Isa does Starbucks

One week ago, Starbucks opened its doors in the central train station of Antwerp. It’s the second Starbucks in Belgium, after the one at the main departure hall in Brussels Airport. Its opening was accompanied by lots of publicity and media attention. It was covered in almost all Belgian newspapers, the MNM radio station dedicated a whole program to it, celebrities and bands were asked to make the obligatory performances, etc…  It was a BIG news item, as if Belgium had been waiting for this moment for ages, as if only from this point on Belgians could start enjoying good coffee…

Needless to say that we as Caffènation baristas felt the need to go check this out. Earlier on this week, my fellow heavy metal cuppers Bert, Roeland and Jeff went on expedition. I don’t think they were in for a completely honest objective review, but however did wait an awful long time only to come back with burned tongues.

I wanted to give them some more credit, trying to enter as a regular customer, without being biased too much; trying to be as objective as I could. I travel from Ghent to Antwerp by train, hence passing by Starbucks almost every day. But the waiting line there was always so big while I was always in a hurry.  Tuesday I had ten minutes left before my train was leaving. The queue was pretty big with at least 15people in front of me, and I thought I’d never make it.

Surprisingly, I did! I must admit I was happily surprised with how fast the staff was handling it. One person was taking orders from the people in line, handling each of them a piece of paper while at the same time yelling out the orders to the baristas at the other side of the bar. This was a nice way to save time at the cashier, where the customers handed over their piece of paper, paid and in return got their sweets/sandwiches and a ticket for the drink. On a downside, the constant yelling by one staff member (“tall caramel frappuccino to go”) echoed by the barista or barista assistant (“understood, one tall caramel frappuccino to go”), was annoying me big time. The back and forth order yell made me feel like watching a ping pong game from way too close, it made me nervous and anxious to get my drink as fast as I could and get the hell out of there. Talking about killing a chill and relax atmosphere that should accompany a nice cup of coffee, this is certainly an efficient way of doing so.  Second problem was that the baristas couldn’t handle the fast income of orders; so they had to ask every customer: “sorry, what did you order?” I don’t mind repeating my order, but then why the hell do all the yelling in the first place.

However, these are all routine issues, and considering that the staff has only been working there for about a week, they did a pretty good job.  Bottomline is: I got my drink within ten minutes from ordering it.

More importantly now: the taste of my order! I got a ‘tall cappuccino and a blueberry muffin to go’. Because I had to run for my train, the first sip I took was when I was seated, so a couple of minutes after the drink was made… and I almost burned my tongue (I was very careful, as I saw them make my drink). I know these cups are designed to isolate warmth but one should basically never burn their tongue when sipping a cappuccino or latte or any milkbased drink for that matter, no matter how tall it is. So, I took off the lid and let it cool down for a while. I immediately saw the bubbles in the foam, and the smell of burned milk… The barista who made my drink first aerated the milk an awful lot, then to put the pitcher on the tray leaving it to steam further…  way too f’n’ long! What I don’t get, because they are using huge thermometers in their pitchers. It seemed to me that they are just using them for the ‘stretching’ fase of milk steaming, when air is carefully pulled into the milk; but don’t mind about the ‘whirlpooling’ fase, when milk is rotated so it gets a nice silky even texture of microfoam. At both stages, temperature control is of utmost importance!

Furthermore, I also didn’t get a nice balance between the milk and coffee taste. Even when it had cooled down, I only had a flavored, kind of bitter and even slightly caramel milk taste. A little bit like burned sugar. Do they use extra sweetened milk? Where was the coffee taste? I’d like to go back to taste their espresso, and see if I can recall any of that taste in the capp I got.

The blueberry muffin I got was ok. While it did have some ‘berry chewing-gum’ chemical taste, it was light and fluffy; as a muffin should be.

In total I paid 5,90euros for this: 3,90 for the cappuccino and 2 for the muffin. Im ok with the muffin price; but 3,90 for the smallest capp you can get is really too high a price for me.  If it were to have extraordinary coffee inside, or perfectly textured milk; it would ease the pain on my wallet weight loss and might justify the buy.

It sells fairtrade coffee, fair enough, but Starbucks is going to have to change a lot in order for me to have them as a regular. For now, every day when I take my train, I’ll be going in a wide circle around the queue to get my Dorica (double ristretto capp) at Caffènation.

