Sunday, November 25, 2007

Java Passport

We sample a lot of coffee. Most of it is good, but every once in a while, we find one that just jumps up off the cupping table and makes itself known. Those are the coffees that I add to our portfolio. If you're the adventurous type and not too shy to try something new, we think that you'll find the Java Passport to be your cup of tea, so to speak.

The Java Passport is simple and it works like this: you tell us how much and how often you want your coffee, we make a selection from our exceptional coffees, custom-roast it, and ship it out to you.

I realize that in this day of choice, the idea of letting someone else choose is anathema, but you gotta trust me on this one. We won't send you crap. If you're game, click here for the order form.

Each selection will come with tasting notes and information about the farm or region from where the coffee comes. So pack your bags, grab your travel mug, and join us as we explore the world through the little brown bean.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Saturday Night's Alright for Roasting

Cooling it down
20lbs of Papua New Guinea in the cooling tray

As I walked out to the roastery, the crisp night air reminded me that winter had finally arrived. I lit the roaster to warm it up while I weighed out the coffee… 20 pounds of Papua New Guinea and 20 pounds of Bugle Blend. With its 75,000 BTUs of heating power, the roaster broke the chill in the room as it came up to temperature. I loaded up the hopper and let the green coffee drop into the drum with a whoosh. The coffee began its rhythmic shoosh-shoosh as it was tossed about inside the drum. I plotted the time/temperature profile, adjusting the flame as the roast progressed. Every few seconds, I could see a little finger of flame peek out from the fire box. Soft pops, not unlike the sound of popcorn, signaled that the coffee was entering first crack, when the remaining moisture in the bean bursts out in a puff of steam. The scent of grass changed to bread as the coffee darkened and neared the final stage of roasting. I pulled a sample of beans, looked... smelled… close, but not yet ready. I pulled a few more samples with the tryer, a small scoop that inserts into the roaster, and could see that finally, it was ready to drop into the cooling tray. Moving quickly, I turned on the spinning arms of the agitator, cut the flame back, and lifted up the drum door, releasing the chocolate-colored beans from the roasting chamber. The beans cooled quickly as the agitator stirred and the last bit of smoke wafted upward.

I love my job.

Friday, November 09, 2007

Simon's Coffee

Simon's Coffee

I found myself in Cambridge, Massachusetts last week and since I'd heard good things about Simon's Coffee from Jay Caragay, I hiked over to check it out. When I say "hiked," I mean it literally, since I know nothing about the Boston/Cambridge area and walked approximately 3 miles from the MIT subway stop to Simon's. Little did I know, a convenient stop was only a few hundred yards from my destination, but I could afford to lose some weight anyway and isn't it supposed to be all about the journey?

Simon's uses coffee from George Howell's company, Terroir. George is one of the good guys in the coffee business and true to his company's name, wants you to know the land from where his coffee comes. I ordered a single espresso and the staff informed me that they didn't do espresso "to-go" (not that I would ever think of doing such a thing). The barista did his thing and passed me the warm demitasse over the bar. The mottled mahogany crema released a wonderful aroma that covered my palate with tastes of leather and tobacco, ending in a slightly floral finish. The body was slightly thinner than I prefer, but overall, it was a very good espresso.

The next time I'm in Boston, I know where I'm getting my coffee!

Simon's Coffee Shop
1736 Massachusetts Ave.
Cambridge, MA

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Olney Farmer's Market

Although it started late in the season, the Olney Farmer's Market has been very successful, due in no small part to the efforts of Janet Terry, the market master. Janet and her small army of volunteers have made a seemingly-impossible task into reality and the Olney community is a better place because of it.

Here are some scenes from Sunday, October 28:


Lisa from Atwater's Bakery


Anna from Southern Skies Coffee Roasters

A basket of goodness

I love those crazy fall squash and gourds

Monday, September 24, 2007


I’m very pleased to announce that Southern Skies has been selected to provide coffee to Oyamel, one of acclaimed-chef José Andrés’ Washington, DC restaurants. Oyamel serves antojitos, Spanish for “little whims,” which are a staple of street food in Mexico. But don’t think heavy, cheesy, gastric-distress-inducing gut-bombs. This isn’t Tex-Mex, but food from the Distrito Federal, Mexico City. The menu reflects the wide diversity of foods eaten in Mexico, from the familiar (guacamole, skirt steak) to the more obscure (black corn truffle, known as huitlacoche).

