Tuesday, August 10, 2010

You know what would be a good name for a coffee blog?

Hot Commodity. Right?! On so many levels. Most often served hot, second most traded commodity in dollar terms after oil (and with far less depressing concequences when huge quantities of it are spilled into the deep ocean, mainly highly caffienated blobfish, which, let's face it, they could use some caffeine) and um, also it's ... hot, which I'm not sure I mentioned, and a commodity.

Also, since, in this case, the author often refers to himself as a hot commodity, Hot Commodity as a blog title becomes the heretofor unthinkable quinta entendre. Which is all by way of saying that I wish I'd thought of it earlier.

Alas, the pun will have to remain tetravalent, as I will be departing for the semi-arid hills of Los Angeles' Silverlake district at the end of this month.

I know. Unthinkable, right? Who will man the host of barely operable machinery in the warehouse, not to mention the barely operable puns of this blog?

Fortunately I have trained a new roaster, Jake (Chewbacca to my Han Solo), and he is fully equipped to roast a mean bean and blog sassily about it later. Also, he has a history as an EMT and volunteer fire fighter, two professional skill sets which often come in handy in the wild and dangerous world of coffee roasting.

This then, is the last word I'll be typing for the bittersweet coffee blog. And by the last word I mean this





Friday, June 11, 2010

Within 5/8" of my life

It's easy for me to forget that most people spend less than 80% of their waking hours around high-voltage, pressurized equipment and, as such, have far less opportunity to learn the valuable lessons that can only come from working with high-voltage, pressurized equipment.

In fact, I find I learn these lessons on an almost daily basis. Today, for example, I learned that Type L 5/8" O.D. soft copper tubing is either a) sixty feet long or b) contains materials known to the state of California to be hazardous. Although I'm not sure how total length affects whether or not the tubing is hazardous, there is clearly a correlation. And while I would be happy to buy 60' of tubing even though I only need 10' if that means I wouldn't be source of an army of mutant babies from Emeryville, I'm worried that only sixty continuous feet of tubing will actually remain free of hazards, so as you can see, I'm in a bit of a bind: Either I create an elaborate rollercoaster of copper tubing in our already cramped warehouse, or everyone who drinks my lattes ends up looking like Jeff Goldbloom at the end of "The Fly."

Oddly, 1/2" soft copper tubing doesn't seem to have this issue, nor does 3/8" or 1/4". Also these sizes are available at any hardware store with a plumbing department, whereas neither Home Depot nor Ashby heating and plumbing had 5/8". Although I am happy to report that, for those in need of 5/8" soft copper tubing, it can be found at Ashby Lumber (contains hazardous materials) and Rubenstein Supply (sixty feet long).

That said, everything else is in place for us to open a small retail operation out of the warehouse. I have recently returned old one-eye to it's original housing, and I'm happy to say it looks very sleek and 80s (which is to say tremendously boxy). In honor of this transformation, I am rechristening it Johnny 5 after the eponymous robot protagonist of the Short Circuit movies. Here is a direct comparison:


Keep drinking coffee.


Thursday, May 20, 2010


This Thing:
Yes! Months after my announcement that I would have this thing working in no time, I give you photographic evidence of Old One Eye's inaugural shot. Granted, every shot I've pulled thus far tastes like it was made with water from a public swimming pool - but that's what "dialing in" an espresso is all about.

It may be hard for the average coffee drinker to understand my excitement, but when you take into account my expectations when turning this machine on, which were to be either electrocuted or badly burnt, or to electrocute or badly burn someone else, I think it starts to become clear. In fact, just about the last thing I expected to do this machine to do was to make coffee.

But there it is, making coffee. Even after numerous applications of teflon tape and near-super-human torque on crucial nuts and bolts, it still leaks in places. But hey, if it works perfectly, it's not espresso.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010


I thought I'd depart from my normal LucasFilms-laden rhetorical style for the more classic Mary Shelly in honor of the recent revival of Old One Eye, itself a classic of sorts, and shown here with it's little robot eye ablaze and both steam wands ablast.

This picture is taken during the descaling process, which involves dissolving a bunch of descaler inside the boiler and boiling a couple gallons of water for around forty minutes. This process has also served as a bench test for Old One Eye, and I am happy to report that just about every part of this machine that could leak, does, which means I will get to put off actually working for a couple more days and instead turn this thing on and off and look at it seriously and make concerned noises.

In other news, Steve and I cupped earlier in the day at Royal, and it looks like we'll be getting a very nice Nicaraguan in soon - about which I'm doubly excited, having never roasted a "Nic" (a moniker which I think falls short of Yirg and especially Guat in the ugly coffee region nickname contest) before. As we cupped it at Royal (thanks to the wonderful Jerri, sample roaster extraordinaire), it has all the acidity of a central, but the sweetness is more that of nuts and nutella rather than citrus. A compelling cup that we hope to bring your way soon!

