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LA Coffee Tour: G+B

Two weeks ago, I spent a whirlwind 36 hours drinking coffee in Los Angeles. Coffee touring is well-matched to a sprawling place like LA, an excuse to ramble around a strange city with purpose. Part of being enamored with LA’s coffee scene, I know, was just having a “way in” to a place that otherwise feels mostly incomprehensible to me (strip malls? everywhere?). The longer I’m attached to it, the more I’m forced to concede that coffee is a club, with it’s own coded language and markers of belonging. But in a foreign place, it’s wonderful to have symbols to lean against.

The Angelenos have been gunning for the mantle of “hottest coffee city” for a while now. Perhaps it was all the sunshine, but I may be ready to concede them the title. With only a day and half, I didn’t get to a fraction of the places on my list (there are so many!). Those I did visit charmed me immensely. My undisputed favorite was G+B.

G+B

It took me almost half hour to unlock the mysteries of the food menu at G+B’s patron-partner, the inspired SQIRL, and get down to the task of ordering coffee. I couldn’t do it on my own. Instead, Charles Babinski (he of the “B”),  gently escorted me out of my helplessness to an order of brussels sprouts with egg and toast with “blubarb” jam. (I’ll get back to those in a minute.) I asked him to recommend something special in the drinks department, something I would be unlikely to find elsewhere. He was gracious in his reply: “We pride ourselves on doing the regular things really well.”

Pure, yes, but not puritanical.

So nothing fizzing or foaming, or called “Geisha.” At G+B, there are scales and refractometers, but they’re refreshingly out of sight.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not above gimmicks. But Babinski and his partner, Kyle Glanville, achieve magic without them. They manage to be pure without being puritanical. Ferreting out the best coffee, from a predictably small list of roasters around the country, they take time with each to find exactly where it sings. Each coffee they serve is served only one way—the way they can make it maximally delicious. Heart‘s Ethiopia Yukro was the best cold brew I’ve ever had (“Really?” asked Babinski, as if sad for me). It’s a bright coffee to start, and the refreshing citrus came through loud as a bell on ice, but then it resolved into a syrupy caramel that ran to the end of the block and back.

In the “different” department, Babinksi did acquiesce a bit and steer me to their almond milk cappuccino (the nut milk is made in-house). I loved it, but to really do the drink justice you’d have to rename it. Call it amandine, or anything to keep people from dismissing it as an ersatz substitute, when really it’s a whole new thing. Almonds are an especially oily nut; when soaked in water before being ground, the oils pass easily into the water to make “milk”. It went together with espresso in a masculine way, emphasizing its heavier, folksier qualities. If a regular cappuccino is dreamily looking up at clouds, the almond-milk version is hands-stuffed-in-your-pants-staring-at-a-country-road. The nut milk had an earthy sweetness, thinner than cow’s milk but heavier on the tongue, with just a touch of grit. Unusual for a coffee drink, it was actually thirst-quenching—like horchata, but without the teeth-numbing sweetness. (The espresso was Epic, from 49th Parallel.)

In conversation, Glanville mentions that they are toying with the idea of pre-sweetening lattes for those who want them that way. Think Dunkin’ Donuts: “Two milks, one sugar.” Despite the protestations of coffee purists, 95% of people that buy a latte put sugar in it. “So why don’t we determine the optimal sweetness of a drink and do it for you?” asks Glanville. It’s a fine question.

Perhaps I loved G+B so much because coffee isn’t even the main attraction. That honor goes to Jessica Kaslow’s SQIRL—a sort of magic workshop where small bites are transfigured into big flavors. Toasts, jams, “two-faced” sandwiches, and bowls of veggies. I have never had a better bowl of Brussels sprouts. The blubarb (blueberry rhubarb) jam was sweet for my taste, but still made a fine duvet for a thick, pillowy slice of bread.

