Sunday, July 27, 2008

French Press and Nostalgia

Every time I come back to Chicago, especially after traveling to sunny, pretty, pleasant-smelling locales, I feel a tremendous rush of relief. Oh, it's good to be home. On that first morning back, even the dour faces of Chicagoans on the El, their eyes skimming the ubiquitous insipid RedEye, move me nearly to tears.

Do I really love the city this much, or am I just glad to be getting back to my old habits, well-honed as they are over the years? Who knows, but I do miss them when I am gone. A few weeks ago, as I steered our rented Prius onto Stony Island Boulevard towards our stunning Skyway, I was anticipating a week of fun in the sun in North Carolina, to be sure, but also to a week of mornings filled with freeze-dried Taster's Choice.

On our way South, in a last-ditch effort to keep Taster's Choice at bay, we stopped at Murky Coffee outside Washington DC. Murky inhabits an entire two-story house in Arlington. It is ramshackle and sprawling, with open staff-only rooms filled with coffee equipment and bicycles in various states of assembly. It is one of those reverse stereotype situations - it could be a typical coffee house, except virtually no coffee house is anything like it.

The place was surprisingly laid back for button-down DC, and we had some lovely lattes, recharged our electronics, chased the rugrates around the place for a while. It was perhaps our desire to take a little bit of this last urban outpost into the backcountry with us that forced us to splurge. We bought a Barratza Maestro grinder and a Bodum Columbia press pot. I never believed in the French Press. Our attempts at home were not tasty. But this was quite different. In the morning, I unpacked the new machinery, set the grinder to 28, as per instructions given to me by the Murky people, threw a fistful of Kuta, and OMFG, or rather, voila - pure awesomeness, just like that.

Long story short, we are still on it, back home in Chicago. I love the simplicity of it. The one fancy machine you need is the grinder. You need a conical burr grinder, for an even grind. The pot is pretty much only there to get the grounds out of the way, which is somewhat optional. Our current recipe is as follows: 18 grams of coffee, 12 ounces of water, 4 minutes. One wrinkle is that after one minute, I open the pot and give it a quick swirl to have the grounds sink.

We are still experimenting with the formula, because at the end, we would like to serve it at Stella. It is different from good old drip, mostly because the pungent, earthy grounds are right there in the pot, and, to some degree, in the cup. Some of our customers will surely appreciate it.

So, it is one more thing to add to the post-modern gentleman's travel kit. With an iPhone, a Brompton and a press pot, you can circle the globe nostalgia-free. No need for a sword even, no matter what the Supreme Court says.

Friday, July 11, 2008

No More Large?

That is right, you saw the article in the Trib - Intelligentsia is doing away with 20 ounce drinks at the end of the month. Still, it was not the news that took me by surprise but the fact that the Trib devoted any space to it. It does impact the world inhabited by purveyors and consumers of fine and specialty coffees - i.e., my world and yours, but outside of that, it is just not news. Traditional newspapers usually report on 3 kinds of events - newsworthy, scandalous, and cute, and this was none of the above. Still, if you squint your eyes some, a reason does emerge.

The article about this announcement generated a whopping 201 comments. No need to read them - I can sum it up for you. Vitriol, buckets of it. Not towards the new policy, mind you, but towards Intelligentsia itself. Apparently, quite a few people are pissed off that it even exists. The same happens whenever the Trib runs a story about Starbucks. I get the impression that these days, the most hated group in America, after the atheists, are the producers and consumers of specialty coffee. Typically, the feral dogs descend within minutes of an article's appearance, and they do not stop until another outlet releases a fresh pile of fodder.

The Tribune Company is happy to print anything that keeps the clicks coming. Especially in the age of the newspaper's demise, they will take anything they can get. Incidentally, the newspapers' decline must also figure as the reason for all that hatred - I mean, who takes newspapers seriously any more? Whoever does, must feel left out of the new media landscape and will find anything newfangled unpalatable. The New York Times appears to be the sole exception, but the Gray Lady has built a fabulous website, where she has the comments feature conveniently turned off most of the time.

Moving right along, let us discuss this development as it pertains to us, Stella Espresso Company. For one, we will have to pay Intelligentsia more for their wares. You see, for them, this is a perfect move, like when Wayne Gretzky tosses the puck toward the crowded goal area and it goes in. The genius behind the move will only be apparent in an extremely slow replay. In this case, Intelligentsia is eliminating those pesky three-shot drinks, where a shot is wasted. The line speeds up, waste is reduced, and there you have it - more customers at a higher profit margin. This will allow them to ride out the oil bubble without looking like they raised prices. They will raise them, to be sure, but it will all be lost in the shuffle of switching menus.

We at Stella will feel tremendous pressure to follow Intelligentsia's lead. For one, it is tougher for us to ride out any bubble, seeing as we lack Intelligentsia's cachet and renown. Also, we will be buying beans at a higher rate. Of course, our situation differs from theirs, and we will have to deal with it our own way. A change in price structure is not out of the question, but we do know that large lattes and mochas are quite popular among our clientèle, so I do not see us cutting those out. Stay tuned.

Monday, July 7, 2008

We've Made It A Year!

Naysayers be damned, we have survived a year. We could never have made it this far without our regulars and our occasionals, so thank you to everyone.

We don't live in the neighborhood, so when we started out, we knew no one here. Now, whenever I am approaching Stella, I start seeing familiar faces on the street several blocks away. I love it. This is exactly what we set out to do - to build a neighborhood joint with local kids working for us and people from the surrounding buildings coming in for coffee roasted right here in Chicago. So far so good.

In our second year, we'll be doing more of the same. We are beefing up our coffee competence and working on improving the space with new art, some new furniture, and, some time this summer, air conditioning. You'll see. It'll be lovely.

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