Monday, May 17, 2010

10 girls (or boys?) from ipanema

That's right! We just got a palate (that's 10 bags, get it?) of a dry-processed Brazilian coffee that will shortly become the base of our espresso blend, Long Day's Journey (which is either a reference to caffeine as stimulant or caffeine as highly addictive substance, I'm still not sure). The coffee, called Porta Rossa, is from the Cerrado region of Brazil, a high plain much like the african savannah. The coffees from this region (typically of the Mundo Nuovo cultivar) are often dry processed and exhibit mellow acidity and great, big body.
Porta Rossa delivers notes of almond, tropical fruit and a toffee-like sweetness. It pairs beautifully with our recently arrived, washed Ethiopian coffee from Yirga Cheffe for a big-bodied shot espresso with top notes of lime and jasmine and a long, bittersweet finish.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Trials and Tribulations

I have been woefully derelict in my duties here at the BSCB. But spurred by responsibility to my readership, which has continued its furious ascent, barreling into double digits (!!!), I am back, and promise to be better than ever.

Several events at the BSMS (Bittersweet Mother Ship) and our satellite stores have kept me actually working at my job instead of just blogging about it.

Most recently your intrepid narrator was forced to answer that most ancient of coffee roasting riddles: How do you install a k-type thermocouple in a hole you have accidently and irreversibly drilled in the door of your roaster for a much bigger type of thermocouple?

Here, for comparison, is a side-by-side photograph of a k-type (the orange wire), and that other type (the one that looks like C3PO's nipple), for which the hole was drilled.
As I'm sure you can tell, the k-type did not even begin to fill the significant hole we'd had drilled in the door of our beloved Diedrich ir-3. I was at a bit of a loss. Fortunately, Steve (Qui Gon to my Obi Wan) offered this solution: "So just get a bolt the same size as the thermocouple, drill a lengthwise hole in it - see what I'm saying? - then use like maybe a rubberized epoxy to cement the k-type inside the hole and we'll screw it in." Which just about knocked me out of my chair it was so obvious.

Unfortunately, rubberized epoxies appear to have a maximum temperature rating of about 400 f (our roaster regularly reaches temperatures close to 450 f). So my first crack was a silicone gasket maker made for sealing stuff like exhaust systems. This, however, proved to a be a little too gummy and didn't retain the k-type. My next stop was JB Cold Weld, which has lived up to its name, firmly holding the k-type in the middle of the whirling bean mass.

Here's my mock jig holding the bolt and k-type while the jb works its magic.

As you can see, we operate with a maximum of sophistication here at Bittersweet Origins, Coffee Division (BSOCD, or Be Socked!, which I find both hilarious and a good piece of advice).

So now, riddle answered, we can tell the surface temperature of our beans! While air temperature provides a reasonable estimation of bean temperature, surface temperature is both more accurate and, when cross-referenced with air temperature, provides valuable clues as to what is happening inside the bean.

Furthermore, we take away two important lessons. First, think twice, maybe even thrice, before you put big holes in expensive pieces of machinery.
Secondly, once you've put that big hole in the machinery, don't stop until you've patched it up. Or, as a wise, green, two-foot-tall puppet once said "Do or do not. There is no try."

Monday, April 12, 2010

I've been reading a lot about coffee recently, and not just in my own blog posts. In hopes of further perfecting my already exemplary roasting technique I've hounded Steve (Alec Guiness to my Mark Hammel) and others with bona fide Coffee Skillz for any and all documents/videos/performance art pieces that might help me improve.

And let me tell you, blogger to bloggee, there isn't much out there; and most of what is, is in Italian. Fortunately, recent advances in coffee technology have allowed Italian roasters to translate their works into English. Although the method is still in its nascent stages, it has given other humans who don't ride vespas and are less predisposed to coffee roasting a peek into the vast compendium of coffee knowledge compiled by the likes of Illy and International Institute of Coffee Tasters.

Currently, I'm reading Espresso Italiano Roasting, which is a lot like reading Thomas Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow in that everyone who's read it says they get most of it, when really, no one gets any of it, not even Thomas Pynchon. The difference is that Thomas Pynchon made Gravity's Rainbow hard to read to torture undergraduates, whereas Espresso Italiano is hard to read because it is a technical manual translated by an unpaid intern armed with only a 5th grade English reading level and an Italian/English dictionary. (Unlike other interns, IICT interns are actually strictly prohibited from "getting the coffee," as this is a symbol of status and prestige. So it is the tenured faculty who make coffee for the interns while the interns generate spider graphs and speak at coffee tasting symposiums.)

