Yesterday afternoon, I had a brief twitter discussion with @Glanvillain (Kyle Glanville of Intelligentsia) about balance. Earlier, I said that I expect espresso shots to have balance, and Kyle wrote “flavor balance is based on a catalog of personal experience”… “it is not universal”.
I agreed with him to a point - that point was, once you get into extremely refined tastes - tastes that are harder and harder to describe, one person’s balance is another person’s unbalance.
But I also disagreed with him. Because balance has a strong basis point for most normal palates. And I used mixology as an example.
Our experience with espresso is very short - only really 65 years in total, and in reality, maybe only 20 years as we reached a beginning saturation point of global citizens who have tasted actual espresso.
Our experience with coffee is hundreds of years old, but experiencing coffee as a culinary thing is at most 40 years old (Peets in Berkeley), and more realistically maybe 10-15 years old for many coffee consumers.
In the meantime, the culinary aspects of cocktail making date back 150 years or more. And in that time, there was a long standing pursuit of something called balance in cocktail mixology. Notwithstanding the sugary 80s and 90s, much of the true cocktail history was a dedicated pursuit to a balance of refined, delicate, and often fleeting flavours. Over 100 years ago, Mixology authors were writing about the importance of balancing sweets, sours, and bitters.
One of my all time favourite cocktails is one that is almost 100 years old, and is by far and away the most delicate balanced yet still complex cocktails I know. That beverage is called the Aviation.
The Aviation dates to at least 1916 - it appears in Hugo Ensslin’s book Recipes for Mixed Drinks printed at that time. Here is the original recipe:
1/3rd Lemon Juice (the sour)
2/3rds El Bart Gin (a slightly sweeter gin, yet still bitters style, than the London Dry styles of today)
2 dashes of Maraschino Liqueur (very sweet)
2 dashes of Creme de Violette (again, very, very very sweet, prior to the 1940s)
Shake with ice, strain, serve. This drink was a master of balance. The sours of the lemon balanced with the sweets of the liqueurs, and the gin brought further balance via some sweets and the botanical bitters. This drink will be 100 years old in 2016, and if it were made today with the same ingredients, it would still be characterized as balanced by our modern day palates.
Today, we don’t have El Bart, and people have boozed up the recipe somewhat, but the balance in a genuine Aviation remains:
2oz dry gin (I like Plymouth for it)
1/2oz fresh squeezed lemon juice
2 tsp of maraschino liqueur
1 tsp of creme de violette.
The recipe accounts for the changes in the gin (drier) and the violette (Rothman & Winter is probably the best one sorta-readily available these days and it isn’t as sweet as ancient violettes, and much more floral) and it is boozed up. But it is a supreme example of delicate balance, with complexity. The lemon cuts through offering the sours (and some bitters from the skin oils squeezed through); the maraschino sweetens like crazy, and the violette brings floral aromatics that, when used too much, will turn the beautiful beverage into soap.
Now, some prefer this with 1.5tsp of creme de violette, or more lemon and more maraschino (note both balance each other).
This is where the more refined elements of a drink’s balance can come into play, and how different people perceive that balance differently. But the bottom line is this - the cocktail’s most pure recipe has a good basis point for balance, and you fine tune it from there. And what was seen as balance 100 years ago is still seen as balance in a beverage today.
My point? Within our western culture (and especially the diet we eat) we have communally basic equal sense of taste balance that hasn’t changed very much in over 100 years. The recipe books for mixology from 50, 75, 100, 125 years ago show this quite well. There are plenty of cocktail recipes in these books that use ingredients that are quite similar, if not nearly identical today (ie the taste of lemon, or green Chartreuse, or Benedictine).
Balance in cocktails is a science and art that dates back centuries. Balance in espresso? We’re still trying to figure it out after only decades, and I worry some in our industry forget about just how important balance is. I’ll take balance over clarity anyday.
Today, Italy’s favourite barista (and the bane of many an American barista / cafe shop owner), Giorgios Milos got another kick at the can with Salon’s feature article on him and his opinions of American Espresso. You may remember Milos - he also did two blog style articles on the state of US Espresso for the Atlantic, here and here. (His blog is continuing, here).
Milos pretty much blasts all the top NYC cafes, including Ninth Street and especially Stumptown, when he went on a tour with the writer from Salon. It’s not going to make a lot of people happy over on this side of the pond.
Listen - not all espresso in Italy is fantabulous. In fact, most of it isn’t and requires sugar to be palatable. Just like over here in N. America. But espresso is a cultural tradition in Italy, much deeper and more ingrained than any place here in North America, and it would do a good educational opportunity to listen to what an Italian espresso expert (even one who finished 27th in the WBC) has to say.
