Review: Porch Culture Ethiopia Yirgacheffe Natural (Tyler, Texas)

Music is my mood-altering substance of choice, even moreso than coffee. It encompasses nearly every waking moment of my day… I am constantly listening to music, making music, imagining and striving for an unattainable perfection in music. The kind of music I gravitate to depends on my mood, the time of day, and what I have going on. Sometimes I want something familiar, with no surprises. Sometimes I need a shot in the arm to get me moving. Sometimes I want to hear a piece of music that demands my full attention and will not let me multitask.

When was the last time you listened to music without doing something else (like driving, or playing with your smartphone, or eating at a restaurant, or jogging)? I love having a soundtrack to my daily life, but sometimes, the music needs to take center stage and I become a supporting character to it, and not vice versa. I think this is one reason I (and I daresay others) really enjoy listening to vinyl records. Records and turntables are bulky, they’re not portable, they’re not convenient… they won’t go where you go. Don’t get me wrong – I have an iPod (my 5th gen classic is still kicking, 10 years later!!), I use my iPhone for music, I have CDs… but the inherent inconvenience of vinyl makes listening to music a special event, and that is sometimes exactly what I need, and what the music itself deserves.

Case in point: I have a gorgeous remastered limited edition Mobile Fidelity pressing of Ryan Adams’ “Love Is Hell” album. I’ve listened to it about twice since getting it last year because it is the sort of album that stops you in your tracks and DEMANDS your full attention. It is not content to be background music – especially not with the incredible sound quality. I don’t put it on unless I know I have an hour free to devote to immersing myself in the world that he creates. Next to hearing a live performance, vinyl is my favorite way to listen (really listen) to music.

How does this apply to coffee? Well, I’ve found that different methods of brewing will amplify and dampen different aspects of the coffee beans, much like raising and lowering treble/bass levels. Some brewing methods result in a coffee that will slip easily into the background, and some methods will bring a richness to the fore that will make it impossible for you to focus on anything else.

I have had a lot of natural-processed Ethiopian coffee over the past few years, and I have a pretty good idea of what to expect when I see one for sale. This bag was no exception, so it really became more of a question of how to best enjoy this coffee, as opposed to “will I enjoy this coffee?”

Whole bean: Bright aromas of mixed berry (raspberry, blueberry) jam.

French press: Not my favorite; this cup had a plasticky aroma. I have come to expect this though from naturally-processed Ethiopian coffees so it wasn’t a surprise.

Chemex: Despite setting this on slightly too fine of a grind (total extraction time was 4:40), this made a smooth cup of coffee that tasted like a combination of milk chocolate and red berries. I enjoyed this very much; the french press cup was harsher tasting in comparison.

AeroPress: Smooth and fuller-bodied than the Chemex cup. I didn’t need to add any water to this. There was a slightly powdery finish to this coffee. It was perhaps a little heavier in texture than the Chemex cup, but they were both appealing in the same ways (smoothness, flavors). The AeroPress is of course a lot quicker to prepare, so that might be the way to go if you’re only making one cup and are impatient!

V60: This method created a cup that was rather muted in flavor. After the lively yet smooth and pleasant Chemex and AeroPress cups, this was not what I was expecting. If the cups were music, the V60 cup was like listening to music through crappy headphones.

Summary: Stick to brewing these beans in an AeroPress (if you’re brewing a single cup) or a Chemex (if you are brewing for multiple people… or for one if you are REALLY thirsty) for the best, most balanced flavors.

From the roaster: Wild berry. Sweet pastry. Buttery.

Porch Culture Coffee Roasters Ethiopia Yirgacheffe Natural

Review: Tweed Coffee Foxtrot Blend (Dallas, Texas)

I usually buy bags of Tweed from Houndstooth Coffee in Dallas (their home cafe), but I happened to come across fresh bags for sale while visiting Oak Lawn Coffee, so it was a win-win situation. For anyone not familiar with Tweed Coffee, they are a major player in the local craft coffee roasting scene here in Dallas; their roastery hosted the first annual Dallas Coffee Day that took place back in October 2015. I have reviewed a few of their other offerings and have been pretty pleased with their beans so far.

Whole bean: Smells like chocolate and candied oranges. Sweet and fresh!

French press: Perky, orange-flavor laden cup with the flavor and body of dark chocolate. As it cooled, the coffee became very smooth and creamy with a vibrant orange flavor – it was vaguely Creamsicle-esque.

