This blog really wants to stand at a bar and drink his espresso.

Archive for January 2009

In Defense of the Barista

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My friend Marty claimed last night that his job “could be done by a trained monkey”. He is a barista.

He’s categorically wrong. I was sitting at the bar at the Broadway Intelli today, watching the Clover operator dial in the coffee with the in-store trainer while simultaneously carrying on a full and interesting conversation with a customer.

I’m completely behind the relentless pursuit of brewing perfection, but a good barista is also a good conversationalist. Few experiences are better than drinking a good cup of coffee while listening to an entertaining story from a well-traveled barista.

I don’t know why this is so often overlooked.


Written by Nick

28 January, 2009 at 3:26 pm

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What My Taste Buds are Currently Perceiving

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El Mirador Micro-Lot

Drip-dripping its way through my Chemex currently is Intelligentsia’s Finca Santuario El Mirador micro-lot. I tend not to like Colombian coffees, and even Metropolis’ awesome San Rafael earlier this year was something I could appreciate but not truly enjoy. This one is different. It’s simple, mild, sweet, and very refined. The thing that I can only describe as “Colombia taste” is not present in this coffee. What is there is something very close to brown sugar, and it’s extremely pleasing. It’s not very complex, but it’s still impressive.

Written by Nick

19 January, 2009 at 8:27 pm

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The State of Coffee Journalism

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Written by Nick

8 January, 2009 at 10:57 pm

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The Future?

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This is a story about Intelligentsia’s new Venice location.

It sounds like the best possible concept store, and I applaud Doug Zell’s imagination and bravery. I think it will work, and I think it will draw attention to the coffee and the craft. Good on them.

It’s even being described as a “game-changer”. I think that might be overstating it, and I have two objections to descriptions like this. The first is that most coffee shops still do business mostly with people in the immediate surroundings. It’s the nature of the product. Unless enough buzz is generated and it becomes an attraction, most of the customers will be locals. The other objection is that it’s still a concept store, and I have doubts about how well the space will accommodate people who want to hang out (I still think table service is the best solution to this). I could very easily be wrong about the latter, since I haven’t seen photos.

In any case, I am eager to see the new shop and the reactions to it.

Written by Nick

8 January, 2009 at 5:22 pm

Posted in Coffee

The Enemy of Good Enough

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After a morning of getting little sleep, I found myself near a Brown Line stop. My good friend Marty, an Intelligentsia employee, had called me the day before raving about the new layout at the Broadway store. Since the city was deserted and no one was awake, I decided that I could check out the new shop and fix my sleepiness with a 15 minute L ride.

The photo above sums it up best – a shot of Black Cat in a custom printed ceramic cup, on a bar, with a spoon, accompanied by a real glass of sparkling water. I don’t even like the current iteration of Black Cat, but I was immensely pleased by this. I have never experienced such blatant attention to detail in a coffee shop, the only thing coming close being the complementary cookie that comes with espresso at The Coffee Studio. What’s so important about this is that it overtly says, “We care. This is good coffee.” I’ve had stellar coffee out of paper cups before. Earlier this year, my hands wrapped themselves around a french pressed cup of Carmen Estate at Metropolis that garnered an audible “Oh my God” from a friend who tried it. But somehow, this was more satisfying. Presentation like this is perhaps the best answer to the declaration, “It’s just coffee.”

Because it’s not Just Coffee. Nothing is Just Coffee. Starbucks is obviously not Just Coffee. Nor is my dad’s morning stop at Dunkin Donuts Just Coffee. Even the cheapest diner coffee, or the Folgers/Maxwell House/etc. that many people drink every day is not Just Coffee. It’s a routine, a customer service experience, a drug, a part of culture. Even the uttering of “It’s just coffee” belies the fact that it’s not Just Coffee; it’s a complaint about noncompliance with a societal norm. “It’s just coffee” is the American equivalent of Italians extolling the virtues of their coffee culture. Accusations of snobbery are made much more difficult by presentation like this. It’s easy for someone to look at two paper cups, one with good coffee and one with bad coffee, and say they should be the same. Taste is important, but it’s subjective – no one ever knows exactly what someone else is tasting. Show someone that photo and the suggestion that this is a higher quality coffee is easier to accept.

Dual Clover

Then there are these. It took a while for me to be convinced that Clovers could make outstanding coffee once my initial excitement wore off. The trainers at the Chicago Intelli stores have done a stellar job determining specs for their coffees, and now I’m sold. The recent cups I’ve had off of these machines have been very good, and easily surpass what comes out of a FETCO or similar brewer.

Also new

Then there is the layout itself. The old counter design basically minimized human contact. Now there are up to three baristi behind the bar, spread out, facing the customers. It’s much easier to have a conversation. Not only does this give a better opportunity to talk about coffee, but it’s easier to give good customer service in general.

The whole thing isn’t perfect, but it shows what is possible once someone challenges the common idea of what a coffee shop should be. It’s not difficult, either; the remodel happened overnight.

Written by Nick

2 January, 2009 at 1:48 am

Posted in Coffee