Sunday, March 19, 2006

Dean's Beans

I'm just having so much fun with my new lightbox! I've tried to get good pictures of coffee beans before, but I've never been able to capture their sensual beauty. I decided to have give it a go with my new lightbox:

Yeah, that's a little more like it! Still a little too light, though. Dean's Beans Ring of Fire is a very dark roast, and this looks like a medium roast. So a little rearranging of the lights, and here we go again:

There we go! True coffee porn. Doesn't it just make your mouth water? Click here for the real money shot.

Planetary Designs French Presses

A while ago I gave a glowing review to Planetary Design's Double Shot French Press. Since then I've added two more items from them, the 20oz Table Top French Press and the Desk Press Iris.

Planetary Designs liked my review of the Double Shot so much they sent me the Table Top. While the Double Shot had been my favorite mug/press, that spot was instantly usurped by the Table Top.

I've been through about a dozen French presses in my coffe drinking life, and the Table Top is far and away the best I've ever used. It is stainless steel and will never break, unlike my many other ill-fated press pots. It is insulated as well as the best thermos. This solves a key problem with press pots. They lose their heat too fast. The insulation in the Table Top (and the rest of Planetary Design's French Presses) ensure optimum brewing temperature for the necessary four minutes, producing the best pot of coffee a presspot can make. The filter allows the least amount of sediment in the cup of any French Press I've used. Sediment is a complaint lots of people have with French Presses, and many stop drinking before they reach the bottom of the cup. I don't have to do this with coffee brewed in any of Planetary Design's presses. So here's a long overdue thank you to Planetary Designs for the Table Top. I use it every day!

Unfortunately, in practice, the Double Shot, while great in theory, didn't hold up as well in practice. This is not the fault of the product, but with the University's water supply. It is so awful that coffee brewed with it is undrinkable. So while the double-shot let me stash some ground coffee for later use in the base of the mug, I gave up after a few tries and bought a Desk Press Iris. This gives me a portable 20 oz. of coffee I can leave home with, enough to get me to campus. The insulation keeps it hot for the hour-long drive to school and well into class.

Needless to say, Planetary Design's products come with my highest recommendation!

Saturday, March 18, 2006

Victrola Coffee

Victrola Coffee
Originally uploaded by matt_leclair.
Jessie just got back from her whirlwind west coast adventure, from Seattle to Las Vegas to LA. In Seattle she stopped by Victrola Coffee Roasters, where she had the best cappucino she'd ever tasted and lovingly picked me up two bags of coffee. First is the Bolivian, a #1 Cup of Excellence award-winning coffee. My goodness, what a good cup of coffee! It tastes like a lazy summer thunderstorm. Like those days when it is so hot that the thunderstorm is welcome and you sit on the porch and watch the lightning strike and the raindrops splash off the ground, and listen to the deep, distant rumble of the thunder. The Bolivian tastes exactly like that, deep bass rumbles blending with bright, constant patter, a complex blend that you can hold in your mouth and taste new and different things for minutes on end. Jessie also picked me up bag of Streamline Espresso. This is the first time I've ever actually used coffee that was specifically created for espresso. Frustratingly, I can't buy espresso blends around here. This was pretty amazing, too. The crema was the thickest I'd ever been able to make. The taste? It was a little distressing at first. As a straight shot it had me worried. It was a bit too bitter for my taste. But when I layed foamed milk over it for a macchiatto it opened up and became smooth and sensual and wonderful. I've been making even more espressos than usual, and Jess, who usually stays away from coffee, has been asking for them also.

The Victrola is where Tonx works. I've sung his praises more than once in this blog, for his espresso porn and latte art photography. This is where I first heard of the Victrola. Someday, I'll make it out there myself!

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Perry Bible Fellowship

Perry Bible Fellowship is one of the all-time best comic strips ever!

(click comic for full-size version)
From Perry Bible Fellowship.

Sunday, March 12, 2006


Originally uploaded by matt_leclair.
This is what I'm really hooked on, macchiato, espresso with a dollop of steamed milk on top. The key is to lay the milk gently on top of the espresso so that it doesn't mix. Then you're sipping the espresso through the milk and it blends in your mouth. It's much more intense than a cappuccino, but the milk takes some of the edge off the espresso. I put a light shake of unsweetened chocolate on top. Not enough to change the flavor, but as you sip, you breathe in a lovely mocha smell.

