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Friday, April 23, 2004


leaving on a jet plane

and this afternoon i go -- after an entire year of preparation -- to the scaa coffee conference in atlanta. i will try, if i can, to blog from there.

however, i had to make a delicate choice in carry-ons: either my clunky old windows laptop, or patrick coston's biscotti from yesterday. no doubt what won!

of course i'm worried sick. what if no one shows up and all my consumer member events are a disaster? perhaps more frightening yet: what happens if more than the 40 or so people i've planned for show up and it's a roaring success?

what if i have a room with 14 home espresso machines, 9 grinders, 10 tampers, and 3 steaming pitchers? what if that room also has 100 people? will they tear me limb from limb?

as don schoenholt of gillies said about the consumer coffee cupping he is leading for us: "if more than 40 people show up, i'm going bowling."

maybe i should paraphrase that: "if more than 40 people show up, you'll find me standing on my head at the master brewing station. . . " actually, i'll probably smile weakly and offer everyone a biscotti.

dear bccy regulars: pray for me, i beg you! ganesha sharanam, sharanam ganesha!

posted by fortune elkins | 9:00 AM | top | link to this |


Thursday, April 22, 2004


patrick coston comes through

and this morning, the supernova of new york chocolate, patrick coston, dropped off some extra mini-biscotti for the scaa atlanta convention. omigod.

beautifully presented in sleek black boxes that could come from prada, he was so kind as to give me 2 flavors: vanilla-almond-fennel and chocolate hazelnut. they are simply ineffable. ineffable.

these are beyond biscotti, beyond cookies: amazing. the texture, the delicate crispiness, the perfect slender diagonal cut, the aroma, the pure flavors that so there, but not overwhelming. these are not the heavy, stiff, tooth-breaking, stale-tasting things usually passed off on you as biscotti.

on his way around town he described to me how his wedding & party favor business was taking off like roman candles; he's making wedding and event cakes as well, including some classic croquembouches.

could you imagine? a coston croquembouche? (for readers not up on the pastry thing, the croquembouche is the ultra-traditional french wedding cake.)

sometimes people deride it as a pile of sticky little cream puffs. but in coston's hands, imagine, just imagine! if he applied his concern for top artisanal quality, for modern but restrained flavors, for intriguing texture, to these pieces?

the thought alone makes me wobble. . .if you're having an event, you need coston's pastry, chocolates, and desserts. end of story.

waiting for me in atlanta already are also some highly-regarded biscotti so sweetly donated by oren himself. bccy regulars know how i feel about oren. . . oren. oren. oren.

and also david w. of matthew algie has offered biscotti, which i'll pick up at the elektra booth. so i'm very happy! i am no longer short biscotti for all my scaa consumer member track events this weekend at the conference.

last -- but far, far from least -- i'm also planning to connect with the ever-wonderful jim munson of dallis coffee. he has kindly arranged for the donation of chocolate buddhas for one of my events!

i just can't thank any of these people enough. my gratitude to them and thankfulness for their unstinting support of the scaa consumer member program is frankly boundless!

and while we're talking about chocolate: what is it about american puritanism that every enjoyable thing has be proclaimed "addictive?" i'm referring to the recent study of course that finds chocolate, pizza, etc. stimulates pleasure centers in the brain.

of course it does! all our emotions are registered in the brain! you know, to survive in a plain charles-darwin kinda way, creatures have to have drives. we have to have the desire to go do things: one of which is eat.

and to keep doing it, our body has to give us signals that cause us to repeat and look forward to this behavior. thus the pleasure. isn't this evolution 101?

i remember talking to an very old high-school friend of mine, evan gamble, who is now a famous nano-technologist and quantum computing kinda guy in california, about robots. he said to me, making robots do things of their own "free will" is going to be very hard; making a creative, self-directing robot that solves problems will be tough.

why? i asked. because what would motivate a robot? he answered. why would the robot want to do anything and not just conserve its power source?

on the other hand, i don't need much motivation at all to pick up a coston biscotti for my coffee. . . they are truly alluring!

posted by fortune elkins | 8:45 AM | top | link to this |


Wednesday, April 21, 2004


atha yoganusasanam

since i'm still working on acquiring all my biscotti for the scaa atlanta conference, and also doing a last-minute round-up of steaming pitchers and tampers for the hands-on consumer espresso lab, forgive me while i take a page from patanjali and say, "now let's talk about yoga."

