Category Archives: Coffee

Judging Coffee and Beer: Answer to DoubleShot Coffee Company

DoubleShot Coffee Company: More Espresso Arguments.

I’m not in the coffee biz but I do involve myself in some coffee-related things, including barista championships (sensory judge at regional and national) and numerous discussions with coffee artisans. In other words, I’m nobody important.

In a way, I “come from” the worlds of beer and coffee homebrewing. In coffee circles, I like to introduce myself as a homeroaster and blogger.

(I’m mostly an ethnographer, meaning that I do what we call “participant-observation” as both an insider and an outsider.)

There seem to be several disconnects in today’s coffee world, despite a lot of communication across the Globe. Between the huge coffee corporations and the “specialty coffee” crowd. Between coffee growers and coffee lovers. Between professional and home baristas. Even, sometimes, between baristas from different parts of the world.
None of it is very surprising. But it’s sometimes a bit sad to hear people talk past one another.

I realize nothing I say may really help. And it may all be misinterpreted. That’s all part of the way things go and I accept that.

In the world of barista champions and the so-called “Third Wave,” emotions seem particularly high. Part of it might have to do with the fact that so many people interact on a rather regular basis. Makes for a very interesting craft, in some ways. But also for rather tense moments.

About judging…
My experience isn’t that extensive. I’ve judged at the Canadian Eastern Regional BC twice and at the Canadian BC once.
Still, I did notice a few things.

One is that there can be a lot of camaraderie/collegiality among BC participants. This can have a lot of beneficial effects on the quality of coffee served in different places as well as on the quality of the café experience itself, long after the championships. A certain cohesiveness which may come from friendly competition can do a lot for the diversity of coffee scenes.

Another thing I’ve noticed is that it’s really easy to be fair, in judging using WBC regulations. It’s subjective in a very literal way since there’s tasting involved (tastebuds belong to the “subjects” of the sensory and head judges). But it simply has very little if anything to do with personal opinions, relationships, or “liking the person.” It’s remarkably easy to judge the performance, with a focus on what’s in the cup, as opposed to the person her-/himself or her/his values.

Sure, the championship setting is in many ways artificial and arbitrary. A little bit like rules for an organized sport. Or so many other contexts.

A competition like this has fairly little to do with what is likely to happen in “The Real World” (i.e., in a café). I might even say that applying a WBC-compatible in a café is likely to become a problem in many cases. A bit like working the lunch shift at a busy diner using ideas from the Iron Chef or getting into a street fight and using strict judo rules.

A while ago, I was working in French restaurants, as a «garde-manger» (assistant-chef). We often talked about (and I did meet a few) people who were just coming out of culinary institutes. In most cases, they were quite good at producing a good dish in true French cuisine style. But the consensus was that “they didn’t know how to work.”
People fresh out of culinary school didn’t really know how to handle a chaotic kitchen, order only the supplies required, pay attention to people’s tastes, adapt to differences in prices, etc. They could put up a good show and their dishes might have been exquisite. But they could also be overwhelmed with having to serve 60 customers in a regular shift or, indeed, not know what to do during a slow night. Restaurant owners weren’t that fond of hiring them, right away. They had to be “broken out” («rodés»).

Barista championships remind me of culinary institutes, in this way. Both can be useful in terms of skills, but experience is more diverse than that.

So, yes, WBC rules are probably artificial and arbitrary. But it’s easy to be remarkably consistent in applying these rules. And that should count for something. Just not for everythin.

Sure, you may get some differences between one judge and the other. But those differences aren’t that difficult to understand and I didn’t see that they tended to have to do with “preferences,” personal issues, or anything of the sort. From what I noticed while judging, you simply don’t pay attention to the same things as when you savour coffee. And that’s fine. Cupping coffee isn’t the same thing as drinking it, either.

In my (admittedly very limited) judging experience, emphasis was put on providing useful feedback. The points matter a lot, of course, but the main thing is that the points make sense in view of the comments. In a way, it’s to ensure calibration (“you say ‘excellent’ but put a ‘3,’ which one is more accurate?”) but it’s also about the goals of the judging process. The textual comments are a way to help the barista pay attention to certain things. “Constructive criticism” is one way to put it. But it’s more than that. It’s a way to get something started.

Several of the competitors I’ve seen do come to ask judges for clarifications and many of them seemed open to discussion. A few mostly wanted justification and may have felt slighted. But I mostly noticed a rather thoughtful process of debriefing.

Having said that, there are competitors who are surprised by differences between two judges’ scores. “But both shots came from the same portafilter!” “Well, yes, but if you look at the video, you’ll notice that coffee didn’t flow the same way in both cups.” There are also those who simply doubt judges, no matter what. Wonder if they respect people who drink their espresso…

Coming from the beer world, I also notice differences with beer. In the beer world, there isn’t really an equivalent to the WBC in the sense that professional beer brewers don’t typically have competitions. But amateur homebrewers do. And it’s much stricter than the WBC in terms of certification. It requires a lot of rote memorization, difficult exams (I helped proctor two), judging points, etc.

I’ve been a vocal critic of the Beer Judge Certification Program. There seems to be an idea, there, that you can make the process completely neutral and that the knowledge necessary to judge beers is solid and well-established. One problem is that this certification program focuses too much on a series of (over a hundred) “styles” which are more of a context-specific interpretation of beer diversity than a straightforward classification of possible beers.
Also, the one thing they want to avoid the most (basing their evaluation on taste preferences) still creeps in. It’s probably no coincidence that, at certain events, beers which were winning “Best of Show” tended to be big, assertive beers instead of very subtle ones. Beer judges don’t want to be human, but they may still end up acting like ones.

At the same time, while there’s a good deal of debate over beer competition results and such, there doesn’t seem to be exactly the same kind of tension as in barista championships. Homebrewers take their results to heart and they may yell at each other over their scores. But, somehow, I see much less of a fracture, “there” than “here.” Perhaps because the stakes are very low (it’s a hobby, not a livelihood). Perhaps because beer is so different from coffee. Or maybe because there isn’t a sense of “Us vs. Them”: brewers judging a competition often enter beer in that same competition (but in a separate category from the ones they judge).
Actually, the main difference may be that beer judges can literally only judge what’s in the bottle. They don’t observe the brewers practicing their craft (this happens weeks prior), they simply judge the product. In a specific condition. In many ways, it’s very unfair. But it can help brewers understand where something went wrong.

Now, I’m not saying the WBC should become like the BJCP. For one thing, it just wouldn’t work. And there’s already a lot of investment in the current WBC format. And I’m really not saying the BJCP is better than the WBC as an inspiration, since I actually prefer the WBC-style championships. But I sense that there’s something going on in the coffee world which has more to do with interpersonal relationships and “attitudes” than with what’s in the cup.

All this time, those of us who don’t make a living through coffee but still live it with passion may be left out. And we do our own things. We may listen to coffee podcasts, witness personal conflicts between café owners, hear rants about the state of the “industry,” and visit a variety of cafés.
Yet, slowly but surely, we’re making our own way through coffee. Exploring its diversity, experimenting with different brewing methods, interacting with diverse people involved, even taking trips “to origin”…

Coffee is what unites us.


Homeroasting and Coffee Geekness

I’m a coffee geek. By which I mean that I have a geeky attitude to coffee. I’m passionate about the crafts and arts of coffee making, I seek coffee-related knowledge wherever I can find it, I can talk about coffee until people’s eyes glaze over (which happens more quickly than I’d guess possible), and I even dream about coffee gadgets. I’m not a typical gadget freak, as far as geek culture goes, but coffee is one area where I may invest in some gadgetry.

Perhaps my most visible acts of coffee geekery came in the form of updates I posted through diverse platforms about my home coffee brewing experiences. Did it from February to July. These posts contained cryptic details about diverse measurements, including water temperature and index of refraction. It probably contributed to people’s awareness of my coffee geek identity, which itself has been the source of fun things like a friend bringing me back coffee from Ethiopia.

But I digress, a bit. This is both about coffee geekness in general and about homeroasting in particular.

See, I bought myself this Hearthware i-Roast 2 dedicated homeroasting device. And I’m dreaming about coffee again.

Been homeroasting since December 2002, at the time I moved to Moncton, New Brunswick and was lucky enough to get in touch with Terry Montague of Down Esst Coffee.

Though I had been wishing to homeroast for a while before that and had become an intense coffee-lover fifteen years prior to contacting him, Terry is the one who enabled me to start roasting green coffee beans at home. He procured me a popcorn popper, sourced me some quality green beans, gave me some advice. And off I was.

Homeroasting is remarkably easy. And it makes a huge difference in one’s appreciation of coffee. People in the coffee industry, especially baristas and professional roasters, tend to talk about the “channel” going from the farmer to the “consumer.” In some ways, homeroasting gets the coffee-lover a few steps closer to the farmer, both by eliminating a few intermediaries in the channel and by making coffee into much less of a commodity. Once you’ve spent some time smelling the fumes emanated by different coffee varietals and looking carefully at individual beans, you can’t help but get a deeper appreciation for the farmer’s and even the picker’s work. When you roast 150g or less at a time, every coffee bean seems much more valuable. Further, as you experiment with different beans and roast profiles, you get to experience coffee in all of its splendour.

A popcorn popper may sound like a crude way to roast coffee. And it might be. Naysayers may be right in their appraisal of poppers as a coffee roasting method. You’re restricted in different ways and it seems impossible to produce exquisite coffee. But having roasted with a popper for seven years, I can say that my poppers gave me some of my most memorable coffee experiences. Including some of the most pleasant ones, like this organic Sumatra from Theta Ridge Coffee that I roasted in my campus appartment at IUSB and brewed using my beloved Brikka.

Over the years, I’ve roasted a large variety of coffee beans. I typically buy a pound each of three or four varietals and experiment with them for a while.

Mostly because I’ve been moving around quite a bit, I’ve been buying green coffee beans from a rather large variety of places. I try to buy them locally, as much as possible (those beans have travelled far enough and I’ve had enough problems with courier companies). But I did participate in a few mail orders or got beans shipped to me for some reason or another. Sourcing green coffee beans has almost been part of my routine in those different places where I’ve been living since 2002: Moncton, Montreal, Fredericton, South Bend, Northampton, Brockton, Cambridge, and Austin. Off the top of my head, I’ve sourced beans from:

  1. Down East
  2. Toi, moi & café
  3. Brûlerie Saint-Denis
  4. Brûlerie des quatre vents
  5. Terra
  6. Theta Ridge
  7. Dean’s Beans
  8. Green Beanery
  9. Cuvée
  10. Fair Bean
  11. Sweet Maria’s
  12. Evergreen Coffee
  13. Mon café vert
  14. Café-Vrac
  15. Roastmasters
  16. Santropol

And probably a few other places, including this one place in Ethiopia where my friend Erin bought some.

So, over the years, I got beans from a rather large array of places and from a wide range of regional varietals.

I rapidly started blending freshly-roasted beans. Typically, I would start a blend by roasting three batches in a row. I would taste some as “single origin” (coffee made from a single bean varietal, usually from the same farm or estate), shortly after roasting. But, typically, I would mix my batches of freshly roasted coffee to produce a main blend. I would then add fresh batches after a few days to fine-tune the blend to satisfy my needs and enhance my “palate” (my ability to pick up different flavours and aromas).

Once the quantity of green beans in a particular bag would fall below an amount I can reasonably roast as a full batch (minimum around 100g), I would put those green beans in a pre-roast blend, typically in a specially-marked ziplock bag. Roasting this blend would usually be a way for me to add some complexity to my roasted blends.

And complexity I got. Lots of diverse flavours and aromas. Different things to “write home about.”

But I was obviously limited in what I could do with my poppers. The only real controls that I had in homeroasting, apart from blending, consisted in the bean quantity and roasting time. Ambient temperature was clearly a factor, but not one over which I was able to exercise much control. Especially since I frequently ended up roasting outside, so as to not incommodate people with fumes, noise, and chaff. The few homeroast batches which didn’t work probably failed because of low ambient temperature.

One reason I stuck with poppers for so long was that I had heard that dedicated roasters weren’t that durable. I’ve probably used three or four different hot air popcorn poppers, over the years. Eventually, they just stop working, when you use them for coffee beans. As I’d buy them at garage sales and Salvation Army stores for 3-4$, replacing them didn’t feel like such a financially difficult thing to do, though finding them could occasionally be a challenge. Money was also an issue. Though homeroasting was important for me, I wasn’t ready to pay around 200$ for an entry-level dedicated roaster. I was thinking about saving money for a Behmor 1600, which offers several advantages over other roasters. But I finally gave in and bought my i-Roast as a kind of holiday gift to myself.

One broad reason is that my financial situation has improved since I started a kind of partial professional reorientation (PPR). I have a blogpost in mind about this PPR, and I’ll probably write it soon. But this post isn’t about my PPR.

Although, the series of events which led to my purchase does relate to my PPR, somehow.

See, the beans I (indirectly) got from Roastmasters came from a friend who bought a Behmor to roast cocoa beans. The green coffee beans came with the roaster but my friend didn’t want to roast coffee in his brand new Behmor, to avoid the risk of coffee oils and flavours getting into his chocolate. My friend asked me to roast some of these beans for his housemates (he’s not that intensely into coffee, himself). When I went to drop some homeroasted coffee by the Station C co-working space where he spends some of his time, my friend was discussing a project with Duncan Moore, whom I had met a few times but with whom I had had few interactions. The three of us had what we considered a very fruitful yet very short conversation. Later on, I got to do a small but fun project with Duncan. And I decided to invest that money into coffee.

A homeroaster seemed like the most appropriate investment. The Behmor was still out of reach but the i-Roast seemed like a reasonable purchase. Especially if I could buy it used.

But I was also thinking about buying it new, as long as I could get it quickly. It took me several years to make a decision about this purchase but, once I made it, I wanted something as close to “instant gratification” as possible. In some ways, the i-Roast was my equivalent to Little Mrs Sommers‘s “pair of silk stockings.”

At the time, Mon café vert seemed like the only place where I could buy a new i-Roast. I tried several times to reach them to no avail. As I was in the Mile-End as I decided to make that purchase, I went to Caffè in Gamba, both to use the WiFi signal and to check if, by any chance, they might not have started selling roasters. They didn’t, of course, homeroasters isn’t mainstream enough. But, as I was there, I saw the Hario Ceramic Coffee Mill Skerton, a “hand-cranked” coffee grinder about which I had read some rather positive reviews.

For the past few years, I had been using a Bodum Antigua conical burr electric coffee grinder. This grinder was doing the job, but maybe because of “wear and tear,” it started taking a lot longer to grind a small amount of coffee. The grind took so long, at some points, that the grounds were warm to the touch and it seemed like the grinder’s motor was itself heating.

So I started dreaming about the Baratza Vario, a kind of prosumer electric grinder which seemed like the ideal machine for someone who uses diverse coffee making methods. The Vario is rather expensive and seemed like overkill, for my current coffee setup. But I was lusting over it and, yes, dreaming about it.

