Friday, July 30, 2010

The Wall of Coffee: Navigating Superstore Coffee Selection

Is this a familiar view? The "Wall of Coffee" is intimidating with the many brands, varieties, ground, whole bean, cans, vacuum bags, plastic dispensers, varying sizes...etc.

It can overwhelm any person new to coffee, wondering how something so simple as coffee can be so confusing. In this post, I want to guide Metro Espresso readers through navigating the superstore selection of coffee.

Pictured left is the coffee selection at the Arlington Whole Foods. They offer a better selection of coffee than Safeway, Giant, and Shoppers.

Tip 1: To get better supermarket coffee, go to Whole Foods or Harris Teeter, they will offer better coffee and a likelihood of semi-local coffee. Giant and Safeway tend to offer Starbucks, Peets...while o.k., we coffee lovers demand better.

Tip 2: While tempting, skip the plastic dispensers full of coffee. (Pictured top left) You don't
know how long those coffee beans have been sitting there interacting with the oxygen muting the coffee's wonderful flavors.

Tip 3: Buy whole bean coffee, on the bag it should say whole bean or ground, but it is quicker to feel the bag. Whole bean is fresher, and if you are reading this blog and haven't bought a burr grinder. What's stopping you? This is the single most important thing to buy if you want fresh coffee.

Tip 4: Look to see if the coffee has a roast date on it. If it does, that means the roaster takes pride in its freshness. Out of all the coffee at Whole Foods, only one had a roast date on it. If it does, its most likely a keeper.
Tip 5: Look for local or semi-local roasters, they may not have a roast date on them, but will probably be fresher than DD, Starbucks, and Peets. M.E. Swings is a local roaster in DC, while it didn't have a roast date on it, its probably better than the national brands.

Tip 6: Most vacuum bags have a small valve. To get a sense of the aroma and the bean, one can squeeze bag while smelling near the valve. This lets you preview the goods without buying it! I often do this, while the Girlfriend shops for groceries.

Tip 7: Grab from the back, the stackers put the new products in the back behind the old stuff first. For example, the coffee I bought with the roast date on it 7-15 was behind the coffee with roast date 6-30.

Using these few tips, one should be able to navigate the "Wall of Coffee" and get decent coffee. One shouldn't really have to pay over ~$10-11 unless it has a roast date on it or its a 1 lb of coffee rather than 12 oz.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Coffee Drawing: Moka Pot

On a lazy night, I picked up a notebook and drew some coffee objects. A few days ago I posted my espresso machine drawing, but my moka pot came out a bit better. Though I am not quite sure if the shading on the bottom left side of the moka pot is correct. It should probably be all dark. I like how the handle turned out, and the proportions seem to be in order.

I did draw a Turkish Ibrik, but its circular shape was harder to draw. That may have to remain unposted to spare me some embarrassment :-).

If you like these coffee drawings, make a request in the comments section or tweet me @ metroespresso, and I can attempt to draw them.

Where's Your Stash? A Guide to Making Home Blends

Every one has one. You know what I am talking about...the little baggy you hide in the closet, tucked away from prying eyes...your coffee stash.

It's ok, I have one. I love it despite it being relatively stale, unscientifically crafted, and improperly stored.

After I get close to running through my 1 lb bag of beans, I rush to the store and buy a new bag of something to replace my current beans. When I return home, I get impatient with finishing the rest of the beans. I grind whats left for a french press, and shovel them into a ziploc bag. After a few times, my bag tends to be a random mix of coffee.

In the picture, the darker coffee I believe is a French Roast (the place I bought it from didn't say what bean it was), and the red is the Guatamalan coffee I finished. I grinded the Guatamalan up because the Girlfriend thought it tasted horrible. Mixing it with French roast produced an interesting visual, and tasted decent for half of it being stale. Using a French Press, the coffee had a bold/dark taste mellowed by the sweet/syrupy Guatamalan.

My coffee stash planted a seed in my head about making home blends without spending oodles of money on home roasting equipment or energy from a stove or oven. While the coffee blend will be relatively stale/not so fresh because one coffee for the blend will be chilling in the closet for a few weeks while you finish other coffees bought after it.

That's a fair enough critique, but one can scoop out some beans prior to being ground and place it in an airtight container. But there is something to be said about haphazardly throwing in what you have lying around, and seeing what happens.

My question is, Do you have a coffee stash? If so, what is in it?