specifically, the dialogue i'm having with mba2005 on that blog.

i just wanted to take a second to clarify a couple of things i said there, if you don't mind. mba2005 and i are discusing the sloka from patanjali's yoga sutras, "sthira sukham asanam," (pada 2, 46).

this is usually translated to mean "yoga postures are easy and comfortable" or sometimes, yoga poses are steady and easeful.

to my mind, this firmly establishes the yoga outlook on the subject of pain. i know it's very common for people to go to yoga classes -- if it isn't just "gym yoga," that is -- a get a big lecture on how yoga is about pain and difficulty.

i certainly have heard many such lectures from well-meaning teachers. they exhort you to push yourself into poses and "embrace the pain." you must "progress" in your yoga! you must burn off your karma! these poses may be physically painful; or perhaps emotionally painful.

(if you don't understand how some poses in yoga seem physically simple but actually cause you to feel strong emotions while you're doing them, then you have just started practicing yoga!)

these teachers tell you that to find "growth" or "enlightenment" or whatever you must "push beyond yourself." thus we have read on blogs about people who have broken their noses falling over doing yoga, or wrecked their knees to the point of surgery, and proclaimed: i am getting somewhere in this yoga practice!

but not all damage is physical. i have students pushed in poses freeze in fear, lose self-confidence, and then castigate themselves for "failing." or perhaps they see others in the class do poses they cannot and they judge themselves.

this is some of the mental harm attainment yoga can do. but i am here to politely and quietly disagree.

i am firmly now in mark whitwell's camp: reject the tyranny of attainment yoga. attainment yoga simply creates a false consciousness in oneself; and this is the opposite of what our goal in yoga is.

i know many people go to different kinds of yoga classes and hope to achieve new, difficult postures, believing these poses will cure their bad knees, make them vegetarian, teach them to like themselves, sculpt their butts, whatever.

dear fellow yogis and yoginis, mastering astavakrasana will not improve anything about your life, except maybe getting a flat tummy. but having a perfect butt or flat tummy doesn't make you happy. you will still be yourself with the same problems and outlook on life.

this is why i discourage an attainment yoga of seeking prowess in postures, esp. if it involves pain. the sloka above makes patanjali's position quite clear: if it isn't easy, steady, comfortable, then it isn't yoga.

this is where my quotation from nancy la nasa comes in: "that's not yoga, that's bad gymnastics." what makes yoga yoga?

that yoga isn't about attaining or acquiring is also clear from the niyamas, one of which is aparigraha, "non-greed."

what is the difference between a yoga pose and a circus contortion? if achievement in the asanas were all, then most children under the age of 12 and all circus performers would be the supreme yogis.

those teachers who mean well but push pain have bought into an incorrect idea. they aren't bad people; they are often repeating what they have been taught. sometimes they are trying to propose advaita vedanta and not quite getting it right.

let me softly offer the idea that what makes an asana an asana is the breath and the concentration. yoga poses are moving meditations in which body postures serve as containers for the breath. that's all.

and yet at the same time, that's enormous! pretzel positions will not make me happier, but a meditative focus with the breath will over time truly change my life.

i remember once speaking to ashtangi eddie stern on this subject. and you know what he told me, frankly? something like: "the primary series should be enough. if you really were doing yoga in the primary series, then the other five would be needless."

this is exactly the same point i'm making here. look, of course we should develop our practices, we should learn new asanas and enjoy them. but we mustn't mistake the paintbrush for the picture. . .

specifically on the discussion with mba2005 now -- i was struck by the comments on pain. as if it were necessary. as if it were a good thing.

patanjali denies this, and explicity writes, in the sloka mba2005 quotes, "heyam duhkham anagatam," future pain should be avoided (pada 2, 16).

the statement mba2005 provided really struck me hard: "(Of course, it didn't help that the guy who practiced next to me kept telling me that I have to fall on my face a few time to 'get it.')" is a clear example, if you will forgive my bluntness, of attainment yoga on the part of the "guy who practiced next to me."

because of course you don't have to "get it." you are fine as you are. there's nothing to learn or acquire here; yoga is about letting go. this is why erich schiffmann says "love is what's left when you let go of everything you don't need."

that "next guy" seems to be creating a superiority for himself because he has "fallen on his face" (that hurts!) and now is in some "better" place because he "has it." and he appears to be encouraging mba2005 by saying, hey suffer, you'll get it, and then. . .and then? then what exactly?

