Apr 142014
It's 7AM somewhere

Puck yeah, it’s 7AM somewhere!

Coffee lovers are as passionate about the pursuit of the perfect cup as craft brewers or wine producers are about their beverages. Coffee has more than a thousand volatile compounds and methods of bringing flavors into play than any other drink. There are literally flavors that have never been tasted because the process for preparing a cup of coffee has never been perfected.

At the Zhou B Art Center on Saturday, I was surrounded by roasters, brewers, manufacturers, and coffee enthusiasts of every level of interest. All were in pursuit of that perfect cup.

Comparing coffee flavors

Comparing coffees

The headliner for the event was George Howell, who hosted a premium class for attendees. Howell shared his in-depth knowledge about the farming, preparation, and consumption of coffee, and then encouraged coffee-lovers taste the different flavor profiles. Over the course of two hours, we experienced how terroir, elevation, and even brew temperatures all have an impact on the outcome of a cup of coffee. I found the real value of the class was in mixing lecture with tastings to reinforce concepts.

Afterwards, I sought out the classes offered with general attendance to learn what more I could do, as an at-home brewer, to achieve perfection. There were a great mix of topics that included everything from types of coffee to water quality. I started with the grind.

Coffee Beans

Beans, ready for the grind

A great cup of coffee requires a great grind, and brewer Charles Sarin had plenty to share on what to look for in a grinder and how to get the most out of it. Burr grinders are a must because these create the maximum surface area for brewing. Blade grinders tend to press beans and heat them up, which can cook volatile compounds. Sarin endorsed the Kitchen Aid A9, but preferred the Hobarts that pre-dated them. Most of the coffee vendors there were using or stated a preference for the Breville Conical Burr. Me? I need to upgrade.

He did note that comparing models is tricky, because there is no industry standard for grind fineness. Each manufacturer has their own measure. This can even change on the machine if the burrs are ever swapped out. Which, according to Sarin, should be done periodically or run the risk of inconsistent grinds.

The finer points of grinding beans included using a conical grinder to maximize contact and starting the grinder before adding coffee to give the motor. This gives the grinder a chance to achieve its proper speed and lessens the risk of rogue beans gumming up the works. After that, experiment with length of time to achieve the desired fineness.

Different brewers require different grinding times — French Press uses a course grind, whereas Turkish coffee uses the smallest “fines” a grinder can achieve. BTW, all beans should be given two days before grinding in order to gas off the CO2, darker roasts may need up to four days. Freshness is important but too much and your coffee will foam.

Syphon method

Using the syphon method of brewing coffee.

Joshua Dugue, from Counter Culture Coffee, gave an in-depth session on manual brewing methods including drip cone, kalita wave, espresso press, and siphon. I walked in as he discussed the math behind how to achieve ideal brew weight (1 ounce of coffee to 16 ounces of water), and conversions between volume and weight measures. The amount of information seemed almost too much to consider for a 6AM cup. Do I consistency brew between 195 – 205 degrees every morning? I have the jitters just thinking about it.

While Dugue strives for a perfect cup and can go into excruciating detail about how to achieve it, he also made a point of offering easy and practical advice for the at-home brewer along the way. He also stressed that while the theater of a $400 siphon brewer may bring out the “clarity” in the coffee, a pour-over method would have more body. Not necessarily better, just different.

If you want to go out for a cup of coffee, it’s a great time to be in Chicago. Dugue’s recommendations included Gaslight or Ellipsis, and though you can throw a rock and hit one, Starbucks didn’t make his list because they strive for “consistency” versus a more artisanal approach.

If you want to pick his brains, Dugue offers free coffee classes and tastings for the public every Friday morning at 10AM at 177 North Ada. I recommend bringing your toughest coffee conundrums for him to solve.

Coffee Beans

Discussing the different roasts of Sumutra Coffee Beans

The trade show also offered opportunities to see different pieces of equipment in action, try samples from area roasters, and to learn about the depth and variety of coffee in Chicago.

I was particularly taken with I Have a Bean, a company from Wheaton that emphasizes small-batch, fresh roasted coffee. Not only do they produce fantastic coffee, they also embrace a strong social mission to provide employment opportunities to former felons. I think of it as “warm + fuzzy” rolled up into a cup of coffee.

While some vendors did have chocolate or pastries, if you wanted to balance out your caffeine consumption, there were a number of food trucks in attendance in the parking lot. Tamale Spaceship and Husky Hog with their meaty menus, and Bridgeport Pastry had more sweets. I felt vegetarian coffee drinkers were left out a bit, which was my only complaint about the event.

The venue was great, the speakers were in-depth and knowledgeable, and I left a wee bit shaky. Thanks to CoffeeCon, I’m sure my perfect cup is on the horizon somewhere.