Friday, July 23, 2010

Espresso Drawing

I drew an espresso machine punching out a shot of espresso. I haven't drawn in a while, which may account for the problematic shading. Nevertheless, it was fun and only took about 30 minutes. Have you ever been inspired to do something creative with coffee? Please sound off in the comment section! I am curious to hear from others. If you can scan it or take a picture of it, send it to me and I can put it up on the site. My email is duderino102 at gmail dot com.

Coffee Trip: NYC

While visiting NYC for a weekend, my friend and I found ourselves at the Stumptown annex cafe on W 29th between 5th and 6th avenue. Located on the premises of a hotel, it occupies a small space providing standing room only to drink your coffee beverages. One can go into the hotel lobby I suppose, but that's weird. It was standing room only for my friend and I! I was suffering from coffee withdrawals because my friend does not drink coffee, which meant that he does not own a coffee machine of any sort in his apartment. (Lamesauce on him) When we finally arrived, I was shaking from withdrawals. Well not really, but I was looking forward to some coffee.

I ordered an espresso for there and a small latte to go. Here is the picture below,
The espresso tasted nice, but I am finding that many of the top espresso cafes serve about 1 oz rather than 2oz's worth, especially when I ask for a double. It seemed a bit too fleeting even for espresso. Has anyone noticed this or is this relatively standard? The barista made a great rosseta and the milk was steamed to perfection for my latte.

The espresso was 2.50 while expensive, not nearly as wallet breaking as an espresso I had yesterday in DC at 2.75! That is ridiculous, but that is another post. The cafe had the classic Stumptown look with the simple menu and old fashioned garb. The service was pleasant and quick, but nothing out of the ordinary. Here is an action shot my friend took of me:
Here is the chance to offer up some critiques on my espresso drinking routine! Am I making any faux pas? :-)

Overall: A fun place to go, but not one that I would go back to regularly.

Besides going to Stumptown, I rambled through Central Park, though not quite good as St. Louis's Forest Park, visited the impressive MOMA (Museum of Modern Art), and unfortunately went through the disappointing Smithsonian's exhibits of the American Indian near Battery Park. A fun trip overall.

Come back soon (~this weekend), I will be reviewing a local coffee roaster/cafe located in Alexandria.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Turkish Coffee: A Guide

Following up on my previous post about Turkish coffee, I wanted to write a semi-detailed guide on how to make Turkish coffee. Granted, I am a beginner to this method, but more ink spilled about it will spur interest in this neglected method.

First: Grind coffee beans at the finest setting possible. There are specific grinders for Turkish coffee, but they run about 60-70 dollars. If you have a quality burr grinder, it should work. The grind should be dust-like or close to it. Also, buying pre-ground Turkish coffee works.

Second: Fill up ibrik to desired level with water. I found that about 6-7 oz works out well, creating enough froth, but not overfilling my specific ibrik.

Third: Add ground coffee, for ~3oz add 1 heaping tablespoon. For my 7oz cup, I use 2 1/2 spoons worth. One should add sugar at this point if you want. Remember, one shouldn't add sugar at the end of brewing because that would stir up the grounds spreading them throughout the cup. Sugar must be added now or never.
Fourth: Stir vigorously with plastic or wooden spoon. Avoid metal, this adds unnecessary scraping with the sides with the tin sidewalls. If you have a stainless steel ibrik, it probably wont matter too much.

Fifth: Place over low heat. I use a gas stove, and keep the flame from touching the ibrik itself. After a minute, I stir again making sure everything is mixed well. Continuing to stir after this will prevent a nice foam/froth/crust from forming. This is one of the best parts of Turkish coffee, and recommend to all readers not to stir anymore. (Though only a recommendation)

Sixth: Right before it boils, the thick crust will creep up on the walls (~5 minutes into brewing), pay attention! This creeping means that a lot of froth will be made, but also will be followed by uncontrollable boiling. It is important to take the ibrik off before it boils but after it froths. This may take a few times to figure out. Spoon out of the froth into the cup or cups.

Seventh (optional): Place it over the flame one more time, and let it boil for a quick second.

Eighth: Pour coffee into cups trying to share as much froth as possible, if other people are partaking. If not, be greedy and take it all!

Caution: Be sure to not pour out all the liquid in the ibrik, as towards the bottom it will contain a lot of sludge. Better to let some go to waste, than ruin your cup. Don't worry there will be plenty of slurry at the bottom of your cup anyways.