and mba2005 duly felt briefly inferior and resolves in writing to try harder, maybe even buy a mouth guard, expecting that devasting crash which could break the teeth! with all due respect, mba2005, i would flee that class a.s.a.p.

i myself learned bakasana and the vinyasa to tripod headstand without falling once, by the use of a blanket and 2 blocks. i have never injured myself in this pose. i used the props until the day i didn't need them.

i had no idea when that would be. maybe i would always need the props. no matter.

as long as i practiced the action, breathed, and focused on the breath, on the stillness in the movement, i was doing good yoga. and lo and behold: one day i didn't need the props and i knew it. i asked for a spot from the teacher, alma largey, and wa-llah! that was that.

oh, i could do it. so what? the vinyasa -- the thread of the breath -- kept moving, and i followed with it. my "accomplishment" was fleeting and vanished into the past as the class went on with the practice that day.

the question was how i would face what was happening now. this is what the yoga sadhana teaches us: that what we are practicing is thought and behavior in the present moment.

thought and behavior for how to live in the now. and here we come back to mark whitwell's idea of "pointless movement, tourist consciousness."

because the asanas are essentially pointless. we shouldn't be attached to them. by themselves, they get us nowhere we need to go. (the sage sri ramana maharshi apparently only ever practiced one asana, savasana. )

and likewise pain will get us nowhere we need to go; it is only suffering.

our consciousness in our yoga practice is that of a tourist; we are witnessing what we are passing through along the path created by our ujjayi pranayama. . .the challenge is to take the witnessing into life beyond the mat. to understand that this witnessing is what we are.

in sum, to practice poses/thoughts/behaviors that harm our structures, our bodies, our minds, only harms them. that's not yoga, but dukkha, the suffering patanjali instructs us flatly to avoid.

this doesn't necessary mean abandoning your strenuous ashtanga practice: but rather, making it less ashtanga, and more purely yoga. . .

posted by fortune elkins | 12:54 PM | top | link to this |


Tuesday, April 20, 2004


time chooses b.k.s.

let's take a small breather from coffee today, shall we? this has been a deeply intensive coffee week, and with the scaa conference in atlanta -- there's still a little room to catch a cheap last minute plane fare and register on-site! -- coming up this weekend, there's gonna be a ton more coffee soon.

which is a good thing. because coffee is the most romantic, passionate beverage. . .

in an interesting happening today, time magazine has included world-renowned yoga teacher b.k.s. iyengar on its list of the 100 most influential people. (why do they stupidly make you subscribe for this feature story?)

there's no doubt that he was and remains crucial in creating the current yoga movement, which now has up to 20 million americans doing some form of yoga asana practice.

i also want to remark how much i'm enjoying gary kraftsow's second book on yoga as a spiritual practice. what's tremendous about it is that it's not the least bit new-age-y and is written in a straight-forward, simple, and surprisingly common-sense manner.

highly recommended.

and finally:

"everybody is interested in chocolate. it has a wide appeal and it's a fabulous food. who doesn't love chocolate?"

we here at bccy would never ever quarrel with an artisan chocolatier, pastry chef at the award-winning lolli redini country restaurant, down under. . . .those bon-bons made with glaceé figs and pistachios sound pretty good, actually!

posted by fortune elkins | 9:58 AM | top | link to this |


Monday, April 19, 2004


a differing view too good to be overlooked in the comments, part iii

as usual, bracketed comments are mine for reference, as are the links. who'd a thunk one of my usual silly rants would produce this great response? i'm so honored and grateful. anyway:

"Dear Fortune,

I read with great interest Mark Inman’s letter published by you on Bread Coffee Chocolate Yoga.
Coffee is a product that, like other world commodities has historically floated in value based on consumer demand and availability. All efforts to control the price at a level acceptable to consumers and producers alike, in the past, have met with failure. Efforts to control coffee to the benefit of individual growing countries or regions or individuals or groups of dealers (importers) in consuming countries have always failed in the long term.

The ICO succeeded, in the seventies and eighties, in protecting farmers, and had no interest in protecting member consumer populations. The United States wisely opted out of the ICO and its disastrous quota system, and with our leave-taking coffee found its own true values again. The "C" contract [how coffee is traded on the exchange a the NYBOT] has seen [US]$3.00-LB and [US]$0.45-LB during the period.

