Finca Buenos Aires is something of a miracle coffee. The farm is located just outside of the small town of Nilo, in an area just now recovering from years of neglect thanks to Colombia's civil unrest. It is situated in the small department of Cudinamarca, north of the more famous coffee growing region of Huila-- not exactly a region known for producing specialty grade coffee. The coffees are grown in the foothills of a series of volcanos in a national park; the terrain is rugged and undeveloped. Single-track jeep trails wind up steep mountain sides, and the farms run wild under the cover of rain forest vegetation and banks of clouds. Unlike other regions with clearly delineated farms with neatly planted rows of coffees, the farms outside of Nilo are very small and draw upon both recently planted coffee and over-story fruit trees along with legacy coffee trees growing wild up and down the sides of the mountain trails.
Farmer Carlos Vargas is undertaking a herculean task of producing amazing coffees under very difficult situations: unusually heavy rains, almost no infrastructure, and crazy single-track trails in and out of the farm.
Amber Fox, writing about the farm, notes "the well-being of the environment and the workers are intrinsic to the approach Carlos Vargas takes to sustainability and further improving quality, and the results of his holistic approach sing in the cup."
The coffee is a bit wild, like the farm itself: dark red berry notes under layers of tobacco and cinnamon, but it picks up the flavors of mulled red wine as it cools. Ecco describes it as juicy pineapple and citrus with florals and red fruit flavors as it cools.
The coffee from Finca Buenos Aires is also of very limited supply-- Ecco was only able to purchase 7 bags of green coffee from Vargas this year. Try it soon, because it will be another year before coffee from this farm will be available again.
January 26, 8pm
Volta is pleased to be able to join with the University of Florida Department of English in presenting Glenn Freeman reading from his recent poetry collection "Traveling Light."
A graduate of UF, Freemen's first book of poems, Keeping the Tigers Behind Us, won the Elixir Press Poetry Prize and was published in 2007. His poetry has appeared in Poetry, The Cimarron Review, The Lullwater Review, and Zone 3 among many other journals. About his recent book Traveling Light, poet Kathleen Halme says "Freeman's gorgeous poems conjugate in registers of emotion 'we didn't even know we were trying to feel.' Contemplating our deep needs and meanings, he writes in a voice that is 'the lush language of relation, the All.' A remarkable book of moving, illimitable poetry-a gift."
Volta is pleased to announce the latest schedule for the UF MFA poetry and fiction reading series. Stop by the shop to hear works read by up-and-coming authors and poets from UF's acclaimed writing program. Readings begin at 8 and last about an hour.
Spring 2012 Schedule
- February 2: Fiction: Carrie Guss, Poetry: Hai-Dang Phan
- February 15: Poetry: Andrew Donovan, Fiction: Emma Smith-Stevens
- March 15: Fiction: Rebecca Evanhoe, Poetry: Rebecca Baumann
- March 29: Poetry: Claire Eder, Fiction: Amy Scharmann
- April 12: Fiction: Sabrina Jaszi, Poetry: Guest Poet TBA
School is out, GNV is slowing down, and Volta is going into maintenance mode.
Volta will be closing at 6pm on Monday-Saturday until the new year.
We will be closed on Christmas and Boxing Day, but open every other day including New Year's Eve and day. Regular hours resume on January 2, 2012
Additionally, we have no scheduled public coffee cuppings until after the winter break.
End of the semester. End of the year. End of Herman Cain's campaign. There's got to be something out there that you should be celebrating. And we have the coffee for you. Manantiales del Frontino Geisha, from Colombia. Selected as coffee of the year by the SCAA. Intelligentsia sells it for $109 a pound. We're offering it for 8.50 a cup. Yes. It's expensive-- but still less than a bottle of craft beer at most bars. And if you like coffee, it's an amazing treat. For starters, it tastes like sugarcane and flowers. As it cools, it starts to taste more like sweet honeydew melon. We have one pound left. It will be gone soon. It's your last chance to try what was picked by the specialty coffee industry as the best of the year.
You can learn more about the Mananitales del Frontino from Intelligentsia's snappy new website.
Handsome Coffee Roasters co-founder (and World Barista Champion) Mike Phillips works with Brie on v60 technique
In addition to the coffees from Intelligentsia/Ecco, Volta staff and customers cup and brew coffee from all over North America looking for exceptional coffees to add to our menu. Most of the time when we receive samples, the coffees don't make it any closer to the menu than the Sunday cupping table. We can afford to be selective-- Intelligentsia has set a high bar, and there's just not much reason to bring in coffees that don't offer something special. Most roasters don't have the resources or connections to source coffee as carefully, nor do they have the dedication to quality control. Every so often, we do find roasters who have amazing coffees that offer a notable contrast to what we can otherwise offer. You'll see a number of guest roasters have their coffee on the bar throughout the year, but three in particular have impressed us enough that they regularly cycle through the menu: Handsome Coffee Roasters, of Los Angeles. Ritual Roasters, from San Francisco. Coava, from Portland.
