carry-on limits, met.

February 1, 2012 – 11:38 pm

is this the world’s most compact quality coffee travel kit? this blog is positing the idea here, publicly, with full assurance that someone will come along to prove us wrong.

the mini iron, of course, is so that the vest will be PERFECTLY PRESSED WHILE POURING.

- porlex mini.
- kantan drippers.
- 4-inch, SK-2KG scale.
- coffee (not pictured)

the end.

that tamper thing i wrote a long time ago; yes

December 20, 2011 – 9:09 pm

this blog parted with its espressocraft tamper for a weekend. which, yeah. brings up all those weepy, effusive things we wrote about it lo these five-odd years ago. especially this:

it would appear to this marveler that what espressocraft does is flout an assumption, generally held amongst tamper designers, that you want to relay the pressure of the barista down a uniform cylinder, then distribute that weight outward, in a downward slope, so that it is flatly and evenly applied to the surface of the coffee bed. instead, our marvel does the opposite — collecting the barista’s pressure into a narrow center through a severely tapered handle. a slight dip in the top of the tamper base allows the fingers to slip in — not out — further centralizing the pressure, which is tranferred to the middle of a curved tamper surface, pushing through the center of the espresso bed first and splaying the pressure outward as it moves down. middle-and-out, instead of flat and uniform.

clearly, i don’t know what i’m talking about.

obviously, ardent followings have since sprung up around other, more craftsmanlike tamper makers. and they sure look pretty! but i don’t really get it. beefy, flat-bottomed tampers that transfer force through a cylinder don’t seem to do the same thing, physically speaking, at all.

CI auditions for in-flight barista

November 21, 2011 – 8:49 am

flight back from london and monaco: ask the flight attendant for hot water, stealthily squeeze the porlex from the carry-on and start grinding a little stash of square mile coffee.

in truth, a pack of kantan drippers was the only way we stayed sane in england. turns out, these tea-loving peoples stock an electric kettle in every hotel room. #perfect.

but the plane, this was another matter. for one thing, terrorism precautions mean that boiling water is prohibited. more terrorist precautions mean you’re likely to get snagged at the security scanner for the sleek, metal, tubular device in your bag (this happened). and there’s the good chance that the mere act of loudly hand cranking a grinder full of crunch while trying desperately to appear nonchalant will also invoke terrorism precautions.

ultimately, hottish water was procured. the flight attendant was intrigued. the cabin filled with aromatic waft. and before long, this blog was serving costa rica naranjo to the flight crew while they poured the standard swill for other passengers.

it’s doubtful anyone was fooled. but this blog had to draw the line somewhere. that would have been a lot of kantan drippers.

more obvious places where good coffee should be

November 16, 2011 – 11:47 pm

monaco: crazy place! more ferraris than fords, more obviously forced royal wedding photos that any public should be required to see. and such a fine (nonexistent?) line between “personal yacht” and “cruise ship.”

and yet, it’s kind of amazing that for all the fine food, captive populace, french sensibilities and disposable income sloshing around in the place, there is NO FINE COFFEE.

right, yes. an old theme from this blog. and in paris, it would appear, a deplorable condition is finally changing.

still, you ponder the american hinterlands, and you nonetheless have fine establishments in places like nashville and charleston. you ponder france (and the little .75-square-mile country nestled in it) and you have a higher standard of food, a more deeply rooted history with espresso, a huge population of tourists, all the usual complements (chocolate, pastry) and MONEY to be spent … but still nothing. in monaco itself, people are literally walking around just browsing the new mclarens.

it’s like it hasn’t occurred to anyone. but this can’t possibly be true. at this point, such a market is so obvious you kind of wonder what the secret impediment is. and don’t offer “tradition” or “haughtiness,” things that play into french stereotypes but that don’t remotely hold up to rigorous examination.

perhaps there’s no one really pushing anything in france yet — a supreme irony if ever there was one. and perhaps, for all the internationalism of the fine coffee movement, it’s really not that international-minded, as far as business goes. or maybe it’ll take stumptown to make a leap this big.

nothing but a couple new and teensy places in paris. and just think, in monaco you could serve espresso on the beach to formula one drivers and their yacht parkers. such a thing!

yacht size relativity, illustrated.

coffee –> questions –> words

September 20, 2011 – 9:22 pm

counter culture’s ben helfen demonstrates the thing with the stuff, while coffee and crema‘s shannon hudgens slings siphon. this blog is skulking somewhere to the left.

it turns out no one asked for just a cup of coffee. and out of many dozens of people (hundreds?) maybe four required sugar.

perhaps it was because this was a paying VIP crowd of handmade art patrons naturally prone to all things “craft.” but a real stunner for me was how engaged with new modes of coffee the indie craft parade crowds naturally were.

there was a bar of glass and salvage wood, and a glass and metal array of brewing devices (counter culture’s ethiopia yirgacheffe idido brewed on the bonmac pourover station, their kenya nyeri thiriku on a 5-cup siphon brewer, and a chemex/kone setup featuring gautemala la armonia hermosa roasted by me). basically an unmissable berry-forward option, an intense citrus experience and a complex, maple syrupy coffee.

helfen’s theory, and it’s a good one, is that serving in glass made all the difference when it comes to steering people out of the cream-and-sugar-adding reflex. he carted hundreds of the vessels up from atlanta, a decision that was transformational, in retrospect. also key: closeness. i had wished for a higher brew bar, but in reality the ability to lean over it like a table, plus a very narrow work space, made for a constant swirl of activity and an ability for drinkers to sort of get into the sensoryness, sans intimidation.

there was sugar and cream on hand — if someone asked for it. almost no one did. there was craft beer on tap right next to us, but plenty of folks still opted for the hot stuff. poor shannon became a highly repetitive lecturer on the forces driving siphon brew. and in the end, a buzzing thrum of people (we weren’t panicked, but also far from bored) made for an ideal context in which to open the senses.

as for this blog’s previous and fairly overtorqued questions of how much to SAY, it was suddenly clear to me how much enlightening contextual information should just happen, if you’re doing it right.

working theory: when it comes to customers, coffee words should essentially answer a person’s natural questions. his questions will arise from something compelling that he detects about your coffee. and if he has no questions, then your coffee is probably lacking in some regard and your attempts to enlighten him via words will often (but not always) be useless.

thus posits CI, upon consuming prodigious amounts of the leftovers and devoting itself to still more pernicious quantities of thought. *close tab*

p.s. having done many event-based espresso bars, it’s fairly astonishing how different in tone, pace and conversation a manual brew bar can be. that is all.

