If you didn’t know, I started a new Tumblr. 



“Napa and red cabbage, lettuce, chicken and wontons tossed with scallions, cilantro, sesame seeds and hoisin ginger vinaigrette.”

I can’t exactly explain why. Maybe it’s because I’ve had them so often for so many years, but there are two Asian Chicken Salads that are the definitive…

Dave Chappelle, Bicyclists, and Baristas: On Unrealistic Expectations


Trish and I had tickets to the Dave Chappelle “Oddball Comedy Festival” a couple weeks ago. Damn it, I got us some pretty good seats! Unfortunately, there was a scheduling conflict that drew us to Seattle on that weekend, so the spoils of my speedy mouse-clicks and page refresh timing skills ended up first-served to the first-come Craigslist respondent for a blow-softening $50 premium. Good outcome, but still a bummer.

Coincidentally that same day, news spread about a Chappelle “meltdown” in Connecticut. There’s been no video released of that show, but reports say that he took the stage, started his act, got “heckled,” and finished out his contractually-obligated time with what amounted to a comedian’s filibuster. Instead of delaying a vote on a bill, Chappelle was out to punish and to protest.

Now stand-up has been an occasional fancy for me. While I’ve never gotten it together and taken a stage, I like to think about it in the way we all fantasize about doing something as good if not better than those you see doing it professionally without having done anything to deserve that dickish attitude. Still, I think I’ve paid above-average attention to the stand-up comedy scene. Maybe I’ll get a routine together someday but probably not don’t be ridiculous though you never know nevermind.

When a stand-up routine is going well, it’s a fluid comic call and answer with laughter as punctuation. A long, protracted crowd-laughter is like a period. A comma is a light laughter from a smattering of giggly people. A new paragraph comes with a thunderous roar. The one thing about the Chappelle melt-down story that sticks out to me is the fact that there was a clear disconnect between the audience and the comic. Simply put, the audience wasn’t following the rules.

Calling out to the comic, shouting out catchphrases and lines from old bits. Beseeching and adulating. Whooping and hollerin’. I mean really, what’s wrong with these people?

But it begs the question, rules? What rules? Who makes the rules? Are they written rules? Why are there these rules? 

Lastly, how is anyone supposed to learn the rules?

To Chappelle, the audience was engaged in bad behavior. Logically, nobody in that audience paid money for the opportunity to get Chappelle to stop performing. What they (or specifically, the so-called “hecklers”) were attempting was to engage in the experience in an enjoyable way, influenced by what was going on around them, based on prior experience and their conception of what’s okay to do in that setting. We’ve all seen clips of comics responding to individuals yelling stuff out from the crowd. We’ve even seen comics directly engaging people in the audience, even to the now clichéd take-their-cell-phone bit. But my above-average stand-up interest has taught me that it’s really only ‘allowed’ when the comic is inviting, initiating, or at least clearly consenting it. Outside of that, no means no, and no-engagement means no.

But how is everyone really supposed to know this?

Coffee has changed a lot over the past three decades. Perhaps in a Moore’s Law-type acceleration of development, cycles in trends and such in specialty coffee seem to come more often and more intensely. During the recent decade as the third-wave of coffee has started taking real shape, the dialogue between the industry and the consumer base has been mostly defined by identified problems and frictions, even as our leading-edge segment slowly grows in market-share and rapidly in awareness.

We talk about customers that “get it,” and those who don’t. We scoff at customers who request more second-wave stalwarts like hazelnut flavor or Sweet’N Low. We tire of having to explain again and again our coffee selections and defend again and again our service decisions. The constant coffee apologist mantle can indeed be a wearisome one, and some people are simply better suited for it than others. 

But when our fatigue turns to hubris and we demand in subtle and less-subtle ways that those who walk into our coffee shops come with certain preconditions: that they “get it,” or are completely wide open for it, or at the very least come without inconvenient predilections, we’re embedded in unrealistic expectations. We want what we want, without really having done anything to deserve the right to demand such.

