It is always an exciting day in the roastery when a new coffee arrives. It marks the end of one part of a journey and the beginning of another. Recently, we received two micro lots from the Huila region in Colombia. Their arrival marked the end of a months long process. We received initial samples of the two lovely coffees, one from Finca La Esmeralda and another from Finca El Mirador, just after they were harvested, right around the New Year. These initial, or origin, samples were our opportunity to decide if we wanted to purchase these particular lots. Like all of the coffees we put on the single origin menu, the decision to purchase these lots was made on the cupping table. In early March, after the harvest had been finished, processed and prepared for shipping, we received another sample, the pre-ship. This sample gave us a chance to check back in with the coffee and determine that the quality of the initial sample was retained in the processing of the coffee. Again, both samples were excellent on the cupping table. It can take around two months for coffees to get from point of origin to the West Coast, so when these micro lots arrived down in the Bay Area, we were sent another round of samples just to make sure that nothing went awry on the long journey from Colombia to us. Once again, both samples cupped out great and we gave the go ahead to ship the coffees here to the roastery.
At long last, we have these two lovely micro lots here with us and can begin the process of developing a roast profile for each coffee. We will keep you posted with our progress, but be looking for these two coffees to hit the menu around the end of the month.
It’s the weekend. Isn’t that awesome?!? You get to sleep in, or wake up early to catch the sunrise, take your day leisurely and enjoy that awesome cup of coffee as long as you want. Everything is perfect. Until you start sipping. Your coffee is bitter, stale, flat. This won’t do for you. It’s supposed to be perfect. The sunrise is beautiful. The chair in your backyard is amazing. But this coffee….
So you get in the car and drive to your favorite coffee shop to fix it. You walk in, and you say this: “My coffee at home doesn’t taste as good as what you make here at the shop. Why is that?”
Simply put, it’s a combination of variables that are easily controllable. Let’s figure this out so you can go home and enjoy your day! Starting at the basics, let’s look at how to store your beans:
How are you storing those beautiful beans once you get them from the cafe? How long are you storing them for? Storage of roasted coffee is rather simple, if you just follow a few guidelines. Coffee needs to stay away from the following: air, heat, light, and moisture.
(Side note about the fridge/freezer: Everyone’s mom told them that’s where it goes. I hear it all the time. Please get that coffee out of your freezer! This isn’t your grandma’s carton of smokes or your year supply of D cell batteries. By placing coffee in the freezer or refrigerator, you are introducing a massive amount of moisture to the beans. You know how you put a box of baking soda in your fridge to suck up nasty fridge smells? Well it’s also taking in moisture. Your coffee beans have this magical property as well. Smells great, sucks up moisture; Mmm can you taste the hints of last nights goulash in this coffee?)
So following these guidelines, any sort of dark, relatively temperature stable environment will do. Non-transparent, airtight containers are your best bet for storage. This will help to slow the oxidization and breakdown from light and air, but you really just have seven to ten days to use up your beans before they are on the stale side. My suggestion for this? Only buy the amount of coffee you will use in one week.
Is your water filtered? Are you using tap water? Is it within 195-205 degrees when brewing hot? Coffee is 99% water, so it is no wonder that it has a profound effect on your brew. Starting with clean water is essential. People say all the time that the water we have in the Pacific Northwest is some of the cleanest water in the US, and this is true. However, in metropolitan areas such as Seattle the water coming to your tap is running through hundreds of miles of pipe that has probably been there for five or more decades. On its way to your house, it is picking up all sorts of minerals and taints that you don’t want in your coffee. Simply put, making sure you have a clean filter for your water is one of the best things you can do for your coffee.
The proper temperature for brewing hot coffee is 195-205 degrees fahrenheit, as outlined by the Specialty Coffee Association of America (SCAA). We at Victrola find that our coffees really extract best at around 202-205 degrees. Are you using an electric kettle with temperature stability? Or are you boiling your water on the stove in a tea kettle? No matter how you heat your water, one of the best things you could do for your morning regimen is to go out and buy a $5 temperature probe. Brewing your coffee at 195 one day and 205 the next will drastically change the profile of the coffee. This is due to the fact that certain soluble elements are released at different temperatures. Get a probe, be happy.