CI sometimes doesn’t know what to say to people about coffee

September 7, 2011 – 9:58 pm

a bartop is conceived.

you don’t get very far in the previous thoughtstream on how we serve our coffee without coming to that vexing question of what you should, you know, say to people about it — and what you shouldn’t.

the newly incorporated Handsome Coffee guys seem to be making a point in media interviews of saying that they serve fine coffees without the lecture — unless you ask for it. this seems an admirable attempt at business with normal people in mind. but then, the previous post is an attempt by this blog to wrestle with the idea that knowledge about your beverage increases one’s satisfaction of it. it’s the route to pleasure.

so how much do we tell people? this blog’s first-ever public brew bar this weekend will be (partly) an experiment into this question.

we were arranging a wedding espresso gig with a woman who happened to also be the organizer of the indie craft parade — a juried expo of head-turning handmade art and goods that began last year at a true grassroots level, then met immediate and extraordinary success (the lines were insane). it made sense to suggest a “craft” coffee bar that showcased manual brew methods (no espresso) and stellar coffees. an ad hoc sponsorship was born.

we dragged coffee and crema into it. then the notorious ben helfen. the sum is that we plan to brew three coffees — two from counter culture, one roasted in this blog’s laundry room — via syphon, one-hole bonmac and kone-filtered chemex. three types of filtration. three very different baristas. three radically different visual cues that this is unusually good coffee.

one of the most personal and “handmade” aspects of the bar is la armonia hermosa, the guatemalan coffee some friends in cincinnati have helped develop in a nurturing relationship that invigorates a struggling village. six years in, it’s quite good and this blog has roasted a limited run of 10 pounds of the stuff.

still, i end up wondering: is this enough? will the mode of dress and carefully managed visuals, with eye-catching glass vessels and unmissable sensory inputs, be enough to tell friday’s VIP crowd a meaningful story? or, at some point, do you have to say things with words?

there are derivative questions: what about the predictable skepticism toward a bar without cream and sugar? will we serve much of anything on a friday night with a craft beer table adjacent?

we’ll report back on the experience. tellingly, this question doesn’t get any easier in this blog’s own house, no matter how many people walk up to the home bar for the first time and ask what it is that emanates from the devices that sit there. it’s my house, for crying out loud. this blog can say what it wants. and yet, we always hesitate a bit in trying to decide how to broach the massive subject of what makes special coffee special.

in any case, the bartop has been assembled from antique doors and panes of glass. the techniques polished. the particulars debated. and so, with a breathtaking amount of aid from both shannon’s shop and ben’s spacious honda, we’ll give it a go.

the unpleasures of coffee

August 15, 2011 – 4:28 pm

so what if the culture of specialty coffee, with all its focus on quality and impulse for celebration, also carries a certain narrow way of thinking that ends up handicapping the cause in the long run?

obviously, this is where you click, “close tab.” back to teh twitterz! right, yes, but it’s a question i can’t really escape. the main impetus is wendell berry’s old, seminal essay on the pleasures of eating. and if there’s anything this blog does any more, it is to cookerize steaming heaps of shaky food-coffee analogies. so we’re thinking aloud here, perhaps blogging for ourselves.

the idea is that the fatal problem with modern eating is that it has ceased to be an agricultural act. foodies and locavores aside, eating is largely an isolated, anonymous act of personal consumption. why is this? well, berry’s notion is that the specialization of production leads to the specialization of consumption. in the same way that hollywood has come to specialize in a certain kind of mindlessly entertaining movie, people have come to specialize in a certain mindless kind of movie watching — and they no longer have to bother with entertaining themselves.

this makes for a passive, uncritical, dependent consumer who can be rather easily persuaded to want a certain thing (often via advertisement, NOT via an actual exercise of personal taste). we know the food industry does this — the eyes are the tastebuds now. but this is where this blog’s brain comes to a screeching halt and wonders, “does specialty coffee do this too?” we aspire, of course, to deliver an excellent product while getting consumers to recognize it. but there seems to be a sense in which SOME of the marketing and delivery says, “drink this coffee. IT IS REALLY GOOD, LIKE BLUEBERRIES.” but the consumer is still being told what to like, and he isn’t being connected to anything more valuable than a quirky transaction, or maybe a status symbol.

when the industrial food world succeeds in persuading you to eat its food, via absurd advertisements in which the edibles wear an astounding amount of make-up, you end up with an entire culture that glorifies a pig in a poke. this is an awesome old term, resurrected by berry, for when someone sells you something — it used to be a pig in a sack — that is very cheap, in part because you haven’t seen what’s in the sack. there used to be a radio program when i was a kid in which, in the space of a few minutes, people bought and sold things such as couches and car parts via the radio announcer, and the goods were exchanged sight unseen. the program was called “a pig in a poke.”

in general, this is a dubious way to buy things. if you want to get all ron paul about it, it isn’t freedom. berry nails it:

We still (sometimes) remember that we cannot be free if our minds and voices are controlled by someone else. But we have neglected to understand that we cannot be free if our food and its sources are controlled by someone else. The condition of the passive consumer of food is not a democratic condition. One reason to eat responsibly is to live free.

instead, most consumers have instead made a little deal with the food system, or even the movie system and the coffee system: give me a quick, cheap, adequate pleasure, and i will go away sated, oblivious to the work, value, adulteration or price adjustments that come to bear on this product. but this isn’t really a very good deal. the consumer is voluntarily exiling himself from reality, and for what? a cheap hit?

of course, specialty coffee has fought against much of this. industrial coffee had become a cheap con, a system of crappy commodity stimulants. the triple waveist squadrons try to restore value to the beverage, illuminating the farmer’s plight, focusing on taste and explaining fair pricing. but perhaps it’s worth underscoring what we’re up against — an entire culture that’s conditioned to prefer the sterile transaction, that doesn’t want to know too much.

and so here comes my second coffee question: how many cups do we sell that are purely commercial transactions? you can’t force a customer to care, and there’s a lot to be said for avoiding elitism and relentless gospel preaching on the espresso bar (this blog has said some of it). but if you resign yourself to a mindless exchange, isn’t that basically a surrender? it would seem that you’re succumbing to the narrow preference of exchanging money for goods (even superior goods) with minimal hassle.