One day, maybe, I’ll be able to afford a Vario.

In the meantime, and more reasonably, I had been thinking about “Turkish-style mills.” A friend lent me a box-type manual mill at some point and I did find it produced a nice grind, but it wasn’t that convenient for me, partly because the coffee drops into a small drawer which rapidly gets full. A handmill seemed somehow more convenient and there are some generic models which are sold in different parts of the World, especially in the Arab World. So I got the impression that I might be able to find handmills locally and started looking for them all over the place, enquiring at diverse stores and asking friends who have used those mills in the past. Of course, they can be purchased online. But they end up being relatively expensive and my manual experience wasn’t so positive as to convince me to spend so much money on one.

The Skerton was another story. It was much more convenient than a box-type manual mill. And, at Gamba, it was inexpensive enough for me to purchase it on the spot. I don’t tend to do this very often so I did feel strange about such an impulse purchase. But I certainly don’t regret it.

Especially since it complements my other purchases.

So, going to the i-Roast.

Over the years, I had been looking for the i-Roast and Behmor at most of the obvious sites where one might buy used devices like these. eBay, Craig’s List, Kijiji… As a matter of fact, I had seen an i-Roast on one of these, but I was still hesitating. Not exactly sure why, but it probably had to do with the fact that these homeroasters aren’t necessarily that durable and I couldn’t see how old this particular i-Roast was.

I eventually called to find out, after taking my decision to get an i-Roast. Turns out that it’s still under warranty, is in great condition, and was being sold by a very interesting (and clearly trustworthy) alto singer who happens to sing with a friend of mine who is also a local beer homebrewer. The same day I bought the roaster, I went to the cocoa-roasting friend’s place and saw a Behmor for the first time. And I tasted some really nice homemade chocolate. And met other interesting people including a couple that I saw, again, while taking the bus after purchasing the roaster.

The series of coincidences in that whole situation impressed me in a sense of awe. Not out of some strange superstition or other folk belief. But different things are all neatly packaged in a way that most of my life isn’t. Nothing weird about this. The packaging is easy to explain and mostly comes from my own perception. The effect is still there that it all fits.

And the i-Roast 2 itself fits, too.

It’s clearly not the ultimate coffee geek’s ideal roaster. But I get the impression it could become so. In fact, one reason I hesitated to buy the i-Roast 2 is that I was wondering if Hearthware might be coming out with the i-Roast 3, in the not-so-distant future.

I’m guessing that Hearthware might be getting ready to release a new roaster. I’m using unreliable information, but it’s still an educated guess. So, apparently…

I could just imagine what the i-Roast 3 might be. As I’m likely to get, I have a number of crazy ideas.

One “killer feature” actually relates both to the differences between the i-Roast and i-Roast 2 as well as to the geek factor behind homeroasting: roast profiles as computer files. Yes, I know, it sounds crazy. And, somehow, it’s quite unlikely that Hearthware would add such a feature on an entry-level machine. But I seriously think it’d make the roaster much closer to a roasting geek’s ultimate machine.

For one thing, programming a roast profile on the i-Roast is notoriously awkward. Sure, you get used to it. But it’s clearly suboptimal. And one major improvement of the i-Roast 2 over the original i-Roast is that the original version didn’t maintain profiles if you unplugged it. The next step, in my mind, would be to have some way to transfer a profile from a computer to the roaster, say via a slot for SD cards or even a USB port.

What this would open isn’t only the convenience of saving profiles, but actually a way to share them with fellow homeroasters. Since a lot in geek culture has to do with sharing information, a neat effect could come out of shareable roast profiles. In fact, when I looked for example roast profiles, I found forum threads, guides, and incredibly elaborate experiments. Eventually, it might be possible to exchange roasting profiles relating to coffee beans from the same shipment and compare roasting. Given the well-known effects of getting a group of people using online tools to share information, this could greatly improve the state of homeroasting and even make it break out of the very small niche in which it currently sits.

Of course, there are many problems with that approach, including things as trivial as voltage differences as well as bigger issues such as noise levels:

But I’m still dreaming about such things.

In fact, I go a few steps further. A roaster which could somehow connect to a computer might also be used to track data about temperature and voltage. In my own experiments with the i-Roast 2, I’ve been logging temperatures at 15 second intervals along with information about roast profile, quantity of beans, etc. It may sound extreme but it already helped me achieve a result I wanted to achieve. And it’d be precisely the kind of information I would like to share with other homeroasters, eventually building a community of practice.

Nothing but geekness, of course. Shall the geek inherit the Earth?


Canadian Barista Championship: 2009 Results

  1. Kyle Straw, Caffè Artigiano, Vancouver, BC (663 points)
  2. Anthony Benda, Café Myriade, Montreal, Qc (627 points)
  3. Chad Moss, Transcend Coffee, Edmonton, AB (610 points)
  4. Robert Kettner, Fernwood Coffee Roasting, Victoria, BC (601 points)
  5. Spencer Viehweger, JJ Bean Coffee Roasters, Vancouver, BC (592.5 points)
  6. Joel May, Fratello Coffee Roasters, Calgary, AB (576.5 points)

Barista’s Choice (Reggie Award)

Anthony Benda, Café Myriade, Montreal, Qc


Happiness Anniversary

HappyTweet

A year ago today, I found out that I was, in fact, happy.

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How I Got Into Beer

Was doing some homebrewing experimentation (sour mash, watermelon, honey, complex yeast cultures…) and I got to think about what I’d say in an interview about my brewing activities.

It’s a bit more personal than my usual posts in English (my more personal blogposts are usually in French), but it seems fitting.

I also have something of a backlog of blogposts I really should do ASAP. But blogging is also about seizing the moment. I feel like writing about beer. 😛

So…

As you might know, the drinking age in Quebec is 18, as in most parts of the World except for the US. What is somewhat distinct about Qc with regards to drinking age is that responsible drinking is the key and we tend to have a more “European” attitude toward alcohol: as compared to the Rest of Canada, there’s a fair bit of leeway in terms of when someone is allowed to drink alcohol. We also tend to learn to drink in the family environment, and not necessarily with friends. What it means, I would argue, is that we do our mistakes in a relatively safe context. By the time drinking with peers becomes important (e.g., in university or with colleagues), many of us know that there’s no fun in abusing alcohol and that there are better ways to prove ourselves than binge drinking. According to Barrett Seaman, author of Binge: What Your College Student Won’t Tell You, even students from the US studying at McGill University in Montreal are more likely to drink responsibly than most students he’s seen in the US. (In Montreal, McGill tends to be recognized as a place where binge drinking is most likely to occur, partly because of the presence of US students. In addition, binge drinking is becoming more conspicuous, in Qc, perhaps because of media pressure or because of influence from the US.)

All this to say that it’s rather common for a Québécois teen to at least try alcohol at a relatively age. Because of my family’s connections with Switzerland and France, we probably pushed this even further than most Québécois family. In other words, I had my first sips of alcohol at a relatively early age (I won’t tell) and, by age 16, I could distinguish different varieties of Swiss wines, during an extended trip to Switzerland. Several of these wines were produced by relatives and friends, from their own vineyards. They didn’t contain sulfites and were often quite distinctive. To this day, I miss those wines. In fact, I’d say that Swiss wines are among the best kept secrets of the wine world. Thing is, it seems that Swiss vineyards barely produce enough for local consumption so they don’t try to export any of it.

Anyhoo…

By age 18, my attitude toward alcohol was already quite similar to what it is now: it’s something that shouldn’t be abused but that can be very tasty. I had a similar attitude toward coffee, that I started to drink regularly when I was 15. (Apart from being a homebrewer and a beer geek, I’m also a homeroaster and coffee geek. Someone once called me a “Renaissance drinker.”)

When I started working in French restaurants, it was relatively normal for staff members to drink alcohol at the end of the shift. In fact, at one place where I worked, the staff meal at the end of the evening shift was a lengthy dinner accompanied by some quality wine. My palate was still relatively untrained, but I remember that we would, in fact, discuss the wine on at least some occasions. And I remember one customer, a stage director, who would share his bottle of wine with the staff during his meal: his doctor told him to reduce his alcohol consumption and the wine only came in 750ml bottles. 😉

That same restaurant might have been the first place where I tried a North American craft beer. At least, this is where I started to know about craft beer in North America. It was probably McAuslan‘s St. Ambroise Stout. But I also had opportunities to have some St. Ambroise Pale Ale. I just preferred the Stout.

At one point, that restaurant got promotional beer from a microbrewery called Massawippi. That beer was so unpopular that we weren’t able to give it away to customers. Can’t recall how it tasted but nobody enjoyed it. The reason this brewery is significant is that their license was the one which was bought to create a little microbrewery called Unibroue. So, it seems that my memories go back to some relatively early phases in Quebec’s craft beer history. I also have rather positive memories of when Brasal opened.

Somewhere along the way, I had started to pick up on some European beers. Apart from macros (Guinness, Heineken, etc.), I’m not really sure what I had tried by that point. But even though these were relatively uninspiring beers, they somehow got me to understand that there was more to beer than Molson, Labatt, Laurentide, O’Keefe, and Black Label.

The time I spent living in Switzerland, in 1994-1995, is probably the turning point for me in terms of beer tasting. Not only did I get to drink the occasional EuroLager and generic stout, but I was getting into Belgian Ales and Lambics. My “session beer,” for a while, was a wit sold in CH as Wittekop. Maybe not the most unique wit out there. But it was the house beer at Bleu Lézard, and I drank enough of it then to miss it. I also got to try several of the Trappists. In fact, one of the pubs on the EPFL campus had a pretty good beer selection, including Rochefort, Chimay, Westmalle, and Orval. The first lambic I remember was Mort Subite Gueuze, on tap at a very quirky place that remains on my mind as this near-cinematic experience.

At the end of my time in Switzerland, I took a trip to Prague and Vienna. Already at that time, I was interested enough in beer that a significant proportion of my efforts were about tasting different beers while I was there. I still remember a very tasty “Dopplemalz” beer from Vienna and, though I already preferred ales, several nice lagers from Prague.

A year after coming back to North America, I traveled to Scotland and England with a bunch of friends. Beer was an important part of the trip. Though I had no notion of what CAMRA was, I remember having some real ales in diverse places. Even some of the macro beers were different enough to merit our interest. For instance, we tried Fraoch then, probably before it became available in North America. We also visited a few distilleries which, though I didn’t know it at the time, were my first introduction to some beer brewing concepts.

Which brings me to homebrewing.

The first time I had homebrew was probably at my saxophone teacher’s place. He did a party for all of us and had brewed two batches. One was either a stout or a porter and the other one was probably some kind of blonde ale. What I remember of those beers is very vague (that was probably 19 years ago), but I know I enjoyed the stout and was impressed by the low price-quality ratio. From that point on, I knew I wanted to brew. Not really to cut costs (I wasn’t drinking much, anyway). But to try different beers. Or, at least, to easily get access to those beers which were more interesting than the macrobrewed ones.

I remember another occasion with a homebrewer, a few years later. I only tried a few sips of the beer but I remember that he was talking about the low price. Again, what made an impression on me wasn’t so much the price itself. But the low price for the quality.

At the same time, I had been thinking about all sorts of things which would later become my “hobbies.” I had never had hobbies in my life but I was thinking about homeroasting coffee, as a way to get really fresh coffee and explore diverse flavours. Thing is, I was already this hedonist I keep claiming I am. Tasting diverse things was already an important pleasure in my life.

So, homebrewing was on my mind because of the quality-price ratio and because it could allow me to explore diverse flavours.

When I moved to Bloomington, IN, I got to interact with some homebrewers. More specifically, I went to an amazing party thrown by an ethnomusicologist/homebrewer. The guy’s beer was really quite good. And it came from a full kegging system.

I started dreaming.

Brewpubs, beerpubs, and microbreweries were already part of my life. For instance, without being a true regular, I had been going to Cheval blanc on a number of occasions. And my “go to” beer had been Unibroue, for a while.

At the time, I was moving back and forth between Quebec and Indiana. In Bloomington, I was enjoying beers from Upland’s Brewing Co., which had just opened, and Bloomington Brewing Co., which was distributed around the city. I was also into some other beers, including some macro imports like Newcastle Brown Ale. And, at liquor stores around the city (including Big Red), I was discovering a few American craft beers, though I didn’t know enough to really make my way through those. In fact, I remember asking for Unibroue to be distributed there, which eventually happened. And I’m pretty sure I didn’t try Three Floyds, at the time.

So I was giving craft beer some thought.

Then, in February 1999, I discovered Dieu du ciel. I may have gone there in late 1998, but the significant point was in February 1999. This is when I tried their first batch of “Spring Equinox” Maple Scotch Ale. This is the beer that turned me into a homebrewer. This is the beer that made me changed my perspetive about beer. At that point, I knew that I would eventually have to brew.

Which happened in July 1999, I think. My then-girlfriend had offered me a homebrewing starter kit as a birthday gift. (Or maybe she gave it to me for Christmas… But I think it was summer.) Can’t remember the extent to which I was talking about beer, at that point, but it was probably a fair bit, i.e., I was probably becoming annoying about it. And before getting the kit, I was probably daydreaming about brewing.

Even before getting the kit, I had started doing some reading. The aforementioned ethnomusicologist/homebrewer had sent me a Word file with a set of instructions and some information about equipment. It was actually much more elaborate than the starter kit I eventually got. So I kept wondering about all the issues and started getting some other pieces of equipment. In other words, I was already deep into it.

In fact, when I got my first brewing book, I also started reading feverishly, in a way I hadn’t done in years. Even before brewing the first batch, I was passionate about brewing.

Thanks to the ‘Net, I was rapidly amassing a lot of information about brewing. Including some recipes.

Unsurprisingly, the first beer I brewed was a maple beer, based on my memory of that Dieu du ciel beer. However, for some reason, that first beer was a maple porter, instead of a maple scotch ale. I brewed it with extract and steeped grain. I probably used a fresh pack of Coopers yeast. I don’t think I used fresh hops (the beer wasn’t supposed to be hop-forward). I do know I used maple syrup at the end of boil and maple sugar at priming.

It wasn’t an amazing beer, perhaps. But it was tasty enough. And it got me started. I did a few batches with extract and moved to all-grain almost right away. I remember some comments on my first maple porter, coming from some much more advanced brewers than I was. They couldn’t believe that it was an extract beer. I wasn’t evaluating my extract beer very highly. But I wasn’t ashamed of it either.

Those comments came from brewers who were hanging out on the Biéropholie website. After learning about brewing on my own, I had eventually found the site and had started interacting with some local Québécois homebrewers.

This was my first contact with “craft beer culture.” I had been in touch with fellow craft beer enthusiasts. But hanging out with Bièropholie people and going to social events they had organized was my first foray into something more of a social group with its associated “mode of operation.” It was a fascinating experience. As an ethnographer and social butterfly, this introduction to the social and cultural aspects of homebrewing was decisive. Because I was moving all the time, it was hard for me to stay connected with that group. But I made some ties there and I still bump into a few of the people I met through Bièropholie.

