twitchy

On Coffee Writing

February 28th, 2014

coffee-working

Let’s be clear. I know all about lazy journalism. As a journalist for more than a decade, as well as a book author and publisher, I have been on both sides of lazy journalism many, many times. Someone needs a quote from me this afternoon because they kinda spaced on their deadline? Sure, I understand. I have sent those last-minute emails, too. I understand it can be hard some days to shove the cat off the couch and get down to brass tacks, meet your deadlines, and even, in some cases, do a good job on your researching and reporting. I have empathy. I do.

That said, I work extremely hard for very little pay in an industry—cultural journalism—that’s surviving on diminishing returns. A lot of people get paid poorly, and a lot of people—their choice, though it devalues the work of all of us—are willing to write for free. I do a good job delivering my own expertise on coffee (or tea, or whatever else I’m writing about) in articulate and informed articles that are, hopefully, accessible to a broad audience. I do this because I’m good at it and it’s an honorable job. Most of the time it even makes me happy.

But you know what doesn’t make me happy? Lazy journalists who take others’ hard work.

This Tuesday, Zagat, a one-time mom-and-pop company owned by Google.com since 2011, published a guide entitled “8 Hottest Coffee Shops in NYC“. Well that sounds great—I love coffee shops in NYC! The article made the rounds of my friends’ social media accounts and I was happy to see some of these great shops get a little more recognition.

And then I read the words, and some of them were mine.

An editor for Zagat named Kelly Dobkin has put her name at the top of this piece. Kelly Dobkin seems to live here in New York, and she also seems to pay frequent visits to a website that I write for, Sprudge.com, in her quest for primary sources for research and inspiration. That’s no problem. Except when it is. (Apparently, this isn’t the first time even this month that Dobkin’s been called out for cribbing from others.)

Dobkin included several cafes on her “8 Hottest” list that I have written about on Sprudge in the last few months. Here are some excerpts from my articles, compared with Dobkin’s capsule reviews on the Zagat site:

Budin Coffee (from my article on Sprudge.com, 17 Feb 2014)
Liz Clayton:
“The project of partners Elliot Rayman (a veteran of both Stumptown Coffee Roasters and bustling local Variety Coffee), Crystal Pei and Rut Hermannsdóttir, Budin’s realized dream, earlier profiled in these pages, is a modern cafe with a subtitle: “Coffee Bar. Design Goods. Nordic.” And if ever Greenpoint was ready for a high-end lifestyle-and-coffee shop…hopefully that time is now.”

Kelly Dobkin:
“Why it’s hot: This Scandinavian coffee-bar-meets-lifestyle-shop in Greenpoint recently opened from Elliot Rayman (Stumptown Coffee Roasters, Variety Coffee vet), Crystal Pei and Rut Hermannsdóttir. Its tagline: “Coffee Bar. Design Goods. Nordic.” “

Hey, she moved the word “veteran” further down the line when she pasted in the copy! Good journalism, Dobkin! Dobkin also references the Modbar brewing system’s “flamed birch” handles, a detail in my article for which the owners had to text the company and specifically ask about on my behalf, while I stood in the cafe and waited. Happy to do the legwork there for ya, Kelly.

Here’s another:

Pushcart Coffee (from my article on Sprudge.com, 5 Feb 2014)

Liz Clayton:
“Pushcart baristas will be happy to dust off a Chemex, Clever Dripper, French Press, V60, Kalita Wave, or Aeropress to suit your fancy.”

Kelly Dobkin:
“Personal barista service will make your brew via Chemex, Klever Dripper, French press, V60, Kalita Wave or Aeropress.”

I realize there are only so many ways to list all these coffee brewers, but copying and pasting them directly–while introducing the fascinating typo of spelling the Clever Dripper with a K–is really very lazy and really very obvious.

