Rock Star in the House!

Hanging out with the peeps

If you’ve ever been in the presence of someone who’s truly great at what they do, it can be remarkable. Greats come in all forms. Some greats let their egos ride shotgun, and others glide with calm humility and a humble tone to their achievements. This week I had the pleasure of working side by side with the latter.

When reading the coffee resume of Sammy Piccolo, it’s almost impossible to avoid hearing the announcer, seeing the crazed entrance lights and picturing the screaming fans in your head. A successful coffee business founder, Canadian national barista champion, and world class competitor in the coffee world…and absolutely none of that comes through his welcoming handshake, warm greeting, and offer to make you any coffee you’d like.

Last Wednesday at my store Sammy became our guest barista, and wowed the crowd with his insane latte art, practically pouring each cup with his eyes closed. Yes, I’m still at that phase where I can’t pour and speak at the same time, not to mention remove one of my senses entirely, so call me impressed for sure.

We cracked open some of the simplest and best brewing equipment too, proving that you don’t have to go broke to enjoy a delicious cup of coffee.

Sammy talks about steaming milk

Truly the best part of the day was watching my customers stream in the door, bringing friends, enjoying their coffees, laughing, sharing and learning. I’ve said it before, but it’s too true….Coffee just brings people together. It’s so joyful, so fun, and just about as simple as it gets. Thanks Sammy for hanging out with us here in Ketchum Idaho! You’re welcome back any time.

Coffe (martinis) bring people together...hey it was after 5!

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Who Invited the Russian Judge?

I am the Russian Judge. It’s possible I’ve been bribed by Don Carlos, or the little girl I call the Candy Lord (she’s mastered the art of manipulation using her endless supplies of hard candies). I can be bought, and I know nothing of what I speak. I could hold up a “10” when all the other judges are holding a “6”. Just stand back and be ready to gasp at the results….

Breathing a big sigh of relief I woke up from this morning reality TV dream and got my bearings. It was day 2 in Monserrate, Colombia, and I was there to judge 59 coffee farmers’ hard work with a sniff, a slurp, and a pencil. The top 5 winners would take home cash prizes, and enjoy extra per-pound profits as a result, not to mention earn the respect and envy of every neighbor on the coffee growing hill top. That’s a lot of pressure, and the hopes and dreams of these coffee farmers were waiting on the judgment of 9 people, one being me.

My dream wasn’t far off, because among the room of judges were experienced Q Graders, coffee roasters with several years’ experience, and coffee industry professionals who’ve collectively slurped and spit more coffee than I’ve roasted in my career.

So here’s the gig: “Cupping” is the act of “tasting” coffee. There is a strict protocol to create an equal playing field for the coffees to compete. All must have been roasted the same way, ground the same, measured to precisely 12 grams, brew using water at 203 degrees for exactly 4 minutes, and then be tasted on characteristics ranging from aroma to acidity to body to aftertaste, among others. Scores are tallied and compiled to widdle these 59 coffees down to the top 10 on the final day for a showdown between the best.

I tentatively dipped my spoon into the first cup of joe for a slurp. Nope, it’s not a dainty act. It’s a big airy suck of wind that sprays the coffee into your mouth in order to expose all the flavors the coffee has to offer. A quick swish and the coffee is spit into my personal little spit-cup. Within that mini-moment, I’m supposed to get my head around that coffee. Does it taste like mango dancing in the sunlight of a lemon field laced with a cashew velvet? It was up to me to decide.

At first it was really really hard, and although I wasn’t completely off base, I felt like my assessments were contrived and unnatural. I talked with the others as they all gave me tips on what “body” really felt like, on what number to assign “aroma” and how to detect what really was a “nuttiness”. I was really trying to pick apart every bit of the coffee and mechanically decipher its features and benefits (the downfall of being a boxes and squares kind of gal). I quickly realized this just wasn’t going to work for me, and began wondering where the bribers were hiding because I was pretty sure my vote could be bought at that point.

