Following a successful MWRBC, I made a last minute decision to continue the coffee party and head to Seattle for the weekend. Seeing an opportunity to share some coffee with industry professionals up there, I brought with me a bag containing some of my favorite coffees from PT’s, including Panama Elida Estate Natural, Las Mercedes El Pepinal 1, Beloya Selection #8, and our signature espresso blend, La Bella Vita, amongst others. I worked with my good friend Alex Negranza to organize a last minute candlelight cupping at Trabant in Pioneer Square.
Upon stepping off my plane, however, I was first headed to Slayer Espresso for an informal cupping and experimental exploration of what a variable pressure espresso machine could do for coffee. I’d visited Slayer back in July, about a week before the first machine was shipped off to Melbourne, Australia. Unfortunately the “display” machine was not up and running at the time, so I could only gaze at the beautiful wooden paddles and stainless steel X’s longingly. Eric Perkunder (one of three masterminds behind Slayer) did, however, spend at least two hours excitedly explaining the machine to me. Not as a salesman, mind you – Eric is far too down to earth, not to mention he knows how much baristas make – but as an inventive coffee geek sharing discoveries with another coffee geek.
Even now, Eric will tell you he still doesn’t have a 100% understanding of the machine’s possibilities. Slayer simply created a machine designed with the barista in mind in every way possible, from variable pressure to unlimited dry steam to individualized group head temperature control to a little stainless steel mirror that lets the barista watch their shots from any angle (brilliant). From there, they’re right there with the rest of us trying to understand what this tidal wave of possibility truly means for coffee.
This weekend I was fortunate enough to get a glimpse of what that possibility might entail. An impressive crew had convened for a day of exploration. I had the pleasure of meeting Sam Lewontin, barista trainer for Equal Exchange, and Nathan Slabaugh, whose wild journey includes his work as a musician in the circus, a motorcycle trek from Florida to Alaska, and of course, coffee. Nathan’s story can’t possibly be relayed in a few sentences, so be sure to check out his blog at www.thecalloftheroad.com. Later on we were joined by seasoned competitor barista and fellow Midwesterner Robbie Britt, of Zoka. Nic and Glenn of Black Mountains Coffee Co. in the UK had already been around caffeinating themselves with Seattle for at least a day. I also had the opportunity to meet another of Slayer’s masterminds, Jason Prefontaine, with whom I spent hours discussing the inner workings and design of the machine. We really had our own little coffee convention right there in Georgetown, Seattle.
Out of my bag we initially pulled out PT’s espresso blend, La Bella Vita. On a standard espresso machine, La Bella Vita is beautifully balanced with a deep red fruit sweetness, dark chocolate body, and peppery spice finish. Slayer didn’t necessarily change this – it amplified it. All those notes we at PT’s have become custom to expecting in La Bella Vita suddenly exploded in technicolor on my palate. In what I’d find to be a theme with anything we pulled with Slayer, the most notable aspect was a remarkable clarity of flavor, not to mention an effortlessly full body. Even more interesting was the potential of control through pressure profiling. I won’t be claim to be well versed in the techniques to approaching Slayer, but through various pressure profiling parameters, we were able to highlight different aspects of La Bella Vita’s flavor profile. With a soft pre-infusion of 3.5 bars of pressure to the standard 9 bars for most of the extraction, we might get the aforementioned red fruit and chocolate. A slight change in pressure profiling and that red fruit became citrus while the chocolate became caramel – still balanced, still full bodied, and still our trademark La Bella Vita, just with small shifts of controlled focus. It was fascinating.
Next, Eric wanted to throw our Sumatra Harimau Tiger in the Anfim’s hopper – eliciting a chuckle from myself. Sumatran coffee is excellent as brew and provides much of the body and spice in La Bella Vita – but I’ve joked on numerous occasions about using it as a single origin espresso. The one time I attempted this I was met with an overwhelmingly earthy and not-so-pleasant savory characteristic. There was no sweetness and it was unbalanced no matter how long I spent trying to dial it in otherwise. Eric, however, gave me a knowing smile and pulled a shot anyways. I wasn’t even sure I wanted to try it, but closed my eyes and threw it back nonetheless… and was absolutely stunned. The same shot that previously contained notes of dirt and black pepper was now a beautifully sweet and round espresso, full of body and shockingly balanced with notes akin to a fresh red bell pepper. I still can’t explain how this happened, but I suddenly understood Eric’s infatuation with Indonesian coffees.
Bewildered as I already was, Slayer had more tricks up its sleeve for me. I’d heard whispers that Slayer could “brew” a cup of coffee similar to a French press. My introduction to this “pseudo-French press” technique was with the same Sumatran coffee. I watched in amazement as Eric dosed a naked portafilter with 7.6 grams of coffee, pulled it for a little over a minute at 3.5 bars of pressure, into a 6 oz ceramic cup. There was no tamping and no crema. We passed it around to appreciate the aromatics until I took a sip – and I can now say the best cup of Sumatran coffee I’ve ever had was brewed with an espresso machine. To say it was comparable to a French pressed cup might be an understatement, since I felt it was better. I apologize if this is blasphemy, but once again Slayer pulled a beautiful sweetness and clarity that I’ve never experienced in a Sumatran before.
