Monday, January 19, 2009
I had grand plans of plumbing in a professional espresso machine while I was remodeling the kitchen in our new home. I had been pricing refurbished machines, spoken to the plumbers about running water supply and drains to the buffet area we were building off our eating area, and was all set to go, justifying the indulgence within the larger expense of the entire project.
Then, the espresso machine that we had at the restaurant where I was working failed; water leaked everywhere and when it was opened up for servicing, I saw what a big mess of lime scale and mold it was inside, and had visions of what a similar water leak would do to my new cabinets and wood floors, and decided that a "pro-style" residential unit with a water reservoir instead of direct plumbing would be ok after all.
Framing it in that context allowed me to more easily justify the purchase to my wife (who is the practical one in our family and is forever reining me in) as a net savings of a couple thousand bucks. Pretty slick, eh? It was via this process that I came to be the proud owner of a Rancilio Silvia espresso machine and a Rancilio Rocky grinder.
I'll save my treatise on making coffee with the Silvia for another entry, though. That's a whole long thing in and of itself; suffice to say that people have devoted thousands of pages to discussing
This post is about the coffee I feed my Silvia.
Of course, part of the fun of making espresso at home is trying all sorts of different coffees. I tried all the big commercial brands--Starbucks, Lavazza, and illy, for instance--and then quickly moved on to the smaller, more artisanally-minded roasters.
The Silvia is famously wonky and sensitive, according to the experts over at CoffeeGeek and their discussion boards, so the consensus over there is that the freshness of the beans is of capital importance. The beans must not, I'm told, be more than 10-14 days old (post roasting) or the finished product will suffer.
Someone in one of the discussion threads advised me to find a local small-batch roaster and get to know them...ask them questions, talk about what machine I'm using and what I'm looking for, and learn a bit about the process. A quick web search clued me in to Casteel Coffee in Evanston, which, despite my having lived pretty close by for years, I had never heard of.
What a find they are. It's a small, funky little double storefront on Central right where Evanston turns into Skokie, not too far from Old Orchard mall. They do the retail and cafe out of one side and the roasting is done on the other side. You can look in the window from the sidewalk and see all the roasting equipment, and, if you catch them at the right time, watch the coffee being roasted.
The key is that they roast every day, meaning that regardless of when you go, you'll get beans that are about 5-10 days out. This is worlds away from the big industrially-roasted and packaged brands mentioned above which, who knows when they were roasted and, more importantly, how long they've sat in a warehouse somewhere?
Casteel's employees will tell you when each type of coffee was roasted, so you can choose for yourself, and they write it right on the bag, so you know what your window of opportunity is. I usually buy a few pounds at at time of Lee's Espresso Roast, have them split them up into half-pound bags, pack them into a ziploc, and freeze them until I'm ready to load them into the hopper of my Rocky.
They have a nice little cafe set-up there, and do sell food, although I've never eaten there so I can't vouch for it, and they have a pretty huge assortment of coffee and espresso equipment and accessories. They also have a good selection of organic and fair trade coffees and do a nice cardless coffee club thing where you get a free pound for every nine pounds you buy.
In short, it's a nice little independently-owned place that has been a part of the local community for the past 15 years or so, and it's a pleasure to support places like this.
Oh, and the espresso absolutely rocks. It dribbles out of my Sylvia with a nicely fruity flavor, strong coffee aroma and taste, with great undertones of chocolate and hazelnut. It's never bitter (well, not more than it's supposed to be, anyway) and it's got a wonderful thick, creamy texture and a great rusty red/brown color. It's simply fantastic coffee.
We have a few other well-known roasters in the Chicago area. Intelligentsia is probably the most-often cited by coffee aficionados, and their black cat espresso is a great tasting blend, but Intelligentsia has grown quickly, moving from their original storefront on Broadway to a Bucktown location and then to their current 25,000 square foot facility on Fulton street. They offer tours and barista training classes there, which is very cool, but they're no longer considered a small-batch roaster, and although their coffee is very good, I prefer the personalized service and overall "small"ness that Casteel offers.
I've also tried Metropolis, a Chicago roaster, and Alterra, which is up in Milwaukee, with excellent results. But Casteel is a good fit for me. They're conveniently located, the espresso suits my personal taste, and I get a feeling of satisfaction from supporting a small, independent place where you know that they care about doing things right and you can develop a personal relationship with the owner, the roaster, and the people who work there.
In a world filled with huge, industrialized manufacturers of any foodstuff or comestible you can think of, I try to support little guys who are doing it the old fashioned, artisanal way, and employing local people. Casteel is a fine example of that and so, besides getting very good espresso beans at a fair price, I get to feel like I'm doing something worthwhile and socially redeemable while I'm feeding the caffeine monkey jonesing on my back. Go check them out.
It's a win-win. Yay, coffee!