but that anonymous, transactionalized system is why we have bad coffee in the first place! even worse, some coffee shops seem to be saying that because they know SO MUCH about coffee, a customer can’t possibly enter this rarified air, and so you’d better just pay up and shut up. it’s as if, by being specialized nerds about the production of our coffee, we’re asking people to be specialized consumers who focus only on that.

now that i think about it, this may explain why, in our regular coffee travels, we’ve seen a number of pretty good coffee shops interacting with customers in ways that feel downright weird or incongruous. perhaps now we have a better vocabulary for it.

to sum: i worry that we’re still telling people what to like (marketing over taste), that we’re selling them goods without contextual value (a pig in a poke) and that we keep agreeing to a bare commercial exchange that would actually seem to be at stark odds with efforts to make coffee great and valued. it’s not really a full pleasure.

this blog falls miserably short at providing answers to these questions. but it might muddy the waters with another blog post!

industrial coffee, a reflection

August 5, 2011 – 10:30 pm

highway coffee tankers: making fetco brewers seem like demis.

coffee and bikes and commensurate likes …

November 27, 2010 – 12:53 am

breaking speculative theory: coffee highs spawn hallucinogenic bicycle longings. for some reason.

make -> taste

November 20, 2010 – 1:24 am

there are epic things you do with a headful of intentions. and then there are escapades where the big idea emerges only in retrospect. and so, this piece of food thought kind of sums up last weekend after the fact. if we’d read this before all the insanity, we would have claimed it as our motive:

(T)he cheapness of calories (both in terms of price and time) has led us to dramatically boost consumption. Food stops being something we make and create … and becomes something we simply ingest. Eating just gets easier. And then we get fatter.

(there’s all kinds of fascinating backup for this assertion. read the whole thing.)

But maybe we’re not just consuming more calories because they’re available at such a low cost. Maybe we’re also consuming more calories because each calorie gives us less pleasure. …

Because we didn’t make the milkshake ourselves, because that dinner only required a few minutes of work, we need to consume more calories to get the same baseline of satisfaction. The solution to this problem, of course, is simple: We need to take time to make dinner.


the idea, then, was to build an outdoor oven made of cob — sand, straw and backyard clay — and use it as sort of a social experiment. we would produce a massive stream of food over four days. we’d invite as many weirdly different people as possible. a cured pumpkin (rouge vif d’etampes) would be the seasonal centerpiece and live-brewed coffee would provide the glue, the aesthetic shorthand: “this is elemental. this is good. and it is made right here.”

yeah, huh, this sounds insane on the front end. but in the wake of it all, events appear infinitely more insane. an open-ended, uncontrolled, virgin experience of unknown proportions. what could go wrong?

this blog knew nothing about cob, despite building a primitive oven in chad years ago. but the barista-poet’s wife, a potter and sculptor and oven builder, supplied the verbal sense. kiko denzer gave us a blueprint. and michael pollan lit the fuse in his recent moving times piece about an oven-centered feast.

the upshot is that there’s a lot of foot stomping involved. carolina clay is orange and dense, and mixing in all that sand with your feet late in the fall is not unlike skiing barefoot on a frigid slope of cheese graters. then there’s all that pounding with fists, clobbering the rough mix into a perfect dome, the walls nearly a foot thick. at one point, the office boss asked if my knuckles were fight-worn.

Insulation layer complete. #coboven
two layers on, 1.5 to go.

the menu was loose, the schedule completely unknown. colleagues, neighbors, slight acquaintances, social mainstays were invited to drop in any time and bring something to cook, possibly even for their consumption later in the week. such ovens were once the centers of social gravity, and they require adjustment to others’ cooking and the oven’s pace.

so thursday night started slow. crusty pain rond, muffins, cookies and toasted nuts were the openers — post-dinner fare. a couple rather good baristas were in the house. the home espresso bar soon belonged to them. by friday night, the experience was swelling beyond belief. venison and garden root vegetables baked to perfection. sirloin rice pilaf, ribeye steaks, korean pork, sticky rice and local apple crisp stunned. men cooperatively manned the oven, and our hand-packed walls stored waves of heat for hours. neighbors stood agog and talked of topics we’d never broached before.

in true ‘le fooding‘ spirit, boxes of cold krispy kremes arrived late into the night. they warmed inside the dome, and someone soon yelled, “hot doughnuts now.” people we barely knew stayed late, quaffing off the syphon pots of sundried ethiopia yirgacheffe worka and growlers of rugbrod julebryg.

smoke wafts from where it shouldn’t, beneath the 1700s handmade brick and old growth salvage timber. panic. PANIC.

the devastation began saturday morning, after stoking the oven through the night and firing it up again for breakfast pumpkin and cranberry bread with orange glaze. the cedar base caught fire. it was a testament, really, to the shocking amounts of heat stored and radiated by the cob walls. after more than 24 hours of charging, they’d begun to push infernos of heat downward through layers of fire brick and sand and cob insulation — far further than we ever dreamed it would travel. the base lit up, and the new lifestyle seemed to have ended soon after it had begun. depression took hold. incredibly, though, a bit of ingenuity from solis jake prompted a chancy decision to press on. lunchtime was on track and dozens of pizzas in line.

waves of children arrived. savory pumpkin-herb chunks, local grass-fed beef, garden pesto, heirloom tomatoes, garlic bechamel, sea salt and heirloom peppers swirled in inspired mixes. the base smoldered, and still we baked. calebowski’s stunning mac and cheese lured the 80-year-old neighbor for a plate. open-faced sweet roasted squash and garden salad, sweet nutmeg pumpkin ice cream invented by the ladye and more crusty loaves piled on. at this point, frankly, consciousness began to fade.

and still the fire strayed where it didn’t belong. hosing and ripping ensued. it became obvious the oven wouldn’t last far beyond this frenzied stretch: it was fatally flawed. but dinner was on as soon as lunch was done, and newspapering people showed up with cast iron pots of crowder peas and squash and excellent spanish wine. apple sausages, more venison chops and baguettes went in. we stuffed the vif d’etampes with bacon, butter and cream and gruyere and baked it until tender. brie spreads, heirloom peppers stuffed with herbs and local goat cheese and pumpkin pots de creme sort of melted everywhere while the best photographer i know expounded on his master’s thesis. a family lean in the budget ate their fill. a psychiatrist floated in from a massage, in a state of zen. toasted rosemary walnuts emerged, but no one had room.

