My First Latte Art Competition

It’s been a little more than a month since I posted here despite the fact that I promised myself to post at least once a week but I guess a busy work schedule and family obligations are getting in the way.

On May 17th, I attended my first latte art competition at The Coffee Box in Plainfield, NJ. The cafe is nicely decorated and well equipped with a Mahlkonig Twin and a La Marzocco Linea 2 Groups. Also, the owners and baristas were cheerful, friendly and just awesome.

Since this was my first time, I really did not know what to expect. I did not know what the rules are or how the winner is determined. Nevertheless, I paid the $5 to pour (free to watch) and wrote my name down.

A short while later, the rules were announced and each round included two baristas. For the first round each Barista needed to pour a heart and then a panel made of 3 judges voted on the better design of the 2 cups (one for each Barista in the round). Unfortunately, I haven’t poured a heart at home in a long time and so I was out of practice and was eliminated in the first round! However, I won the first raffle prize and I had a choice between multiple items and I chose a delicious Bolivian coffee from Intelligentsia.

Just winning the coffee made my whole night, I never win anything in raffles so I was excited to have won something. Aside from the coffee, the whole night was great. People were so much fun to hang out with and strike a conversation. Also, it is always nice to meet like minded folks with the same interests and hobbies and share information and knowledge.

Even though I was eliminated after 15 mns of the competition kicking off, I stayed till the end to enjoy the coffee and art. The winner of the latte art competition won an Acaia Pearl scale (Acaia was one of the sponsors), which was awesome.

I’m looking forward to the next one, can’t wait!

The 2018 Baltimore Coffee Festival in Baltimore, Maryland

Last week I got the chance to go visit the 2018 Coffee Festival in Baltimore, Maryland. I live in New Jersey and so aside from New York, Baltimore, Maryland is the closest a coffee festival will get. I contacted the Festival team via Facebook messenger requesting media tickets, since I own a blog. The people who were responding to the messages were nice and prompt and provided my wife and I with 2 tickets for the show. The reason I reached out to them for media tickets is because this is a trade show so coffee enthusiasts who don’t own a business cannot attend. I don’t own a business just a blog. If you’re in the coffee industry, tickets are $60 for the duration of the show Friday to Sunday).

On Saturday, we drove to the Baltimore Convention Center where the show is taking place, found street parking and headed to the building. After receiving our badges and “goodie bags” we entered the show.

The show had an excellent mix of coffee roasters, coffee equipment manufacturers and coffee industry related items (coffee bags, label machines, etc.). Since I only had Saturday to check out the show, I was only able to check few of the exhibitors.

1) la Pavoni: seeing la Pavoni at the show was exciting because I love their commercial espresso machines and because I haven’t seen a la Pavoni Professional lever machine in person before. If you’re in the catering business and looking for heavy duty espresso equipment (even 2 groups) that is also 110V then you know that la Pavoni is one of the few manufacturers that make those. I was also excited to pull a shot on a la Pavoni professional lever machine. I always wanted to do that but never had a chance.

2) Wega and Astoria: I was always curious about these machines but never saw or played with one in person, the show was a great opportunity to do just that.

3) HM Digital: is a worldwide leader in EC, TDS, pH and ORP water testing instruments. I was happy to see them at the show since I have used their products before and always found them to be reliable and easy to use without breaking the bank. Also, they introduced a coffee refractometer, which is very interesting to me. The coffee refractometer also comes with a very user-friendly app that makes the refractometer easier to use. I was happy to have a demo, which I have recorded and included below.

 

 

4) Nuova Simonelli and Victoria Arduino: I have soft spot for Nuova Simonelli because I have a Musica and I love the Mythos One grinders. I also got a chance to play around and pull couple of shots on a Victoria Arduino 2 group machine.

5) Brewista: never used their products but I think they have an incredible lineup of coffee brewing vessels, kettles and scales. Their new brewing scale won the best new non-consumable product for the show.

6) Malabar Gold: I always heard about them from the Home-Barista forum. Forum members always recommended Malabar Gold especially for use as  a base for lattes and cappuccinos so I was happy to finally try it out. The shot I tasted had a similar flavor profile as the Lavazza Top Class I usually use at home but had a little more complexity and almost no acidity. Only downside is that they sell a minimum of 5 lb. bags, either all in one bag or in 5, 1 lb. bags, which makes it hard for someone to try it out.

