Last week I had arrived to ASU’s Downtown Phoenix campus with one goal only: to bike to Giant Coffee, drink Giant-brewed Four-Barrel-roasted gold-in-a-cup, and gun it back to campus by my class which would start promptly at noon.
I ended up making it by 12:04 – which I dismiss as a reflection of my priorities.
However, it’s the experience that led up to class and not the effect of tardiness it had that makes this story noteworthy.
I walked in to Giant, home of Phoenix’s best air conditioning system which, perhaps, is by design in the way it reflects a cool bay-area breeze I might pick up if I were standing outside of San Fransisco’s very own Four Barrel Coffee.
Normally their a/c would talk me into hot-brewed coffee (an easy win anywhere and anyhow, anyways) but today my exercise of choice needed me to drink cold – dairy being out of the question. They don’t serve hot coffee over ice, which I’d come to heavily prefer over what I ended up ordering; a glass of toddy. But alas, to my surprise, it wasn’t just the “decent” grade I’d usually slap it with – it was delicious.
Toddy is coffee brewed cold – a process where coarse grounds sit fully immersed in water for 24 hours (though, times will vary based on who you’re talking to). A little bit of science: when brewed with hot water coffee becomes acidic (ever had a cup of coffee that’s being kept on a heat source after brewing? It’s called heart burn) and when it’s brewed cold for an extended length of time the end result is a neutral in acidity, aside from what’s inherent in the type of bean. It’s a full-bodied, smooth, and cold glass of coffee.
But what some call smooth and lacking in acidity, I thought, tasted that way because it had traded in acidity for a dull, astringent taste. It’s like the coffee had lost all of it’s juice. Or elbow grease. Or gas. Or It’s… -er, well yeah – chemically speaking it’s lost it’s gas.
But there was a severe scientific misstep in my toddy thinking – the toddy I was ordering at shops tasted such a way not because of the brew method itself, but because it was a blend of beans that were too old.
Let me explain: coffee shops across the nation have gotten into a mindset that they should use beans that are too far out from their roast dates for shop use (meaning they’ve chemically and preferably lost too much of the gas that’s built up in the bean from the roasting process) to create toddy that ends up being a blend of not only their de-gassed single origin (coming from the same farm) beans, but sometimes their slightly more darkly roasted espresso and their decaf beans as well. They do so for very smart reasons: because cold-brewing is less sensitive to gas build down, it dramatically cuts down on shop waste (saving them money in the form of revenue as well), it’s incredibly easy to make and serve, and because the general public seems to really like it.
However, I don’t think the average person, amazed by it’s smooth lack of acidity, knows any better. Yet. And how could they? Neither did I until very recently.
Just like our great nation itself, toddy cold-brew coffee started back East. Or, at least east of the West Coast – look no further than the Big Easy. Recipes for syrupy coffee concentrates, New York Times coffee journalist Oliver Strand says, run thick in the city’s history. A simple formula to follow: summer = toddy.
But iced coffee up until around 2007 in every other part of the country, says Scottsdale barista Alex Mason, was still just simply iced, strongly brewed hot coffee – sometimes now referred to as Japanese-style iced coffee.
Alex Mason, while raised in Phoenix and currently local in Scottsdale, – earned his coffee stripes and learned iced coffee in Our Nation’s Capital, working for Murky Coffee while schooling at Georgetown. ”Being summer in a hot, humid, climate we were making iced coffee on the reg. The instructions were pretty simple: Use the amount of coffee you’d use for a full batch Fetco (urn) of coffee, fill the urn with ice, and brew it as a half batch over ice,” said Mason. “I absolutely loved it.”
And Strand (who in 2007 was still writing for the times under the surname Schwaner-Albright) would tell you the same; toddy was virtually unheard of in the big East Coast cities like New York.
