Coffee is in my DNA. My parents love great coffee. I brewed coffee for my dad since I was a kid. I secretly tasted my mom’s coffee when I had a chance. My craziness about gourmet coffee however didn’t start until about ten years ago when I was a graduate student in Chicago. A friend of mine who was an avid coffee appreciator told me about a cafe on Broadway Street in boystown that was the place to get the best coffee in Chicago. Juicy rumors had it that one sophisticated Law School professor at the U of C wouldn’t drink coffee from any other places except from this cafe. I went there. I had a cup of cappuccino. It was fantastic. This cafe, of course, was the flagship coffeebar of the famed Intelligentsia Coffee & Tea. Since then, I was a frequent visitor to the place, sitting on one of the desks by the fireplace or at the high bar by the window overlooking people traffic in the summer and piles of snow in the winter.
Time passed. I graduated and moved west to California. I found it hard to find a local place to replace Intelligentsia. Every time when I went back to Chicago, I had to visit their store and packed up a pound or two of Black Cat blend before returning to California. In 2007 while I was living in Los Angeles, however, I got an exciting email from Intelligentsia that they were opening a cafe in Silver Lake neighborhood of LA– the first one outside Chicago. It was great news and I quickly became a frequent visitor of this new location. Two years later, another great news arrived. Intelligentsia opened its second cafe in LA area in Venice. Now I have one more place to get great coffee when I am around West LA. Needless to say, visiting Intelligentsia is always like going down the memory lane for me. And precisely this is the reason why I chose Intelligentsia as my first cafe hounding.
Knowing how to distinguish good and bad coffee does not mean knowing how to make a good one. Although I tried to enrolled in one of Intelligentsia barista classes in Chicago for a long time, the class schedules did not seem to coincide with my travel to Chicago. Finally, I found a barista training course offered in Southern California by Coffee Solutions. The class was conducted by Ellie Matuszak at the facility of the Specialty Coffee Association of America (SCAA) in Long Beach. The class was great. The venue was convenient. Ellie was fantastic and very knowledgeable, as anyone in coffee industry can testify. In fact, before joining and becoming VP of Training and Operations at Coffee Solutions, Ellie was Director of Training & Knowledge at Intelligentsia Coffee & Tea, and helped them develop and conduct the training classes at Intelligentsia’s Chicago facility. Although what I learned from Ellie was not simple, one thing was clear– small mistakes can turn a perfect espresso into something undrinkable! Since then, not only do I know what good coffee is, I also know how to make a good one (most of the time, I think).
Recently, my knowledge on coffee has grown tremendously since I met Matt Maher, aka “the other hound.” (And please don’t try to ask how we first met.) Over the past year, we spent countless number of hours chatting, discussing, complaining, and sharing our evolving experience and knowledge in coffee. We socialized with people in coffee industry. We dove ourselves into learning various aspects of the business of coffee production, wholesale, and retail trading, and how they could be quite different from other commodities. We examined how transactions and contracts were formed at different stages of production, and how they affected risk bearing and profitability of the business. We looked at the importance of financing and working capital management. We tried to understand why some players in the coffee industry became so successful while others failed miserably. In short, we became addicted to the business and economics of coffee. (Well, I would say it was the effect of caffeine!) We talked about coffeenomics while cupping beans from around the world. We also propagated our religion to friends and colleagues by organizing a cupping session. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, we began our search together for the best coffee the world can offer. We finally became the two cafe hounds.