Here are a few pictures to document my first attempts:

I am off to New York City for the weekend, and will be MIA until Tuesday or Wednesday. Hopefully I will be able to find some good coffee shops, if you have any recomendations comment below or tweet me.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Coffee Review: Rappahannock's Guatemalan Antigua Panchoy

Welcome to the first Metro Espresso review of local coffee. The first review comes from Rappahannock coffee on Columbia Pike in Arlington. You can check out their website here.

Disclosure: I do not receive free coffee from the roasters, but buy it from them without their knowledge of it being reviewed. In this manner, I hope to recreate what a normal
consumer would buy from each establishment.

The coffee is graded from of 1 to 5 based on the following criteria:
1- Horrible/Bad: Does not deserve to grace any types of brewing methods. Most likely extremely stale, burnt..etc.
2- Meh: Generally displays uneven characteristics or muted flavors. The overall taste does not blend well, and could be improved up. Stale
3- Average: A well crafted coffee with either a one-dimensional flavor or hints of one. Moderately fresh.
4- Good: Demonstrates a good combination of flavors and is freshly roasted.
5- Excellent: Similar to 4, but demonstrates a complex arrangement of flavors and exceeds in quality from similar coffees.

Value is added into the preceding criteria for the final review score.

Brew method: Most reviewers use French Press as their main method of brewing to review coffee, but as I believe any coffee shop should be judged by their double espresso. Espresso acts as a base to many coffee drinks, so reviewing it as mainly an espresso drink is my main concern.
I will refine the criteria in future reviews, but it is a good start to review the local coffee selection.

The barista informed me Rappahannock roasts once a week on Mondays. I recently ran out of the excellent Sumatra Mandheling from Northwest Coffee Company, I needed more coffee. I chose the Guatemalan Antigua Panchoy for a Central American bean.

Aroma: Opening up the bag, I discerned a spicy, floral aroma like a potpourri. After the initial smell, I discerned a hint of chocolate. After grinding, the beans released a potent, syrupy smell.

Taste: Initially, the espresso hits you with a bright, floral taste, followed by a syrupy flavor very similar to Intelligentsia's Black Cat Espresso. While it may not share BC's complex taste, it is eerily close. Unlike an earthy Sumatra, the Guatemalan had a thin body, emphasizing the vivid flavors.

Visual: The espresso displayed a deep, orangish-red color similar to auburn. The spent grounds were quite red!

Final Thoughts: Rappahannock's Guatemalan Pantigua Panchoy is a tasty espresso with a clear, pronounced taste, but lacks a body to compliment the flavors it has. Similar to Black Cat espresso, this Guatemalan coffee would be better suited as a base to a latte or cappuccino to give added flavor. Also, French Press would lesson the extreme sweetness. To take artistic licence, the flavor is arrogant and loud, yet beyond its flamboyant facade, it lacks a strong foundation. At 13.99 per pound, it is a bit pricey for me lowering the coffee's overall value.

Score: 3/5

Coffee Guide: Intro to Turkish Coffee

The Turkish ibrik, the oft-neglected coffee pot is unknown to the populace, marginalized by the coffee elite, and loved by few (at least in the West). The ibrik is an unusual brewing method requiring no filter of any kind. It is uniquely designed to brew coffee with the grounds and the water co-existing relatively peacefully. The outside is brass with the inner layer made of tin. One brews the coffee over a heat source (I use a gas stove), for about 5-10 minutes till it boils, and then pour it in a small demitasse cup slightly bigger than an espresso cup (~3-4 oz). The small, powder-like grounds fall to the bottom, separating from the liquid. The taste is similar to a strong drip coffee. One should remember not to drink the coffee near the bottom as the slurry can be quite potent and coat your mouth.

Here is Turkish coffee with the coffee sludge. Yet, do not let this deter you from enjoying this wonderful little drink! Traditionally, Turkish coffee incorporates cardamom, a sweet pine-like spice that makes it taste like Christmas (If Christmas had a taste). Also, sugar or cinnamon could be used as well to offset its natural strong taste.

After using it twice, I found that creating quality coffee froth was quite hard. Similar to making good espresso, there are many variable that affect the quality of Turkish coffee. Some argue that one should never let the coffee boil, others argue it should boil 3-4 times. Should the temperature be low or med-low? Should one stir constantly or allow a delectable, marbleized crust to form on the top. What is the coffee to water ratio? What about when adding sugar? Many of these answers are preference, but it takes time to figure them all out. Be sure to read Coffee Geek's brewing guide to Turkish coffee.

