A moment or two after sliding the lever on his Synesso espresso machine to the left, a rich, dark, wood-toned liquid poured from the two opposing spouts at the bottom of the portafilter and ran smoothly into the tiny cup below. Staring at it intently, Dai Hughes commented, “It’s ideal when it pops out and hugs back in a bit, so it kinda gets that hourglass shape. It’s a very feminine shape it’ll take on.”
Dai, owner of Corktown’s Astro Coffee, is describing the appearance of his ideal espresso, a particularly rich, saporous shot. Whereas a traditional, Old World barista may aim, no matter the bean, for a fairly consistent bitterness and flavor, Dai and his contemporaries are generally striving to emphasize unique flavors within particular blends and beans.
Espresso is a finicky product, and I had been curious how he goes about crafting what is arguably the best tasting espresso in southeast Michigan. He invited me behind the counter to get a first-hand look.
Before pulling that first shot, Dai describes the myriad variables at play. “When I started [as a barista], our parameters were the coarseness of the grind, the dose, and the tamp [of the grounds in the filter],” he says. “Then we introduced controlling the temperature. And what people were saying is that machines were set at their golden temperature… but what if beans were suited to different temps?”
Today’s routine actually begins with that adjustment. “I’m using the Owl’s Howl, which is the last thing I used the last time we closed, so there’s at least some familiarity,” he says, referring to having a recent reference point to the beans he’s placed in the grinder. We peer underneath the three-headed espresso machine to see the temperature controls. He left the day before with the temperature set to 200.5 degrees. Thus to get an idea of the flavor within a wider range, he sets the first group to 200 and the second to 201.
After running several doses of beans through the grinder to clear it of the previous day’s now-oxidized coffee, he runs the first shot, which we won’t bother to taste, and looks to see if it runs out of the machine with that hourglass shape. Before measuring a single thing, he’s both seasoning the machine and checking to see if he’s near that ideal viscosity. We’re in the ballpark, but, he notes, that’s not always the case: “You can come in, especially if you’re switching to a new espresso, and the thing is just pissing out or it’s ‘drip, drip, drip.’”
Dai grinds another dose and puts it on the scale. His first measurement shows the grounds weigh just over 17g. He makes a shot and measures the resulting liquid at over 27g.
“I’m collecting information at this point,” he says, “but we’ll taste this one to understand where we’re at.” We taste it, and it’s thin. He pulls another at the higher temperature, and it seems as though it may be thicker in body but definitely more astringent.
The grounds for our third shot weigh in at 19g, he sets the temp back to 200.5, and the shot itself comes in at around 25.5g – a dry-to-wet comparison of about 74 or 75%, which is closer to Dai’s ideal range. It’s delicious.
For many baristas, these types of ratios and measurements guide the ideal shot. This is an area where Dai has a philosophical difference with many of his fellow baristas: At this point in the process, he’s starting to let his experience and his taste buds drive the decision making. He’s after a balance of fruit and acidity – an explanation which elicits a grin from me because it’s a concept to which anyone that has made a cocktail or uncorked a bottle of cru Beaujolais can relate.
“Part of it is knowing that things can change… especially right at the beginning. Temperatures are changing, the door is swinging open, it’s hot, it’s humid,” he laments. But in this case, without even adjusting the grinder, the dosing of his grounds has settled out at a dry weight of 19g. He tweaks the temperature again, up to 200.7 degrees, and we try another shot.
This one is, to Dai’s taste, pretty much ideal. The flavor is true to his objective – ripe, berry-ish, thick, and a bit tart. But he emphasizes that others may prefer the shot pulled at 200.5 degrees instead. Or even something else entirely. And of course, he notes, the prevailing opinions among coffee wonks everywhere change frequently: “There was a period of time when over-dosing was cool… and you do a coarser grind with more in it. But… this is going to change in three months. Someone will have written a new guide.”
Even the parameters of what baristas can control are in flux. In addition to grind, dose, temperature, and so on, companies have introduced machines with pressure controls. “Then the pressure profiling systems came, and you just have so many parameters,” he says with a bit of skepticism.