The intervention of international organizations on behalf of a select few origins has, in the last years, turned the coffee world upside down by dramatically increasing production of the lowest grades of commercial coffee.

Commercial coffee businesses do not live in an economic vacuum. They compete against each other for market share. Brand market share in turn is determined by many factors including among others raw material and manufacturing costs, marketing effectiveness and ultimately the way selling price and value are perceived by the customer.

One hundred fifty years ago most coffee was sold by appearance and price values alone. Taste, oddly enough, was not an issue. This system favored coffees that were low grown, and by nature having duller, less acid [this is a coffee-tasting attribute also known as "brightness" or that dry-ish, "sparkling," sunshine-y feeling some coffees have on the tip of the tongue; it's usually considered a very desirable thing nowadays] character in the cup. Brazil, Arabia, and Indonesian coffees were for the most part processed as what we now call "Naturals."

Only the West Indies (WIP-West Indies Prep.) were known for Washed (Wet Process) coffees. This method of preparation was developed where high moisture and rain challenged the more traditional preparation process in select origins.

The development of the blind cup test permitted buyers for the first time to choose coffees solely on the basis of what they liked in the taste and smell of the beverage. Buyers preferred the taste of the washed coffees, and this has become the preferred taste during the last hundred years. Values have moved along with consumer demand.

Though in use, at the time of the development of taste as the main reason for giving coffee value, the drip method of brewing was not the prevalent brewing method.

Throughout economic history people, who have held jobs in areas where fashion or technology have made their labors unnecessary, have been dislocated. While this may be tragic on a human scale; broadly progress, often driven by man, creates new jobs and new opportunities while bringing a better (often defined as "less costly") product to market, and making it available to a wider number of people.

The introduction of poor-grade filler Robusta coffees, from origins with extremely low, sometimes government controlled, labor costs has destroyed the market for lower-grown [remember that in general, the higher the altitude at which the coffee is grown, the more desirable it is; lower-grown is usually less desirable, so worth less money] Arabica coffees that sold for higher prices than the newly introduced goods. This is not a function of the Specialty Coffee market which only buys the better grades.

Nevertheless the Specialty community was the first to respond in a positive way to the plight of coffee farmers and farm workers being displaced, by the influx of cheap bad coffee, through programs including Coffee Kids, Grounds for Health, Cup for Education, Care, and Fair Trade etc.

Americans were thrown out of work wholesale when the Europeans and Asians built better cars, and made cheaper steel than we in the 1970s. We were forced to stop, think, take stock, and retrain our people. Today white collar jobs are in jeopardy in the U.S. as world telecommunications has advanced to the point where a technician in India can help me with my computer glitch in Brooklyn.

My guess is that outsourcing technical white collar support jobs costs the technology companies less than having U.S. workers performing the tasks in Florida or Texas. We are again going to face a large dislocation of the work force because it is natural for business to go to those who can do the job, and do it at a lower cost to the employer (providing wider margins of profit) and ultimately at a savings to the consumer.

The Luddites, a band of English artisans (1811-16), raised riots during the first Industrial Revolution urging the destruction of machinery that was stripping them of their livelihood. The pioneer specialty coffee roasters in the U.S. did this in reverse, by using their craft skills to take market from the large industrial roasting companies in the 1970s and 1980s. In the 1990s the large industrial roaster corporations began to market goods as Specialties creating confusion and changing the market dynamics for coffee in the U.S. again.

Specialty coffee people must compete not only against others within their own community, but with the larger coffee community as well, and still there is time found to support our friends at origin, and the environment at home and abroad, and the consumer too. It’s a big order for a relatively small group of entrepreneurial businesses, with limited resources. Still, it is amazing sometimes just how much Specialty Coffee people can accomplish when they set their minds to a task.

Espresso is a relatively new phenomenon in the U.S. Drip is far and away the prevailing coffee delivery system. The Espresso culture as developed by the best quality Italian brands (according to the coffee manufacturers themselves) is an Arabica coffee culture. The American Espresso culture has developed as an Arabica culture as well.

In part, the American interest in dark roasting is that higher roasting tames the natural acidity of the brighter coffees while accentuating its sugars and bringing their marvelous complexity to the fore. This complexity, cherished, in the American specialty cup is lacking in the lower grown Arabicas explaining why they are traditionally not chosen by true specialty roasters but by the industrial roasters to be used as non-descript filler coffees.

