Monday, September 30, 2013

First Look: Counter Culture's new Training Center

Despite being a leader in many things, especially when it comes to food and drink, New York was a coffee wasteland for a long time, which is surprising considering how much coffee New Yorkers drink. While we proudly walked the streets with our blue and white cups from the local Greek diner there were pioneers like Counter Culture in Durham, NC, and Stumptown in Portland, OR,  changing the way we looked at and drank coffee.

Of course, we are quick studies and now New York is at the forefront of the coffee world. Stumptown, Counter Culture, Toby's, Blue Bottle and others have all set up shop here and local companies like Gorilla, Oslo and Brooklyn Coffee Roasters all roast here in New York.

The newest temple to coffee, Counter Culture's new Training Center, opened this week on Broome Street. It is a beautiful space featuring the latest equipment and their wonderful staff. I was lucky enough to check out the space this past Frday, the day of its grand opening. I  sampled some remarkable pour over coffee and caught a business owner's roundtable on owning a coffee shop. Here is quick look.

The mission statement of the Counter Culture Training Center is education. The training center is used to train baristas in the art of making coffee, be it pour over, espresso or just understanding different types of beans. The Center is also a tool to educate the public on the the remarkable varieties and styles of coffee. They offer weekly cupping classes to the public. These classes give you the chance to experience the diversity in coffee styles first hand. Think of a wine tasting at your favorite  liquor store.

The sad reality is most people in the United States still think Dunkin Donuts is the height of good coffee and a pod coffee maker is the height of home brewing. Coffee companies like Counter Culture and Toby's Estate are working hard to break the bad habits of the average coffee drinker. In truth, today's top coffee companies treat coffee with same care and craft as winemakers and believe that where beans are grown, how they are harvested, dried and roasted, in addition to how it is brewed, can result in a depths of flavor and style as varied as wine. I have become a believer as well.

If you are skeptical, this next bit will get a snicker out of you.

A free cup of coffee to anyone who knows what this is:

A high end stereo pre-amp? Nope. This is the brain of a mod bar pour over module. It is used to program water flow, temperature and wait time. It is connected to this:

The barista uses the buttons to program the flow.

Am I going to install one of these in my home? No. Am I thrilled to enjoy the kind of coffee a system like this can make? Yes.

This is Erin McCarthy.

Erin McCarthy, World Brewing Champion, at work.

Erin won the 2013 World Brewer's Cup championship making him the best coffee brewer in the world. The coffee gods smiled upon me during my visit to the training center. I got a chance to sit at the bar and talk with Erin as he brewed coffee and answered questions. Then I drank his coffee. If all this is too precious and pretentious for you I promise you I was as skeptical as you. I do like coffee, but this could be veering into fetish and artifice. After I sampled the coffee my skepticism vanished.

Erin brewed two pots of coffee. He used the same beans, Counter Culture's Banko Gotiti from Ethiopia. He used the same pour over water program so that the brewing was exactly the same. The only difference in the two pots was the grind of the beans. One finer than the other. The results were surprising. The first cup of coffee was a little think with strong chocolate notes. The second cup was clean, bright and full of fruit. I was astonished.

The cup of coffee that opened my eyes to the importance of the grind.

I have gone to wine tastings where wines have been described in these terms and while I could taste basic differences in the wines I was not getting the "hint of cherries" or "leather" in the wines. This was not the case with these coffees. The first cup was just as I described. The same with the second. I was honestly stunned. Until that moment I did not believe the grind could play such an important roll in brewing and make the same beans taste so dramatically different. Obviously, being able to control the rest of the brewing process so precisely helps. But it gives you an appreciation of the true nature of good coffee, treated with care. If you are still a skeptic I encourage you to fine a cupping class near you and to go with an open mind.

Wine has its mass producers like Yellowtail that many people like. It is cheap, convenient and easy and made to taste the same every time. For a lot of folks that is good enough. But for those willing to dig deeper there is a whole world of wine out there and it is not nearly as expensive or hard to understand as people think. The same is becoming true for coffee. Most people think Pods, McCafe and Mr Coffee makers are just fine. But if you are willing to take the time and have an open mind there is a world of passionate people ready and willing to introduce you to the remarkable world of coffee. Go find them. It is worth the effort.

Counter Culture Training Center - 376 Broome Street, between Mott and Mulberry

Public cuppings every Friday.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Great Food in unexpected places. Part 1: A sandwich

One of the themes that arose from our two week trek through Maine and New Brunswick, Canada, was finding great food in unexpected places. It can simply be finding a good spot to eat in a remote place or something other than excellent seafood along the coast of Maine. It can also be from having no idea what to expect in New Brunswick. That is part of the fun.

Our family trips to Maine have always been along the coast, with good reason. Maine's coastline is one of the most beautiful in the world. When you think of Maine you think of lobstermen, Winslow Homer's paintings of the sea battering Prouts Neck, Bar Harbor and Mt Desert Island. But the interior of Maine is massive, dotted with lakes and forests. Smack dab in the middle of the state, and hour plus north of Bangor, is Baxter State Park. The park is over 200,000 acres in size and home to Mt Katahdin, the state's highest peak. Less than 100,000 people visit it each year.

Daicey Pond with Mt Katahdin in the distance

With two weeks at our disposal Karen decided it was time to venture inland and visit the park. She found a great place called Big Moose Inn with cabins on Lake Millinocket and a short drive to Baxter State Park.

Our cabin, #4

Our view

The Inn's restaurant, Fredericka's, was closed during the week when we were there so we ate at the Loose Moose Bar & Grille (why the e in grille?), their casual spot that was open all week.  I was particular to the Thanksgiving hero and they had a really good beer selection. But that was not the surprise.