While the Espresso Italiano Roasting yields several sentences whose challenge to the rules of English grammar obfuscate any information they might contain in Italian, I found one gem that I'd like to share with you. In the section entitled Science Can Only Support Art, author Luigi Odello concludes:

“Therefore the old limiting concept of roasting process must be left behind , avoiding to frequently resort to cause-effect logic and , above all, it must always be borne in mind that end consumers can only rely on their sensory organs to assess the roaster's job. That is why roasting must be considered on a scientific basis, yet no high standard product can be obtained without art, which is the intellectual part that only the sensitivity of who supervises production can add.”

While the lyricism of Odello’s Italian doesn’t quite find it’s way into the English version, the sentiment remains clear: You can study all you want but perfection is only attained by intuition. Leave it to the Italians to add sentiments to a scientific trade manual that in America are left to movies like Top Gun and Searching for Bobby Fisher.

In any case, Odello touches on one of the most compelling aspects of coffee roasting. Roasting, chemically speaking, is a very complex process (the number of chemical compounds present in the bean double over the course of a 15 minute roast), yet the means by which we control it are simple (air flow and heat). Furthermore our ability to detect with instrumentation what is going on inside the bean at any moment is fairly limited, which means that intuition, guided by years of experience, is what leads to truly exceptional roasting.

I encourage anyone as interested in the philosophical and spiritual aspects of coffee roasting as I am to avoid Espresso Italiano Roasting at all costs and opt instead for the well-researched and surprisingly well-written Coffee: A Dark History by Anthony Wild. Mr. Wild eschews the typical apocrypha associated with coffee’s origins for some real investigative reporting. His conclusions cast coffee in an interesting light: Although he falls short of conclusive evidence, his research points to a certain Sufi scholar inventing the means by which we consume coffee today. Sufis made their devotions at night which would give them a specific interest in stimulants; their interest in alchemy as a physical analogue for their spiritual devotions lead them to experiment with otherwise uninteresting substances, hence roasting an ordinary seed, and their contact with the Chinese treasure fleets would have meant they were familiar with infusion brewing as they would have been served tea.

All attempts to explain the origins of brewed coffee at this point are conjecture, and they are likely to remain so, but I find Wild’s theory particularly compelling. Certainly whoever first roasted coffee was guided by intuition, and I like to believe with Odello that today’s roasters do the same in their continued search for perfection.

Alright - that about wraps up this long and winding and overly sentimental post. As a parting meditation, please enjoy these pictures of webs spun by the highest spider on Earth.

Friday, April 2, 2010

New Single Origin!

Given my predilection for gabbing on and on about the machines I slowly dismantle and re-mantle every day, I'm sure it will surprise my growing readership (5 followers!) that I am going to spend this post talking about actual coffee, and not just the big pieces of metal whirring around it.

And I'm sure I'd be talking about either the grinder or our new water purification system (excitement!) if I hadn't been jolted from my mechanized stupor by a challenge posted to my wall (for those of you not familiar with facebook, your wall is not a physical fortification, but a forum in which you and your friends humiliate each other publicly) yesterday by my "friend" tore:

What I don't understand, is why anything BUT indonesian coffee is roasted... I'm just saying.

It poses a good question, along the lines of "why doesn't everybody ride a tall bike?" The truth is that, despite our intense genetic similarity to one another, not every one one of us enjoys the same thing.

Indonesians have a very distinct flavor profile that appeals to a lot of coffee drinkers. This is due largely to the "wet-hull" process that is unique to Indonesian coffee farms and mills and in which the fruit is pulped after picking, and allowed to rest for 1-3 days with mucilage still on the bean before it is stripped of its parchment and sun-dried (this description recapitulates Tom's of sweet marias in severely attenuated form). The resulting coffees are big-bodied, earthy, and only mildly acidic.

The wet-hull method, because it keeps the coffee at high moisture content for several days, often results in defective coffees, so they often perform poorly in cuppings (a standardized form of coffee evaluation and grading). However, cup quality often differs from actual drinking experience, and minor defects are overlooked next to the uniquely bold flavor of good indos.

Some coffee drinkers, though, still go for those clean-cup washed coffees that are all acid and sweetness - and for you (prepare yourself, I'm plugging product) Bittersweet is offering a new Single Origin Coffee from the Yirga Cheffe region of Ethiopia. Yirga Cheffe has grown famous for its pyrotechnic heirloom coffees, and this lot is exemplary: The fragrance and aroma are floral with notes of lemon, blueberry and peach tea, and the liquor is bright and sweet on the palate with a tea-like finish.

Not to gush, but Steve (the Emperor Palpatine to my Darth Vader) and I are very excited about this coffee's potential, and are glad to have nabbed some of it before it disappeared. So whether you ride a pennyfarthing or a trek madone covered in butterflies, come in and grab a cup and see what Yirga Cheffe has to offer.