Lunch time Options

Balance caffeine with a little BBQ. Or a taco.

I was not financially compensated for this post. Access was granted to me as a member of the media. The opinions are completely my own based on my experience.

Mar 262014

4/4/14 Update: Congratulations to Jennifer, who will enjoy her coffee black at Coffee-Con on April 12! Thanks to everyone who entered!

LaVazza Coffee

Want to learn more about your favorite morning beverage? Then make plans to attend Coffee-Con on April 12, 2014 at the Zhou B Art Center (1029 West 35th Street)! This day of tastings, speakers, and classes will cover the full range of coffee subjects from latte art to the proper grind. It promises to enrich your coffee experience more than a bottomless cup.

Sign-up today with promo code “ChiBites” and receive $2 off the $20 registration.

Or, if you’re feeling especially caffeinated, leave a comment with how you take your coffee. I will draw a random winner to receive 2 free passes to the event on April 4, 2014. You have until I finish my morning cup (lotsa cream, lotsa sugar) to enter.


Mar 172014
Local Brands

You could meet the producers of local brands as well as purchase items to take home.

The exposure to new ideas in food and reminders about tried and true methods make the Good Food Festival a great event. Even after ten years, I still gather a lengthly list of new foods to try, books to read, and culinary adventures to concoct in my kitchen. I also leave with a renewed sense of community from people — chefs, farmers, producers, and consumers — who care deeply about good food. This festival provides a road map to how to get what’s good.

Going Whole Hog

Home Butchery & Curing

Who wants to start the day with a whole Duroc splayed and waiting to be butchered?

Co-author of Charcuterie and Salumi, Michael Ruhlman, opened class with a tribute to farmer Greg Gunthorp from Gunthorp Farms, and talked about the importance of farmers who raise animals humanely, “We should erect statues in their honor.” Ruhlman also stressed that the need to support the market for quality food is equally important, and lies in the hands of consumers who vote with their dollars, “Every time you buy shitty food, you are asking for more of it.” Indeed.

Chef Brian Polycn

Chef Brian Polcyn hams it up.

Before he lifted a knife, Chef Brian Polcyn inspected the pig and asked questions about care of the animal, details of its diet, and how it had been exercised. It was interesting because over the course of the class, this minutia formed his decisions the cuts and how he would use the meat in dishes. Chef then set the table with the head, “I like to have the pig watch itself be butchered. Makes the meat more tender.

Using only a knife and his cutting humor, he sliced one side of the hog into eight cuts (jowl, neck/shoulder/loin, shoulder, back fat, loin, tenderloin, belly, ham/back leg, leftovers for salami), taking about 40 minutes to get the most out of the animal and an additional 20 to answer questions and to talk through the finer points of butchering hogs.

He then used a USDA approved method that involved a bone saw to get four cuts of hog from the other half. The second method took just under four minutes but produced more waste and utilized less. In the end, each side will taste the same, but he pointed out that he would make far more money as a chef by butchering and curing his the hog using the first method.

I wouldn’t say I was ready to butcher by the end of the class, but my respect for the craft certainly increased.

Time for a drink. Or two.

The Locapour's Cocktail Bar

Preserving fruit for its best purpose. Cocktails.

The afternoon sessions both involved alcohol. Jeanette Dainty from NessAlla Kombucha and Derrick Mancini from Quincy Street Distillery joined forces with author Kevin West to talk about preserving fruits with alcohol and using them in cocktails. The samples alone made the session worth it, but I came away with the resolve to make green walnut liqueur (nocino) and shrubs at home. Kevin’s book, Saving the Season, is on track to become my new bible this spring when I start to make pickles, vinegars, jams, and liqueur.

Chicago Brew Werks

Hoptastic demo by Chicago Brew Werks

I’ve never considered making beer at home, but Brando Wright from Chicago Brew Werks has me convinced I can do it. Even if I never muster the gumption to brew, simply knowing the variations in each step the process as well as the freshness and provenance of the ingredients, gave me renewed appreciation for what commercial breweries are able to achieve. The class also gave me a better vocabulary to discuss beer, variations in process, and ultimately how to enjoy it more. If you have the opportunity, take a class with Brando.

Fresh Eggs

Fresh Eggs from all manner of fowl.

Between classes, I took time to walk through the Good Food Commons and browse through the growing number of CSA’s, brands, and local Chicago food producers. I picked up packs of organic seeds, tried barbecue potato chip chocolates, and learned what I had been doing wrong with my compost (not enough moisture).

The Good Food Festival is already on my calendar for next year. And in the meantime, I have new tools to use to my own food experience even better. Did you go this year? I hope you’ll share what you loved!