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Gimme a Coffee Blogging Break

Let’s call a spade a spade.  I’ve been a bad blogger and my own attempts at self-reform have apparently failed miserably.  My lack of writing is not due to a lack of coffee consumption or travel.  I have a sizable backlog of posts, dating back well over a year, which include some pretty high-profile, much sought-out cafes and roasteries.  The fact is that I’m presently at some risk of getting crushed under the pile of photographs and notes that towers above me on my desk.

Life, however, has recently taken hold of my calender, leaving me with much less free time than I’d prefer.  It’s also thrown some real doozies my way, that still have me spinning.  I keep trying to talk with life.  I say, “Life, who’s in charge here.  Just cut me some slack.”  I’ve been finding that life just doesn’t want to listen.

The long and the short of it is that I need a little coffee-blogging sabbatical.  I need to take some time to regroup, recharge my batteries and avoid some blogging burn out.  Don’t worry, I don’t envision getting rid of this blog and I won’t be laying down the mantle of self-appointed guide for coffee tourists.  I have no plans to stop drinking coffee or to cease seeking it out when I travel.  I just may not be reporting regularly on what I find, at least not in my usual, long form.

During my temporary stand down, you’ll still be able to contact me via email and follow me on twitter.  In fact, if you’ve been paying attention to my whereabouts recently, my habits won’t change that much from what they’ve been (I haven’t been blogging anyway).  With that grand announcement finally off my chest, I bid you adieu.  I can’t wait to see you on the other side.

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Get the DISK, Man

Product: DISK
Company: Coava Coffee Roasters

For as long as I’ve had my Aeropress, I’ve searched for alternative filters.  The paper filters designed for the Aeropress have never tasted satisfactory to me, even with a good rinsing beforehand.  I’ve cut up Chemex filters, but that’s a bit too much work on a regular basis.  I explored, but never actively pursued, the elusive 5 micron polyester filter, which required too much hacking, too much cleanup and too much potential for plastic fibers floating in my cup. I have relied instead on cloth, cut from a siphon filter.  I like this method for taste, but like all cloth filters, cleaning and storage requires some upkeep.  Also, my unskilled filter-tailoring skills left me with a stringy edge worthy of a certain Weezer song.

Metal filters always seemed like the way to go.  After all, the Aeropress claims to produce espresso.  Hogwash, but putting aside the tired critique that the otherwise terrific Aeropress produces nothing like espresso, it is true the Aeropress borrows from espresso-making principles.  So, presumably this device might benefit from something like a portafilter basket.  There was some chatter amongst coffee folks a while back about the eventual production of metal filters for the Aeropress, but nothing came of it.  When Coava’s kone emerged, my first thought went back to the Aeropress.  Half of me secretly hoped those clever Coava guys never thought of the logical next step so that I could cash in instead.  But sure enough, Coava figured out how to apply their stainless steel hole-etching process to Areopress-sized filters.

I had some reservations about the kone.  Not so with the disk. I’m just glad that the Coava guys got to it first. I could only imagine how ineffective the Alan Alder designed Aerobie ring filter would have been. But seriously, folks, the disk is a slam dunk purchase for any committed Aeropress user.  Here are the reasons you too should get a Disk, man:

  • The Disk is easy to use. I’d say it’s comparable to the paper filter in ease of use.  You don’t have to pre-rinse the Disk, but you do have to clean it after. You can’t just pop this filter into the trash (or compost) with your spent puck of coffee – and be careful you don’t do so by mistake!  The important thing is that this filter requires no hacking and it also doesn’t require mastering new brewing techniques.  Whichever of the multitude of Aeropress brew methods you prefer will still work just fine with the Disk.
  • Ultimate taste. I ran a series of comparative brews, with various coffees, pitting Disk to paper and Disk to cloth.  I wasn’t completely blown away by the results and the disk did not transform my coffee experience, but it is definitively better than the paper filters, offering a fuller range of flavors and aromas. I also found it roughly comparable, if not better than, my home-fabricated cloth filters.  But even if comparable, the Disk is still easier to use. I did find a slight increase in fines in the cup over paper, not surprisingly, but they were very light and almost not noticeable.  My best guess, but merely a shot in the dark, as to why sediment levels were lower than what I encountered with the kone is described on Barismo as cake filtration.
  • About the price of CD. Just to be clear, at $15, the disk isn’t cheap.  The Aeropress, itself, is only about $25.  Also, the Disk isn’t a good bargain because it offers savings over paper filters.  I previously argued that the kone offered little in the way of actual cost savings compared to paper filters.  The Disk makes even less good on this promise. Aeropress filters are about a penny a piece ($3.50 for a package of 350).  You’d have to use the Disk for 4-5 years at a cup a day to make it more economical than paper (I’m unclear on the environmental benefits here).  The bottom line is that $15 is simply a manageable price point given most people’s budgets.  Given that the coffee produced with it tastes better than the only commercially made paper filter means that you’re making a solid investment in the taste of your coffee for not much more than say, a compact disc (What do you call an MP3 album anyway?).
  • This Disk ain’t floppy. Although the Disk is made of the same thin metal as the kone, it’s smaller size makes it sturdy.  It doesn’t feel like it would bend or dent without serious effort, and you can store it in your Aeropress to protect it.  Be careful, though.  It is tiny.  I’ve somehow already managed to misplace mine.  I can’t complain too much since it was sent to me for free.  Ultimately, if it doesn’t manage to reappear, I will be buying one to replace it.

