Saturday, December 19, 2009

Espresso, Panettone and My Soapbox

I am just back from La Divina on Magazine Street, where the Society of New Orleans Baristas (S.N.O.B) were preparing for the South Central Regional Barista Competition coming up in January in Austin, TX by offering free, beautifully pulled espressos to one and all.    I got a chance to talk to Drew Cambre (a New Orleans barista) and Kirk Knipmeyer (of Coffee Roasters of New Orleans) about S.N.O.B. and their endeavor to better the coffee scene in New Orleans.  Their goal, they say, is to improve the quality of coffee and espresso everywhere in New Orleans, so that you can be sure to get an excellent cup no matter where in the city you go.

As I sipped a stunningly lovely shot of espresso, pulled on a Cimbali machine by talented barista Anderson, I learned more about S.N.O.B. and the Barista Competition.

S.N.O.B. is an independent collective of baristas from many local New Orleans coffee houses who share a passion for the art of coffee and are "preaching the gospel of espresso".  They meet weekly at Dee's Coffee on Baronne.  Baristas from the city's best coffee spots are represented including Dee's, Z'otz (on Oak St), La Divina (with locations on Magazine Uptown and on St. Peter in the French Quarter) and Tout de Suite Cafe in Old Algiers.  2010 will be the first time that more than one barista from the entire state of Louisiana will compete in the South Central Regional Barista Competition.  This is strange, considering that New Orleans is the largest coffee port in the nation, with 14 warehouses, more than 5.5 million feet of storage space and six roasting facilities in a 20 mile radius.  S.N.O.B. is hopeful that if they can get enough baristas from Louisiana to compete, the next competition will be held in New Orleans.

S.N.O.B. believes that New Orleans should demand more from their local coffee houses and I have to wholeheartedly agree.  The coffee culture in New Orleans is far from where it could or should be.  Drew says that the key is to communicate our expectations to the baristas and management at our favorite haunts.  Don't accept sub par espresso.  Do something about it!  Tell your barista when your espresso is bitter or doesn't have the beautifully caramel colored head of foamy crema that it should.  Speak up when you are served coffee that lacks depth and flavor or has been sitting past its prime. If you aren't sure whether you are getting quality brew or not, just visit any of the excellent establishments listed in this post for an example of what you are missing.  Then, go back to your favorite coffee house and let them know what is lacking.  Tell them that you expect better.  Tell them that the bar is higher than what you are getting.  We expect good ingredients, prepared properly.  This is not too much to ask!  Communicating these expectations is crucial and even more valuable than simply avoiding the establishments that can't meet them.  It tells them that their customers care and what they can do to improve.  Complacency is an epidemic in our beloved city, affecting everything from coffee and cuisine to politics and crime.  Only we, the average, every day citizen, can do anything about it.


Now that I've got that off my chest, I've also got to say that if you are looking for excellent coffee beans for brewing at home, La Divina is a great spot to get it.  I've been getting my espresso beans and their Windsor Court roast (they use it for their French presses) from them for quite a while and couldn't be more pleased.  They also have panettone, a Milanese Christmas bread, from Flamigni, one of Italy's top panettone makers.  These small, rustic cakes are housed in charming cartons designed to be hung on the Christmas tree and then eaten on Christmas Day with coffee or tea.  I sampled some while I was there and had to get one for my own tree.

Now, I just have to convince myself to wait til Christmas to open it!


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