In late February of 2014, Sprudge.com co-founder and editor Jordan Michleman traveled to Houston, Texas for a weekend series of events in partnership with Mahlkönig, InterAmerican Coffee, and Blacksmith. Fast-forward a month and he is back in Portland, Oregon, where perhaps coincidentally, the Trail Blazers are set to take on the Houston Rockets in round one of the 2014 NBA Playoffs.
For many years Sprudge has wanted to throw a series of events with the coffee community in Houston, which I consider to be one of the most culturally important, fascinating and fun cities in North America. Earlier this year that wish came true, in the form of an event weekend that included a cupping at InterAmerican Coffee, an international open house event with Mahlkönig at Blacksmith, one of Houston's leading cafes, and an edition of Blacksmith By Night featuring Chef Chris Shepherd of Underbelly. Sprudge.com is proudly partnered with Mahlkönig and InterAmerican; Blacksmith is owned and operated by David Buehrer, who also owns roaster Greenway Coffee alongside his longtime partner Ecky Probanto, both of whom I consider friends and ambassadors for the city of Houston itself. And like a cherry on top, Everyman Espresso‘s Sam Lewontin (2013 North East Regional Barista Champion) flew in from New York City, taking part in the cupping and open house and working full guest shifts at Blacksmith throughout the weekend.
These are the kinds of events we dreamed of throwing when Sprudge first started. Here's what went down.
Cupping at InterAmerican Coffee Importers
Opening the weekend by creating a cupping rally point at InterAmerican meant that I'd see familiar faces over the next few days. Good coffee in Houston isn't new, but the vibrancy and shared intent of the community here is something really special right now, and InterAmerican is an important part of that, thanks to their work with the city's growing microroaster scene.
Costa Rica Especial Vindas, a Kenya Peaberry, and an Indonesia Sumatra Lintong were popular standouts on the table assembled by IA. Around 40 Houstonians gathered for the event, willing to drive miles and miles in the pre-traffic afternoon in order to attend. (Although to be fair, like Los Angeles, everything in Houston is miles and miles away, a fact that has long since been integrated into various orders of Houston culture). By far the most special attendee was a darling baby girl named Linea. Yes, like the La Marzocco espresso machine.
Following the cupping we held a get-together at Pho Binh By Night, part of the Pho Binh family of restaurants widely considered the among the best pho purveyors in Houston, if not America. This would not be my only time at Pho Binh on this trip.
International Open House at Blacksmith with Mahlkönig:
After a day spent crawling some of Houston's best cafes (watch for more from that in an upcoming feature), David Buehrer and his staff at Blacksmith set up shop for an open house event, held in partnership with Mahlkönig. With their international headquarters in Germany, the folks at Mahlkönig have relationships with fine roasters around the world, which means they were able to source some pretty special stuff for Kyle Ramage of Mahlkönig USA to bring to this event.
JB Kaffee (Germany) – Ethiopia Worka
Public Coffee Roasters (Germany) – Honduras San Vicente
Coffee Collective (Denmark) – Kenya Nyeri
The Barn (Germany) – Ethiopia Mesele Haille
Solberg & Hansen (Norway) – Costa Rica Cerro Alto
Tim Wendelboe (Norway) – Colombia Finca Tamana, Ethiopia Hunkute
Nylon (Singapore) – Ethiopia Konga Cooperative, Kenya Kangocho AB, Colombia Acevedo
Coutume Cafe (France) – Burundi Sogestal Kayanza
I was really impressed by how hands-on and welcoming this event was, without much division between the pros and the enthusiasts in the crowd. Coffee service at Blacksmith happens on a Nuova Simonelli Aurelia T3, with single origin espressos prepared on a La Marzocco GS/3 espresso machine. This lineup was supplemented at the open house by multiple Mahlkönig grinders, including a K-30 Twin and EK43. There was also a very special machine on hand, a heavily modified La Marzocco GS/3 Shot Brewer built by Nicholas Lundgaard, a Houston engineer who's also an active moderator at Home-Barista.com. Lundgaard's Shot Brewer has an upgraded water pump, and a voltage regulator/exchanger that allows him to control water pressure.