There are certain requirements to earning a drivers’ license, not the least of which is proof that you understand the relevant traffic laws. This is less about keeping the drivers’ club exclusive, more about public safety. If a driver doesn’t know that a red traffic light means STOP, it puts real lives at risk. But bicyclists have no such requirement. 

If you were to assume that most automobile drivers are aware of most typical traffic laws, I think it’s similarly safe to assume that a fewer number of drivers are aware of the laws that pertain to driving and bicycles. An even smaller percentage of bicyclists, at least by my limited observation, experience, and logic, appear to understand or care to abide by bicycling laws. Why would they, when there’s no legal requirement to prove you understand them?

Short of such a law, the next best thing would be for basic sociological forces to put pressure on drivers and bicyclists to learn, understand, and abide by the rules of the road, both the legal and casual ones. Right now, there doesn’t seem to be a strong movement of that sort. So what options are left?

Simply, bicyclists need to be more careful for their own safety, and automobile drivers need to be extra-cautious around the less-protected bicyclists out there. That too, would be great, but the onus on the automobile driver would be one of benevolence, less about self-interest. Only the bicyclist can really take care of her or him self. Demanding that drivers of cars have learned, understand, and demonstrate how to share the road with bicyclists is perhaps a worthwhile political issue. Expecting such, however, can get you killed.

There are a number of factors that these examples, stand-up comics, bicyclists, and baristas, having in common. There are not, despite our best wishes, well-established, well-communicated, and well-understood rules or even societal norms guiding relevant behaviors. There are, however and apparently, certain expectations that the corresponding sides on each bring to the table (comics and audiences, bicyclists and drivers, baristas and coffee consumers), and associated risks and rewards to those expectations. However, as in most human conflict, while there is shared responsibility on both sides, the keys to real solutions lie solely in the hands of one party. 

Bicyclists need to do their best to follow the typical rules of the road, that help others predict behaviors. Stand-up comics need to either get over themselves, or actually work harder to inform the public of their rules. Baristas need to abandon our expectations about what customers should know, or get to work on a worldwide publicity campaign about whatever the hell it is that we think people need to know about coffee. 

But ultimately, it’s doubtful Chappelle will put out his rules, because it would be admitting he indeed expected unrealistically. Similarly, it’s doubtful that specialty coffee would be able to collaborate in a way that might result in such a campaign. We’re too diverse, competitive, and paranoid to engage in that high a level of coordination. That leaves abandonment. Abandon your expectations. Allow our customers to be who they are. Meet them where they are, and give them the best we can. Unless you saw them on a bicycle, blowing through a stop sign. Then eff ‘em.

Then if the collective efforts of all involved push us past the tipping point and over to being something the public generally understands, we might enjoy a more frequently easy experience serving, and our customers might have a more frequently enjoyable service experience. We’ve got a long way to go though, and there’s no fake-it-til-you-make-it for this. 

"Questions For An Old Lady" starring Penelope Cho (at Ferry Building)

My Twitter @’s were suddenly blowing up. I think I figured out why.

My Twitter @’s were suddenly blowing up. I think I figured out why.

Vine dump!

Today we made some really great Vines. Enjoy!
(click the speaker-icon for sound for each)

Mortgaging our values

(Response to Stephen Wade, by request)

Great blog post from Stephen, with a lot of good thoughts and points.

I don’t have a ton to say about this… well, I guess that’s bullshit. I do have a ton to say about this, but I don’t have a lot of time to write too much right now. I’ll write this much though:

Capitalism is a great thing, except when it’s not so great. Obviously this is a meaningless statement, and you could say that about anything really. Point is, capitalism is a great economic model that can resolve a great many issues. But there are limits, and we struggle with those limits when we try to reconcile capitalistic forces with things that it’s not very well suited for.