Here’s another yet:

Little Collins (from my article on Sprudge.com, 25 Oct 2013)

Liz Clayton:
“under-counter Modbar brewers (specifically the pourover, espresso and steam modules) and, despite the space’s close quarters and limited seating, serve quality food…”

Kelly Dobkin:
“Under-counter Modbar brewers feature pour-over, steam and espresso-making options, which save space in the spot’s limited real estate.”

And here’s the thing: when lazy, hack journos like Dobkin start dragging and dropping other people’s well-researched, in-person-investigated copy, into their “own” work, things can get goofy. Dobkin’s recapitulation of the Modbar brewing system is so hasty that it doesn’t quite make sense anymore. (Sprudge has written about the system previously, and I go into more detail about it in my article—the way Dobkin attempts to slightly rearrange my words to make them her own now make it read like you can order a cup of steam from the baristas at Little Collins!)

Now, backing up a bit—this kind of thing is nothing new, and I’m aware people have been ripping each other off since time immemorial. It’s not always intentional, either—particularly in niche categories, a bit of repetition and imitation is inevitable. When you’re distilling the essence of a trendy cafe, there are often not a lot of different ways to say a place
has a reclaimed barn-wood bar, terrazzo flooring, a La Marzocco espresso machine and a pour-over bar, and free wi-fi. I get that. And when you’re writing a guide, as I often do, or capsule reviews for a coffee-finding app, which I also often do, there’s going to be a lot of overlap from one description to another. Guides, published on the internet, may simultaneously arise which cover some of the same territory as one another, or smartphone apps, like the one I mentioned, may have close kin who cover the same ground. This isn’t always comfortable for those of us who write the content, but we are aware that it happens—c’est la guerre.

That said, overlaps can also happen during research. When I write, for instance, a very basic article on the history of the MokaPot, a popular coffee brewer, I am going to read various existing sources to glean essential information. I am going to look at, and take information from, to rattle off a few, the Wikipedia article, a piece on DearCoffeeILoveYou, the New York Times, and the manufacturer’s own website. There are going to be bits and bobs of the same information in each piece—the name of the guy who designed it, Luigi diPonti, the names of the museums in which the MokaPot/Moka Express is on view, the story about the mechanics being inspired by a dishwasher. I take pains, when I use a variety of research sources, to both corroborate facts and not duplicate the way in which they are written. Why? Because my job as a writer is to write things—that’s wherein the pleasure lies.

Coffee writing is a funny thing. Writing, and journalism of every kind, are suffering qualitatively at the hands of the easy-to-access internet, which in myriad other ways has been a wonderful thing for the dissemination of information and the satisfaction of knowledge-seekers. But as publishing’s become easy, words have become cheap, and frankly, anyone can write a blog post (look at me, here on my soapbox!) or cut and paste something someone in a more remote nook of the internet inadvertently researched for them, and still bring home their Google paycheck…but I digress.

At the same time journalism’s teetering, coffee, and a wider interest in it, is on the rise. Higher quality coffee, better sourced, better prepared coffee exists now than ever has before, and an ever-growing number of people want to know about how to find it, brew it, and drink it. As those of us who really care try to get the information to the people—out of our own passion as well as some vague fantasy of career sustainability, it’s in the best interest of all of us to support a culture of journalism that works together to get good information about good coffee, coffee shops doing a good job, companies that source sustainably, the whole shebang—out to a wider audience. And by together I mean, not combatively, competitively, or through out and out theft.

It’s actually great that people like Zagat and other mainstream media are taking note of good coffee, and good coffee writing, but—in the tradition of big guys ripping off little guys—it’s not okay that bullshit practices like this slip past unnoticed. While Dobkin spends her GoogleBuck$ (I’m not saying she gets a lot of them, but neither I, nor my editors at Sprudge, saw so much as cheap as a link back for the work that we produced and published), I’ll be out in the city actually going to coffee shops, actually drinking the coffee, writing my own words in my own language and actually knowing, most of the time, what the heck I’m even talking about.