In a later post, I will write a detailed post about my brewing adventures in a step by step guide. I barely touched upon many of the topics concerning this unique method, so if you want to know more, please comment below and ask a question. In the meanwhile enjoy these pictures of the ibrik. Notice the first picture, I have darkened it already from my old school gas burner. It gives it character!
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Thursday, July 08, 2010

Editorial: Coffee and Existentialism

Recently I tweeted a few messages using the hash tag #existentialism to add a certain poignancy and humor to my posts. Here are some examples:

MetroEspresso:Today: Working on a new post about espresso with and without crema concerning taste difference. Is it better w/o crema? #existentialism

I have come to a crossroads: French Press or Espresso. #existentialism

Does wine or coffee go better with classical music? #existentialism

This spur of the moment addition made me consider the connection between coffee and existentialism, if any. Many people have a passing awareness of Albert Camus, Jean Paul Sartre, and Simone de Beauvoir, the main people associated with existentialist thought. Existentialism's common perception is something similar to popular understandings of nihilism. Namely, life is meaningless and full of mundane, menial tasks. Think of Sysphus's task of pushing the boulder of the hill. (Though Camus considered Sysphus happy, but thats another argument) The "meaningless" interpretation stems from a superficial reading, and derives from Camus's earlier works specifically, The Stranger. Much of existentialist thought derives from iconoclast Friedrich Nietzsche. While existentialism is considered by many to be drab, depressing, nihilistic, and an overall "debby downer." Existentialists, especially Camus in his later works, extensively wrote about how to enjoy life and find meaning in an inherently meaningless world. Coming to the conclusion, that humans can project meaning or throw it upon the world they interact with.

A better way to understand Existentialism is through acting "authentically." What does that mean? Roughly, everyone is born into the world, thrown into existence. We have no say where we are born and it's conditions. After being born, humans can act in good faith or bad faith. Acting in good faith means that living freely and following their interests. Acting in bad faith, one is living unathentically such as conforming, not following your beliefs, or being in a state of some form of slavery. Life's struggle is to reach a life in which one acts in good faith to be authentic. For instance, people born into slavery have a harder life to act authentically than middle class Americans as there are many significant barriers to overcome.

How does this relate to coffee?

Coffee accompanies times of creativity and creation. During the early morning and late nights, a warm cup of coffee aids in artistic expression, i.e. meaning creation. When one hits a creative block, the 5-10 minutes to make a pot of coffee allows the mind to wander away from the project at hand. Allowing one to come back with a newer perspective. In short, coffee is a useful distraction to help people act in good faith. As a useful aid in helping one express their feelings through artistic outlets, it plays an important role. By artistic, I do not think so narrowly as merely painting, drawing, and writing, but more broadly. This may include creating a new device, pursuing one's dream of starting a business, volunteering, or vocalizing your support or dissent via political rallies. Coffee is a vehicle to help one think about one's values and beliefs, and how to act on them.

What do you think about coffee, existentialism, and creativity? Please post below! This my first foray into this topic, but it seems fruitful to begin a conversation here.

Monday, July 05, 2010

Coffee House Review: Cafe Divan

Located on the corner of 34th and Wisconsin in upper Georgetown, Cafe Divan offers relatively cheap Turkish food, modern decor, and, yes, Turkish coffee. Rated as one of Washingtonian's "Cheap Eats," Divan has a wide array of Turkish and Mediterranean food. Yesterday, I visited with the girlfriend and her family for a leisurely lunch after a wonderful tour of the C&O Canal. The walk from the canal to Cafe Divan is about a mile away from M Street, away from the main drag, allowing one to see other parts of Georgetown. Be warned: it is uphill!

Atmosphere: The restaurant's design is modern with wooden accents culminating in a point reflecting the corner location. The menu was quite extensive, and did not have the typical concessions to American food. Here is the link to their website, which has the menu, history, and photos of the cafe and entrees.

Service: Our waiter was pleasant and informative, and managed the continuous peppering of questions coming from my girlfriend and her family. He described the dishes in question, even providing some cultural background to certain dishes. Our lunch spanned about two hours with some slow service, but from what I believe, much like Europe, Turkish culture prizes long meals for chatting and strengthening relationships. When one comes here, be sure to allow some time.

