Trubaca Gets Towned

Yesterday we had the pleasure of sitting down with conversationalist extraordinaire Patrick Melroy and his right hand man “Raging” Ray Douglas to chat about coffee, barista competitions, and of course: Heather Perry. Take a listen if you dare to get to know us a little bit better, and you’ll probably have the best time ever.

Check the links below for more awesome episodes of Towned including two interviews with coffee sensationalist Julia Mayer!

Towned Soundcloud

Towned iTunes

Note:

In my excitement I definitely mixed my facts up about one of my favorite coffee farms ever: Elida Estate. It was actually Robert Lamastus (not Thatcher as I mistakenly stated) who moved from Kentucky to work on the Panama Canal and fell in love with Elida; Thatcher is actually Robert’s son. Wilford  is Thatchers son, and Wilford Jr. is Wilfords son, making Elida a 4th generation family farm! The estate was established in 1918 meaning Elida Estate will be 100 years old in just a few years. There’s a cool picture of Robert and Elida here: Elida Estate 1932.

Thanks to Wilford Jr. for helping me get my facts dialed in. Keep making amazing coffees!

-Baca

A Rising Tide Lifts All Boats

Trade secrets. Proprietary techniques. The magical silver bullet that you discovered that is going to make your company succeed where others have failed. That one thing you have that you’re so scared will get leaked because it gives away your competitive advantage. You’ve spent years working on it – all your hard work and R&D is rolled into this little ball of magic that you protect with all your heart.

Well, that little ball doesn’t mean anything. No matter how talented you think you are, or how much progress you think you can make by yourself – I guarantee you could be 10x as effective if you let other people help you, and you in turn reached out to help other people. I get it…we all want our hard work to be recognized and it’s annoying when someone comes in and swoops our idea and claims it as their own. But what are we really keeping safe and at what cost?

When our careers are young we all start out freely sharing information. We don’t have a lot to “protect” so we don’t have any walls or barriers. We don’t see other people in our industry as competitors but rather as colleagues. We welcome other peoples advice with open arms, and give ours in return. These are times of tremendous growth. When your mind is open and the information is flowing you learn. A lot.

As you get better at what you do you get comfortable and cozy with your knowledge base. You develop your own style and methodologies (this is a good thing), and slowly the once wide open doors of your mind start to close (this is a bad thing). You don’t feel the urge to try new things because you’ve “done the R&D already.” You scoff at innovation and things other people do because these new things don’t fit into your system. You build your own little castle and you don’t let any new information in because well…it’s warm in your castle and if you open a window to let a new idea in you might get cold for a minute, and that’s uncomfortable.

What’s just as bad is that you don’t let any information out.

You may think you’re protecting all your hard work but what you’re really doing is falling behind; thinking you’re in the lead only to realize that the people you’ve isolated yourself from aren’t really behind you…they’re about to lap you.

It works like this:

Most people will have only 1 or 2 truly great or innovative ideas every year or so. So lets say you want to keep that idea for yourself. Great. You’re now the proud owner of one great idea.

Now lets take a look at your “competition.” They also had one great idea but they decided they wanted to share it. If their professional network consists of 10 other people or businesses, each of whom had their own great idea that they are also willing to share – your “competition” is now the proud owner of 10 great ideas. If their network is 20 people/business = 20 great ideas; you get the picture. There’s power in numbers.

So who comes out on top: You by your lonesome with your one great idea, or the collective network with a multitude of great ideas? Congratulations. Your industry has just evolved and you were left behind because you wanted to protect all your hard work and proprietary knowledge. At least now that what you’re doing is obsolete, you still have your great idea to keep you warm at night.

The added benefit of sharing is that you also help push your industry forward. When you start sharing, the collective will come up with ideas and innovations that none of the individuals would have thought of alone. It’s the power of the brainstorm, the collective energy, and the team. It’s about contributing to something bigger than yourself. It’s about being motivated to do things to improve your craft as a whole instead of just doing them selfishly. It feels good.