Monday, March 22, 2010


Posted below is an "epic" photo I took the other day of two group pistons in compressed and decompressed positions to give a sort of cross-section shot of how a shot gets pulled in a lever machine. After much fretting about how to work this photo into a legit post, I've decided to simply post it as is because my head feels, to quote the White Stripes, full of pancake batter.
Also, I hope everyone is duly impressed with the fact that I can now place text around pictures, instead of just below them.


Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Newest family member

So, so,

This blog seems, so far, to be centered around coffee machines rather than coffee itself, a trend that I promise to curb once we get retail operations underway here at the warehouse. However we have a new addition to the family, pulled from a Dallas Starbucks, that comes to us via ebay, my first espresso mill - the mazzer major.

Now some of you (or all two of you, the size of my readership doesn't really allow for factions) may object to ebay purchases of equipment formerly owned by large, heartless coffee mega-chains. But let me remind you that there is a certain marketplace vibe and esprit-de-corps that survives on sites like ebay, despite the alienating medium of the internet and the fact that you will never meet the person with whom you are doing business.

For example, not only did auktionia send the promised grinder, but he sent it with approximately 70g of Starbucks coffee still in it. I am not sure if the coffee was intended for grind adjustment or to season my espresso machine or just as a sample of a roast he found particularly savory, but I find this kind of heartfelt consideration wholly absent in my dealings with major retailers.

I also appreciate items that feel like they've been used. This grinder not only shows the wear of a high-volume coffee shop - it also comes with a custom sign that reads "regular: 2 pulls" that I'm sure would up its value on antiques roadshow. Coincidentally, this is the same number of pulls I take in the morning to fortify myself before going to work. I'm sure if I worked at a Starbucks that number would be significantly higher, but would end in some very sloppy vente caramel macchiatos, hence the need for regulation. In any case, it's good to know that Starbucks knows how to be lenient within reason.

But, well-worn or no, this is a great grinder. Or as Steve would say, "all grinders suck, but this one sucks less." It has a bigger burr set than other flat burr grinders and rotates at lower speeds, meaning the coffee grounds are heated less, are charged with less static electricity and are of a more uniform size - all information which I'm sure excites you as much as it does me. In the end it means a slightly better shot of espresso - a theory I'm excited to test when we roll up the roll-up and start serving in April.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Oh - How rude of me

Upon reflection, I feel remiss kicking off this blog with a post about an espresso machine, when really, the true workhorse of our coffee operation is, and will always remain, the roaster. Pictured above, this machine stands about as tall as I do (5'9 on a good day) and is just about the smallest commercial roaster you're ever likely to see. Batch size is limited to seven green pounds, although right now we are working with five pound batches.

It's also just about one of the simplest machines I've ever had to work with, and I can't tell you how grateful I am for that. Taking this thing apart involves about three tools, two of which are standard hex wrenches; and the cleaning is mostly about our shop vac and some high temp grease.

My brother came by the warehouse recently and mentioned, with youthful californian verve, that the roaster looked "hella steampunk," and I have to say that I agree. I think part of the charm of roasting coffee in small batches, and on this machine in particular, is that the technology is actually fairly old, which allows a lot of it to operate mechanically rather than electronically - hence the vaguely antique look of the machine (it was actually manufactured in the nineties).

So, boom. I hope everyone feels introduced. I have no cute, ironic or witty nicknames for this machine as yet, although I am accepting suggestions.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Inaugural Blend

Hello! I am Ian Riley, intrepid (I hope) coffee roaster at Bittersweet Cafe, here in cyberspace to keep you updated on our coffee program and answer queries and comments pertaining to that most invigorating of hot, infused beverages.

To recap: We began roasting coffee in August 2009 with our inaugural drip blend, Faultline, followed shortly thereafter by our first Single Origin offering, Finca La Florencia from Guatemala, and our espresso blend, Long Day's Journey.

We are currently serving Faultline (a blend of Sumatran and Ethiopian coffees), Long Day's Journey (mainly Brazilian dry processed coffee with a splash of Kenyan for spice and verve) and a single origin Brazilian from Fazenda Aurea in the Cerrado region of Brazil.

For more information on our coffee, or to just buy a whole bunch of it, please visit our webpage!

We are currently hustling and bustling here at the warehouse to get a weekly espresso service going out of the garage door. Hopefully, we will be supplying the people of Berkeley with top-notch espresso within a month.

In the mean time, I attached some pictures (which are, for reasons beyond my comprehension, posted at the top of this post) of our 2 group Astoria lever machine in mid refurb. I fondly refer to this machine as 'one-eye' due to it's missing fork cowling on one group. One-eye is a lot like the basketball 'Wilson' to my Tom Hanks in the much-ballyhooed and subsequently much-forgotten movie Cast Away in that we have a lot of one-sided, slightly psychotic conversations.

By the way, that green mineral deposit lining the inside of the boiler (called 'scale') is one of several reasons to use only filtered water for your espresso adventures.

Happy Brewing!