Adventures in Cup Tasting...

Yesterday, I tried my best when I competed in the inaugural City Wide Cup Taster's event held by Alterra. The object of the contest was simple: of each trio of brewed coffee, the contestant chooses the cup that is not like the others. The face off was made a bit more challenging by competing head to head with another taster, tasting 4 sets (of 3 cups each), and doing it accurately while being timed. Though a 5 minute cap was given, most tasters were able to nail down their choices within 2 to 3, with some snappy tongues nailing them all spot on in under a minute.

Alterra Prospect's new patio

The coffees were also brewed meticulously to the same strength, and the same coffees were used in all of the brackets. Then, all 24 tasting cups per set of contestants were wheeled to the tasting area, given time to cool a bit and sucked up (noisily, or not) by the competitors.

I didn't really know what to expect when trying to identify the odd cup, but I don't think I was expecting them to be as similar as they were. And, I didn't anticipate myself feeling quite as nervous as I was... like I knew I was about to fail a test that I had studied weeks for. I didn't actually do any preliminary studying so to speak, I just tried not to eat any wicked hot peppers on anything for a few days. (That's actually kinda hard to do.)

The staging area.

As I watched the left hand side of the brackets, the mostly Alterra employees seemed professional to me in their slurping styles: bent at the waist and hovering closely over the cups, tasting spoons in hand. I did expect them all to pretty much nail every set, but some did and some did not. It was explained that the differences in coffee are easier to taste as the liquid reaches body temperature - which I did find to be true personally. I won my first bracket, but perhaps because the coffee was easier to taste due to a cooler temperature on my next round, I felt like I tasted them faster and more confidently, and then was promptly eliminated.

I didn't feel too bad, since I did have a great time and was finally able to put a name on so many familiar Alterran faces that I've seen over the years. And, just before I took off, I got a stack of lightly used green coffee cups - since I was feeling kind of crafty. Occasionally, I have too much time on my hands and make recycled scenes out of coffee cups. Yep. Pretty labor intensive. Especially since I tend to be a perfectionist with this sort of thing. If you fancy having a recycled box of Alterra art for your very own, keep an eye on my flickr photostream, and when I complete my next one, I will be giving it away to a flickr commenter!

It was a Wonka-like Christmas, looking under the cups to see if that little red dot was under my choices, funny also that I could remember which cups I knew full well were frustrated guesses and which ones I believed heart and soul to be correct. That's the luck of the draw in cup tasting, especially under duress of the ticking clock. I sure hope I'll be able to do it again sometime.

Cup Taster's Championship Milwaukee!

As a solid devotee of Alterra coffee for some 10 years, I am more than excited that I will be able to participate in the first ever Cup Taster's event on Thursday! As I understand it, this is the first time that this event has been open to the public, a contest to identify the odd cup of coffee in each series of 3 cups served. I have never been a "taster" in any event to date, save perhaps wine pairings in my own eating out for pleasure, so I'm curious to see where my palate racks up compared to other novice tasters. Of course, there will be plenty of pressure involved with professional Alterra tasters on hand as well - but I believe that we novices will taste separately from the Alterra professionals.

There are still a few open spots for anyone interested in participating, just send an email to as soon as you are able. It will likely be an afternoon and evening full of entertainment, since the event is coinciding with a Milwaukee Film Festival party -Alterra is one of the sponsors of this year's festival.

So even if you don't feel up to the challenge of tasting, (and you aren't already attending the Banned: Books, Bites & Libations event at the Great Lakes Distillery), head over to the Prospect Avenue location on Thursday and observe the tasting. I stopped in to the newly renovated space last week, and, as always, the design of the new building is stunning. Huge cafe areas with community and private tables, beautiful natural light from huge skylights, and a spacious patio area that I'm assuming is at least 3 season worthy. (A few pics of the new cafe renovation can be found on meanlittleseed's flickr photostream...)

I can't wait to see how well I'm able to taste under pressure... Hope to see you there!

