Sunday, December 07, 2008

Holiday Blend

For the season, I've put together something new for Southern Skies - Holiday Blend. When I created this blend, I envisioned a coffee with earthy, chocolate tones that would contrast harmoniously with the more delicate top notes… something to warm the soul. With the economy in the shape that it’s in, we need as much soul-warming as we can stand!

Speaking of the economy, lots of folks are throttling back on their spending this Christmas, with good reason. Now that the pie is smaller and the pieces are slimmer, where you spend your dollars has a greater impact. Something you might want to think about is patronizing small businesses in your community. If they aren’t already, they are probably going to have a tough go at it this coming year. Your purchase may mean the difference between the continuance of a family business or seeing another Mega-Lo-Mart popping up down the road.

Have a wonderful holiday season and remember, coffee makes a great gift!

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Holiday Express

December's Java Passport shipments are loaded up to go to the post office. It's amazing how much a Mini Cooper is capable of holding. I've even hauled sacks of green coffee in that little thing.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Black Friday

I'll take it black, please.

Monday, November 03, 2008

Yma Sumac

September 13, 1922 - November 1, 2008

Friday, October 31, 2008

Shenanigans & Tomfoolery

I just read that Hershey’s quietly replaced the cocoa butter in some of their products with vegetable oil. They petitioned the FDA last year to modify the standards that define milk chocolate and after failing to accomplish that, changed their packaging from “milk chocolate” to “chocolate candy.” By the way, that faint humming sound you’re hearing is that of Milton Hershey as he spins like a wood lathe.

Of course, we’ve all heard of the melamine scandal by now, where Chinese milk powder was adulterated with industrial chemicals in order to fool quality inspectors.

Amidst the current economic turmoil, I only expect to see more of these types of shenanigans as companies attempt to protect their bottom line.

Coffee roasters aren’t immune to this either. I’ve heard of a couple of tricks, like spraying the coffee with water to increase the weight, and mislabeling cheaper coffees with a more expensive variety.

When I started Southern Skies, I made a pledge to myself that I’d keep it simple and do the best job I could possibly do. That’s why we keep our focus on coffee. We don’t sell cocoa mix or tea or syrups not because we don’t like them (except maybe syrups), but because they would distract from our goal of roasting the best coffee we can.

Here’s my promise to you: What the label says on the bag is exactly what’s in the bag. And we don’t monkey around with the weight – no weighing the coffee down with water, no thumb on the scale, none of that. What you see is exactly what you get.

The way that I see it, there are lots of easier ways of making money than roasting coffee, so if I can’t do an honest job of it, what would be the point?

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

Grinder Lust

I picked up this little puppy a few days ago on Ebay. It's a coffee grinder made by Mahlkönig in Germany and is nothing less than a beast. Weighing in at almost 100 pounds, I had to put in an additional 220 volt circuit to accommodate it. But does it ever grind… it chewed its way through a pound in 10 seconds flat. My other shop grinder takes at least 45 seconds to accomplish the same thing.

Don’t expect to see it at the market though; this beauty is strictly for in-house use.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Bobolink Dairy

Smack dab on the New Jersey-New York border lies Bobolink Dairy, run by Jonathan and Nina White. Ever since I heard about the great things that they are doing there, I've wanted to visit. Last month, on our way back from the roaster’s retreat in Connecticut, I finally had my chance since it wasn’t too far out of the way. After turning off the NY State Thruway, we drove down progressively narrower roads until we found ourselves in front of a non-assuming farmhouse. There were a few other cars already there and the small cheese shop was quite busy; remarkable considering how out-of-the-way it is. After everyone else made their purchases, I asked for a sample of the "funkiest cheese they had." I was rewarded with a slice of "Drumm," a cheese made from the milk of the very cows standing in a pasture not 50 feet away from me. Now, how's about that for local? Drumm is a firm cheese with a natural, rustic rind and a very complex, bold flavor. It's a testament to their cheesemaking talents that they were the first American dairy in over 100 years to export cheese to Europe. All of their cheese is made with raw, unpasteurized milk and the cows are allowed to be cows. That means they graze on grass, as they should, and they aren't given hormones to increase milk production. As a result, the Bobolink cows only need to be milked once daily, as opposed to twice, which is the norm for industrial, confinement-based dairy cows. What they sacrifice in quantity though, they gain back in quality. Because the cows graze on seasonal grasses and because cheese is only produced from April to November, the flavor of the grass comes through. That doesn't happen with feedlot cows, which eat silage (semi-fermented, chopped cornstalks) and a lot of grain. You know the TV ad about happy cows? Well, I don't know if it's possible for a cow to be happy, but if it is, Jonathan's are.

After the cheese shop closed for the day, we had a chance to chat with Nina for a few minutes and she showed us the wood-fired brick oven where they bake bread for the market. It's a massive thing, made with over 10 tons of masonry, and so well insulated that the thermometer still read 577 degrees even though it hadn't been fired up since the morning, over 12 hours before. It's too bad that we weren't there earlier in the day. I would've liked to learn about baking. Maybe I can do it some other time, since they routinely hold workshops and seminars for aspiring breadmakers at their farm.

