Photographs from my meal in Houston, Texas at Blacksmith Coffee Bar on April 19, 2013.
All tagged espresso
Photographs from my meal in Houston, Texas at Blacksmith Coffee Bar on April 19, 2013.
I'm taking a break from espresso. I can't remember the last time I ordered one at a cafe or attempted to make it. At home, my Rancilio Silvia with PID kit has been collecting dust for almost a year. There are simply too many variables: time, temperature, pressure, grind size, tamping uniformity, etc., which need to be re-adjusted continuously throughout the day as the environment changes. It's not that I don't like espresso, but it's too temperamental a drink; it's inconsistent, even for the best barista. Espresso is a hobbyist's drink: an oftentimes futile quest for perfection. The perfect shot is unlikely to be found at a high-volume store as the variables are too many and difficult to control. For me, 2012 was the year of drip coffee. Coffee shops started to take pride in their filter coffee instead of it being an afterthought to the espresso machine. Some shops, mostly in the United States, are regularly calibrating their extraction with a refractometer.
Photographs from my meal in New York at Toby's Estate on January 17, 2012.
In 2011, the growth of third wave coffee shops exploded. Tokyo was particularly interesting, where a newly developed taste for great coffee started to compete with its thousand-year-old tea culture. New York, likely the city with the most third wave shops in the country, saw a large delivery of sophisticated La Marzocco machinery enabling baristi to control espresso extraction in ways not before possible. This was not only a great year for food, but for coffee as well. As most baristi will agree, coffee is temperamental. The hardest part of the extraction process is consistency. A great espresso comes with no guarantee of one just as good the next. It is imposible to name a single shop with the most consistently good espresso, because there is no such thing as consistently good espresso. It is only possible to share where and when all the variables, ranging from the barista to the weather, aligned to create an incredible extraction.
I first visited The Queens Kickshaw when I learned they had received a La Marzocco Strada MP, the latest of a new line of hand-crafted espresso machines from the Florentine manufacturer that allows for the manual control of a shot's pressure profile during the extraction. In theory, this kind of pressure control can bring out flavors of coffee beans that traditional machines cannot. While this fancy machine was the bait that drew me into Astoria, it was the flavor of the resulting coffee that kept me coming back. The more I visited the Kickshaw, the more impressed I became. Owner Ben Sandler is the barista in charge. While he's made it clear from the beginning the kickshaw is not only about coffee, they happen to serve a great shot; one of the best in the city, in fact. Single origin coffees from Coffee Labs Roasters rotate in the grinder, most of the lots trackable online to a specific farm ensuring fair-trade practices. In addition to espresso drinks pulled from the Strada MP, the Kickshaw does V60 pour over and, more recently, 12-hour cold brew coffee on tap.
En route to the Frida Kahlo's house in Coyoacán, I made a pit stop for lunch at Mercado Lázaro Cardenas, the covered market in Colonia Del Valle. The market, abundant in colorful piñatas, fruits, and antojitos, also had another surprise: excellent coffee. I was floored to see a La Marzocco occupying the small space squeezed between two fruit-vendors. It's hard to imagine a more perfect afternoon snack than fresh tostadas followed by an espresso (or three). Café Passmar has some of the best coffee I've tasted in Mexico. Passmar's house blend is entirely Mexican in origin, a secret mixture of beans from Guerrero and Chiapas. The coffee is roasted just next door to the storefront at Passmar's micro roastery. This was the first time I'd tried coffee in the same country from where the beans originated. All the best espresso I'd had previously contained beans that were cultivated, packaged, and air-shipped halfway the world before being roasted. After seeing what the dryness and low pressure environment of air transport does to food I've packed myself, it would be hard to imagine that extended air transportation doesn't have an effect on coffee beans.
The coffee I tasted at Passmar was some of the nuttiest most chocolatey espresso I have ever tasted. My girlfriend -- who despises coffee -- took one sip and nearly finished my first cappuccino.
The last time I was in Japan I didn't care much for coffee. It wasn't until a revelatory experience at Joe's in the summer of 2009 that I started to like it. Rather, become a bit obsessed. And so when I visited Tokyo this December I was determined to explore the city's cafe offerings. I was particularly interested in how Japanese precision and general distaste for sourness would translate to espresso. I started with a list of twenty-five cafes that my friend and barista Yukimim put together for me. I went to all of them (in four days!). Of all the cafes I visited, one place really stood out as extraordinary: Bear Pond Espresso. Bear Pond is the home of barista-owner Katsu Tanaka, an 18-year New York resident who recently moved back to Tokyo and opened shop. Tanaka -- who doesn't allow another's hands to touch the espresso machine in fear of lack of consistency -- closes the doors to Bear Pond at 2pm. "After 2pm," he explains, "too many people come and I cannot make consistent coffee." Bear Pond's shots, really a pseudonym for Tanako's since he is the only barista, are remarkably consistent.
Stockholm is an enchanting city. In the old town, long winding cobblestone roads wrap around hilly terrain with local stores, cafes, and restaurants lining the sidewalk. While it's touristy it's not commercial. In fact there's not a single Starbucks in sight (yet). In some ways it resembles a magical village, one that might begin a Disney movie with the camera panning over an 1800s European city on a cold winter night with chimneys and warm candlelight shining through snow-covered windows. It's quaint, unassertive, and full of hidden surprises. Across the river, however, things are more modern. Impeccably clean streets are bordered with high end department stores and Swedish design shops. There is more business. It's in this kind of area where the best coffee is often found, fulfilling a need for a caffeine fix before, after, and during work. It is here that I found Espresso Sosta.