I want to know the secrets of the barristas! It took me three tries to get this shot. The first two I threw away. I thought I did everything the same as usual, but I guess the grind was too fine because the first two trickled out in a sticky sludge. The third was pallatable with the foam on top of it, but would have been undrinkable without it.

I could blame the equipment, but I know that a good barrista can pull a better shot from a cheap machine than I could from a $40,000 maker. Are there camps for people like me? You know, like Space Camp, where you can go get astronaut training even if you don't intend to become an astronaut. Are there barrista wanna-be camps?

the best things in life

Whoever said the best things in life are free probably had a lot of money, enough not to even give money a second thought. Or they were in denial and trying to make themselves feel better. Sure there's lots of nice things in life that don't cost anything, but some of the best things in life cost a whole lot of money. The best coffee, for example, tends to cost more that bad coffee. A decent car stereo can set you back hundreds, even thousands.

However, some of the best things in life aren't necessarily the most expensive. Illy cups, for example, are the most collectable espresso cups in the world. Some of those can set you back hundreds for a single 2 oz. cup and saucer. They're pretty cool, and I'd love to have some (especially the ones designed by David Byrne!) but somehow I doubt that espresso tastes any better in them than in the generic cups I got at TJ Maxx for a buck a piece.

I don't know if my Bodum Pavina cups are the "best" in the world, but they certainly are the coolest. Interestingly, at $15 a pair, or less, they are among the cheapest. Expect to be seeing them all over the place on television because they're so excellent from a design standpoint. They're double-layered class, such that the inside layer holds the liquid, then there's an empty space before the outer layer. They're like tiny thermoses! They keep your hands from burning while keeping the contents hot for a good long time. They're beautiful too, like some artist's vision of what we'll all be drinking out of in the future. Curvaceous and minimal and smooth, and a pleasure to hold, like cupping a glass breast.

Now if only I could figure out how to make a proper cappuccino to fill it with!

What it's supposed to look like

shot of shots
Originally uploaded by tonx.
I look at this and I just despair. This is what the crema is supposed to look like! And I get excited when I have just a few millimeters of crema. Admittedly, this is done by true barristas at the Victrola in Seattle. Oh well, it is something to aspire to!

Fear of a Blank Page

Originally uploaded by matt_leclair.
So I'm trying to learn to draw again. It used to be something I was great at, but as soon as I discovered digital, I abandoned traditional mediums. Now I'm trying to get that back and I'm finding it much more challenging than I thought it would be! Where's the Undo button? Oh, that's now called an eraser, but I can't just erase my recent mistakes without erasing the lines underneath it. And getting my hands to draw what my eyes are seeing... it is so frustrating. I mean, I know what it looks like. I can see the shapes, but getting my hand to move in a way that recreates that shape... It is so frustrating! You think you have control over what your body does, but when it comes right down to it, most of us can only make rough gestures. I've tried to fall back to other solutions. On the computer when I can't do something, some sort of technological upgrade will do the trick. So I tried buying more and different pencils, a nicer pencil sharpener, a nice Moleskine sketchbook, but it hasn't worked. Drawing ability is something you have to build. You can't buy it.

So I'm trying to relearn what used to come naturally. Why? It seemed like a good idea at the time. I just feel like I'm out of touch with my visually creative side. Drawing used to be one of the things I loved to do the most but I haven't done it for almost 15 years. It is a different kind of creativity from doing things on the computer. It involves the brain and body in ways that digital art or photography doesn't. And I like a challenge.

One of the biggest challenges is intimidation. There's something terrifying to me about seeing blank page and knowing that it is all up to me to fill it up with things of my own creation. It is like being naked. Everything you see on the page is part of me. And I'm flabby and out of shape.

Nicely though, the new music room turns out to be a great drawing room too. I can put on the Vivaldi or the Tartini and be blissed out to the music while I draw. It really helps to focus on the art.