We came back to the cupping table number 2 and I just decided that I was going to block out all the noise and words that I was trying to put to the coffee and just taste. The clouds parted, and I believe the Virgin herself paid me a visit because all of a sudden this coffee cupping pace gained a momentum and ease that could only be matched by a near effortless downhill ski run in fresh powder. I know, cheesy, huh? But really….just the same. If someone would tell you how to ski and describe every angle of the turn from your knees’ degree of bend, to the pressure assigned to each foot, to the intensity of the grip on your pole, you’d crack. Your first turn would end with a faceplant and yardsale. But instead, if you eased up, let go, and just felt the snow and what it needed to provide you a pillow upon which to arc your perfectly glossed boards? Pure Warren Miller ski movie magic baby.

In two and a half days of tasting, some tables were easier than others, but I seemed to be getting it. Even though my descriptions of the coffees lacked more than 3 adjectives, I could say yum, yuck, and so-so to every coffee on the table right at pace with the group. They taught me so much, gave me so much insight, and made me happy that I wasn’t the only one who could accidentally dip my nose into the cup, or choke on a slurp.

The grand finale was on the final round when we discussed our rankings of the coffees at the table. I knew which coffees I liked and wanted to share with my customers, and I knew what I didn’t like. I learned that not everyone has the same favorite, but I also realized that when a coffee was great, it was great. It was such a joy to realize we’d all voted on the winning coffee when all 9 of our hands went up in unison, and I was not, in fact, that crazy Russian Judge at all. Suck that Candy Lord.

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Rainy Day

One of my favorite things to do is to host parties and gatherings. I love the feel of a room full of people talking and laughing. I love giggling until my eyes water and my belly aches in pain and Im gasping for breath. Im a bit spoiled when it comes to being a hostess, I have to admit, because Ive been cast out of the kitchen for years now by my uber-chef husband whos taken over the cooking since our son came along. He figured that someone had to do the cooking, and someone had to deal with the poopy crying thing, so hed take the cooking. Now days, Im knee deep in 3rd grade math while my husband is preparing dinner, trying to explain how one is to count change back when something is purchased. Im a little annoyed that this is even being studied, because, first, the chance that actual bills and coins will still be tendered by the time my kid has his first minimum wage job is unlikely, and secondly, the cash register will tell him how much change the customer is supposed to get. If that doesnt work, use a calculator, or if that doesnt work, use your cell phone to call someone with a calculator, or heck, but then Im sure the customer can walk out the door and the RFID in the exit will automatically bill the entire cart directly to his or her Visa.

Anyway, being more or less kicked out of the culinary action of a dinner party has left me in charge of what I call the three Ds: Thats drinks, decorations, and dessert. Today I got to indulge in drink making to my hearts content, because my coffee roasting shop was filled with a giggling, talkative crowd, gabbing about everything from hair products, to the vice-presidential debate last night. I was on the espresso machine making one cappuccino after another (which I might say had about a 90% good foam success rate, which is not a bad rate for simulteaneous talking and foaming). I informed everyone that if they talked to me while I made their drink that it would take twice as long to get their beverage. I think this may be due to my uncontrollable need to flap my hands around as I talk. Its genetic, Im sure of it. People didnt seem to care much about the speed, though, so I had some wonderful chats with some people Id never met before.

This group happened to know each other pretty well, as they are the local masters swim club that swims together 5 days a week. Many of them regularly spend a few minutes after practice sharing a cup of coffee at the clubhouse. Today, I invited them over here, although Im not myself a swimmer (something about staring at a tiled blue line while going back and forth trying not to suck water into my lungs every time I gasp for air just doesnt work for me. It could also be related to my flapping hands issueIll have to research that). I can see how much fun they have together, though, and loved being in the midst of this joyous crowd who seemed to relish in the simple pleasure of hanging out and sharing laughs.

It must be the slightly rainy day today, or this mornings unexpected phone calls from a couple of missed friends that got me thinking about this, but I find that so many people just dont make the effort to visit, call or make simple connections with others. We get so busy that we delay the phone call or email invitation. People make the lamest excuses, like thinking their home is too messy to have visitors, or they feel weird about inviting someone over who they dont know very well. I think thats crap, honestly. Youre really not that busy, and no one cares if your house is messy, and you dont have to make a Food Network masterpiece. If you have friends who care about the mess in your house, or the quality of your meal, they suck. Find new friends.

I wouldnt be honest if I didnt say I realized today that this is the biggest joy of the business Im in. I love that a simple invitation, with a simple little drink of coffee and milk can bring people together and fill us up more than anything else we may choose to do, this week or any other. Im one lucky girl.

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