In spite of being the new guys on the scene, Handsome Coffee Roasters has long-standing ties to Volta. Co-founders Chris Owens, Tyler Wells, and Mike Phillips have been crossing paths with Volta from points all over the country. I first met Chris Owens a year before we opened the shop. At the time, Chris was working for Counter Culture and Volta was just a business plan-in-progress. I remember long discussions over dinner as I pummeled Chris for advice about how we should shape our espresso and brewed coffee service. When we had our opening party, Chris and Melissa drove down from Atlanta to help us celebrate. Both will always be considered part of the extended Volta family. I first met Tyler when he was managing the coffee bar at Frank Hot Dogs and Cold Beer, in Austin, TX. We couldn't talk much because he was competing in the SCRBC and I was a judge, but after the competition he flew in to spend a week at Volta while he dialed in his USBC coffee and attended cuppings and trainings with Intelligentsia's Geoff Watts. Although I never judged Mike in competition, I first met him when he won the US Barista Competition in Portland-- and later, while he was the training director at Intelligentsia, he patiently answered all of my questions about brew specs and techniques.
Now that Mike, Tyler, and Chris have struck out on their own to create Handsome Coffee Roasters, it was pretty much inevitable that we would be working with them. They've hit all of the right notes: small batches of carefully sourced coffees (directly traded whenever possible, but also working with top-grade importers); fastidiously intense QC procedures from purchase through production roasting; focused and productive customer service and training. So far, Handsome have been very limited in their offerings. Two coffees from El Salvador and Honduras. One or two other Central American and one Kenyan coffee. A Central American-centric espresso blend that shimmers with bright fruit flavors. The Handsome crew are taking their time to build their coffee offerings to reflect their own tastes and personalities-- and we're very happy to be along for the ride.
Intelligentsia VP Geoff Watts and Ecco QC Director Amber Fox, at the La Lolita mill, Tolima district, Colombia
Volta has flown the orange and grey colors of Intelligentsia from the moment we conceived of the shop. In fact, Volta wouldn't be what it is today without the help of so many people from the Intelligentsia organization: from Southeast sales rep Chris Clements (who is, in fact, my primary sounding board for pretty much all that we've developed at the shop), to trainers like Alexandra Switzer, Jesse Crouse, Jessie Raub, Stephen Morrissey and Mike Phillips, to sales staff like Paul Rekstad and Jim Allen-- the Intelligentsia organization has been more than a company that roasts our coffee. They are industry leaders who have challenged us to push the boundaries of what a small, independent shop in a tertiary market can accomplish. That, and the coffees just keep getting better and better. I also have to mention the importance of Doug Palas and the Intelligentsia tea department; Doug is setting the standard for carefully sourced and selected teas, and his advice has been the foundation of all that we have accomplished with our tea program.
Last year, Intelligentsia bought out the (much, much) smaller Ecco Caffe roasters, of Santa Rosa, California. The merger has allowed us access to stellar lots of coffees that might have been too small to show up on Intelligentsia's radar, or slightly different roast profiles for established Intelligentsia favorites. Ecco and Intelligentsia coffees are all sourced by a buying team headed up by Geoff Watts; Ecco's Gabe Boscana is director of roasting for the entire operation, but each company retains a unique personality and slightly different profiles to their coffees. For what it's worth, when it came time to compete in the US Southeastern Regional Barista Championship, I selected Ecco's roast of the Colombia Finca Santuario Micay as my competition coffee.
There's so much going on in the world of coffee right now that we've opened up our sourcing to develop a carefully curated a list of roasters from the US to feature along side the coffees from Ecco and Intelligentsia-- but rest assured that Ecco and Intelligentsia will remain at the core of what we offer at Volta!
If you were going to choose a city half way across the world to visit with the sole intention of watching people make espresso drinks, Bogota, Colombia would seem to be an odd choice. Although Colombia does produce some of the finest coffees in the world, almost all of the good stuff is bound for export. What's left for domestic consumption is generally pretty bad-- bitter espresso with scalded milk, lots of stovetop moka pot coffee served with generous amounts of sugar. A cafe in Bogota is a social place, not a destination for a carefully crafted espresso made from specialty-grade coffee.
So, Bogota for the World Barista Championship? Seemed like an odd choice a few months ago. Now, I understand that it was a brilliant, if logistically-challenging, move. By all accounts from judges and participants who have been attending WBCs for much longer than I have been involved with the coffee trade, Bogota 2011 was simply the best WBC event ever staged. For most of the baristas participating, the week's events started with a coordinated visit to a number of coffee farms outside of Colombia's Armenia growing region. If you are a barista, working for barista wages at a shop in Europe, North America, or Asia, a trip to origin is only something that you dream of as you count your tips at the end of the day. Sure, you love coffee. If you are participating in a barista competition at the national level, you have pushed yourself to the limits of your craft and your resources. Making that additional step of visiting a working coffee farm, of tasting the fresh fruit from the tree and truly grasping the difficulty of cultivating, harvesting, and processing quality coffee-- well, it's just something out of reach of not only baristas, but most shop owners as well.