The subject matter of what I'm trying to draw also seemed like a good idea at the time, but is turning out to be far more difficult than I thought it would be. We found this amazing dead crab sculpture on a trip to St. Andrews, Canada. It turns out that dead crabs are hard to draw! What at first glance seem like clearly defined parts turn out to be built up of subtle shading. Things that are defined by their highlights are challenging to pull off in pencil. I'm going to have to try it in charcoal, making the whole page dark and erasing the light tones.

And, of course, once I got all set up this morning with my sketchbook, pencils and coffee, Dash decided she deserved a dairy treat and I had to move everything quickly so she didn't knock it off. Jessie thinks I spoil her, to which Dash responds, "You're not getting spoiled if you're just getting what you deserve!"

Saturday, March 11, 2006

Gentleman Junky

Double Shot
Originally uploaded by matt_leclair.
I just can't stop myself! Espresso is so good! I have to restrain myself. Four double-shots a day is probably excessive. But it's more than just the taste. It's the challenge! When I pull a good shot, I immediately want to pull another, trying something a little different to see if I can pull a better shot next time. And so I keep doing shots of espresso until I'm jittery and confused. But I'm having so much fun!

music and life

New Routine 2
Originally uploaded by matt_leclair.
I am ashamed to admit I let this happen. Music is one of my great passions in life. For the past 15 years I've been working to build the best stereo system I can. I discovered how to do it on the cheap. High-end audiophiles have upgrade-itas and they're always selling their old stuff at a fraction of what they paid for it. Quality hifi doesn't become obsolete the way other electronics do, so a 40 y.o. piece of gear can sound as good as it did back then. So I've got an incredible sounding system made from people's leftovers. It's the sound I care about though.

And yet when we moved into our new place, I half-heartedly hooked it back up, and then I needed to borrow the line conditioner for the TV, so basically the system has been just taking up space for almost a year.

What a waste! How could I abandon my love this way?

I realize now that I was doing the thing that I find so distasteful in others: trading convenience for quality. I've got my iPod and I just load that up with music, and I can listen for weeks without having to do anything but hit play.

But the difference between an iPod and a finely tuned hifi system is the difference between a McDonald's Happy Meal and a meal prepared by a gourmet chef in a 5 star restaurant. The iPod fills a hole. It's good for background noise, blocking out the distractions of the world to make whatever else you're doing a little more pleasant.

And that's what music has been to me for more than a year now. Just background. Not something I really listened to.

While rearranging the apartment, I hooked the stereo up properly and I remembered my lost love. With a good system you can hear the things that are lost, like John Coltrane taking a quick breath between notes, or musicians turning the pages of their sheet music. Things that remind you that these aren't just notes, but they're real people playing them on real instruments. You hear the size and shape of the room the music was recorded in. You hear heights, depths, resonances you never knew were there.

Now that my system is back together, I find myself doing something I haven't done in a long time: listening to music. I mean really listening. Eyes closed, doing nothing but sitting back and really hearing the notes.

Of late my morning routine has been to drink my cup of coffee listening to music while Dash keeps me company. It is a great way to start the day!

New Routine

New Routine
Originally uploaded by matt_leclair.
Dash must have her morning half & half, though 5:18 is a little early to be getting up. Hitting the snooze button means knocking her off the bed. She'll leave me alone for 7 minutes before jumping on me again. Oh well, I need to be up anyway...

Coffee Station

Coffee Station
Originally uploaded by matt_leclair.
While Jessie's away for her bachelorette party out in Vegas, it is time to do some rearranging! We now have a music room in an area that was just storage. I didn't really mean to do it. I just needed to hang something on the wall and there was a piece of furniture in the way.

Jessie & I are both packrats, though, so really, there's something everywhere in this apartment. Moving a piece of furniture isn't as simple as it sounds, since that means moving something to create a place for what I'm trying to move, and then that thing needs to be moved and so on.

So when all was said and done, I'd moved a bookshelf from the kitchen into the laundry room, a plant stand from the library to the new music room (formerly a storage area), plants from the kitchen to the music room. Then it hit me that we had a little table rotting away on the porch that my grandfather built out of scraps he salvaged when he was working as a carpenter at the University and I refinished sixty years later. It is pretty and has historical and sentimental value while we've got worthless crap furniture inside. So I brought it in and, with a little more rearranging, set up a coffee station.