“When Japanese Iced Coffee is done well (like all things, it too can be botched), I think it follows the guidelines of what specialty coffee is always aiming for: brightness, clarity, and individuality amongst coffees. A good, well brewed iced coffee can be as clear, bright, and unique and as a well as brewed hot coffee brought down to 90 degrees,” explained Mason. “These flavors are so pronounced I have often used the iced coffee to help me pick out the specific notes of a coffee I am having trouble cupping.”
Back to my toddy from Giant Coffee and why it was so delicious. When I’d sipped it I tasted fresh brightness and citrus fruit, rasberry flavors – in such a way that had been untainted by an aged, astringent taste I’d normally associate with toddy. It was their Guatemala Antigua Pompeya and I’d drank it hot at Giant just a few days beforehand. I asked the barista who was working if he knew what beans had been used in the current batch of toddy – he nonchalantly (perhaps not grasping the gravity of the situation) told me that it was probably mostly (if not all) the Guatemalan they’d had on drip just a few days ago and that they’d been going through toddy so quickly they were needed to use freshly roasted coffee they’d normally use for drip.
It was freshly roasted, freshly brewed, majorly single-origin toddy.
But, just to make sure, I set out to see if clarity and brightness and individuality could be attained through the cold-brew method. Here’s my process.
Bolivia Irupana: While it was brewed as a single-origin, and tasted like a vegetable medley like I’ve had it brewed hot, it lacked a pop – the brightness I’m assuming had been lost by the coffee which had sat for a month. The flavors were still there – but I’d rather turn a cold shoulder to this and strive for something better.
Nicaragua Finca La Vida Joven: Bright-ish, sweet, balanced how it should be. And it tastes like melon to me. However, being roughly two weeks past the roast date (the usual cut-off for selling single-origin coffee within a shop setting) it’s still dull, though it’s redeeming factor is it’s individual flavors. It’s good.
Guatemala La Perla: Straight up incredible. Having been roasted just a day before I bought it, I’d brewed it hot by drip V60 just recently and I tasted bright, vibrant and complex flavors of strawberry-kiwi, finishing with sweet tomato and even, as my house mate pointed out, avocado (again, to me. Taste is subjective). The toddy cold-brew I had made was every bit as bright, crisp, and delicious. I’d even say that the flavors – unmasked by heat, were concentrated and even easier to pick up on. No astringency, no oxidation, no foul taste. Just flavorful, cold coffee.
After my experiment was finished I sat with my delicious cold brew (even happier that there was more of my concentrate sitting in the fridge for later days) and sipped it slowly – how I might a shot of espresso (respectively with time) or a cappuccino, or a small brewed cup of coffee. I wanted it to last, and so I only drank it as quickly as the ice would let me, tilting the glass just enough.
I secretly wished toddy was always like this.
Now I suppose it’s not really a secret.
The other night I ended up at Cartel Coffee Lab, which was weird; because I was on 5th Avenue.
You see, Friday I spent a night in Oldtown Scottsdale; a lively area that in it’s bulk is a stretch of just a few miles of Scottsdale road that connect North Scottsdale and Tempe.
Here, the number of bars always seems outweigh the average age of 43 – by a lot.
Here, a 19-year-old college student on a budget is almost completely out of place.
My meal at Bandera, for example – grilled lamb sirloin sitting on a pillow of mashed potatoes (which I’d been wondering if it contained chunks of parsnip) next to a bed of cooked whole-leaf, parmesan topped spinach – was excellent. The best cooked lamb (on par with Mom’s lamb-chop, mint jelly dish) I’d ever tasted excellent. In a different league than a shepherds pie pasty at Cornish Pasty the week before excellent.
$23 before tax and tip excellent.
Though, it was my friend’s birthday and his Mom, who is always far too generous, did treat.
But, nevertheless, I found myself thinking, “When is it my turn? When does my foodie state-of-mind find a budget to dine and an age to wine?”
I’d really only ended up in Oldtown a handful of times at all – many of which were trips at a young age with my twin sister and my Grandma to The Sugar Bowl, an old school ice cream parlor and diner built from wooden planks painted pink. I’m wishing I could still recommend it but my memory doesn’t serve me right here – I haven’t returned since my adolescent tongue could differentiate something other than: “sugar!”