Glimpses of Greatness and Grilled Cheeses

The last two evenings were spent completely (or maybe just somewhat completely) outside of my comfort zone. Wednesday, Sasa and I went to a Farm to Table dinner at La Merenda, in support of the movie Fresh which is screening here next week (4/19-21, 2010 at the Downer Landmark Theater). La Merenda is in the industrial Walker's Point neighborhood, just north of the Allen Bradley clock, as you can see:

We arrived just before our 7 o'clock dinner reservation, unsure of what to expect. It is a very intimate and somewhat dark space, with poured concrete counters and floors, but tastefully lightened by brightly painted cinder block walls. A smiling bartender when we walked through the front door was my first impression, and a lasting one as he recommended a great Spanish Tempranillo that Sasa enjoyed.

Our dinner was four courses, with a focus on local and sustainably farmed meats and produce. Photography skill is put to the test in a room like this, and I think I failed to capture the ambiance, which really was quite lovely. Chef Peter Sandroni talked briefly on the restaurants commitment to local food, and thanked us for supporting the local restaurant scene.

This may be where it gets a bit tricky... since parts of each course were truly great. Amazing even. But as a whole, each dish left just a little something that I wanted to love and just didn't. One thing I did love was this amazing cheese on the first course: a Montchevre Honey Goat Cheese from Belmont, Wisconsin. It was lightly breaded and pan fried, and was really outstanding.

As the evening progressed, I have more and more dimly lit pictures. I actually liked the sodium light colored hue the orange walls added to the atmosphere, although it really does nothing to accentuate my food photography! I have a slew of pictures over at flickr that I will annotate with other happy moments in this dinner. I am also planning to check out La Merenda again, and try some additional small plates.

Last night, my Husband and I carpooled with Peef and Lo, and Sonja - another blogger from Milwaukee by way of Boston. We had full circle discussions about food on our ride out to Madison for the celebration of the new website Grilled Cheese Academy. This site, produced by the Wisconsin Milk Marketing board is drop dead gorgeous - full of inspirational cheese sandwiches of the grilled variety. You may not think twice about a grilled cheese, but it is indeed inspired eating, especially when prepared by L'Etoile's Chef Tory Miller.

The small Cafe Soleil rests beneath its parent restaurant, where unfortunately, I have never eaten. I was a little wrapped up in chatting (further reading will have to be done here after meeting another Milwaukee food blogger - Mel!), and not as conscious of my surroundings as I am when I'm alone... but when my Husband noted that Chef Miller looks really excited about what he's doing, I had to pay attention and agree. This is the type of passion that makes everyone as excited about a grilled cheese sandwich as he is - and not to mention that the sandwich combinations that the Grilled Cheese Academy showcases on their site are solid recipes. Epicurean grilled cheese sandwiches for people who love to cook, and some that are easy enough for a quick throw together. There is also a section for recipe submissions, so if you feel that you have a worthy contender, you can submit!

The above specimen was one of my favorites: The Monroe. Bacon, Limberger cheese, spinach, onions and fig jam happily playing together in one sandwich. I have never eaten Limberger before, and I have to say it was much different that I was expecting. It was delicious! Another of my favorites was this one:

The Biloxi. Pulled pork, coleslaw and bread and butter pickles. I actually ate two samples of this one, even though I ran out of room and it meant I didn't get to try each variety. Next to each plate of grilled cheese samples, were a couple of different varieties of Wisconsin beer, and I have to say I was more than a bit surprised how expertly paired up they were. Granted, I could have been more scholarly and written everything down, but that would have deterred me from my gusto in sampling. I forgot to mention the rocky piles of cheese cubes, little bites of Wisconsin cheese in a nice range of every flavor imaginable: blues, fontina and even a raspberry one that was particularly good. I have also downloaded a set of photos to flickr, and will try to annotate later today as I remember...but do remember that the Grilled Cheese Academy website has a recipe for each and every mouthwatering photo on their site! Way to go, Wisconsin Milk Board! Also be sure to check out other Wisconsin blog and food blog pages over the next few days to read more on their takes of this event as well.

When it comes down to it, I think the past couple of days have taught me a few things. I love to eat, I can have a critical palate, and I definitely know what I like and why, but what I really love is being enslaved to my kitchen, concocting and tweaking and testing - and then writing about it. I have a deep sense of appreciation for professionals that are able to make food and serve others, and it is fun to go and see what is out there, especially when the whole food experience is akin to live theater. But to have the pleasure to cook and bake in my own home is much more rewarding to me than reviewing.