This topic is near and dear to my heart because I went through this dark zone myself for a while. It was a horrible time, and I wasn’t even aware of how bad it was until I had my head pulled out of my ass by a few awesome friends. I’ll never get caught in that trap again and knowing that feels great. Recapturing the things that made me fall in love with coffee, this industry, these people, YOU people, has been nothing short of amazing.

So there ya go. Spread the love people. Bill Nye nailed it when he said: “Everyone you will ever meet knows something you don’t.” Let’s use that attitude to open our minds, drive progress, and most importantly have fun.

-Chris Baca

What Makes a Legend

I woke up this morning to a text from my dad: “B.B. King passed, 89 years.” This gave me a strange feeling in the back of my stomach…it seemed like just a few years ago I was with my dad in Sacramento watching him live; telling stories, talking trash, and just having a good time.

No one would argue that B.B. King is a legend. No one person has been as associated with an entire genre of music as he is with the blues. But why? What makes a legend? What gives certain people the ability to transcend their most basic mortal form and morph into something larger…something timeless. Is it skill and technical ability? Innate talent? High intellectual capacity? I don’t think so. In my mind it boils down to three basic attributes:

  • The Ability to Inspire
  • A Unique Sense of Style or Individuality
  • Consistency

Legends are inspirational. They have the ability to make us drag ourselves off the couch when we’re feeling low. They’re great storytellers. They understand how to connect with people in a very real way…a way that even the hippest marketing departments can’t even come close to. They love what they do and live in the moment. They’re the most alive and vibrant when they’re immersed in their craft. When I saw B.B. he had a story for every song. Throughout the show I felt like I was getting slowly pulled into his world and all of a sudden the music was so much more than just music…it was like he opened up a fourth dimension for the crowd. It was incredible.

In the world of coffee I don’t think these inspirational people live in labs or do “Q.C.” They’re not absentee owners. They don’t have silly titles like Director of Business Development, and they sure as hell don’t spend the bulk of their days in strategy meetings. People who inspire are in the mix. They’re in their cafes radiating their passion to their employees. They know their customers – the people who believe in them enough to make a $5 dollar cup of coffee a daily habit. They open up that fourth dimension for their employees, co-workers, and customers. People see this and take notice. It’s infectious.

Legends are unique. They do things in a way that feels right to them, even if it’s not in popular opinion. Breaking rules is a daily occurrence for them but they don’t even think about it; they’re just doing what they do. There’s a certain amount of “flare” to what they do. Sometimes this flare is tied to technical skill but often it lives independently of sheer skill. Was B.B. a good guitar player? Sure. Was he the most technically skilled guitar player ever? Not even close. But if you’ve seen him live and you hear that buttery tone that just oozes out of his amplifier, you immediately know that it doesn’t matter at all. He’s got his trademark sound and it shines through whether he’s hitting one note, or a thousand in a row.

In the world of coffee these types of people are the best baristas. Their brains allow them to figure out unique approaches to common, nagging problems. They fix things that no one else even realized were broken. They come up with better systems for workflow and customer service without even trying. Most importantly they do it with their own flare that comes straight from their soul…It’s amazing how much people will notice something so seemingly intangible. They might not have a refractometer, know their exact extraction percentage, or even have any formal training. But their coffee always tastes delicious, and taste doesn’t lie.

Legends are built over decades. They don’t dabble in things and flip-flop when the road gets rough. They do what they do because they have to…because it’s a part of them. There’s a reason everyone knows B.B. King. He didn’t become the quintessential blues musician by having a 2, 5, or even 10 year career. He’s been crushing albums and touring for over 60 years. Was he topping charts the whole time? Probably not. Were all the cool kids talking about the hottest new B.B. album? Not to my knowledge. Did it matter? Hardly. This man will be seen as “The King of the Blues” for the rest of eternity. Even if you’re not the who’s who in the hottest social media or blog trends, it’s hard to argue with a 60 year career in any capacity.