If you don’t like affogado because you think it’s an affront to coffee, I don’t want to be your friend.—Babinski

Kaslow lends space to G+B (it’s kind of a “pop up”) but their contract is up in April. The tenuousness of the project is unquestionably part of its charm—the whole thing feels of a particular moment. Even the space has the feel of serendipity and impermanence. Pure, but not puritanical. It doesn’t look like a typical cafe—if anything, it reads more like a New York lunch counter. It’s narrow and cobbled together. The geometrical blue paint is chipping, the metal shelves behind the bar are cluttered. There are no tables, anywhere. Inside are two small counters where you can take a stool and assume the position of a regular. Outside, on a shaded patio, it feels otherwordly. Svelte birds preen, perching their plates and drinks and bangles on too few, too small stools. Eating in the sun? Makeup for breakfast? Bracelets? I’m not from a sunny, sophisticated place—it’s all too romantic. I love it.

Babinski and his partner, Kyle Glanville, were stoic about what might come next. Possibly, an extension of the lease. They are looking for permanent cafe space, but G+B has proven more successful than they envisioned. Whatever it is, I’m in.

 

 

 

Coffee at Home

Last week, I taught a beginner’s class on making coffee at home at 18 Reasons, the amazing community education space connected to BiRite Market in San Francisco. Ariel Soto-Suver, a reporter from the SF Bay Guardian, was there and took some wonderful photos of the class and wrote up a little piece about it. There were 24 people in the class and they asked great questions. Every single one of them deserved kudos for coming to a two-hour class on coffee at the very end of the day (7-9 pm!).

You can check out thumbs of the photos below, or see the whole gallery over on the Bay Guardian site.

It always a bit funny for me to do these events because on the one hand, I have achieved some definite next-level knowledge of coffee in the last couple of years. But I wouldn’t call myself an expert by any means. Case in point: I almost never talk about coffee and make it at the same time. I totally underestimated how long it would take to make two carafes full of coffee using a V-60 pour over and got all flustered at the start of class (hopefully it didn’t show too much!). It took me a bit to work my way back to a comfortable rhythm, but everyone hung in with me. Troopers. Anyway, it put a fine point on what a demanding skill set it is to make coffee. It’s not difficult, exactly, but it does take quite a bit of practice and it’s very physical. I hadn’t been reminded of that in a long time — since I was last serving customers behind a coffee bar, over five years ago now.

Coffee Cocktail: Ginger Cup

One of the best things about the launch party for Left Coast Roast back in August was a cocktail that barman Kelley Swenson came up with: The Ginger Cup. He was kind enough to provide the recipe for it:

Ginger Cup

2 oz Bourbon (90 – 101 proof preferred)
3/4 oz coffee syrup
Ginger beer
Seltzer water

In a double rocks glass add the whiskey and coffee syrup. Stir. Add ice and fill with ginger beer. Top with a splash of soda!

Coffee Syrup

Pick a robust and “coffee-like” single origin coffee or blend that can stand up to sugar. A coffee that’s good in milk should be good in this cocktail [in other words, probably aim for a blend, or a single origin coffee from Latin America; steer away from African coffees or those that list more delicate fruit flavors in the tasting notes. -HN] Brew according to your preferred method. Combine 1 part hot coffee to 1 part granulated sugar and stir until disolved. Bottle and refrigerate.

Portland’s 20 Best Coffeehouses

Just out from Eater PDX is a guide to Portland’s 20 best coffeehouses, compiled by Sprudge.com editor and man-about-town Jordan Michelman. Lots of left coast roasters on the list, including Stumptown, Boyds, Clive, Courier, Coava, Cellar Door, Extracto, Heart, Public Domain, Ristretto, Sterling, and Water Avenue. Phew. But also on the list are plenty of top-notch cafes that you won’t find in the book because they don’t roast their own. Perhaps most notable is the new microcafe Maglia Rosa, located inside West End Bikes downtown. The cafe is run by veteran barista and former U.S. Barista Champion Phuong Tran, who (according to the cafe’s Twitter feed), is “going to be sucker punching people with killer coffee and showing young pups old tricks.” We believe it.