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I Couldn’t Work a Conehead Reference Into This Title

Product: kone
Company: Coava Coffee Roasters

While a long list of phrases could accurately be used to describe specialty coffee for 2010, to me, the past year largely stands out as the peak of the resurgence of pour over brewing. The Hario V60 family, Chemex Brewers, Abid Clever Coffee Dripper and even the Beehouse and Bonmac drippers all saw well more than their 15 minutes of fame, and they have the brewing videos to show for it. I only wish I had the wallet of those who designed and manufactured one of these new and/or newly-again-popular devices.*

In this koner

To me, the kone neatly sums up this popular, faddish but also quality driven pour-over movement.  It is a simple filter, crafted from a single sheet of steel with laser-etched holes. Designed by the guys from Coava Coffee Roasters in Portland, OR (who also roast some very nice coffees) and fabricated in the U.S., this filter fits the first three of the above-mentioned devices well and can work with some finessing in the remaining two.  The kone offers up an aesthetically pleasing, very cool, somewhat trendy and (allegedly) environmentally sound alternative to to the wide array of paper filters, which one must typically navigate when pursuing pour over coffee.

The general concept behind the kone isn’t new.  Consider the various gold cone filters you can purchase out there, ranging from $10-30. While the kone’s portafilter-sized holes are much cooler to marvel at than gold mesh and while their wider spacing allows for slightly slower pouring than your find with the gold cone filter, the thinking behind both devices is the same.  Both allow through coffee oils as well as some coffee fines.  Both of these factors contribute to a fuller-bodied and (theoretically) more flavorful, yet less clean cup.

We all pine for a kone

The novel features of the kone – what sets it apart from other filters – are three.  First is design. The thing is a beauty to behold and the kind of device that makes coffee folks covet.  Second is that it has been made by cool people who make good coffee and have successfully hyped it with press from just the right crowd. Thus, the kone is a device you want and feel left out for not buying it.  Third is that it fits so well with the current pour-over movement. The kone is specifically engineered to fit the V60 and Chemex, places where a gold cone filter doesn’t really play well.  (And it will soon fit perfectly in its own kone funnel dripper, also by Coava).  These were the three reasons I jumped at the chance to get a kone when Coava agreed to send me one to test.

A kone-tankerous design

The packaging is austere; minimal like the device. The cardboard box and a few sheets of paper are sound enough to protect its delicate contents when smartly surrounded by another box and packing material as they were. I was happy with this packaging, both practically and aesthetically. That said, delicate was very much my first impression upon removing the kone from the box. Besides shiny and surprisingly lightweight, the kone seemed less sturdy than I imagined.  I doubt a dent would affect performance much, but it would be an aesthetic bummer.

The kone is also sharp.  The top rim would probably benefit from a fold in the metal as well as a way to better grab it when the hot kone is sitting down inside the Chemex or Clever brewers post-brewing.  And watch out for that pointy tip.  I pierced my hand on it while reaching for the thing one morning. These are a couple of design issues that I hope get worked on for version 2.

Through the ringer

I suppose the real proof is in the brewing.  That’s I why I ran the kone through a series of tests – for brewability and taste – worthy of a moderately ambitious home brewer.  A word of warning, though, these tests were only a moderately geeky, less than full-blown scientific endeavor. I didn’t pull out my still fictitious TDS meter or taste anything blind.  I don’t actually own a V60 anymore so tests included coffee brewed exclusively via Chemex or my Abid Clever Coffee Dripper.  I didn’t even bother comparing the kone to paper filters I don’t like.  I only compared it only to bleached Chemex filters (the best around, in my book) and a gold cone filter.  Finally, no regressions or statistical software was uses in the development of these findings.

