Thursday, April 1, 2010

Mukka Express Americano

So last night, my wife dragged me to a John Mayer concert. That was one end of a burning candle. Then this morning, I needed to drag my kindergartner out of bed to finish her math homework. That was the other end of the burning candle. My groggy head was at the middle.

My normal two cups of French press coffee just wasn't cutting it. When that happens, I usually break out the Mukka Express and make a quasi-cappuccino. Hey, it isn't the best thing you ever had, but it does the job. Well, I opened the fridge and it dawned on me that my kids snarfed up all of the milk in the house this morning for breakfast.

They say that necessity is the mother of invention. I decided to try to see how an americano would turn out in the Mukka Express. Frankly, I didn't care if it tasted like crap. When I'm in desperate need of caffeine, my standards drop. I made the americano exactly like I make a cappuccino, but just substituted water for the milk.

When the coffee was released through the valve into the top compartment, I thought something was wrong because of the brown color instead of black, but it was just the "crema" being formed as the coffee passed through the valve.

I should have taken a picture since the crema looked really decent. The taste of the americano completely blew away my expectations. I just made French press coffee this morning anyways, so comparing the two was easy. Just like a good americano, the Mukka americano has that strong coffee taste without the heavy, almost chewy mouthfeel of the French press coffee.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Tougo (Capitol Hill)

I am tired. I am really tired. I am that kind of tired that is described so well by the narrator in Fight Club. Have you ever felt so out of it that you feel like you are awake, but the portion of your brain that controls the thought process is off? You are in a daze, your eyes are open, but your level of consciousness in your brain only controls physical movement. That is me today. I'm not sure if it is because my body thinks I'm still on central time. I'm not sure if it is because I'm about 36 hours into my normal eating pattern of no processed foods or sugar after a week of gluttony in the Midwest. One thing is certain. I am tired.

Deep down I know that the way to get back on track is to hunker down and plow through it, but I'm just not strong enough for it. I know I sound like a typical whiny bitch, but frankly, today I just don't care. I am in need of caffeine.

Last night, a friend gave me a coffee house recommendation. Like a crack ho who just couldn't say no, I was eager to oblige. This morning I went to Tougo Coffee. The first thing I thought was "WTF kind of name is that?". I wondered if my Asian restaurant name rule could be applicable to coffee as well. For those of you who don't know the rule, the quality of an Asian restaurant is inversely related to the sound of the restaurant's name. For example, a restaurant called Triple Happiness Seafood will be a great place. House of Hunan will suck.

Tougo is located at 1410 18th Ave in Seattle (Capitol Hill).

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They are quite clear about which side of the political spectrum that they support. On a normal day, I might get all pissy about it, but right now I could care less.

It is a nice little casual coffee house in a residential neighborhood across the street from an elementary school. How quaint?

As usual, I ordered a small latte. The first thing I noticed was that the barista has a case of OCD. I watched him make several drinks before he got to mine. As someone who has an on again off again case of OCD, it is easy to spot in others. When tamping the coffee into the naked portafilter, it was obvious that this guy was much more exacting than the average barista. My gut was right on this place. This was a fine cup of coffee. It was big and bold. It had the intensity of a brand new California Cabernet that is full of oak. When you take a sip, it smacks you. I was very happy with this latte. While I have grown very fond of Stumptown's nicely subtle flavors, sometimes you want something more assertive.

Man oh man, I was brain dead today. Normally, I take a picture of the coffee before I start to drink it, but today isn't normal as you might have noticed.

If I was able to converse today, I would have asked the barista if the beans come from Cafe Vita. I'll have to assume that they do, since the cup was from Cafe Vita. This latte did taste similar to Cafe Vita, so I'll just go with it. Honestly, I prefer Tougo to Cafe Vita. The OCD barista at Tougo did a better job at tapping the steamed milk to dissipate the large air bubbles and the Tougo coffee was smoother.

One thing I forgot to mention is that Tougo has a fairly large room in back for children. After spending 10 days in France where children aren't supposed to be in public, this is very welcoming. Sometimes you have the children along and just don't want to deal with snotty people.

If you happen to be in Capitol Hill, this is a really decent place.

Tougo Coffee Co. on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Antonia Cafe, Nice France

Ok, so you are probably thinking why I'm writing about coffee in France since this is a Seattle Coffee blog. If it were not for Howard Schultz's visit to Europe and his idea of recreating Italian coffee here in the US, the popularity of espresso based drinks and therefore all of the small high end coffee shops wouldn't be what they are today. I wanted to compare the coffee that I've been having recently to what is made in Europe.

