to get the word out now than it was five or ten years ago. Take advantage of the mediums available. They can connect you with potential customers in a way that wasn't possible before. Word of Mouth is always the fastest way to grow as a small business, and Word of Mouth via social media is a whole new ballgame today.

Have a great product.

This goes without saying, but this is where most fail. Don't do the "old and busted" do the "new hotness".

Offer something unique.

Be the first in your area to roast on site, to offer coffee by the cup, to offer espresso only, to offer house made syrups, to teach classes, etc...

Building a customer base is something you are constantly doing. It begins day one, and it never ends. It's a testamant to your business savvy, the quality of your product, and your willingness to be daring.

It all starts with your first cup.

Monday, May 02, 2011

Thoughts on SCAA 2011

I'm back from the SCAA, and for Yiching and me, it was a short Friday to Sunday trip.

Much thanks to Jay Caragay for thinking of me when he came up with this presentation. I thought it went well, although I would have loved more feedback from the audience, particularly directed to any of the specifics each of us focused on.

Things I think:

There is too much fear and complacency in the coffee industry.

V60, or any pourover. should not be done by untrained barista. Clearly evident in many of the offerings at the show.

Tracy Allen is a coffee professional's professional.

Strada: A journey in hype?

Note to Exhibitors: It would help to have people working the booth who actually know the product.

Baratza has an exceptional new grinder.

A properly made pourover tastes great! Too bad I only found one.

James Hoffman always looks taller in person.

There needs to be a separation between the "Specialty Coffee" and "Coffee is Special" crowds.

Brewer's Cup needs a huge overhaul. Coffee first is the right direction, but breathe some life into it.

Didn't see his performance this year, but it doesn't matter, Pete Licata goes above and beyond. Great win. Fantastic representative.

Houston is an incredibly polite and friendly city.

Friday, April 08, 2011

Purple dinosaurs and customer etiquette

Barney almost has it right when it comes to understanding the relationship between a small shop owner
and their customers.

I love you You love me
We're a happy family
With a great big hug
and a kiss from me to you
Won't you say you love me too

He's got it right...

if you live in a land where sun shines out of your ass, and puppy dogs and rainbows are a daily sight.

We love our customers, but as a small business it's about establishing an understanding of how what we do means something to our customers, and what our customers' support means to us. All of our customers who come to spend time inside our shop always buy a drink. It's understood. But for those who are new, we need to quickly establish expectations.

customer: The word derives from "custom," meaning "habit"; a customer was someone who frequented a particular shop, who made it a habit to purchase goods of the sort the shop sold there rather than elsewhere, and with whom the shopkeeper had to maintain a relationship to keep his or her "custom," meaning expected purchases in the future. (

Both Yiching and I grew up in a culture where it's understood that when you go into an establishment and take a seat, be it a cafe, coffee shop, bar or restaurant, you order. It's called "customer etiquette", which is something that many people seem to have forgotten. People come in, they want to enjoy the space, the warmth or the cool air, the music, and the people, but they seem to have forgotten the reason for being there-- enjoying a drink AND all of those other things.

All of our tables have a little sign:

And on the back it reads:

"Yiching and I give all our daily energy
to operate caffe d'bolla.

Our passion is in every drink we make for you.
It's the soul of what we do.

Therefore, one cup minimum is all we ask.

Every cup represents an understanding
between you and us
of love for something exceptional
and this is what supports caffe d'bolla.

Please enjoy every sip.

Thank You."

We've had this policy for years, but found it most effective if customers can read and understand rather than having to tell them. Making this policy clear has done several things: It creates a better caliber of customer all around, it shows current customers how important their support is to us, and it lets newcomers know we take what we do very seriously. And it virtually eliminates any bad customers.
We've had a positive response from our customers. There are those few who don't get it, but there's a place for them... it's called 7-11.

So to our customers we say,
"Thank You!"

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

The importance of cup shape and design

I have been thinking about demitasse cup shape lately. You see, most cups are about the same, whether it's the nova point moka brown ones or the IPO white cups and even the tulip shaped cups really fall into the same category. But I have one demitasse in my collection, a small brown cup from Germany, that, hands down, is the best demitasse for espresso I have used.

One of the key questions I have asked myself when looking to get the best out of a cup of coffee or espresso is: How do we capture and transmit the essential aromatics? As many know, it's the aromatics that are the most important factor in determining the flavor of the coffee. All things being equal, the better the presentation of the aromatics for the particular beverage, the more dynamic and richer flavor experience for the consumer.

That being said, the typical demitasse has an opening diameter of 2 1/16" to 2 1/4" and a height of about 1 7/8 to 2". This particular demitasse has in opening diameter of 2 1/2" and a height of 1 3/8". This wider opening, shorter and less tapered design creates more surface area for the crema and allows your nose to hit closer to the center of the cup rather than the edge. This essentially surrounds your nose with aromatics. Also, the way the flavors present themselves in the cup seem somehow more pronounced, beyond what the aromatics should provide. My theory is that the dispersion and layering of the espresso is different enough that it results in enough separation for greater clarity without losing balance.

While it's certainly not enough for a scientific trial, I've had about thirty shots of espresso to compare (60 total) on roughly 12 different espresso - both blends and SO, and I've pulled about eight shots for our best customer who gets espresso daily. The first time I made an espresso for him in this demitasse, I didn't say anything, and all he could say was "Wow!" to the same espresso he had earlier in the day, but in our normal demitasse. Every time we each remark at how good it tastes.

When it comes to the siphon, cup shape certainly matters to us. Now the best shape when it comes to the aromatics of the coffee, is actually a Champagne flute.. but at about 4-5 oz, expensive, and a general pain in the ass to keep spotless... it's not the most practical delivery system.

We therefore specifically use tapered or tulip shaped Japanese bone china, and a few German as well (for some reason, the handles on many of the German cups are oddly small). The cups are usually 7-8oz, but sometimes five. Larger doesn't make any sense at all. It's the same reason why you don't serve wine in a one liter boot or hefty stein. And the shape maintains the best aromatics out of the useable drinking vessels. A smaller cup with a smaller diameter also works well too. The nose isn't as pronounced in the beginning, but it will maintain a balanced clarity throughout.

One of the most important aspects of choosing the right cup, is raising the level of the coffee experience for the customer. To make coffee by the cup, and serve it in a paper cup is insane (and not the good kind!) . Or to serve it in the same ceramic you use for everything else really doesn't convey the specialty of what the customer is about to consume. How can we expect a customer to understand what they are receiving if we treat it the same as every other cup. And if EVERY cup is special, then treat every cup that way. Find the best way to prepare, and the best vessel to serve in, and in doing so you honor the coffee, the customer, and your business.