Their dedication to traditional methods hasn't gone unnoticed. They've been featured in Gourmet magazine and last May, more than 50 delegates to the United Nations Commission on Sustainable Development visited Bobolink Dairy as well as other farms in the New York City region that exemplify successful examples of urban-rural partnerships in sustainable agriculture. Tony Bourdain also shot a segment of his food and travel show, "No Reservations" there, where they made a yummy-looking cheese and egg pizza for breakfast.

There was so much more that we wanted to see, but since it was getting late and we had a lot of road ahead yet, we had to get going, but not before loading up the cooler with cheese, bread, and ground beef from the farm store. If you're interested in traditional farming and are ever in the area, you owe it to yourself to stop by for a visit.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008


A friend who was passing through Dubai was kind enough to buy me this little coffee set. The brass thing with the handle is called an "Ibrik" and it's used in the traditional preparation of coffee in that corner of the world. Basically, the coffee is ground extremely fine (to dust, more or less), mixed with water, and slowly allowed to come to a boil three times before being served in the small cups. Many times, cardamom seeds are ground up with the coffee. Well-prepared coffee has a thick foam on the top and does not contain noticeable particles in the foam or the liquid.

I haven't tried this method at home but when I do, I'll post the results.

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Northeast Regional Roaster's Retreat

A lot of what roasters do is done alone. Aside from our time at the farmer's market, everything else… roasting, cupping, packaging… is a solitary affair. That's why we take advantage of every opportunity to see what the rest of the specialty coffee roasting world is up to. To that end, we traveled up to Lyme, CT to attend the annual Northeast Regional Roaster's Retreat. Held on the grounds of the beautiful Ashlawn Farm, we had the pleasure of sharing company with some of the most passionate coffee people we've ever met.

In attendance were wide-eyed people just starting out and experienced veterans, eager to share their knowledge (and learn a few new tricks). Terry Davis, owner of Ambex Roasters, a roasting equipment manufacturer, demonstrated how different batches of the same coffee can taste dramatically different just by altering the time/temperature profile of the roast.

As you might imagine, tasting, or as we say, "cupping" coffee is a large part of what we do as roasters. Taste is a very subjective thing, and the more elements that can be standardized, the more consistent the end result will be. We participated in an sensory exercise with a special kit of scents called "Le Nez du Café." The kit serves as a reference standard of the significant aromas that are found in coffee and consists of 36 vials of scents commonly associated with coffee such as tobacco and chocolate as well as less common scents (basmati rice anyone?). Sometimes when cupping coffee, I'm at a loss for words to describe a taste. Exercises like this give me an aromatic glossary to refer back to.

Saturday night, Ashlawn Farm held a cookout that featured organic beef raised literally yards from where we stood. It may have been a result of the sensory exercise earlier in the day or maybe just my imagination, but I swore that I could taste the grass in the beef. Whatever the case, it was the perfect meal to end the day.

Apart from honing our technical skills, the shared camaraderie is what makes these types of events really special. Swapping tips and trading "war stories" over a beer helps create a synergy that just isn't possible on internet bulletin boards.

All in all, a weekend well spent.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Washington Post Review

Michaele Weissman, author of "God in a Cup: The Obsessive Quest for the Perfect Coffee" has written an article for the Washington Post in which we were reviewed. A handful of cafe owners and artisan coffee roasters, including Southern Skies Coffee, were invited to participate in an informal cupping. I was thrilled to be included in a review with other well-respected roasters and even happier to find that our coffee more than held its own alongside such specialty coffee vanguards as Counter Culture and Intelligentsia.

Link to Review

Thursday, July 17, 2008

My first TV Appearance

Back in February, I was fortunate enough to be able to appear on WUSA9, the Washington, DC affiliate and demonstrate that brewing great coffee doesn't require a lot of expensive equipment, provided that some fundamental techniques are observed.

(I'm a novice at video editing, so please excuse the admittedly poor quality.)

Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Olney Farmers Market

The birds have started nesting and the bees have begun buzzing. It’s that time of year when a young man’s thoughts turn to produce. We’re excited about the first full year of the Olney Farmers Market where we’ll be offering not only whole-bean coffee, but brewed coffee also.

The market this year looks to be more vibrant than ever, with almost 30 different producers, food vendors, and artists participating. The Washington, DC area is a vast resource for fans of good food and in addition to the regular participants, look for special guests who will be giving cooking demonstrations using our local bounty.

We look forward to seeing you this year. Make sure and stop by our booth and introduce yourself!

Olney Farmers Market

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Grind Your Own

Burrs = Good

Blades = Bad

One of the easiest ways to improve your cuppa is by grinding your coffee right before you brew it. Once coffee is ground, the volatile oils and aromas in the bean begin to evaporate at an extremely accelerated rate, leaving you with flat, stale coffee. The best type of grinder uses burrs to slice the beans into consistently-sized particles, as opposed to blade-type grinders that leave you with everything from pebble-sized clods to dust. Why is this important? Because coffee dust makes your brew bitter, and oversize chunks don't allow the water to extract all of the flavor.

If you don't own a coffee grinder right now, I'd like to give you an incentive to to make the plunge a little easier. The good people at 1st-Line Equipment are offering a 10% discount on the Infinity line of grinders. Built by Capresso, the Infinity has sharp conical burrs that rotate slowly, thereby reducing heat buildup that can burn your coffee. If you'd like to take advantage of this offer (which, by the way, I'm making absolutely NO money on), click here and when you check out, enter the code "southernskies" in lower-case letters.