7) Hollander Chocolate Company: This company is relatively new and it competes with Ghirardelli. Their products are mostly sauces and powders aimed at cafes serving chocolate drinks and espresso based flavored drinks. All their products are created from Holland’s Dutched cocoas and other high quality ingredients. They had an Oscar 2 and a cheerful barista on duty who made us a dark chocolate mocha latte and another white chocolate mocha latte. Both drinks were better than any mochas I tried at Starbucks or at catering events that use Ghirardelli’s products. They also gave us samples to take home and try out, which I have used to make a white chocolate mocha latte at home and it was absolutely fantastic (video below). The sales rep who was talking to us was very exciting about the brand and very educated about the products, which is always excellent. He wanted to make sure that we had all the information we need, even after he learned that we do not own a cafe!

This was my first coffee trade show (previously I only attended the New York Coffee Festival, which is open for the public) and I was happy to see the diverse exhibitors and the level of excitement for everything coffee. I look forward to coming back next year or when the festival is in New York City.

My Birthday Cake and Sky Roast Coffee (New Hope, PA)

This weekend was a busy one. On Saturday my wife and family celebrated my 32nd birthday and went above and beyond to get me a cake fit for a coffee addict/lover like myself. My wife tricked me into believing that we will be going to my parents house to celebrate my birthday when they were in fact all coming to my house. The biggest surprise of the night, aside from not knowing that people are coming to my house, was the cake. My wife used one of my instagram latte art pictures and worked with the baker to make me a custom-made cake in the shape of a latte mug with latte art. The cake stole the show and people started taking pictures of the cake instead of myself!

IMG_8442

On Sunday, we decided to go walk around New Hope in Pennsylvania and pay Sky Roast Coffee a visit. Sky Roast Coffee is a new coffee place located in the newly constructed New Hope Ferry Market. Ferry market is located on Main Street and it’s home to 13 vendors offering different culinary experiences and a wide variety of food and drinks. The owner, Alan Cohen, is an active member of the Home Barista forum and his journey to obtain and open this place is well documented there and I had intended on visiting his place once he was in business. Alan was on premises and so I introduced myself and congratulated him on the shop. I proceeded to order a medium roast coffee from their batch brew and my wife ordered a chai tea. The place has a bar and stools to sit and the seating is facing the beautiful 3-group Victoria Arduino Athena copper.

DSC00064DSC00063DSC00072DSC00061

Alan was working on tweaking the grind for optimal espresso shot extraction and then offered me a double shot and tasted excellent. It was balanced with plenty of body, very different from the usual, more common acidic and floral notes I get at most other specialty coffee places. I then proceeded to check the collection of whole bean coffees for sale and picked a Brazilian blend that promised a lot of chocolate notes and very little acidity, exactly the way I like it. One thing I liked about the package was the easy open tab on the back of the bag. Opening a sealed bag of coffee usually requires scissors or you can try to open it by hand and risk having your expensive freshly roasted beans fly all over your kitchen!

DSC00053

DSC00054
Excellent selection of freshly roasted whole bean coffee, nicely packaged and well labeled

After I went back, Alan offered me their signature drink, a Maple Syrup Cortado! The drink was delicious, the maple syrup balances out the bitterness in the coffee and adds to the sweetness of the steamed milk that makes up 50% or more of the Cortado.

DSC00070
Sky Roast Coffee signature drink, Maple Syrup Cortado.
DSC00071
Sky Roast Coffee’s signature drink as well as the beautiful 3-group Victoria Arduino Athena with its gorgeous copper back

Aside from the espresso and the espresso-based drinks. Batch brews and pour over coffee are also available and by the looks of the pour over station and the smell of the freshly ground coffee, I expect the coffee to taste delicious.

DSC00052
Alan Cohen (owner), purges the steam wand as he’s getting ready to steam milk for one of his delicious drinks.
DSC00047
5 pour over station for your brewing pleasure!

DSC00073

New Hope and its neighbor, Lambertville in New Jersey already have excellent coffee places such as Rojo’s Roastery and the Lambertville Trading Company but Sky Roast Coffee, with its hands on approach by the owner, the excellent coffee selection, freshly roaster beans and excellent location, takes the already excellent coffee scene in Bucks County to a new high. These are great days for specialty coffee and coffee aficionados in and around Bucks County.