For Oyamel, I’ve found a wonderful coffee from a single estate in Chiapas, Mexico.   The 150 hectare farm, owned by brothers Delmar and Fernando Moreno Guillen, is located in the mountains at an altitude above 1500 meters. The mountain forests surrounding the farm provide home for indigenous wildlife and shade for the delicate coffee trees, which allows the coffee to mature slowly and develop its deep, complex flavor. Grown without the use of chemical fertilizers, this coffee has a silky mouthfeel that reinforces the round, chocolate notes that end in a clean, slightly spicy finish.

José Andrés is at the forefront of culinary innovation and is credited with introducing the small-plates concept to the U.S. It’s a pleasure to be able to work with someone who brings so much passion to the table.

Monday, August 13, 2007

Trippin' Billies

Back in April, I wrote about Artifact Coffee. I remember frankly being blown away by the space, the quality of their coffee, and the friendly service. Alas, it is no more. Spike Gjerde, the owner, explained in an email posted on the door that (and I’m paraphrasing) since Woodberry Kitchen, his new farm-to-table restaurant, is going to require all of his attention, he had to close shop, rather than let his standards fall. Even though I’m disappointed, you’ve got to respect the man’s principles. Those values were what made Artifact such a wonderful place, and I’m sure that Woodberry Kitchen will reflect Spike’s dedication to quality.

I can’t wait to dine there.

Friday, July 27, 2007

Simple Isn't Always

The simpler things are, the harder they are to get right. The cappuccino is one of those things. One part espresso, two parts milk… sounds easy enough. But for the same reason that it consists of only two ingredients, if either one of them is the least bit off, what otherwise would be a symphony of flavors and textures ends up being crap.

First, the espresso -
The coffee needs to have been grown, harvested, processed, transported, roasted, blended, ground, and brewed properly for it to realize its full potential. Because espresso has such a concentrated flavor, any flaws are greatly magnified. The other side of the coin is that when things come together in the right way, it can be transcendental. Properly prepared espresso should exit the portafilter looking like warm honey and be topped with a brown-flecked layer of crema the color of mahogany.

The milk –
If you’ve been in very many coffee shops, I’m sure you’ve heard the high-pitched squeal of milk being steamed. That, my friends, is a sure sign that you should leave the shop. When you find a good shop, watch the attention that the baristas give when steaming milk. Notice that they don't shove the pitcher under the steam wand and walk away to perform other tasks. Properly steamed milk has a velvety texture and natural sweetness that is the perfect complement to espresso, not something to cover up the bitterness. A cappuccino should never have a layer of dry milk froth on top, but the milk should be fully integrated into the drink, giving it a rich creamy mouthfeel.

Just as food can be plated in a way to enhance its appearance, experienced baristas know how to manipulate the milk pitcher while pouring to create "latte art." Different shapes include, rosettas, hearts, apples, and more.

Prepared properly, the cappuccino is a joy for the eyes and the palate.

Sunday, July 08, 2007


I collect all kinds of coffee-related things. This, from Korea, is one of the stranger things that I’ve come across in my travels. Carbonated soda and coffee isn’t a flavor combination that I would’ve come up with on my own. I’d like to report to you that the combination works, in spite of it being quite unorthodox. I’d like to, but I can’t. It’s horrid. There’s nothing good about it, except for the wackiness of the packaging. Korea, like Japan, has an infatuation with the English language. And much like a pre-pubescent boy who is infatuated with an older woman, what seems right in theory, doesn’t apply itself very well in reality.

The packaging is attractive enough, a stark metallic or black can with bold graphics. Upon closer inspection though, the illusion falls apart. The text reads, “First impression is sensational taste of soda. Second impression is deep yet smooth taste of coffee. If such taste has to be described numerically it would be 1052(LOVE)!”

Math not being my strong suit, I’m not exactly sure of the correlation between the number 1052 and love, but according to the soda manufacturer, it’s preferred by the new generation. There are two different cans: the black one has the “male” symbol, and the silver can has the “female” symbol. I thought that maybe the two different types tasted different, but not a chance. Both are equally bad.

Any of you math wizards out there want to clue me in on the 1052 code?

Saturday, May 05, 2007

Market Season

Winter is finally over. The flowers have bloomed and

I’ve started my yard work in earnest. My tomato plants that I started from seed aren’t doing as well as I’d like so I’ll probably give in and just buy some plants.

Spring also means that farmer’s markets are opening. I totally dig farmer’s markets. It’s a wonderful thing to be able to shake the very hands that planted and harvested your food. What’s in season is fresh and when it’s gone, it’s gone. It tends to make you appreciate things more when they aren’t always available (never mind that once you’ve had a ripe heirloom tomato, there’s no going back).