For shame, Dobkin, for being so brazenly lazy, and to her superiors at Zagat/Google for continuing to tolerate it even when she’s already been called out mere weeks ago. Of course, they probably don’t know…which is why I’m spelling it out here, in plain language.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go drink some of New York’s hottest coffee.

Oh, hello there.

I’ll be teaching a how-to-home-brew coffee class again at the esteemed Brooklyn Kitchen this coming Sunday, March 4, at 2:00pm. You should sign up for a slot, because it’s fun to go to the Brooklyn Kitchen, and even more fun to taste delicious coffees compared across various brew methods (we’ll try Clever, Aeropress, Chemex, maybe more). Local roasters Cafe Grumpy and Dallis Bros. Coffee are providing the beans, while I’ll provide the technique and hopefully a little entertainment.

Class is $45, and if you enter TWITCHY as your discount code, you’ll get $10 credit at the store, along with the 10% off you already receive day of class. Sunday should be just the kind of lazy cloudy late winter day you want to drop in, shop for toys, and perfect your brew. Am I right?

Click here for more info.

An evening of snow into a morning of blooming crocuses and noon hardly ever felt so early (again, I’ll blame climate change here) as we roll in to the NERBC finals after a 28-day, three-state romp through one of the crowdedest rooms in Manhattan.

It had been a little while since I attended a barista competition (last year’s Great Lakes regional, a district now renamed to no longer celebrate only the coffee-making empires along Huron, Ontario, Michigan, Erie and Superior) and I had forgotten what it might be like to see someone make ice cream using only a ziploc bag of ice and their hands, or have the science what is “excreted” from coffee demonstrated using vinegar, finesse, and a Soda Stream.

It wasn’t very long ago that New York City was a just-being-born coffee place: Café Grumpy had only opened their second store in 2007, and Ninth Street Espresso was still making up its mind as to where it might creep west of Avenue A. Gimme! Coffee was one shop, monitored early in the mornings by a guy with a gruff voice, and someone on the street told me to check out this really cool new spot, “Cafe Collage”.

Fast forward now to 2012, the end of the world, when not only are there a bazillion specialty coffee places in New York City, but restaurants paying attention as well. There is more than one food journalist in this town with a *specialty* in writing about coffee. And so it stands to reason that, despite the talented throngs of baristas throwing their hats in the ring from Connecticut, Maryland, Delaware, Pennsylvania, Boston, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Ohio, New York, New Jersey, Vermont, Rhode Island and West Virginia (okay, maybe not all of those states showed up), five out of the six finalists are from right here in New York City. How awesome is this?

I loved watching Third Rail’s Jordan Barber (from Oregon to New York to Copenhagen back to New York again—hey, if you’re gonna get sent back from Denmark without a visa, you could really do a lot worse for Plan B) compete using [mystery coffee] *without any audio*. Despite the technical difficulties (and a lazy kettle leaving him stranded to serve cold Americanos), Jordan appeared absolutely unfazed. But even more interestingly, the audience was captivated. Despite lack of any video screen projecting what was happening deep in the action, and despite Jordan’s mic not working, and his soundtrack skipping to boot, the standing room only crowd remained transfixed at the swiftly moving hands and steady gaze of a coffee professional at work. You guys, if we’ve finally managed to captivate a crowd who can neither hear nor really see someone making espresso beverages, I’d say our industry has finally won.

More to come today, friends.

serious twitching

September 8th, 2010

I nearly forgot to mention that I’ve started blogging about the New York Coffee world over here at Serious Eats New York, a lovely website that you should only visit if you’re prepared to be jealous and hungry. Don’t worry, Twitchy’s normal level of neglect will be unaffected by extracurricular activities — I’m certain there will be posts here when you least expect them, like always.

one week after the world barista championships feels a bit like i had a hazy dream: in my dream five coffee producing nations rose to the top ranks of the semifinals, second place in the world was awarded to a guatemalan heartthrob, and the winning trophy was sent on a plane back to my hometown of chicago, illinois, with a certain mike phillips who, now freed up from competition rehearsal forever could be be an even greater threat to dance floors internationally. oh wait, though. not a dream. this really happened.