The small world of specialty coffee that we live in is so young that it’s hard to draw a parallel here. For me I think of companies who continue to focus on quality and not get blinded by the shiny new object syndrome. There are so many things that can get in the way of making amazing coffee and serving it with a smile: the allure of rapid growth and the dollars that seemingly come with it, or media hype – being featured in the latest and greatest whatever it is. I feel like the people who will come out on top and stand the test of time will be the people who focus on their craft first, and let the rest come to them. They might not have the biggest companies or the most cafes, but that’s not how we gauge quality here.

These three ideals are so powerful to me because they speak more to emotion and soul than money or logic – that’s why they’re so important. We can’t all be legends, but I think a little gut check about what’s really important never hurt anyone.

Rest in Peace B.B., Legends Never Die.

-Chris Baca

Little Dose, Big World

I’ve competed in a couple barista competitions, I’ve done fairly well, and I’ve noticed something odd. Most of the winners of Barista competitions these days are dosing close to, if not more than, 20 grams into the portafilter. I am a fan of this dosing style; my go-to is 20g into the portafilter and extracting in a 1:2+ ratio (20in and 42-44out +/-). That’s not what’s odd to me.

What’s weird is that in my entire tenure as a barista I have been made to feel like I was wrong for doing so high. Yes, I know back in the day I pulled facemelters at 24g in, 18-20g out in 42sec. Yes, see also Bear Pond.

So why does the larger dose get a bad rap?

Why do most people pull 17-18 gram doses shots in their shops? I get that the ratio can be 1:2 still, that sits well. But why does the competition of all competitions lead baristas to make coffee in a different way? Why do the winners of the Barista competitions never do this? Pete Licata 20 to sometimes over 21grams in. Babinski 20ish grams.

If the SCAA standard for espresso calls for 14-18g dose in, shouldn’t the USBC scoring results reflect that standard? Are the scoresheets pushing them to dose higher? Or are we saying that the coffee actually tastes better that way?

I know personal preference has to come into play and that’s understandable. I do find myself getting annoyed that this industry can sit back and follow whoever taught them to dose between 17-18.5g. Perhaps I just want justification for being the weirdo who always liked shots with heavier doses.

So, why do I like the shots I like? Typically, my favorite shots are 20g or a bit more in, 38-45g out. I find that the flavor, body and finish are more pronounced this way. I find shots pulled this way to leave a lasting finish which to me leaves a lasting positive impression with the consumer. I find this style to show more pronounced flavor in Americanos and also feel a bit more stable in milk.

Shots pulled in the1:2 ratio at the 17-18g range are still very tasty. To me they are a bit thinner (even at the same overall brew ratio), have more pronounced acidity and are lighter in flavor overall. I don’t consider them to be better or worse than the shots with higher doses, just different. I do however see less room for variance in lower doses. If you are off that perfect volume in the cup the flavor can get wonky quite a bit easier than in an up-dosed extraction.

So why do you dose what you dose? Because you settled in a long time ago and haven’t tried other ways? Because you were taught to? Because you like it the best? Because your business wants to save that gram or two per dose? Whats your thought process?

I am genuinely curious about this and wonder what the general barista population would say. Again, this is not an opportunity to claim a right or wrong side for me. Ultimately my question is: If we are making coffee for our industry standard competition one way and making it for the general population another…are we giving the world our best?

Discuss!

-Jared Truby

A Day Without a Scale

When we started making espresso we didn’t have all the awesome tools we have now, and the tools we did have we really didn’t use to their full potential.

We used scales to weigh dose…sometimes. It wasn’t uncommon to break out the scale for maybe only 3 minutes of an 8 hour shift; just enough time to get a baseline. Who had the time to weigh everything anyway?