Quality is relatively easy. Higher quality can attract higher demand which will attract higher prices. But for many of us living in more developed economies, we might have the apparent luxury of additional considerations in our markets, like supply chain or manufacturing issues regarding ethics or sustainability. The problem is that these are less suited for letting capitalistic market forces rule. In fact, one might say that you’re trying to apply capitalistic market forces to something fundamentally socialist in nature.

When it comes to the marketing of ethics or sustainability, we’re staring this awkward amalgamation in the face. When we as businesses try to explain our ethics or sustainability, we’re taking values that (perhaps by definition) we should be guided by regardless of whether anyone’s paying attention or not, and we’re asking for attention. By asking for attention, we’ve taken some of the value of actually adhering to our ethics, and mortgaged it in for the value that comes from declaring that we do so.

Then comes our competition, who see us marketing our values and ethics, so they feel the need to market their values and ethics. Now the market has increased the incentive for people to be deceptive or misleading about what their practices actually are, relative to their stated values and ethics.

This all points to a final thought. What’s more important in our specialty coffee industry marketplace, the quality of coffee, or the messaging around coffee quality? What’s more important: our ethics, or the marketing of our ethics? The fact is that former is more important… but the latter is more valuable to businesses. That’s the conundrum we all face.


Jon competed at the North Central Regional Brewers Cup competition a week or two ago, and due to his hard work and some great coffee, he found himself in the finals round. His brew method of choice was Beehouse pourover drippers, and his brew recipe was 10.5 grams of coffee to 174 grams of water.

I’ve gotten a lot of emails and such from folks wanting to know what the conclusions were here.

The answer is: inconclusive.

My theory, based on the evidence, was that Jon poured the coffee for the third judge (even though he said he wouldn’t). Having a relatively undisturbed pourover brew, it’s highly probable that the lower part of his brew was a significantly higher TDS than the higher part that he poured off. However, I’ve gotten emails from a number of people who were on site, as well as those who were actually involved in the competition management that day, all of which contradict each other in some meaningful way.

So in short, I guess we’ll never know what really happened.

For better or for worse, it doesn’t really matter anyway. The Brewers Cup rules specifically state that you have to serve your coffee in one complete portion, which Jon didn’t for the third judge, albeit obviously as a mistake.

So thanks for all the guesses. Hope it was fun and informative in either case!

A little request

When we talk about a certain coffee shop, can we please stop referring to them as some company’s wholesale account?

“Have you been to that shop, ‘XYZ Coffee?’ They’re a Wrecking Ball account.”

People don’t appreciate always being referred to as someone’s son, someone’s daughter, someone’s wife or husband… because if it happens often enough, it starts to seem that being someone’s something is their most defining characteristic. It’s a lot like referring to people by their race (“You know Nick Cho, that Asian guy”), some feature (“You know Nick Cho? That guy with the grotesquely large head.”) or any other such thing. People deserve the freedom from that, and the freedom to have their own identities. I think coffee shops deserve the same.

A shop is much, much more than just an outlet for a certain coffee roasting company (or companies). They deserve their own identity, character, culture, and tastes. Obviously, we mean no harm when mentioning whose coffee a particular shop is serving, but maybe if we stopped automatically adding the name of the roasting company as if it was their last name, it would help us all both appreciate the shops for who they are, and show a little respect in the process.

Strada EP Pressure Loop Modification



There’s no doubt: the La Marzocco Strada EP is a fantastic espresso machine. Aside from the beautiful design (particularly the exposed groups) and standard Strada features, the EP version includes a few extra bells and whistles that justifies the premium price.

The steam wands are regulated by a special solenoid valve, rather than a mechanical valve, which for reasons I’m not 100% clear about, seems to result in a “drier” steam that adds less water weight to the milk. Rather than the paddle-controlled mechanical valve of the standard MP version, the EP features an analog electronic paddle. Each of the groups is driven by an internal gear pump, and you can program in four different pressure profiles. This allows for unprecedented control over the brew water pressure as each shot progresses.