54 nations sent worthy and worldly competitors to london last week to make better espressos, cappuccinos and signature drinks than anyone else on the entire planet, and from those 54 came some memorable routines. oda haug of norway may not have persuaded the judges with her daring scandinavian roast profiles, but her performance showed amazing skill and love…attila molnar performed a signature drink à la “man behind the curtain”, hiding the entire preparation and even visual appearance of his drink behind a small black baffle and then instructing the judges not to look in the cup (!)….scottie callaghan asked his judges to rise from their table and hull some seeds for him (he suggested the ladies could have the “men do it for them” if they preferred…when is faux-chauvanistic sexism going to leave the competition floor please? and can we just serve drinks left to right?) and then had them squat under the espresso machine to watch his extractions up close and personal…yara castanho transplanted herself from brasil to denmark to serve beautiful coffees from estate coffee and be one of only two women (ana lucia hawit, protege of heather perry, being the other) to make it to the semifinals…colin harmon opened with a welcomely nerdy dialogue on water science and taste by using different waters to brew in different parts of his routine, london water being a theme of cloudy discussion throughout the weekend among everyone…alejandro mendez and his shower of honey…stefanos domatiotis’ maniacal grin…soren markussen extracting material out of a tree stump…the list went on and on and on, yet somehow got packed into only three perfect london sunny midsummer days.



off the floor, coverage was loosely organized, i kept bumping into sprudge and oliver strand and al jazeera and whoever else scrambling about with cheap SLRs and notepapers trying to make sense of the international melee. there were parties attended (and afterparties unable to be evaded) and parties skipped for ironing duties (and if you’ve never been to finca lasagne, ask the US team about which off-license sells the best lasagne-and-chips combo in the west end). mornings started at whole foods, evenings ended wandering the streets with scandinavians, and everything in between was coffee and pure love.

before you knew it we were on to the finals. repeat national champions all — colin harmon of ireland, scottie callaghan of australia, mike phillips of the usa and soren markussen of denmark, all two-time national champions. raul rodas from guatemala, a three-time national champion (and only age 23!), and stefanos domatiotis, barista champion of greece four times. over here in blissfully ignorant america we tend to think mikey phillips worked pretty hard at getting where he is, but when you’ve competed at the WBC level four times… you have been putting in some really serious hours. scary opposition, anything could happen. but some of us had our hunches.

and lest we forget to tell it, mike phillips — america’s sweetheart? — almost crippled his own chances here. it wasn’t funny at the time, but certain blogging members of team USA assured him “it will be fine” and “it will make a good story when you win”, after our nation’s kid blew out his friggin pinky finger in a moonlight game of kickball in the short weeks between the US championship and making a second stab at the world title. would a hand cast accommodate a portafilter? could the champ learn to tamp ambidextrously? can you make coffee with an atrophied pinky dangling into your signature drink? is it okay if you don’t practice for the most important contest of your career for like, I dunno, a month or so? did his team at least win the kickball game? yeah, mike got the cast off in just enough time to act like nothing happened, but if you squeeze his hand too joyfully be careful…it still hurts.

though i took more pictures than notes this year, the high points of this year’s competition will stay etched on my brain (and into my forearm) for a good long time now. to see so many amazing ambassadors of coffee, particularly those from coffee producing nations, perform at such a high level, is so promising for the future of the industry, and the future of competitions as communicating vessels between us geeks and the outside world. mike’s position with intelligentsia coffee, surely one of the loudest megaphones in the industry, should allow a great deal of opportunity to learn, liaise, discuss and inspire from his new position as our representative and (is that how colin harmon put it?) um, king. but in the afterglow of this year’s happiness, though, we need to open the gender question (and indeed i have with a few of you already) as to how we can build and encourage more female leaders in specialty/whatever you like to call it coffee. year after year of massively male-dominated finalists and going into our eleventh year of male world champions embarrasses me, and should be looked at carefully. what are we doing to make talented women not feel welcome? as we make our slow strides towards equity and fairness in the producing end of coffee, making gender balance visible at the cup level should be a priority too — it’s not like girls can’t make coffee, okay? anyway, a question for the coming year, and one i hope many of you will want to solve with me.