A Visit to The New York Coffee Festival 2017

Last year my wife and I visited the 2016 New York Coffee Festival and we had a great time. My wife is not as crazy about coffee as myself but she enjoyed the live music, the excellent selection of talented up and coming musicians and the live latte art booth at the festival (yes, a live music indoor set is part of the show!). Last weekend my wife and I decided to repeat the experience and visit the New York Coffee Festival again. 

The New York Coffee Festival 2017

Last year, the festival was held at the 69th Regiment Armory on Lexington Avenue, which was not a good idea. The 69th Regiment Armory is an indoor venue with high ceiling but no AC! This issue became the source of many negative reviews and feedback to the festival’s organizers as the place got warm and people were sweating profusely, especially after few espresso shots. This year, the location was different and much better as it was held in the Metropolitan Pavilion on 18th street between the 6th and the 7th Avenue. This place was better, cleaner and much cooler (climate wise). 

One of the great things about this year’s festival is the fact that more manufacturers and more roasters showed up. More showing at these festivals, especially by equipment manufacturers, is extremely important. Currently, major distributors such as Seattle Coffee Gear and Whole Latte Love are spread out and they carry certain brands of machines, grinders and even cups so for the consumer who’s looking at different brands and would love to be able to compare them side by side (almost) and pull shots on both, a Coffee Festival or show maybe their best bet.

This year, I was excited to see Breville attending the show for the first time. They had their brand new Oracle Touch on display along with the Smart Grinder Pro (excellent grinder for the price point), the BES920XL dual boiler machine and of course their new coffee maker. Their staff (or the staff they hired for the show) was friendly and they let me pull shots, steam milk, and play around with the machine. While at the booth, I met one of my heros in the coffee industry and that is Chris Baca! I have been a big fan of Chris, I listen to his podcast, I follow him on Instagram (@realchrisbaca) and I watch his YouTube videos. Chris was down to earth and was open to taking pictures and really seemed like an even cooler guy in person than online! 

Myself and Chris Baca, owner of Cat & Cloud and an all around cool guy

On my way out they give us a bag with a microfiber cloth/towel on it to wipe the machine! Neat!

Also, attending the show this year for the first, is Commandante hand grinders from Germany. This was also great to see as the grinder is not sold by retailers I know and the show was one of the few opportunities to be able to touch it and play with it. 

COMANDANTE grinders attending the show

It is also important to note that some manufacturers from last year were also attending this year, which is always a good sign. Manufacturers include Bodum and La Marzocco. However, I noticed that some manufacturers were not attending this year, which I thought was a little disappointing as I’d personally love to see as many manufacturers as possible. Espresso Parts, Espresso Supply/Bonavita are among the ones missing this year. Also, it is otable to mention that some of the attendees this year had a weaker showing compared to last year, those include Nuova Simonelli. Nuova Simonelli last year had the Oscar 2 on display and they allowed guests to play with it and pull shots. This year there was none of that and the only Oscar 2 on display wasn’t even plugged!

The show also featured plenty of roasters from New York and elsewhere around the country such as Stumptown, Cafe Grumpy, Apes & Peacocks and others. Overall, the show was exciting and I can’t wait for next year and hopefully see more manufacturers on display! 

Amish Village and Aura Espresso (Lancaster, PA)

For this Saturday my wife and I decided to go to Lancaster to tour the Amish Village and explore the area. Since I’m always on the lookout for good espresso, I used Google Maps to search for espresso bars and local roasters in Lancaster and found a few but one stood out for me and that is Aura Espresso. Later on in the post I will explain why the place stood out and describe my experience.

At 7 am, I got out of bed and first thing I did was go to my espresso station and prepare my latte. My Nuova Simonelli Musica is plugged to a TP-Link Smart Plug WiFi timer that ensures the machine is on on weekends at 6 am so by the time I’m up at 7 am, the machine is all warmed up and ready to go. After I prepared my latte I sat down to read the August edition of Barista Magazine and enjoy my morning cup. Around 8 am and after I was done with my latte, I started preparing a V60 for myself and my wife (the latte is just a warmup). After we enjoyed our morning drip, we started to get ready to leave the house and by 9.45 am we were already on the highway heading to Lancaster.