That said, there’s one little thing about the Strada EP that I don’t really love, and I’m thankful that I’ve come across a modification that resolves the issue. Before explaining it, some background is in order.

When talking about coffee-making equipment factors like “brew water temperature” or “brew pressure,” need to know exactly what we’re talking about, and exactly what information the machines and accessories are providing us. 

When we have a thermostat in our homes, it’s important to know that the thermostat is measuring the temperature of wherever the thermostat is mounted. Sometimes it’s mounted in a good spot that is a good representation of the temperature that is most relevant to you. Sometimes, it isn’t, and your heating or cooling is a constant source of discomfort and annoyance.

Similarly, “brew water temperature” could be measured in a number of different spots in the machine, with each spot being a different specific temperature at any given moment, with a wide range of temperatures that would surprise many people. The best and most relevant spot to mount a thermocouple (a certain type of digital thermometer) would be right at or above the portafilter basket somewhere. However, that’s a physically difficult place to mount such a thing. So instead, they’ll mount the thermocouple in a more convenient spot, and program in an offset to make up for the typical discrepancy between the point of use (shower screen) and the thermocouple point. That offset can be as much as 10°F (5.5°F) or more.

Pressure is a little easier. If the water pressure is at 123 psi (8.5 bar) in one part of the open system, it’s going to be 123 psi in a different spot in the same system. Bends and tubes and narrowing and such can change that a bit, but in general, pressure is distributed evenly. For an espresso machine, this is pretty much true everywhere in a brew group between the pump and the coffee in the portafilter. But what about that coffee in the portafilter?

In that coffee “puck,” there’s a pressure gradient. Below the portafilter basket, (at sea level) the pressure is 1 bar (14.5 psi), since it’s in “normal” atmospheric pressure at that point. Above the coffee puck, let’s say it’s 8.5 bar. Within the puck, there’s a gradient that transitions from the 8.5 bar to 1 bar. It’s not evenly distributed downward through the puck, instead the majority of the transition happens mostly at the very bottom of the puck. But that’s all with coffee in a portafilter.

If you had, instead, a blind filter (basket with no holes) in the portafilter, and you turned on the group, the resulting pressure would be a little higher than 8.5 bar. Because there’s no pressure drop out of the portafilter, your net pressure would be higher. Not a LOT higher, because of the way the pumps work.


On the Strada EP, rather than a vane pump like every other La Marzocco on the market, each group has a gear pump, and a pressure transducer (pressure measurement sensor). When you program in a pressure profile, the software takes the data from the pressure sensor, and saves it into memory. When you playback a pressure profile, the software works to replicate that same pressure sensor data by controlling the pump, which in turn it controls by adjusting the voltage sent to that pump. That makes a lot of sense, doesn’t it?

There’s a different way that the machine could work. Instead of having the software replicate the same pressure data, it could just replicate the pump voltage.

Let’s go back to the normal EP setting, where it works to replicate the pressure data. You dial in the pressure with a particular coffee, roasted a particular way, ground on a particular grind setting, a particular dose (amount of coffee grounds), and a specific lateral distribution. As you replicate that pressure profile throughout the work day, you’ve very often changed one or more of those coffee variables. 

If you change only one variable: use less coffee, the pump will have to work harder to create a little more pressure to make up for the slightly lower resistance from the coffee. If you grind finer, then the pump will generate slightly less pressure, since the coffee has a higher amount of resistance to the water flow.

So what happens if your distribution develops the fearsome “channeling?” If, with all other things being equal, there’s an area of the puck that results in a “channel,” or a path of less resistance through which more water flows through than the other parts of the coffee puck, what would happen? Well, on an average espresso machine, the pump being “dumb” and not directly responsive to changing conditions, there will be a bit of overextraction of that part of the coffee mass, and a corresponding underextraction throughout the other areas. But the Strada EP is not an average espresso machine. 