I recall writing some paper in college in which I used this quote, and I believe that it was to the same effect: that I would rather "stoke the star maker machinery behind the popular song" (that was Joni Mitchell, by the way). I am not introverted, but do walk that fine line. While attempting more events is no doubt in my future, I am absolutely content to keep my "day job", blissful as it is, and immerse myself fully in the wonders of flours and other such things.

Great Lakes Regional Barista Competition

Yesterday morning, I got to experience firsthand the United States Barista Championships. My own obsession, Alterra Coffee, was hosting the Great Lakes Regional Barista Event at Discovery World Museum, and going into the bright, long corridor where the competition machines were set up, I really had no idea what to expect.

I knew that this was going to be some hardcore competition, however...

Each contestant has 15 minutes to make 12 drinks, 3 each for a 4 person judging panel. You can find the official rules and regulation here, but the gist is that the contestant has to complete 3 rounds of drinks (espresso, cappuccino and a signature drink containing espresso), while educating the tasting panel on the tasting notes and injecting a fair amount of his/her own personality into the theatrical aspect of the performance. This was done in a number of ways, my favorite being by Alterra's own Colin Whitcomb when he coordinated his music so well that after he described the peach cream he concocted for his signature drink, Prince's song Cream came over the loud speakers. Pretty impressive. The regional contest winners will advance to the National and ultimately the World Barista Championships held this year in London.

It was difficult to see, and I had to channel my inner Superman to hear, but I was fascinated by the creativity of these Baristas. Day one of the 3 day run began yesterday at 11, and the first contestant was a very poised and confident Chris Deferio from The Coffee Institute in Muncie, Indiana. He explained right away that he was new to the Midwest, and was using a reduction of sorghum syrup, which is a regional favorite in Indiana. We could actually smell the caramelizing syrup as he prepared the drinks, something that had to give high marks to Mr. Deferio.

I was also impressed at the array of flavors employed for the signature drinks. Expertly pulling the notes from their coffees, each contestant I watched gleaned fruits and herb flavors from coffee beans that I'd liken to the skills of the best mixologists. I watched as a blackberry pulp was strained into a cocktail shaker, homemade bitters accented by oranges were dropped into the bottoms of espresso cups, and in which the flavors of gin were extracted into their base notes and added to a drink that could contain no alcohol.

My favorite live moments, as I only stayed for the first 5 contestants, were as Tinuade Oyelowo from Metropolis Coffee in Chicago rocked out to A-Ha and Cindy Lauper as she sang her way around her performance, and as Colin kept the judges alert by snapping his fingers and clapping his hands for emphasis. Of course, I was more than impressed by his attention to musical detail with the final application of the peach cream set to music.

I wished I had unlimited time to hang out (and remember a notebook to record the interesting flavor compositions I saw), but I didn't. I met in person and got to chat with Cody Kinart, another local Alterra contestant (and Flickr contact) that was performing later in the afternoon. He told me about the live streaming, which can be found here, and I tuned in from home to catch him later in the day. Before we left, I had to go get caffeinated, first by this awesome macchiato:

and then by this method, called Areopress. Related somewhat to a French Press, the coffee is placed in a tube and steeped, then forced by air into the cup. I was glad the Barista at hand insisted that we try it, though I was more impressed with it after it "aged" for a few minutes on the walk to the car. He used the Kenya AA coffee that I have been loving at home via plain old drip method lately, and I was totally amazed at the "juice" flavors that he claimed (and correctly so!) would come through.

A short tutorial:

After I got home, I got to see a few more contestants on the live stream. One who stood out due to her use of coconut was first time competitor Allie VanHeyfte of Greyhouse Coffee and Supply in West Lafayette, Indiana. She mentioned her surprise at the melding of coconut and coffee flavors, and used both coconut milk and coconut cream in her signature drink.

I was most excited to see Cody and his drink, since I knew his signature drink was going to use strawberry. This flavor was a complete surprise to me, since I have never before considered strawberry in coffee. He made a mock "custard" out of sweetened condensed milk and yogurt, and layered it with the coffee in martini glasses... all to the tune of Louis Prima, mind you. Brilliant! I was also pleasantly surprised at how much more I could see of the performances via live streaming, since the camera was closer to the action than I could get, and the volume control was in my hands...