Coffee Station closeup

It is great! I've got all my gear in one spot, and I don't need to move anything or unplug anything in order to use it. The only catch is that it is way too low. I have to kneel down to use it. It looks like I'm praying to the coffee gods.

I guess that's not too far from the truth!

Thursday, March 09, 2006

The Scale

The Scale
Originally uploaded by matt_leclair.
I'm using Jessie's bathroom scale to measure the tamp (the amount of pressure I push down on the ground coffee with). 30 lbs is the target. I don't know why she gets so upset about me getting her scale all dirty, though. It's only her feet that touch the thing anyway!

My First Crema

my first crema
Originally uploaded by matt_leclair.
Making good espresso comes down to just a few variables. Why is it so challenging?

A couple of them were easy to knock down. Water, of course, will make or break an espresso shot, but once you lock in the right water you don't need to think about it again. Preheating the portafilter, yeah, just run a blank shot through the empty filter. After that it comes down to three things:

The choice of coffee.
The grind of the coffee.
The pressure you tamp the coffee down into the portafilter with.

At first I started with medium roasts, Dean's Beans Aztec 2 Step and Uprising! I was able to pull shots that were drinkable with enough steamed half & half, but these were nothing close to the rumored "God Shots" that taste so good that you wouldn't dream of adding anything to it.

I just couldn't get it right. The goal is to get a shot that takes about 25 seconds to stream 1.5 ounces. Less than that and the coffee is underextracted and weak. More than that and it is overextracted and bitter. But at the magic amount of time you get the great espresso taste, and you're rewarded with crema. The coffee pours into your shot glass like Guiness, dark with a smoke of bubbles that slowly rise to the surface to create that creamy brown head. For espresso, that head is called crema, and the more crema, the better.

I was getting no crema, and the shots were coming out too fast or too slow. I just couldn't get it dialed in. I tried changing the grind. The finer the grind, the slower the extraction. I just couldn't get it spot-on though. I tried a finer grind and a lighter tamp, because the harder you tamp it down, the harder it is for the water to get through. You need to use about 30 lbs of pressure when you tamp. I appropriated Jessie's bathroom scale and put the portafilter on top of it so I could see how much pressure I was using.

And then, one weekend I ran out of medium roast and all I had was Marakkesh Express, Dean's Beans darkest roast. I'd been avoiding dark roasts for the espresso because the oiliness seemed like it would be a problem, but it was all I had.

Somehow it all clicked. The grind, the pressure, the coffee... the shot streamed out in the dark tan "rat tail" I'd heard about. It "Guinessed" in the shot glass, and the crema was a centimeter thick. I ran to get my camera but the batteries were dead, so by the time I got the picture, the crema had subsided a bit. Still it was gorgeous.

My shots have been consistently decent since then, but not quite as good as that one. Still, I know it is possible and with a bit more practice I'll get it right.

The problem is that now I've become an espresso junky, sometimes having 3 or 4 shots in a day, because I'll be like, "Okay, that was close, what if I tried with just a little more pressure..."

Furry Alarm Clock

furry alarm clock
Dash has taken to waking me up every morning at 5:45. I usually get up around then anyway because I like to see the sunrise, so I' glad that she does this. It is so much more pleasant than waking up to an alarm clock!

She'll jump up on my feet, then walk up my legs up to my shoulders. Then she'll jump off and sit beside my head and purr loudly while she knocks things off my bed stand. If I don't get up, she'll jump off and start at my feet again. She only does this to me. Even if Jess is sleeping with a leg or arm draped over me, Dash will carefully avoid Jess's body parts.

After I get up, Dash waits patiently for me on the couch while I make coffee. Then she jumps over to the hassock while I drink my coffee and she laps half-and-half out of a plate. She only wants about half a teaspoon-full and she'll only drink Organic Valley's Organic Half & Half. She's by no means a model of feline grace about it, either. She splatters half & half EVERYWHERE. On the coffee table, on me, on herself. I need to keep towels handy. But she has to have her morning half & half, just as I need my morning coffee. At least I'm a littler neater about it!

It has become my new morning ritual!