So what does the EP do when it encounters a channel? The pump will generate more pressure to make up for the pressure loss, effectively making the channel worse.

All of this background is to set this up: there’s a modification that changes this. MORE DETAIL HERE

If you change these control board jumper settings (you need one extra jumper), it effectively defeats the transducer-pump feedback loop and the pressure profile that you program in controls the voltage of the gear pump only. 

To be clear: because the gear pump does not work to reproduce a specific pressure anymore, differences in your coffee puck will result in different numbers on the pressure LCD display. However, you might choose to relax a bit, since that’s the way pretty much every other espresso machine actually works. The group pressure transducer gives us a bit of information that we’d otherwise never have access to, so we really have to manage our expectations about how that information is going to look.


At our Wrecking Ball Coffee bar in San Francisco, we’ve been running our 2-group Strada EP this way for almost two months now, and the machine is much more user-friendly. We still have unprecedented pressure profiling, but without the additional element of the feedback dynamic. When there’s channeling, it’s a typical channeling. When we make coffee-related adjustments, the “peak” pressure on the display is often different than before. But, most importantly, the coffee is more consistently delicious.

If you’ve read this far, you’re a freaking nerd and you need to get a life, dude.

Despite the disclaimer that this post started with, thanks to Scott Guglielmino from La Marzocco USA for providing me with the jumper settings. If you choose to do this mod, and you like what the results are, and you’d like to show any appreciation, please do so with a small donation to Food for Farmers. Also, I’d love to hear your results.

Encyclopedia Brown and the Case of the Mysterious Brew Strength

Jon competed at the North Central Regional Brewers Cup competition a week or two ago, and due to his hard work and some great coffee, he found himself in the finals round. His brew method of choice was Beehouse pourover drippers, and his brew recipe was 10.5 grams of coffee to 174 grams of water.

His judges’ scores placed him in 2nd place overall in the finals, but there was a problem: one of this three cups was measured to have a brew strength* TDS of 2.2%! The other two were 1.32% and 1.37% respectively. The 2.2% cup was, by the competition rules, disqualified for being over 2.0% and it put Jon at 6th place.

2.2% makes no sense. Unless Jon had severely misjudged the amount of coffee he was using in that third brew, something was amiss. 2.2% strength with 10.5 grams of coffee and 174 grams of water results in an off-the-charts extraction yield of about 35%, which is, at least by the proverbial ‘book,’ impossible. Only about 30% of coffee is soluble, and if he were to brew it completely (which is also almost impossible under those conditions), there’s no way that the judge would have scored it as well as he did.

Talking with the competition organizers, they checked and re-checked the TDS measurements multiple times, particularly because the DQ-inducing brew strength reading. It’s not something they take lightly, and after some investigation, the TDS measurement was absolutely taken properly, and the measurement is accurate.

Lucky for us, we have video of the Jon’s finals presentation. Skip to the 03:01:17 point in the video and watch Jon’s set up and presentation. (direct link


The CHALLENGE: What happened? Why did Jon’s one cup measure 2.2%? Using the Brewers Cup Rules & Regulations, your knowledge about coffee brewing, and the video evidence provided, see if you can solve the mystery. To be clear: I believe I’ve solved the mystery, and am 98% sure about my conclusions. Can you solve it too? Email your answer to: contest@wbcr.us. A winner will be selected at random from correct entries. Employees and friends-with-benefits of Wormhole, Halfwit, or Gaslight Coffee companies are not eligible to enter.

THE PRIZE: A Kalita Wave brew kit, a selection of Wrecking Ball coffee, and international bragging rights. (Only countries that we can ship parcel post to are eligible)

Good luck, detectives!!!

* for the less nerdy, “brew strength TDS” pertains to the percentage of the finished beverage that is made up of coffee solubles. The remaining 90-something percent will be water. “Extraction yield” pertains to the proportion of the mass of the coffee grounds used that has dissolved into the water, yielding the delicious beverage.