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Spillin’ Beans, Week of 11/22/2014

I’m continually amazed at the new things brewing on a nearly daily basis in our North Dakota coffee community. What a dilemma to have! Here’s a roundup from the last few days.

  • Youngblood Coffee connected its Facebook followers with another up-and-coming Fargo roaster, 20 Below Coffee Co. That’s fellowship in action, folks.
  • Another in-house roaster and cafe, Stumbeano’s Coffee Bar, announced the first ever Fargo Barista Jam comin’ on December 11 from 5-8pm. Open to the public — BYOB (Bring Your Own Barista).
  • A little birdy told me that Dutton’s is roasting in-house as well! I’m sensing a theme…
  • Mighty Missouri Coffee Co. keeps teasing us about big announcements. After the gorgeous packaging rework, we’re on tenterhooks. (Or maybe it’s too much caffeine. Either way!)

Keep up with all the changes as they happen by liking Little Cup’s Facebook page. And pass along anything you’d like to promote!

We Be Jammin’, We Be Jammin’…

A group needs only two things to be a tribe: a shared interest and a way to communicate. — Seth Godin

Keep Calm 'cuz We Jammin'

On returning from Coffee Fest in Portland, Oregon last month — where I had latte art served to me in a 4 oz paper cup by a competitor from Japan, and OD’d on smoothie mix samples and single origin brews — I pivoted the next day and ran off to Fargo for a bit of a local Coffee Crawl.

Mind you, I did this not because I totes hadn’t had enough caffeine the previous ten days. (Well, not counting those 27 hours on the Empire Builder, because come on… Amtrak coffee *shudder*.)

No, on my final day in Portland, during my last hour prior to boarding the train, I’d visited my New Favorite Coffee Spot in a town full to the brim with beans — Ristretto Roasters. Why so special, you may ask? The company I was keeping? Well, yes, my daughter and her close friends, of course. The Steampunk Brewer? Awesome. The fresh (read: soft, wut) salami and a baguette with an olive oil dip? Unique in my experience. As memorable as all that is, they weren’t necessarily at the forefront of my mind back home in North Dakota, not as much as the answer I gave to the friendly Ristretto barista’s question: So what did you like best about Coffee Fest?

The community, was my response, without hesitation. The way I could geek out in a convention center full of my fellow coffee wonks, and nobody blinked. I come from a Star Trek fan background (don’t judge me), so I well know the look and feel of silent ostracism from mundanes as I drone on and on about anything from starships to Japanese Iced Coffee. I’d just experienced three days of absolute inclusion, bathed in attention from over 300 vendors. Yes, capitalism at work, but you don’t make a living in coffee or tea without drowning yourself in it willingly.

So of course, I touch nearly frozen home ground and take off for the nearest growing coffee community. I was looking for my peeps, my homies, my Tribe a la Seth Godin. Even with only a few hours to indulge, I was not disappointed.

At the newly-opened Classic Rock Coffee, I had the pleasure of meeting one of the only North Dakota baristas who enthustiastically wants to compete. Let me qualify that — one of the only ones I’ve met so far. Barista competitions and latte art throwdowns aren’t that well known even outside of larger coffee circles, except when the media has featured it as an interesting outlier. A strange hobby, a bit of an obsession. Surely nothing normal like painting your body in the colors of your favorite sports team in freezing temps and… well, my point.

Barista competition is rare to non-existent in North Dakota. But the community is beginning to gel, because with obsession — common or unusual — comes the desire to commune with others who also obsess, fiddle, learn, educate, and share.

Fargo's Barista Jam

Lookit all the cool stuff!

Which brings me in a round about way to my main subject, the first Fargo Barista Jam, being held at Stumbeano’s Coffee Bar on December 11.

I’ve watched jealously as Jam sessions have been held regularly in MSP, and on an annual basis in Bozeman, MT. Jealously, because I’ve been unable to attend because of distance and time. They focus on a shared love of coffee and espresso, getting to know fellow baristas, testing out new (or old) coffees, methods, gear, and skills. Demonstrations, lessons, and a good old-fashioned latte art competition for those who love a good challenge. And mostly, it’s great fun, because the focus isn’t on the who, but on the what, and how we as coffee professionals and aficionados alike can raise our personal bar one evening, then take it home to our respective shops and homes and get better at coffee all for the love of it.

It’s about time we find and connect our tribe, and this is a very good way to start. We’re closer together than we all think.

Will you be going to the Barista Jam? Let me know in the comments, I’d love to connect!

Of Jams and Saltation

First things first: Stumbeano’s Coffee is hosting the very first Fargo Barista Jam at their Fargo location on Thursday, December 11! GO HERE FOR INFO AND TO RSVP. And more thoughts about this later on.

Sunrise over the North Dakota prairie.

The advantage of a prairie commute to make coffee.

Now for some housekeeping: this Little Cup blog is going to evolve in the next few weeks. As with all living things, evolution takes its time, finds its own path as it goes along, and eventually settles into a comfortable, sustainable groove. And sometimes, it grows by leaps and bounds, a la Punctuated Equilibrium or Saltation. (I know, Wiki. It’s the internet.)

Also, epigenetics, but that’s on a more personal level and for another post.

Important Disclaimer Information Ahead!
Since July 2014, I’ve been managing Plantation Coffee Bar in Jamestown, ND. My personal huzzahs! aside, there are implications for the Little Cup on the Prairie blog. I’ve discussed this with my terrific employers, and after much cogitation on my part, I think I have this figured out for the most part.