We NEVER weighed output. Recipes referred to shot volume in ounces and it was almost always a judgment call. The small shot glasses that had volumetric lines on them were hardly accurate so we mostly based things off what it looked like in the cup, then assigned it a number. “That’s 1.5 ounces!” Volumetric dosing did exist but it was so passé in the new wave of specialty coffee that if your shop had an AV machine you were instantly kicked out of the cool kids club.

The most commonly used machines didn’t have built in timers. We had stopwatches but again, who had time to start, stop and clear them before every shot? What if you were rocking all three groups? Do you have three timers clogging up your bar? No. You used one, and you used it when you could. Maybe every 10th shot?

Refractometer? Yeah right. If you would have walked up to one of us at Ritual or the Naked Lounge circa 2006 and asked us what our TDS or extraction percentage was you would have been met with a dead stare. Hell, I had a Scace device and a Fluke thermometer to measure brew water temp and I though I was cutting edge.

Technology and tools have made it so much easier for anyone to make delicious coffee…this is a good thing for sure. The more people who get better coffee, the happier we are. But are we missing something?

Lack of tools and technology forced us to find other ways to quantify quality and indications of quality. Because we didn’t use tools as a crutch and built a skill set over time using lots of tactile feedback, some amazing things happened once the use of scales, timers, and all of our other fun toys became commonplace in specialty coffee:

– We could consistently guess dose inputs within .2 of a gram and realized that even though now it was “ok” to use the scale for every shot, we really didnt have to.

– Our extraction yields were consistently accurate within two grams, even though we’d been talking in ounces and only gauging shots by eye. Again, even though everyone was now weighing output all the time we found we really didn’t need to.

– Other indicators like the feel of the coffee during redistribution, how the far the tamper sat in the portafilter when the bed was compacted, shot drop time, flow rate, visual discrepancies in extraction appearance with shots that had similar flow rates, the smell of the empty cup after the shot had ben served or passed off, were all points of feedback that were programmed into our subconscious that gave us the ability to make coffee taste great in any situation, tools or no tools. See “The Barista Creed – Seven Years Later” by Mark Prince for more on this type of thought process.

So are we suggesting everyone should go full freestyle? No.

Tools and systems are important, but you should use them as a way to hone and improve your skills and not rest on them as a crutch. Every time you put a portafilter on a scale you should make a guess as to how much coffee is in it; if you’re wildly off on a regular basis there’s some kind of adjustment that needs to be made. Same with output. Try extracting off of the scale for a bit; note the behavior of the shot and stop it when you think you’ve reached your desired output. Then check it on the scale. Cover up the timer every once in a while. Try different extractions and taste them even if the numbers suggest they should taste bad. You get the idea. Understanding the intricacies of the entire process will let you use your tools that much more effectively and efficiently, and also build in a fail-safe in case of a technological apocalypse. People will still need great coffee if all the computers, smart phones, and scales stop working.

Really the most important reason to spend a day without a scale is that it’s FUN. So fun! It might just make you fall in love with being a barista all over again. So give it a try…just don’t get fired from your job for breaking the rules.

-Team Trubaca

F.O.M.O.

Fear of Missing Out (F.O.M.O.) can be a powerful motivator…no one wants to be left behind; everyone wants to have the newest and best. In a rapidly changing, constantly evolving industry like specialty coffee if you can’t keep up with the Joneses you’re screwed right? Lets hope not.

Like any other industry specialty coffee is not immune to trends and fads. In reality because of our industry’s relative youth we’re probably more prone to rapid swings in trends than other more established industries. While rapidly changing tides are not necessarily bad in and of themselves, they seem to lead to a bit of unhealthy behavior for quite a few coffee roasters and retailers.

Everyone is way too concerned about what everyone else is doing, and for all the wrong reasons…in a nutshell: everyone has F.O.M.O. Although I’m sure there are numerous negative side effects of this keeping up with the Joneses mentality,

F.O.M.O. is most damaging to the specialty coffee industry  because it prevents pure and true stylistic exploration and development.