Food: Quickly, the food tasted wonderfully. One can read the Post's review here for more detail.
Coffee: After we finished our meal, I ordered the Turkish coffee I craved. In fact, I wanted it so much I forgot to take a picture of it until I drank half of it! It was quite strong, as I waved away the suggestion to add sugar to it. There may have been a hint of cardamon, but not nearly as much as Cafe Amity's Turkish coffee. The cup held about 3-4 oz, much better than the espresso-like glass at Amity. Had a dark, full bodied taste, though not as strong as a French roast. Unfortunately, I took one sip too many and received a mouthful of coffee grounds for my greediness. Tsk-Tsk!

Conclusions: While more of a restaurant than a cafe, Cafe Divan's Turkish coffee was quite a treat, and cheaper than Cafe Amity at 2.00 dollars rather than 2.50. Oddly the restaurant, (located in Georgetown!), was cheaper than a more coffee-oriented shop. Despite the walk, I recommend everyone to try it out, and enjoy the cultural experience.

For everyone's enjoyment, here is a picture of the fireworks from Arlington:

Saturday, July 03, 2010

Metro Espresso Survey: Round 3

Here is the last survey, which comes from Sarah in the Arlington area. An interesting observation, she gives some love to Maxwell House, but none to Starbucks.

1. When you buy coffee on the go, who do you patronize? (Starbucks, Dunkin' Donuts, an espresso cart, Au Bon Pain...etc.)

I refuse to drink Starbucks under any condition. It is overrated and it is bitter. I try to find hole in the wall type coffee houses, or non-chains. Luckily, living in DC, there are plenty of those! If chains are my only options, I have found
that Marvelous Market is quite good, and depending on when the coffee was brewed. Dunkin' Donuts or Caribou.

2. What is your preferred coffee-based drink (drip, espresso, moka pot, French press, latte...etc), and why?

French press or drip are what I tend to go for with a tiny tiny tiny (seriously...tiny!) bit of skim milk and a sweet n low.
I like being able to nurse on a cup o' joe, rather than have to drink it quickly like an espresso.

3. In general, what is your favorite aspect about coffee? Explain (i.e culture, taste, social lubricant)

There really isn't anything that I don't like about coffee. It can be enjoyed with friends while chatting over what is going on in the news. During these economic troubling times, it is a great cheap date, as you can enjoy a time to get to know one another. It can help you stay up late when you procrastinate on a paper or a deadline. Depending on the coffee itself, it tastes delicious, and there are so many different ways that you can drink it!

4. What is your favorite coffee story? (i.e bad experience at Starbucks or amazing espresso)

I was meeting a friend for lunch one day near Dupont Circle. I was a little early, so I decided to get some coffee at a nearby coffee shop. I brought the coffee to Dupont Cirlcle and people watched while I waited for my friend. The weather was not too hot but not too cold,
and there were lots of people out and about to watch. There were couples on lunch dates, tourists walking through the center of the circle, and families taking afternoon strolls. While sipping on my coffee (which was delicious by the way!), I remember feeling very peaceful, content, and relaxed.

5. Folgers or Maxwell House? :-)

Neither, but if I had to choose, Maxwell House...the best part of waking up is NOT Foldger's in your cup. Maxwell House has a bit more flavor than the watered down Foldgers.

Thursday, July 01, 2010

Northwest Coffee Company and St. Louis

During my recent trip to St. Louis, I managed to visit a local coffee establishment, Northwest Coffee Roasting Company. They roast two times a week, creating their own blends and selling single-source coffee. I visited the location near the Catholic Basilica (not that you know where that is). Pictured left is the one-pound bag of Sumatra roasted on June 28th. Initially I was discouraged getting paper bag for my beans rather than a vacuum sealed one, but I realized there wasn't a particular need for one if being consumed in less than two weeks. If one isn't brewing the beans within that window, then why are you ordering it then?! The paper bag can be composted except for the tie string. I always had a small guilty feeling when buying coffee bags that couldn't be recycled. A plus for Northwest Coffee Co.

Their roasts are fresher than any store bought specialty coffee.While not pictured, the espresso made from the Sumatra had a considerable level of crema and bright flavors. I recommend anyone who is in the St. Louis area to visit and patronize a great business. Be sure to look at the bizarre, yet entertaining collection of coffee comics.

Check back in a day or two for the next survey responses.

Here are some pictures from the visit including the Anheuser-Busch distillery, Missouri Gallery of Art, and a view of St. Louis from the top of the Arch!

Source: Girlfriend