Stumptown’s Seattle heritage - a trip to Lighthouse

The 2013 Northwest Regional Barista Championship was held this past weekend in Seattle (Coava’s Devin Chapman won, defending his title from last year). Judging in last year’s NWRBC and USBC was so much fun that I volunteered to do it again this year. After going through judges calibration and certification Thursday, a scheduling quirk left me all day Friday to explore Seattle under sunny(-ish) skies. Naturally, I went looking for coffee.

My first destination was Lighthouse Roasters, in the Fremont neighborhood northwest of downtown. Visiting Lighthouse was a type of pilgrimage (minus the religious connotations) to one of the headwaters of Portland’s specialty coffee industry. If you have read much about Stumptown Coffee, you might recognize the Lighthouse name. Lighthouse is where Stumptown’s Duane Sorenson learned to roast, under the tutelage of Ed Leebrick. Going to Lighthouse was a chance to see the environment in which Sorenson forged his coffee skills.

Hopping off the bus at the corner of 43rd and Phinney, I first noticed how quiet the neighborhood was. Single-family houses and small apartment buildings lined the streets. Few cars passed by. Had it not been on such a large hill, the neighborhood could have been Southeast Portland.

Inside, Lighthouse’s décor was simple. The floor was a sage and pale green-gray linoleum, durable and functional. The wooden tables were sturdy, but plain. A short partition separated the back third of the shop, carving out the roasting area from the seating area. The other side of the low wall was crowded with jute bags of green coffee and stacks of large plastic tubs for roasted beans. Most prominently, a Gothot roasting machine whirred, its gas burner rumbling while beans swished and swashed around inside the drum. From time to time, the roaster opened the door and dark brown coffee beans cascaded onto the cooling table, crackling and popping vigorously.

Unlike the neighborhood, the interior of the café was loud and boisterous. In addition to the roaster, customers contributed a lot of noise too. Several people sat around the coffee bar on round stools, talking to the roaster and to the baristas. The majority of people who came in were actually there to converse. Surprisingly, no one was sitting in front of a laptop, a rarity in most cafés these days. Since I already stood out a stranger, I left mine in my backpack and jotted down a few notes on paper.

Sitting at my table, I couldn’t help but think of the similarities between Lighthouse and Stumptown Division. Between the quiet residential neighborhoods, the simple furnishings, the lively atmospheres (Stumptown attracts a lot of Laptopistanis, but makes up for their silence with loud music), and the roasting machines sitting at the front of both cafés, you could see many parallels between the two shops. I felt like I had gained a small insight into Stumptown’s origins.

Then I tried my espresso.

For the record, I do not consider Stumptown’s Hair Bender to be a delicate espresso. Its lemony brightness and chocolaty finish were made to stand out in milk drinks, something it does well. On its own, Hair Bender has a complex taste profile that takes time to get used to.

However, Hair Bender is almost fragile compared to the Lighthouse espresso. Dark-roasted, with a rough, gritty finish, the Lighthouse espresso wanted to force my taste buds into submission instead of befriending them. The profile obviously plays well in that part of Seattle—the traffic in and out the door remained steady throughout my visit—but to my coddled Portland palate (and I admit it’s coddled), the Lighthouse espresso was almost too harsh to drink. Nonetheless, I’m sure it is something you could get used to if you drank it every day.

I found the trip to Lighthouse very informative. These days, as Stumptown grows and changes, the two companies have less in common, but at one point, it appears they were very similar. With humans, descendants never turn out exactly like their ancestors, but they often share a lot of the same traits. Coffee roasters, apparently, can be the same way.


Lighthouse Roasters
Address: 400 North 43rd Street, Seattle, WA 98103 (map)
Phone: 206-634-3140 (café only)
Hours: Monday-Friday 6am-7pm
            Saturday-Sunday 6:30am-7pm
Wi-Fi? I think so
Recommendation? A cappuccino, perhaps

A taste of. . .

