January 2016

Monthly Archive

Some blends are created equal: Allann Bros. Maestro’s Blend

Posted by on 30 Jan 2016 | Filed under: Add Milk, Beans, Foreign Brew, Roasting

With the National Felon League coming to town for SuperBloat SuperBore SuperBowl 50, and the entire Bay Area overrun with corporate sponsorship, it’s a good time to shelter in place with some good coffee, right?

Allann Bros. Coffee Maestro's BlendThankfully the folks over at Allann Bros. Coffee in Albany, OR shipped us a pound of their Maestro’s Blend for evaluation. Founded in 1972 by their Roast Master, Allan Stuart, Allann Bros. Coffee opened a chain of eight coffee houses beginning in Ashland, Oregon — ye of the Shakespeare Festival fame.

When it comes to bean stocks, they claim to have developed Direct Trade partnerships and use of only high-altitude grown varietals. They fire-roast their coffee in a 1939 Jabez Burns Roaster and apply post-roast blending. Allann Bros. notes that the Maestro’s Blend is their most popular, signature espresso blend, describing it with a “dark, smoky flavor, coupled with a buttery crema and nutty flavor”.

Visually, it’s a seriously scary dark roast with what seems like enough surface oil to comb your hair in the reflection. It probably has an Agtron reading in the 25-30 range, which is akin to a Peet’s Major Dickason’s blend. This ain’t your conformist Third Wave coffee roasted with a brief puff of hot air just this side of grassy.

As such, it will elicit knee-jerk reactions much in the same way a light New England roast did for many Berkeley coffee fiends in the 1980s. But being a long-time believer in the versatility of coffee among its various roasting styles and brewing methods, I wanted to check out any of its merits.

Dark roast and heavy oils on the Maestro's Blend Tiny 51mm portafilter with some Maestro's Blend grinds

Brewing it many times as an espresso with my usual Mazzer Mini and Gaggia G106 Factory lever machine, it produced a rather healthy crema: generous, albeit not too coagulated. The resulting cup had a crema with a swirl of darker and medium brown crema. Buttery? Perhaps.

It had a decent but not remarkable body, and one would expect more body from coffees roasted in this style. Flavorwise, there wasn’t any ashiness or even bitterness. However there was a notably dryness to the palate — a kind of astringency. As expected, sweetness was mostly an afterthought with barely discernible caramelization of sugar starches of a molasses-like quality. It’s a pungent cup with a flavor dominated by tobacco and smoke, and I couldn’t pick up much of their nuttier flavor descriptors.

Allann Bros. Coffee
Blend Aroma [info] Brightness [info] Body [info] Crema [info] Flavor [info] Overall
Maestro’s Blend 6.0 5.0 7.0 8.0

6.0 6.40

Ultimately as a pulled shot it looks much better than it tastes. Which isn’t a bad taste by any means, but it isn’t very flavorful either. And while there’s some balance for the flavors that are actually present in the cup, it lacked large parts of coffee’s flavor spectrum.

It’s unfortunate when the best things I can say about a coffee are more about the negative qualities it lacks rather than the positive qualities it possesses. Unsurprisingly, the coffee serves better as a complement to steamed milk than straight on its own — and there’s a place for that among coffee styles. But I couldn’t find enough qualities that distinguished it from most other dark roasted blends, which is always a challenge.

Although it has one thing going for it: compared with Peet’s Major Dickason’s Blend, it costs about a third less.

Pulling a shot with the Maestro's Blend An espresso pulled from the Maestro's Blend

Coffee’s Fake Revolution

Posted by on 15 Jan 2016 | Filed under: Consumer Trends, Quality Issues

A quote in the subhed of Modern Farmer‘s recent article about coffee flour kind of summed it all up for me: “Given the rapidly advancing state of coffee technology…”

Wot?!

iPhony: Smart phones for dumb coffeeI understand that coffee product marketers have a vested interest in injecting a measure of planned obsolescence and general FUD in your preferred coffee choices — trying to equate the evolutionary trajectory of quality coffee with the exponential technology curve of the smartphone. That’s kind of their job. But an agricultural webzine?

The sad part is that they are not alone in this. And yet for over 1,000 years, humanity has followed the essentially unchanged ritual of roasting and grinding coffee beans, extracting a beverage from the grinds with water, and serving it.

Some men hope for revolution but when you revolt and set up your new government you find your new government is still the same old Papa, he has only put on a cardboard mask.
— Charles Bukowski, Notes of a Dirty Old Man

Chemex? Invented in 1941. Pour-over coffee? Invented by Melitta in 1908. Cold brew? Originally called Kyoto coffee, its origins date back to 17th century Kyoto, Japan and the Dutch traders who probably introduced it there. Vacuum pot coffee? Wannabe technogeek webzines with names like Jismodo go full-on circle jerk over their high-tech “Walter White in Breaking Bad” chemistry set looks, but even these devices date back to 1830s Germany — almost a century before the discovery of Penicillin.

Even literal attempts to directly connect the rise of the smartphone to the rise of quality coffee fall horribly short: i.e., the proliferation of smartphone-enabled coffee brewers that invest the bulk of their manufacturing and purchasing costs in useless busy-box application controls and virtually none of it on making better coffee.

So just what is so “rapidly advancing” here? Other than hype and repackaging old brewing methods as “new”.