But after my meal I took to a brisk walk down Scottsdale Road with my friends, fighting my way through hoards of thirty-somethings towards a place that felt like a home in this foreign part of town.
Cartel Coffee Lab, based out of Tempe, was opening it’s fourth location in heart of the 5th Avenue Shops where their previous wholesale client, philanthropic Sola Coffee Bar, ceased to exist.
Now coffee, that was something I understood, and which I would gladly work into my college budget at any expense. It’s tasty in an incredibly diverse amount of ways, served in a multitude of respectful fashions, and it provides all of the depth and sophistication I could ask for in a drink. Best of all? It’s the drink of the masses; it’s still inexpensive, and many shops serve it well under the price tag it deserves – so I tend to drink away.
Did I mention that Friday night it was free?
Cartel was partying in the way only a grand opening could imply, and in the only way Cartel saw fit to grandly open – generously!
Oh, and there was free beer, food, and pastries as well.
The pastries, I might add, were prepared by none other than Rebecca Reeder; Cartel’s staff pastry chef (dare I say best of her trade in the greater Phoenix area) who operates out of their Downtown Phoenix location and puts the term wo-manning the kitchen into work (did that last line make sense?). I drank coffee and enjoyed salted caramel nut bars and walnut espresso brownies which, in the best kind of way, made me thirsty for more coffee. A second round of Cartel’s Guatemala La Perla has never been a bad thing.
But what really made me feel at home was the community integrated into their grand opening. Along with their strong Tempe, Tucson, and Downtown Phoenix following, almost anyone and everyone involved in the specialty coffee community here in Arizona showed their face, drank coffee, applauded Cartel’s new marketing video, and together with their friends or family – brought celebration to a great new coffee shop.
We need coffee community get-togethers more often, with or without all of the free food. Preferably with. Who’s buying? Not the 19-year-old unemployed college student on a budget.
In it’s second appearance as a part of Phoenix Cooks!, the Southwest Latte Art Competition began with a bang, continued with the whirring sound of milk-steaming, and ended with the announcement of a winner.
I listened to the crowd’s applauding give constant approval, but I wouldn’t ever hear any slurping – this event was all about the art.
“This year the goal was to put the barista craft on display to the public through a bigger competition,” said Brian Clemens, the Barista Guild of America representative for the Southwest and the director of the SWLAC. “Latte art is indeed an art form. Latte art competitions are a great way to bring together the barista community”
A competitor will ask themselves: do I pour a rosetta? A tulip? A swan? At a latte art competition a predestined design is not always the outcome when there are judges who score on originality and aesthetic beauty (in addition to the art’s symmetry and contrast). And that’s okay – each barista has their own style.
Latte art becomes a hybrid because of the intentional wrist movement that, literally, gives way to going with the flow.
(video credit: Alex Devine via Vimeo)
Competitors went head-to-head in the first three rounds, presenting their lattes simultaneously to the judges. The final round was fascinating as each competitor presented their latte, allowing the judges to pick apart all aspects of the art and rate accordingly. Upon battling it out, the finalists were as follows: coming in third place, Charlie Commanda from Flagstaff, Arizona; coming in second, Jamie Rice from Las Vegas, Nevada; and the this year’s champion was Jason Calhoon from Scottsdale, Arizona taking home the coveted $500 grand prize. The top three winners received a handsome prize package courtesy of Bookman’s Cafe, Espresso Parts, and Barista Magazine.
“I thought this event, as a whole showcased my job as a Professional Barista fairly well. Latte art competitions are a great way to show pride in one’s skills and one’s ability to execute under pressure,” said Seth Mills, a barista at Cartel Coffee Lab.Smooth, perfectly textured milk from a powerful steam wand and a practiced barista is the first step. It creates white micro-foam that will lay flat atop a mixture of steamed milk and espresso. Good micro-foam is light and sweet, but compact – bubble bath foam, while fun to play with, won’t make the cut.
