Archive for the 'General' Category

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!

How the virus got me

It all started last summer, when I ended a one-year trip through South-America with a 3 months stay in NYC.

I was lucky to be living in lovely Williamsburg and every day my roomies came home with a great smelling cup of Oslo coffee… and I just got intrigued by the atmosphere and friendliness that goes with standing in line with all the regulars and drinking a delicious cup before heading to work or home… or just staying in the bar meeting people, working on my laptop… Coffee to stay or to go, coffee in the morning, afternoon coffee with friends, coffee right before hopping on the bus, a cup to wake up, a cup to go to bed. Back then, coffee was not my main interest, nor did the idea of getting a job involving coffee pop into my mind… but my days did involve lots of coffee…and somehow the coffee virus must’ve silently settled into my body somewhere…

 

…ready to hit hard a couple of weeks later.

Coming home after an inspiring year of travelling, meeting wonderful people, leading a ‘non-traditional’ life… is not really like stepping into a warm, welcoming, cozy home at all. Oh of course, there’s family and friends that you’ve greatly missed and that are happy to spent some time with you again. There’s some habits and staple foods that you gladly pick up again. But rather then being fulfilled with the embracing feeling of home, I found myself confused and without any goal or project. Though my plane had safely brought me ‘home’, I was floating around and couldn’t find good soil to plant my feet in. While everyone in my surroundings had a bunch of expectations that I felt I obliged to live up to, I would’ve rather just run away again.

I had to choose ‘the next step’, which seemed harder than all the previous steps I had taken in my life. Was I supposed to work in advertising or event organizing again, something I had studied for and done with pleasure (and a suit and overtime)? Or should I try to find a job in a cultural centre, promoting music and theatre, something that has always been an interest? Somewhere in the back of my mind, I also had the idea of opening my own coffee shop one day; something that seemed fun and great to do but that I didn’t have money for now.

And the idea that seemed the least plausible at first won. Somehow – the virus must’ve broken out – I found myself browsing coffee blogs, searching the existing espresso bars in Belgium (oh so few), looking for barista training (even less). As if my senses had now incorporated ‘coffee’ into their library, I came across articles in the newspapers, interviews on the radio, workshops, books and more information.

 

Coffee became my passion, my goal, my project, my savior, my soil to land in. My home is not a real time place, rather a feeling, a satisfying project surrounded by people that support it. So while I was waiting for OR – the new espresso bar that I was gonna start at – to get ready, I went back to NYC. This time on a concrete mission: visit as many coffee shops as possible, do some coffee research and get some training. It’s lovely to see how the industry is booming over there and how friendly most baristas are. A huge thank you to Daniel Humphries who gave me my very first barista training and who’s an amazing and encouraging trainer. And thanks to Everyman’s Espresso, 9th st, Oslo, Cafe Grumpy, El beit, Gimme and all the other cafes for my daily doses. As always, time in NYC flies and visits are too short, but I was excited to go back this time…

 

I am happy that I got the opportunity to start at OR, where I am learning every day and I am able to be part of the upswell of espresso and the growing awareness of and interest in good coffee in Belgium. Turning the key of the front door of the cafe and serving shots of espresso everyday, yes, it does feel like coming home.

 

Just so you know: my new home’s open to everyone: come in and sip your coffee; and I’d be happy to show you around.

 

Ps: People interested in my adventure through South-America can still read my stories on http://mwoi-isa.blogspot.com (in dutch except for one article in english)

Dear readers

As I hope the name and design of this blog already show, it’s about coffee.  Some of you will probably think: “bean there (pun intended), done that…. another coffee blog, how exciting.”  Well yea, I realize how this amazing web of information is filled with sites about coffee. From roasters over bar owners via traders and professional baristas to espresso enthusiasts; from geeks that get all turned on by the technical details of the newest fancy schmachines and grinders to regular cafe customers that describe their daily worries while sipping their favorite coffee drink… For some reason, they all feel the need to blog about or discuss their cup of joe… Why bothering putting time and effort into creating another coffee blog?

What (most) coffeebloggers share is a passion for coffee. We all want a good cup at home and an excellent shot at our favorite cafes. However, what we mostly get is bad and tastes like shit.  What we brew at home is our own responsibility, but we wanna share good techniques. What we get at cafes and restaurants is a shared responsibility. Have you ever returned a cup of coffee because its taste was way too acidic, bitter or rather faint or because you felt like you were drinking dishwater? Most likely, the answer is no.  If you did indeed return a cup, did you get an apology from the waiter or barista and a new coffee without having to pay for it? Most likely, the answer is no.  Did you know that an espresso does not contain more caffeine than a regular cup of coffee? Did you know that the pills your doctor prescribed you probably contain more caffeine than the coffee you stopped drinking on his advice? Most likely, the answer is no.

 

So why then do we need another blog about coffee? Well, another blog about coffee… another vote for a better coffee future… another voice that gets the word out… another possibility to educate and infect people’s taste buds… another person that stands up for what he believes in…  So that in time, everybody knows one of us… So that in time, yes, we all return bad tasting cups… So that in time, yes, we all get an apology for bad quality… So that in time, yes, we know what we are drinking and where it comes from… So that in time, yes, the coffee movement – or should I say wave ;) – receives equal recognition (as wine and whiskey)… So that in time, yes we can… one cup at a time :)

Big ambitions start small…. and it is my hope to start off with giving people in Belgium a better idea on what coffee is, how a good shot of espresso is made, how it tastes different from a bad shot, how much of a variety of coffee there is…

As my coffee journey has only started very recently, I also want to describe the path I am taking, how it all started and what experiences and people I meet along the way. It’s a journey without an end, as we will always evolve, as will the coffee industry, as will our tastes and whims, as will technology and techniques, as will so many things that influence a shot of espresso.

Starting out myself, browsing through all the other blogs, reading books, visiting cafes… I felt as if something was missing…  It seemed as if everybody I met and everything I read was already at an advanced or professional level. Everybody was talking about different types of machines and grinders, the body, flavor, acidity and aftertaste of coffee, the barista techniques… as if everybody just jumped to that knowledge level ignoring their very own learning process… They all seemed to have forgotten where they came from, how life was when they started out, how they became what they are now…  By leaving out this part, the gap between ‘mere coffee lovers’ and ‘professionals’, between espresso bar owners and their own customers only gets bigger… and people feel as if they need a lot of time and energy to know what a good cup of coffee is… time and energy they don’t have.

I have doubted whether it was a good idea to start a blog right away, at a time when I dare not even call myself a barista yet, when my knowledge of coffee does not reach further than one book and a few articles I’ve read, when my tasting palate is as inexperienced as anyone who has drunk coffee for a few years and when there’s no way I can tell why one machine is better than the next apart from following what everybody says…

But yes, I have come to realize it IS a good idea to start now. By describing my journey, right from the start, I may not create the blog that people in the industry follow for my valuable opinion, I may not become the next number one reference, but I do hope to create a bridge between coffee laymen and professionals, to let people know that everyone can learn about coffee and how interesting a field it is.

And oh well, I also want my friends and family to know what I’m doing, without having to explain them in boring lengthy conversations :)

Comments, questions and requests are seriously encouraged.

 

There’s nowhere to go but on… I have lived by this motto – brought to me by Feist (http://bit.ly/Ev2U2) – for about two years now, and it has never deceived me. Thanks for hopping on my train!

Isa


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