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    Entries in education (5)


    Third Wave Coffee Tours: a great introduction to Portland coffee

    When you visit somewhere new for the first time, one of the best ways to get a feel for your new surroundings is to find a local guide. Whether you are looking for museums,  restaurants, or other attractions that don’t always make it into the guidebooks (or to the top of the Google search rankings), a good guide can make your experience much better.

    The same holds true if you are looking for good coffee. Portland’s reputation for coffee is well-known around the world, yet it can still be a challenge for tourists (or even locals) to choose where to go when they want to explore the city’s coffee scene (granted, one of the challenges is that there are so many options). A new company, Third Wave Coffee Tours, owned and operated by Lora Woodruff, is making it more convenient to find good coffee, whether you are making your first trip to Portland or have lived here all your life.

    Lora Woodruff, Third Wave Coffee Tours owner and tour guide

    I first heard about Third Wave Coffee Tours when I saw one of the company’s flyers on the coffee bar at Spella Caffè. Curious, I reached out to Woodruff for an interview, and she invited me to join her on one of the several tours she operates each week. Tuesday was the best day of the week for me to join her, which meant we would be exploring The Pearl District and Northwest Portland.

    Click to read more ...


    Coffee school – Two days at ABCS

    Many coffee people have told me that being a barista is difficult. Whenever they say that, I am always skeptical. How hard could it be?

    To find out, I took a two-day barista course at the American Barista and Coffee School last week. The class, led by ABCS’s Tom Pikaart and Sara Ziniewicz, was designed to give students a hands-on introduction to pulling espresso shots, steaming milk, pouring latte art, and maintaining equipment. Eight students took the class, at ABCS’s headquarters on Water Avenue. Some of the students had their own cafés, and others worked for roasters, supporting wholesale accounts. Most had at least some prior coffee knowledge or training.

    In his opening remarks, Pikaart made it clear that the purpose of the course was not to perfect our technique. Rather, it was to teach us how to approach learning the craft of being a barista. No one can become an espresso expert in two days, he told us, but you can learn what you need to know to get started. If you have the right mindset, competence will follow. These were the five things he said we needed to focus on:

    • Cleanliness
    • Self-betterment (self-improvement)
    • Passion
    • Self-discipline
    • Consistency

    Dialing, pulling, steaming, pouring

    After an introduction to the principles and procedures of making espresso, we moved over to the machines and got to work. One of the coolest things about ABCS is the number of different grinders and espresso machines students can try during the class. Our group spread itself out between four different espresso machines, and there were an additional three or four more we did not use.

    The first activity was to dial in the grinders. To do this, we adjusted the distance between the grinder’s burrs, which changes the fineness of the grounds. Every day, as conditions in the café change (temperature, humidity, etc.), baristas must make small adjustments to the grind so the espresso tastes good. Knowing how to do this is a critical skill for a barista.

    Once we had the grinders where we wanted them, it was time to make some espresso. The first shot I pulled was comically slow, and, as I had to stop and think about each step in the process. As we pulled more and more shots, my technique became more fluid. I would like to think my espressos got better over time, too.

    After lunch, we moved on to milk. Steaming milk was less intimidating. Having steamed a lot of milk as a Starbucks barista, I had some idea of what to watch and listen for. It was fairly easy to adapt the techniques Tom and Sara told us about to what I already knew.

    Tom Pikaart teaching latte art theory

    Pouring latte art, on the other hand, was completely new. Latte art, a common sight in Portland cafés, does not necessarily make the drink better, but it does indicate how serious the baristas in a café take their craft. This is an example of what we were aiming for:

    A soft heart, poured by our instructor

    I found that pouring beautiful latte art is not easy, especially when you are starting out. (You can see a couple of my early tries below).

    Not going to win any competitions, but not bad for a beginner

    Getting better...

    Teaching others

    One of our exercises the second day was to teach a partner how to make a (caffè) latte. We had to write down (from memory) all the steps, then our partner was supposed to follow them exactly, no matter how many things we left out. I had thirty steps on my list, and I still forgot a couple. The lesson helped me understand why some café owners train their employees for a month before allowing them to make drinks for a customer. It takes time to make all these steps automatic.