At the time I first started interacting with the Bièropholie gang, I was looking for a brewclub. Many online resources mentioned clubs and associations and they sounded exactly like the kind of thing I needed. Not only for practical reasons (it’s easier to learn techniques in such a context, getting feedback from knowledgeable people is essential, and tasting other people’s beers is an eye-opener), but also for social reasons. Homebrewing was never meant to be a solitary experience, for me.

I was too much of a social butterfly.

Which brings me back to childhood. As a kid, I was often ostracized. And I always tried to build clubs. It never really worked. Things got much better for me after age 15, and I had a rich social life by the time I became a young adult. But, in 2000-2001, I was still looking for a club to which I could belong. Unlike Groucho, I cared a lot about any club which would accept me.

As fun as it was, Bièropholie wasn’t an actual brewclub. Brewers posting on the site mostly met as a group during an annual event, a BBQ which became known as «Xè de mille» (“Nth of 1000”) in 2001. The 2000 edition (“0th of 1000”) was when I had my maple porter tasted by more advanced brewers. Part of event was a bit like what brewclub meetings tend to be: tasting each other’s brews, providing feedback, discussing methods and ingredients, etc. But because people didn’t meet regularly as a group, because people were scattered all around Quebec, and because there wasn’t much in terms of “contribution to primary identity,” it didn’t feel like a brewclub, at least not of the type I was reading about.

The MontreAlers brewclub was formed at about that time. For some reason, it took me a while to learn of its existence. I distinctly remember looking for a Montreal-based club through diverse online resources, including the famed HomeBrew Digest. And I know I tried to contact someone from McGill who apparently had a club going. But I never found the ‘Alers.

I did eventually find the Members of Barleyment. Or, at least, some of the people who belonged to this “virtual brewclub.” It probably wasn’t until I moved to New Brunswick in 2003, but it was another turning point. One MoB member I met was Daniel Chisholm, a homebrewer near Fredericton, NB, who gave me insight on the New Brunswick beer scene (I was teaching in Fredericton at the time). Perhaps more importantly, Daniel also invited me to the Big Strange New Brunswick Brew (BSNBB), a brewing event like the ones I kept dreaming about. This was partly a Big Brew, an occasion for brewers to brew together at the same place. But it was also a very fun social event.

It’s through the BSNBB that I met MontreAlers Andrew Ludwig and John Misrahi. John is the instigator of the MontreAlers brewclub. Coming back to Montreal a few weeks after BSNBB, I was looking forward to attend my first meeting of the ‘Alers brewclub, in July 2003.

Which was another fascinating experience. Through it, I was able to observe different attitudes toward brewing. Misrahi, for instance, is a fellow experimental homebrewer to the point that I took to call him “MadMan Misrahi.” But a majority of ‘Alers are more directly on the “engineering” side of brewing. I also got to observe some interesting social dynamics among brewers, something which remained important as I moved to different places and got to observe other brewclubs and brewers meetings, such as the Chicago Beer Society’s Thirst Fursdays. Eventually, this all formed the backdrop for a set of informal observations which were the corse of a presentation I gave about craft beer and cultural identity.

Through all of these brewing-related groups, I’ve been positioning myself as an experimenter.  My goal isn’t necessarily to consistently make quality beer, to emulate some beers I know, or to win prizes in style-based brewing competitions. My thing is to have fun and try new things. Consistent beer is available anywhere and I drink little enough that I can afford enough of it. But homebrewing is almost a way for me to connect with my childhood.

There can be a “mad scientist” effect to homebrewing. Michael Tonsmeire calls himself The Mad Fermentationist and James Spencer at Basic Brewing has been interviewing a number of homebrewer who do rather unusual experiments.

I count myself among the ranks of the “Mad Brewers.” Oh, we’re not doing anything completely crazy. But slightly mad we are.

Through the selective memory of an adult with regards to his childhood, I might say that I was “always like that.” As a kid, I wanted to be everything at once: mayor, astronaut, fireman, and scholar. The researcher’s spirit had me “always try new things.” I even had a slight illusion of grandeur in that I would picture myself accomplishing all sorts of strange things. Had I known about it as a kid, I would have believed that I could solve the Poincaré conjecture. Mathematicians were strange enough for me.

But there’s something more closely related to homebrewing which comes back to my mind as I do experiments with beer. I had this tendency to do all sorts of concoctions. Not only the magic potions kids do with mud  and dishwashing liquid. But all sorts of potable drinks that a mixologist may experiment with. There wasn’t any alcohol in those drinks, but the principle was the same. Some of them were good enough for my tastes. But I never achieved the kind of breakthrough drink which would please masses. I did, however, got my experimentation spirit to bear on food.

By age nine, I was cooking for myself at lunch. Nothing very elaborate, maybe. It often consisted of reheating leftovers. But I got used to the stove (we didn’t have a microwave oven, at the time). And I sometimes cooked some eggs or similar things. To this day, eggs are still my default food.

And, like many children, I occasionally contributing to cooking. Simple things like mixing ingredients. But also tasting things at different stages in the cooking or baking process. Given the importance of sensory memory, I’d say the tasting part was probably more important in my development than the mixing. But the pride was mostly in being an active contributor in the kitchen.

Had I understood fermentation as a kid, I probably would have been fascinated by it. In a way, I wish I could have been involved in homebrewing at the time.

A homebrewery is an adult’s chemistry set.


Beer Eye for the Coffee Guy (or Gal)

Judged twelve (12) espresso drinks as part of the Eastern Regional Canadian Barista Championship (UStream).

[Never watched Queer Eye. Thought the title would make sense, given both the “taste” and even gender dimensions.]

Had quite a bit of fun.

The experience was quite similar to the one I had last year. There were fewer competitors, this year. But I also think that there were more people in the audience, at least in the morning. One possible reason is that ads about the competition were much more visible this year than last (based on my own experience and on several comments made during the day). Also, I noticed a stronger sense of collegiality among competitors, as several of them have been different things together in the past year.

More specifically, people from Ottawa’s Bridgehead and people from Montreal’s Café Myriade have developed something which, at least from the outside, look like comradery. At the Canadian National Barista Championship, last year, Myriade’s Anthony Benda won the “congeniality” prize. This year, Benda got first place in the ERCBC. Second place went to Bridgehead’s Cliff Hansen, and third place went to Myriade’s Alex Scott.

Bill Herne served as head judge for most of the event. He made it a very pleasant experience for me personally and, I hope, for other judges. His insight on the championship is especially valuable given the fact that he can maintain a certain distance from the specifics.

The event was organized in part by Vida Radovanovic, founder of the Canadian Coffee & Tea Show. Though she’s quick to point to differences between Toronto and Montreal, in terms of these regional competitions, she also seemed pleased with several aspects of this year’s ERCBC.

To me, the championship was mostly an opportunity for thinking and talking about the coffee world.

Met and interacted with diverse people during the day. Some of them were already part of my circle of coffee-loving friends and acquaintances. Some who came to me to talk about coffee after noticing some sign of my connection to the championship. The fact that I was introduced to the audience as a blogger and homeroaster seems to have been relatively significant. And there were several people who were second-degree contacts in my coffee-related social network, making for easy introductions.

A tiny part of the day’s interactions was captured in interviews for CBC Montreal’s Daybreak (unfortunately, the recording is in RealAudio format).

“Coffee as a social phenomenon” was at the centre of several of my own interactions with diverse people. Clearly, some of it has to do with my own interests, especially with “Montreal’s coffee renaissance.” But there were also a clear interest in such things as the marketshare of quality coffee, the expansion of some coffee scenes, and the notion of building a sense of community through coffee. That last part is what motivated me to write this post.

After the event, a member of my coffee-centric social network has started a discussion about community-building in the coffee world and I found myself dumping diverse ideas on him. Several of my ideas have to do with my experience with craft beer in North America. In a way, I’ve been doing informal ethnography of craft beer. Beer has become an area of expertise, for me, and I’d like to pursue more formal projects on it. So beer is on my mind when I think about coffee. And vice-versa. I was probably a coffee geek before I started homebrewing beer but I started brewing beer at home before I took my coffee-related activities to new levels.

So, in my reply on a coffee community, I was mostly thinking about beer-related communities.

Comparing coffee and beer is nothing new, for me. In fact, a colleague has blogged about some of my comments, both formal and informal, about some of those connections.

Differences between beer and coffee are significant. Some may appear trivial but they can all have some impact on the way we talk about cultural and social phenomena surrounding these beverages.

  • Coffee contains caffeine, beer contains alcohol. (Non-alcoholic beers, decaf coffee, and beer with coffee are interesting but they don’t dominate.) Yes: “duh.” But the difference is significant. Alcohol and caffeine not only have different effects but they fit in different parts of our lives.
  • Coffee is often part of a morning ritual,  frequently perceived as part of preparation for work. Beer is often perceived as a signal for leisure time, once you can “wind down.” Of course, there are people (including yours truly) who drink coffee at night and people (especially in Europe) who drink alcohol during a workday. But the differences in the “schedules” for beer and coffee have important consequences on the ways these drinks are integrated in social life.
  • Coffee tends to be much less expensive than beer. Someone’s coffee expenses may easily be much higher than her or his “beer budget,” but the cost of a single serving of coffee is usually significantly lower than a single serving of beer.
  • While it’s possible to drink a few coffees in a row, people usually don’t drink more than two coffees in a single sitting. With beer, it’s not rare that people would drink quite a few pints in the same night. The UK concept of a “session beer” goes well with this fact.
  • Brewing coffee takes a few minutes, brewing beer takes a while (hours for the brewing process, days or even weeks for fermentation).
  • At a “bar,” coffee is usually brewed in front of those who will drink it while beer has been prepared in advance.
  • Brewing coffee at home has been mainstream for quite a while. Beer homebrewing is considered a hobby.
  • Historically, coffee is a recent phenomenon. Beer is among the most ancient human-made beverages in the world.

Despite these significant differences, coffee and beer also have a lot in common. The fact that the term “brew” is used for beer and coffee (along with tea) may be a coincidence, but there are remarkable similarities between the extraction of diverse compounds from grain and from coffee beans. In terms of process, I would argue that beer and coffee are more similar than are, say, coffee and tea or beer and wine.

But the most important similarity, in my mind, is social: beer and coffee are, indeed, central to some communities. So are other drinks, but I’m more involved in groups having to do with coffee or beer than in those having to do with other beverages.

One way to put it, at least in my mind, is that coffee and beer are both connected to revolutions.

Coffee is community-oriented from the very start as coffee beans often come from farming communities and cooperatives. The notion, then, is that there are local communities which derive a significant portion of their income from the global and very unequal coffee trade. Community-oriented people often find coffee-growing to be a useful focus of attention and given the place of coffee in the global economy, it’s unsurprising to see a lot of interest in the concept (if not the detailed principles) of “fair trade” in relation to coffee. For several reasons (including the fact that they’re often produced in what Wallerstein would call “core” countries), the main ingredients in beer (malted barley and hops) don’t bring to mind the same conception of local communities. Still, coffee and beer are important to some local agricultural communities.

For several reasons, I’m much more directly involved with communities which have to do with the creation and consumption of beverages made with coffee beans or with grain.

In my private reply about building a community around coffee, I was mostly thinking about what can be done to bring attention to those who actually drink coffee. Thinking about the role of enthusiasts is an efficient way to think about the craft beer revolution and about geeks in general. After all, would the computer world be the same without the “homebrew computer club?”

My impression is that when coffee professionals think about community, they mostly think about creating better relationships within the coffee business. It may sound like a criticism, but it has more to do with the notion that the trade of coffee has been quite competitive. Building a community could be a very significant change. In a way, that might be a basis for the notion of a “Third Wave” in coffee.

So, using my beer homebrewer’s perspective: what about a community of coffee enthusiasts? Wouldn’t that help?

And I don’t mean “a website devoted to coffee enthusiasts.” There’s a lot of that, already. A lot of people on the Coffee Geek Forums are outsiders to the coffee industry and Home Barista is specifically geared toward the home enthusiasts’ market.

I’m really thinking about fostering a sense of community. In the beer world, this frequently happens in brewclubs or through the Beer Judge Certification Program, which is much stricter than barista championships. Could the same concepts apply to the coffee world? Probably not. But there may still be “lessons to be learnt” from the beer world.

In terms of craft beer in North America, there’s a consensus around the role of beer enthusiasts. A very significant number of craft brewers were homebrewers before “going pro.” One of the main reasons craft beer has become so important is because people wanted to drink it. Craft breweries often do rather well with very small advertising budgets because they attract something akin to cult followings. The practise of writing elaborate comments and reviews has had a significant impact on a good number of craft breweries. And some of the most creative things which happen in beer these days come from informal experiments carried out by homebrewers.

As funny as it may sound (or look), people get beer-related jobs because they really like beer.

The same happens with coffee. On occasion. An enthusiastic coffee lover will either start working at a café or, somewhat more likely, will “drop everything” and open her/his own café out of a passion for coffee. I know several people like this and I know the story is quite telling for many people. But it’s not the dominant narrative in the coffee world where “rags to riches” stories have less to do with a passion for coffee than with business acumen. Things may be changing, though, as coffee becomes more… passion-driven.

To be clear: I’m not saying that serious beer enthusiasts make the bulk of the market for craft beer or that coffee shop owners should cater to the most sophisticated coffee geeks out there. Beer and coffee are both too cheap to warrant this kind of a business strategy. But there’s a lot to be said about involving enthusiasts in the community.

For one thing, coffee and beer can both get viral rather quickly. Because most people in North America can afford beer or coffee, it’s often easy to convince a friend to grab a cup or pint. Coffee enthusiasts who bring friends to a café do more than sell a cup. They help build up a place. And because some people are into the habit of regularly going to the same bar or coffee shop, the effects can be lasting.

Beer enthusiasts often complain about the inadequate beer selection at bars and restaurants. To this day, there are places where I end up not drinking anything besides water after hearing what the beerlist contains. In the coffee world, it seems that the main target these days is the restaurant business. The current state of affairs with coffee at restaurants is often discussed with heavy sighs of disappointment. What I”ve heard from several people in the coffee business is that, too frequently,  restaurant owners give so little attention to coffee that they end up destroying the dining experience of anyone who orders coffee after a meal. Even in my own case, I’ve had enough bad experiences with restaurant coffee (including, or even especially, at higher-end places) that I’m usually reluctant to have coffee at a restaurant. It seems quite absurd, as a quality experience with coffee at the end of a meal can do a lot to a restaurant’s bottom line. But I can’t say that it’s my main concern because I end up having coffee elsewhere, anyway. While restaurants can be the object of a community’s attention and there’s a lot to be said about what restaurants do to a region or neighbourhood, the community dimensions of coffee have less to do with what is sold where than with what people do around coffee.