Chemex: This had less chocolate flavor; it was a brighter and more acidic cup. The aftertaste was definitely more sugary.

AeroPress: This cup tasted like a combination of orange fruit and orange pith (the white stuff that tastes bitter). Rich body but the flavor was unbalanced. Adding water didn’t really help matters – it just watered down the flavor.

V60: This cup smelled like sugar and orange marmalade. Thin body but very fruity and enjoyable.

Espresso: I opted to experiment a bit with this as an espresso since it is a blend and I was curious if the chocolate/orange flavors would be intensified. Unfortunately, my initial testing was not that promising. The espresso wasn’t bad, but it lacked any notable flavor so I stopped after three rounds.

Summary: I enjoyed this coffee the most in the French press (for the chocolate + orange flavor combination) and the V60 (for the straight up sweet orange flavor).

From the roaster: Chocolate, citrus, balanced

Tweed Online Store

The music on your unique coming-of-age soundtrack.

As a musician, my view on this is no doubt skewed, but based on what I’ve observed among society at large, people develop a deep and personal relationship with the music that they love. The music industry has gone through its ups and downs, but I don’t think I’m wrong in saying that a life without music would be unfathomable to most people! One genre within that umbrella, however, seems to be a no-go zone for many: classical music. What do those two words bring to mind? The answer will vary for everyone, but I think for a large percentage of modern society, the associations are not necessarily positive. Despite its long and storied history, it is an art form that has been fighting to survive in the public consciousness and in the court of public opinion.

In addition to my work as a performer, I also teach 30 private flute students, ranging in age from 11-18 years old. They come to me for flute lessons, to supplement the instruction they get in their band programs at school. Most of these young people will not become professional musicians, and that is fine! I’m not necessarily here to create more flutists. I feel my role as their teacher is to teach them life skills through music (punctuality, responsibility, accountability, time-management, the ability to break a large task into smaller, manageable goals, etc.), as well as showing them the joy and satisfaction of self-expression with this language that expresses more than words ever can.

While I knew that my students generally like music (they wouldn’t be in their school music programs if they didn’t!), I was curious about what my students’ attitude toward classical music would be. I decided to informally poll them, asking them to tell me the first thing that came to mind when I said, “classical music.” Their answers really gave me some food for thought.

Boring.
Old/dead people.
Music from a long, LONG time ago.
Mozart.
Bach.
Beethoven.
Relaxing.
Orchestra.
Piano.
Violin. (Oddly, no one said flute!)
Good to study to.
My parents’/grandparents’ music.
Pretty.
Blue. (I will come back to this particular answer later!)

I then asked them if they ever listened to classical music for fun. Naturally, the ones that said classical music was boring said no. But, even the ones that expressed a liking for it mostly said no as well! A few did say yes, but the majority of my students do not listen to classical music unless they “have to” (for band class, etc.). This then led to me asking if they listened to other kinds of music for fun (pop, rock, hip-hop, R&B, etc.). Not surprisingly, most said yes (several had looks of, “well, DUH” on their faces).

In a previous post on this blog, I mentioned an interview from the Sound Opinions podcast where a representative from the streaming music service Spotify talked about the listening habits of their users. Basically, their research showed that young people (teens, twenty-somethings) kept up with popular music and spent time seeking out new music, but that these habits slow down as people age and by age 33, most people stop looking for new music and they prefer to stick to what they know they like. The music that people fall in love with in their first few decades of life will be music that they love for the rest of their lives.

“Having been brought up in a very musical household, I think anybody who, like me, has a family where everybody listens to music… it is still an incredibly special thing when you first discover some records and bands that are just yours.” Lauren Laverne, BBC 6 Music, February 5, 2016 

When I entered middle school, my small music collection was an assortment of what my parents listened to, what my friends listened to, and what my older sister listened to. I enjoyed music already, but it wasn’t until I discovered my local alternative radio station (KROQ 106.7 in Los Angeles) at age 12 that I started getting obsessive about it. For me, it all started with The Cure and their album Wish. This was a band that no one else I knew liked – this was perhaps the first group that felt like it was uniquely mine. The spring and summer of 1992 felt like a fever dream of discovery as I basically listened to the radio nonstop and discovered the wonderful world of indie, post-punk, and shoegaze music. In a time period where it seemed like all of my preteen classmates were obsessed with grunge and hip-hop, I definitely was an odd duck, not that I particularly cared. There was something kind of satisfying about feeling like I had a musical secret, and how this music felt like a portal into a world where I belonged. My love for these bands continues to this day, over 20 years later. It’s entirely possible that I might still like them if I had only discovered their existence last year. But, I think the fact that I discovered these bands during those important formative years plays a big part as to why this music so much to me. I do buy new releases from new/current bands, and enjoy them (in some cases, immensely!), but if Spotify’s research is correct, it’s going to be the music I listened to from my teens and through my twenties which will mean something particularly special to me throughout my life.