When I first started learning about coffee, I listened in awe as people led cuppings, talking about “bright acidity” or “earthiness.” At first, I did not have a clue about what they were saying. Over time, though, the tasting vocabulary began to make more sense and I enjoyed the challenge of distinguishing the various taste elements in a coffee. I became what you might call a “coffee nerd,” one of many in the industry.

Coffee is not the only beverage with highly-enthusiastic tasters. Wednesday evening, Marcus Young of Batdorf & Bronson Coffee Roasters and Minott Kerr from Sterling Coffee Roasters organized an event that brought a wide variety of beverage companies together for an evening of tasting. Hosted by the American Barista and Coffee School, the Taste : Industry workshop was an opportunity to meet beverage professionals and learn how they talk about taste in their particular industry. We had the opportunity to sample coffee, coffee liqueur, bourbon, Scotch, pear brandy, hard cider, beer and wine.

Marcus Young explains the evening's activities

For me, the highlight of the night was the cider.  Jennie Dorsey, a former Portland barista who now works as a rep for Tieton Cider Works, took us on a short tour of four cider-making countries: Spain (Basque Country), France, England and the United States.

Each country has its own unique traditions for producing cider, and the four we tried were very distinct. The Basque cider was rough around the edges, with a savory tartness similar to green olives. The French cider had a strong sulfur aroma and tasted cheesy, like a strong brie. The English cider was bitter and sharp, while the American cider was more refined and sweet like sparkling butterscotch.  Explaining the differences, Dorsey talked about how our sense of taste is influenced by culture in addition to our physiology. For example, she said many of the flavors in the Basque cider would be considered “defects” if they showed up in an American cider.

Jennie Dorsey (center) shared her cider knowledge

A couple tables down from the cider, Erika Degens from Stone Barn Brandy Works gave out samples of her Red Wing Roast coffee liqueur. Consisting of pinot noir brandy, a pear/apple spirit, spices and Yemeni and El Salvador coffees, the liqueur was lightly sweet and very complex. You would never confuse it with Kahlua.

Erika Degens of Stone Barn Brandyworks

At the Migration Brewing table, I learned how adding oats to the malt of a beer gives it body without changing the color. I also learned that IPA is the abbreviation for  India Pale Ale. In the days of the empire, before refrigeration was invented, the British used to export beer to India. To preserve the beer on the long sea journey, brewers would add extra hops to the barrels. The hops acted as a natural preservative and gave the ales extra bitterness. Beer drinkers became accustomed to the taste of the hops, and the hoppy beers became a whole new category to serve the market.  

Other bits of trivia I learned during the event: 

  • When Scotch whisky spends time in American oak barrels, it turns a deep golden color. Aging in Spanish oak gives the whisky a darker amber color.
  • Oak imparts vanilla and caramel flavors into whisky.
  • A whisky blend like Johnnie Walker can be comprised of 30 or more different single-malt whiskies.
  • Anything over 80 proof burns (drink slowly!).
  • When you taste coffee and wine, you’re not supposed to swallow, but with whisky you do.
  • The Williams pear is another name for a Bartlett pear.
  • Pear brandy smells sweet and innocent, but it is neither.

In addition to tasting a lot of new things and catching up with some coffee industry friends, I also met Hanna Neuschwander, who told me about her book coming out in August, Left Coast Roast, a guide to more than 50 coffee roasters on the West Coast. It sounded like a fun project (and a good reminder to get back to work on my own book!).  

The Taste : Industry workshop was an excellent gathering, all in the name of “education.” Thanks to all the sponsors and the organizers. I am certainly looking forward to the next one.  

Competitive coffee II - Judgment day

Day 1 – How I became a judge

When I woke up Friday morning, the first thing that popped into my mind was the four elements of the espresso category along with the things I should be looking for in each one. I was focused. At least I hadn’t dreamed about cappuccinos.

We went to the convention center an hour before the start of the competition to do a little more calibration of our palates. We judged a few espressos and cappuccinos and returned to the judges’ chambers (really just a side room).