Selling frozen pizza back to the Neapolitans

Another example yesterday came from Condé Nast Traveller: How a Famous Chef Is Helping Cold Brew Coffee Go Global.

Cold brew coffee: not invented hereI can look past for a moment that cold brew is essentially the Colt 45 of quality coffee (without Snoop Dogg) and that you can get better coffee extractions with hot water and a gym sock. I can even look past that Stephanie Izard is a great chef but yet every chef affiliation with a coffee project has proven meaningless and mediocre at best.

But I’m really looking forward to a Wyndham Grand hotel opening in Kyoto, Japan where they can convert the grossly ignorant public to this great new beverage they’ve invented called “cold-brew coffee.” This is not even about PC bros ranting about cultural appropriation: this is outright cultural theft. And then selling it back to the inventors as if it were their own creation.

Same circus, different clowns.
— Anonymous

Whether it’s the promotional materials of coffee purveyors or the so-called journalists who write about them, the only evidence I have for any real revolution is that the educated and intellectuals seem to have fled the premises. Our historical ignorance about coffee only seems to have become worse over the years.

So I implore all of you who even attempt to do this for money: research what you’re doing. Before you tell us that your client or some Young Turk has just invented sunshine, please understand the context and recognize the history and the innovators who may have come long before. Do only that much, and you just might be the coolest thing since an alien Scarlett Johansson drove a rape van around Scotland.

Trip Report: Asado Coffee Roasters Pickwick (Chicago, IL)

Posted by on 02 Jan 2016 | Filed under: Add Milk, Foreign Brew, Roasting

Founded in 2009, Asado Coffee Company first opened in Chicago’s Lakeview neighborhood — the same neighborhood that served as Intelligentsia’s birthplace some 20 years ago. Founder Kevin Ashtari started the business by roasting his own with a makeshift roaster: a rotisserie motor rotated a drum over a barbecue grill.

Things blew up in 2010 when Chicago Magazine named theirs the city’s best cup of coffee, and the independent weekly Chicago Reader named them best coffee roaster. Kevin later took on a partner, Jeff Liberman, upgraded to a 12-kilo roaster, and they’ve since expanded with roasting operations in each of three Chicago area cafés. However, they still focus on somewhat unusual, small coffee farms around the world and only roast two days worth of coffee at a time.

Walkway towards Asado Coffee Roasters, Pickwick, in Chicago Front door entrance to Asado Coffee Roasters Pickwick

One of their newer locations is this historic Loop building, though you might say it’s more of an anachronism than an actual Loop building. Called the Pickwick Stable, it is located in a tight, private alley once called Pickwick Place. This tiny (19 ft x 19 ft) building sits nestled and recessed between two skyscrapers, the Gibbons Building and the Steigler Building. It survived the 1871 Great Chicago Fire — serving as a horse stable and restaurant at various periods throughout its lifetime. It remains one of downtown Chicago’s oldest and smallest buildings.

The long passageway leads up to rather large sign exclaiming “COFFEE”. There is outdoor seating among metal tables and chairs in the alleyway, which would be a great urban respite if not for visiting during the sleet storm of Winter Storm Goliath (and the typical Chicago weather between November and April). The only sheltered seating was a lone chair inside the building next to the service counter.

Entrance to 22 E Jackson when it was Colonel Abson’s Chop House in the 1890s Asado Coffee Roasters' chalkboard menu

Have I mentioned that the place is tiny? Like Spella Caffé in Portland tiny. Their chalkboard menu displays their offerings of drip, pour-over (no batch-brewed here, folks), coldbrew (trendboys be trendboys even in a winter blizzard), and espresso drinks — plus scones, alfajores, and other pastries. They also offer some of their limited roasts for direct retail sale.

Using a three-group spring-lever driven Mirage Idrocompresso (their standard among all outlets), they pull shots of their Especiales blend with a lightly speckled medium brown crema with lighter thickness but decent density. It’s a long cup. Too long, actually, but it still manages not to be runny.

Retail shelf and rear area of tiny Asado Coffee Roasters Pickwick Working the three-group Mirage at Asado Coffee Roasters Pickwick

The Especiales is Asado’s lone blend: a mix of their two Mt. Meru Tanzania coffees (one a peaberry), each roasted at a medium and at a cliché-busting dark level. The result creates a body-forward, almost Brazil-like taste which is refreshingly distinctive, a little retro, but of unquestionable quality. Asado prides itself on seeking out unusual small lot coffee farms to work with. Combined with their roasting styles, they thankfully ignore many of the monolithic Third Wave clichés.

The milk-frothing here is velvety, but beyond excessive. Their cappuccino comes in what’s arguably a serving bowl that’s nearly the size of your head, suggestive of 1980s wannabe French cafés that focused more on bladder-busting than flavor. Or at least coffee flavor; I never understood why some coffee shops see to adding a sprinkle of coffee flavor to their cappuccino as they would nutmeg or cocoa.

It’s an awesome, historic location with great coffee and a solid espresso. But for milk-based drinks, the resulting coffee flavor is washed out in a sea of milk — so we recommend avoiding those.

Read the review of Asado Coffee Roasters Pickwick in downtown Chicago, IL.

The Asado Coffee Roasters espresso The Asado Coffee Roasters cappuccino