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.