Which brings me to the issue of education. It’s clearly a focus in the coffee world. In fact, most coffee-related events have some “training” dimension. But this type of education isn’t community-oriented. It’s a service-based approach, such as the one which is increasingly common in academic institutions. While I dislike customer-based learning in universities, I do understand the need for training services in the coffee world. What I perceive insight from the beer world can do is complement these training services instead of replacing them.

An impressive set of learning experiences can be seen among homebrewers. From the most practical of “hands-on training” to some very conceptual/theoretical knowledge exchanges. And much of the learning which occurs is informal, seamless, “organic.” It’s possible to get very solid courses in beer and brewing, but the way most people learn is casual and free. Because homebrewers are organized in relatively tight groups and because the sense of community among homebrewers is also a matter of solidarity.  Or, more simply, because “it’s just a hobby anyway.”

The “education” theme also has to do with “educating the public” into getting more sophisticated about what to order. This does happen in the beer world, but can only be pulled off when people are already interested in knowing more about beer. In relation with the coffee industry, it sometimes seems that “coffee education” is imposed on people from the top-down. And it’s sometimes quite arbitrary. Again, room for the coffee business to read the Cluetrain Manifesto and to learn from communities.

And speaking of Starbucks… One draft blogpost which has been nagging me is about the perception that, somehow, Starbucks has had a positive impact in terms of coffee quality. One important point is that Starbucks took the place of an actual coffee community. Even if it can be proven that coffee quality wouldn’t have been improved in North America if it hadn’t been for Starbucks (a tall order, if you ask me), the issue remains that Starbucks has only paid attention to the real estate dimension of the concept of community. The mermaid corporation has also not doing so well, recently, so we may finally get beyond the financial success story and get into the nitty-gritty of what makes people connect through coffee. The world needs more from coffee than chains selling coffee-flavoured milk.

One notion I wanted to write about is the importance of “national” traditions in both coffee and beer in relation to what is happening in North America, these days. Part of the situation is enough to make me very enthusiastic to be in North America, since it’s increasingly possible to not only get quality beer and coffee but there are many opportunities for brewing coffee and beer in new ways. But that’ll have to wait for another post.

In Western Europe at least, coffee is often associated with the home. The smell of coffee has often been described in novels and it can run deep in social life. There’s no reason homemade coffee can’t be the basis for a sense of community in North America.

Now, if people in the coffee industry would wake up and… think about actual human beings, for a change…


Mon Café Vert: séparer le bon grain de l’ivraie

Il y a déjà quelques semaines, j’ai acheté des grains de café vert (pour torréfaction maison) grâce au site MonCafeVert.com (MCV):

Mon Café Vert – Café Vert, Torréfacteurs maison, Café vert bio et Équitable.

Avant même de commencer à torréfaction, j’avais un bonne impression de cette entreprise.

Tout d’abord, la boutique en-ligne est relativement bien construite. Pas nécessairement d’un point de vue visuel (je suis pas très sensible à ça) mais d’un point de vue ergonomique. Les diverses sections du site sont clairement identifiées, le panier d’achat se met à jour automatiquement, le contenu affiché n’est pas trop «envahissant»… La boutique accepte les paiements par Paypal, ce qui est assez utile (malgré les frais). Interac en-ligne serait encore plus pratique, à mon avis.

La description des diverses variétés de café semble adéquate, bien que j’aurais personnellement aimé un peu plus de détails (origine plus précise, lavé ou naturel…). Les neuf variétés de café disponibles semblent suffisamment  différentes les unes des autres pour permettre des mélanges intéressants. Dans l’ensemble, les prix sont somme toute assez raisonnables.

MCV distribue aussi des cafetières piston (Bodum) et des torréfacteurs maison. Les torréfacteurs maison sont difficiles à trouver dans le commerce local et MCV les offrent à des prix raisonnables.

Un des plus grands avantages, d’après moi, est le fait que MCV soit une entreprise montréalaise. Pour diverses raisons, j’essaie le plus possible de faire des achats locaux et d’éviter la livraison. MCV offre la livraison gratuite à Montréal et Laval. Je préférerais pouvoir aller chercher le café directement, en métro, mais j’apprécie ce service offert par MCV.

D’ailleurs, c’est ce qui m’a le plus impressionné de MCV: non seulement ai-je obtenu la livraison gratuite à domicile pour une commande de moins de 40$, mais cette livraison a été effectuée dans des délais remarquablement courts et de façon personnalisée. Du service comme ça, c’est impressionnant!

D’ailleurs, c’est la qualité du service qui me pousse à bloguer au sujet de MCV et à faire référence au «bon grain»: du service pareil, ça mérite une reconnaissance amicale.

Ce qui m’a poussé à compléter l’expression usuelle dans le titre, c’est le fait que les grains de certaines variétés de café (le Djimmah, en particulier) sont moins bien triés que ce dont j’ai l’habitude. J’ai torréfié ces cafés à plusieurs reprises et j’ai été obligé de retirer un assez grand nombre de grains après torréfaction, ce qui est plutôt rare. Dans l’ensemble, je dirais que les grains sont d’assez bonne qualité et j’obtiens d’assez bons résultats dans la tasse. Mais j’ai obtenu de meilleurs résultats avec des grains de café vert achetés ailleurs.

N’empêche, avec un tel service, je peux pas me plaindre. Je me dois simplement d’être honnête.


La Renaissance du café à Montréal

J’ai récemment publié un très long billet sur la scène du café à Montréal. Sans doûte à cause de sa longueur, ce billet ne semble pas avoir les effets escomptés. J’ai donc décidé de republier ce billet, section par section. Ce billet est la dernière section de ce long billet. Il consiste en une espèce de résumé de la situation actuelle de la scène montréalaise du café, avec un regard porté vers son avenir. Vous pouvez consulter l’introduction qui contient des liens aux autres sections et ainsi avoir un contexte plus large.

À mon humble avis, l’arrivée de la Troisième vague à Montréal nous permet maintenant d’explorer le café dans toute sa splendeur. En quelque sorte, c’était la pièce qui manquait au casse-tête.

Dans mon précédent billet, j’ai omis de comparer le café à l’italienne au café à la québécoise (outre l’importance de l’allongé). C’est en partie parce que les différences sont un peu difficile à expliquer. Mais disons qu’il y a une certaine diversité de saveurs, à travers la dimension «à la québécoise» de la scène montréalaise du café. Malgré certains points communs, les divers cafés de Montréalais n’ont jamais été d’une très grande homogénéité, au niveau du goût. Les ressemblances venaient surtout de l’utilisation des quelques maisons de torréfaction locales plutôt que d’une unité conceptuelle sur la façon de faire le café. D’ailleurs, j’ai souvent perçu qu’il y avait eu une baisse de diversité dans les goûts proposés par différents cafés montréalais au cours des quinze dernières années, et je considère ce processus de quasi-standardisation (qui n’a jamais été menée à terme) comme un aspect néfaste de cette période dans l’histoire du café à Montréal. Les nouveaux développements de la scène montréalaise du café me donne espoir que la diversité de cette scène grandit de nouveau après cette période de «consolidation».

D’ailleurs, c’est non sans fierté que je pense au fait que les grandes chaînes «étrangères» de cafés ont eu de la difficulté à s’implanter à Montréal. Si Montréal n’a eu sa première succursale Starbucks qu’après plusieurs autres villes nord-américaines et si Second Cup a rapidement dû fermer une de ses succursales montréalaises, c’est entre autres parce que la scène montréalaise du café était très vivante, bien avant l’arrivée des chaînes. D’ailleurs, plusieurs chaînes se sont développé localement avant de se disperser à l’extérieur de Montréal. Le résultat est qu’il y a probablement, à l’heure actuelle, autant sinon plus de succursales de chaînes de cafés à Montréal que dans n’importe autre grande ville, mais qu’une proportion significative de ces cafés est originaire de Montréal. Si l’existence de chaînes locales de cafés n’a aucune corrélation avec la qualité moyenne du café qu’on dans une région donnée (j’ai même tendance à croire qu’il y a une corrélation inverse entre le nombre de chaînes et la qualité moyenne du café), la «conception montréalaise» du café me semble révêlée par les difficultés rencontrées par les chaînes extrogènes.

En fait, une caractéristique de la scène du café à Montréal est que la diversité est liée à la diversité de la population. Non seulement la diversité linguistique, culturelle, ethnique et sociale. Mais la diversité en terme de goûts et de perspectives. La diversité humaine à Montréal évoque l’image de la «salade mixte»: un mélange harmonieux mais avec des éléments qui demeurent distincts. D’aucuns diront que c’est le propre de toute grande ville, d’être intégrée de la sorte. D’autres diront que Montréal est moins bien intégrée que telle ou telle autre grande ville. Mais le portrait que j’essaie de brosser n’est ni plus beau, ni plus original que celui d’une autre ville. Il est simplement typique.

Outre les cafés «à la québécoise», «à l’italienne» et «troisième vague» que j’ai décrits, Montréal dispose de plusieurs cafés qui sont liés à diverses communautés. Oui, je pense à des cafés liés à des communautés culturelles, comme un café guatémaltèque ou un café libanais. Mais aussi à des cafés liés à des groupes sociaux particuliers ou à des communautés religieuses. Au point de vue du goût, le café servi à ces divers endroits n’est peut-être pas si distinctif. Mais l’expérience du café prend un sens spécifique à chacun de ces endroits.

Et si j’ai parlé presqu’exclusivement de commerces liés au café, je pense beaucoup à la dimension disons «domestique» du café.

Selon moi, la population de la région montréalaise a le potentiel d’un réel engouement pour le café de qualité. Même s’ils n’ont pas toujours une connaissance très approfondie du café et même s’il consomme du café de moins bonne qualité, plusieurs Montréalais semblent très intéressés par le café. Certains d’entre eux croient connaître le café au point de ne pas vouloir en découvrir d’autres aspects. Mais les discussions sur le goût du café sont monnaie courante parmi des gens de divers milieux, ne serait-ce que dans le choix de certains cafés.

Évidemment, ces discussions ont lieu ailleurs et le café m’a souvent aidé à m’intégrer à des réseaux sociaux de villes où j’ai habité. Mais ce que je crois être assez particulier à Montréal, c’est qu’il ne semble pas y avoir une «idéologie dominante» du café. Certains amateurs de café (et certains professionnels du café) sont très dogmatiques, voire doctrinaires. Mais je ne perçois aucune  idée sur le café qui serait réellement acquise par tous. Il y a des Tim Hortons et des Starbucks à Montréal mais, contrairement à d’autres coins du continent, il ne semble pas y avoir un café qui fait consensus.

Par contre, il y a une sorte de petite oligarchie. Quelques maisons de torréfaction et de distribution du café semblent avoir une bonne part du marché. Je pense surtout à Union, Brossard et Van Houtte (qui a aussi une chaîne de café et qui était pris à une certaine époque comme exemple de succès financier). À ce que je sache, ces trois entreprises sont locales. À l’échelle globale, l’oligarchie du monde du café est constituée par Nestlé, Sara Lee, Kraft et Proctor & Gamble. J’imagine facilement que ces multinationales ont autant de succès à Montréal qu’ailleurs dans le monde mais je trouve intéressant de penser au poids relatif de quelques chaînes locales.

Parlant de chaînes locales, je crois que certaines entreprises locales peuvent avoir un rôle déterminant dans la «Renaissance du café à Montréal». Je pense surtout à Café Terra de Carlo Granito, à Café Mystique et Toi, Moi & Café de Sevan Istanboulian, à Café Rico de Sévanne Kordahi et à la coop La Maison verte à Notre-Dame-de-Grâce. Ces choix peuvent sembler par trop personnels, voire arbitraires. Mais chaque élément me semble représentatif de la scène montréalaise du café. Carlo Granito, par exemple, a participé récemment à l’émission Samedi et rien d’autre de Radio-Canada, en compagnie de Philippe Mollé (audio de 14:30 à 32:30). Sevan Istanboulian est juge certifié du World Barista Championship et distribue ses cafés à des endroits stratégiques. Sévanne Kordahi a su concentrer ses activités dans des domaines spécifiques et ses cafés sont fort appréciés par des groupes d’étudiants (entre autres grâce à un rabais étudiant). Puis j’ai appris dernièrement que La Maison verte servait du Café Femenino qui met de l’avant une des plus importantes dimensions éthiques du monde du café.

Pour revenir au «commun des mortels», l’amateur de café. Au-delà de la spécificité locale, je crois qu’une scène du café se bâtit par une dynamique entre individus, une série de «petites choses qui finissent par faire une différence». Et c’est cette dynamique qui me rend confiant.

La communauté des enthousiastes du café à Montréal est somme toute assez petite mais bien vivante. Et je me place dans les rangs de cette communauté.

Certains d’entre nous avons participé à divers événements ensemble, comme des dégustations et des séances de préparation de café. Les discussions à propos du café se multiplient, entre nous. D’ailleurs, nous nous croisons assez régulièrement, dans l’un ou l’autre des hauts lieux du café à Montréal. D’ailleurs, d’autres dimensions du monde culinaire sont représentés parmi nous, depuis la bière artisanale au végétalianisme en passant par le chocolat et le thé. Ces liens peuvent sembler évident mais c’est surtout parce que chacun d’entre nous fait partie de différents réseaux que la communauté me semble riche. En discutant ensemble, nous en venons à parler de plusieurs autres arts culinaires au-delà du café, ce qui renforce les liens entre le café et le reste du monde culinaire. En parlant de café avec nos autres amis, nous créons un effet de vague, puisque nous participons à des milieux distincts. C’est d’ailleurs une représentation assez efficace de ce que je continue d’appeler «l’effet du papillon social»: le battement de ses ailes se répercute dans divers environnements. Si la friction n’est pas trop grande, l’onde de choc provenant de notre communauté risque de se faire sentir dans l’ensemble de la scène du café à Montréal.

Pour boucler la boucle (avant d’aller me coucher), je dois souligner le fait que, depuis peu, le lieu de rencontre privilégié de notre petit groupe d’enthousiastes est le Café Myriade.


Café «troisième vague» et café «à l’italienne»

J’ai récemment publié un très long billet sur la scène du café à Montréal. Sans doûte à cause de sa longueur, ce billet ne semble pas avoir les effets escomptés. J’ai donc décidé de republier ce billet, section par section. Ce billet est la quatrième section après l’introduction et des sections sur divers types de cafés à Montréal: «à l’talienne», «à la québécoise» et «troisième vague».) Cette section est une tentative d’explication de la «Troisième vague» par contraste avec le «café à l’italienne», sans référence particulière à Montréal.