Winter cleaning

Today on the train to and from work, I was ‘cleaning’ my computer: ordering all the documents and downloads, trashing what I didn’t need anymore, etc. In the ‘coffee’ folder, I found a document titled: ‘barista_info’. It listed a number of names and websites, such as the Scae, James Hoffmann, an Illy coffee university in Italy, a coffee school of London… “Oh my god” I thought, this document dates from the time that I needed to file every single bit of information I found on coffee, every website, every name… Its from the time that I barely knew what a barista was, when I didn’t have a clue that coffee was processed in different ways, and had no idea what a good espresso looks and tastes like.  It actually goes back all the way to the frustrating time, when I was obsessively looking for information on coffee and on how to be a good barista. I wanted to learn and get a job in coffee so badly and there was no one to guide me. I couldn’t see the wood for the trees and there was no one to clear my path. (No one really understood why I even wanted to get into coffee with degrees in philosophy and marketing.) So I decided to list all I found and save it in this document.

A couple of minutes ago, I moved this file to the trash box. Realizing that I don’t need this file anymore – because I know the things that it says, they’ve become a daily routine or I know they are not relevant – is actually a pretty nice way to find out the progress I’ve made.

If I come to realize what I’ve learned in only a couple of months (I’ve only been in coffee since last march), it’s pretty amazing… Yet to me, it’s still so little and very basic knowledge. The road ahead of me is still long (well, I hope it’ll always be longer than the one already taken). But I understand now that it may seem an awful lot for someone who’s not into coffee, or a mere coffee drinker. And I also understand how easily you get swept away into something you’re passionate about: you walk your own line without actually looking back. While in the first post on this blog I was still blaming coffee professionals for speaking in terms only ‘their own’ could understand, I know realize that I have ended up doing so myself. I’ve ended up being a coffee geek myself. But I love to share the info, the knowledge and the fun. And I still strongly believe that it’s part of a barista’s job to inform, educate and teach others about coffee, in whatever terms they understand. So next time you see me: ask me a question! :)

Today this document is rubbish, but only a couple of months ago, it was my way of learning about coffee; of trying to figure it out.

Today this document is rubbish for me, but it might not be for you.

A twofold lesson learned from cleaning files on my computer :)

The next move

It’s about time that I mentioned it here. My coffee journey has moved on, and its a shame that I didn’t let you know about it. But be sure not to misread my silence for lack of excitement because I couldn’t be any more…  After working at Or Espresso Bar, I am now slinging shots at Caffenation in Antwerp. Yes, another city. Yes, a completely different vibe. Yes, a crazy bunch of baristas with strong personalities. And Yea, many a good coffee. Yea, loads of good skills (including Belgian cuptasting champ). Yea, so much knowledge and passion to share. Yea, barista jams. Yea Yea Yea.  And thats all I need to say right now, all you need to know.  More… soon!

As my journey is proceeding, so is coffee’s. As we flip the calendar’s page, new resolutions, wishes and predictions are made. Some peeps, who are far more knowledgeable about coffee than i am, dare to predict some of coffee(s industry) future. Yesterday I was pretty excited to read this list by Geoff Watts, Intelligentsia’s Head coffee buyer and a strong reference in the industry.

As far as I am concerned as a barista and (not yet) coffee buyer, i can definitely agree with points 3-4-5 and 6 (well, and 9 too) on his list of ‘bad things’. Points 4, 5 and 6 of the good things list are things i advocate for myself.

Adding some personal notes:

At first, about the supersizing, I really wonder why people want “the biggest coffee drink you have on the menu”? Usually it means you just get more milk in your latte… I know people think economically, and think that a big milk drink will take them longer to finish without spending money ordering a second drink… but it really doesn’t taste any better, it gets cold after a while (and we get the whole terrible “I want a hotter latte” discussion) and we really won’t blame you for spending time at the bar only drinking a cheaper and smaller espresso. Our largest is 10oz and that really is more than enough… Watts is talking about 20oz (60cl) drinks! Holy cow (pun intended), that is more than half a liter of (mostly) milk you are having… What’s the use of putting a 1oz espresso in there?

Secondly, the certification bodies. I believe he is right that people blindly devote themselves to what is (sometimes) nothing more than another brand with another marketing strategy. Almost daily I get to deal with people that want organic, soy, fair trade coffee and milk… without actually knowing how these ‘certifications’ are any better, taste any nicer, let alone actually ethically mean something for the producers at origin. It is nowadays just hip and cool to go ecological and fairtrade. I am not saying that I am against it, of course I also want the farmers to get a fair price and of course I care for the environment, but that doesn’t mean you should simply prefer one (famous) brand over another.