in the meantime, i love you team USA, and though i’m sorry we don’t get to do it again in exactly this way, i’ll see you on finca lasagne anytime.

oh and…

house six!!!!


a guided coffee tasting at penny university

london london london, i’ve been in you for a few days now and have i checked any cultural boxes? not so much. there has been strolling and there have been really a lot of peas, and maybe just maybe there was a little side trip to oslo, but that’s a story for another day.

my coffee explorations here have been geographically limited but so high-calibre it’s been hard to want to tube schlep further out: penny university‘s simple, unpedantic approach to educating, showcasing, and encouraging filter coffee in london is endearing and a hopeful nod to the future of geekery and discovery. i want to take my mom here. i want to have a place like this to stroll by in any worthwhile city and just nose around and learn, as a customer, not just as a lucky friend of the cafe who happens to show up in time for a staff cupping or a special bag of something dropped off from copenhagen or olympia or san antonio. winding my way up from penny i’ve gotten waylaid for probably four cumulative hours now in the awkward aislespace of present and prufrock coffee. i don’t need any fancy men’s shirts or art journals, but i do need mattias and gwilym preparing some of the best espressos i’ve had in a long long time. up the road on hackney i also can’t stop going to taste of bitter love, the ultimate adorable local (superb coffee, quaintest space ever, darling staff, lovely bakery and sandwiches) that everyone wishes were across the street from them, oh except for james and anette of square mile, for whom it actually is across the street. bastards.

so, tomorrow begins the 2010 world barista championship, and though i have no idea what will happen, this not so unbiased journalist is rooting for america again, not only because mike phillips is my favourite in the competition (gotta use those ‘u’s over here in the UK or they won’t know what we’re talking about), and because his coffees are exquisite, but because his routines this year have been over and above, well, almost everything i’ve ever seen in a barista competition. mike is fortunate to be with a company that pushes the opportunites and ideas in coffee so far and hard in the US, but beyond that, his performative explorations of what coffee is about, what we can learn from it, and how it can be showcased interestingly in a competition environment is at a higher level than most things i’ve had the pleasure to watch, and it should be a pleasure to watch again on wednesday around 15:35 GMT*.

other competitors on my look-out-for list: yara castanho (brazil), 14:27 GMT wednesday; colin harmon (ireland), 11:18 GMT thursday; john gordon (uk), 11:20 GMT wednesday; oda haug (norway), 14:25 thursday; attila molnar (hungary), 15:16 GMT thursday; and raul “el tigre” rodas (guatemala), 13:34 GMT thursday — ALL repeat national champions. i am also very curious to see many of the baristas i’ve never seen before, not the least of whom are jimmy njoroge of kenya, who i met and was very funny, kyle straw of canada, scottie callaghan of australia who freaked me out on a bus in los angeles, and vikram kashyap, competing for a caribou coffee franchise in the united arab emirates. what!? i love WBC! see you in the morning!!

* all times based on the schedule i have which may totally not be current, sorry.

it’s that time again

May 31st, 2010

and though all things come to an end, it’s hard to believe when i wake up sunday that this is the last day. it’s a mad scramble to get schedules straight and figure out where people can get a good breakfast in this sham of a town. after about three thousand text messages, jordan and i pick the “roaring start” buffet at the red lion inn solely based on the name, and we’re off to the pancake machine, hitting the button over and over and over again to quell our finals day nerves. i arrive at the convention center to find pete licata putting candied bacon pieces into a cut-up jelly donut with ice cream…I guess we all have our ways of dealing with the moment.