by this point, we smelled like fresh-killed pelts of some kind and there were gallons of growlers formerly full of fall ales clanking around. the yirg worka and el salvador matalapa tablom al amate cappuccinos gushed periodically. the brick arch that covered the oven’s doorway had cracked, but held together — barely. it was a metaphor.

in the end, this blog perceived compression: incredible heights of coalescing people and disastrous lows of failure tightly packed in a short time frame. it witnessed accommodation: people adjusting to people they’d never seen, adjusting to the cooking pace of the oven, altering their imported foods to the current spread, moving toward sources of warmth and away from showers of sparks. it was not altogether comfortable. and we saw social engineering: when we threw in the towel on a smoldering project, jake found a way to salvage it. the entire structure was an amalgam of insight from carpenters and potters and tile experts and designers. when neighbor jason put the local beef in someone else’s mac-and-cheese, it made an already gluteous dish supreme and deadly. when this blog became consumed with fire and ash, coffee nerds stepped in to produce streams of superior brew.

every meal, for days, the emotional progression looked something like this: expectation –> frenzy –> dread –> helplessness –> stunned delight –> relish –> reflection –> exhaustion –> interpretation.

in all, roughly 30 people waded into each meal. when the food ran low, someone else arrived bearing pots of something more. and as this blog slept off the throbbing sunday morning, the door rattled. a couple friends had come by for the final course. fortunately, an overnight yogurt was on the warm hearth, and we added pistachios and sauteed apples. it went down easy, but tinged with wood smoke. we all had some form of severe bedhead.

and there’s no question: it all tasted better because the participation was so thorough. it satisfied, in ways we barely understand. a week later, people keep coming up to us, shaking their heads wordlessly at the memory. and we’re pretty sure we barely remember most of it.

a bit of a syphon film

August 23, 2010 – 10:21 am

the thing about syphon brewing is that it is both all the rage (in specialty circles) and completely unknown (to most consumers). it’s an eye-catcher, like certain espresso machines, but completely anti-industrial and pleasantly simple. it offers itself as a bit of glass-and-liquid bar art, then reveals itself as a piece of scientific intrigue.

and so the idea was to capture the paradox in a short film, lasting roughly the length of the syphon process itself but featuring almost exclusively macro photography. in this way, the images act as an almost abstract sequence of bubbles and steam and rising liquid and swirling particles — a gorgeous build-up of forces and processes. then, with a second look, you actually get some insight into the process — the behavior of heated water, particle migration and extraction quirks, foam and aromatic elements. at least that’s what it does for this blog.

roughly 30 hours into the project, it’s clear we couldn’t have done it without the technical mastery and creative ideas of solis jake, of j4 studios. the coffee was byron holcomb’s dominican finca la paz, a nicely sweet and bready beverage, along with some other sample coffees. if you can hook in a subwoofer or boost your bass, this blog highly recommends it.

The Syphon Project from Jacob Forrest on Vimeo.

you might quibble that there are some moments of grit and odd interference. this is true, especially of the shot from underneath the syphon in which the coffee has dropped into the bowl and the air pressure is equalizing from above with a blinking red “bloop, bloop” each time an air pocket descends the central syphon tube onto the eye of the viewer. and there — unmistakably in the middle of the picture — are more than one particle of coffee, and some grime on the surface of the bowl to boot.

as carefully as we had tried to polish glass and employ precise barista skills, it was tempting to remove this shot from the sequence. but it remains included, in part because each time we tried to get a cleaner version of this shot we kept seeing coffee in the bowl — it seems to be a real (and seldom noticed) part of this brewing process, in other words.

in the end, it’s kind of nice to stare at but also impossible to resist indulging in some analysis. look at how completely the dry coffee resists the water’s moisture when plopped on top. it’s somewhat surprising, to me, how the particles arrange themselves on drawn-down. and what on earth is that mist swirling above that half-consumed bowl of coffee, and do we ever taste/experience that?

feedback welcome.

Le coffeeing

August 9, 2010 – 8:16 am

half-pound bison burger, emmental, garlic shoots, pico de gallo, quail egg. and coffee — square mile’s kenya tegu.

it’s barely a stretch — a counter-stretch! — to say high-end coffee learns a lot from trending food movements. this blog wonders if it’s not missing the cuttingest parts, though.

– credit card points took us to montana, domicile of the barista-poet. the green coffee truck still exists. right next to the chicken coop and splendorous, black-earth garden. there’s a former pirate next door. a lot of bears. neighborhood pubs breweries, and glaciers just to the north.

in missoula, they have a culture of dive bars, and, as it happens, dive cafes. establishments that are uniquely local, but decidedly poor in terms of beverages. the food, though. you might go to the place where the Savoriest Pizza Ever blows your mind with artichoke hearts and sausages. it’s the most montana of pies. you might head to one of three simultaneous farmer’s markets and buy local grass-fed bison, top it with garlic shoots, sauce it up with a fried quail egg. you might buy a pack of moose drool, a respectable craft brown ale — but in cans, the better to float down the river with.

these things are both distinctly of the place and downright good, by any measure. these things would by no means be classified as snobby indulgences, or geek pursuits. food, in this instance, has advanced beyond class symbols and is able to be both unpretentious and eminently laudable.

does coffee do this? rarely. the current version of the worthy coffee shop seems like it’s forced to be either the ultra-cool status symbol — intellivenice, say — or scruffy, neighborhood minded and with coffee that looks like it.

there are exceptions, but they glare so brightly as to make the norm obvious.

le fooding has become an obsession — a franco-american food movement that seems to encapsulate so much of what the youngsters long for. excellence. spontaneity. flexibility. without hard rules and accredited certificates. food for the people, a little bit cheeky, and very attractive. it’s all about the context — chipotle can soar — and about making it diverse and accessible without pretension. it’s about eating and experimenting with the right attitude.

can coffee do this? yes, sometimes. this blog might argue (if it thinks hard enough) that the most liked coffee gurus in the current movement are those who exude some aspect of this excellence with attitudinal everymanism. hoffmann. owens. colin. peter g. and yet they, too, seem to wear an attitude that’s an exception rather than a characteristic trait.

the cranky scientists, haughty geeks and argumentative snobs are vastly more common. and they’re not connecting coffee to anything.