At 12pm, we got the call to come judge. We filed out into the competition hall, were introduced, shook the competitor’s hand and took our places. It was time to see if our training had prepared us.

Competition protocol

The protocol for SCAA-sponsored barista competitions is standard throughout the United States. During the competition, baristas have 15 minutes to prepare their competition station. The station is set up with a machine table (where the espresso machine sits), a preparation table (for storing milk and other ingredients) and the judges table (where the four sensory judges sit, and act as customers). As the barista prepare, they calibrate their grinder and carefully lay out the tools they will need to make the drinks. Usually, they set out plates, napkins, water glasses and spoons at the judges’ table.

After the 15 minute prep time, the judging team enters and takes its place. That’s when the main competition really begins.

Each barista must make three sets of four drinks during the 15 minutes – an espresso, a cappuccino and a signature beverage for each of the four sensory judges. That’s 12 drinks in 15 minutes! It would be a difficult challenge for a barista accomplish anytime and even more so with the pressure of competition weighing on them. Baristas must be efficient and fluid with their movements. The baristas are expected to talk about the coffee(s) they are using, describing the origin and the characteristics that make their chosen coffee special.

Seven judges evaluate each competitor’s performance. This includes two technical judges, a head judge and four sensory judges. The technical judges hover over and around the competitors while they are presenting, watching how the barista grinds, tamps, uses towels, keeps the station clean, and a myriad of other details.

The head judges watch the other judges to make sure they are judging consistently. The head judge tastes many of the drinks, often writing down their own scores. These scores do not count, but it does help the head judge estimate what the sensory judges should be scoring each drink. If there are any major discrepancy between the judges, the head judge helps resolve them.

I chose to be a sensory judge, for several reasons. First, I had done a lot of “sensory evaluation” (drinking espresso) over the last year and a half, so I knew I would feel more comfortable as a sensory judge. Second, technical judges have a large number of small things to watch and it helps to have a lot of barista experience. Most importantly, the sensory judges are the ones who get to taste the drinks. How could I go to a barista competition and not taste the drinks?

Put your tastes aside

As a sensory judge, one challenge was to put my biases aside and base my observations on the rules set by the competition committee. When I go cafés, I often “judge” the espresso and talk about its flavors. Most of my observations are highly subjective, which is fine in context of the blog. However, it doesn’t make for good competition scoring. To be a good judge, you have to be able to discard your own preferences and judge the espressos against the standards in the rule book. For espresso, this means you evaluate the crema, first for its color, then for its persistence and consistency.

Next, you mix the espresso three times from front to back, using the small spoon that the barista is required to provide. An espresso should have a balance of sweetness, sourness and bitterness, and these reside at different levels in the cup. Mixing the espresso allows you to detect all three flavors in each sip (assuming they are present). In addition to the taste balance, you also evaluate its “tactile balance,” or what coffee people often refer to as mouthfeel. These characteristics test the barista’s skills at pulling shots.

Cappuccinos are judged in a similar manner. The first criterion is visual appeal, which doesn’t mean the barista is skilled at latte art. Instead, judges are looking for contrast, sheen, balance, symmetry and whether or not there is a complete brown espresso ring around the outside of the milk in the center. Once the judges have evaluated the visual aspect, they take a spoon and push it across the foam of the cappuccino to check the persistence and consistency (“per-con,” in judging lexicon). Foam must be 1cm thick or more for the cappuccino to score Very Good in the per-con category.

After checking out how they look, the judges sip the cappuccino to determine its “taste balance.” Both sips must be taken in a location on the rim where the foam was not disturbed by the spoon. The judge should be able to detect a pleasant balance between the sweetness of the milk and the more bitter espresso flavors. The temperature should also be a temperature that you can drink the cappuccino immediately, without letting it cool.

The third category of drinks, the signature beverage category, has criteria that are less defined. The baristas get to express their creativity in making a drink, so some of the drinks are very complex. I have seen baristas add coffee reductions, gum syrup, star fruit juice, a raspberry ganache, an infusion of hops—you name it, and a barista has tried it.

