We’re still in recovery mode from our weekend spent at the Extraordinary Coffee Workshop, the third such gathering of producers hosted by the folks at Intelligentsia.
Saturday night saw the ECW crew – some 60 producers from 12 nations, plus a flock of Intelli staff and two arguably extraneous journalists – conglomerate together on enormous cruiser bus, fresh from taking over the Intelli Venice location (where we loaded up on affogatos, brewing equipment, and stream of consciousness Joyceian tribute). Our destination was the Saarloos and Sons winery in Los Olivos, California, some two and a half hours away on a boffo scenic coast drive up US 101, with the sun setting into the Pacific just to our left, the whole thing framed under the canopy of one of those perfect SoCal Autumn days. We arrived at the vineyard just before nightfall, leaving our group just enough time to disembark the bus, stretch, and stroll the vineyard while the wine producer gave us a short presentation on his farm. Keith Saarloos, who we understand to be some sort of grape witch doctor/high voodoo priest of viticulture, spoke directly to the assembled group. High in the foothills of the Santa Barbara mountains, Keith delivered an oration on the parallels between growing top quality wine and specialty coffee:
When we first bought this land, it was the worst apple orchard you’ve ever seen. This farm came from nothing, but now this land around us is recognized as an AVA – we started with nothing, but now Napa is buying grapes from us. When you make those frightening decisions for lower quatity and higher quality, you need to have a partner who will sing your song correctly. Us farmers, we write the songs – if the lyrics and the notes don’t sound good, no one will be able to sing it right. But if our songs are beautiful – and we partner with someone who knows how to sing – together we can make beautiful music. Intelligentsia knows how to sing your song.”
As Keith’s many, many metaphors clabbered and coagulated across the brainstems of the assembled, his hunky cousin Bradley pointed us to clusters of sweet, fragrant grapes growing all around us, which tasted like something off of God’s breakfast buffet. [Note: Bradley's hunkiness is not a point of editorial conjecture, but rather, was consulted and confirmed by several other members of our entourage.] Producers traded off being Spanish translators, and at one point the translator became more of an impromptu comedian, purposefully muddling the adjective form of “exciting” into a usage with decidedly different Spanish connotations; this mistake elicited a great deal of enthusiasm from the gathered producers, particularly Payin Imendia of El Salvador / Colombia, who did a hearty little romance dance in response.
Many details of the wine dinner bacchanal that followed are not fit for print, but here’s what we have from the increasingly slurred footnotes in our Moleskine: endless white and red wine on each table, an entire roast goat, a truly beautiful table setting, group chants of “Hakuna Matata” led by Charles, three-term president of the Gikanda coffee cooperative responsible for all that Gichathaini you can’t get enough of, more wine, Geoff Watts translating our affection for Perla de Oaxaca to the gentleman who actually runs the farm in Mexico, a’capella singing and dancing, and a positively lubricious bus ride back to Pasadena, raucous and ribald with red, red wine. We don’t want to want to get anyone in trouble or be called as witnesses for international extradition proceedings, so that’s all we’re going to say.
The next day (morning, somehow, an organizational miracle) we visited Intelli Silver Lake, where we breakfasted on something called an “Egg Slut” and more or less took over the cafe. (The fact that the cafe did manage to stay open for regular business throughout our visit is a testament to the prodigious abilities of the staff, as well as the fact that very few people are awake in Silver Lake on a Sunday until around noon.) From there it was back to the roast works, to cup the competitive roasts from the day before, and then to the hotel, where Intelligentsia presented its producers with a vision of what they can expect from their Direct Trade relationships going forward. (Hint: exponential growth, ambition, increased quality, and an Ecco Roasting facility to be opened in San Francisco within a matter of months.) At one point, Geoff Watts asked the producers, “Who here has garnered awards for their coffees?” and nearly every hand in the room shot up. This is sort of like walking into a short story workshop and asking, “Who here has been given an O. Henry award?”, or querying a room full of professional baseball players, “Who here has won a Golden Glove?” – a unified affirmative response means you are, indeed, in rarefied air. Only the most cynical coffee enthusiast could fail to be wowed in that moment. These are all producers who’ve benefitted from working closely with Intelligentsia and are able to better market their stunning coffees to coffee buyers world-wide.
The weekend closed out with an intricate, carefully managed 6 course coffee and small plates tasting menu at Intelli Pasadena. The menu for our dinner is available below:
Next year’s ECW is slated for Chicago. For an event that nearly didn’t happen this year (it is boggling that this event came together in only a few short months, just boggling), we count the Extraordinary Coffee Workshop as being among our very favorite experiences since the inception of this website. To the people at Intelligentsia, but moreover, the producers from around the world who joined us all in California to share in the joy of their coffees, we say “thank you”.