– here in the sweltering southern hinterlands, people are discovering farmer’s markets and course meals and bistro cooking like it’s sarah palin, and instantly turning them all into cliches. conversational trading cards. a nouveau legalism. which is all insufferably deplorable, of course, but the upside is, well, that there are now exploding farmer’s markets and seasonal bistros for the NASCAR fan with an adventurous streak.

like cullen’s. its local organic pork belly and coastal scallops on crocodile spinach — and for much less money than the status restaurants — are wont to make this blog unusually gushy. seasonal crepes, farm-inspired sides, dessert imaginations born of real limits, they’re all here. and somehow this place, with its budget decor and handful of tables, has managed to put a real dent in the local dining consciousness within a matter of months.

not by boasting, or being ostentatiously purist, or situating themselves where greenies might notice. they’ve done it just by being very, very good — and not even original, per se. it’s classic french cooking with modern twists and variations inspired by local seasons. it’s the way farm to table was meant to be. i daresay it even makes sense to a domino’s-addicted redneck.

is coffee doing this? doesn’t seem like it. instead of working within simple limits, allowing humble strictures to force creativity and better delivery, the good shops seem to be sprawling all over the place, offering so many coffees now the customer can’t keep track of them all, so many drinks they jumble all up on the menu. the coffee is exotic, the names multitudinous, the brewing devices scary and the sensory overload just enough to cause a regular person to have a meltdown and opt for a smoothie. the approach deprives one of the simple, local flavor of a thing. it bludgeons taste with options.

all of which to say, public coffee is getting better. fine shops are sprouting everywhere. people are becoming discerning. but the examples of “good” seem to be examples of coffee being fetishized, a codified end in itself. the attitude is often stifling, the cafe exalted to a status where lovers go drooly and haters hate. backlashes take shape, and the quality divides instead of unifying. it’s all “slow food,” which is nice but legalistic, instead of “le fooding,” which is open and scalable.

you know what this means, don’t you? it means this blog had a smashing time in montana, and thought so many interrelated thoughts that it must resort to bulleting them in meandering blog posts. so much was absorbed about radical communities and home brewing and mountain lions and huckleberries, it might be enough to get us hyperventilating again

UPDATE: a fulsome, conversation-lengthening response from james hoffmann here.

what’s so bad about the l.a. times coffee article?

May 3, 2010 – 9:53 pm

it stings to be told how to properly drink a macchiato.

it also stings to be told your espresso tastes like “bitter … burned citrus peel.”


alas, the offense on both sides was avoidable — and, to this reader’s eye, the fault of intelligentsia’s “good guys.” which isn’t to say they could have done anything about this rankled customer. but maybe they could’ve! safe to say this blog does not agree with tweeting coffee persons who think that l.a. times piece on emerging coffee snobbery was “bad” journalism.

the piece wasn’t postured as even-handed, facts-only reporting … it was first-person, opinionated viewpoint. which means only this: a person who takes the trouble to go to a high-end coffee bar on the way home was put off by the way she was treated, didn’t like how her coffee tasted — and was so frustrated by the overall experience she was spurred to ask (in writing) What It All Means.

what’s wrong with that? this person may or may not be “informed.” she may have been emotional after being told such-and-such about macchiatos. her pontifications may not be especially revelatory to specialty coffee persons. but if a thinking customer has such a reaction to one of l.a.’s acclaimed coffee joints, then i for one want to know. and if this person can write it fluently, and explain it lucidly, then i would like to read it. and what it seems like is that an intelly barista didn’t have to use an “icy tone” while refusing to make a macchiato to go. nor did he have to serve “bitter” coffee. and if neither of these things really happened — then i still want to know if that’s what it seemed like to the customer. to ignore that viewpoint is to seal one’s self in an insider’s doom machine.

my father had a similarly icy and totally rude experience at san francisco’s blue bottle (after searching out the place on my recommendation), and, at the time, i wrote that the shop appeared to have gone so endo on its coffee that it forgot how to effectively introduce people to it. a lot of customers are jerks, sure. but if a shop serves its coffee so much that it forgets to effectively serve the people who buy it, then this strikes me as a sign that the movement is ultimately self limiting. we risk liking coffee too much and people not enough.

this blog, obviously, appreciates the intelly stuff. it would be almost too fun to point out to the l.a. times writer that an intelly barista has won two straight national championships as scored primarily by, you know, taste. and yet, weirdly, i’ve had more than one friend come back from chicago or l.a. and describe an intelly beverage as “ashy” or “acrid.” this is always a bit stunning, but these are always fairly experienced consumers, people who drink regularly off my home bar and sample coffee and crema‘s stuff and know counter culture coffees fairly well — but who can’t suffer some random cup from one of the best-known bars in the country.

there’s no accounting for taste, or the occasional bad cup. but it’s certainly worthwhile to think about it. to demand that mainstream journalism always “get it” on specialty coffee — to assume it should reflect an insider’s values — is to use the same logic the tea partiers or the salon bloggers use when insisting that only their view of a political story should be covered.

now, snitty quote-fests about a $25 cup of n.y.c. coffee, or whiny jibes about coffee “culture wars” — those are “bad” journalism.

CI notices things

March 31, 2010 – 12:14 am

it’s no secret the syphon brewing process is visually satisfying — and snobbily advantageous! — if clean, sweet coffee is your thing. still, we kept noticing tiny, surprising aspects of the process that demanded attention. the migration of particles during the drop. the behavior of water as it grew hotter. the visually stunning swirl of the first drops of coffee hitting a small puddle of clear water.

so, a short film was born of caffeinated highness and solis jake‘s superior technical abilities. bright lights. white backdrop. seven+ hours of shooting. plenty of juice. here’s a rough piece.

HD version here. more to come.

SERBC: juggernautism

February 22, 2010 – 1:55 am

what to make of lem butler? the fellow roasts coffee, surfs, spins the vinyl, stars in a puppet show, treats his girlfriend like a real gent and wins seemingly every southeast barista competition he deigns to enter. (edit: the rare loss came in ’07, of course, to nick cho.)

more than 60 points is the margin by which “sexyfoam” three-peated as champion. still as humble and aw-shucks as ever. cracked up the judges with his banter, poured milk into his cappuccinos from both hands simultaneously, dropped his extra coffee on anyone who would take some, took a detour to greet old friends, walked out with another trophy. that’s lem — a fusion of both crowd-friendly pure smoothness and judge-friendly pure skill. and he used established, no-nonsense coffee — counter culture’s la forza espresso blend, and the ethiopia shakisso. the latter, carted home to the blogbar this evening and pulled in tiny quantities on the old-school lever machine, reminded us of malted rose hips.

this blog was so busy minding the mastery and watching his utterly worry-stricken lady that we failed to take copious notes. here, in photographs, is your champeen and your duly proceeding finalists. corrections/elaborations welcome in the comments.

lem: “in the hole, i say. the spro goes IN THA HOLE.” lem’s girlfriend: “argh.”

lem concocts a drinkable thing. lem’s girlfriend thinks, “argh.”

lem pours his drinkable thing. has plenty of time to think idly, “hope the girlfriend isn’t too ‘argh.’”