I've been in Montreal for just over two weeks now and when I haven't been coding, I've been eating. The one place I find myself returning to almost daily -- sometimes even twice a day -- is a small cafe around the corner from where I'm staying. Its name is Cafe Myriade, and it has the best coffee in the city. Myriade is owned and operated by Canadian National Barista Championship finalist Anthony Benda and his business partner Scott Rao author of The Professional Barista's Handbook. Its drip coffee, espresso, cappuccino, macchiato, eva solo, and french press are nonpareil. Its syphon coffee is also at the top because, well, it's the only place in the city that does it. But also important is the atmosphere, one that just makes you want to come back. Or, maybe that's the caffeine speaking. Probably both.
It would be difficult to call Abraço a coffee house, let alone a shop. While it is about the size of a small closet, Ab Abraço is home to the finest espresso equipment in the industry. Don't let the stacked New York Greek take-out coffee cups, hanging aluminum pots, and scratched plexiglass display cases graffitied with the day's specials fool you: this place serves serious coffee. Underneath the hodgepodge of baking accessories are individual clay drip pots and brown sacks of Arabica beans all of which surround the space's centerpiece: the luxurious Florentine La Marzocco espresso machine accurate to 0.1 degrees Celsius. The bar's skilled co-owners, Jamie McCormick and Amy Linton, were former baristi at Blue Bottle and Ninth Street respectively. They know how to pull espresso.
Paris has a lot things, but great coffee sure isn't one of them. It's a bit counterintuitive to think that since Parisian café culture is so prominent. Images of sitting outside in wicker chairs in the cold winter under a gas heat lamp sipping a steaming hot drink in the smoke-filled air remind me very strongly of the city. Except that image is all about the ritual, not about the drink. Paris has a strong café culture, but lacks a coffee culture. It's incredible that a food-oriented culture which values so heavily elaborate sauces and delicate soufflés, can completely disregard the methods by which to properly prepare an espresso. Even simple ones. I was once thrown out of Café Amazone for suggesting that the doddering owner/barista use the tamp to compress the ground. He instead insisted on using the tamp as a measuring device, compressing the coffee into a spoon, and pouring the loose beans into the portafilter. Even La Caféothèque de Paris and Verlet, which both have fancy La Marzocco equipment and all Arabica beans disappoint. The city is like a parallel universe.
A lot of blame often gets put to the use of Robusta beans versus the more aromatic Arabica. France is able to import these beans from former African colonies at much less cost than overseas Arabica varieties. But frankly, I'm tired of this as an excuse. Even mediocre beans can taste reasonable when prepared correctly. With espresso, 85% of the flavor comes from the process and technique, not the ingredients.
Drinking coffee is just as much about the ritual as it is about the flavor. The imagery of escaping a hectic world to a calm coffee shop, nestling into an oversized chair, and sipping a drinkable work of art is the most inexpensive and cathartic 5-minute vacation money can buy. The added euphoria from high concentrations of caffeine is just icing on the cake.
However, good luck finding a seat in New York. Many of the newer coffee shops worth mentioning, like Abraço and Zibetto Expresso Bar, adopt the Italian stand-up counter-style concept of espresso whereby lingering is discouraged. And for the great shops with seats, like Joe the Art of Coffee and Ninth Street Espresso, it's either tough to find one or the boisterous atmosphere doesn't warrant productivity. This isn't a bad thing, per se, but there are times where I'd like to have an intimate conversation, or conduct a meeting, and the above shops aren't necessarily conducive to it.
I always liked drip coffee. But it wasn't until last summer that I began to enjoy espresso. I had a revelation sometime last June, at Joe the Art of Coffee, where for the first time my espresso didn't taste sour or burnt; rather it was subtle and chocolatey with nutty hints of maple syrup. It was outstanding. And since that moment, I've become obsessed. Frankly it wasn't until more recently that I began to appreciate the tremendous skill involved with extracting espresso. I began pulling espresso daily using my Rancilio Sylvia modified with an Auber Instruments PID kit to help maintain proper brewing temperature. I started pulling some incredible shots, intermixed with some not-so-great ones. The hardest part, I quickly learned, was consistency. There are so many variables (like temperature, pressure, temping pressure, grind size, ambient humidity, and bean age) that turned this into a real science. What makes Ninth Street so impressive is its consistency: rarely have I had a poorly extracted espresso. Their baristi too, are obsessed.
Coffee fuels the city that never sleeps. Unfortunately, most of it is terrible. But there are exceptions. It would be unfair to not give Starbucks tremendous credit for raising awareness of coffee and its many forms; however, most of its products remain heavily sugared and over-diluted with milk, cream, and syrups. It's become fast-food drinkable dessert. And even assuming that its beans are of decent quality, its computerized machines over-extract them while many of its unskilled "baristas" continue to flip on the milk steamer and walk away to help other customers, leaving the milk burnt and undrinkable. What was once a trendy logo to carry in your hand is now a red flag for poor taste.
However, a better educated coffee-craving public now has higher demands that Starbucks cannot fulfill in its current form. For this new demand, boutique coffee shops have been opening up and thriving. So much so, in fact, that Starbucks has been opening unbranded, clandestine shops with a community feel to trick consumers into thinking they're local shops. But no matter how hard they try, it will be hard to emulate what's available at Joe the Art of Coffee on Waverly.