first to go is sara peterson, downright thrilled, humbled, and charmed to be serving verve’s own “lomi” espresso — an ethiopian coffee with a made-up name, thanks to the ambiguous ancestries created by the ethiopian coffee exchange. sara talks of “lemon angels”, and she’s such a strong competitor that it’s amazing to think that last year was her first, as an entrant for the abbey, skyrocketing from the semifinals then to the top six in the country now.

her signature drink features a meyer lemon/ginger simple syrup mix, and in an attempt to recreate the sparkling acidity of the lomi coffee, a little bit of sparkling water too, all set on a base of con panna with lemon, caramel and a pinch of sea salt. sara emphasizes that her goal with her signature drink is to excite the novice drinker: something that would inspire them, get them into coffee — while still sophisticated enough for an advanced palate.

second competitor today is intelligentsia’s millennium park coffee educator charles “c-babs” babinski. how much do i love that the nation now knows you as c-babs, c-babs? anyway: we are sticking with the table-is-a-coffee-farm metaphor, and it’s a great way to think about how coffees grown on different parts of a farm can taste so remarkably different yet all so good. what’s the reason for this? “i don’t know,” says babinski, moving through the nuances of lime custard, marshmallow creme, trying to “take the farm off the table and into the cup”.

“i’m a barista!” he insists again, trying to deliver the experience of these finca matalapa el salvadoran coffees as purely as he can. matalapita espreso is prepared, cidra is v60-’d, we learn about leaf loss, and suddenly the bus bin is MOBBED for the remains of charles’ gorgeous cappuccinos — i’m not sure i’ve ever seen such a line before in my life for used drinks. there’s dancing, and suddenly the coffee farm turns back into a competition table, and charles calls time at 15:03.

third up is st. louis, mo’s mike marquard, competing for kaldi’s coffee in an extended remix of the booya apron he sported last year. marquard is brewing a colombia monserrate today, and has a lot on his mind about variety NOT being the spice of life, and an insistence that we not compromise. this is strong talk from a guy with a golf glove and a coyote apron on, but i’m into it.

like sarah, mike bases his signature drink (and much of his routine’s spiel) on the axis of engaging coffee drinkers who may not be seasoned sophisticates without alienating them. though we’ve seen many competitors with many different aims this weekend, the message of how do i best deliver this message? is one that i wish people would focus on a little more. it goes back to the whole question of who and what these events are for anyway, and marquard takes his stance to the extreme, suggesting that telling your customer a coffee has “notes of bergamot” may make them seek coffee elsewhere. maybe yes, maybe no, maybe in st. louis, maybe in manhattan, it’s hard to say. i wonder if there isn’t a middle ground were we can’t be geeky, esoteric and weird all while engaging people nonetheless? i think it’s possible, myself, though i’d sure love to see people keep trying. marquard whips out an aeropress for his finale and continues to discuss the idea that we can work towards a language of description that isn’t reductive or cute, but that still draws people in. i’m impressed at the opening of a dialogue that tries to bring coffee to people across all levels, rather than preaching to the converted. mike finishes hella early, and we’re cleaned up tidily for competitor number four.

chris baca, verve coffee roasters, is up next with his ladyfriend elida. elida is a panamanian coffee he’s spent more time with in the last several months than with his friends, and her strawberry sweetness is as persuasive as it is seductive. he incorporates flavors that will “serve as a road map to elida’s personality”, and between that and the fire we’re all in. though the rules in effect for this competition stopped baca from yanking two people out of the audience for a tasty-poo like he did in the westerns, he still pulls six shots, tasting his own espresso as he goes along, and sharing with the head judge (for whom preparing a drink is optional). it must be an interesting thing to know how your drinks taste precisely during the moment of competition, and it’s an even more interesting thing for baca that he’s been in contact with his coffee’s producer thoroughout training for competition this year. “life-changing”, in fact, he says. as it should be, again, getting back to the heart of why one does what one does.