For Astro, the constant is ostensibly Dai’s sense of taste.
“We’re dialing in to this range of comfort, and from there, the micro-adjustments – temperature or, at times, grind on the collar [of the grinder] and things like that – we’re going to make those on the fly and then taste. It’s good to know these other kinds of things, but it’s good to taste. You can have all the ratios in the world, but there are all these other factors.”
Dai honed his skills – and his taste buds – at London’s Monmouth Coffee, an early pioneer in today’s culture. “Coffee culture is really young… but it has changed so rapidly in the last 5 to 10 years. So what you see here, it wasn’t like this at all.” Still, founded in 1978, Monmouth practically invented the concept of “direct trade,” and Dai – admittedly a coffee neophyte before he began working there – got his start in that knowledgeable environment.
Having experience from an older, established shop seems to offer him perspective: “Imagine if you were apprenticing as a brewer,” he posits, “what they teach they might also tell you is the law or the only way to do it. But it’s not. Have you ever had two IPAs that are exactly the same? No. And if I order a shot somewhere else, I don’t want it to taste exactly like mine.”
Rather than touting the next big machine or adhering to the newest geekery-inspired guidelines, he seems focused primarily on giving customers a pleasant experience and letting his expression of the innate, delicious flavor of his product do the talking.
He motions toward the four espresso cups from which we’ve tasted and says, “You’ve probably tasted all those shots in your life – or even just here. Underextracted, overextracted… an espresso is the highest error drink we can do. At some point, put your books away, put your refractometers away. This is something, like wine, that’s constantly changing.”
We finish tasting that final shot and he adds, “I don’t think you can truly enjoy it until you respect that.”
As though we all weren’t caffeinated enough already, we metro Detroiters are clearly in the midst of a regional coffee explosion. Never have there been so many roasters, so many cafes, so many interesting coffees from which to choose. Perhaps I’m overstating it since coffee is a fairly new thing to me – but I’m pretty sure that my Coffee Explosion Theory is on the money.
Consider: The hype-worthy Corktown spot Astro Coffee opened last week (they’ll get their own GUD post or series of praiseworthy poems soon enough). Great Lakes continues to replace hazelnut flavored sludge with real coffee across the area and to sell new microlots or new blends at Eastern Market. And of course, you couldn’t go 15 minutes without hearing about them on WDET for the better part of the last year. Lab Cafe, Comet Coffee, and the storefront for Mighty Good all opened in Ann Arbor within the past 18 months or so. Commonwealth Coffee arrived in Birmingham only several months back.
And now it turns out that the in-house roastmaster at Commonwealth is also selling coffee under his own label.
Anthology showed up at Comet Coffee in Ann Arbor a few weeks ago. I needed a bag of beans to grind and brew on my office Chemex setup, and the half pound allotment from this ostensibly tiny roastery of which I’d never heard was the freshest on the shelf. Despite the somewhat hefty price tag, my inability to resist a compelling east African coffee took hold of my arm, and before I knew it, I was back in the office making up a batch of his Karimikui AA coffee from Kirinyaga, Kenya. (AA, I learned only a week or so ago, is a grade designation for coffee beans that means larger than normal beans. While it’s apparently not universal that larger beans mean more flavor, there is some degree of association there.)
It’s pretty delicious stuff. There’s bitterness, but it’s more akin to a hoppy saison or a grapefruit in that it’s acidic and fruity while bitter (rather than more “simply” bitter). While I only ever drink my drip coffee unadulterated, the flavor is plenty full, fruity, and sweet, so I can’t imagine that anyone would add much in the way of sugar or cream to this. The next day, when I made some more, it tasted more like cocoa, but the finish remained mildly bitter and cleansing.
As with goods sold by just about any tiny new operation, cost is going to be a barrier for all but the nerdiest, most dedicated customers. The 8-ounce (250g) package I bought was $16. When compared to some of the better single origin offerings from larger outfits from Great Lakes to Intelligentsia to Counter Culture, that’s an awfully steep price.