2nd place: atlanta’s chandler rentz blew through his routine with a gruff assurance and elevated his shop (aurora coffee) and coffee company (batdorf & bronson) in a hurry. notable: flash-lit orange peels over his signature beverage. major piece of flair for chandler.

3rd place: octane coffee‘s dale donchey was demonstrably disappointed with third place. he expected to win. notable: a signature beverage that not only included tobacco-smoked blood orange, it also took something like 11 minutes to make in round one. and he still finished within the 15-minute limit. gratuitous, this blog says.

4th place: greenville‘s shannon hudgens might have easily tiptoed into third place if he had told the judges to stir his signature beverage — a drink, as it happens, that kept drawing raves. a sipping chocolate without a bit of chocolate in it, only espresso and mascarpone cheese. at what point, this blog wonders, is shannon no longer the darkhorse wunderkind of the southeast, but rather a thoroughbred heavyweight? to, ah, mix some metaphors.

5th place: a crowd favorite, that dustin mattson. all snappy fingers and redneck-hipster-geek and “let me just caress this mixer while i’m waiting.” also of octane, but recently of greenville. also with a fiancee full o’ nerves who is TRYING TO LOOK CALM.

6th place: dave delchamps, of 1000 faces coffee, had more niceness than kipper the dog. without question a classy, independent barista who happened to roast his own coffee. a two-time finalist with a trail of admirers.

the southeast’s motley posse, circa 2010. this was before anyone had won yet and knew whom to hate/love/glare at.

there are sometimes excellent reasons not to blog

February 5, 2010 – 11:36 pm

coffee tree fetishization update

January 29, 2010 – 11:24 pm

while we were out of the country, south carolina apparently experienced sooome cold, piercing even into the house. this is, we suppose, what this blog gets for barside progenitor worship.

CI‘s brain stirs in a circular, european motion

January 20, 2010 – 4:50 am


traveling to france seems to be the only trip this blog can’t contort into a coffee trip of some type.

but, ah, we will now strenuously avoid our annual tome on the deplorable state of coffee in france, just as this blog has tried to avoid the coffee itself this trip. abetting this effort: a stash of counter culture single-origin selections and one heavily distracted airprort TSA agent, who quite clearly targeted our airplane carry-on for scrutiny because of the nefarious-looking device within it. the fellow, however, was called away, and so we whisked the bag from under him and now drink fine siphon brews in a small franco-german village near strasbourg.

mouths have dropped, of course. eyes have widened at a brewing method so novel to most home brewers, yet already so ubiquitous in snobby circles stateside. weeks into this visit, the thing is still a spectacle. but instead of getting wound up in the mechanics of the thing, like stirring methods and coffee-to-water ratios, the recipients (mostly africa and europe-dwelling family members) tend to wade into a gradual exploration of what flavors this device has to offer. when it comes to new and wonderful coffee, in other words, they tend to take a long, warm bath in Taste instead of fiddling with the faucet and body washing aids.

failed metaphor alert! and yet, it seems kind of funny from this side of the pond how “scientific” the american approach can be. how ruthlessly mechanical, how very cause-and-effect this blog’s brewing debates and saturday experiments tend to become. south carolina drinkers always want to know how the danged thing works. they then tend to offer an instant opinion on how you might make it better. there is, of course, much to be gained from a methodical, scientific examination of coffee extraction. there is also much to be lampooned in the pontifications of a coffee drinker who wants to wax profound on every cup instead of just serving something excellent and getting out of the way.

but then, we’re in gothic cathedral territory. the stones for the local marvel were carved from the rocky hill beside our village. scientific prowess was required. but the point wasn’t to prove those methods, but to get to something else that transports you. the means was never the thing. this requires a sort of investigative vulnerability; it precludes a swaggering hubris.

so let’s apply this broadly, using absurd generalities, shall we? let’s! there seem to be numerous european coffee personalities who embody investigative vulnerability. they seem to be much respected for it. a significant slice of the americans, meanwhile, seem to carve entire identities out of something transient — a brewing method, a passing innovation, a staunch position in an argument. they are then loved or loathed, and sometimes both. exceptions are of course on both sides. but who’s counting? CI always categorizes simplistically!

alas, a caveat: it could be that an overly large sense of introspection and contentment is why french espresso continues to be so horrific. cultural navel gazing = deification of the mediocre and all that.

to compensate, this blog will now go measure its siphon burner flame height and correlate it with drop times in dry, northern french climates.


P.S. this blog, of course, normally uses the butane burner for its siphon heat source. getting that thing on board an international aircraft, however, was clearly a nonstarter. thus, the alcohol burner seen here, which required a sort of, ah, vulnerable investigation into the bowels of the fench supermarche’, in search of what they call “alcool a bruler.” #success.

the tree’s knees

December 3, 2009 – 2:57 am

realization: put a coffee tree on the deck for a summer, and it’s likely to double in size.

with winter upon us, the thing now obliterates all sensible views — and elbow room — around the coffee bar. which prompts a sort of indoor seed/cup dilemma: stash the tree to maintain a diverse brewing bar, or favor the tree and shelve the second (syphon) grinder? on the one hand, only one of them is aliiive. on the other hand, only one delivers warmth.


the general environs according to blogchildren

November 23, 2009 – 11:38 pm

thought experiment: let’s say the assignment in your progeny’s geography class is to make a map from your house to grandma’s house — a rough map, let’s say, composed of basic landmarks along the way. and let’s say that ALL the landmarks included in the map drawn by your offspring, fruit of your loins, were coffee-related establishments.

question is, would this be your fault? should you, as a parent of eclectic tastes (no, really!) be embarrassed? most disturbingly, is this cause for intervention by the department of social services?


… not that we frequent these establishments, really. but still, it would appear that they somehow register more strongly on the grade-school psyche than both bruster’s ice cream AND sophia’s house. this blog dearly hopes you do not tell anyone about this.