My wife and I needed to get away from the mist and cold of Seattle, so we headed to Nice, France for a few days of a 10 day trip to France. Since on the first morning my wife and kids were sound asleep, I snuck out to get my daily dose of caffeine. About 100 feet from the apartment that we rented was a small outdoor cafe: Antonia Cafe. For those of you who are movie buffs, Place Rossetti was where a scene in Ronin [Blu-ray]was filmed. Shortly after the group stole the case and Gregor escaped, DeNiro left the apartment and was in a small square watching a group sing outside a church.

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Back to coffee. The first thing that you notice when you look at a coffee menu in France is that the terms don't exactly match what we have in the US. An espresso is usually called an expresso, and everything else is a cappucino, even though they are called different things. The main difference is how much milk that they add. A cafe au lait is like a small cappucino, a cappucino is a medium cappucino, and a cafe creme is a large cappucino. In the US, the major distinction between a latte and a cappucino is that the latte has no foam and the cappucino does. Everything over there has foam.

That aside, the coffee over there is just blah. It isn't good at all. Since I didn't have much luck with the milk based drinks, I switched to espresso. It didn't help. It's just crap coffee. Honestly, I don't know if it was old beans, bad beans, horrible attention to detail, bad milk or a combination of the above, but I wasn't impressed. If you are used to drinking coffee from a reputable place in Seattle, the average cafe in France will pale in comparison. I was hoping to go to the Illy location in Paris, but it was too far away to make sense.

One thing that I give to the French is how they drink their coffee. When they are going out to drink coffee, they plant their ass in a chair and take their time. They drink out of a real cup. My biggest pet peeve about coffee in the US is the use of disposable cups to such a high degree. These soccer moms have an Obama bumper sticker on their Prius, but have to carry around a big 'ole disposable paper cup with the plastic lid. For God's sake, they will even drink their coffee in a disposable cup when they are drinking at the damn coffee shop. The coffee in France might be crap, but at least they can spare an extra 10 minutes out of their day to just sit and contemplate life for a while instead of living life at such a frenetic pace.

Ok, so what do they do over there if they need to drink something quickly and they truly can't spare 10 or 15 minutes? Let me clue you in to a little secret: think about the word espresso. Doesn't it sound similar to express? as in quick? Espresso was specifically designed to be made quickly and consumed quickly. The typical European business person will walk into a cafe, order an espresso, plop a euro or 2 down on the counter, throw some sugar in there and shoot it down in less than 2 minutes. Guess what? They didn't have to walk around parading with their precious paper cup for all to see.

Monday, April 6, 2009

How to tell if your coffee is fresh

Late last week, I was running low on beans and just happened to be in Seattle, so I dropped by Stumptown Roasters to pick up a bag. Even though my fist review of them put them slightly behind some of the other local shops, they are a much better shop than 4.0 on a 5.0 scale. When I need beans or just want some coffee to drink, I just seem to go there instead of some other places. A day or so before I went to REI in downtown Seattle to get a water sterilizer for my wife's upcoming trip to India. Espresso Vivace is right accross the street, so if I'm that close I'm going to get some coffee there. I got an espresso since I didn't have a bunch of time to sit around (isn't that what espresso is all about?). Since I went to Stumptown a day later, I ordered an espresso there for comparison purposes. Honestly, I assumed that the Espresso Vivace would be slightly better, but I was wrong. They tasted similar, but the Stumptown Espresso had a caramely sweet finish. Damn, it was good.

Enough rambling, on to he reason for the post: freshly roasted coffee. The primary way to tell if coffee is fresh without even tasting it is to watch it when it is brewing. Take a look at this video:

This is some Honduras Finca El Puente that was 4 days old when I brewed it. As roasted coffee ages, it continues to off-gas to a point when it becomes stale. When you brew freshly roasted coffee, you can watch the coffee bubble as the gas is released. Midway through the video, you can clearly see the coffee bubble. That is the signal of good things to come. Most of the stuff that you buy in a grocery store is going to be stale by the time that you brew it. I've heard that some of the larger coffee roasters use a technique to help keep the coffee fresh. They package the coffee quickly after it is roasted in a sealed bag. The off-gassing that occurs naturally keeps everything sealed away from oxygen which helps to preserve the coffee.

If you enjoy drinking fresh coffee, try to seek out a local roaster. If you don't have a roaster nearby, most of the coffee shops that I've reviewed will ship their coffee. It is well worth it. I used to add half & half to my coffee. I just realized why. The answer is very simple: I made crappy coffee and the half & half just covered the bad taste. When you make good, fresh coffee adding dairy just kills the subtle nuances of the coffee. Go out and get some good coffee. Life is too short to drink crappy coffee.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Starbucks VIA Instant Coffee

This was an unexpected early morning for me since my younger daughter woke up hungry at 3:45am and was yelling "cracker, cracker, cracker". I blew through my 2 monster mugs of French Press coffee, but I was still walking around like a zombie. Last week my wife came home with a few samples of the new Starbucks VIA instant coffee, so I figured it would give me some additional caffeine.

