Source or origin trips often bring us to coffee farms and washing stations, but I recently traveled afar to make a different kind of source trip; an espresso machine source trip. Most, if not all, of you are familiar with La Marzocco, the espresso machine manufacturer that Counter Culture has worked with for many years, which is located in Florence, Italy. I spent a week with the La Marzocco family in early June, with a brief stop in London to visit with Square Mile Roastery and our old friend and World Barista Championship Executive Director, Cindy Chang. The trip was very informative. l learned a lot, experienced a lot, and snapped a lot of pictures. I want to share this with all of you with the hopes of bringing a little of this source back to everyone at Counter Culture Coffee.
Before heading directly to our espresso machine source in Firenze, I spent a little time with our friends James Hoffman and Anette Moldvaer at Square Mile Roastery. We were lucky enough to be joined for much of our mischief by 2009 World Barista champ Gwilym Davies and WBC exec-director, Cindy Chang. I often hear horror stories about culinary experiences in London, but I found that the city and its denizens had a myriad of pleasures for the palate. Aside from tasty local favorites like Toad-in-a-hole and crackerlings and apple sauce, London has wonderful markets teeming with savory sausages and a moon's worth of cheese. Neal's Yard Dairy was one of the more spectacular places we visited and is to cheese what Counter Culture is to coffee. Oddly enough, one of the favorites during our tastings was a recent import from Wisconsin! Teasmith, located in Spitalfields Market, also brought to mind the Counter Culture ethos as we cupped various teas and learned about the cultivation and processing that makes teas distinct and unique.
As I hobbled down cobblestone streets from market to market, I was fortunate enough to get taste of Square Mile's coffee at a number of great coffee spots in London; Dose, Flat White, Milkbar, Bitter Taste of Love, to name a few. Gwilym's coffee cart in the Columbia Road flower market was one of the more charming coffee experiences of the trip. Pictured in this month's issue of Barista magazine and nestled in a colorful labyrinth of flower vendors, Gwilym is serving up scores of "flat whites" next to a constant line of locals that venture out on the only day the market is open. A little deeper into the city, Milkbar and its sister shop, Flat White, offered great coffee with in a more urban and traditional coffee shop style. With celebrity sightings (like, OMG, I hear Kiera Knightley was totally here the other day) and England holding the current "cup" in the industry, it's no surprise that London's coffee scene is very hot!
My cupping spoon was confiscated in Rome and my luggage was lost by the time I landed in Florence, but that was definitely not a foreshadowing of the future, as La Marzocco welcomed me with open arms. Many of the remote employees were in town for meetings and there was a company-wide cook out so my timing couldn't have been better. Downtown Florence is a smattering of leather shops, cafes, and gelato shops that trail from the Ufizzi to the Duomo and all along the Arno, but the country side offers a more relaxing view of terracotta tile rooftops and olive tree groves hugging rolling hilltops. It is in these rolling hills that La Marzocco lies, nestled in the scenery as if on a postcard. The factory and the folks that work in it reminded me so much of Counter Culture that it was easy to feel at home amongst all the friendly people and great espresso machines. My first day there was nothing but fun and nothing short of amazing. I was treated to a factory tour followed by a "family dinner" that would have been unrecognizable from a NC cook-out (known as a barbeque to northerners) aside from the folk songs afterwards being sung in Italian. We drank Chianti and listened to La Marzocco's Export Manager, Chris Salierno, play the guitar and sing into the late hours of the night. The next days in the factory were equally entertaining but weren't accompanied by as much wine and music.
The factory is pretty simple for the caliber of product produced, which also was reminiscent of Counter Culture. The espresso machines are born in the welding and body assembly lines, where the infrastructure is established. The machines are then wired and bench tested at several points before being packaged for shipment. Other than the production operations, the building houses some of the coolest machines from La Marzocco's early days. La Marzocco is considered a small and family-based company compared to other machine manufacturers, with just less than 3,000 units produced in 2008, but they are definitely leading the charge in the espresso machine industry. Started more than 80 years ago by his grandfather, Piero Bambi and his team of machine professionals have continuously raised the bar in the industry. La Marzocco was the first company to use horizontal boilers, separate boilers dedicated for coffee making and steam making, and now a new prototype machine is looking to bring even more to the table in 2010.
This new prototype was first introduced at the 2009 Specialty Coffee Association of America (SCAA) show in Atlanta and has been given the working title of the "Barista Machine." Since temperature stability is required to get to bat nowadays, La Marzocco is hoping to hit a home run with honing in on pressure and flow rate profiling. The Barista Machine will have boilers and pumps that are dedicated per group. The pumps are smaller, more efficient pumps that are housed internally (goodbye, external pumps!) and controlled dynamically by the lever that activates the group. As the barista moves the lever, the group valve opens and the pressure and flow rate will increase or decrease as the lever is moved from left to right. A programmable option also allows for the user to save any profile, per group, allowing programmed pours for each individual group. Although most would argue that the pressure profiling is the most exciting and defining characteristic presented by La Marzocco in the Barista Machine, there are several other innovations that will be coming with the new machines that are equally exciting. Cool-touch steam wands are on the near horizon and nearly all steam valves coming out of La Marzocco now have vacuum breakers on them making steam wand cleaning easier than it ever has been. Steam wand tips are also a hot topic, and I saw several prototype designs that will be groundbreaking. The new machine will have exposed groups, meaning that the espresso extracting experience will be in clear view of the operator and have no need for additional lighting. Also, portafilter basket design is under way and the days of the ridged baskets are waning.
This new machine concept is being driven by a highly experienced, talented team at La Marzocco, but has been aided by a new council they've put together, the La Marzocco Street Team. With its inaugural meeting during the SCAA show in Atlanta, the newly formed group of international espresso machine and industry experts will serve as a board of advisory for La Marzocco. As many of you know, Counter Culture Coffee has been asked to be represented on the team, and I am lucky enough to have that honor. In that capacity, Counter Culture is working directly with La Marzocco on everything from machine concept to application to support and truly on the frontier of espresso machine development.
So, taken in spirit, source can mean many things when it comes to excellent coffee, from farmers to roasters to machine manufacturers to shop owners. Hopefully by sharing this experience everyone has some understanding of the efforts involved in making (and choosing) excellent equipment and the detail to which Counter Culture works with companies to ensure that every product Counter Culture endorses embodies the spirit of our company vision statement. I look forward to sharing more of these experiences with each of you in the future; until then … Ciao!