Still, the coffee was good, and that’s ultimately what matters most. And it’s made here, part of this ongoing influx – no, I mean EXPLOSION – of delicious, interesting coffees. They’re also currently selling another Kenyan, a peaberry from the same farm/co-op, which I haven’t tried yet.
If you want to buy some, I’d check out Comet in Ann Arbor or just head to the Anthology website, where it appears their first two coffees are available for purchase.
Deadwood, the HBO series that I’m finally getting around to watching, has been on constant playback in my house of late. So I’ve been drinking an awful lot of whiskey. What better way to turn an otherwise passive television experience into an interactive one?
But when Sazeracs, Old Fashioneds, and straight up bourbon aren’t cutting it, I’ve also been tinkering with some new ideas as well.
Tentatively and uncreatively titled “Rumbaroni,” we have:
Fairly famous west coast bartender Jamie Boudreau invented a drink at his former place of employment, Vessel, called the Vessel 75. The drink is stirred bourbon and Peychaud’s served in an old fashioned glass and topped with a foam made of egg whites, water, lemon juice, and maple syrup. Having just acquired an iSi cream canister, I made a couple to excellent results.
But then it got me thinking about other possible variations. Here’s my first stab, a delicious but yet-to-be-perfected variation on the Mojito / Gin-Gin Mule theme.
Thoroughly Modern Mojito
Coffee and Coffee Syrup
My friend John shared with me some coffee syrup he used to re-create a drink he had at the Violet Hour in Chicago. Here’s our effort at duplicating it:
Still having tons of syrup left, I’ve played around a bit more. Thus far, my favorite original drink using the syrup is as follows:
I also took a stab at a few coffee-based drinks, one of which I’ll mention here.
Sit right back and you’ll hear a tale,
a tale of a manual drip.
That started in Rwanda and
ended with my sip.
The coffee was from Great Lakes,
of that I am quite sure.
That’s how I started on this
four coffee tour, this four coffee tour.
The Rwandan had fruit and acid, friend,
and showed some bitterness.
But in a very pleasing way,
really just a kiss, really just a kiss.
The next was Costa Rican and
the chocolate showed right through.
When the coffee cooled a bit, it
was so very smooth, was so very smooth.
The third was a delicious blend
of the first two beans.
A nutty, cocoa-flavored cup that
elicits joyful screams, elicits joyful screams.
The tour ended next with a big fat cup of Zen,
and the Costa Rican too.
The caffeine caused me strife.
Lots of fruit.
Its yummy and tasty and
here’s the coffee tour’s end!
I don’t know what possessed me to do that. But it was obviously inspired by four coffees I’ve recently had time and again in succession, backwards and forwards. A few weekends back, I asked James from Great Lakes what was fresh that I could buy from him, and he showed up with four bags — sort of a coffee tour. It was a great exercise, and I couldn’t be more pleased that he thought to do that. Some notes:
Friends of mine know that I have a tendency to get more than a little obsessive about my beverages. After a few months of drinking piss poor beer and whiskey (and a resulting bout of stomach sickness), I swore that alcohol would never again pass through my lips. Then I had a decent bottle of beer in the form of Hacker-Pschorr Dunkel Weisse, and four years later I had a collection of 1,000 unique beer bottles and about 1,500 different beers on my drinker’s resume.
Then came wine. Then tea. Then cocktails.
And now coffee.
My previously chronicled adventures with coffee drew some laughs from friends and colleagues, but I’ve started to really embrace the stuff. More importantly, I’ve finally had some truly bad coffee to really put all the great stuff I’ve had into proper perspective.