En tant que phase dans l’histoire du café, la «Troisième vague» (“Third Wave”) est basée sur une philosophie du respect, une forme d’humanisme. Sans être nécessairement alter-mondialistes, les partisans du Third Wave ont à cœur le sort de tous ceux qui œuvrent dans le domaine du café, quel que soit leur statut. Étant données les grandes inégalités entre producteurs et consommateurs de café, le sens de justice des “third wavers” est surtout tourné vers l’amélioration des conditions de travail liées à la production du café dans des régions défavorisées du Globe (la «Périphérie» de Wallerstein). C’est un peu les mêmes «bonnes intentions» qui ont permis aux «cafés équitables» de capturer l’imagination de plusieurs Européens et Nord-Américains. Mais la Troisième vague va beaucoup plus loin dans la direction du respect humain. Il ne s’agit désormais plus de fixer un prix plancher et quelques normes de travail, au sein de comités formés pour la plus grande part d’étrangers à la production du café. Il s’agit, en fait, de transformer le café en un produit culinaire sophistiqué «au même titre que le vin».

L’imaginaire du vin revient souvent dans ce contexte. On parle par exemple de «domaine» (“estate”) au même sens que pour le vin. La notion d’«origine» (par exemple dans “single origin”) correspond plus ou moins à celle de «terroir» (mais avec certaines résonances au niveau du «cépage»). Les mélanges de café, généralement conçus par les torréfacteurs, ressemblent un peu aux «assemblages» en contexte œnologique. La dégustation du café s’inspire parfois de celle du vin et le rôle du barista ressemble parfois à celui du sommelier.

Comme pour le vin, l’idée de base est de mettre en valeur les qualités intrinsèques du produit de base (le raisin ou le grain de café). Dans plusieurs cas, le café provenant d’un lot spécifique d’un domaine particulier est utilisé seul, même en espresso.

De prestigieuses ventes aux enchères (Cup of Excellence) sont organisées à chaque année pour des lots de café sélectionnés lors de compétitions nationales et certains de ces cafés obtiennent des montants extraordinaires. Ces montants étant directement versés aux propriétaires du domaine ayant cultivé ces cafés, certaines plantations de café dont certains produits ont su répondre aux exigences d’acheteurs de café obtiennent des montants élevés pour une part de leur production et leurs statuts ressemblent de plus en plus à celui de grands vignobles.

Au-delà de ces enchères annuelles, les partisans de la troisième vague tiennent à raccourcir la chaîne qui va de la production des grains de café à la dégustation du café. Ainsi, plusieurs torréfacteurs (y compris certains dont le café n’est pas distribué à large échelle) entretiennent des rapports directs avec les producteurs de café. Le voyage vers une région où le café est cultivé (“trip to origin”) est presque considéré comme un rite de passage, par les Third Wavers. Un peu comme dans les produits maraîchers et de boucherie, la ferme à l’origine de chaque produit d’alimentation peut être retracée avec précision. L’idée du rapport humain est donc mise de l’avant.

Chaque café de la troisième vague est donc tourné vers la compréhension du café. Même dans des chaînes de cafés assez étendues, cette notion de comprendre le café dans son moindre détail est transmis à chaque employé. Puisque plusieurs employés de cafés sont de jeunes étudiants et qu’il y a beaucoup de roulement dans ce milieu, le «message» est transmis à de nombreuses personnes et la troisième vague déferle dans diverses villes.

Dans une certaine mesure, il y a une «façon troisième vague» de faire le café. Pas qu’il s’agisse d’une méthode vraiment standardisée, mais il y a divers facteurs dans l’art du café qui sont influencés par la Troisième vague, surtout dans le cas de l’espresso.

Le facteur le plus évident: la fraîcheur. Si la fraîcheur a une grande valeur pour presque tout style de café, elle est devenue une véritable obsession au sein de la Troisième vague. Et ce, à presque toutes les étapes. Une fois séchés et triés, les grains de café vert se conservent assez longtemps. Après avoir été torréfiés, par contre, les grains de café ne conservent leurs arômes que s’ils ne sont pas attaqués par l’oxygène. Au cours des sept à dix premiers jours après la torréfaction, du gaz carbonique s’échappe des grains de café, empêchant l’oxygène de pénétrer dans les grains. Après quelques jours, les grains de café cessent d’expulser du gaz carbonique et deviennent extrêmement sensibles à l’oxydation. Les opinions divergent et les estimés varient mais, selon certains partisans de la troisième vague, la majorité des arômes de certains cafés semble disparaître en dix jours après la torréfaction (malheureusement, je n’arrive pas à trouver de référence à ce sujet mais cette notion est souvent discutée). Selon certains, aucune méthode de stockage ne réussit réellement à conserver la fraîcheur du café au-delà de quelques jours. Les torréfacteurs de la troisième vague indiquent donc la date de torréfaction sur leurs paquets de café et s’assurent que leurs cafés sont distribués très rapidement. Les torréfacteurs italiens, eux, peuvent entreposer leurs grains torréfiés pendant des semaines voire des mois avant qu’ils soient utilisés pour préparer du café.

Une fois moulu, le café se dégrade beaucoup plus rapidement que sous forme de grains. Une notion assez commune dans le milieu Third Wave est qu’il ne suffit que de quelques minutes pour que certains cafés perdent leurs arômes les plus fins. La méthode de préparation du café est donc basé sur la «mouture à la minute». Pour l’espresso, la quantité de café nécessaire à préparer deux cafés (en une seule fois, avec un bec double) est la quantité maximum de café qui peut être moulue à la fois. Le contraste avec les baristas italiens est frappant puisque ceux-ci préfèrent moudre une grande quantité de café, les doseurs de leurs moulins étant conçus pour distribuer environ 7 g de café moulu par compartiment lorsque tous les compartiments sont pleins. (J’ignore combien de compartiments ces doseurs comportent mais le simple fait que le café soit moulu à l’avance semble une hérésie pour les partisans de la troisième vague.)

L’arôme du café comporte de nombreux composés volatils et, surtout dans le cas de l’espresso, ces composés se dissipent très rapidement à l’air libre. Après avoir été «tiré», un espresso troisième vague doit donc être servi très rapidement. Aussi extrême que cela puisse paraître, un délai d’une minute peut faire une différence significative dans le cas de certains cafés. Les arômes les plus éphémères du café sont souvent ceux qui procurent une expérience plus intense et c’est parfois la sensation procurée par ces arômes qui fait du café troisième vague un objet d’admiration. Les autres méthodes de préparation du café sont généralement moins sensibles à l’effet du temps. Un «café piston» (fait avec une cafetière piston), par exemple, évolue pendant qu’il se refroidit et certains arômes ne se dégagent qu’après quelques minutes. Mais si toute méthode de préparation du café peut être utilisée par des partisans de la troisième vague, c’est l’espresso qui constitue, selon les third wavers, l’apogée du café.

L’espresso à l’italienne est servi et consommé assez rapidement. Mais les arômes qui s’en dégagent sont généralement plus durables que pour l’«ultime espresso troisième vague». En fait, l’espresso à l’italienne tire plusieurs de ses arômes de la torréfaction: rôti, chocolat, noix, grillé, fruits secs… Le café de la troisième vague possède souvent des arômes qui proviennent plus directement de la variété de grains de café: épices, bleuet, agrume, tomate, fraise, cerise, abricot…

Tous ces points de comparaison entre la troisième vague et le café à l’italienne sont liés au passage du temps. Il y a d’autres distinctions. Par exemple, l’espresso à l’italienne comporte souvent une certaine proportions de grains venant de l’espèce Coffea canephora de caféier: le «café robusta». Les cafés de cet arbuste sont très généralement considérés comme de bien moindre qualité que ceux du Coffea arabica (le «café arabica»). Le robusta, peu coûteux, est le café de la consommation de base, à l’échelle globale, et non celui de la dégustation respectueuse. Les torréfacteurs italiens utilisent un peu de robusta dans leurs mélanges, à la fois pour le maintien de la crema (l’émulsion au-dessus de l’espresso) que par goût pour une certaine amertume durable. Au cours de la Troisième vague, le statut du robusta a changé quelque peu mais la plupart des torréfacteurs se réclamant de ce mouvement parlent du robusta d’une façon assez négative. Outre les caractéristiques gustatives du café produit avec une proportion de grains robusta, la méthode habituelle de culture du Coffea canephora (procédés industriels, mauvaises conditions de travail, manque de contrôles de qualité…) va à l’encontre de l’esprit Third Wave. S’il existe des «bons robustas», cultivés avec autant de soin que pour l’arabica, les torréfacteurs de la Troisième vague ne tiennent pas à les connaître.

À cause des caractéristiques propres au café utilisé, l’espresso de troisième vague nécessite généralement un contrôle très précis de la température. Alors que les mélanges à espresso italien tolèrent des larges écarts de température sans changer trop de goût, certains cafés d’origine unique utilisé pour l’espresso troisième vague a un goût très différent s’il est réalisé à moins d’un demi-degré Celsius de sa température optimale. D’ailleurs, la Troisième vague est aussi une tendance à l’utilisation d’outils très précis et à une passion pour l’exactitude. En ce sens, la Troisième vague fait beaucoup penser à la culture geek qui, elle aussi, prend sa source dans une certaine portion de la Côte Ouest.

Autre aspect important de la préparation du café troisième vague, c’est un jeu très particulier sur la mouture et le dosage du café. En fait, beaucoup de baristas de la Troisième vague ont tendance à «surdoser» (“updose”) leurs portafiltres d’une proportion bien plus grande de café que ce que voudrait une norme italienne. La technique de dispersion du café moulu dans le portafiltre et l’«écrasement» (“tamping”) de ce café moulu à l’aide d’un instrument dédié (le “tamper”) font l’objet de multiples discussions et d’un apprentissage approfondi. A contrario, certains baristas italiens n’«écrasent» pas le café moulu dans le portafiltre.

Comme l’espresso italien est généralement doté d’une certaine amertume, l’ajout d’un peu de sucre à un espresso italien est relativement commun. Il existe des Italiens (et d’autres amateurs de café) qui voient d’un assez mauvais œil l’ajout de sucre dans l’espresso, mais le goût de l’espresso à l’italienne est souvent réhaussé par quelques grains de sucre. Sans être anti-sucre, la troisième vague est orientée tout entière vers «le café en soi». Un café doit, selon eux, pouvoir «parler de lui-même». Comme avec de nombreux thés de qualité, l’ajout de sucre à un café Third Wave (peu importe la méthode de préparation!) diminue certaines saveurs plutôt que de rehausser le goût du breuvage.

Bien entendu, la Troisième vague permet la préparation de breuvages à base de lait (“milk-based”) comme le Latte macchiato, le cappuccino et le caffè latte. D’ailleurs, l’ajout du lait à ces breuvages est souvent effectué sous forme de «dessins» basés sur le contraste entre la crema de l’espresso et le lait. Pour certains, ces dessins (le “latte art”) est même un facteur important permettant de reconnaître les baristas de la Troisième vague puisque, pour être réussis, ces dessins nécessitent un soin particulier, entre autre dans la créaction d’un lait «soyeux», plein de microbulles. Par contre, la tendance troisième vague est de diminuer le plus possible la proportion de lait dans ces breuvages. Dans ce contexte, la qualité d’un espresso est souvent perçue comme supérieure à celle d’un macchiato qui est perçue comme supérieure à celle du cappuccino. Le latte, bien que devenu très populaire, est parfois considéré comme un mal nécessaire et plusieurs baristas se gaussent des chaînes de cafés qui ont fait du latte un breuvage avec une très grande quantité de lait. En compétition de barista, un critère déterminant pour l’évaluation d’un cappuccino est que la saveur de l’espresso ne soit pas masquée, renforçant encore l’idée troisième vague de mettre le café à l’honneur. Il est commun, dans la Troisième vague, de parler de grains de café (mélange ou «origine unique») qui ne conviennent pas dans les breuvages avec lait. En général, le café à l’italienne s’agrémente très facilement de lait et, dans certains cas, ne prend son sens que dans un breuvage à base de lait.

J’ai mentionné plus haut une distinction entre arômes de torréfaction et arômes de variété. En général, plus plus le degré de torréfaction est élevé (plus les grains sont foncés), plus les arômes «variétaux» disparaissent, surtout en fonction de la pyrolise. Les cafés italiens sont en général d’une torréfaction très foncée et, dans certains cas, les arômes provenant de la variété de café disparaissent complètement. En général, le café troisième vague est donc plus complexe que le café à l’italienne du point de vue olfactif à cause de la torréfaction elle-même. Certains torréfacteurs de la Troisième vague sont même tellement obsédés par les torréfactions «légères» (plus pâles) que certains de leurs cafés ont des saveurs que plusieurs trouvent déplaisantes. Mais, en général, le café troisième vague est conçu pour être balancé, complexe et «propre».

C’est d’ailleurs une caractéristique fondamentale de l’esthétique Third Wave qui est présente dans les règles des championnats de baristas. Le goût de l’espresso doit être «balancé» en ce sens qu’aucun des trois goûts fondamentaux du café (sucré, amertume, acidité/”brightness”) ne peut être dominant mais qu’il doit y avoir une dynamique entre au moins deux de ces trois goûts. C’est un peu difficile à expliquer mais très facile à percevoir. Et un espresso extraordinairement bien balancé est une véritable œuvre d’art.


Café à la québécoise

J’ai récemment publié un très long billet sur la scène du café à Montréal. Sans doûte à cause de sa longueur, ce billet ne semble pas avoir les effets escomptés. J’ai donc décidé de republier ce billet, section par section. Ce billet est la troisième section après l’introduction et une section sur les cafés italiens de Montréal. Cette section se concentre sur une certaine spécificité québécoise de la scène montréalaise du café.

La scène du café à Montréal comporte plusieurs autres institutions qui ne correspondent pas vraiment à l’image du café italien. Certains de ces endroits peuvent même servir de base à la «Renaissance du café à Montréal».

Dans l’ensemble, je dirais que ces cafés sont typiquement québécois. Pas que ces cafés soient vraiment exclusifs au Québec mais il y a quelque-chose de reconnaissable dans ces cafés qui me fait penser au goût québécois pour le café.

Comme les intellos de Montréal ont longtemps eu tendance à s’identifier à la France, certains de ces cafés ont une tendance française, voire parisienne. Pas qu’on y sert des larges bols de “café au lait” (à base de café filtre) accompagnés de pain sec. Mais le breuvage de base ressemble plus au café français qu’au café italien.

D’après moi, la référence à la France a eu beaucoup d’influence sur la perception des cafés montréalais par des gens de l’extérieur. Pour une large part, cette référence était plutôt une question d’ambiance qu’une question de caractéristiques gustatives et olfactives précises. Dans un café montréalais, des Nord-Américains ayant passé du temps en France pouvaient se «rappeler l’Europe». La Rive-Gauche à l’Ouest de l’Atlantique.

Pour revenir au mode «mémoires», je pense tout d’abord à la Brûlerie Saint-Denis comme institution montréalaise de ce type. Vers la fin de mon adolescence, c’est par l’entremise de la compagne de mon frère (qui y travaillait) que j’ai connu la Brûlerie. À l’époque, il s’agissait d’un café isolé (au cœur du Plateau, qui n’était pas encore si «chromé») et non d’une chaîne avec des succursales dispersées. Ce dont je me rappelle est assez représentatif d’une certaine spécificité québécoise: un «allongé» de qualité.