That said, my tests weren’t completely devoid of geekery and rigor. I controlled for (brew) water and coffee temperature (at consumption).  I also kept brew time, grind size and coffee freshness the same for the Clever. Brew time/grind varied a little for the Chemex as was necessary to get the best brew.  I brewed two cups of the same coffee via the same method with paper vs. kone and gold cone vs. kone.  I did this regimen over the course of a couple of weeks with a few different coffees, trying to cover a variety of coffee types.  Here are my impressions.

Feeling like a konehead, until I got Clever

The kone is a little tough to get the hang of when used in a Chemex. Slowing your water flow is extremely important or you’ll end up with very underextracted coffee.  Water has a tendency to gush through the grinds.  I found that restricting my water flow as much as possible, tightening the grind to a little coarser than drip (I thought to do it closer to a french press grind to minimize fines) and allowing for a longer bloom time than normal (at least 1:30, but more like 2:00) all helped to improve my results.  I can see how the restricted flow of the soon-to-be-released kone funnel or the various commercial brewing devices in the footnote below, might improve conditions for the less-than-patient barista (not that I could afford most of these for my house!).

This is where the Clever Coffee Dripper came in.  No worries here about water flow since you simply steep your coffee until you are ready to release it, and your technique doesn’t have to differ from what you do with paper.  If you want fewer fines, then coarsen the grind and increase the steep time.  This brewer removes any complexity required to master the kone.

Tasting the results

When it comes to taste, I can’t say I ever fully nailed my Chemex technique with the kone, which says something for the circumstances under which you should consider this device.  You need to be a committed and patient home barista, or perhaps one with suitable water flow restricting gear, to make the kone work as a true pour over.  In the end, I tended to prefer the paper filter by a slight margin with coffee brewed in the Chemex.  I certainly did not taste a kone cup that was a clear winner given the work involved.

With the Clever, I found the kone comparable, but different to using paper.  Results are probably what you’d expect.  Kone-brewed coffee was less clean, more intense and bass-heavy, with fewer top notes and more body.  In other words, it mimics what you get with a gold cone filter and is similar in overall character to what you might find in coffees brewed via French Press.  I slightly favored a paper filter with the Clever when it came to brighter, more delicate coffees like those I tried from Kenya or Ethiopia.  The kone had a real appeal, however, for certain fuller, rounder coffees like a middle palate Costa Rica or a sharper, darker Rwanda.

When put head to head with a gold cone filter, I preferred the kone slightly. It seemed to yield a somewhat fuller profile – both high notes and low notes – and produced slightly less sediment.

Cost kone-parison

It’s worth noting that the kone isn’t cheap.  At $50, this filter may be fairly priced, given the R&D involved, overall low scale of production and American-made craftsmanship (read: U.S. labor rates).  Still, it is steep for home users and a price cafes will need to consider.  While something like the kone funnel may make the kone even easier to use, the purchase of that brewer will add to your costs.  Of course, the kone funnel may benefit cafes in that it allows staff to set up several pour overs with little oversight (not to mention that it is cool looking).

As a true alternative to paper, the financial (and even environmental) benefit isn’t obvious.  One kone costs about as much as 6 boxes of Chemex filters (at a little less than $8 per box of 100 filters) and even more for other filters.  At 1 cup a day, that’s nearly a 2-year supply of paper filters.  Many people are likely to lose or damage their kone before then. Factor in that you will likely sometimes still want to brew coffee with paper and what you’re looking at instead is another filter to add to your repertoire of choices.  So the kone becomes a supplement rather than a substitution, not that this fact should deter you.  My coffee cabinet is full of devices. By adding the kone, I now have just one more way to enjoy my coffee.

Going for the Gold

In the end, I feel neutral about the kone when it come to comparisons with paper filters (by which I mean Chemex – I can’t speak for other paper, but since I find those even less palatable, I’ll you apply the communicative property).  The kone certainly is coffee eye-candy even if it would benefit from a few upgrades in design.  It can make a very nice cup of coffee, but it will take some work to master and an not insignificant financial investment.  I’m happy I own it, but I sometimes like to use brew methods that don’t always yield the cleanest cup.

What I really see the kone as doing is serving as a strong alternative to the gold cone.  It has re-awakened interest in this long-existing filter, improved upon its design and provided a way for many of us with certain brewing devices (for which the gold cone was never intended) to more easily explore the benefits of metal filters.  Opting for a kone over a gold cone will set you back nearly double, but may be the best, or perhaps only, option for exploring this form of filter given the way you brew your coffee.