Check the full list over at EaterPDX.

International Interlude: Coffee Collective

On a recent trip to Denmark to visit family, I was fortunate to get to visit one of the contenders for best boutique roastery in the world: Coffee Collective.

Years ago, I met the Collective’s founder (Klaus Thomsen, then of Estate Coffee) in Portland. After winning the World Barista Champion title he was hosting a local competition at which I was judging. I’m not sure he could have been any nicer. Regardless, he went on to found and foster one of the most highly regarded coffee companies in the world.

What’s so great about Coffee Collective? For one, the fluffy stuff: The design geek part of me is instantly enamored of their look. The whole colorful geometry thing may have jumped the shark a bit (especially in Europe — jeez, it’s everywhere) but that doesn’t stop me from loving it.

But really, they take coffee to a higher level. From buying to roasting to serving, they pretty much nail everything—and they do it in their own way. CC follows a Nordic approach to coffee, which emphasizes filter coffee over espresso (but of course they offer both), and really plays up the fruitiness and nuance of great coffees. They roast light, but do so thoughtfully—you won’t find a grassy or sour flavor profile in their lineup. Kenyan coffees shine with them. (I brought three bags home.)

And I adore any high end coffee company that serves a shakerato (espresso with simple syrup, shaken in a cocktail shaker with ice). Something magical happens in the shaker that brightens the acidity to a crisp, refreshing peak. It’s proof that not all sugar is anathema to good coffee. It’s summery and fun.

In Portland, Heart Roasters has worked to bring the Nordic approach to the West Coast, and I’m thrilled to have been able to visit one of their muses.

I’ll say one critical thing, though—not about the Collective specifically, but about high end coffee more generally. There’s an aspect of it that does exactly what I think it’s proponents have tried to avoid: It repeats itself. Coffee Collective, while gorgeous, is not terribly different looking or feeling than other high end coffee bars in Europe and the U.S. (This isn’t necesarily because they have intentionally mimicked others—perhaps the reality is more the other way around.) In any case, it’s a place I feel instantly comfortable because it speaks the same visual language as other high end coffee bars. I know exactly where I am the minute I step inside one of these spaces. Don’t get me wrong — I love ’em. But there’s a sameness to them that I think goes unquestioned. And it goes deeper than just how things look: I was somewhat surprised to find on their small menu a coffee from the Finca Vista Hermosa farm in Guatemala. The farm is owned by Edwin Martinez, who spends the better part of each year in Bellingham, Washington. Partly as a result, his direct trade coffees are almost ubiquitous in high end cafes in the Northwest. It’s a bit of a shock to go all the way to Denmark and find the same coffees as I would in Portland. But the apex of the coffee market is a small place. Which also makes it a crowded one—and occasionally an echo chamber. This is especially tricky for roasters that focus on single origin coffees. Without a house blend to define them, these roasters become in some ways an extension of the farm brands they carry (and let’s not mince words, farms like Vista Hermosa have indeed become brands). That makes it doubly difficult to differentiate in substantive ways from other high end roasters that carry the same coffees. It’s something I’ve been mulling for a while—and running into a familiar coffee in Denmark just brought it all home.

Seattle Eater Updates Coffee Heat Map

Foodie gossip guide Eater Seattle has just updated its Coffee Heat Map with the hottest spots in the Emerald City. The list includes some cafes that have been around for ages, like Victrola and Vivace, and newcomers like Milstead & Co. Especially notable is the inclusion of Canlis, a Seattle restaurant that opened in 1950 but got a complete overhaul in 2005. Even more recently, they revamped their coffee menu, adding a full espresso bar with Intelligentsia Coffee and a pour over bar that features coffee from various quality-focused roasters.

Seattle Eater's Coffee Heat Map