After the event we went back to Pho Binh By Night. It seems a sleeper choice, but the pho ga (chicken soup) at Pho Binh is superlative. You can order this dish dry, with soup on the side, allowing for careful regulation of the interaction between broth, noodles, meat, and veggies. It is without a doubt the best pho ga I've ever had.
I enjoyed plenty of Houston barbecue during my 72 hours there, by which I mean Chinese, Vietnamese, Indian and Mexican styles of barbecue. If you want boot scootin' and pork ribs, they've got that too, but Houston is first and foremost a city whose culinary identity is defined by wildly good family-owned restaurants from a wide range of immigrant cultures. Houston has one of the best taco trucks I've ever tried–Tacos Tierra Caliente–and some of the best Indian food I've ever had — Himalaya–and the aforementioned very, very good pho at Pho Binh, and much more. Imagine the borough of Queens, but spread out like LA, and with the Gulf of Mexico as a kind of agricultural thru-line.
Blacksmith by Night With Chris Shepherd
Blacksmith By Night is one of the truly unique coffee events happening in the world right now, and built on a concept I'd love to see inspire parallel expressions in cities beyond Houston. One Sunday night each month, David Buehrer and his staff close Blacksmith at 5:00pm, then reopen as a restaurant at 5:01pm, under the guidance of different chefs and restaurant teams across Houston.
I was unfortunately unable to take photographs of this event, preoccupied as I was with DJ'ing the night's proceedings. Houston isn't fun just because of the food: the music culture of Houston is incredibly rich, and I've been a fan of it since someone burned me a CD of 3 n' the Mornin' (Part Two) back in high school. What a pleasure, then, to play around 3 hours of Houston music at at giant event in Houston, dug in behind an improvised DJ station created by placing a baking pan on top of a sink, with coffee and food service buzzing all around me.
BSBN that night was hosted by Chris Shepherd of Underbelly, a two-time James Beard Award finalist and a Food And Wine Magazine Best New Chef. He's also a cafe regular at Blacksmith, which is located on the same piece of Westheimer Avenue as Underbelly, The Hay Merchant, and Anvil, all part of the same restaurant group. Dinner that night included dishes like smoked bologna tacos, foie gras peanut butter cups, a smoked brisket Monte Cristo sandwich, and a “beef teriyaki” that was actually one giant half'd beef leg bone, with teriyaki glaze and seaweed salad over the marrowy bits. This is food as a set of dualities: comfortable and complex, crowd-pleasing and challenging, familiar yet full of surprises. Houston on a plate, basically, and enormously impressive.
Here's a selection of what got played on the loudspeaker. I was praised by the Houstonian kitchen crew for this set, which is basically like the highest compliment I've ever received in my life.
H.A.W.K. (feat. Big T) – You Already Know
Fat Pat – Tops Drop
Big Moe (feat. Z-Ro and Tyte Eyez) – City Of Syrup
Devin The Dude – Doobie Ashtray (chopped & screwed)
DJ DMD (feat. Fat Pat and Lil' Keke) – 25 Lighters
Mike Jones (feat. Slim Thug & Paul Wall) – Still Tippin'
Lil' Keke – Southside
Fat Pat – Ghetto Dreams
Z-Ro – Mo City Don
UGK – Diamonds & Wood
DJ Screw – We Got The Hook Up (and much more from the seminal June 27th Screw Tape)
Truly, a good time was had by all. I left a quick three days in Houston feeling like I'd been there for weeks, and unsure how to tell the entire story. There's so much I'm leaving out–look for more Houston coverage in the form of a cafe guide in the coming weeks–and to the city itself, well, thanks for having me. Basically all I did was eat good food and drink delicious beverages for 72 hours, and it was great. I predict the Blazers in six against the Rockets, but if I'm wrong, that's okay too. Have a free drink for me at the Hay Merchant if Houston wins.
Top photo of the beer line room in Hay Merchant by Jordan Michelman for Sprudge.com.