My Coffee History, part 3: Advocate

“How did you get into coffee?”

I think that is one of the most common questions heard by coffee lovers, whether from those in the industry or the general public trying to figure out what this is all about. Today marks the final entry in my personal coffee history, the most recent part of my journey that spans only the past several months. If you haven’t read parts 1 and 2, definitely scroll back a few posts and follow my slow transition from Consumer to Enthusiast and finally to Advocate.

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My Coffee History, part 3: The Advocate

As I sat down to write this story over the last few days, it was amazing to realize the bulk of my coffee experience happened just this year. For a journey that began nearly 15 years ago, to have such a total transformation in the last 9 months is really awesome. When we left off yesterday, I had recently returned from Denver, bags of coffee in tow, and was focused on building a better coffee experience at home. I was buying fresh beans, grinding according to my brew method, and trying to get better results on our home espresso machine.

But the true catalyst for this year happened around December, when I decided to subscribe to Barista Magazine so that I could learn more about the specialty coffee world. I cannot remember how I learned of Barista Mag. It was one of a few trade magazines that I jotted down in a note sometime in late 2013. Perhaps it was referenced in the book I read around that time, God in a Cup: The Obsessive Quest for the Perfect Coffee, but if not, I have no idea where I got that list. I’m glad I wrote it down, though, because reading Barista Magazine changed my life.

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Well, that’s a bit dramatic, but  it’s pretty close to the truth. I had no idea what to expect, but I dove into the magazine head first, eating up the articles on star baristas and competitions. I sank into field reports from both producing and consuming countries, and drooled over coffee gear old and new. Most of all, I learned. I learned that being a barista is a lot more than just standing behind the counter making drinks, that specialty coffee is as much about the farmer behind the beans than the drink in my cup, and soon enough, I learned there was a major coffee convention happening in March in New York City.

That’s right, I’m talking about Coffee Fest. I already detailed my experience at Coffee Fest NYC in a 2-part series (The Convention Experience and What I Learned) but did I mention I found out about New York thanks to an ad in Barista Mag? It was a little side bar in one of the first issues I received, and I probably glanced over it a dozen times before reading the dates and realizing “I could do this!” Jamie was pregnant at the time, but not so far along that we couldn’t travel up the east coast, so pretty soon I was online, registering for the convention and booking classes.

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I won’t repeat all the details of that experience (especially since my original posts in this blog are only a couple weeks back), but I cannot overstate the effect Coffee Fest had on me. Not only did I return home with experience dialing in espresso and cupping, I was pumped and eager to keep learning. I added Roast Magazine to my reading list and finally got around to trying the Behmor home roaster I had picked up in December. I ordered a new steam pitcher to replace the poorly performing, thin-gauge model that came included with our machine, and added a thermometer to pay attention to detail. I improved my pour-over setup with a set of professional tools, replacing the big-box-store variety of pour over cone I previously tried (which didn’t work all that well, honestly).

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And of course, I brought home coffee from New York, and practiced pour-over coffee as often as I practiced espresso. The Hario V60 became my morning routine, and I fell in love with gooseneck kettles.

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Oh yeah, I also upgraded our grinder. I was not getting fine enough grounds with the Breville, leading to consistently under extracted shots, and I set out to sell our old desktop computer (no longer in use) so that I could buy something better. Timing is everything, and when I found out one of Jamie’s friends had a Mazzer Mini Espresso Grinder he no longer used, I offered a trade. Suddenly I was pulling delicious shots, finally able to get the grind dialed in, and now I was burning through espresso beans faster than ever before.

Fortunately, I had a new source for fresh roasted coffee, again thanks to Barista Magazine. When I started following their blog, I caught a mention of Levi Andersen’s podcast, the Audio Cafe. I started listening in the car, enjoying the interviews with industry leaders and innovators, and learning a lot about business as well (coffee business, of course, but concepts that could be applied anywhere). Through Levi’s podcast, I learned about eKoffee.com, which I’ve mentioned a few times in this space, and my very first order from them was 3 bags of espresso beans, one each from three different roasters.

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With a steady supply of beans, my practice continued to grow. I expanded our coffee bar further with more options, such as Chemex and Aeropress, learning the different character each method brought out from any particular coffee. I practiced making lattes for Jamie, trying different size mugs, trying to get to a true flat white. I attempted latte art, slowly getting better, but never consistent enough to say I was practicing. Still, I had a few good pours over the past several months, and it kept me excited.

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The rest of the story is recent history, so recent that I would just be repeating past highlights of this blog! I hope you’ve enjoyed this glimpse into my coffee history, and I look forward to sharing the rest of my journey with you as it happens.