All of this is to say that by holding the WBC in Colombia, the dynamics of competition changed. Baristas were still visibly charged-up from their farm trips. Instead of a crowd of (somewhat) jaded "industry professionals" from the retail side of the coffee trade that you find at US events, a large swath of the people attending the competition were directly involved in production at origin. Farmers, exporters, cuppers and graders all got a chance to see, for the first time, what some of the most skilled baristas can create with their crop. The event was well-promoted in Bogota itself. General admission was only $2 and included free Cup of Excellence coffees brewed by Chris Owens and Tyler Wells on Chemex, AeroPress, and V60 coffee or free espressos and cappuccinos with coffee from an amazing array of roasters, overseen by Lem Butler and Brian from Counter Culture on machines located at the entrance to the competition arena. By the semi-finals, people were waiting for a half hour to be able to find a seat to watch the competitors.
As for the competition itself, I can only say that it was an honor to be included as a sensory judge. Bogota's altitude of 8700' proved to be a challenge across the board-- brew temperatures, crema consistency, and milk steaming are all altered by the thin atmosphere. Even with the added degree of difficulty, the field of competitors were able to rise to the challenge with a very consistent presentation of skill and quality. Scores were very close, with most of the top 12 changing places at every stage of the competition. Colombia's own Lina Zea held the top spot at the end of the first day with a score of 643; in a heart-stopping moment before a roaring crowd of Colombian nationals, Lina went a few seconds over in her semi-finals performance, just enough to knock her out of the finals. For the last round, three countries with previous champions (the US, UK, and Australia) went up against first-time finalists from Spain, Japan, and El Salvador. When the last score box had been ticked off, El Salvador's Alejandro Mendez became the first barista from a major coffee producing country to ever win the World Barista Championship. Alejandro's presentation was, in turns, equally creative and precise. National pride at seeing Pete Lacata represent the US with a brilliant turn aside, it was no surprise to anyone in the room that Alejandro was the odds-on favorite to win. As the scores were announced, the entire building erupted in cheers. Everyone was proud that the scrappy first-time WBC competitor from El Salvador had taken the high score.
The day felt epic. All of us involved in the competition want to see coffee get better, everywhere. Having a barista like Alejandro represent the industry this year is a significant change from past years. He's shown that a country with no established cafe culture-- no supporting infrastructure of shops with expensive machines to practice on, no roasters with significant resources to select competition coffees or cover training costs-- can step up and produce talented coffee professionals on par with anyone else. (Meanwhile, I should also mention that Alejandro received roasting support from London's Hasbean, which just goes to show that collegiality lives on...) You also can't underestimate the importance of having a young, motivated Spanish-speaking representative from a producing country as the face of the specialty coffee industry. The next, most important step in improving the quality of coffee exported from countries like Colombia and El Salvador has to come from the farmers and exporters. When you don't drink quality coffee, it's all very abstract to consider how coffee variety, harvest ripeness, and precision in processing impact the quality in the cup. Alejandro's victory makes these sorts of abstractions very tangible, and adds a dash of national pride and competition that hopefully will help to foster more quality at the cafe level in producing countries. It is a lot to put on the shoulders of a young guy who just wanted to make great espresso, but Alejandro has the potential to be a solid bridge between producers at origin and the cafe world.
In all, it was a very good year to fly halfway across the world to drink coffee in Bogota.
If you are interested in reading or hearing more about the WBC 2011:
- US National Public Radio covered the event during the semi-finals
- A rather amazing write-up on the Hasbean blog (aka the London firm that roasted Alejandro's coffee)
- Former WBC champion James Hoffmann offers his thoughts on his JimSeven blog
- Reuters published a short video news report
- Anthony's Flickr feed of photos from the WBC and life around Bogota
- ...and you can watch archived videos of all the performances at LiveStream
PechaKucha GNV update: It's hot. We're lazy. PechaKucha 5.0 is going to need to be pushed back a week and a day so that we can pull together all of the needed finishing touches. Sorry for any inconveniences.
New Date/Time: PechaKucha GNV 5.0, Now on Saturday, 25 June at 7pm. At Volta.
I've worked hard to learn as much about coffee and espresso as I can so that Volta can bring the best to GNV-- and that work has paid off with a nice perk: I'm flying to Bogota, Colombia on 6/27 as one of a handful of sensory judges from the US participating in the World Barista Championship.
It's an incredible honor to be included, but it also means that I'm away from the shop for the longest time since we opened. We'll be short-staffed while I'm gone, so we'll take advantage of Memorial day weekend to shorten the hours from the 28th-30th, from 9am-5pm
On the downside, we might not have a regular supply of crazy-flavored hot scones every day while I'm gone. On the upside, I'll be taking as many photos as possible this weekend while I tour a number of new farms with Geoff Watts, hopefully finding new coffees that we'll feature next year.
Be sure to check out live, streaming video coverage of the barista competition at worldbaristacompetition.org, beginning June 1 and finishing up on June 5.