Way to go, Cody!

The competition continues today, and runs through tomorrow. You can find the complete competitor schedule here, and can see other (Alterra) local sons Scott Lucey and Nathan Hoida around 12:15 and 2:45 respectively, and local Stone Creek Coffee competitor Cody Taylor around 3:45. The times may run a bit off due to variables, so check your streaming if you are interested in catching these worthwhile performances.

Today's competition starts in about 10 minutes, so you can follow in person or via streaming if you are becoming curious about this amazing event. I think I'll keep tabs throughout the day as I'm able. Good luck to all the Milwaukeeans today, and thank you to Alterra for hosting a really educational event! I know that I am renewed in my appreciation for coffee, and it's many flavors. I will soon be posting many more photos at my flickr site, hopefully accompanied by some more accurate descriptions as I remember them.

Rock - A - Billy, Rockabilly Chili (Contest, that is...)

I thought I was going to be super excited about this year's Rockabilly Chili Contest, held yesterday at the MSOE Kern Center, but I surprised even myself at the extent of my excitement. I was probably equally as excited at getting to hang out a little bit more with Peef and Lo at this event, and also that Jonny Z and Dietrich were both in the DJ booth.

This was the 8th annual fund-raising event for WMSE, and every year I say I want to go and somehow never do. I finally made it there, and I'd say the only bad thing about it is that you can't come close to sampling all of the more than 50 chili's from area restaurants, and that you feel the need for an extra appendage to hold on to chili cups, walk, talk and mingle at the same time.

A coat check would have been a good idea, too. Especially after my theory of starting with the hottest chili I could find, this one from Ball'n Biscuit Catering:

There were a couple of other chili's featuring this Ghost Chile, which I only first heard about from Lo, boasting an unheard of reported 850,000 Scoville heat units. My first bite was really good, I thought the flavors of the chili and the chile were good and I started to think these ghost chiles weren't going to get the best of me. By bite 6, I had tears in my eyes. I walked over to watch Jeff get some Pizza Chili:

and by the time he was served, I was marvelling at how fast those chilies dissipated on my tongue. No more tears, but I still didn't think I felt like trying the other hot hot hot chilis featuring the Ghost Chile.

I opted for Honeypie's rather tame sample, instead.

Then, I mosied over to Hinterland. I've yet to eat at Hinterland, but have heard nothing but great things. One bite of this stuff sealed the deal!

It was delicious, and the best chili there in my opinion. I voted for them, and they came in 1st in the Meat Chili category. It had a sweetness I couldn't put my finger on, and I had to go back and ask them. "Indian spices", they said, and Lo's accomplished palate told her cinnamon, which I couldn't detect until she told me. But then again, I don't always have the best taste identifying abilities. Lo is a professional, and I so greatly enjoyed watching her accurately discover the flavor bases for most of the chili's. (She was also lucky to get to share with her husband, since my Husband had a cold and I didn't want to risk illness - especially when the sun has been out every day for a week!)

We NEED to get this recipe from Hinterland... I will stalk them if necessary.

This veg chili from Riverwest Co-Op was also great, packed with pureed sweet potatoes, pineapple and cilantro. So smooth and tasty, I really could have taken a bath in it. They won best Veggie Chili. They were confident after all, as their "untouchable" sign will tell you.

And I didn't eat the sample from Harley-Davidson's Motor, but loved the hot sauces and vat of cheese display:

There were several other samples I tried, but this last one was probably one of the most memorable: from Roots, the veggie chili had black beans and was garnished with the most amazing avocado "whip". Just equal parts avocado and cream charged in a soda siphon, and whipped into avocado-y heaven. Just the perfect thing to put me over the top.

After years of hearing about it, the Rockabilly Chili Contest lived up to its hype, and my growing anticipations. I can only hope it continues to be a venerable staple in the food events that endear WMSE to me a bit more each year.

Also, be sure to hop over to Peef and Lo's site to check out their take on this event, and head over here to hear the official anthems laid down by Jonny Z and friends... you too will be humming "Rock -a - Billy, rockabilly chili" for the rest of the day, I guarantee it - and that wouldn't be a bad thing either.