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Out Of The Box Berkeley

My biggest regret on return from La Marzocco’s Out Of the Box event in Berkeley was that my commitments there prohibited my attendance at a series of talks by experts in various aspects of the coffee industry. I consoled myself instead with the company of great friends and the consumption of delicious coffee.

The flight from Dublin to San Francisco was punctuated with a 3 hour layover in JFK. Aside from a chance to stretch my legs, I was pleasantly surprised to find myself with access to Chemex and Slayer brewed Stumptown coffee at the Croque Madame location, part of the World Bean coffee programme. Instantly the best coffee I’ve ever had at an airport. My flagging spirits reinvigorated.

Speaking of the flights, my fellow trans-Atlantic passengers seemed strangely obsessed with ginger ale. As the stewardesses came around taking drink orders, it seemed everyone around me wanted ginger ale. They cleaned out the airplane’s supply, behind me I could hear the dashed hopes of other passengers disappointed at the dwindled stock. Was the US ginger ale crazed? Is it just something people drink on airplanes? If so why?

Anyway, imagine my surprise the following morning, jet-lagged to find myself being served Ecco coffee by Andrew Barnett as the early hours of Out Of The Box started quietly. I was a little bit in fanboy mode, admittedly. I do this now and again, this was one of those times. The coffee, El Ausol from El Salvador, was great.

As the days progressed, the coffee kept coming, great coffee, Counter Culture, Ritual, Verve, Four Barrel etc. Lots of coffee and jet-lag is a strange combination. I could seemingly consume endless amounts without getting shaky-leg syndrome.

As an outside observer, it is easy to see that the region has a very energetic coffee culture and community. I saw huge enthusiasm not just for the production of coffee, but also for knowledge. I think most of the lectures provided that.

A somewhat surprising revelation for me, however, were how few attendees were familiar with extraction vs strength, with brew charts and refractometers and all that stuff. I had pitched my talks with the basics of brewing theory as a kicking-off point, and early on I asked how many people had some familiarity with this stuff. It ranged from about 10% to about 30% depending on the group.

This is telling, not just for me personally, but for the industry as a whole. Online discussion between blogs, twitter etc, has moved on from merely spreading the word, and the principles of extraction.That is now a foundation for ongoing discussion, and we are discussing issues orbiting around, and expanding out from there.

In doing so we may have left a lot of people behind.

Trying to condense a Brewmaster course into 15 minutes before going off into more complicated stuff was somewhat foolhardy in retrospect.

Aside from all the talks, tasty coffee, and generally geekery, we had several rounds of a brewing competition, using the Brew-Ha-Ha scoring and rules. Much fun was had. Though I was sorry not to deflate the egos of Messrs Cho and Kaminsky by stopping them from winning their respective rounds.

Thursday was coffee crawl day riding around San Francisco with Nick. We visited Ritual (Valencia St & Roastery), Four Barrel, Blue Bottle and Sightglass. Stunning spaces, and a lot of beautiful coffee, especially the espresso. I had a great experience in Four Barrel where a barista had just hopped on bar. I ordered an espresso, was served what was a good espresso, the barista all the while tasting his coffee. Moments later he returned to me explaining how he had just come on bar an produced another espresso for me, and it was markedly improved. Great to see someone who knows what they are doing.

Filter coffee was a mixed bag, and again it was evident that these were stellar coffees, but if I am honest the brewing was not uniformly as good as I would have hoped. Some of it reminded me a little of the type of brew I was making pre-learning about extraction and Gold-Cup. Interesting to see if the Brewer’s Cup initiative maybe pushes that agenda forward a little. I still think there is a lot of skepticism and a resistance to being prescribed a set of “rules” on how coffee should be brewed. Meanwhile a lot of the people who are leading the charge on education and spreading knowledge are doing so with their limited free time, and in a voluntary capacity. So I think it will remain to be a struggle as those two forces oppose each other.

Returning home, this time through a different terminal in JFK, so no Stumptown for me, instead Sam Adams in Chillies (I remember Sam Adams being nicer). As I supped it down I dwelled on my jealousy of the Bay Area coffee scene, my gratitude to my hosts, La Marzocco, and good times spent with friends new and old. Above all that though, would there be any bloody ginger ale on the plane? I had to see what it was all about.


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