One thing Milos touches on is balance in the cup. I happen to agree with him on this, quite a bit. It’s one of the reasons why I find single origin espresso boring. There often is no balance - but instead a skew towards one type of flavour or preference. An overly bright shot might work wonders with milk, but it is not balanced, nor is it palatable (to me) as a straight shot. A shot “with 80% chocolate notes” to me at least is far too bitter. I don’t like 80% chocolate either - I tend to stop liking it as soon as the percentage gets up around 70-75%. And I am a Campari and Averna drinker (okay, they have sweet components too).
I’ve had fresh Illy coffee. When brewed properly, it tastes fantastic. And it is always the same taste profile. The beans change - there’s never fewer than 9 types in the blend, which is an interesting situation in its own situ (more below) - but the taste profile remains.
Problem is, illy in a can sucks because a) it’s bloody expensive, and b) unless you brew the entire can within 30 minutes or less of opening, it stales completely. This is our experience with illy in N. America, so its easy to think that Milos is just pimping (directly or indirectly a stale, old coffee when he talks or is interviewed. But keep it in perspective - illy is a great blend when it is fresh, and for most of Milos’ brewing career, that is what he works with.
On 9 bean blends. Not a fan, but usually not a fan because 99.9% of the roasters out there wouldn’t know how to manage a 9 bean blend. Illy is in that .1%, and mainly because of the science they throw at their roasting process. Have you ever seen Illy’s roasting plant? I have. It’s staggering in how advanced it is.
Some argue that 9 bean blends completely hide the farmer. That is true (on taste), but not true in Illy’s case in terms of publicizing farmers - Illy, more than any multinational company I know, promotes the farmers they use and gets the word out about farming practices and ethics. Illy has staged their own kinda-version of the Cup of Excellence for years before the CoE existed. Look it up.
Milos’ words are (continuing to be) harsh words that will anger many baristas, and cause others to just brush him off as someone not connected to the current state of espresso. To do both is a mistake. You don’t have to agree with Milos, but at the very least, listen to an opinion that is probably different from your own, and try to take some lessons from it.
This is officially the last thing I will ever write, discuss, or answer about Kopi Luwak ever again.
Not a week goes by when I am asked at least 2 or 3 times about this coffee. It usually goes like these scenarios:
Scenario one - talking socially to someone in the food or beverage industry (a chef, a food writer, a bartender, a waiter, a sommelier etc), and they glean my involvement in specialty coffee. At some point in the conversation, they ask “hey, you ever hear about that coffee from cats? from animals who shit out the coffee? Ever try this?”
Scenario two - talking to someone in mass media, giving an interview, providing background, etc, and they go “hey, you ever hear about that coffee from cats? from animals who shit out the coffee? Ever try this? Anywhere I can get some sent to me?”
Scenario three - someone emails me as the owner of CoffeeGeek and says “hey, you must know a lot about coffee. Ever hear about that coffee that some cat shits out?”
And so forth.
For the record:
a) I’ve tried Kopi Luwak on several occasions. In fact at one point I had two pounds of the stuff green, and at another point, had five pounds of the stuff. It is a mediocre, non-descript coffee when it comes to taste.
b) Something like 10x the amount of Kopi Luwak is sold vs. how much is actually produced. In other words, for every 250lbs produced, over 2500lbs are sold. It is a scam, folks
c) for the scant amount of “real” kopi luwak coffee produced, there have been serious questions about the ethical treatment of the animals used to produce it. Bottom line - there is a lot of evidence the animals are inhumanely treated.
d) I will never, ever again answer any question or query on Kopi Luwak. Don’t ask me.
I am looking for writers for the CoffeeGeek website, covering all facets of writing, from how tos to opinionated pieces.
Writing styles and topics would include
How Tos - short articles (up to 1000 words) with good quality photography showing step by step methods on anything involving coffee.
Opinion articles - 1500-2500 word articles discussing hot topic discussions on coffee and espresso
Travel articles - 1200-2000 words, 5-15 photographs covering travel destinations with a coffee focus
Review articles - for our quickshot review section, these would have to be unbiased, factual looks at new and interesting products for coffee and espresso.Must include detailed photography.
Trade Show / Event reports - 1000-2,000 words, 5-20 or more photographs. Covering barista jams, trade shows, competitions, etc.
Regular columnists - are you a professional or advanced enthusiast in coffee and espresso with great writing skills and a lot to say on specific subjects? I’d like to discuss with you the possibility of doing a monthly or bi-weekly column. Not only is this a great vehicle for continued discussion and development in trends in coffee and espresso, but it is also a great vehicle for advertising yourself and your professional services.
Your writing will be edited professionally, and where applicable, paired to great photography and optional video. If you supply photography and / or video, payments can escalate.
Payment is offered for these articles based on content. Here are the starting rates (depending on depth, quality of photography, etc.