My Coffee History, part 2: Enthusiast

“How did you get into coffee?”

I think that is one of the most common questions heard by coffee lovers, whether from those in the industry or the general public trying to figure out what this is all about. Yesterday I shared part 1 of my journey into the world of coffee, and today continues with my “coffee renaissance”. If you didn’t catch yesterday’s story, I suggest starting there before you continue. Enjoy!

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My Coffee History, part 1: The Enthusiast

So there we were, May 2010, wandering Seattle by bike and by foot, looking for new experiences beyond the Space Needle and Pike Place. I made it my goal to visit lots of different coffee shops; I was in Seattle, after all, the most well-known hub of modern coffee culture. I wanted to see what my new favorite city had to offer, or at least find out who had the best mocha. I remember an exchange between my wife, Jamie, and the clerk at a bookstore one afternoon:

Jamie: “Can you recommend a local coffee shop around here?”

Clerk: “There’s a Starbucks around the corner, and I think there is a Seattle’s Best on the next block.”

Jamie: “No, we want a local coffee shop.”

Me: “Honey, those are technically local here.”

But you know what she meant. We wanted local, independent shops, something we couldn’t get back home. Fortunately I had recently discovered Yelp, and Seattle was overflowing with Yelp reviews for everything you could imagine. It didn’t take long to find several places to try, and our initial stop was Victrola Coffee Roasters, where I got my first mocha of the trip.

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My experience at Victrola introduced me to a different type of barista than I had previously encountered. I found baristas who loved coffee, loved talking about coffee and sharing their passion, loved recommending drinks to customers, and I started to see the potential of coffee as a way to connect people. We tried at least one new shop every day, everything from a drive-thru espresso cart just off the bike trail, to a converted garage with seating built up above the service bar. I ordered a mocha, as well as whatever the barista recommended at shops such as Lucca Espresso, Java Jahn, Uptown Espresso, just to name a few.

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Then came that fateful day, halfway through the trip, when we walked into Espresso Vivace’s Alley 24 location. I had read Yelp reviews raving about this place, and it was no more than a 5 minute walk from our hotel, so I walked in and ordered the drink I had read about: white velvet. Jamie asked about some of the other specialty beverages, though I can’t remember which one she tried first, as we wound up going back at least once every day for the remainder of our vacation.

Espresso Vivace, Seattle, Washington

I’ll be honest, the white velvet is a sweet latte, though I did try non-flavored lattes on future visits. The flavor of their espresso stood out, but most of all this was my first time seeing latte art, and it blew me away. I had no idea espresso and steamed milk could do such a thing, and the photos on the wall of some of their baristas’ best pours were just amazing. As shallow as it sounds, I started looking for latte art in Yelp reviews when traveling, using it as a way to find quality espresso drinks.

While latte art skills in no way guarantee a good cup of coffee, it led me to seek out specialty coffee shops everywhere I went. Generally, if there was a barista practicing latte art, there was going to be somebody excited about coffee and eager to talk. Over the next couple years, I would discover shops around Florida such as The Library Coffeehouse in Tampa and Axum Coffee in Winter Garden. Axum introduced me to manually brewed pour-over coffee, and suddenly I was tasting coffee on its own merits, instead of only sipping espresso hidden within an elaborate beverage.

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I started getting brewed coffee at Mitchell’s Coffeehouse here in Lakeland, tasting the difference between their regional blends, finding that I liked Mexico and Kenya, but did not care for Tanzanian Peaberry in the least.  I got my first pour-over cone for the house, experimented with our Italian moka pot, finally jumped into the deep end with a home espresso machine and burr grinder. My coffee travels shifted from seeking out mochas to finding local roasters so that I could bring home bags of fresh beans.

This culminated in a business trip to Denver, where I was able to check out Novo Coffee, a roaster I had seen mentioned in God in a Cup. I walked every morning to Novo’s downtown cafe, chatted with the baristas before the morning rush, and tried everything from a traditional cappuccino, to single-origin V60, to a most delicious cortado. Listening to the baristas talk about industry news, and learning about the beautiful Slayer espresso machine they use, I became more of a coffee nerd than ever before.

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Before leaving Denver, I snuck away one afternoon and walked to Novo’s roasterie, where I enjoyed an impromptu tour thanks to the nice girl working the office that day. I had read about their public cuppings, but didn’t notice it was only on Fridays, but she was awesome and offered to show me around even though all was quiet on the floor that day. I got a great firsthand look at a coffee roasting operation, from the pallets of green coffee to the cupping room and coffee bar where they sample everything. (Sadly I neglected to take any photos, I was having too much fun learning!)