a little-known fellow called mike phillips is the penultimate competitor, and he’s got some nonsense with three hoppers full of the same coffee but processed all different ways, and a bunch of hoo-ha about how good it tastes. this guy is alright i guess, but he talks kind of fast.

devin pedde of intelligentsia coffee, silver lake, closes out the day. devin’s using more of those delicious matalapa coffees, and makes the judges choose a little disc to represent whether they’d rather have one flavor profile or the other. they take the richer, more apricotty path, and though devin claims he “may not know everything yet”, his competence in delivering the beauty of his coffee is only matched by his confidence. his cappuccinos are “so delicious,” he says, “you’ll wish they came in a 20 oz size.”

a pinch of muscovado sugar and some mixed-up yogurt later and we’re outta here, so done, the book slammed shut on another coffee olympics with nothing left to do but wait. there’s a little pacing and a little wizard-ogling on the palm-lined pathways outside, and suddenly we’re thanking the shit out of the sponsors and oh god who’s it gonna be and booya has sixth again and oh god is it baca or mike and it’s mike and suddenly the kid has another blender and another let’s talk coffee to attend and a spare extract mojo and a whole nuther world championship to prepare for. well, if ya gotta, ya gotta, right people? see you in london, 2010 united states barista team. mikey, tellya what, if those novelty checks get too heavy for you, charles and i can each hold up an end.

nothing a headcold and a little side trip up the pacific coast won’t do to slow down the delivery of days-old news to one’s ever-quiet, miniature readership…

in any case, remember saturday? the usbc semifinals began first thing in the morning with scott lucey, whose tribute to the farmers at nelson melo’s farm is the renaming of last year’s delicious, stunning “liquid swords” to “espadas liquidas”. it’s a tricky drink to assemble, but “you must take risks in this game”, and scott does — in fact, it’s a risk he’s taken to begin with to do this routine to begin with, revisiting and improving a drink and a coffee he scored third in the country with last year. it’s for him a formal exercise: perfecting an act, a presentation, a message, within the constraints of competition as we know it. others have raised questions about creativity and what it is the competition is supposed to test or present. so what IS the competition supposed to test or present? and why wouldn’t you take a fantastic routine and deploy it again to try to win it all? if anything this has opened a conversation that i’d like to see continued — one that would better the practice of barista competitions going forward. as those of us who buy into the value of this ask themselves over and over again every year: what exactly is the function of these competitions, anyway? and so many of us have different answers. anyway, then laila ghambari drops her cocktail strainer on the floor mid-routine and we move back to thinking about more trivial things, like how many points is that gonna cost?

during mike phillips’‘s performance, a senior in the crowd tries to engage me about recent coffee articles in the new york times, which i did not write, and then tells me i am a “very sexy lady”. though it’s always nice to know that mike continues to inspire romance in the crowd, i’d rather watch his routine again — a lot of us are still reeling a little from seeing it in the great lakes regional. there’s no more 8 1/2 x 11 sheet of Discovery World office paper folded up to catch the purged coffee from his three-hopper-monte trick… now there’s a nice steel chute fashioned by the boys back home. big pimpin’, no doubt, as is the whole shebang (the same costa rican coffee processed three ways, served up in 28936423647699999 configurations).

lem butler of durham’s counter culture coffee ambidextrously double pours his cappuccinos, so new school, but serves them all four at once because he’s old-school. it’s weird when you think that old school was two years ago.

trevor corlett almost serves rob tuttle his signature drink first, then realizes rob is not a girl, and takes it back, serves other female judge. backstage, flies are beginning to circulate around the trash can and the barista prep tables. it’s a little apocalyptic…

the delightful lorenzo perkins of austin’s caffé medici produces a mini cupping of his santa rita coffee as part of his routine, and makes espresso to the tune of “me and my arrow”. less innocently, devin pedde says something about apricot draping itself all over the judges palates…. is my hearing working correctly?