F.O.M.O. kind of sneaks up on us…no one sets out to be just like the next guy. We don’t put our whole financial future at stake to be a carbon copy of someone else. That’s kind of like putting it all on the line to be the world karaoke champion…no matter how well you sing Dark Horse you’re still not Katy Perry. F.O.M.O. starts to rear its ugly head when we’ve had a few successes…when we know people are starting to see us as industry leaders  so we better make sure we’re doing what the other (bigger, more established, more popular, etc.) industry leaders are doing . This is the beginning of the end. It’s the point at which you start focusing on other people and what they’re doing more than you’re focusing on yourself.

We all want to have successful businesses and careers. We all need to make a living. But that’s not why we do what we do. We do what we do because it’s an expression and an extension of who we are. We do it because we have to, and we love it. Every time I make someone an espresso or send out a bag of coffee I’ve roasted in the mail, I’m leaving my stylistic calling card. Whoever receives that is getting a small little piece of me…they get to have a taste of what I think the most amazing coffee experience can be.

Is my interpretation of the perfect coffee experience the be-all and end-all of specialty coffee? Absolutely not. Do I have incredibly strong opinions about coffee; why I like what I like, and why I do what I do? Yes. Does this mean I can’t enjoy coffee from people who completely disagree with me, or have an entirely different stance on what the best expression of specialty coffee is? Hell no!

We should embrace these stylistic differences. Be happy that we can choose to be more than just a bunch of lemmings following each other off the nearest cliff. Be happy that we have a variety of options to enjoy that are all a little bit different. Be happy that we are different than whoever the biggest, coolest kids on the block may be at any given moment. Popularity and trends will come and go, but pure expression of craft is timeless. The most pure expression of your craft is going to emerge when you stop giving a shit about what other people are doing, stop caring about what other people think is cool, and start being yourself.

So if you’re going to spend all of your time and energy keeping your finger on the pulse, just make sure the pulse you’re feeling is your own.

-Baca

The Land Before Time

With the WBC coming up this weekend my mind is racing with all kinds of thoughts on barista competitions both past and present.

I first became exposed to barista competitions sometime around 2005 and at that time (with the exception of a few standouts) the routines were pretty bad, the coffees being used were suspect by todays standards, and the signature drinks were so harsh I’m surprised the judges were able to take them down straight faced.

Barista competitions have come a long way over the past decade; the routines are more polished than ever with a higher percentage of entrants executing at a high level, competitors are bringing serious heat into the ring when it comes to coffee quality, and signature drinks are (for the most part) actually palatable.

Why then, do I find myself slightly nostalgic for the good old days?

At that time I started training (if you could call it that) for my first competition, it was damn near impossible to find videos or any other documentation of barista competitions on the web at all…you had your rules and regulations print out and that was about it. If you were lucky you knew someone who had actually done one of these things before (I didn’t) and could steer you in the right direction. But for the most part you just kind of had to wing it. So everyone was screwed right? Well, not really.

What I loved the most about barista competitions of this era is the sense of true stylistic authenticity that each competitor brought to the table. You really got the sense that what you saw in their performance was a genuine reflection of how they worked bar on the day to day, and what it was like to visit their cafe. Everyone had their own swag and a totally unique perspective on what specialty coffee was and what it could be, and I loved it! For the most part the higher caliber competitors really were the better baristas and worked for the places you could get higher quality, more well prepared coffee. Sure there have always been the show pony competitors, but as a whole the competitions gave you a nice snapshot of what real life looked like for the baristas of this era.

So are we better off now? Yes. In just about every way. But I still miss that sense of suspense, excitement, and sometimes sheer horror that came with the relative newness of barista competitions.

So if anyone is thinking about stepping up to the plate, throwing caution to the wind, maybe breaking a few rules, and just getting buck wild in front of everyone: I salute you, you’re my new favorite barista.

-Baca