The same routine was repeated with several other coffees, including our Panama Elida Estate Natural, which reminded me more of a chemex-brewed coffee and astounded us with it’s floral aromatics and bright acidity. Eventually it was late in the evening and we were far too caffeinated to think straight, much less drink more.
I said goodbye and caught a bus to Capitol Hill for the night, where my good friend Alex Negranza lives. Alex is a certified USBC judge and currently works the bar at both Trabant and Tougo Coffee amongst a slew of other coffee-related activites. Though my eyes could barely open following an intense caffeine crash, Alex convinced me to join him for a ‘night capp’ from Victrola Coffee on 15th. I’d mention if it was good or not, but by that point in the night, my palate was shot – the day was over.
A miniature coffee crawl commenced following a failed attempt to wake up early. First on our list was Victrola, where we ordered Ethiopia Harrar single origin espresso. Perhaps there was a bad extraction or the flavor profile simply didn’t agree with me – I’ve had a number of fantastic espressos from Victrola – but this particular cup was salty, even reminiscent of salted pork (No, I’m not kidding). Kind of a startling flavor for a vegetarian! It wasn’t terrible, just very odd and not particularly enjoyable.
Next stop was Cortona Café in the Central District, for whom Alex has been working as a consultant. The atmosphere was minimalist but warm, nestled in the midst of a quiet neighborhood. It was their opening day, so I will admit my expectations were rather low when I asked barista-on-duty Whitney for a shot of espresso. My first reaction when she handed me the demi: “Oh my god, that’s beautiful!” My second reaction, upon first sip: “What is this?! You just served me a better shot than Victrola, on your opening day!”
Turns out the coffee being used was Herkimer, which I’d honestly never heard of before. According to Alex the espresso was a seven-bean blend, which sounds like a horrible idea initially, but apparently works in such a way that when one note isn’t hit, another is brought into focus. Probably not the most predictable espresso, but it was indeed consistently sweet and balanced.
After a quick stop at nearby Tougo Coffee (we didn’t get anything), we were onward to Stumptown on 12th in Capitol Hill for a quick macchiato. I was impressed, not only by the drink but by the shiny La Marzocco Mistral on the bar. I’ve never used one of these, so I can’t attest to much beyond its looks, but boy is it shiny!
The candlelight cupping at Trabant was a lovely event. We brought together a number of roaster’s offerings beyond PT’s. 49th Parallel, Stumptown, and Ritual graced the tables as well. So as not to encourage any subconscious discrimination, we kept the tasting blind. We weren’t interested in pitting them against each other – simply noting the differences. That said, I got a kick out of one barista’s comment on two particular cups, “Those are too clean to be anything I’m familiar with.” Those cups turned out to be PT’s Panama Elida Estate and Beloya Selection #8.
Though the dimly candle-lit tables provided a romantic setting (not to mention my firm belief that constricting certain senses can heighten others), I admit we were a little over-zealous in the number of coffees on the table! At times it was hard for us to keep track of what flavor profiles we noted in what cups. I must also note that we were careful to use scentless candles – a must for anyone wishing to conduct their own candlelight cupping.
After clean up and a quick cab ride Alex and I were back at Cortona Café for their opening party. I had the pleasure of meeting owner Will Little, whom I believe will invariably succeed in his efforts to provide a solid community center in the neighborhood. Clearly word was well spread, as the place was packed. I was somehow roped into working the bar (OK, I admit, the possibility was passively mentioned and I eagerly jumped on it) alongside Cortona barista Joe, who pulled lovely shots while I steamed milk for most of the evening.
Finally the crowd left, the bar was cleaned and the lights were shut off. I’ve experienced a lot of caffeine crashes since becoming a barista, but this one made them all pale in comparison. Time to pass out!
Alex was off to Portland to serve as a guest barista at a coffee fair well before the sun was up, and my flight wasn’t much later. Before heading to the airport though, I realized I still had some coffee leftover from the weekend – it wouldn’t be fresh enough for formal cupping if I kept it for later, so what to do? I called Eric from Slayer to see if he’d be interested in using it down there. He met me at Victrola on Pike about a half hour later for cappuccinos and lovely non-coffee related conversation (is it odd that that’s odd nowadays?). I gave him the coffee and Eric, easily one of the nicest people I’ve come across in coffee, offered me a ride to the airport – even gave me some reading for the flight! The Devil’s Cup: A History of The World According to Coffee – I’ve only begun it but I can already recommend highly, even to the non-coffee snobs among us. It’s remarkable to realize just how much coffee has not only been present throughout history, but the degree to which it has frequently influenced history itself. Thank you Eric!
It’s been quite a weekend, and I look forward to many more like it. All of it might seem a bit silly and over-the-top to some, but I have to nod to a PT’s motto and agree, “Without the love, it’s just coffee”. Back to Kansas!