Diary of a Coffee Consultant, Part 2: Florence to Lisbon
Continued from Part 1
Moka Pot image "Evoluzione" reproduced with permission by CLET, a brilliant street artist based on Florence.
Stop 6: Florence
Prague and Florence are probably my two favorite European cities. Both city centers are famously overrun with tourists but somehow remain perfectly charming. As an American, I’m impressed with any tourist destination that hasn’t sold its soul and turned into an amusement park of a city, full of tacky and disposable junk.
If Prague has humility, good cafes, and tea, Florence has joie de vivre, gelato, and sex appeal. While the world associates Italy with coffee, there is only one company in Florence with very good specialty coffee: Ditta Artigianale. (There are also a few good local cafes in Florence that serve Ditta’s coffee.)
This may be a surprising statement, but… 99% of Italians do not value coffee quality. More precisely, they value coffee at exactly one euro per cup and they protest angrily when someone tries to charge more than that. To them, coffee is a commodity — 99% of Italian cafes charge exactly one euro for an espresso. The idea of “specialty coffee” doesn’t excite them, it offends them, and not because of the snobby hipster baristas. Can you imagine expecting all wine, cheese, or prosciutto to cost the same amount? Of course not, and Italians don’t, either. But somehow they don’t respect coffee quality as they do wine quality. (My anthropologist friend Kevin has an interesting hypothesis that Italians will value anything more highly if its raw materials are from Italy, but tend see non-Italian items as commodities.)
Ditta, owned by the famous and charismatic Francesco Sanapo, is quite unusual by Italian standards. When Francesco began offering special single-origin shots of espresso for 3-4 Euros several years ago, it was national news. Francesco was “ruining Italian culture” and seen as a criminal by some the public. That was despite Ditta still offering shots of a high-quality espresso blend everyday for a mere 1.50 Euros, also considered robbery.
Francesco won the Italian barista championship three times by preparing well and using high-quality medium-roast arabica coffee, while some other competitors were (seriously) using robusta. Since that time, most cities in Italy have gained one or two modern coffee bars. I suppose that’s progress, but there are literally a million espresso machines in Italy dispensing robusta, and Italian coffee bars probably go through as much sugar as espresso grounds, by volume.
I spent a day at Ditta working on their capable-but-complicated Brambati roaster. A 10kg Brambati is a complicated machine takes up as much space as a typical 30kg drum roaster. It is the roaster that would make Rube Goldberg most proud, and it has at least 10x the number of parts required to roast coffee with precision. I’ve been told the machine is so complicated due to Italian fire regulations and the like, but I think Italians secretly just prefer to make complicated machines.
Thankfully, Ditta has Michele Anedotti to manage the machine and navigate its countless screens of complicated software. I am proud of Michele: we’ve worked together twice in the past, and each year I’ve seen him, he has roasted better and better coffee. The roasts in our cupping session this visit were as good as any I’ve had in Europe.
At Ditta I got to roast and cup multiple batches of “anaerobically fermented” coffee for the first time. I also had the pleasure in Budapest and Florence of chatting with Felipe Croce of FAF about anaerobic fermentation. Felipe and his family are progressive, experimental coffee farmers, and Felipe gave me a crash course in Florence in the various types of fermentation they are exploring — perhaps more on that some other time. But let’s just say that while a natural is still a natural by any other name, things are getting interesting in the world of coffee fermentation. Talking to Felipe made me realize that my two interests, coffee and microbes, are merging more than ever (and yes, I remember I owe you a post about coffee and gut bacteria.)
Ditta’s roaster occupies a corner room in the massive roastery of Caffe Corsini, complete with three side-by-side 360kg automated roasters. Walking through roasteries like Corsini makes it seem silly that 1000s of specialty companies are roasting 1-2 kg at a time. Think about it: in a few hours, Corsini can roast the annual coffee needs of the typical third-wave cafe. Sometimes it’s shocking how big some roasters are, and how small our obsessive third-wave cottage industry is. Corsini is probably about the size of Intelligentsia, Stumptown, and Blue Bottle combined, yet you have almost certainly never heard of it.
Stop 7: A morning in Bologna
Whenever I arrive in Bologna, my first thoughts are “wow, this place looks old!” and “I should consider living here.” If Bologna only had a surf beach…
You won’t find much Bolognese sauce in Bologna, but you will find Europe's oldest university, countless beautiful medieval buildings, a fair number of shops that make farinata di ceci*, which is a treat for those of us who eat senza-glutine, and the home of the most passionate coffee people I know: Bar Aroma Degustazione E Vendita Di Caffe' Pregiati, aka Aroma. You could easily walk by Aroma and not notice it: it’s a modest little cafe on a quiet side street on the edge of Bologna’s center. By Italian standards, Aroma is maverick: it's a multi-roaster cafe serving numerous high-quality, light-roast, single-origin espressos and filter coffees, and they even have some nice teas and competition-style signature drinks. Run by the uber-friendly Cristina and her coffee-scholar husband Alessandro, two of the nicest people you’ll ever meet, visiting Aroma is like stepping into your friend’s kitchen, if your friend happens to make coffee with the precision and attention to detail of a watch maker. When you go there, you will feel like part of the family, and you will experience how third-wave service should be.
*Fun fact: Matt Perger loves farinata di ceci and his recipe is revolutionary.
This visit I learned that Alessandro had just written three coffee-training books in Italian for SCA. The books are lovely, with great graphics and Alessandro’s usual attention to detail. If you speak Italian and want to learn from a master, buy Alessandro’s books. I had only a few hours’ detour in Bologna, but I’m glad I stopped there to visit Alessandro and Cristina and to savor their coffee.