Before arriving to Lancaster, we decided to grab a quick lunch as we were both starving and after a delicious lunch at Cracker Barrel, we resumed our trip to the Amish Village. Finding the Village was pretty easy with huge building pointing where the village is.

DSC_0126

We parked the car and lined up to buy the tickets for the tour. The ticket office is located inside the gift shop, which is located inside of an actual Amish house where an Amish family used to live back in the 70s. After we purchased the tickets, we were led to a small room (what used to be a functional living room for an Amish family) to listen to a quick introduction of the Amish, their homes and their lifestyle. After the very informative intro, our tour guide walked us through and explained the different parts of the house and how the Amish lived in it. The tour ended outside the house after we were shown the summer kitchen and were told to roam around the village to explore.

After the tour was over, we drove and got lost (on purpose) in the backroads to enjoy and admire the Amish’s farms and vast green and beautiful lands. After that was done, it was time for Aura Espresso. Aura Espresso initially grabbed my attention because they serve and sell Lavazza coffee. For those of you who know me or follow me on Instagram (if you aren’t, you should) know how much I love Italian coffee and specifically Lavazza. My favorite two blends are Lavazza Top Class and Super Crema. Both blends are not sophisticated but are excellent choices for milk drinks and even for straight espresso if you’re like me and don’t like the lighter roast specialty coffees with the fruity, bright and acidic notes/taste. Earlier in the week, I decided to reach to Aura Espresso through Facebook Messenger and let them know that I’m coming and also ask for their permission to photograph the place. It’s one thing to take few pictures with your cellphone and it’s another when you show up with a professional camera and start taking pictures like if you’re the Paparazzi. The response I received was very gracious and was told by George (one of two owners) that I’m more than welcome to stop by and photograph all I want. Upon our arrival, we were received by Tina who introduced herself to us as George’s business partner.

DSC00011.JPG
Beautiful espresso cup outside the café. There is also a window overlooking the street to order drinks without going inside the café, excellent idea for morning commuters.
As soon as you enter the café, you are greeted by an Aura Espresso Room sign and a beautiful decor, incorporating two of my favorite colors, white and blue, giving the place a cozy and calming ambience while at the same time serving as a perfect match to the logo and the brand image of Lavazza. After a small conversation with George and Tina, I learned that they are both from Greece, which explained their color choices for the place (white and blue).
CSC_0232

DSC00010
Beautiful decor all around and nice oval shaped tables

DSC00036
George getting to work preparing our drinks
DSC00039

DSC00041
Nuova Simonelli is one of my favorite espresso machine brands (I’m biased since I own a Musica). Aura Espresso uses an Aurelia 2 (2 groups) espresso machine.

csc_0233.jpg
Lavazza coffee is being sold in the café if you would like to make your own cup at home

CSC_0236
More coffee bags for sale and all displayed in an attractive way. Nicely done.
Looking around in the café, I noticed a sign explaining what the word “Aura” means, which I thought was smart and it shows that a lot of thought was put in the name and it wasn’t just picked cause of a cool factor or by a marketing company.

csc_0234.jpg

After I was done looking around, I ordered a small latte and my wife ordered an Americano, both were delicious and served with fresh thin waffle cookies, a perfect complement to the coffee. George explained that the cookies can be eaten as is or can be placed on top of the coffee mug to heat up and become softer. Either way, it tasted delicious.

DSC00014
Our drinks were served in Lavazza branded mugs with beautiful white and blue saucers
Being the gracious hosts they are, George and Tina offered us an apple cinnamon muffin and made us their signature Aura Espresso drink called Freddo Cappuccino. The Freddo Cappuccino is made of 2 shots of espresso, frothed milk and Aura’s secret syrup. George adds a nice touch by etching some art on top using chocolate syrup. The art doesn’t affect the taste but it shows that he cares and loves what he does.

csc_0235.jpg

All three drinks, waffle cookies and muffin were so delicious that this is how the table looked like 15 minutes in and my wife loved the muffin so much she took what’s left of it with her.

dsc00038.jpg

If I’m back in Lancaster, I would definitely come back to Aura Espresso for a latte and a Freddo Cappuccino. The place and drinks are everything a coffee aficionado can ask for. Delicious coffee made by an excellent barista and unbeatable service, all in a gorgeous and clean ambience. Can’t beat it!