On a recent trip to Stratford, Ontario, I had coffee at two of the little cafes — two of the only options not serving mass market stuff and one of which was “fair trade” — and in both cases, I was thoroughly underwhelmed. The espresso at the one place was thin and lacking any flavor beyond that of burnt cardboard, and the drip at the other place was OK, but it was again thin in body and lacking much flavor beyond bitterness. While I’ve never had coffee from Blue Bottle or many of the other great American outlets, I’ve definitely come to realize that I’m spoiled with my three most common coffee options: Great Lakes (at home), Intelligentsia (Lab Cafe in Ann Arbor), and Ritual/49th Parallel (Comet Coffee in Ann Arbor).
Some recent thoughts:
If all goes well — read: if I don’t have a hangover — I’ll be headed to Eastern Market on Saturday morning to load up on more of Great Lakes’ wares. If you’re a Detroiter and haven’t tried it, you owe it to yourself to find James’ most recently roasted stuff and brew it up. Delicious, and definitely worth obsessing over.
My wife is gone for a few days, and I miss my in-home drinking companion. It’s no coincidence, I think, that a glass viewed from a heavenly direction looks like a ring. Without her here, I’m forced — forced, dammit! — to drink a full bottle all by my lonesome.
So at this moment, I’m struggling through a 2007 De Montille Bourgogne Rouge. Fans of the wine documentary Mondovino will recognize the family name from one of the film’s larger-than-life figures. However, the vineyard and winemaking duties have since been turned over to Etienne De Montille, the son of the affable, elderly gentleman portrayed not just in the movie but on its promotional posters.
The bourgogne rouge is lighter and far more feminine than the few cru wines I’ve had from De Montille. The nose absolutely reeks of cherry and creme de violette, and on the palate, tart cherry and raspberry dominate. The fruit is never jammy — always playful and natural tasting — and the finish explodes in a wash of lovely acidity that lingers with some minor, funky undertones that really make it sing.
Earlier today, I had my third cup of coffee. Ever. Beyond the look of bewilderment on the faces of several colleagues, great enjoyment has been derived from the eye-opening exploration of what coffee offers. The revelation actually came late last week when I sampled the Kenya Kirimikui single origin from Intelligentsia via Lab Cafe in Ann Arbor. Standing in stark contrast to the Nicaraguan product I’d had (and blogged about) previously, the Kenyan coffee exploded with acidity — absolutely pure lemon and lemongrass flavors just ripping through the mid-palate and finish.
Today’s drink, a Guatemalan coffee delivered to me via the same outlet, was a bit harder for me to understand. The roaster describes the acidity as being akin to that of tropical fruit, and perhaps I simply haven’t learned the lingo, but I thought of it more as chewing on a peach pit. There was fruit there, and the flavor wasn’t nutty, but it had that tannic, fibrous quality one might get from gnawing on a fruit pit a bit too long. It wasn’t distinct enough to scream any real notes to me, but it was so very clearly different from previous drinks that I was at pleased that my reaction wasn’t something like, “Oh, huh… it’s coffee.”
I love everything Lab does, so I’ll be back there this week for one thing or another — it’s unquestionably my favorite spot in all of Ann Arbor right now, as evidenced by my three or four plugs for them in as many weeks — but I may grab my next cup of coffee at Comet Coffee, also in Ann Arbor, just to try something completely different.
I love my hobby. And I think there’s just a splash of that De Montille left. Gotta go.
Today was the day. After a failed attempt at My First Coffee at Abraço in New York’s East Village (they were out of town when I was in town), I decided that I could no longer put off my first foray into coffee. As a longtime tea drinker and someone who has no desire to get hooked on caffeine at age 30, never have I seen the need to get serious about coffee. But what kind of beverage snob can I be if I were to ignore such a rich area of exploration?
So my colleague Rob and I took a 10-minute coffee break — my first ever coffee break in literal terms — and headed down to Lab Cafe where they serve up Intelligentsia coffees. After missing out in New York, I figured my first sampling would be of locally made Great Lakes Coffee with roastmaster and friend James Cadariu, but today just seemed right, and Intelligentsia had come with James’ blessing.
Off we went, and here’s the rest of the story:
2:20pm – I walk into the store with some lingering doubts. Maybe I should stick with a sweet, caloric, filling chai latte. Old faithful. Can’t miss.