    Another important takeaway from the class was how important cleanliness is to the quality of the products. Both Tom and Sara emphasized how important it is to clean the machine regularly and thoroughly. Roasted coffee is full of oils that can creep into the hidden nooks and crannies on grinders and espresso machines. These oils degrade as they contact the air, and produce some funky flavors and odors if left long enough. For practice, we pulled our espresso machine apart and cleaned all the parts that come into contact with the coffee.

    One thing that surprised me about the course was its emphasis on using our five senses to monitor the quality of our drinks. I had expected we would rely more on scales, stopwatches and thermometers, and while Pikaart advocated using these devices to check a barista’s consistency, he said we need to be able to use our senses. Measuring everything, every time, is too time-consuming to use in a café setting. and with practice and attention to detail, a barista can learn to be very accurate and consistent using just the five senses.

    Lesson learned

    After taking the class, I understand why people say being a barista is hard. With so many minute details that factor into making great drinks, you need to practice for a long time to become good. It takes time to master the skills of the craft.

    “Being a professional is an attitude. It is not a skill set,” Pikaart told us, as he closed out the class. We might not start out as experts, but we will get there if we keep learning.

    A good lesson not just for being a barista, but for life as well.



    Espresso quality control

    Here’s a demonstration of the variation in quality between cafés. Compare the two pictures below. In both cases, I ordered a double espresso.

    Small and flavorful Too big for an espresso

    As you can see, there is a significant difference in the size of the drink (the quarter in the picture gives you a sense of the how big each one was). The difference in quality was even greater.

    Click to read more ...


    A PDX Coffee Adventure-Part 2

    Sam and I left Public Domain and headed south for Pioneer Square. As we reached the square, a newsman from Channel 8 asked if we wanted to be on the news. I hesitated for a second and then thought sure, why not? It never hurts to get some practice time in front of the camera. The station was looking for “on the street” responses to President Obama’s compromise on the tax cuts. I shared my opinions and we moved on. It had already been a more interesting day than I had planned.

    We walked through downtown over to the riverfront area, crossing the Hawthorne Bridge and dropping down to Water Avenue (It would have been quicker to take the Morrison Bridge, but I only realized this after we reached the café). We arrived just as the rain started to fall. Inside, the barista warmly greeted us, and he described his espressos with ease. We ordered, and while we waited, I glanced around for the roaster that was supposed to be in the café. It was behind the wall just behind the front counter, but it was not in use at the time.

    Attention: fresh-roasted coffee nearby

    Sam and I sat down by the window and looked around. I took a couple of pictures and when I did, Matt Milletto, the owner, came over to talk to us. He was just making sure we weren’t up to anything sinister (I don’t blame him—we probably looked suspicious). Sam introduced himself as a co-worker to someone who Matt knew. Matt quickly recognized the name and offered us a tour if we could wait a couple minutes. Sure, we replied.

    Click to read more ...


    Cupping at Portland Roasting (No, it's not like spooning)

    Thursday morning I had the pleasure of visiting Portland Roasting Company (PRC) to take part in the company’s “Cupping for the People.” This is a free event that PRC puts on once a month to educate people about its coffee and roasting operations. I tried to go last month, but the class was already full, so I had to wait. The wait was worth it and I had another great day of coffee education.

    Nathanael May, PRC’s coffee educator and trainer, was our guide for the day. Only three of us were there to participate—apparently several people had cancelled. It was their loss, as we had a very interesting and tasty morning. The first thing we did was take a tour of the warehouse and roasting facility. PRC is located in the building of a former bulk popcorn producer (I didn’t know such companies existed, but then again, maybe they don’t, which could be why PRC has this space).

    Nathanael explained that the facility was a good fit because it included both food storage and production areas. As we passed through the warehouse, we could see that here were hundreds of boxes of Muin syrups on the shelf (PRC is the nationwide distributor for the syrup maker). At the back of the warehouse, there were large jute sacks of coffee piled high, each bearing the name of a country or growing region. Coffees from Asia, Central and South America and Africa were all present .

    In addition to the regular coffees, there was also a small section of coffee that was labeled “Swiss Water”. Contrary to what you might think, Swiss Water is not some exotic coffee from northern Europe. Rather, it is the name of the method that Portland Roasting uses to decaffeinate its coffee.

    Click to read more ...