L’allongé (ou «espresso allongé») n’est pas exclusif au Québec mais c’est peut-être le breuvage le plus représentatif d’un goût québécois pour le café.

En Amérique du Nord, hors du Québec, l’allongé a généralement mauvaise réputation. Selon plusieurs, il s’agit d’une surextraction de l’espresso. Avec la même quantité de café moulu que pour un espresso à l’italienne d’une once, on produit un café de deux onces ou plus en laissant l’eau passer dans le café. «Toute chose étant égale par ailleurs», une telle surextraction amène dans la tasse des goûts considérés peu agréables, comme une trop grande amertume, voire de l’astringence. En même temps, la quantité de liquide dans la tasse implique une dillution extrême et on s’attend à un café «aqueux», peu goûteux.

Pourtant, je me rappelle de multiples allongés, presque tous dégustés au Québec, qui étaient savoureux sans être astringents. Selon toute logique, ce doit être parce que la mouture du café et le mélange de grains de café ont été adaptés à la réalisation d’un allongé de qualité. Ce qui implique certaines choses pour l’«espresso serré» (ou «espresso court», donc non-allongé) s’il est réalisé avec la même mouture et le même mélange. Même à Montréal, il est rare d’avoir dans le même café un excellent espresso court et un excellent allongé.

Mais parmi les Montréalais amateurs de café, l’allongé «a la cote» et les cafés montréalais typiques font généralement un bon allongé.

Selon mon souvenir, l’allongé de la Brûlerie Saint-Denis était de qualité. J’ai eu de moins bonnes expériences à la Brûlerie depuis que l’entreprise a ouvert d’autres succursales, mais c’est peut-être un hasard.

Une autre institution de la scène montréalaise du café, situé sur le Plateau comme la Brûlerie Saint-Denis à l’origine, c’est le café Aux Deux Marie. Le Deux Marie aujourd’hui ressemble beaucoup à mon souvenir de la Brûlerie Saint-Denis. Comme à la Brûlerie, j’y ai bu des allongés de qualité. C’est au Deux Marie que j’ai découvert certains «breuvages de spécialité» (“specialty drinks”, comme les appelle le World Barista Championship). Ces breuvages, à base d’espresso, contiennent des fruits, des épices, du chocolat et d’autres ingrédients. Si je me rappelle bien, la Brûlerie fait le même genre de breuvage mais je ne me rappelle pas en avoir remarqué, il y a une vingtaine d’années.

Il y a plusieurs autres «cafés à la québécoise». Dans les institutions connues, il y a La Petite Ardoise (tout près d’Outremont, sur Laurier). C’est d’ailleurs mon premier lieu de travail puisque j’y ai été plongeur, à la fin du secondaire (1988-9). C’est un «café bistro terrasse» assez typique de la scène culinaire montréalaise. Le cappuccino et l’allongé étaient très populaires (si je me rappelle bien, on les appelait «capp» et «all», respectivement). Et je me rappelle distinctement d’une cliente d’un autre café s’enquérir de la présence du «mélange de la Petite Ardoise». Honnêtement, je n’ai aucune idée sur ce que ce mélange comprenait ni sur la maison de torréfaction qui le produisait. Ma mémoire olfactive conserve la trace du «café de la Petite», surtout que le café était la seule chose que je pouvais consommer gratuitement quand j’y travaillais. La dernière fois que j’ai bu un café à La Petite Ardoise, il a titillé ma mémoire gustative mais je crois quand même qu’il a beaucoup changé, au cours des vingt dernières années.

Une autre institution typique, le Santropol (qui est aussi connu pour ses sandwiches et tisanes). Il y a quelques années, le Santropol a commencé à torréfier du café à large échelle et leurs cafés sont désormais disponibles dans les épiceries. Mon souvenir du café au Santropol se mêle à l’image du restaurant lui-même mais je crois me rappeler qu’il était assez représentatif du café à la québécoise.

Il y a plusieurs autres endroit que j’aurais tendance à mettre dans la catégorie «café à la québécoise», depuis La Petite Patrie jusqu’à Westmount, en passant par Villeray et Saint-Henri. Mais l’idée de base est surtout de décrire un type d’endroit. Il y a une question d’ambiance qui entre en ligne de compte mais, du côté du goût du café, la qualité de l’allongé est probablement le facteur le plus déterminant.

Ce qui surprend les plus les amateurs de café (surtout ceux qui ne sont pas nés à Montréal), c’est de savoir que j’ai dégusté des allongés de qualité dans un café de la chaîne Café Dépôt. Pour être honnête, j’étais moi-même surpris, la première fois. En général, les chaînes ont énormément de difficulté à faire du café de très haute qualité, surtout si on considère la nécessité de fournir toutes les succursales avec le même café. Mais je suis retourné à la même succursale de Café Dépôt et, à plusieurs reprises, j’ai pu boire un allongé qui correspond à mes goûts. D’ailleurs, j’aurais dit la même chose de certains cafés dégustés à une succursale de la chaîne Van Houtte. Mais c’était il y a plus de dix ans et Van Houtte semble avoir beaucoup changé depuis.


L’héritage italien des cafés montréalais

J’ai récemment publié un très long billet sur la scène du café à Montréal. Sans doûte à cause de sa longueur, ce billet ne semble pas avoir les effets escomptés. J’ai donc décidé de republier ce billet, section par section. Ce billet est la deuxième section après l’introduction. Cette section se concentre sur la dimension italienne de la scène montréalaise du café.

Comme beaucoup de grandes villes nord-américaines, Montréal a longtemps bénéficié de la présence d’une importante communauté italienne. Les quartiers italiens de Montréal et de ses environs sont d’une vitalité qui fait plaisir à voir, pour quiconque s’intéresse à la vie communautaire. J’ai d’ailleurs lu plusieurs travaux d’étudiants basés sur des Italiens de Montréal et un sens de vie commune était une constante dans tous ces travaux. Pour être franc, j’ai une bouffée de sympathie simplement à penser à tout ça. Peut-être parce que mon arrière-grand-père biologique était un Cerruti? 😉

Donc, il y a un peu d’Italie à Montréal et les Italiens ont su bâtir des communautés serrées. La présence de cafés italiens aux quatre coins de la ville n’a donc rien de surprenant. Mais les implications de cette présence mérite discussion, en ce qui a trait au café.

Faut dire que je suis un peu biaisé. J’ai vraiment découvert le café lors d’un séjour en Suisse, mais c’est en partie grâce à des Italiens que j’avais été initié. Un doux souvenir d’enfance, c’est de me faire servir un pseudo-cappuccino (avec très peu de café) par le cafetier du supermarché Latina, à Cartierville. J’avais aussi le plaisir d’aller manger de la granita maison dans certains cafés italiens disperés à travers la ville. Donc, le simple fait de parler de cafés italiens me rend nostalgique.

Parlant de nostalgie, une institution montréalaise est le Caffè Italia (6840 Saint-Laurent, au cœur de la Petite-Italie). Et c’est un café assez typique de la dimension italienne de la scène montréalaise du café. C’est aussi un des cafés montréalais les plus typiques: non seulement a-t-il été utilisé comme décor pour plusieurs séries télévisées mais son nom a donné son titre à un fascinant documentaire sur les Italiens de Montréal. Le thème musical de ce film, une jolie pièce d’accordéon, a souvent été diffusée sur les ondes de Radio-Canada et a probablement contribué à ma nostalgie.

Mais je pense aussi au Caffè Italia pour son café. Mon père m’y amenait parfois, quand j’étais adolescent, et les cafés au lait que j’y ai bus ont été une base importante de mon appréciation du café.

Au cours des dernières années, près de vingt ans après l’avoir «découvert», je suis retourné au Caffè Italia à quelques reprises. Le café a pratiquement le même goût que dans mes souvenirs et l’ambiance est tout aussi typique. Ce n’est que l’année dernière, plus de dix ans après avoir passé quelques jours à Sienne, que j’ai pu remarquer qu’il y avait du panforte au Caffè Italia.

Le café du Caffè Italia est assez typique de l’espresso à l’italienne. «Mais c’est italien, l’espresso!» Oui, à l’origine. Comme certaines formes de pâtes alimentaires (qui proviennent originellement d’Asie). Mais si l’espresso est toujours associé à l’Italie dans l’esprit de plusieurs, il y a aujourd’hui d’autres conceptions de ce que peut être un espresso. C’est d’ailleurs une des bases de ce que j’essaie de décrire en ce qui concerne la scène du café à Montréal: il nous est désormais possible de déguster tant de l’espresso à l’italienne que d’autres cafés, y compris certains qui méritent pleinement l’appellation «espresso».

Donc, l’espresso à l’italienne, c’est quoi? Sans trop entrer dans le détail technique pour l’instant, c’est généralement un breuvage d’environ une once liquide préparé avec 7 g d’un mélange de cafés arabica et robusta sur une machine à espresso. Généralement, l’espresso à l’italienne peut avoir une amertume assez prononcée. Il est courant de mettre une petite quantité de sucre dans un espresso à l’italienne. Ce même espresso est la base du cappuccino et du «café au lait à l’italienne» (“caffè latte” en italien et en anglais; “café au lait” désigne autre chose en anglais). Ce «café au lait» consiste en un mélange homogène de lait chaud et d’espresso avec, contrairement à l’espresso, peu ou pas de lait moussé.

Enfin, trêve de digressions… 😉

En plus du Caffè Italia, plusieurs cafés de Montréal font l’espresso à l’italienne. Chez les amateurs anglophones de café, deux institutions situées au cœur du Mile-End sont probablement les plus connues: Café Olimpico (aussi appelé “Open Da Night” et “Olympico“) et  Club Social. De mon point de vue, les cafés du Caffè Italia, du Club Social et du Café Olimpico sont assez semblables. J’ai l’impression que la qualité était un peu plus constante chez Olimpico qu’aux deux autres, mais c’est peut-être un hasard.

Mais il y a un grand nombre d’autres cafés italiens à Montréal. Près d’où j’habitais, dans La Petite-Patrie, il y a le Café Genova qui est un digne représentant du «petit café de quartier». À mon avis, le Café Genova est même plus typique que les institutions susmentionnées.

Je pense aussi à plusieurs autres cafés dans différents coins de la ville, de Cartierville à Saint-Léonard, d’Ahuntsic à Outremont. Mais l’idée, ici, c’est pas de faire une liste des cafés de Montréal mais bien de décrire une dimension de la scène montréalaise du café.

Certains de ces cafés attirent une clientèle très locale. Au point qu’il est parfois étrange d’entrer dans un de ces cafés si on n’y connaît personne. C’est d’ailleurs une expérience ethnographique que j’aime bien, qui me fait sentir le sens de communauté. On se fait examiner des pieds à la tête et on nous adresse la parole de façon assez distante. Mais derrière une certaine froideur apparente, on devine un sentiment d’appartenance.

Un aspect intéressant à considérer, c’est que les Italiens de Montréal proviennent surtout du Sud de l’Italie. Puisque la division Nord-Sud de l’Italie est fortement marquée (y compris du point de vue linguistique), l’origine de l’immigration italienne peut être assez pertinente dans toute discussion de cette communauté. Pour le café, d’aucuns disent que les cafés du Sud de l’Italie sont de moins haute qualité que ceux du Nord. N’ayant visité que quelques endroits du Nord de l’Italie (et aucun au Sud), je ne saurais me prononcer. Mais «la rumeur veut que» le café italien montréalais soit moins impressionnant que d’autres cafés italiens à cause de la majorité «sudiste». Ça pourrait expliquer certaines différences que j’ai pu remarqué entre des cafés dégustés en Italie et ce qu’on peut boire dans les cafés italiens de Montréal, mais ça demanderait une analyse plus approfondie.

(Étrangement, j’ai l’impression que tout commentaire laissé sur ce billet va se concentrer sur ce petit détail. Ça serait un peu dommage mais je vais laisser le paragraphe en place, au risque d’avoir des commentaires moins stimulants que ce que j’aimerais avoir…)


Café à la montréalaise: introduction

J’ai récemment publié un très long billet sur la scène du café à Montréal. Sans doûte à cause de sa longueur, ce billet ne semble pas avoir les effets escomptés. J’ai donc décidé de republier ce billet, section par section. Tout d’abord, l’introduction.

Montréal est en passe de (re)devenir une destination pour le café. Mieux encore, la «Renaissance du café à Montréal» risque d’avoir des conséquences bénéfiques pour l’ensemble du milieu culinaire de la métropole québécoise.

Cette thèse peut sembler personnelle et je n’entends pas la proposer de façon dogmatique. Mais en me mêlant au milieu du café à Montréal, j’ai accumulé un certain nombre d’impressions qu’il me ferait plaisir de partager. Il y a même de la «pensée magique» dans tout ça en ce sens qu’il me semble plus facile de rebâtir la scène montréalaise du café si nous avons une idée assez juste de ce qui constitue la spécificité montréalaise.

Je ne tente pas de dire que Montréal devrait être la «capitale du café» ou que Montréal a de l’importance dans le domaine du café. Mais ma ville natale me sert de cas de figure dans l’observation d’une scène culinaire.

Qui suis-je?

D’ailleurs, qui suis-je pour parler ainsi? Essentiellement, un ethnographe montréalais et un avide amateur de café, un «geek de café».

Pour être clair: mon intérêt pour le café est très personnel mais il est fondamental dans ma vie. «Je vis le café». Par contre, je ne suis pas un professionnel du café en ce sens que je n’ai jamais été payé pour quelque activité que ce soit ayant trait au café. J’ai aujourd’hui 36 ans et je bois régulièrement du café depuis l’âge de quinze ans (donc, depuis 1987). Ce qui peut expliquer quelques références nostalgiques à mon adolescence… 😉

Ce qui est amusant, c’est que depuis quelques années j’ai acquis une certaine notoriété dans le milieu du café. Oh, c’est pas grand-chose! Les professionnels du café ne parlent pas de moi entre eux et je n’apparais pas dans des revues spécialisées. Mais mon expertise personnelle sur le café a été reconnue à certaines occasions. J’en tirerais une certaine fierté si ce n’était du fait que tout ce que j’ai fait dans le milieu du café était «tout naturel» pour moi.

Si j’explique tout ça, c’est pas du tout pour me mettre en valeur mais pour donner un certain contexte. Une espèce d’«avertissement» (au sens de “disclaimer“).

Ma formation en ethnographie provient de disciplines académiques (surtout l’anthropologie et la folkloristique) mais j’adopte ici un rôle d’«ethnographe public». Donc, si mes observations sont basées sur une formation académique, elles sont ici effectuées dans un contexte informel, exploratoire. Et c’est quoi, l’ethnographie? Le terme réfère à plusieurs choses mais, essentiellement, c’est un travail de description culturelle. Notre approche de base est l’«observation participante» et je peux dire que j’ai à la fois observé et participé à diverses activités de scènes du café.