And the art stole the show.
Unless you were at the Brew Bar, of course, where slurping played a much bigger part. A new integration to Phoenix Cooks and the SWLAC, the Brew Bar was operated by volunteer baristas and showcased coffee from local roasters brewed across five unique methods.
Cartel supplied their balanced Nicaragua Vida Joven (a farm operated by Young Life) and was brewed via syphon and clever, Press Coffee, owned by Steve Kraus who played a big part in coordinating the event brought their Ethiopia Amaro Gayo (strong blackberry flavored notes) for the Chemex and V60 brew methods, and Coffee Reserve showed off their rich El Salvador San Emelio using the V60 and French press.
Seth Mills, a barista at Cartel Coffee Lab, took the time that he wasn’t competing in the latte art competition or eating his way across tens of Phoenix Cooks booths to brew coffee on the syphon – by many standards the most decadent brew method that uses an open flame to heat water into a second chamber that will fully immerse the ground coffee.
(Video of Chris Owens, of Intelligentsia Coffee & Tea in Venice, Calif., brewing coffee on a syphon. When it first premiered this video, appealing to my film background, got me fired up to be more explorative as a barista. Video courtesy of The D4D, via http://www.vimeo.com)
“People are drawn to the theatrics of the Syphon and I tried to take advantage of their captivated attention to educate them about the basics of brewing as well as the specific science behind the Syphon as a brewing method that showcases a coffee’s amazing sweetness and balance,” said Mills. “I love sharing my passion and knowledge of coffee with anyone who will listen, and I really tried to take advantage of the audience’s willingness to be engaged and learn.”
I arrived early to the event with Clemens and Kraus, where I was more than happy to dial in the espresso that the competitors would be pulling. And just moments later, heavily under the influence of a caffeine high, a four-hour-of-sleep night began to treat me much kinder.
As for the rest of the event; if I wasn’t stuffing my face full with lobster mashed potatoes, cornbread french toast, or peppered quail egg atop pork-seared salmon, I was engaging thirsty attendees at the brew bar. Exchanging the knowledge and skill-set I have for the coffee they had no idea they’d come to desire was rewarding for me.
For many of them, coffee became more than a vessel of caffeine – it contained notes of citrus, blackberries, and cashews for the first time. It was an interaction-based transaction, and the greatest asset I came to offer was a simple conversation over a good (simple in presentation, complex in flavor) cup of coffee.
It reminded me very much of the coffee shop setting because it was a perfect example of something I’d always revered as one of coffee’s greatest qualities: it’s a couple seats at a bar, flavors in a mug that politely ask to be audibly appreciated, and the open air between two individuals that combine to become a starting place for good conversation.
And, when all was said and done for the SWLAC and Phoenix Cooks!, make no mistake – the Southwest poured their hearts out!
Yesterday morning I woke up and, as soon as I could persuade nature and bike-riding physics to see fit, I was drinking a cappuccino.
It was crafted from an excellent barista, and the drink itself forced nature’s hand as well – for I felt that it need not be ranked in my life amongst other cappuccinos, nor against perfections of coffee-crafting my mind could conjure.
It was perfect in it’s own respect.
You see, at this level of craft where quality and skill shake hands, I realized that never again will I have a cappuccino that tastes quite like this (since espresso has a wide range of variables the resulting flavor is not easily repeated; even by the most consistent barista).
But, when espresso is this tasty and is becoming increasingly easy to find, diversity becomes a blessing that I embrace. So, rather than risk over-analyzing my drink (which would only lead to letting it cool far too long between sips), I do something that seems revolutionary.
I simply sit and relish my first and last Seth Mills, Thursday the 8th of September, 2011 cappuccino.
Six ounces of tasty steamed milk and espresso: it was simply that good. All else yielded to my sense of taste and I came to a conclusion: it had never felt in such good taste to think so simply.
An (inspired) blog post ensued.