Next to Big Moose Inn sits the North Woods Trading Post. It is the last place for food, drinks and gas before you head into the park. It stocks all the basics you would need for camping (food, drinks, knives, matches, maps, fishing gear, etc) as well as souvenirs. Most people come for a week and stock up at the supermarkets in Millinocket. The cabins have full kitchens so you can make all your meals there. People use the Trading Post to fill in staples they forgot or ran out of. We were only there for two days so we didn't shop before hand. We lived in that place.

The trading post had a little kitchen where they made breakfast and lunch. The smell of egg sandwiches in the morning and steak sandwiches in the afternoon notwithstanding, I was not expecting much the day we decided to get lunch there. I ordered a chicken salad sandwich. They were out of their "regular" chicken salad, but I could get their "special" chicken salad. I went for it. Did I want regular bread or the house made wheat bread for a dollar more? Go for the house made. Here is what I got:

Chicken salad with blue cheese and grapes on fantastic, thick cut, house made wheat. Sweet, savory and absolutely delicious. The blue cheese was sharp and creamy and balanced perfectly with the sweet grapes. The bread was a beauty.  No joke, this is one of the best sandwiches I have ever had. Was it because I did not expect to get anything like this at the Trading Post? Maybe. Was it because I ate it on a picnic bench looking at a lake? Maybe. But I am pretty sure that if I had gotten it at a gourmet deli in NYC and eaten on the M23 bus it still would have been great.

I would return to Baxter State Park for the hiking, the beauty, the nature and how devoid it is of other people. I encourage you to go as well. And if you can get a world class sandwich to boot? Icing on the cake.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Notes from Down East

The last day of summer is, officially, September 21st. The truth is summer has ended for the majority of us. We are back to school or back to work but the memories of summer linger. I am sure more than a few of us hope to squeeze out few more days of summer revelry before the weather changes and we pack up the flip flops and pull out the sweaters.

All the "Fall Preview" issues and articles have come out but I am not quite ready to let summer go. The reality of being back has hit me square in the face so I need to look back and review summer 2013, especially our vacation, and share it. Hopefully it will give you some ideas for summer 2014. It is always good to have something to look forward to.

The Lobsterman, Maine Fair Trade Lobster, Prospect Harbor

Route 1 runs along the coast of Maine.  From York to Bucksport you will pass through some of the loveliest towns imaginable.  Towns like Kennebunkport and Camden look as if they are a postcard come to life. Even Freeport, the home of L.L. Bean, manages to feel somewhat charming despite the town essentially being an outdoor mall. This is the Maine most people visit and think about.

Things change at the town of Ellsworth. This is the last truly big town with a downtown and a big commercial center you will encounter if you proceed northeast on route one. Ellsworth is where you turn south to go to Blue Hill, Deer Isle, Bar Harbor & Mt Desert Island. Ellsworth is also the starting point of the part of Maine known as Down East.

Down East is the coast of Maine that runs from Ellsworth to Lubec (the Easternmost point of the United States) on up to Calais and the Canadian Border. As you you head out of Ellsworth you start to notice the different feel in this part of Maine. It is less built up, wilder and more rural. While there are people "from away", this is not the summer destination southern Maine is.

It is harder to maintain a business Down East. Those who can survive the winter to take advantage of the fleeting summer season consider themselves lucky. It is an annual ritual for those who spend their summers here to see who survived the winter and what new places have embraced the optimism of spring and have decided to make a go of it.

The Gouldsboro Peninsula is known for the town of Winter Harbor and the Schoodic Peninsula, the only part of Acadia National Park that is on the mainland of Maine. On the Eastern side of the Gouldsboro Peninsula sits Corea Harbor. Corea Harbor is relatively small but it is one of the most picturesque harbors you will see in Maine. It also happens to be situated right where Gouldsboro Bay meets the Atlantic, prime lobster territory.

Dingys, Corea Harbor

The reason you would seek out Corea lies at the end of Crowley Island Road. Crowley Island Road follows along the northern edge of the harbor's long, thin arm, and does a hairpin turn to run back along the southern edge. The road dead ends at the water and the Corea Lobster Co-op.

Corea Lobster Co-op

Here, at the end of the dock, you will find lobster men pulling up in their boats and unloading the day's catch. They will ask you if you want "hard shells" or "shedders," how many you want and what size. Figure around $4/lb for shedders, $6/lb for hard shell. Maybe less. This is the ultimate in "locavore" eating, and it has been going on in Maine forever. Nothing is better that buying lobster, fresh out of the cold Maine waters, from the guys who caught it.

This summer, something new popped up on Corea Road, just past the turn for Crowley Island Road. Someone converted two old lobster shacks on a dock into the Corea Wharf Galley, a lobster roll and seafood spot.

Corea Wharf Galley

 Genius. The shack on the left is the order window and where the fridges are.

Corea Wharf Galley's neighbor

Working lobster shacks and docks, Corea Harbor

The cart out front is the kitchen.

The grill.

Simple menu. All you need.

We tried the lobster roll, $10.95. As meaty and fresh as you can get. Stone crab claws, $8.25. Generous and just out of the water. A nice grilled cheese for $2.50.

If you are looking for proof your seafood isn't flash frozen meat, and watching them fish out the crabs and lobster from the tank isn't enough, just check the buckets.

My favorite? Lobster grilled cheese. $7.95

Take that perfect grilled cheese. Stuff it with fresh lobster. Devour. This is why we are here.

Great food. Great price. The view?

Corea Harbor. The low, long building is the Co-op.


Summer is a hard fought reward in Maine. They suffer through long winters for days like these, places like these. Here is hoping Corea Wharf Galley makes it through this winter to see another summer. This is heaven. This is Maine.

Corea Wharf Galley. Corea Road, Corea, ME.