Parlant de «scènes de café»… J’aime bien le concept, parce qu’il sous-entend une certaine cohérence sociale (un groupe de gens avec des intérêts communs, dans ce cas-ci) sans évoquer l’homogénéité. La scène montréalaise du café est d’ailleurs assez diversifiée.

Et c’est la base de ce que j’essaie de décrire: la spécificité montréalaise en matière de café passe beaucoup par la diversité.

Pour facilité la lecture, j’ai décidé de diviser ma description en sections.


Café à la montréalaise

Montréal est en passe de (re)devenir une destination pour le café. Mieux encore, la «Renaissance du café à Montréal» risque d’avoir des conséquences bénéfiques pour l’ensemble du milieu culinaire de la métropole québécoise.

Cette thèse peut sembler personnelle et je n’entends pas la proposer de façon dogmatique. Mais en me mêlant au milieu du café à Montréal, j’ai accumulé un certain nombre d’impressions qu’il me ferait plaisir de partager. Il y a même de la «pensée magique» dans tout ça en ce sens qu’il me semble plus facile de rebâtir la scène montréalaise du café si nous avons une idée assez juste de ce qui constitue la spécificité montréalaise.

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Café Myriade Linkfest

Been meaning to write a blogpost, in French, about Montreal’s coffee scene. I’ve already written a few posts in English about it.

I sincerely think momentum is building right now and I like to ride this kind of wave.

But before I write that post, I’ll list several blog and forum entries about Café Myriade. Mainly because Myriade is the newest piece in Montreal’s coffee puzzle but also because it’s a wonderful café.

This list is what I call a “linkfest” and I admit that there’s a promotional component to this. Not necessarily to promote my own blog, but to maintain the “buzz” about Myriade.

Speaking of promotion… I find it interesting that October 28, the day Café Myriade did its Grand Opening, was also the day with the highest traffic on this blog since the day I launched it (January 9, 2006, following my first blog). And that difference is clearly coming from my two posts about Myriade, that day:

But my goal isn’t to get traffic. I do find it fun to observe fluctuations in traffic and I do get a small boast when I see an increase in traffic. But I care more about connecting with people than about generating traffic here. I’m quite certain I could create a high-traffic site, but this isn’t meant to be it.

My main goal, in this coverage of Montreal’s coffee scene, is to connect with different members of Montreal’s coffee community as well as to coffee-loving visitors to Montreal.

So, here’s a set of links to blog and forum posts about Café Myriade, Montreal’s newest café.


More Notes on Myriade

Like all my recent posts, this post about my first coffee-tasting session at Myriade followed the RERO principle: not only was it a draft but I expect to come back to it. I could update the post itself but I think it’s useful to post a few more notes about Myriade’s first day, especially since I did go back to the café in the meantime.

via First Myriade Session « Disparate

So…

First factual point: all of Myriade’s espresso drinks are based on double-shots. It doesn’t surprise me given the fact that it’s pretty much the epitome of coffee’s so-called Third Wave and double-espresso is the very basis of West Coast-style Third Wave coffee. But I still assumed they would be pulling singles as well as doubles. A corrollary of this is that their extra shot makes for a triple.

Speaking of extras… Myriade’s menus are rather unique, IMHO. Not really because of specific items which aren’t found elsewhere or because of the price structure. The way the whole set of menus work together. It’s precisely the kind of thing a business-savvy person would notice and grok right away. I merely notice it. If I had had a camera (and the fine folks at Myriade had let me), I would have posted pictures of those menus (which happen to look pretty nice, and fit into the café’s overall design). There’s something there; I can’t put my finger on it; but it’s there.

I’m not sure what my friend Chris Capell’s official job title may be. He does seem to work there as a manager, but calling him the “manager” might have been stretching a bit. Not sure about that.

Though it should be obvious from the link I used for Scott Rao, I should have mentioned that Rao is the author of The Professional Barista’s Handbook. Fittingly, Scott’s book is available for sale at Myriade. I haven’t the book yet (I’m no barista, even though I played a barista judge before), but I’ve heard very good things about it. This specific book was discussed at length in episode 61 (27:30-31:34, MP3) of the CoffeeGeek Podcast (XML). Unfortunately, however, Mark Prince‘s review of that book has yet to appear online. Hopefully, that review will appear before the well-known CoffeeGeek editor comes to Montreal.

On my second trip to Myriade today, after writing that previous post, I got a chance to try a few different things. I did tweet about one:

Having Mei Shan oolong at Myriade. Getting seaweed, black currant, puffed rice, bit of grass. Perfect complement for the Taiwanese meal I just had. (Tweet)

The Taiwanese meal was the deep fried pork chops from Bao Dao Taiwan, at Faubourg Sainte-Catherine. That place happens to be one of my favourite food court places in town (along with that one Thai Express location at Carrefour Industrielle-Alliance). The seaweed I got in that tea really made for a great complement because that meal did have seaweed in it. This combination is one I want to repeat. Either I ask Myriade for the right to bring my Bao Dao meal to eat there or I get this Mei Shan to go, and bring it to Faubourg.

On that second trip to Myriade, I also had the occasion to take a couple of sips of the Miralvalle brewed through another method and what struck me that time was vanilla chocolate. Very different from the Eva Solo I’ve had of the Miralvalle, earlier. Given my passion for flavour diversity, this was a pleasant experience.

The last thing I’ve had at Myriade today was a mixture of honey, lemon, ginger, and water. It was described as a drink popular in New Zealand and it tasted pretty much like a high-quality version of what I know as a grog, without the rum. Knowing that Kiwis have a special relationship with alcohol, I’m assuming this same drink is frequently served with rum, over in Lambland.

As you can tell, I can’t stop talking about Myriade. One thing which is great for me is that I now have two good reasons to spend time on Concordia campus (the other one being that I teach at Concordia). I sincerely think that Myriade’s presence in the neighbourhood will help me do more at Concordia, in the coming months. In fact, I’ve written the previous blogpost from my office and I had a chance to chat with one of my office-mates who tends not to overlap that much with me. If, thanks to Myriade, I end up spending time on campus every day, I’m sure to have more opportunities to talk with more Concordia people. The neat thing about this is that I really like Concordia.

As a Montrealer and a coffee geek, I can just tell that Myriade’s future is bright. No, it’s not wishful thinking. Even if it is, Myriade will still work. 😉 One sign of this is that some key members of Montreal’s coffee scene were at Myriade today and everybody seemed really enthusiastic. As I keep saying, this is Montreal’s Coffee Renaissance. I sincerely think that “all the chips are on the table” and that the time is ripe for this rebirth in coffee enthusiasm. As World Barista Champion Stephen Morrissey has said (or so I heard), during the Canadian Barista Championship in Montreal, coffee is the ideal drink for culinary enthusiasts of all kinds (foodies, chowhounds, etc.) during these tough financial times. Just about any food enthusiast in a post-industrial society (i.e. OECD members) can easily “splurge” on a very fine coffee without making that big a hole in their budget and some people in GDP-poor contexts can eventually get quality coffee, especially if culinary coffee ends up improving the deal for coffee growers.

Call me an idealist all you want, I think this rosy picture I’m drawing makes quite a bit of sense! 😎


First Myriade Session

Today’s main coffee event is the anxiously awaited Grand Opening of Café Myriade (1432 Mackay, Montreal, right by Concordia University’s Sir George William campus). I just did my first of certainly a good many coffee-savouring sessions, there.

As a disclaimer of sorts, I think of Anthony Benda as one of the main actors in Montreal’s coffee renaissance. Anthony’s the co-owner of Café Myriade. He also happens to be an espresso blogger. Chris Capell, Myriade’s manager and “espresso producer,” has become a good friend of mine, thanks in part to the Eastern Regional competition of the Canadian Barista Championship, back in June. Despite being friendly with some of the core members in the Myriade team, I still think I can judge Myriade drinks fairly and justly. I do want the café to succeed and there’s a slight bias involved, but I think my perspective on that café and its drinks is relatively unbiased.

So, a few notes on this first session at Myriade.

On Anthony’s recommendation, I started with the allongé.

The allongé was a thing of beauty. Myriade managed to craft a drink in continuity with the ristretto-to-double-espresso flavour axis. (Twitter)

What I mean is that this allongé (or “lungo“) was nothing like a watered down espresso. It wasn’t typical of Montréal’s allongés either. But that’s really not an issue. Those who would order an allongé at Brûlerie Saint-Denis, Aux Deux Marie, or even Café Dépôt (where I’ve been surprised to have flavourful allongés in the past) will enjoy Myriade’s allongé. At least, if they keep an open mind.

To my taste, Myriade’s allongé is pretty much what you would get if you “extrapolated” (in the mathematical sense) the curve from ristretto to a regular espresso (single or double). The difference in flavours and aromas between ristretto and regular espresso is not strictly linear. Some flavours are muted as some others become stronger. It also depends on a number of factors from the blend and the grind to the way it was pulled. The same could be said about this allongé from Myriade, compared to a regular espresso.

I then tried the sipping chocolate.

Myriade’s sipping chocolate is delicious as a dessert drink. Must work really well with pastry. (Tweet)

To be honest, it was on the sweet side, for me. Maybe my tastebuds weren’t ready for this but I’m used to bitter chocolate and this one was decidedly on the sweet side. In fact, I wouldn’t have called it bittersweet because the bitterness was really muted. My mention of this seemed to be surprising to Myriade’s other co-owner, Scott Rao. But I maintain that this was a sweet chocolate.

My favourite sipping chocolate in Montreal so far (and possibly my favourite chocolate drink ever) was from Juliette & Chocolat (1615 Saint-Denis). The last time I went to J&C was probably two years ago so they may have changed in the meantime. There are two types of chocolate drinks at J&C. IIRC, the “à l’ancienne” one is unsweetened and milkless. I distinctly remember having some very tasty sipping chocolate there and the taste I remember isn’t sweet, by any stretch of the imagination. Of course, I might be wrong. But I’m usually pretty accurate about these things. Myriade’s sipping chocolate wasn’t as sweet as mainstream hot chocolate, but it was definitely much sweeter than what I’ve had at Juliette & Chocolat.

I enjoyed Myriade’s sipping chocolate about as much as the one I’ve raved about, from Chocolats Privilège (7070 Henri-Julien). In Myriade’s case, it’s less about cost than about the diversity of experiences we can have at the same place.

Speaking of which, here’s my first tweet from Myriade, today:

Enjoying Myriade’s impressive array of high quality drinks: 1432 Mackay. (Tweet)

When I first heard about Anthony’s plans for a café, I was mostly thinking about espresso. Anthony Benda is a true espresso artist, and the fact that he was a finalist in the Canadian Barista Championship (for which I’ve been a judge) is a testament to Anthony’s passion for espresso.

But Myriade isn’t exclusively about espresso. In fact, it’s probably the place in town which has the widest variety of coffee options. IIRC, they do all the espresso drinks, from single shot to allongé, caffè latte to cappuccino. But they also do pour-over drip, French press, siphon, and Eva Solo Café Solo.

Speaking of the Eva Solo, it’s the one drink with which I’ve spent the longest time, today. It was the first time I had coffee brewed through this method. It’s similar to French press but still different. I’d have a hard time describing all the differences (having to do with the “bloom” as well as with the body and the size of solids floating in the cup) but I did enjoy this coffee very much.

My tweets about this cup. The coffee was made with single origin Cup of Excellence beans: Lot #24 from Miralvalle farm.

Miralvalle as Eva. Berries to lemon, bright and sweet, some cocoa, bit of raw almond, faint roasted hazelnut. (Tweet)

As it cools, this Eva Solo of Salvadorian Cup of Excellence Miralvalle tastes more like candied lemon zest. With some cocoa butter. (Tweet)

These descriptions are my own impressions, at this moment in time. I fully realize that they may not match other people’s experiences. I wasn’t carefully cupping this coffee nor was I trying to calibrate my descriptors with what would be expected. I was pulling a Gary V: I was simply saying what I got from the drink in front of me, with as few preset expectations as possible. It’s all part of my attitude toward hedonistic tasting (e.g. in my tasting notes about Cuvée Coffee Roasters’ Sumatra beans as Brikka).

Which wraps it up for my tweets about Myriade. Through Twitter’s search, I notice that James Golick also went to Myriade today. I don’t know Golick but I notice that he has also blogged his Myriade experience, along with Daniel Haran. Haven’t read their posts (actually, a single post forked on two blogs) but glancing at the text, it sounds like the three of us have a fair bit in common.

I should also say that Myriade has an impressive selection of high-quality teas and that I really enjoyed their Sencha when I’ve had the opportunity to try it (in a private tasting) a few days ago. I kept thinking about those very tasty baby clams that my then-wife had brought back from New Brunswick, a few years ago. The tea was still subtle and I’m assuming other people would not pick up this flavour nearly as strongly as I did (if at all). But I enjoyed those clams so much (and for such a long time) that my experience of that tea was enhanced through my prior sensory experiences.

Keeping with my RERO resolution, this is probably as long as I should make this post.


Taste and Judgement (Draft)

This post isn’t ready to be written. So this is just a placeholder. But, given my RERO mantra, I guess I should still publish it as a “placeholder” of sorts.

I recently served as judge in the Canadian Barista Championship (CBC), here in Montreal. That championship is the national competition pitting against one another baristas (espresso artists) from regional competitions. Rules and regulations (PDF) for this championship closely follow those set by the World Barista Championship (WBC).

Participating in this event, I got to think about taste, evaluation, (inter)subjectivity, coffee, Montreal’s culinary scene, and food culture generally.

Some videos from the event are available, through the event organizer’s uStream channel.

The event was blogged by Anthony Benda. Despite being busy preparing for his café’s grand opening, Anthony managed to give an excellent performance during the championship, especially on the first day. I wasn’t on the panel of judge for his performance but I have reason to believe that Anthony’s performance was really quite good.

I also got to think about my own involvement in such events.

Being a judge at barista championships is still somewhat new to me. I judged during the Eastern regional championship, back in June, and this was my first national championship. I still think that the “barista judge” label fits and I did mention it on occasion, with lots of disclaimers. Most judges at that event were coffee professionals of one type or the other (from equipment distributors to barista champions). My impression is that, despite my limited experience and my somewhat indirect connections to the coffee industry, I was accepted as a peer by other judges.

More importantly, I sincerely think that the judging at this competition was exceedingly fair. My strong perception is that we achieved a high degree of consistency in our judging, both at an individual level and through the group. A large part of what I perceive to be a resounding success comes from the work of WBC’s Brent Fortune, who trained and calibrated the judging team.

One thing I kept thinking about was how different barista judging is from judging homebrewed beer. I haven’t acted as a homebrew judge myself but many of my friends have and I proctored an exam for the Beer Judge Certification Program (BJCP). Put simply, homebrew competitions are stricter than barista championships. And I mean this to imply that BJCP competitions are in some ways less reasonable than barista championships, though the WBC could learn a thing or two from the BJCP.