“rad! i said it was RAD! R-A-D …”

November 17, 2009 – 2:21 am

pre-mayhem, the crowd at charlotte’s southeast regional barista jam and latte art bash looks quite docile. haha!

here’s what it’s like walking into jason dominy‘s lair, an urban charlotte warehouse space not technically owned by jason dominy, but, you know, “owned” by jason dominy. at least, that’s what his raucous, all-night tenure at the microphone seemed to indicate.

shrouds of black denote the cool space. light ropes = party time! people clink their wine glasses around and sip and “sonicetoseeeeeyou!” for now, but OH THE MAYHEM of which they are capable. the DJ — surfer, magazine cover boy and former southeast barista champion lem butler, once dubbed “sexyfoam” by a cast of puppets — is clearly a favored part of the arrangement. he is in the action, as central as the pallet of cake, and the beats go shunk-a-junk and loudness happens almost before the place is fully populated.

“daddee,” the blogson says, all fixated on the moat of candy-capped cupcakes, “can i have one?” but in the din it’s all vowels, no consonants: ” ‘an i ‘ave uh?” “sure,” we scream, certain he couldn’t have meant a longneck, and then, oh, hey, a person we know! and another one! wow, let’s have a red-faced convo in which we laugh and shout and then shout the same thing again! and isn’t it funny that it looks like your tongue is in my ear! and oh, ow, i was trying to get my point across, not really butt your head! ha! wha?

these sorts of parties are great. maximum thoughts communicated in the briefest of primal screams. “rad!” someone says. “yup!”

that there was serious dilworth money plowed into the catered spread, no question. that a far-flung crowd from indiana to florida had made a substantial trek for a weekend of happy southeastery, absolutely. that the concept of a latte art throwdown, eye-rolled by some, was totally novel and awesomely radulous to much of the crowd, yeah. that this blog, being petrified in fear of the raging, all-or-nothing aurelia steam wands, was inevitably the first to be called upon to demonstrate these milky arts to the masses, of course it was!

“allllllll the way from greenville, south carolina,” the voice bellows, all mad-lib and no subtlety, “it’s the blogfamily mafia!” a phrase of indeterminate meaning, but oh, dominy was just getting started. as one listened to his full-throated commandeering, one almost felt compelled to gasp for air on his behalf. such a vent of exuberant, hysterical hyperbole, that dominy. in his verbal arts, atlanta’s octane coffee became “THE premier cafe in the entire southeast.” a possibility, yes, but maybe we could argue about it first? ben helfen was “the man i want to marry” or something equally stunning, and the crowd — the entire crowd, congealed as a single personality — was dubbed the “second most important person to me, after my wife.” whew, gasp. a party full of best men! the PARTY is your best man!

this colossal optimism, this overwhelming exuberance, of course, was a huge hit and an endearing thing for those present and, in the end, a sort of mascot for charlotte and southeastern coffee. lots of love and glee, very little of that west coast cynicism or angst.

turns out the latte art bash went something like three hours long, and this blog had told the son, “don’t worry! we’ll leave as soon as i lose!” hehe, yes. which ended up being in the final round, when we finally choked on a simple heart-topped rosetta and handed the entire 30-person competition to a very deserving chandler rentz of atlanta’s aurora coffee. by then the blogson was asleep on a table next to a longneck, and we had foolishly allowed ourselves to muse about that grand prize baratza vario grinder.

sigh. a reliably underwhelming bridesmaid, that’s what this blog is. always game to make a stab at it, never a real threat to take the prize.

not that second-place prizery wasn’t quite a haul. tamper, syphon, pitcher, scale, coffee, pallo tool, magazine. shamyeah. and to think, this blog hadn’t really used full-blast commercial steam before, always coaxed those big twisty steam wands to a relatively tame speed. the aurelia, with its snap-on steam lever, robbed us of all that comfort. which, hey, is like a prerequisite for artistic expression, no?

we left as dominy was, uh, chest-bumping(?) lem and making his way to the espresso machines. and hey, was that a bon jovi-m.i.a. mix that just left us newly deaf?

unlike last year, when this blog’s reaction was sort of bewildered bemusement, the result here was quite a head ringing. quite an expression of the coffee vibe in this part of the country. quite a night.

i SAID, “quite a night! quite an expression of the …!”

those coffee and crema boys check out the latte art wares. “is this how you shake it, yo?”

we snapped this pic of the southeast barista jam, now ssxxnnttggzzz

November 16, 2009 – 1:00 am

words may follow, when this blog decompresses them from the pea-sized capsule in which they are embedded somewhere in our shell-shocked, sleep-deprived, weekend-warped brain. for now, an emblem of the extremes present at the desperately long, insanely loud, hyper-jubilant fest that was the southeast regional barista jam and latte art bash.

noted: this image does not denote cause and effect! the blogson, having rooted for his blogfather to pour winning latte art, ultimately resigned himself to the reality that doing so means we may. never. leave. and thus deposited himself on a table, next to some random empty.

CI loves loathes the latte arts

November 4, 2009 – 1:30 am


hard to know why latte art competitions persist, when nearly all the highbrow participants seem to be rolling their eyes, playing halfheartedly along and, hey, winning cool stuff! maybe that’s the answer.

just in time for all the conflicted self-loathing, this blog has managed to pour itself into contention a couple times on real-life, beefy, tubular commercial steam wands. now feeling like a conflicted member of the club: “meh. latte art. we do it sometimes. to stay awake.”

but now with coffee and crema’s polished monthly bash on hiatus until next year and our trips to atlanta all used up for awhile, there’s hardly a good pour-off for us to pretend not to want to enter! except maybe that charlotte jam thing.

vital hipsterish questions when considering attendance: will this crowd be, you know, overeager? will they hate themselves enough for doing this milky thing that they do? do they have a totally ironic superhero logo and cheesy, self-flagellating graphic design? will there be mullets?

regardless, this blog advises you not to commit too early. it’s bad form, like shaving daily.

we can pour teh latte arts, just not take teh pictures.

Coffee kills. Long live coffee!

October 31, 2009 – 9:30 pm

It’s hard to know which came first, the malady or the remedy.

Whole chunks of my life first came to be anesthetized by coffee at roughly the same time as I was losing whole chunks of my life. Patience, appetite, wit — anything that required reservoirs of energy to be deployed or restrained — all ebbed. Malaria was feasting on the underwire of personality, and the slow rot of immovement gradually set in. Most remarkably, I never noticed.