Stop 8: Prague 2
I had a few days with no work, so I returned to Prague. It’s one of my favorite cities and home to some of my favorite people as well as Salek, so why not? On this visit i got to be more of a tourist. I visited Gwilym, Petra, and Misa at their coffee training center in the pretty little town of Jilove u Prahy and they graciously took me to lunch at Florian, a charming, ancient pub. We went to Florian via a 30-minute walk through farmland on a 35c day, and only upon arriving they told me that we could have walked there in less than 10 minutes on a more direct path :). But Jenny Brown loved the walk through the farms and her joy, if not her rest stop on a pile of horse manure, made the sweaty walk worthwhile.
If you don’t know who Gwilym and Petra are, Petra is a former Czech cafe owner who has sold more copies of her Czech-language coffee book than I have sold of all of my English-language books combined. She’s a massive celebrity in Czech coffee, an expert trainer, and perennial World Barista Competition judge. Petra’s only shortcoming is she doesn’t like filter coffee much, though Gwilym tries to convert her on a daily basis, and I have faith he will succeed one day. Gwilym is a former World Barista Champion, co-owner of Prufrock Coffee, one of the world’s best and most sensible coffee trainers, and all-around nice guy. I recommend you find your way to Jilove one day and convince them to take you to Florian. There’s no better way to spend an afternoon.
Later that week we went on an adventure to Liberec, a small city an hour north of Prague. Lunch was at Mikyna, a delightful cafe that would fit in well in Melbourne, and after lunch we had coffee at Double Brew, a soon-to-open cafe run by some serious and friendly coffee guys. Before heading home we hiked up to Ještěd tower, a communist-era structure that looks like it’s from The Jetsons.
Stop 9: Berlin
I confess that Berlin does little for me, but I’ve been sucked into visiting twice now by Kris Schackman, owner of Five Elephant. Kris is a great guy, and happened to have been a regular customer at my first cafe in the 1990s. We didn’t know each other then (Kris says he avoided me so I wouldn't notice how much time he spent at the cafe), but our lives have crossed paths many times since then. Five Elephant is dedicated to light roasts of very pretty coffees. We have had an interesting professional relationship over the years, as we’ve worked together but often disagreed in small ways about what makes an ideal roast. On this trip i was pleased to note that our preferences are now well aligned and their current head roaster Wojtek is humble, competent, and dedicated.
I happened to be in Berlin at the same time as the “Raw Hustle” tour, a series of talks by Matt Graylee and Matt Perger. I attended their talk at The Barn, and was fascinated by Matt Graylee’s creative model for helping coffee farmers improve the quality of their lives and coffees. To be fair to Matt P, I would have been fascinated by his talk as well, but his talk covered topics that he and I already discuss on a regular basis when we're not talking about ceci and gut bacteria. The very short version: automation and more accessible options (pods, capsules, fancy instant) will eventually devour specialty coffee.
Stop 10: Lisbon
I’ve always wanted to visit Lisbon, and this turned out to be a convenient time to stop there for a few days. Lisbon is an attractive city, with lots of beautiful old buildings, water views, and winding cobblestone streets. But fair warning: don’t visit without training on a Stair Master for a few months — Lisbon makes San Francisco look flat. Lisbon is also not the place for those like me who prefer to eat dinner before 9pm (most restaurants don’t even open until 7:30!), enjoy modern coffee, or eat gluten-free. I may have to scratch Lisbon off my list of potential future homes in case Trump is re-elected (sorry, didn’t mean to ruin your day with that thought.)
On my first full day in Lisbon, I met my gracious friend Gonçalo Duerte, Portugal’s biggest fan of good coffee and owner of Voo cold brew, at Wish Slow Coffee, where they serve Five Elephant. Someone had forgot the store key, so Wish Slow opened an hour late, a pattern during my stay in Portugal. Although Lisbon coffee shops typically open at 9am, even that seemed too early for many baristas to bother. The coffee was good, the service was surly (another pattern, unfortunately), and the food was pretty, but the portions were tiny, and shockingly expensive in an otherwise dirt-cheap city for eating. The saving grace of the cafe visit was Gonçalo’s unbridled enthusiasm for good coffee, and his clear-eyed awareness of Portugal’s medieval approach to coffee— almost all coffee in Portugal is made from dark, cheap, oily beans, usually involving robusta. If Gonçalo can infect 1% of Portugal with his level of enthusiasm, it will become the next Australia.
The coffee highlight of Lisbon was a tiny place called Hello Kristof that had a GS3 and a K30 as its only coffee equipment. I have friends with more and bigger equipment in their apartments. I’m not saying my friends are reasonable, just that Lisbon has a very long way to go before hipsters turn it into another Brooklyn. In my three days in Lisbon, the folks at Hello Kristof were just about the only coffee or restaurant staff I encountered who were friendly and hospitable.
I spent one night in the pretty beach town of Ericeira in the hopes of catching a morning surf before heading home, but alas, the surf report lied and I woke up to a flat ocean. After I made a lovely 7am batch brew of Five Elephant Kenya in my hotel’s kitchen, a couple of Israeli surfers asked to share some of my coffee (well, really they hovered til I had no choice). I gave them two mugs, which they returned, full, a few minutes later. Hilariously, they semi-apologized for not liking the coffee, implied that I had terrible taste (gee thanks, I’m glad I shared my coffee with you), and said they would go into town to get some “good coffee.” Note that almost all of the coffee in town was cheap, dark, and mostly robusta. :).
Thanks for reading.