I came back from Denver with several bags of coffee, energized to learn more about specialty coffee and brew better coffee at home. I still enjoyed a good mocha, but was more apt to order a cortado or cappuccino on my first visit to a new shop. This was August of 2013, a good two and a half years since that eye-opening experience in Seattle, and now I wasn’t just on the road to good coffee, I was running to get there as fast as possible! Our home coffee bar was in its infancy, but a subscription to Barista Magazine was about to kick my passion up to high…

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Check back tomorrow for the third and final installment of My Coffee History: The Advocate!

My Coffee History, part 1: Consumer

“How did you get into coffee?”

I think that is one of the most common questions heard by coffee lovers, whether from those in the industry or the general public trying to figure out what this is all about. When asked, I rarely have time to go into detail, at least to the level I’d like to share, so thank goodness I have this blog! What follows is a three part series on my journey into coffee. Enjoy!

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My Coffee History, part 1: The Consumer

The first part of my introduction to coffee is the longest, at least thus far. It spans nearly 10 years of my young life, and consists of more mochas than I could count. I grew up in central Florida in the 80’s and 90’s, not a major center of coffee culture during that time, and my introduction to coffee came from my dad, one late night in high school. Having failed to prepare a major assignment, he dragged me out to the office and proceeded to teach me about “pulling an all-nighter”, which began with brewing a pot of coffee.

Ugh, it was nasty! Commodity grade, pre-ground and bagged office-coffee-service brew, the sort of pot where the fumes alone would wake you up. He doctored it up with a healthy dose of sugar and creamer just so I could choke it down. One thing was for sure, that first cup didn’t make me a coffee lover! If anything, it confirmed my youthful, 90’s opinion that coffee was weird and soda was the best source of caffeine available.

Then I grew up, went to college, quickly left college to spend a year in Norway, grew up some more, and was introduced to coffee with Bailey’s Irish Cream by a friend from Dublin during a kitchen-party late in my year abroad. Probably my first coffee since that agonizing night at the office, and my first alcohol on top of that, is it any wonder I was hyper all night? Fortunately this first experience was followed by a more subdued french press, and I found that coffee had its own flavor, it’s own place alongside tea as a hot beverage to be shared between friends.

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Bergen, Norway, my home for a year in 1999-2000

I returned from Norway a different person, and once a good friend introduced me to our local coffeehouse, Mitchell’s, I started to slowly drift into modern coffee culture. Still chasing my dreams with music, I played guitar and sang in Mitchell’s and another shop in Tampa, hanging out for open mic night, swimming in the coffeehouse culture that was popping up all over at the turn of the century. I tested the waters with regular coffee, drank some bitter espresso under the mistaken assumption that it was loaded with caffeine, eventually tried a mocha, chocolate lover that I was.

The next 10 years are a blur. A lot happened in my personal life that had little to do with coffee. I got away from music, got into anime, started working full time, moved to Houston, went back to school, met the woman I would eventually marry, moved back home, finally start to get settled in my hometown. Coffee was always there in some form. Heck, this was the age of Starbucks, and I had 6 different Starbucks locations less than a mile from my apartment in Houston, so coffee was everywhere!

I blended into the coffee shop crowd, lugging my laptop and headphones, ordering my usual mocha because I didn’t like coffee quite as much as I liked milk and chocolate. Sure, I bought a coffee pot for the apartment, enjoyed that familiar sound of an auto-drip dispensing hot water, but I knew nothing of specialty coffee. Coffee wasn’t a beverage so much as a culture, and I was still years from realizing its true potential.

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Fortunately, those mochas had me hooked, and I started looking for good coffee when traveling. My first visit to Seattle in 2006, toward the end of my time in school, led me to Seattle’s Best, a brand I was aware of but one you didn’t see often in Florida back then. It may be just another big chain, but to me it was “something other than Starbucks”, something new to check out. Oh yeah, I ordered a mocha, and it even came decorated with a stick of chocolate that I could use to stir the drink. I thought it was the coolest mocha ever.

I fell in love with Seattle just as I fell in love with Norway. It became my “happy place”, a beautiful and diverse city I could traverse on foot, and living at the time in Houston, I had never been happier not to be in a car. The next year I would get married, move back to Florida, and within a few years return to Seattle for a true vacation with my wife. It was May of 2010, I was yelping my way around the city, looking to try as many local coffee shops as possible, and my world was about to change…

Espresso Vivace, Seattle, Washington

Check back tomorrow for part 2 of My Coffee History: The Enthusiast!