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Coffee at Slow Food Nation, Part 3

Name: Slow Food Nation Taste Pavilion
Location: Easternmost Pier, Fort Mason, San Francisco, CA

My first impression of the Taste Pavilion weren’t particularly glowing. It seems that “taking it slow” meant lots of standing in line. The entry line followed the northern boundary of the Fort before taking a sharp 90 degree turn and extending all the way back to the main gate. People I spoke to reported waits of nearly an hour for cheese, while the ice cream and charcuterie lines took around 30 minutes and seemed to grow longer just after I picked up my food. I’m not entirely clear whether this had to do with poor design, slow service or high demand (there weren’t similar lines at the fish or honey and preserves booths), but the woman standing behind me in the Olive Oil line pointed out correctly that all these lines made the place seem “just like Disneyland.” Of course, Disneyland has the decency to offer you a fast pass.

Another frustrating element of this event was the “Slow Dough,” a “punchcard” with 20 slots handed to me upon entry. It turns out that each vendor charged various punches for their wares, which you often couldn’t ascertain until after you had waited through the line. Some booths required multiple punches per serving and others seemed to disregard the Slow Dough altogether. You could purchase more Slow Dough if you happened to run out, but with the lines as they were, running out seemed somewhat challenging to do. I know that I left early, but had nearly half my dough remaining.

Fortunately, neither long lines nor funky punch cards plagued my experience with the Coffee Pavilion. I approached the hostess – no line – who asked me whether I wanted espresso or coffee. I opted for espresso and she led me down the one aisle, introducing me to my “personal” barista. Each barsita was stationed behind one either end of a 3-group LaMarzocco GB/5, and each barista was pulling different single-origin shots (although there were a couple of duplicates). The limited crowds let me work my way down the line trying most of the espressos being offered. I could have tried more, but it seemed that 6 espressos was about all I could handle on one slice of pizza. I’ve included my tasting notes below.

Feeling more than sufficiently buzzed but not wanting to miss out, I returned to the hostess who directed me to one of the two back aisles where “guides” were walking patrons through a flight of three coffees. The coffees were brewed in the very back on Clovers machines and the coffee poured into elegant cups by Heath Ceramics. I don’t know if was a sense of irony, but each of the three coffees was poured from one of three restaurant-issue brown and orange handled glass carafes. (At least the collective coffee intelligence in the room was enough to ensure that the carafes weren’t baking on burners!) One person in my group asked if they were serving decaf.

I ended up in a group that failed slow food. One woman left almost immediately after learning that no milk was available for her coffee and her husband/friend/partner left shortly thereafter. The other man in my group left after coffee number 2 – I’m not sure why – leaving me to pepper the poor barista with far too many questions. My tasting notes on these 3 coffees are included below as well.

The design of the pavilion was pleasant enough and, more importantly, it felt secluded from the rest of the event, which helped me better concentrate on the coffees before me. The booth vaguely resemble the kind of sheet-fortress I might have assembled as a kid. However, my childhood fortresses didn’t come equipped with tens (or was it hundreds) of thousands of dollars of coffee equipment. They also weren’t filled with one of the most impressive collections of coffee and coffee-related talent that I’ve seen working together (i.e. not competing against one another) under one roof/sheet.

In between drinks I was able to continue my conversation with Edwin Martinez (who has a great list of blog coverage in his coverage of the event) and Peter Giuliano who I had heard from a couple of hours before. Both were incredibly nice and, as you may have guessed, extremely knowledgeable about coffee. I was also able to talk to each of the baristas serving me coffee. Their collective coffee skill was downright scary. Most of them own or manage a cafe and have competed seriously and usually successfully at regional and national barista competitions.

Of course all this talent raises the specter of the somewhat beguiling Slow Food principle of food and farmers first. I ran into this repeatedly as I asked each barista about the coffee I was being served. I wanted to know who roasted it and where I might get some. Most re-directed my attention to the farmers and would answer my questions if pressed, but a couple were downright cagey and defensive about the source. This behavior wasn’t unique to the coffee booth, though, and seemed to be set of instructions to the lot. Several bakers combined their effort to produce a single “restaurant-free” pizza, and while the ice cream was identified by creamery, there was enough of a combined effort and co-mingling of the products to minimize the attention one could give to any one artisan. The end result was a focus on the farmer and the food and not the people bringing it to the table.

While I am sympathetic with playing up the role of the farmer and playing down the people bringing it to the table, I disagree with the notion that the artisan should remain completely transparent. It’s also clearly inconsistent with the starpower the organizers sought to employ in advertising this event – with big name celebrity chefs, authors and other foodies giving talks and lectures. It also simply doesn’t make sense given that the names of these products are all listed on the Slow Food website. I may be blowing this out of proportion, but I think it’s important that organizers in future events don’t ignore the artisans in the process. After all, if people don’t know who produces the food (or coffee) they consume or where to get the good stuff they taste at the pavilion, the farmers aren’t going to benefit.

Rants aside, the curators of the coffee booth deserve real credit for pulling together such a diverse array of taste and talent. It offered amazing opportunities to taste coffee, and an unparalleled opportunity for a consumer (and reviewer) to engage with people in coffee. Assuming there is a Slow Food Nation 2009, you’ll probably find me there (armed with a better food snatching strategy).

Coffee Notes from Slow Food Nation 2008

Espresso

  • The Panama Carmen Estate (Stumptown Roasters) was a distinctly two-toned espresso. It hit me hard up front with strong, bright lemony notes. The darker, richer, sweeter notes snuck in after and carried the coffee through to the finish.
  • The Finca El Injerto (the bourbon, I believe) from Guatemala (Stumptown Roasters). This espresso was distinctly nutty, and not nearly as bright as the Carmen Estate. It was just a little spicy and had a medium to full body and slightly syrupy mouthfeel. I also detected some blackberry and mint.
  • The Brazil Fazenda Cachoeira (Ecco Caffe), which I’ve tasted before with somewhat different results, almost reminded me more of a strong black tea than espresso. It had a tea-like body and fairly mild and delicate flavors with only a hint of something sweet. The acidity was more lime-like than lemon.
  • I can’t seem to keep the Guatemala Finca Vista Hermosa microlots straight. I think this was the Edlyna (Barefoot). Either way, it was a bright, yet smoky, medium bodied espresso with lots of herbal notes. It had a very pronounced tobacco aftertaste and a pleasant sweetness riding through it.
  • My favorite was the Finca El Guayabo, Huila, Colombia (Ritual Roasters). It was a very light espresso, filled with sweet, juicy fruit, especially (white) peaches. It lacked any of the customary dark tones of espresso yet had a nice full body and mouthfeel.

Brewed Coffee

  • Assuming I have the microlot right, this was the Guatemala Finca Hermosa El Eden (Barefoot Roasters) that I’ve tasted before. This coffee, however, was surprisingly simple and far less complicated than I remember. It was just a little sweet with very nice tea-like body. A good first of the morning cup.
  • The second in my flight was the El Salvador Finca Mauritania (Counter Culture Coffee). It’s unusual because the bean is aged on the plant. It was a very fruity coffee with lots of dried and fresh fresh fruit like currants and blue berries. It had a fairly viscous mouthfeel.
  • Last was an Ethiopia Sidamo (This may be the Koratie from Stumptown). It was intensely floral – verbena I think. It resembled the light, not too dry qualities of a sauvignon blanc and was a very clean cup. I thought it was distinct and very appealing, but I could also see why some might find its floral complexities off-putting.

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