Doctors tell me I may well be able to blame the stealthiness of this metamorphosis on coffee, which had begun at about the same time to fill all neurological voids, sparked by a countertop full of hissing Capresso machines in our college newspaper office. Here was the Great Personality Putty, that which gave me what wasn’t there even as I failed to notice what had gone missing. Here, too, was a life space, caused by a disease, in which profound habits formed. Vigor would rise or fall, and like a swelling theatrical score the shift of gears would cue the thought, “I should like a cup of …”

And so a tide of caffeine obscured the underlying erosion of TSH and T3 and cortisol. The shoals of life, my adrenal system and hormonal infrastructure, were cracking up. Ten years in, at the limits of self medication, the debilitation was so thorough that a good night’s sleep suddenly began to require 12 hours. Waking up was not unlike a Lilliputian encounter in which one wonders how his limbs came to be strapped down. Dinner became an egg. To work was to exist, barely. Nothing sandbagged a day faster than a sip of wine.

As with all dominating health concerns, the medical remedy boiled life down to a corrective routine. A rehabilitation cycle. A green pill and a half-hour’s absorption and, ah, espresso shots for an immediate lift. Only coffee, once the great sustainer, then obscurer of the problem, was now a part of the rehabilitation, so it also lost its mysticism. Once a fertilizer of ideas, it was now a thin topsoil required for basic life. Exquisite single-origin beverages were reduced to their mechanical function, which was to connect neurons. I wouldn’t have said so, but delight vanished.

More than physical exhaustion, this may be the reason this space has been so silent. In a world where consumption plays such a defining personal role, it turns out no volatile foodstuff can possibly live up to the expectations one places upon it — the identity derived from it. Stripped to its essence, coffee becomes a neuron booster required by life’s tiniest transitions. This is disillusioning, of course, but in a constructive way. It ultimately freed me to enjoy the stuff quite “simply.” No fuss, no dissolved solids. Just a steaming cup of autumnal pine nuts. Maybe a hint of muscadine.

This is not to say that one can get that cup of hot muscadine juice without a proper amount of fuss, but it’s one thing to cram coffee algorithms into your head; it’s quite another to dip your head in a bit of coffee. Perhaps the clearest expression of this at the moment is the syphon brewer, all glass and curvature and open flame. It requires a command of stirring and flame tending, of course, but with an opulent visual accompaniment and nowhere near the surgical demands of an espresso machine. And when you’re done, you get your coffee out of a hot glass orb and you drink your muscadine-fig cider just like it is, and you begin to notice that your head and your musculature and life itself is being salvaged.

again, mesmeralda hog-ties CI‘s brain

June 22, 2009 – 12:00 am

… and so here we have a thought that won’t dislodge from the gizzard meeting a blog in need of more thought randomization …

is panama’s famed esmeralda — now the subject of frenzied annual auctions and ever-escalating price records — the andy warhol of coffee? it’s a stellar, genre-bending, tell-your-neighbors kind of revelation, a cup this blog once offered to foldgers-only co-workers in full confidence that it would, in a sip, change their view of coffee. true.

but it’s also not 40 times as tasty as the ever-popular ethiopia idido misty valley, as the staggering price tag might indicate. in fact, this blog’s totally randomized aggregator of online esmeralda chatter (poaching mostly from twitter!) reports that tuned-in coffee drinkers overwhelmingly thought this year’s crop less amazing than past versions. (these people would be knowing and perceptive, but not *professional* cuppers. the point here being what serious coffee drinkers thought, as a proxy for specialty consumers, not what the credentialed cuppers said they should think.)

and so what’s to account for this year’s record-shattering price of $117 per pound — the same year most well-known western specialty buyers appears to have pulled back in the bidding? (for reference: 2008 prices)

to a dull and obvious blog like this one, ‘twould seem to be the marketing of esmeralda, as the world’s most expensive coffee, that confers this value. the name, the price, the growing notoriety, at some point, add to what pure taste is worth. the ever-higher auction prices could be spawning ever-higher auction prices!

which may not be bad for specialty coffee in the short term — we’re pretty sure this blog has previously argued somewhere on these interwoven nets that the notoriety and rising prices will surely benefit high-end coffee in general. but what if the Brand — the esmeralda cachet — is the herald of numerous future estate coffee niches … in which value is increasingly divorced from taste? in which marketability IS value?

warhol was, of course, a shape-shifter and cultural wizard with the acuity to pierce the consciousness of even magazine readers and soup-can buyers. but what he left in his wake is undeniably the commercialization of art — or even commercialization AS art.

it’s hard to not to be happy about sky-high esmeralda prices. it is, after all, an extraordinarily subtle and delicious coffee. but this blog wonders if the phenomenon doesn’t end up kick-starting an uneasy trend, at least for those devoted to taste as a measuring stick.

p.s. this blog is fully aware that pieces of this idea bubbled up on twitter WEEKS ago, and even on the slow-plodding blogs. so what? sometimes it takes us YEARS to come up with the right analogy!

p.p.s. yes, this blog was able to dip its amateur schnoz into this year’s top lots. our faves: the $27.50-per-lb caballeriza and $29 san jose, though the reserva DID offer some of the most delicate little twists of lily and lime we can remember detecting on our own …

UPDATE: further evidence that the esmeralda’s price can’t possibly be all taste-based: sweet maria’s is now selling one of last year’s top mesmeralda lots at less than half the original price — while claiming the beans “are fresh as they day they came in!” given the scrupulous storage method, this is probably true. so, what has changed from a year ago?

coffee philosophy of the day so far

May 21, 2009 – 2:27 pm


Things you see on coffee trips ix

May 17, 2009 – 2:20 pm

Sun. crepes and communal existence at cincy’s speckled bird cafe. Vital.

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Things you hear on coffee trips viii

May 17, 2009 – 10:00 am

Blogmom orders americano @ mccafe. Barista grabs old coffee, gives it a steam. The end.

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Things you see on coffee trips vii

May 16, 2009 – 3:27 pm

higher grounds cafe in traverse city, mi. S.o. Coffee in refurb warehouse. Whoa.

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Things you see on coffee trips vi

May 14, 2009 – 11:59 am

In the vast north of mich, it’s pre-spring, and we hunt local roasters 4 warmth.

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