Arguably one of the most important aspects to brewing coffee of any kind, whether it is french press, drip, pour over, Aeropress or espresso. Are you grinding at home or at the shop where you bought your beans? Think of coffee like a soda. If you open the cap to a soda, within an hour it will be flat, right? Well a similar thing happens to coffee when you grind it. When ground, there is a higher surface area exposed so that a coffee will start losing its Co2 at a much more rapid rate, which then gets replaced by oxygen. Oxygen will start breaking the coffee down, turning it stale rather quickly. You can see this phenomenon from day one when you bring it home, to day seven when you go back for more coffee at the shop. Every day, the coffee is just a little less lively, less exciting, and more of a pick-me-up than anything. Get a good grinder, and it will make a world of difference.
So what makes the difference between a “good” grinder and a “poor” one? Folks tell me all the time that they have a grinder at home, but they still have inconsistency. My very next question is, “are you using a blade grinder?” Blade grinders are great for one thing: hacking up spices. If it is between grinding at the store where you buy your coffee and using a blade grinder, grind at the store. Spice grinders will not give you the consistency of particle size that is necessary for an evenly extracted coffee. The result is less than amazing, usually on the bitter and sour spectrum due to the coffee extracting at uneven rates. Blade grinders “chop” your coffee beans into a non-uniform size; some particles being super fine like turkish or espresso, and others rather coarse, along the lines of french press or cold brew. This means that you will be over-extracting certain elements, and under-extracting others. My suggestion? Purchase a burr grinder. You can find decent burr grinders for under a hundred bucks, all the way up to a thousand. My recommendation is to find one that has a good set of steal burrs, that are replaceable. Baratza makes great home grinders for whatever application of brewing you are doing.
Water-Coffee Contact Time:
Making certain that your time remains consistent is important as well. Are you using a timer? (your phone has one built in- no need to purchase one!) Wether you are brewing french press or espresso, it is crucial that you know how long that hot water has been in contact with the grounds, down to the second. The amount of time you brew has a lot to do with your grind. For example, espresso is ground very fine, like flour. Your water-coffee contact time should be in the ballpark of 20-30 seconds. (Side note: for our streamline espresso we really like 25-27 seconds) For french press, your coffee should be ground to the consistency of kosher salt. Your total brew time for this method should be about four minutes.
Consistency of Extraction:
So you make Chemex at home? Great! Do you know how long that water is in contact with the coffee? Are you pre-saturating your coffee bed (blooming)? Did you rinse that paper filter and pre-heat your decanter? When do you start your timer? As soon as water makes contact with coffee, start that timer. If you bloom, which often is a great idea, make sure that you are doing so for the same amount of time every brew. Typically we like to bloom for 30-45 seconds for pour over, Chemex and other direct pour methods. For french press, we bloom for one minute before breaking the bloom by agitation. When you start your pour, keep the technique consistent. Whether you are doing a continuous pour or starting and stoping, do it the same way every time. So if you start and stop your pour, watch that timer and hit your numbers dead on, every time.
How far off roast is your coffee? Is your water filtered? Is it at the right temperature? Is your grind correct and consistent for the brew method? How long is that coffee in contact with your water?
It’s somewhat funny, in the coffee world we talk about consistency and doing the same thing time and time again. However, we are using an agricultural product that changes year to year, season to season. It’s incredibly variable and inconsistent. Hopefully the coffee from a particular farm gets better every year…So how do you work with this to create the best possible cup of coffee every time? By changing one variable at a time, and taking note of it. Try changing the water temperature by a degree or two. Did that do anything beneficial or detrimental? Adjust your coffee to water brew time by a few seconds. What happened when you did that? Add in a gram or two or take a few away…
My ultimate suggestion is to approach every coffee for what it is: a unique, one of a kind seed from a tree that is grown, harvested, processed, roasted & brewed under countless variables to benefit the farm, the quality, and the consistency of this amazing agricultural product.
A while ago I had a conversation with one of our roasters about what coffees he preferred of the ones on our menu at the time. It was a very stimulating conversation and we both agreed and disagreed on certain aspects of the coffees, each arriving at very different conclusions. We went so far as to break it down into what time of day it was being served, by what brew method, whether it was being paired with food, and plenty of other factors. In the end, it came down to us preferring different coffees, or liking the same coffees but for different reasons.
