Today is Sunday, August 2, 2009, and I’m parked at the roaster’s desk in the back of our LA works after finishing up a round of eleven batches of coffee for our cafes out here in the West.  A few weeks back the company was kind enough to ship me out to Chicago to meet and reconnect with the roasters and quality control team out there.  Recalling my visit conjures four principle thoughts: good people, good food, good beer, and—of course—good coffee.

I spent most of my time down on the roasting floor with the guys (Kurtis, Josh, Jason, and Kornman), where I learned that ninety kilo roasters aren’t that dissimilar from the forty kilo I’m acquainted with here in Los Angeles.  As I did when learning on the forty, I started off my Chicago roasting with some batches of dark roasts to feel out the controls and intricacies of the machines.  Aside from the weird inner-drum opening mechanisms, confusing grain elevator, fancy de-stoner controls, and somewhat alarmingly large cooling trays, I really don’t have much else to say about the nineties other than that they were fun to roast on.  However, I might mention that the twenty-three kilo did take me for somewhat of a joy ride while I tried to reign her in.

In our daily roasting operations, the teams in LA and Chicago communicate a good deal about new coffee arrivals and trial roasts, existing coffee specs, Agtron calibration, cupping scores, various Black Cat topics, and more.  This sort of ongoing communication isn’t quite as effective if one isn’t at least roughly acquainted with the other people involved, so while we were cupping and/or playing pool we rehashed some old and new issues and came to a better understanding both between individuals and facilities.

Most of the differences between our facilities, I come to realize, have to do with batch sizes and timing.  Out in LA we’re still varying our batch sizes to most efficiently match our roast reports, meaning that some days we’ll roast thirty pounds of a single-origin brewed coffee and another day we’ll roast fifty pounds of the same coffee.  When trying to minimize the amount of variables roast to roast and nail down proper specs (based on trials, cuppings, etc.), the addition of a variable batch size is a somewhat dented tooth in our LA cog.  As for timing, in Los Angeles we have to begin roasting early enough in the day to continuously roast all batches and successfully finish production by 2:30PM, the deadline for our packers to get stuff ready for UPS, whereas Chicago has the ability to roast side-by-side with the two (or three) roasters and catch up, when needed, in a manner that I’d imagine a bit less frantic.  Really though, two roasters moving at once just felt smooth.

On the second night of my stay, I attended a Black Cat meeting with a star-studded cast: Kyle Glanville, Geoff Watts, Mike ‘Kurtis’ Kearby, Stephen Morrissey, Chris Kornman, Jason Lips, and Jesse Crouse.  Earlier that day I’d been cupping Rwanda samples with Geoff, Jesse, and Sarah Kluth so while we awaited everyone’s arrival to dinner Geoff further discussed some of his finds in Burundi and hopes for coffee coming from there and Rwanda in the coming months and years.  In the meeting we discussed methods for testing the performance of Black Cat by day, week, and month, and also Kyle’s hopes and plans for this year in Cat.  Looks like the roasting teams will be more involved than ever in selecting roasts, specs, and even coffees for this year’s Black Cat Classic, SO lineup, and seasonal blends.  Watch out!

My third night I was introduced to an area of town called Pilsen, where I savored a Three Floyd’s beer after getting my ass kicked at the latte art smackdown earlier at Millennium Park Intelli.  I was really impressed both at the latte art smackdown and throughout the rest of my stay by the Chicago baristas’ skill and joyfulness.  Pilsen also happened to be the part of town where I enjoyed a stellar dinner the following evening (just after also enjoying my first Midwestern early evening thunderstorm in quite awhile) at a place called ‘Nightwood,’ which boasts a daily-updated menu and is soon to be featuring our coffee in Chemex form.

Anyhow, suffice to say the Intelli folks in Chicago all made me feel at home and helped me find a new sense of excitement for Intelligentsia.

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