Point 4 of the good things list deserves some extra attention indeed. People often ask what is a good way of brewing a good cup at home. Some people are intruiged by the beauty and craft of an espresso machine, and the flavors and aromas it produces… but don’t forget that the machines that do that are expensive machines, built for the industry. In order to get a similar espresso or even cappuccino out of a home espresso machine, you need to spend lots of money, you need the right barista skills and lots of time for trial and error. People lacking these things will either get frustrated or disappointed or won’t like espresso anymore.  So, slow coffee is the way to go. At home yes, but even at the bar. More and more bars are investing in a ‘slow-bar’ where coffee is freshly prepared by the cup on a chemex, drip filter or syphon. Buy yourself a french press, or a simple drip filter. It is a much safer and cheaper option for great coffee. Agreed, it also requires some practice to get some complexity and a variety of flavors, but you’ll enjoy coffee as the farmers made it to be.  And when you really crave for that thick gloupy mouthfeel, pay your favorite coffee shop a visit for some good espresso.

As a last comment on these predictions: Science! Science! Science!  Yes, we need it so badly. Not only as a back up for our own tongues, ideas and industry (specialty coffee), but to continue investing what the factors are that produce a good cup or a good espresso.  It was only recently that I complained about it to a fellow barista, imho the one in the local community that spends most time on this ‘scientific’ investigation: it is so hard to lay your hands on this kind of information. I mean, lots of it is already known to the world, but unknown to me, as a basic barista. And I am dying to learn, but why is it so hard to find the right information? Why are there a bunch of ‘basic barista’ courses, but none for advanced levels? Some people ask me why I know so much about coffee… and while I think to myself: “so little you mean”, I can only tell them about the blogs of coffee folks I follow, the books I’ve read and advice them to really just search and look around.  The journey, continued!

Just one of the reasons why I love my job

I’ve shared this on facebook, and on twitter… but I watched it again today and I am really impressed by this film.. that I wanted to share it here again…  On the risk of repeating myself, sorry folks…

This movie really captures the job of a barista in such a nice way: the actions that involve making a great shot of espresso: the grinding (yay, anfim grinders), the tamping, the brew temperature and pressure of the machine (synesso in this case)… and also the frothing of the milk, latte art… all daily actions of a barista… but what i love the most is how it shows the people aspect of our job: the social interactions, the people sipping their lattes, licking off the foam off their lips, their smiles… ooh, honestly, that is one of the reasons why I love my job…  It requires a lot, it is hard work, but it can be so rewarding! 

I guess I’m saying: keep on smiling and keep on being enthusiastic (“ooooh, look, there’s a heart in my coffee” ;)  )

On a sidenote, I far more twitter about coffee than I write about it here these days… Short small updates on what’s (been) going on in my coffee journey and ‘the’ industry in general. And at the same time you can occasionally learn about the music i like through lastfm. Follow me here.

Coffee breakdown

Ok, this blog has bean dead for a while… Not actually dead, but one has to admit that it suffered from a breakdown or some serious version of summer hibernation.  If it’s any support to the readers, the blog is aware of its dormant status, and has no intention of actually dying at all… He’s just really slow in waking up… Cut him some slack, will ya :) 

Amongst the so many daily interesting and not so interesting coffee related bits and twits that I read, today there was one in particular that caught my intention: a coffee breakdown…

(original by Brock Davis)

original by Brock Davis

 

Wired Magazine posted an article on the actual compounds of coffee… Of course, we all know that it contains water and caffeine, but it’s the other things that are interesting. Don’t you wanna know what you’re drinking? Go and check what’s in your cup!

 

Speaking about coffee breakdown, lots of people in Antwerp have their daily/weekly/monthly coffeebreak down for a while: Bar Choq has temporarily closed its doors due to construction problems in the building. As one of the best Belgium barista’s I know, and definitely the kindest coffee shop owner I’ve ever met; it’s truly sad that this has happened… While right now, in return for all those beautiful coffee moments he’s created, there’s not a lot we can do besides showing how much we heart Bar Choq… but let’s make him work his ass off once he’s back on track… Promised!

Peter Hernou World Latte Art Champion 2009!

Since yesterday, there is a big international gathering taking place in Cologne, Germany: Coffeena, a coffee fair is playing host to the SCAE‘s (Specialty Coffee Association Europe) Wonderful Coffee event. During this event, coffee industry professionals not only talk coffee, drink coffee, buy coffee but also make coffee and compete with coffee. Apart from a conference and several workshops involving espresso, latte art, roasting, barista ergonomics and ‘flair’ (ooh yea, baristas got flair :) ) etc, there are also four world championships taking place: the World Latte Art Championships (WLAC), the World Cuptasting Championships (WCC), the World Coffee in Good Spirit Championships (WCSC) and the World Cezve/Ibrik Championships… Lots of stressful competitors, but also time to let the steam off at the barista parties and social gatherings.