finalists are announced and it’s an interesting batch: charles babinski, mike phillips and ol’ palate-draper himself devin pedde from intelligentsia, mike marquard of kaldi’s coffee, a finalist last year (along with mike and devin), and chris baca and (thank god, a girl) sara peterson of verve coffee roasters in lovely santa cruz. a tight match and you always wish there could be seven places in the finals…but you know that if there were seven, you’d just wish there could be eight. time for a long exhalation from every and all.

i make short work of a thousand-headed gathering over at the hilton, and escape with jenni and some ginger-haired texans to anywhere but anaheim for middling-quality food and high-quality company. it’s moments like these during conventions, when you get to hang out with, oh, groups smaller than four, that really save your sanity. three days down, on to the next one!

i am starting to see wizards around the convention center. actual wizards. i am seriously contemplating joining their convention instead of this one, so if coverage stops suddenly this weekend you will know why.

also, important correction: the fro yo place adjacent the convention center is called frozen assets, not liquid assets.

andrew milstead (urban coffee lounge, kirkland, washington) presents a super pro routine in which he manages to say “avocado affogato” numerous times without tripping over himself. it’s a crazy-tasting signature drink…sweet and wild.

following andrew is tyler wells of austin, texas sausage purveyor frank. tyler makes the grand but possibly not entirely illogical leap that the wonders of finca matalapa are as diverse and rewarding as those of the pig: after all, if ham, bacon and pork chops can come from a magical animal, so can all the amazing coffees from this farm in el salvador. his signature drink is a balance of caramel and apple cider, and it’s crazy sweet, crazy tasty and crazy that this is a coffee drink.

gabriel combs of intelligentsia coffee in LA is preparing a coffee with notes of cherry cordial. he’s hot buttering some almonds up there. competitor nik krankl‘s granddad and style maven is strolling about the floor by now, by the way, in paramilitary garb, a leatherman, jackboots, and suspenders. i can’t tell if he has a sightglass or sextant on him but i’m guessing he does…

alterra coffee’s scott lucey promises a coffee routine that works like an “inverse crescendo”. servant leadership is on the menu again today: this time in the form of a cappuccino, the drink that truly works to serve the coffee selflessly. yeah it does!

(greg scace overheard on the floor: “five year olds can accumulate some princess shit, that’s the truth”)

charles babinski is next from intelligentsia cofffee in chicago: “i want you to imagine that this table is a coffee farm!” he says…and for a moment we are teleported, from under the hot lights and stale convention center air, to el salvador.

espresso parts’ robbie britt disqualifies over time, but as emcee michael elvin puts it, “you went a little over time, but you looked great doing it!”

ryan knapp from madcap in grand rapids, mitten, asserts that happy cappuccinos come from happy cows, but jared truby of santa cruz’s verve coffee roasters claims that happy coffee comes from happy people. all this happiness is making me dizzy, though not as much as truby who claims that the first time he tasted his competition coffee he “literally blacked out”.

i skip chris baca who i actually really want to watch, only because i need to eat lunch and i’m certain i’ll have the chance to see him compete in the semifinals saturday, unless his routine is obliterated by wayward volcanic ash from iceland or something else equally unlikely. i steal a pimp ride with doug palas and we go to the nearest in-n-out burger. thank god for short breaks of fresh air…or french fry air, we take what we can get in anaheim.

the semifinalists are announced, gosh, at some point, and amazingly, scott lucey isn’t there to hear his name called. he’s busy in the basement of the convention center leading a barista guild class. how do you like THAT for servant leadership?

a quick stop at the hotel for cold drinks and coffeemaker tea, and we’re off to LA for the intelligentsia party, full of tacos, flickr stalkers, brewtbart souvenirs, and so much more. i’m pretty sure the party is past its prime when i start seeing people doing face-painting at 1:00am, and we all pile onto the last shuttle bus back to anaheim, where some drunk australians try to start a dance contest in the aisle. to sleep, and to the semifinals, where hopefully no one will still be their in face paint.

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