2:21pm – Screw that. Let’s do this.
2:22pm – I glance over the list of single origin options. I have no idea what I’m doing here. None at all. But since I’m losing my coffee cherry, I select a Nicaraguan product that allegedly has notes of cherry. (The sophistication of my logic knows no bounds. I can only hope that my palate and caffeine tolerance will match my impressively juvenile wit.)
2:25pm – The barista clearly doesn’t want to interrupt but also clearly wants to help. He chimes in and notes which coffees on the list are missing and mentions some other single origin item. I stay focused and place my order, sticking with a small cup for my first foray into this beverage.
2:33pm – The coffee is just about done. The young man applied a pour over method to my drink, which had previously been articulated to me in a New York Times “T Magazine” article courtesy of James from Great Lakes..
2:40pm – Back at the office. I’ve only had two sips on the way back. I had to get the drink to go, and I wanted to have a chance to really dig my nose into it, which is hard to do while walking. Safely at my desk, I can pull back the lid and really smell this liquid sitting before me.
2:54pm – I’ve decided to quickly catalogue everything that’s happening here. If any HR professionals at my place of employment are reading this, worry not: I haven’t spent more than 4 minutes on this so far. That’s probably pretty obvious to anyone who reads at an 8th grade level.
2:55pm – So that’s what caffeine feels like. It takes dramatically over-brewed tea and a totally empty stomach for me to feel this sort of impact. Still a few sips left. Just what I needed — another beverage in my life that throws my body chemistry out of whack.
By the end of this little experiment here, it’s clear I have a long way to go. Beyond the crazy jitters I’m experiencing, my palate can’t distinguish a lot of the nuance here just yet. I definitely was able to find the cherry fruit in this drink, and the bitterness isn’t any sort of appalling, blackened flavor. It’s more woody and tannic, but I suspect that’s a general flavor that I need to learn to taste through. With deliberation for a moment, I see what Intelligentsia is describing when they say the acidity has a tart, plum quality to it. There’s definitely that sort of hint that one might find in some Belgian beers — a much rounder, less acidic flavor than something more acetic or citric or lactic. Beyond these broad, vague strokes, I’m just getting “coffee.” I can tell it’s good coffee, but I can tell that it’s going to be a long, long while before I really understand things like regional differences and before I have a solid vocabulary from which to forge descriptions of my experiences.
More experimentation is required. Thanks for reading about this entirely self-indulgent adventure. We obviously post cocktail, beer, wine, and tea tasting notes here from time to time, and I suspect that I’ll post more coffee notes as I get a handle on what it is I’m drinking.
Needing a cup of tea a few weeks back, I hopped into a new cafe in Ann Arbor and quickly sucked down a cup of Bao Zhong. The tea, a light Taiwanese oolong, had a delightful fruit sweetness, enough so that one might have thought it had been dried with flower blossoms. Most other tea-friendly cafes in Ann Arbor either serve their tea in over-stuffed bags or brew their tea so long or so hot as to leech all the bitter tannins into the first cup.
That was my first introduction to Lab Cafe. Today, I decided on a whim to give it a more thoughtful visit.
A “friend” of the cafe standing on my side of the counter — a regular customer or off-hours employee, I’d guess — recommended a zucchini muffin. I asked where it was from, and the gentleman behind the register, Toby, replied that it was from a bakery in Kerrytown affiliated with Sparrow Market. Anticipating my next question, he followed with, “I don’t know exactly what’s in it; they keep it a secret. But it’s really quite good, and we get them fresh every morning.” The long strands of green vegetable protruding from the top indicated he was telling the truth, and the giant orange hunks of carrot embedded in the cake made by the same folks counted as a second “yea” vote in my mind.