The other musical world I lived in during my youth was the classical music world. I started flute lessons when I was ten years old, and it was an activity that came quite naturally to me. Classical music was something that was always around when I was a kid; my dad loved listening to all sorts of classical music (particularly classical guitar, which he also played). Hearing Luciano Pavarotti, Jascha Heifetz, Vladimir Horowitz, Maria Callas, Pablo Casals, James Galway, and Andres Segovia at home was pretty much a normal everyday activity. However, the classical music that I ended up developing a personal connection to was not the same as what my dad liked. Hearing Esa-Pekka Salonen conducting Sibelius pieces with the LA Philharmonic made me feel like I had found what I had found with shoegaze music when I was 12. I absolutely fell in love with the way that a Mahler symphony can make you feel so small and yet so all-encompassing at the same time. Debussy and Ravel’s music featured some of the most deliciously perfumed harmonies I had ever heard. Later, in graduate school, I became fascinated with the way that minimalist music made time stop and made me feel like I was entering another dimension. This wasn’t my parents’ classical music. This was music that felt uniquely mine.

“Hang the blessed DJ, because the music that they constantly play, it says nothing to me about my life.” The Smiths, “Panic”

Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven. They are classics for a reason, of course. Musical geniuses, visionaries… but my students seem to see them as old hat. It’s music from a long time ago, that they can’t relate to, that doesn’t feel uniquely theirs. I’m generalizing (of course there are people that are deeply passionate about these composers!), but I wanted to show my students that classical music is more, MUCH more, than the narrow definition that most people have of it (Bach through Beethoven, orchestra, piano, etc.).

As an experiment, I chose to play a short excerpt from a recording for my students. The piece I chose for this first week was Steve Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians. Yes, it was a selfish choice because I love it, but I also chose it because I knew most of them would have never heard anything like it. Reactions included the following:

“This isn’t classical music. This sounds cool!”
“What IS this?” (said incredulously)
“I really like this!!” (Three students had this reaction – two are in middle school and one in high school.)
“It’s orange and purple!” (This was from the kid that said classical music was blue. We talked a bit more and figured out that this child is a synesthete. How cool is that?)
“It sounds like we are flying through space!”
“I’m not sure what to think about this. Is this music?” (We then went into a long discussion about what constitutes music. Pretty deep territory!)

A few of my students also made the connection that the cover art to the recording I played for them really looks like the music sounds, which made them appreciate the music on a whole different level. The student with synesthesia expressed a liking for the Reich, so I then hopped on YouTube to play a video of the same composer’s Music for Pieces of Wood which had a series of colorful blocks added to punctuate the different entrances. The student then stated, in that authoritative way so characteristic of 13-year olds, “The colors in this video are ALL wrong.” (I love this so much.)

People have been sounding the death-knell for classical music for a long time. Classical album sales are down. Symphony orchestras are frequently in the news these days with stories of financial troubles, management lockouts and dissolution. However, there are also bright spots. Up from the ashes of the Honolulu and New Mexico Symphony Orchestras rose new orchestras (the Hawai’i Symphony and New Mexico Philharmonic). The Minnesota Orchestra weathered a punishing 15-month lockout at the hands of their management and emerged as an even stronger artistic force with a rabid audience fanbase. In recent seasons, major orchestras like the Cleveland Orchestra, Chicago Symphony, and Dallas Symphony (just to name a few) reported record ticket sales. I know my view is pretty orchestra- and USA-centric; I hope you’ll forgive me that as this is my spiritual and physical home. I think despite the glimmers of hope, everyone agrees that new audiences need to be reached, and key to this is outreach to young people, to help cultivate the next generation of classical music lovers.