VIA instant coffee is a result of years of R&D to come up with a way of grinding their beans in a way to supposedly preserve the oils and flavor of their coffee. In a nutshell, it is their coffee beans ground to a superfine powder that dissolves to make a cup of coffee.

To be fair, I made the VIA in exactly the same manner as I use to make French press coffee to now skew the results. First I boil the water for the coffee and once the electric kettle shuts off, I let it rest for 50 seconds to allow the water to cool enough to avoid scalding the coffee, but hot enough to get the full taste.

I made a cup using the Italian Roast coffee packet. The taste is very similar to what you'd get from the Starbucks store. It tastes burnt just like the real thing. Why can't they roast their beans in a way so that they won't get burnt? I don't know if they buy crappy beans and have to roast the crap out of them to cover up the bad beans, but all I taste is burnt coffee. They do make a Columbia medium roast as well, so I'll report back after I have a chance to try that.

The interesting thing is that the instant coffee tastes so similar to the store made coffee. The grinding process for the instant coffee seems to be a success, but they are still using an inferior coffee. To use the old computer nerd analogy: garbage in / garbage out. If they were able to produce good coffee beans, I bet that the instant version would be decent.

The only use that I'd consider purchasing this for would be backpacking. In that context, I have a few requirements: a jolt of caffeine, light weight, easy clean up, and minimal waste. This coffee meets all of the requirements. I made a trip last summer to the Goat Rocks area of the Cascade Mountain range and brought tea bags along. While the tea is a decent option, I still have to package it to bring it along and then have to pack out a soggy tea bag. The nice thing about the Starbucks instant is that it is in a self contained package that could get wet and not compromise the contents as well as having very minimal garbage to pack out. I'm not interested in pursuing a world class cup of joe when I'm out backpacking. The trip itself is enough to satisfy me and I'm not about to add extra weight to my pack to get a good cup of coffee.

If you are a backpacker, this will probably suit your needs assuming that you can live with the store made Starbucks coffee.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Bodum Chambord French Press

Until I bought my Freiling French Press, the Bodum Chambord was the French Press that I used for years. There isn't going to be any glaring differences in the quality of the coffee you will make using different French Presses. As long as the mesh screen is held tightly against the wall, it's going to make good coffee.

Unless you need a durable coffee pot like the stainless steel Freiling, it comes down to aesthetic appeal. Ok, I guess I should take a step back: don't get a plastic walled French Press. The plastic will give off a taste that will affect the coffee's final taste. With all of the scare about baby bottles being bad news, do you really want Bisphenol A leaching into you coffee? I don't know about you, but that kind of ruins it for me. I notice a taste difference when I pour my coffee into a travel mug, which is a supposedly more chemical resistant plastic than polycarbonate, so I know I'm not messing around with the plastic French Presses. Sorry for the rant.

The Bodum is a nice French Press. It looks attractive on the counter and disassembles easily for cleaning. You can also buy replacement glass in case you happen to break yours.
Here's my Bodum:If your plan on only using the French press at home, I wouldn't hesitate to pick one of these up.

Freiling Stainless Steel French Press

My standard coffee at home is made in a French Press. They just make good coffee. It's that simple. They will blow away any of the standard drip coffee machines. I've tried Krups, Mr Coffee, Braun, etc. They all suck. If you want something easy and convenient, by all means, get a drip machine. If you buy your coffee already ground, get a drip machine.

But if coffee means more to you than getting your caffeine fix, get a French Press. They are cheap, readily available, and make damn good coffee. I discuss how to make good coffee in this post.

My current French Press is a Freiling double walled, stainless steel version. A while back, I was getting ready for a camping trip and I wanted something better than tea made from a tea bag, so I thought of bringing my glass walled French Press along for the ride. My camping trips involve loading all of my stuff in my Land Rover and bouncing down the trails. Glass? Something just didn't seem right about stuffing a thin glass French Press in a box with a bunch of metal stuff. Murhpy's law hasn't treated me well in the past, so I started searching out some alternatives.

After spending some time on Amazon, I found the Freiling:

This is a nice heavy chunk of stainless steel. It has some heft to it. One really nice feature about it for traveling like I do is that it is double walled. I think the designer of the press probably wanted to design an insulated French Press. The whole concept of an insulated French Press is a flawed concept. The French Press is for making coffee, not storing it. You should make your coffee, and get it out of the press right after you press the grounds down to the bottom. If you leave the coffee, it will continue to steep in the grounds and will get nasty. In my application, the double wall would allow for dings and dents on the outside of the press and the inner wall would remain unscathed. The inner wall needs to be perfect, or the coffee grounds will pass by the plunger since the seal against the wall will be compromised.

If you want a good French Press that will double as a camping coffee pot, this is the one for you.