The poured me a chai as well, which was spicier than some and less sweet than most. And I asked about the yogurt. He claimed that they made it there every day, “Well except for the milk. We don’t have cows, of course.” Having just had some less-than-natural yogurt at another place in town, I pressed him a bit and he also commented that the yogurt is sweetened only with pure sugar, no syrups or additives. I tried the four flavors — taro, honeydew, chocolate, and original — and all were delicious, especially the taro.
They serve Intelligentsia coffee, which had previously been favorably described to me by Gourmet Underground member and Great Lakes Coffee roastmaster, James Cadariu. I’m not a coffee drinker, so I can’t comment yet as to the quality of their work, but if the other products are any indication, I’m sure it’s marvelous.
Walking into the cafe is a bit like stepping out of the midwest — very minimalistic industrial design with plywood chairs, bright green accents, white countertops, and short movie clips projected over the wall where the typical Starbucks customer may be looking for a menu. But it’s nonetheless quite warm-feeling. The menus are adorned with instructional clip art (a little outlined French Press for coffee, et cetera) that I’m positive my wife would find adorable, and the floor-to-ceiling windows allow for a ton of natural light.
Coffee, tea, and yogurt cafes ranging from relatively full-service operations like Lab to tiny stands that are little more than closets with self-serve yogurt handles have been a “thing” in a number of cities, especially in places along the California coast, for a while now. So despite the experimental name, Lab is just an extension of that age-old rule that everything reaches the midwest 3-8 years after it hits the coasts.
But regardless, for those of us who work or live in Ann Arbor, it’s a nice mid-day treat, and for other Michiganders looking to occupy a Saturday, Lab might fit nicely into a stroll through the U-M Museum of Art and around the streets of Ann Arbor.
It tastes good. Normally I don’t want to get up in the morning, but when I know I can brew a crema covered shot of coffee on my espresso machine and ladle some creamy, full fat and frothy Calder dairy milk on top, ahhh! – A moment please. It reminds me of my travels to Ireland where I learned that Guinness was good for me. It is a complete meal in a cup. For me, in the morning, it’s a cappuccino.
It’s a stimulant. Unlike a great cup of tea which will put me in a trance or make me want to take a nap, coffee wakes my senses. After my morning cup, I can go punch out a 5 mile run, punch out some text on my computer at work, or punch some idiot at an event who loudly demands a cup of “just regular coffee.” You don’t want to hear my Ayn Rand rant on the subject of choices. By the way, coffee is the second most widely traded commodity in the world. Yep, there’s more than one kind. Nope, no such thing as an espresso bean, not even in Italy.
It cures boredom. After too many hours in front of the computer screen or too many hours at the roasting machine, I need a change of pace and a pick-me-up. I give you the espresso break. You can thank the Italians for this one. A little cup of reduction of coffee essence combined with witticisms and sometimes a ciggy. Ok, every time a ciggy in Italy.
It causes creativity and comedy. This goes back to the stimulant properties of coffee. Every task is rendered more enjoyable and less mundane when drinking coffee. Sending an email: boring. But sending an email with a cup of coffee: awesome. Most of the time coffee triggers new ideas, sometimes strange ones, although those seem to work, too. I don’t have a formal training in comedy but I play a comic at work. I’ve never been so on with my material as after a couple cups of coffee.
It helps you seal the deal. There are studies that show people are more receptive to your proposals while drinking coffee. It also helps when asking women out. The success rate is not 100%.
It goes with food and drink: coffee good in the morning with breakfast; good in the afternoon with pastries; good at night with booze and cigars.
It is a digestive. I like to eat a lot. There is no better way to finish a meal than with a cup of coffee or an espresso. Too bad most restaurants serve shite. Hello, you want your clientele to finish an elaborately prepared meal with a pre-ground packet of coffee. Oh, the humanity. I once embarrassed a date by refusing the espresso and going to the bar and adjusting the grinder to pour a proper shot. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.
It’s swigs-friendly. I’m not sure what genius designed this but after drinking all that is good to drink at night, coffee in the morning helps liver function. Four cups a day cuts alcoholic cirrhosis by 80%. That is a big number. Oh, yea. I’ll drink to that.