My time with my students is too short as it is… approximately 30 minutes (on average) once a week for just seven years of their lives if I’m lucky. We have much that needs to be covered in our lessons: tone, breathing, finger and tongue technique, posture, dealing with nerves, dealing with disappointment, cultivating an inner strength that will carry you through life’s challenges. But I am also hoping to add a love for the creative possibilities of classical music to that list. I want the students I come in contact with to know that classical music isn’t “old music” or “boring,” but that it’s vibrant and exciting and colorful. It’s being written today, at this very moment, by men and women all around the world. It’s important to me that I do this now, when my students are in their teen years and are the most receptive to discovering new music. One thing I’ve learned in my time as a teacher is not to underestimate young people… I’m regularly blown away by things my students teach me!

I plan to play all sorts of things for them, but I will concentrate mostly on living composers, because I want my students to really feel connected to history in the making. I want them to feel like they are part of a larger tradition that started hundreds of years ago and will hopefully continue for hundreds of years after we all depart from this earth. I’m not interested in making them forget about other types of music (heck, just try and take my Ride and Smiths and Nick Drake records away. I dare you). Life is much too short to limit ourselves to one genre! But in an age when many adults feel classical music is unapproachable or elitist or not for them, I want the kids that I see on a weekly basis to feel like classical music (whatever branch of it they most connect with) can be uniquely theirs.

Dr. Margaret Fischer is a freelance flute and piccolo player in the Dallas/Fort Worth area who probably spends way too much time thinking about unanswerable questions. She is privileged to teach a group of inquisitive, bright, receptive kids every week who make her realize how much more there is to learn in the world. She also can’t wait to see what happens when she plays John Luther Adams’ “Become Ocean” for her students this week.

Review: Minipresso manual espresso maker

Note from Margaret: For my first guest post this year, I’m thrilled to feature an equipment review from my dear friend Rosalyn Story!

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As with most coffee lovers who came of age before the Starbucks revolution, my taste in coffee has evolved over time. From the tin of ground Folgers and Butternut in the kitchen cupboard of my childhood to the vending machine-dispensed swill in my college cafeteria, and eventually to the perfect cup of froth-rimmed brew in a Paris café on a trip abroad in my twenties, coffee has kept me alert, productive and happy. But it was never as much about the caffeine as it was about the flavor, and even in those days of canned, pre-ground grocery store roast, I always searched for the best tasting, richest coffee. When Starbucks came onto the scene, raising the coffee bar (no pun intended) it was hardly reminiscent of that perfect Parisian cup, but it was at least a cut above Folgers.Then came the third wave of young baristas – tattooed and pierced millennials mostly – flaunting their skills in crafting the perfect espresso, latté or pour-over. But as hard as it is to believe in these days of ubiquitous high-end coffee shops and passionate connoisseurs, good coffee is still too often hard to come by. One needs to be in a kitchen (equipped with state-of-the-art machinery) or in a shop that has joined the new culture of no-nonsense, quality coffee. Easy enough to find, except when it’s not.

I love to travel, and am constantly lamenting the lack of good espresso on the road. The Minipresso from Wacaco is a cleverly designed palm-sized espresso maker I ran across while cruising the Internet. Small enough to pack into a suitcase, backpack, or purse, and requiring only ground coffee, hot water and a little hand strength, it solves the problem I often encounter – I’m on holiday staying with relatives who either don’t drink coffee, or aren’t as picky as I am; I’m on a 15-minute break at work and there’s no coffee house within walking distance; I’m at a family reunion in the piney woods near Magnolia, Arkansas and – well, enough said about that.

When I got the machine, it took a minute to figure just how to produce a quality espresso. The water temperature had to be just right, parts required preheating, and the grind size had to be well-calculated. And then there was the technique itself. But in time and with patience I was able to ‘pull’ a shot better than anything I’ve gotten at coffee shops that use ‘push-button’ espresso machine, and as good as the coffee in my AeroPress. The technique is surprisingly simple: pour hot water into the 1.5 ounce tank, place 7 grams of ground coffee in the portafilter basket, assemble, and pump the piston about 5 times. Pause a few seconds (for proper infusion) then pump another 10-15 times. The result: a very nice shot of espresso with good flavor and an impressive crema.

There were a couple of things I learned in the process of honing my technique: the water must be at a rolling boil (at least 212 degrees), so when it hits the cool apparatus it will not dip below 190-205 degrees. The grind must be fine enough for espresso but not so fine that it puts too much pressure on the pump. The tank and group head should be pre-heated with a little of the boiling water.