One of the things I love about coffee is that no one can decide for you what you should or shouldn’t like. They can try of course, but ultimately what you experience is unique to you. There are people that have highly refined palates that can pick up on subtleties in coffee that even I never could, although I’m involved with the product day in and day out. There are certainly defective, over roasted, under roasted, poorly extracted, too fresh, or too old coffees that one may taste and hate, with good reason. Often it comes down to what is particularly attractive to each individual.
I often think of that conversation with my roaster buddy when I’m talking to my staff about our coffees. How do we share our experiences with customers without asserting our own personal preferences? We need to consistently introduce new ways to enjoy this amazing product while understanding that people enjoy things differently. Our job is to make their experience when they walk into one of our cafes, unique as it will be, the best it can be.
I had the opportunity to visit one of our great wholesale partners and my personal friend in Fresno this week for some strategic planning. We are similar age and both own our own retail coffee shop, in addition to many other business and personal activities. We see eye to eye on most everything.
We had a couple meetings around town and as we traveled between various activities we found ourselves popping into his shop for one reason or another. Each time we would get a coffee, he would check things over, and say hello to a few customers.
As I watched him and his interactions is was so evident that his business was as much a part of himself as he was a part of it. I will be honest I felt a little convicted by his passion and presence of mind as well as personal connection to his people. I know there have been many mornings where all I make time to do is run into my own shop, grab a cup of coffee in a mad dash, and fly out the door. I feel that if my business whose mission and identity was birthed from my heart isn’t regularly near the founder of its identity, it could lose its way.
Even though your employees are a part of your team and help you to carry the vision of what your business should be, they don’t have the same drive and passion as you the owner. If we commit to inspire through our presence our people, employees and customers alike, we will set the tone of the business we do on a daily basis and the kind of business you want to do going forward. Nothing instills confidence in customer’s eyes like seeing the owner of a business engaged in its daily operation.
I know I plan on making more intentional time to model our mission for customers and staff.
Coffee is love, love is life, and life is good.
For me, it was 1986, working at an espresso cart using SBC (aka Seattle’s Best Coffee). Everyone in the coffee business seemed to be “proudly serving SBC” coffee. Yes, the red umbrellas were there too. Jim Stewart was the then-Founder, and from my view he was chasing this other coffee company … Star …. something. The coffee was amazing to me, and pulling shots from a two group “manual” espresso machine was nothing short of pure coffee nectar.
Today, while I miss the manual machine, both coffee and machines have become very fine tuned to balance the requirements of the coffee itself with the needs of the individual customer. I remember my first pour over (we called it Melitta then, and now it has evolved to just plain “pour over”), and I can assure you nothing is plain about it at all. Whether brewed by this or various other methods, coffee has improved in so many ways.
If you were to ask me in 1986 how many coffee-growing regions there were in Guatemala, I would have never been able to answer you. Today, though, I know of 8 regions and those 8 all have a different taste. Change altitudes within those 8 regions, you have a different taste; change in the soils…well, you get the picture. Today, our green coffees arrive in grain pro-bags to ensure moisture stability and quality, and it seemed like just yesterday that all the coffees were happy to be in burlap. Now they arrive in both.
Ahh, the travels of a coffee bean, which continue to amaze and impress. I’m so happy for today’s transparency of that journey, and I’m even happier that you have allowed me to share just a simple taste. For now.
Haha, to put it mildly, yes. Anyone who has done this job knows just how much work goes into this. It involves much more than simply teaching someone how to make coffee.
About a month ago, I had the opportunity to attend the first ever “Educators Summit” held in Seattle. Ben Jones put this summit together and it was quite enlightening. One of the key elements that kept popping up throughout the weekend was: “What is the role of the Barista Trainer?” It seemed all of us at the summit had very similar stories as to what we do in the day to day. Training, it turns out, is the easy part. So let’s start there.
Training: Who are you training? How do you train someone? What are you training?
Most of my day is spent training our wholesale partners, our internal barista staff, and working with the public to educate them about our coffees and how to properly brew for the best possible result.