Barista championships are based on fairness and impartiality. Though it’s mentioned on occasion, “objectivity” isn’t the core principle in judging. Not emphasizing “objectivity” allows for a sensible approach to tasting since, after all, tasting is as subjective as any other form of sensory perception. In other words, acknowledging the subjective nature of tasting brings realism to WBC-style competitions.

The reason I emphasize the “subjectivity” issue is that homebrewing competitions seem to exist in a radically different world, a world in which “objectivity” is an absolute goal. Though the BJCP style guidelines may allow for some room for variation in judging beer aroma, appearance, flavour, and mouthfeel, the main approach is object-based and a direct connection between a judge’s experience and precise measurements of the beer’s characteristics is assumed. Several homebrew judges do use the term “objective” fairly frequently and “subjectivity” is a “bad word” in many of the homebrew circles which give a lot of weight to those homebrew competitions.

One thing I find fascinating about this distinction between WBC and BJCP competitions is that, to some extent, the coffee professionals are less, well, “anal” than the homebrewers. The level of technical expertise may be as high in both domains. The drinks themselves are comparable on many levels, including in terms of chemical complexity. But the approaches taken to evaluate those drinks are radically different.

I also got to think about the connections (actual and potential) between Montreal’s strong beer scene and its renascent coffee scene. It certainly was fun to have beers at Benelux with a number of participants in the Canadian Barista Championship, including coffee writer Felipe Gonzalez. Myriade’s grand opening, on Monday, will likely serve as an opportunity for me to discuss Montreal’s coffee scene in more depth.

Of course, any of this could be the start of a long monologue on my part. But it’s probably better if I leave this post as it is, to serve as a placeholder for further discussion of taste, evaluation, subjectivity, coffee scenes


Omnivoring Conspiracies

Yup, I occasionally like to jump on bandwagons. Especially when they’re full of food and is being mentioned in a video presenting a cool local event in which I happen to take part. Alejna put the final nail in that coffin with her own use of that list.

From the Very Good Taste blog:

Very Good Taste » blog » The Omnivore’s Hundred.

So, here goes. A list of food items used as a “meme.”

The rules:

1) Copy this list into your blog or journal, including these instructions.

2) Bold all the items you’ve eaten.

3) Cross out any items that you would never consider eating.

4) Optional extra: Post a comment here at http://www.verygoodtaste.co.uk linking to your results.

1. Venison (I like game)

2. Nettle tea (also nettle wine)

3. Huevos rancheros (but I prefer migas)

4. Steak tartare (especially horse tartare)

5. Crocodile (not yet)

6. Black pudding (not that I really like it but I did have some)

7. Cheese fondue (several different types, including Fribourg’s moitié-moitié, “tarragon fondue” served on potatoes, and the three cheese classic)

8. Carp (fished by hand)

9. Borscht (only once or twice in restaurants)

10. Baba ghanoush (pretty common)

11. Calamari (I prefer fried over stuffed)

12. Pho (in my list of comfort foods, with bánh mỳ)

13. PB&J sandwich (not that frequently)

14. Aloo gobi (had some this afternoon, as a matter of fact)

15. Hot dog from a street cart (although Montreal has rules against them)

16. Epoisses (not sure I did; does it taste a bit like cancoillotte? I do remember having that…)

17. Black truffle (not by itself, though)

18. Fruit wine made from something other than grapes (especially if apfelwein counts, but I’ve tasted other fruit wines)

19. Steamed pork buns (why would you have dim sum and avoid those?)

20. Pistachio ice cream (one that I had recently was especially yummy)

21. Heirloom tomatoes (I tend to be rather picky about tomatoes and I should have heirloom ones more frequently)

22. Fresh wild berries (oh, yes! I’m not a big fan of strawberries but wild strawberries are very nice. And the raspberries! Oh, the raspberries! Throughout Quebec, wild berries are really very common.)

23. Foie gras (though not on a poutine)

24. Rice and beans (for a while, it became my mainstay dish)

25. Brawn, or head cheese (and I’ve helped make some)

26. Raw Scotch Bonnet pepper (not raw but I’ve had a fair bit cooked)

27. Dulce de leche (only discovered it a few years ago but it does go in the comfort food list)

28. Oysters (though I tend to prefer them au gratin than raw)

29. Baklava (I especially like the pistacchio ones but they’re always good anyway)

30. Bagna cauda (Nope! Sounds interesting, though.)

31. Wasabi peas (what I like about these is that the spiciness is just a short little tinge and it leaves your tastebuds able to taste other things)

32. Clam chowder in a sourdough bowl (the first time may have been at Tufts)

33. Salted lassi (I like those kinds of tastes, almost reminds me of Tibetan tea)

34. Sauerkraut (just tonight, in fact!)

35. Root beer float (and tried other float experiments)

36. Cognac with a fat cigar (I don’t smoke but I did visit some distilleries in the Cognac region)

37. Clotted cream tea (only clotted cream on scones, to accompany tea)

38. Vodka jelly/Jell-O (only a few times: not my kind of thing)

39. Gumbo (I especially like it in Malian tô but I had some Indian gumbo this afternoon)

40. Oxtail (Swiss style)

41. Curried goat (not sure, actually; I’ve had goat, I’ve had curried meats, not sure about curried goat)

42. Whole insects (I’m not against it but I haven’t seeked that out as a culinary experience)

43. Phaal (I don’t think I did but I do like some South Indian dishes like that)

44. Goat’s milk (I’ve had yoghurt, ice cream, and cheese made of goat’s milk but not goat’s milk by itself)

45. Malt whisky from a bottle worth £60/$120 or more (I’m guessing the cask strength Oban was worth something like that. If not, some of our tasting sessions in Scotland may have including something like this.)

46. Fugu (nope, but I’ve been intrigued)

47. Chicken tikka masala (all the Indian chicken dishes I like)

48. Eel (mostly in sushi)

49. Krispy Kreme original glazed doughnut (overrated)

50. Sea urchin (mostly in a paste with sake: delicious)

51. Prickly pear (I’m pretty sure I did and I know I’ve had it in juice)

52. Umeboshi (sounds good, though! I’m pretty much a drupe-lover)

53. Abalone (I like most molluscs so I’m guessing I’d like it)

54. Paneer (made some: fun and tasty)

55. McDonald’s Big Mac Meal (way back when…)

56. Spaetzle (very common in Switzerland)

57. Dirty gin martini (I probably prefer it without the olive juice, though I like a dry martini with olives)

58. Beer above 8% ABV (I’ve made some)

59. Poutine (Quebec cuisine FTW!)

60. Carob chips (these were trendy at some point)

61. S’mores (a friend made an espresso drink based on those)

62. Sweetbreads (not among my favourite but we’ve done ris de veau at a restaurant where I used to work)

63. Kaolin (clay??)

64. Currywurst (I like pretty much all sausage dishes, though)

65. Durian (heard about it, intrigued about the smell)

66. Frogs’ legs (though most French-Canadians have never eaten them, it’s still the reason we’re called frogs)

67. Beignets, churros, elephant ears or funnel cake (and queue de castor)

68. Haggis (nope, but intriguing)

69. Fried plantain (we even did a whole “fried food” event and fried plantain was a big success)

70. Chitterlings, or andouillette (not among my favourites)

71. Gazpacho (our family version is chunky but I’ve had other versions)

72. Caviar and blini (thanks to French housemates)

73. Louche absinthe (as well as straight)

74. Gjetost, or brunost (sounds interesting)

75. Roadkill (although, it depends how it’s prepared)

76. Baijiu (I’m pretty sure I did but it might have been another liquor)

77. Hostess Fruit Pie (sometimes, convenience store food just makes sense)

78. Snail (especially in garlic butter)

79. Lapsang souchong (among my favourite teas, along with genmaicha)

80. Bellini (I remember the taste so I guess I’ve had it, but I’m not positive)

81. Tom yum (I tend to be picky about it but I do enjoy it)

82. Eggs Benedict (and all sorts of variations on the theme)

83. Pocky (had similar chocolate coate cookies but I’m not sure they taste the same)

84. Tasting menu at a three-Michelin-star restaurant. (If only…)

85. Kobe beef (I’m trying to remember… I’ve had tasty Japanese beef but it probably wasn’t ever kobe)

86. Hare (and my ex-wife used to hunt them, as a kid)

87. Goulash (one that I remember was at Les Assassins, in Paris, but it had more to do with the settings)

88. Flowers (not whole fresh ones, though)

89. Horse (among my favourite meats)

90. Criollo chocolate (I probably did but it wasn’t pointed out)

91. Spam (I don’t dislike it but it’s not really my thing)

92. Soft shell crab (I did fish for soft shell crab but we didn’t eat them)

93. Rose harissa (didn’t know about that one but I love harissa)

94. Catfish (one of the first times was as a sandwich at the bus station in Gary, IN and I really liked it)

95. Mole poblano (and if I were still in Austin, I’d be having it regularly)

96. Bagel and lox (especially with real Montreal-style bagels, which I much prefer to New York style ones)

97. Lobster Thermidor (I prefer lobster with garlic butter)

98. Polenta (both as part of savoury dishes and with jam)

99. Jamaican Blue Mountain coffee (as overrated as overrated can get)

100. Snake (but I imagine I’d like it)

My impression of the list is that it’s somewhat typical of “foodie culture” among Anglo-Americans. Many of these items are quite common in different parts of the world yet they represent “novelty items” in the UK/US. A few items have to do with actual rarity (the rose harissa is a good example) and I perceive foodie culture to be typically oriented toward “making sure you’ve tasted all the rarest items at least once.”

Of course, the list includes a number of items which are supposed to gross out people. In fact, that’s probably a big part of “the whole thing,” the concept behind the “meme.” Though any food culture has a distinction between edible and inedible items, this emphasis on “grossing out” is, I find, very typical of Anglo-American attitudes toward food. In a way, food is compartmentalized by what is perceived as its very nature and little attention is paid to the joy of eating as a social process. In fact, this list places food smack in the middle of consumption culture and takes it away from the culture of experience.

I mentioned that I find Blue Mountain coffee and Krispy Kreme donuts to be overrated. The fact that they’re part of the list seems significant, in my mind. I perceive Krispy Kreme to be a “mass-marketed fad,” even though the donuts are decent. Blue Mountain coffee beans are a bigger issue. Those who don’t know coffee seem to associate certain broad coffee varietals with quality coffee and expensive coffee beans with a guarantee of quality. There are diverse problems with that. Between the quality of the varietal and the taste of the cup are a large number of factors including the specific estate, the specific crop, the picking method, the washing method, the roasting process, the freshness of the beans, and the whole brewing process (including grinding, water, manipulation, and device).

I’ve had coffee made with very expensive beans (more expensive than Blue Mountain) that was really very good and I’ve had much less expensive coffee which produced a wonderful cup. Blue Mountain coffee I’ve had tended to fall below my threshold for quality coffee. Same thing with most Kona beans. And though I’ve never had kopi luwak, I don’t necessarily want to try it just because it’s a novelty item.

One thing about my own list… There are several things which I’m unsure about. It may look like I’m not paying attention or that I’m pretending that I’ve had “the real thing.” But I tend to pay a lot of attention to experience, not to brands or novelty. For instance, I’m quite convinced I’ve had chocolate made from criollo varieties of beans. The criollo varieties might even have been mentioned when I was eating (or drinking) that chocolate. I certainly remember hearing about criollo varieties. But I care more about the taste of a specific chocolate at a given time, in a given context than about making sure I’ve had what’s considered the most “refined” version.

I’m more one to seek out a slightly better muffin. Or, more accurately, I’m one to try out muffins at different places and keep in mind something nice about all the pleasant muffin experiences I’ve had. I have in mind a generic “muffinness” and there are times when I feel like having a specific kind of muffin. But I’m never claiming that one muffin is intrinsically better than the other. Even when I say something is “good” or “better,” I never really have standards in mind, absolute or relative.

One thing I do like about this Omnivore list is that it pushed me to think about different food items. I quite enjoy thinking about food. And the list does include items which are fairly diverse (though they’re all available in semi-mainstream Anglo-American locations). There are patterns (in terms of Indian and Japanese cuisines, for instance), but it’s still a bit more open-minded than the typical stripmall. About the same level of openness to the world’s culinary diversity as a Whole Foods location.

Come to think of it, what if this list had been planted as a way to assess interest for items to be sold by a supermarket chain?

It’s all a conspiracy.


Tasting Notes: Cuvée Sumatra as Brikka

Some quick tasting notes taken on my iPod touch while drinking a cup of Brikka coffee made with triple-picked Sumatra Mandheling beans from Cuvée Coffee Roasters.

These notes aren’t meant as descriptions of the exact aromas and flavours I got from that cup. They’re more “analogical,” “impressionistic,” “inspired.” Kind of an “artist’s interpretation” of the cup instead of a careful organoleptic assessment. I personally don’t even trust my palate as much as some other people do. But my palate (and nose, especially) can make me have some of those pleasant experiences I so crave as an ethical hedonist.

The beans were already quite old. I did a few other Brikka pots with them in the past few days and some cup were very tasty. But this cup was the most interesting one so far. I think I was able to dial in the right grind for those beans at this point. Because of the way I “season” my Brikka, I think the quality of this cup can have a positive influence on my next cup.

Here goes…

  • Espresso-like
  • Cherry
  • Mole/cocoa
  • Complexity
  • Persistent
  • Less in flavours
  • Roasted hazelnut
  • Body
  • Refreshing chicoree finish
  • Bit meaty, broiled steak
  • Hershey chocolate syrup
  • Waffles
  • Spices (not quite cinnamon)
  • Faint grassy, herbal
  • Bit rugged (taste sensation)
  • Some watery corners despite body
  • Fleeting jasmine flower
  • Thin layer of char
  • Diner pepper shaker

Cuvée Coffee

[Old Draft]

Turns out, this blend is much more flexible and much less finicky than I first thought.
Just tried (June 22) a few shots on a LaPa EDL12 with pressurized portafilter. Though all my shots on this machine are severely underextracted, I get some nice high notes in the middle of the taste and a dull but clean finish. In fact, it seems to work as a canvas since adding a drop of milk in it actually featured the milk. Also, I recently did some burnt caramel and I can pick up a caramel taste in the cup.
I’m also getting a lingering acidity, even though there’s little acidity up front.

Update: Tried the Meritage on several occasions. For a number of reasons (having nothing to do with Cuvée itself), I only got the package after the coffee had already lost much of its flavours and aromas.

Even after several weeks, it can still “work” in a moka pot, especially when blended with other beans.

Thanks a lot to Cuvée for all the coffee! I’m really glad I could try it on my own. It’s just really sad that I wasn’t able to taste it at its peak. In fact, as soon as I got the package, I tried to find a way to use it with a quality espresso machine at a friend’s place but wasn’t able to do it. The LaPa was decent but, with a pressurized portafilter, there’s really not that much you can do.