*If 2010 is the year when pour over peaked, then 2011 promises to be the year that the barista’s steady hand is removed from the pour over process.  The Marco Uber Boiler is slowly making inroads at indie cafes while the Luminaire Bravo-1 is soon set to launch.  Starbucks is introducing its Clover Precision Pour Over brewer, although probably only at Starbucks stores, while Coava will shortly begin selling its kone funnel dripper, starting at the La Marzocco Out of the Box in Berkeley event on January 18-19.  Oh, and let’s not forget the ingenious prototype, the Frankenbrewer.

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Coffee in Picksburgh?

I used to make mixed tapes.  I’m not sure what the kids make these days.  Imixes?  Somehow, that’s just not as meaningful.  So I turned my attention to something that seemed to have a bit more personality.  I started making coffee maps.  Sure, most of them are integrated into the reviews contained in this blog, but occasionally, I go out of my way to share purely unsupported, best guess coffee intelligence.  My best friend is finishing up a sabbatical in Pittsburgh and I have his word that he used this map pretty fanatically.  I think I may even have him on record saying that this coffee map serious improved the quality of life there for him and his family.

Now, (switching now to my best Pittsburgh accent) I can’t personally vouch fer this map’s accuracy or integrity since I haven’t managed to find my way to Picksburg fer a very long time n’at. I tried to use my friend as a reporter in da filled but yinz should have seen da stuff he submitted. Far too academical fer this sort of blogging. If I’m lucky, I might find my way again dere sometime soon – it’s been too long – but until then, I thought I’d share this wit da larger public in case yinz manage to find yinzes way to picksburg n’at.

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San Diego Area Coffee

I’ll be spare with my words since I have little to add to my posts on San Diego area coffee other than that I wish I had managed to get to Zumbar’s and to try out the coffee cart outside of the Clairemont Mesa Kaiser offices – the latter simply because it sounds so fun.  Instead, I’ll simply note that my San Diego area coffee map is now up.  Enjoy.

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Bird Rock Coffee Roasters

Name: Bird Rock Coffee Roasters
Location: 5627 La Jolla Blvd, La Jolla CA

Bird Rock Coffee Roasters
Rating: 4-

As I pointed out in my Caffe Calabria review, San Diego doesn’t seem to have a whole lot to offer in terms of world class cafes.  Caffe Calabria is a good start but falls short of destination coffee in my book, and the other cafes I’ve reported on since fell short of Calabria.  While I believe you can still find coffee roasted by Barefoot at Perks on the UC San Diego campus, Barefoot is a Bay Area roaster and La Jolla isn’t exactly in San Diego.  Since then, I discovered you can find Intelligentsia coffee at The Linkery.  While well worth a visit, this restaurant, not cafe, uses coffee from Intelligentsia in LA.  Which brings me back to La Jolla, where I found Bird Rock Coffee Roasters.

Bird Rock is a local roaster, which has all the trappings of a top notch cafe.  They own a La Marzocco GB/5, offer multiple coffees with brew to order options on a V60 pour over bar, serve only freshly roasted coffee, have several high marks from Coffee Review, and appear to be sourcing some pretty good green coffee.

When I visited over the summer (yes, I’m playing catch up here), Bird Rock’s filter coffee options consisted of a Fetco-brewed, rotating single origin coffee and a decaf as well four coffees via a V60 pourover.  I opted for their naturally processed Yemen Haraz coffee on the V60, which was one of their more expensive coffees, but I wasn’t disappointed.  The coffee was a fruit bomb – intense strawberry up front with a full spectrum behind it – with a red-wine acidity and super syrupy mouthfeel.  My coffee grew less smooth as it cooled but was otherwise quite good, if a little overwhelming, as a naturally process coffee can be (4-).  It was good enough though to inspire me to purchase a bag of this reasonably pricey coffee (which served me quite well on the road in the days immediately following).

The espresso was a little less impressive with a thinnish crema (my photo, taken several minutes after getting this espresso, is not a good portrayal of the initial crema) and slightly tart moving into sour acidity.  Otherwise, though, it was a nice shot with lots of dark chocolate notes and deeper profile which nicely contrasted this shot’s brighter notes (3+).  It was served it with a little cookie.  A nice, but unnecessary touch since it was at least comparable if not better than any other shot I had while in the area.