On Saturdays from 9:00a.m. until noon, we’ll be at the Howard County Farmer’s Market in Glenwood. Come out and get some fresh air, produce grown in your own area code, and some fresh-roasted coffee.

If you don’t live near us, you can find your own local market at

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Artifact Coffee

To me, there’s something fascinating about old buildings. I don’t know why, but I find cast iron and weathered brick very romantic. When I was a kid, I used to spend afternoons exploring an abandoned WWII army base on the edge of town. Sneaking into the vacant barracks, I tried to imagine how it must’ve been back when the base was in operation and soldiers trained before shipping out overseas.

Artifact Coffee is located in Clipper Mill, an urban village built on the site of an abandoned mill that was founded in 1853 and manufactured sails for clipper ships. The wonderful thing about Clipper Mill is that instead of leveling the old buildings, the developers kept the historic facades intact and incorporated them into the design of the modern community.

Inside the coffee shop, a state of the art Synesso Cyncra sits juxtaposed against the unvarnished wood counter. Weighing in at almost 175 pounds, the Cyncra is an electronically temperature-controlled, stainless steel work of art. As advanced as is it is though, it is still just a tool (albeit a very nice one) and anything less than a capable hand will produce poor results. Much to their credit, the baristas here have very capable hands.

Looking up at the sparse menu, I noticed that I only saw one size of each drink - and no frozen drinks! It’s good to see more owners bucking the “bigger-is-better” venti trend. Single origin french press coffee also figures prominently.

I ordered a macchiato and was pleased to see the barista heat up a properly-sized cup with water. Her hands moved confidently and smoothly through the routine undoubtedly polished by thousands of drinks before mine. A minute later, a lovely looking macchiato sat before me on the bar. My tongue wasn’t betrayed by the expectations that my eyes had created. The espresso had the color of mahogany and was buttery, complex, and balanced. It paired perfectly with the subtle sweetness of the microfoamed milk.

Great coffee, great service, and a beautiful location – what more can one ask for?

I really like this place; I just wish that it were closer to my house.

Artifact Coffee
2010 Clipper Park Road
Baltimore, MD

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Ventana de Café

Photo courtesy of Julie Hicks

Depending upon one’s perspective, the word "Miami" conjures up different images. Many people think of South Beach and its Art Deco architecture and the “beautiful people.” For others, cigars are the main attraction.

My thing though, is the coffee window. For the uninitiated, a coffee window is an espresso bar open to the sidewalk. Most Cuban restaurants have them, and they are a local institution. Owing at least in part to the year-round pleasant weather and the fact that Cubans love a good, spirited conversation, at almost any hour you can find a few people socializing outside while enjoying a cafecito.

Coffee in Miami is a little (ok, a lot) different than what you may be used to. First of all, there is no brewed coffee. All of it comes from the espresso machine, and it isn’t served up in 20 oz. portions either. The basic drinks are the cafecito, colada, cortadito, and café con leche.

Cafecito – espresso with lots of sugar added. Cuban coffee tends to be quite overextracted and the sugar helps offset the bitterness.

Colada – a large portion, perhaps 4 oz., served in a small styrofoam cup and accompanied by several small plastic cups. The cups are for you to share your coffee with your friends or workmates.

Cortadito – a cafecito with anywhere from a tablespoon of milk to half milk/half coffee.

Café con leche – the Cuban equivalent of a latte; usually drunk in the morning.

Although I don’t get into Miami as often as I like, I pass through Miami International a few times a year and get to indulge my cafecito jones at La Carreta, a Cuban restaurant located at the entrance to concourse D. There’s no better way to shake out the cobwebs of an 8-hour overnighter than with a cafecito and a couple of ham croquettes!

Friday, February 09, 2007

Tostada y Café

I've been experimenting with a technique that gels liquids instantaneously and at room temperature to create espresso "caviar."  The espresso is encapsulated inside itself and it bursts in the mouth, much like real caviar.

This is my interpretation of the traditional Spanish breakfast of coffee and toast.

Saturday, January 27, 2007

A Necessary Inconvenience

I like public radio. I like it a lot. But there’s one thing that I can’t stand about public radio: fund raising week. I know, without advertising, they don’t have much choice except to open up the phone lines and prod us into feeling guilty for listening without paying. The management at the radio station probably hates fund raising week as much as the public does, but it’s the nature of the game.

The radio station also fills up with volunteers to man the phones. To help make everyone’s week a little more pleasant, Southern Skies is donating coffee to WAMU, the NPR affiliate in Washington, DC. It might not make the fund drive pass any faster for me, but it might for them.