It is somewhat harder to calibrate for the signature beverages because they are different from competitor to competitor, but no matter what, the drink should be designed to feature the espresso. One of the keys for baristas who want to score well in the “sig bev” category is to clearly explain what they are doing so that the judges know what to expect. They should also remember that the espresso is central to the drink – i.e., whenever they are thinking about how to compose the drink, they should think how all of the additions showcase the espresso. It is easy to forget that. The beverage can be delicious, but if the judge cannot taste a strong espresso presence, it will receive a low score.

During the calibration, the head judges and trainers drilled the procedure and evaluation criteria into our heads, constantly reminding us that we had to remove our own tastes and biases from the evaluation process as much as possible. They had us focus on describing what we saw, so that we could justify the scores that baristas would receive.

Speed is important when you are a sensory judge. You need to quickly evaluate the drinks, because any time lag negatively effects the quality of the beverages. The crema on the espresso is its thickest and most stable when it is first served. So is the foam on the cappuccino. A judge cannot hesitate. With an espresso, for example, the judges’ thought process is something like, “color, tip forward, tip back, stir, stir, stir, sip once, sip twice, give it a score.” Then you take a couple notes to support the score you give it. You have to do this in a few seconds. At first, you go slowly trying to remember everything, but the process becomes automatic over time.

After each competitor, we went back to the judges room to finish our score sheets. Our head judge gently pushed us to make any corrections necessary. His experience was super helpful as we struggled a couple times to come up with the justification for our scores. Instead of telling us to change our scores (both upward and downward, by the way), he had us justify the score we gave the competitors. If we had good justification for what we experienced, he let the score stand.

The trainers’ instructions rattled around my mind as I sat at the table, trying hard to concentrate on what the barista was saying. While we were finishing the score sheets, the head judges told us to be sure to make eye contact and smile with the competitors to make them feel more at ease. I thought we had been, but apparently we were all concentrating so hard on getting the judging right that we forgot to smile. It was easier to smile for the next two. We were all more relaxed by then.

Worth doing again

Each of the competitors put in a lot of work preparing, and I felt honored to be a part of the team that judged them. As they told us in the beginning of the training, one of the main roles of a judge is to support the baristas as professionals. We’re not there to “judge” them (okay, yes we are), but rather to give them feedback for all their preparation and make the competition as much fun as possible. Everyone wants to help raise the specialty coffee industry’s profile and these competitions are an opportunity to do that.

We (the judges) appreciated the hard work they put in as they prepared for the competition. My highest praise goes to our trainers, the head judges who got us ready for judging (and scared the hell out of us with those tests). Above all, I would like to thank Mike Strumpf, of Swiss Water, who was the head judge on my judging team on Friday. Mike did a fantastic job guiding us. His experience and expertise was obvious as he led us when we needed help making the proper scoring decisions.

Looking back, I had a great time judging, and plan to do it again sometime. Hopefully it will work out to judge at the USBC when it comes to Portland in April. See you there?


I left Tacoma for Portland on Friday (if you missed the story of that misadventure, it’s here), but I did watch parts of the next two days on my computer. If you look closely, you might see a couple of local PDX coffee people in the screen shots of the competition.

The finals took place on Sunday afternoon. The top six competitors from the previous two days presented their routines for the judges one more time. This year, the six finalists were all from Portland (I told you Portland was the center of the specialty coffee universe). Sam Purvis (the 2010 NWRBC champion), and Devin Chapman represented Coava, Laila Ghambari represented Stumptown, Collin Schneider competed for Sterling/Coffeehouse Northwest and Tyler Stevens and Marty Lopes came from  Barista.

Devin Chapman finished first, Laila Ghambari, second, and Tyler Stevens, third. Chapman also won the regional Brewer’s Cup (for the second consecutive year), so he had a heck of a Sunday. He will automatically be entered in the semi-final round at the USBC, and the other five competitors can enter the first round of the USBC, if they choose. Portland is going to be well-represented as it competes on its home turf. 