Espresso, in my opinion, cries out for smooth, sweet heavier bodied coffees. It often excels when "Naturals" are added to or comprise the blend base. Alas, there is not enough call for sweet/neutral cupping otherwise defect freed coffees to significantly change the coffee price/values landscape for lower grown Arabicas of the Americas.

Increased coffee consumption is part of the answer to raising international coffee prices. Brazil has seen significant success in raising internal consumption of coffee in recent years. Other countries including Guatemala are taking lessons from the Brazilians and are establishing programs to promote internal consumption of coffee in their lands.

New markets in Asia have proved that they can develop and sustain substantial coffee cultures. It is expected as these markets grow their demand on the coffee resources of the world will increase coffee values. The unspoken long term fear, of course, is that higher values will spark a new round of investment in coffee plantings which will result a decade later in yet another round of coffee deflation as supply again outstrips demand.

Boom and bust and agricultural economy appear to be forever linked. Good people of good will on both sides of the equator can find ways to help each other mitigate the effecdts of the natural price hills and valleys, and that is what Specialty Coffee as a community is striving to do. Unfortunately, as Mark points out specialty coffee is a niche market.

We can highlight weaknesses and strengths in the coffee world. We can act as a laboratory for experimenting with change, and alternative approaches, products, and solutions. We can even succeed brilliantly on occasion and illustrate coffee’s positive possibilities to the larger coffee world, but we will always just be what we are "Specialty" and not "Mainstream" coffee. It sometimes behoves us to remember that we are not at fault in the coffee world. We are that world’s best hope for the future.

Donald N. Schoenholt

Gillies Coffee Co. "

posted by fortune elkins | 8:44 AM | top | link to this |


Sunday, April 18, 2004


a differing view too good to be overlooked in the comments, part ii & beowulf

again, notes and references are in brackets for clarification. the links are provided by me. this comment comes from a prominent greenie (importer/broker) who has asked to remain unnamed:

"just a small comment on tuesday's blog. . .fair trade is indeed small. yet most specialty coffee [what you buy at the mermaid or your local independent roaster/retailer or coffeehouse] trades at better than fair trade levels.

the cost of production for shb [strictly hard bean or "strictlies," the desirable, high-grown dense coffee beans with lots of flavorful oil] and better is indeed around [US$]0.90-0.95 [per pound], yet the commercial coffees [the canned coffees in the supermarket] do not have that cost. brazil, colombia, vietnam, as a matter of fact, the whole world with the exception of parts of central america and parts of east africa, have a lower cost. . .

hence, there is much more to say for promoting the production of top quality to fight the crisis than the selective, unfair approach of fair trade."

i myself will reply to all these comments next week. but right now i have to rush to make pizza and get ready for yoga.

also, i do want very much to comment on the lovely pound of beowulf espresso oren sent me. using the terminology of the scaa flavor wheel (a.k.a. linglese, after ted lingle, chief of the scaa, who invented it) and jean lenoir's nez du café, here i go:

the beowulf blend's dark-roast, not fully oily, but with large patches of oil; what i'd call a real viennese roast. it's a sweet, low-brightness coffee with a heavy, syrupy body, one that coats the back of a spoon like turkey gravy.

the fresh grounds offer an intense fragrance very much like black cardamom pods. cupped, the blend reveals maple-syrup and dark dutch chocolate, which grow into the spicy notes of cedar and pepper.

the dry aftertaste stays with you for a very long time with a hints of smokiness, what lenoir calls "pipe tobacco." drink a glass of water or two: but the beowulf isn't going away! it's there with you for the long haul; in espresso, this is considered a good thing.

and it's perhaps somewhat surprising because oren himself is the most charming, retiring, quiet person. . . yet he makes this big, assertive espresso named after an ancient viking hero!

despite the coffee being more darkly roasted than i would have thought i liked, i drank a doppio ristretto easily without sugar. when i made it as an americano with a touch of turbinado sugar and a tablespoon of light cream, i thought i was drinking a cup of hot chocolate for the first two sips!

that was very yummy. my husband, who really dislikes most coffees roasted beyond the northern italian style, was surprised to find himself really enjoying it in his morning cappucino. . .

i say, forget your fear of the old old english. ignore the thorns: beowulf's a fine espresso even if you think you don't like darker coffees.

posted by fortune elkins | 10:47 AM | top | link to this |

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