Grounds for Sculpture (Hamilton, NJ) and The Coffee Room (Newtown, PA)

Saturday my wife and I decided to do something different. Lately, we have been spending our weekends cleaning up the house, hosting or visiting friends and family so it was time for a change. One of our favorite towns to visit and walk around is Newtown, PA. The town is located in Bucks County and less than 20 mns away from New Hope, PA (also in Bucks County) and Lambertville, NJ and 35 mns away from Frenchtown, NJ. All 4 towns are quaint and charming and have something for everyone. Plenty of clothing shops, antique shops, bike shops, restaurants, cafes, espresso bars and bike trails. Since my wife and I adore coffee and love biking, all 4 towns offer a great deal of fun for us.

Map
This map shows the location of all 4 towns, only 40 mns between Frenchtown, NJ and Newtown, PA

As we headed out to Newtown, PA from North Brunswick, NJ, we decided to stop at the Grounds for Sculpture in Hamilton Township, NJ. As outdoor lovers, we enjoyed our visit tremendously. The Grounds for Sculpture is located where the former New Jersey State Fairgrounds used to be and it includes three of its major historic buildings. The Grounds have a gorgeous and diverse collection of Contemporary outdoor sculptures and acres of perfectly manicured landscapes for your strolling enjoyment. The Grounds allowed me to practice another hobby of mine, photography. The pictures below, although taken with so much care and effort, still don’t do the Grounds justice.

After we have spent hours checking out the sculptures and admiring the trees, flowers and landscapes, it was already 2.30 pm and it was time for us to head to Newtown, PA and enjoy another stroll on Sycamore and State Streets. We arrived around 3.15 pm and first thing I did was to open the PlugShare app and check to see if there is a car charger in town to charge my Chevrolet Volt. Sure enough, there were 4 chargers on Swamp Road available for free. Luckily Swamp Road was a 5 minutes walk from State Street so we parked and plugged the Volt and headed to The Coffee Room. After we made a right on State Street coming from Washington Avenue, the Coffee Room was right there on our left. For full disclosure, I have been here once before and I enjoyed the coffee and ambience then.

DSC_0100dsc_00882.jpg

Enter the shop and you are greeted by the coffee bar/counter on the right and a wall with merchandise (t-shirts, mugs and Counter Culture coffee bags) on the left.

IMG_7744


Once you have placed your order and if you would like to stay in the café, you have two seating options either you walk in and sit in the back or you can sit facing a beautiful window overlooking State Street.

Part of the seating in the back is this table designed for a larger group of people
This counter style seating is across from the group table. I especially loved the coffee posters and the directed warm lighting
The high chair window seating overlooking State Street
In addition to the beautiful yet simple decor, the place is very well equipped for folks who love to get work done while sipping on their favorite coffees as electric and USB outlets are readily available for charging all your electronic devices.

For my order, I asked for a small latte and a chocolate biscotti. The latte was served in an 8 to 10 oz latte cup but no latte art, which struck me as strange for a hip coffee shop serving specialty coffee such as Counter Culture, but nonetheless the latte tasted excellent (latte art is more of a visual treat but its lack thereof can be an indication of improperly steamed milk, not the case here). The excellent beverage taste was courtesy of the barista but also the slew of professional grinders (Mazzer, Mahlkonig EK43 and a Mythos) and of course the espresso machine (LaMarzocco Strada). Every time I visit a café, especially a newer one, I’m simply fascinated by their choice of equipment and the way it’s all laid out for workflow efficiency. High quality equipment serve as a sign that the café is serious about coffee. Of course the barista plays a critical role but the equipment are the first impression.

Overall, I found the location of the café to be convenient, the decor to be comfortable and inviting (warm light helps, LEDs are not cozy) and my latte and biscotti to be delicious. I will definitely come back the next time I’m in Newtown for a stroll or a bike ride.

P.S. here’s a money saving tip, before you visit The Coffee Room, visit one of the local stores on State Street, you will find discount cards like the one below. Enjoy!