Opinion Article: $40
How To, Travel, Trade Show/Event Articles: $50
Review Article - $75
Regular columnist: $50 per article, minimum of 1 article per month
If you are interested, please email me at coffeekid at gmail dawt com with information about you, your article pitch and timeframe for completion.
Freelance content editor sought for CoffeeGeek.com. This work has various facets and there are some optional and required skills / interests.
- must have a proper understanding, knowledge and love for coffee and espresso. You don’t have to be a 10-year industry veteran, but you must know the difference between a cappuccino and latte (as an example).
- must have documentable editorial experience. It could be as a volunteer on a community blog, or a local newspaper, or something similar. Editorial means a) you seek out writers, b) you choose articles and subjects to publish, and c) you have strong editing skills.
- must be willing to seek out new writers, topical subjects, and be progressive in pairing topical subjects with suitable writers.
- must be willing to chase after writers to complete their work and submit it.
- must fact check where possible (not NY Times level, but better than normal blog writing)
- have experience with content management systems (we have our own custom designed one on CoffeeGeek)
- have some photograph editing experience
- be able to write factually, creatively and write your own column if you want.
This job has a multi-tiered payment system, paid monthly. Payments include:
$25 for editing articles I supply you with
$45 for editing articles I supply you with / posting to CoffeeGeek’s CMS system
$75 for writing / acquiring / editing articles you source yourself (you may have to pay writers a portion of this amount - suggest $25-$50 per)
$95 for for writing / acquiring / editing articles you source yourself and post to CoffeeGeek’s CMS system (you may have to pay writers a portion of this amount)
In addition, after a two month trial period, I am willing to pay a base amount each month on retainer of around $250 (depending on performance during your trial period). You would be guaranteed a minimum of $250 per month but could make much more depending on how much content you contribute to the website.
Interested? Please contact me at coffeekid at gmail dawt com with some examples of your writing, interest in coffee and any editing experience.
I posted a tweet today that said:
“I’m waiting for the coffee cognoscenti to rediscover the flat bottomed paper filter and declare that the next big thing to better even extraction”
It was intended as light sarcasm; but a lot of people thought I was hyping the next big thing. Here’s a bit more depth to the comment.
I was reading some Sunday morning coffee blogs and got deep, voyeuristically, into the discussion between a few folks on uneven extractions in Chemexes, cone filters, etc. Then someone said “well if uneven extraction worries you in a cone, there’s always flat bottom bunn-style filters”.
In my mind I thought “oh dear, soon there’ll be the brigade of cognoscenti who will champion flat bottomed paper filters as the second coming; repurposing old Mr. Coffee and Bunnomatic brewers for manual pourover via the flat bottomed filter.”
Don’t get me wrong here. If someone genuinely comes up with a better way to use a Bunnomatic flat bottomed paper filter, I’ll be all over that. I love innovation in coffee brewing techniques - genuine innovation that improves the end result - what is in the cup.
What I’m not such a big fan of is recycling old methods that didn’t really do a good job when the first came out (read chemex, drip coffee via a cone) and champion them as new methods for better coffee brewing. Incremental improvements via refined techniques - I’m maybe 10% interested in that stuff, especially when the improvements are barely noticeable by the average coffee drinker.
If on the other hand someone develops something new - like for instance the new dual filtering Espro press pot - then I’m much more interested in that. I’m not saying the Espro is the second coming of press pot brewing by being interested in it or tweeting about it - but I am always trying to encourage genuine innovation in coffee brewing methods and equipment, so I’m always happy to talk up these things.
Chemex is okay for what it is. I remember brewing with the Chemex 12 years ago, learning the fold technique of the thick paper filter, remember the nice sciency look to it all. And I remember tasting paper.
Something I taste in Chemex brew to this day, no matter how much the paper filter is rinsed with litres of hot water.
I had a thought today about the Louvre in Paris… how this painting’s worth $50 million, that painting is worth $125 million, the Mona Lisa is supposedly worth $1 billion. Basically how the Louvre’s entire collection is probably worth something like $300-$500billion dollars or more.
Greece has a shitload of art and artifacts from history. Instead of relying on Germany and France to cover their debt, why not insist on a bit of a firesale for maybe 0.5% of their national treasures? I’m sure most of the world’s top museums, along with the likes of Bill Gates and Steve Jobs would get in on the bidding. They could probably raise $50billion in a matter of months!
I know this won’t happen; I was just thinking about it because of that Van Gogh stolen from the Cairo Museum the other day and how the press is claiming it is worth $55 million. Come on… no real museum of the stature of the Cairo (or the Louvre, or the British Museum, etc etc) will sell these works, at least not “to raise money”… they’ll sell them to broker for better or different art, but not to raise money.
The next time the Louvre needs money for a renovation or the Greeks need to get out of bankruptcy, perhaps they should be forced to sell these things so other museums, other countries with less pillaging history (hear me France and GB?) might get some cool art.