Searching for the right word at Courier

You know how hard it is to come up with the right word sometimes, either in conversation or in writing? When I read great writers’ work, I am amazed at how well they are able to describe the scenes in their stories.  They make it easy to imagine whatever they are writing about. Settings are as crisp as the sharp crack of breaking glass, and the psychology of the characters burrows into the readers’ consciousness like an earthworm tunneling through soil. The best writers give you just enough description to trigger the images in your mind, without overburdening you with details.

As someone who writes a lot, I read often and try to emulate my favorite writers – Murakami, Asensi, and Hemmingway, for example (if you’re going to do something, you ought to try to do it well, don’t you think?).  I figure that if I aim for the stars, I might at least hit the moon.

One of the challenges of writing is trying to keep the writing fresh. You want to come up with new ways of saying the same thing. Think about it – how many ways has the ‘boy-chases-girl-girl-rejects-boy-boy-doesn’t-quit-until-he-wins-her-heart’ story been told? Thousands? Yes, but each time in a slightly different way.

If you use the same descriptors all the time, you start to be boring and you don’t grow your creativity muscles they way you could. My goal is to write about coffee without saying the same thing every time. In other words, keep it fresh, like good coffee (no apologies for bad puns, though. I like to hear the audience groan once in a while). Here is today’s snippet:

Coffee Cake

Courier Coffee was my destination this morning. They had several coffees available as pourovers, and one single-origin espresso. When I asked about being overpowered by the single-origin’s acidity, the barista assured me that even though it was a washed Ethiopian coffee, it was well-balanced and not overwhelmingly bright (no lemons). He didn’t have to work hard to persuade me to order the espresso.

The first sip entered my mouth and swelled like the ocean before a storm. The tangy flavors began in the center of my mouth but grew until they filled the entire space. In some cases, the syrupy nature of an espresso comes through in the crema, but in this case, the coffee itself was heavy. The espresso’s texture stood out the most. The coffee bathed my entire tongue with a thick, viscous syrup. If it were a piece of clothing, it would have been flannel or denim, not silk or polyester.

The texture and the taste lingered – they coated my mouth as if I had just eaten the richest piece of chocolate cake from the finest bakery, with nothing to wash it down. I thought I could call it cakey, but according to the Urban Dictionary, that’s might not be the best word to use. I guess  I’ll just have to keep searching for the right word…

From nuts to fruits: learning how to taste at Ristretto Roasters

Last weekend, after stopping by Overland Park to listen to Leaves Russell perform at the Organic Brewers Festival, I made my way over to Ristretto Roasters café on North Williams Ave., to have some coffee with Jinsu Lee, a South Korean coffee aficionado who has also explored many different cafés around Portland (he provided the photos for this post). We like to get together once in a while to talk about coffee and what the future of the coffee industry might be, especially in South Korea, where specialty coffee is just beginning to take off.

When I got to the café, Jinsu was already sitting at a back table with a group of people.  He waved me over and introduced me to the group—Ryan, Rachel, Hank and Steve (all Ristretto employees) and told me that they had invited us to join them. Unknowingly, we had stumbled upon Ristretto’s weekly Sunday public coffee event.

Each Sunday afternoon at 2:30, Ristretto hosts some kind of event to help educate customers about coffee. Often these are coffee cuppings, but last Sunday’s was a little different. Instead of tasting different coffees, the plan was to taste several different foods as a way to develop and map out our palates. Steve, who is a trainer for Ristretto, led us through the exercise.

Preparing to taste. Photo courtesy Jinsu Lee

Developing a discerning palate is very important for people who work in the coffee industry (especially for coffee buyers and roasters), who need to be sure that they are producing a consistent, high-quality product. It is a skill that takes time to develop. I once heard a café owner tell a group that he and his business partner cupped coffee every single morning for three years. As you can imagine, he felt pretty confident in his ability to detect all of the subtleties and imperfections that are present in a cup of coffee.