Belgium is represented by some fine coffee professionals: Peter Hernou for WLAC, Bart Vansanden for WCC, Ronny Billemon for WCSC and finally Violeta Leci for Cezve/Ibrik. On top, Manu Demets is master of ceremony for some of the competitions! Today Peter took on the challenge to compete for our country for the third year in a row now. He’s been training harder every year and deservedly placed first in the semifinals… By lucky chance, I just opened up my laptop at the bar to have a quick look at the live stream and he was on!  I missed the finals, but just read the good news: we finally have our first World Champion in coffee: huge congrats to Peter as the new World Latte Art Champion! Belgium is slowly catching up in the specialty coffee industry and this is another big and important step. Thank you, Peter!

Tomorrow and Sunday, the other competitions are on; so lets cross our fingers for our fellow colleages. Tomorrow we are remotely following from the bar (here for the live stream), but on Sunday, the OR team travels to Cologne for some personal support! So Bart, if you hear someone whistle: its us :)

Good luck!

Me, my coffee and my barista

As a coffee aficionado, I follow about a dozen blogs about all things coffee, from local shops and ambassadors such as Caffenation and Bar Choq; over important roasting works such as Intelligentsia (USA), Has Bean (UK) and the Coffee Collective (Denmark) to world barista champions (eg. James Hoffman and Tim Wendleboe) and infamous trainers (eg. Daniel Humphries and Anne Nylander). (This reminds me that I still need to work on my links list, as they really do reserve a place there)

 

Recently quite a lot of the (international) talk has evolved around one event in specific… and to be honest, it really is too ‘hot’ of a topic not to talk about it…  Following the buzz of the latest weeks, partly created by the promise of some pretty impressive equipment, partly by a ‘be there or be square’ opening party and partly by the unfortunate postponing, past Monday at noon, the moment was finally there: THE state of the art-slash-wet dream of every barista-shop opened its doors in Venice, California…owned by Intelligentsia!

 

Unfortunately California is too far away for a quick visit, but telling from the pictures, Intellivenice, as it is commonly called, is a coffee lovers heaven. The whole place is designed to give each customer a personal delightful coffee experience and to “bring down the barrier between barista and costumer” as Doug Zell, owner of Intelligentsia, puts it. And when Intelli says ‘personal’, it’s not some hollow marketing term, they’re for real: once you enter, you are lead to your spot at one of the four (4!) coffee stations… there your personal dedicated barista awaits you to serve you some (oh yes, im sure you’ll have more than one) stellar coffee drinks, whether that is espresso-based or from the ‘slow bar’ meaning vacpot, siphon, press, or maybe a coffee from one of the two Clover machines? You can enjoy your cup at the barista station, chatting to people that really know coffee without having to worry about the line behind you; or chill at the relaxing benches in the back… There’s no counter or register (payment is via a Iphone-like tool that every barista carries, oh cool!)… Its just you, your coffee and your barista…

 

Intellivenice is every barista’s wet dream: 4 Synesso (amongst the worlds best espresso machines) two-group machines, a 1972 customized La Marzocco, 2 Clovers (machines mostly used in the States that make very clean but fully flavored individual cups of drip coffee… the company is now (sadly?) owned by Starbucks), and a ‘slow bar’ with several brewing options including vacpots, chemex, Eva solo and French press.

 

The barista’s that work the bar are not everybody: Kyle Glanville, US barista champion 2008 and Director of Innovation at Intelli hired newlyweds Chris and M’lissa Owens to work at the bar, both extremely knowledgeable and experienced baristas. Tim Styles, coffee professional from Australia but working for Square Mile in London recently, crossed the Atlantic to help manage the place. Other potential baristas were trained during an extensive ‘Barista Boot Camp’ with several tests to pass and certifications to acquire.

 

And last but not least: the beans. Intelligentsia is one of USA’s and the worlds most important roasting companies. They’ve been advocating for a growing awareness of good coffee, not only among customers but (more importantly) among coffee farmers. They travel to origin to create personal relationships with small farmers in remote villages. They explain to them how to distinguish good from bad coffee, what price their coffee is worth and how to make it (even) better. They try to create a better coffee world, a ‘fairer’ coffee world. Their Black Cat espresso blend is honestly amazing and they have some ‘in season’ (yes, even coffee has seasons, more on that next time) single origin coffees of exceptional quality. (For those who doubt: yes, I have really tried some of them myself when I was in NY)

 

Exceptional beans prepared on exceptional equipment by exceptional baristas in an exceptional environment… would “Intellivenice introduces the 4th wave” be too bald of a statement?

Either way, a visit is exceptionally ;) high on my coffee to-do list. Until then: gaze at the pictures, look in awe at the video of the first minutes and nervously follow the Intelli news.


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