If done properly, the espresso produced is as good as from any ‘pressurized-basket’ machine I’ve seen. While a pressurized portafilter, normally found in entry level espresso machines, may not deliver the subtle range of notes and complexity of flavor as shots from the more expensive non-pressurized portafilter machines, it also doesn’t require the level of finesse and skill. Still, you will get a smooth, consistent cup of espresso. While extremely well-designed, the Minipresso is still new, and improving.

A larger water tank is now being offered, and questions about cleaning and descaling are being addressed by the manufacturer. With a high quality but mostly plastic body, long-term durability is an obvious concern. I would love to see a Minipresso someday made of stainless steel, and at $59 total per unit when ordered from it’s manufacturer Wacaco (and $64 on amazon) I would happily pay a little more for such an improvement. That said, the Minipresso is impressive in sheer quality of engineering and smart design. While the shots can’t compete with a $800 Gaggia or Rancilio Silvia for complexity and depth of flavor, who in their right mind would expect that? For the convenience of portability and a very satisfying flavor, the Minipresso is a dandy espresso maker that holds its own again machines several times its size and price.

Wacaco Minipresso

Rosalyn Story is a violinist and writer in Dallas, Texas.

Review: Commonwealth Ontology Espresso (Denver, Colorado)

Along with Houndstooth Coffee, Oak Lawn Coffee is one of my go-to places in Dallas for picking up high-quality, FRESH coffee beans. It’s a pity I live so far from both of these shops (30-40 minutes on a good day!). Thankfully, I was in the area for work and was able to pick up this bag from Commonwealth along with a bag of Tweed Foxtrot blend (review forthcoming).

Side note: The barista offered me a free drip coffee with the purchase of my beans, and even though it was 6:30 pm, I said yes. I mean, it’s free coffee! I got a to-go cup of their drip, and walked out of the shop. Before I even got to my car, I took a sip of the drip and turned around and walked right back into the shop, because I was delighted with the flavor in the cup (“What IS this??? This is DELICIOUS!!”). It was the Commonwealth Colombia Narino Carlos Munoz, and it was like creamy milk chocolate and tangerine and sweet fruit notes. So delicious… I hope they have it the next time I’m in the shop because this warrants further tasting.

Whole bean: Creamy, vaguely fruity aroma. Not much to talk about, actually… I have experienced beans that give off a lot more aroma than this, but I have also found that how coffee beans smell don’t necessarily equate to how they taste.

Espresso: I pulled these shots between 5-7 days post roast. Initially, I was unnerved by how light the streams were from my portafilter, because I was thinking the espresso was reaching its blonding point rather quickly! However, I soon realized that this espresso roast is a bit lighter than what I’m used to (especially after those Third Coast beans I pulled recently), so the lighter stream color was completely normal. This blend is a mix of the Colombia Carlos Munoz and an Ethiopia Yirgacheffe Kochere, and in the cup, you can REALLY taste what the Ethiopian beans bring to the table. At 201 F, there was an intoxicating berry scent to the espresso and it was full of blackberry and chocolate flavor. Not bad at all! I usually go for more straight chocolate/caramel/toffee notes in espresso, but found the blackberry in this one very interesting. When I pulled shots at higher temperatures, the blackberry note disappeared, and I found that I really missed it. Back to 201 F then!

Favorite parameters for this blend: 18 g in, normale shot @ 25 seconds, 201 degrees F.

With milk: I’m off dairy for a little while, so I made Shutterbug my guinea pig on this. Based on a hunch I had, I opted to make him a honey latte instead of a plain one, because the combination of honey and blackberries is to die for (especially served on top of Greek yogurt). This was a hit!

AeroPress: I was underwhelmed by this coffee in an AeroPress. Straight out of the brewer, the coffee had a great mouthfeel, but it was a little unbalanced tasting – it had some chocolate and blueberry flavor but it also tasted like the stems from a blueberry plant. I added just a touch of water and while it made the coffee smoother, it also made it blander. The lack of balance and complexity was disappointing. Stick to pulling this as true espresso.

Summary: Nice espresso blend that definitely leans toward the fruitier side in flavor. Try it with honey in a latte – it is delicious!

From the roaster: Jasmine, plum, caramel, baker’s chocolate

Commonwealth Ontology Espresso