If you have read many of my café posts, you know that I try to describe the flavors in each of the coffees. I have mentioned several times that a coffee has hints of berries in it, or some kind of citrus, chocolate or cherries. Two of the more interesting coffees I tried to describe came from Ristretto’s cafés (you can read them here and here). On coffee packages and in conversations with baristas, flavors like dates, honey, leather, tamarind, bergamot, carrots, plums and peaches have also been used. All of these descriptions are somewhat subjective, since we all taste things differently.

A more experienced coffee taster uses less subjective language and describes coffee in terms like acidity, body, sweetness and balance, breaking the coffee down into the responses they cause in our mouth.

The tasting lineup. Photo courtesy Jinsu Lee

Steve’s goal was to teach us to think about tasting in a more methodical way. As we tasted the foods, our assignment was to concentrate on how they felt and where they affected our mouths, tongues and throats. We tasted 10 different foods: almonds, hazelnuts, Brazil nuts, milk chocolate, dark chocolate, avocados, red delicious apples, Granny Smith apples, lemons and limes.

We started out with the least acidic food, the almonds, and then moved step by step toward the most acidic, the limes. Apparently, if you were to start with the limes, the acidity would overload your palate at the beginning and make it much harder to taste the other foods.

Of the three nuts, the almonds were the driest. They were a little bit sweet, affecting the front end of my tongue as I ground them up between my teeth (Speaking of grinding up the almonds, it was kind of amusing to sit there and watch everyone working the foods around their mouths, their faces reflecting a deep concentration as they tried discern all of the tastes and textures. I’m sure I had a funny look on my face too).

The hazelnuts were distinctly sweeter and had more oils in them than the almonds. The Brazil nuts had a little bit of a sandy (mineral) flavor, and were the oiliest of all, leaving a light coating on the inside of my mouth. Steve told us that the difference between the Brazil nuts and the almonds was analogous to the difference between coffees with a lot of body and those without it.

We discussed body some more as we moved into the chocolates. We started with the milk chocolate, which was very sweet and creamy. It had lots of body. The dark chocolate, in contrast, was only a little bit sweet, and it dried out my mouth as I chewed it. Our guide told us that the drying effect came from the tannins in the cocoa. He said it was like a dry wine, where the wine is fermented with the skins still on the grapes. This leaves more of the tannins in the wine, giving the wine that mouth-drying feel.

After the dark chocolate came the avocado. The avocado was another demonstration of something with a lot of body. The oils in the avocado coated our mouths as we swished the slimy fruit around inside them.

The two apples followed the avocado. This was the beginning of the acidity phase of the tasting. The light acidity of the red delicious apple is similar to (though sweeter than) some of the berry or stone fruit acidity that some coffees have. It stays more towards the front of your tongue. The Granny Smith apples are a bit more tart, so as soon as you chew them up, the acidity moves up the sides of your tongue.

When we got to the lemons, everyone prepared to pucker up. We bit enthusiastically into the chunks of raw lemon and WHAM! Faces around the table tightened up as the lemon juice hit our taste buds. The lime had a similar affect. Its acidity grabbed the middle of my tongue, then as I swallowed, it latched onto the back of my throat and lingered. The lime was so acidic that it kind of burned and almost tasted salty. Jinsu quipped that we could have used some tequila to go with it, a statement that was greeted with a nod of agreement from everyone.

After we finished tasting, we sat around for a while and talked about coffee, because that’s what coffee people do when they get together, especially after going through a tasting exercise like this one. We concluded that Portland is a great city to learn about coffee, because cafés like Ristretto are always trying to educate their customers on the finer points of the beverage.

If you are looking for something to do on a Sunday afternoon, I recommend that you stop by Ristretto and check out what they are sharing that day. You might get to try or taste something you’ve never had before, or you might just get to hang around with a bunch of coffee enthusiasts. Either way, you should have a good afternoon at one of Portland’s best cafés.