If it was as simple as looking at a book and memorizing the steps, that would be one thing, but as barista trainers, we are teaching something that is organic, always changing. We are training people to think on their feet. Literally. Specialty Coffee is an ever-evolving industry. One day, we think we know something to be fact; we train that way, everyone jumps on board and we’re off! Then tomorrow comes, and we learn that what we are training is no longer fact; it has been disproven.
Really, when you look at specialty coffee, we aren’t training facts, we’re training theories.
Every day we learn something new. The power of technology has changed so many things in our industry. Have you ever wondered why it’s possible to get great coffee in more and more places every year? It’s primarily due to the ability to share information, in real time. It’s not because there are more smart people out there (although we’d like to think so…). It’s because we can share ideas, thoughts, and theories. It’s because we can debate in real time, across the globe.
So what happens when we train a certain way, and learn that something we were training for so long is incorrect? We change our ways. We admit that there is new information, and we modify our approach. We adjust our curriculum accordingly. It’s awesome. It keeps us on our toes, and it makes us better baristas.
New Equipment: Always changing, for better or worse.
Do we stay with the older, dependable equipment because that is what we know? It does a fine job, so why not? The simple answer to this is yes and no. Again, technology infiltrates our every day experience, and attempts to make it better. This is when we as trainers need to research new brewing methods and practices. I have to say that this is one of my favorite aspects of this job. I get to play around with new equipment all the time. Some of it is better, some of it makes no discernible difference, and some of it is all hype. It’s our job as trainers to wade through these countless new inventions and figure out what works for us, for our coffee, and for our customers.
Equipment Issues: Who is responsible?
Ideally, all of our equipment is top notch. But just like anything, it needs tuning, and occasionally it will fail. The easiest thing to do is call a service tech. There are countless companies out there who work on equipment. However, most of the time a cafe cannot afford to be down a crucial piece of equipment for more than a few hours. That is often where a barista trainer comes in handy. We can be there in a moments notice, and most of us have a background in equipment service. This is also one of the most contested roles trainers have. Personally, I love equipment. I have no issue working on equipment to get a cafe back up and running. I accept this as a necessity, and in my opinion, makes for a more smoothly running operation.
Our roles as barista trainers are always changing, and always exciting. I hope that this brief explanation of what a “barista trainer” does has helped to explain our role in the industry, and has given you an insiders view of what our everyday looks like! I encourage you as a consumer of specialty coffee to ask questions, (lots and lots of questions!) be informed, and enjoy exploring the wonderful world of coffee and everything it entails. It makes everything we do more fun!
I want to share with you a little about a really exciting experience we had recently here at Victrola. One of our primary tasks here in the roastery is to source coffees. Typically, after choosing a coffee, we rely on the farmer or an importer to actually import the coffee. Recently, however, we imported a coffee ourselves for the very first time, the Burundi Lot 19 Maridadi.
This coffee was grown in the Kayanza Province by over 300 families farming small parcels of land surrounding the Mpanga washing station. Jean Clément Birabereye runs SEGEC, and started operations at the washing station in Mpanga in 2008.
Victrola became aware of this beautiful coffee thanks to Jean Clément’s cousin; Jeanine Niyonzima-Aroian, who brought us some samples. We cupped multiple lots and decided on Lot 19. The easy part was determining that we had to have a coffee from Mpanga on our menu; the challenge was how to get the coffee from Burundi to Seattle.
Working out the logistics of importing coffee was a completely new experience for us. We first had to determine whether to transport the coffee to the Port of Mombasa in Kenya or the Port of Dar Es Salaam in Tanzania and next, how would we get the coffee on the water to begin its nearly two month journey to Seattle by ship. Working closely with SEGEC and Jeanine, we began to formulate a plan. In the course of determining the best route for transporting the coffee, we all decided that the most important consideration was getting the coffee here to Seattle as quickly as possible. This was a more expensive option, but we all agreed that it was worth the extra cost to both Victrola and SEGEC to bring in the coffee as quickly as possible. This was a challenging and rewarding process for us to go through. It was such a wonderful experience to work in direct partnership with the producer of the coffee to determine pricing and terms of selling and transporting the coffee. We also could not have made this happen without the creativity and tireless efforts of Jeanine, who acted as the bridge between SEGEC and Victrola. For us, this coffee represents the type of collaboration and transparency we strive for in sourcing coffee and we are so pleased to be able to share this wonderful coffee from Burundi with you all.