Bird Rock has all the makings for an excellent cafe and seems to mostly live up to the potential.  While my espresso wasn’t quite as good as I would have liked it to be, it was still good and I think my barista my have even still been training.  Besides, the filter coffee was by far the best I had in the area.  The worst news was simply that Bird Rock had yet to land a local wholesale account so, at least at the time, couldn’t find it closer to San Diego.  Unless things have changed since last summer – which they very well may have – you may need to work in a detour to La Jolla during your next San Diego trip if you want to satisfy your jonesing for good coffee.

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Village Coffee

Name: Village Coffee (No web page)
Location: 10415 San Diego Mission Road, San Diego, CA

Roaster: Village Coffee

Rating: 2+

Village Coffee is the kind of operation you’d probably never stumble into.  It sits at one end of a relatively nondescript strip mall near Qualcomm Stadium on a small road just off the intersection of Interstates 8 and 15.  You could easily drive right by without noticing, and even if you did notice, you might just keep on going.  Surely nothing this far outside the city has potential for good coffee!  Fortunately, the Coffee Geek boards proved fruitful when I happened to have some work in this area.

Village Coffee’s insides and out aren’t anything spectacular in the way of design but the place is pleasant enough, offers free wifi, makes its own sandwiches and many of its baked goods.  Also, the mother/daughter team that owns and runs it seems knowledgeable about coffee, is extremely friendly and seems keen on forming relationships with their regular customers.  The bottom line is that it probably is just the right kind of place for an outlying neighborhood such as this, which presumably relies heavily on those individual who work in the immediate area.  Village Coffee prides itself on doing things with a bit more love and attention that the local Starbucks.

Keeping in that vain, Village Coffee roasts its own coffee.  It does so, however, with the most modest of ambitions. They roast off site and don’t bag up beans for resale, don’t advertise the roasting and have no wholesale accounts.  They also don’t offer a huge variety of coffees.  The filter coffee is a Brazil Daterra.  And, while my notes are sketchy, I think the espresso may have been the same Brazil rather than a blend.

Flavorwise, both the filter coffee and the espresso were decent with the espresso edging out slightly ahead.  This fact was not surprising since the filter coffee was Fetco-brewed and airpump-pot-stored while the espresso was ground fresh on a La Marzocco Swift grinder and pulled from a 2 group Linea.  Both exhibited some nice chocolate and vanilla notes and hit a happy medium roast level, completely lacking any over-roasted qualities.  The coffee was clean with mild acidity but suffered from a papery flatness that I suspect was probably part brew, part roast and part origin (2+).  The espresso had a syrupy mouthfeel but left a bitter aftertaste and didn’t deliver much acidity (3-).

While I’m not gushing about the quality of the coffee here and it’s certainly not worth a detour for the coffee tourist in San Diego, I was nevertheless excited to find this place.  They were better than the local competition (read: Starbucks) because of the uniqueness of the product and the skill and attention given to it.  For that, they deserve some credit.  Village Coffee isn’t a San Diego destination, but it will be a small salvation if find yourself in this part of the city.

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Elixir Espresso Bar

Name: Elixir Espresso Bar
Location: 427 C Street #101, San Diego, CA

Roaster: Caffe Calabria
Coffee Roasting Company
Rating: 3-

From Kansas City, we head to sunny San Diego, where I previously reported on coffee from Caffe Calabria.  Elixir is a Calabria wholesale account, conveniently located downtown in a building lobby kiosk with access to coffee both inside the lobby and through a walk-up window to the street.  You should definitely go inside, though. While the coffee may not have topped my list, the lobby’s design is amazing.  Forget references to Anchor Man.  This location’s cage-enclosed elevator reminds me of a mini Bradbury Building, a shared setting to both Chinatown and Blade Runner.

Espresso at Calbria was the highlight.  The barista pulled my shot of the Calabria blend on a red, 3 group,  La Marzocco FB 70.  The espresso was ground to order although seemed to experience a rapidly disappearing crema.  It was sweet and buttery with  cocoa and red wine notes and a mellow acidity.  Overall, I thought the espresso was decent but found it a little dry with a bite at the back of the throat and some ashy notes (3/3-).

Filter coffee options could have been better.  The only choice was Calabria’s Italian roast, brewed on a Fetco and stored in airpump pot.  The coffee was better than I would have expected for this dark a roast.  It tasted freshly brewed and not overwhelmingly roasty.  My notes were a little lacking when it came to much in the range of flavors and aromas, but in the end, I found it palatable enough to give it a 2+.

I can’t rave about Elixir but they do a decent enough job with their espresso.  The bottom line is that there are not all that many options for decent coffee in San Diego, especially anywhere near downtown, so even this just barely above average espresso tends to stand out, especially when there’s such a nice setting to enjoy it in.

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