  1. Any and all opinions expressed in Little Cup are solely those of its owner, me, Kim Watson, and do not reflect on Plantation Coffee Bar or its owners or staff in any way.
  2. Little Cup will not be covering anything specific in coffee with regards to the Jamestown area. This extends out to a radius of fifty miles, and includes the Carrington and Valley City areas. Little Cup does reserve the right to cover newsworthy events put on by local establishments in the interest of building up the coffee community as a whole.
  3. Little Cup will on occasion highlight Plantation Coffee Bar and their events after consultation with its owners and with full repeated disclosure of my association with them.

I’ll add to these items as needed, ’cause hey, I’ve never done this before.

Gee, Why So Formal?
It’s important that my readers, current and future, and the coffee community as a whole have a clear understanding of what my intention is with this blog. I love coffee. (Dur.) I love my homestate of North Dakota. (Double Dur.)

And the collision of two things I love creates a Venn Diagram I can get behind one hundred percent. Especially as I’m watching the growth of both things unfold at an amazing speed before my very eyes! Add to the mix my inability to shut up about stuff I really like and the connectivity of social media, and… well, just ask my husband. (Or don’t, probably.)

At the same time, I need to make sure everyone knows both where I’m coming from and in what direction I want to guide this blog, with course corrections along the way.

  • I’m all about the quality of coffee, but I understand that not everyone experiences it the same way.
  • I’m a huge supporter of community, and a believer in the power of common interests.
  • I love the people that are drawn to coffee culture.
  • I’m a geek, a nerd, a collector, an observer, and a bit of an overenthusiastic nutball at times.

I also strive to be honest, transparent, trustworthy, and objective. Which is why I pledge to do the best I can to promote North Dakota coffee culture in general within the self-imposed restrictions due my professional life in coffee.

In other words, I’ll work very hard to be fair, and openly invite you to call me out if I’m not.

What’s Next?
So with that in mind, I’ll briefly reference Evolution. I’m even more aware of the struggle that rural establishments face that more urban environments don’t really have to think much about. Like access to suppliers, repair, and delivery; difficulties in advertising, outreach, and hiring; ongoing training, social interaction and building on community. All taken for granted in many ways by shops large and small on the coasts, or in Chicago, or even within the up-and-coming Twin Cities coffee world. And all potential obstacles to growth or basic success in towns like Harvey, ND or Lusk, WY.

There’s a distinct possibility that Little Cup will be extending its Prairie horizons to include even more of “fly-over country” outside of ND state borders, because while it’s not really an Us-Vs-Them, City Mouse/Country Mouse world — and coffee culture growth is booming in all fifty states — as of now I’m not aware of anyone really speaking for the challenges that nearly anyone outside of the 166 Combined Statistical Areas* face when creating and operating a coffee space in these environs.

Or anyone just looking for great coffee culture to soak up, or soak in. We all know it’s there, from the unexpected Uber boiler in Jamestown, North Dakota, to the Annual Barista Jams held in Bozeman, Montana, all the way to Eight and Ninth Place North Central US Barista (second-time in 2014) competitors from Coffea Roasterie in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. I’m gearing up to see if I can do something about that, too.

In the meantime, sit back in your comfy chair, reach out to your fellow coffee lovers, and have a nice warm cuppa. It helps with the cogitation.

(* For regional reference, in the grand scheme of 570 Metropolitan and Micropolitan Core Based Statistical areas, we have Fargo (167), Sioux Falls (168), Bismarck (259), Grand Forks (288), Helena, MT (316)… and Jamestown (550).)

What would you like Little Cup to cover in the future? Let me know in the comments!

Beating the Winter Blues

So I’ve been AWOL for a bit.

Seems that winter gets the best of me as it bears down on our area. Like the prairie grasses and the fat grey squirrels, I wait it out, hunched up underneath my blankets until I can feel the sunshine on my cold, cold bones and suddenly the greening begins against my will and catches me by surprise. Have I been hibernating? Am I blind? There’s light outside my window that wasn’t there last week.

We aren’t exactly there, yet, but it’s coming. I can feel it.

Winter also presents new challenges for a coffee blog that highlights a large state with a spread out population, making it a bit difficult to sample what North Dakota has to offer. Best laid plans to hit up new places get waylaid by waves of the Polar Vortex. We should count our common sense blessings that at least The Weather Channel hasn’t named our storms. Yet.

I have managed to sample a couple of places in Bismarck. (Disappointing, but in fairness I’m withholding judgment as well as a post, until next time.)

I’ve stuck close to home, drawing peace and inspiration from time spent at The Garden Gate in Carrington, and giving Plantation Coffee Bar and Babb’s a lot of business on my treks to Jamestown.

If I could get back to Devils Lake regularly, I’d frequent The Liquid Bean, and very dearly miss the presence of Phyllis and Royce at North Dakota Coffee Connection while looking forward to meeting the new owners.

I crave the coziness of Grain Bin Coffee in Harvey, especially on frigid snowy days when those overstuffed chairs would be mighty comfy to spend an hour or two with my tablet.

My solace at home has come in the form of fresh roasted single origin beans from Mighty Missouri Coffee Company in Bismarck. I’m still sipping on their Guatemalan that stood head and shoulders above anything I’d had since November, even from nationally known roasters. The Brazilian Cerrado I picked up from Plantation pushed for a very close second, changing my jaded view of batch brewing.

Always, though, my own shots pulled from Aspera the Astra were the most satisfying, not because they were perfect but because I wrestled with them, albeit infrequently, and with a little aid from one of the above establishments I’ve begun to master the art of microfoaming milk.

(Don’t underestimate the microfoam. Don’t.)

(Seriously.)

But just as a young man’s fancy turns lightly to thoughts of luurv, (thank you, Alfred, Lord Tennyson), so do my thoughts wander down the icy roads and warming sunlight as it sets after six. Where do I want to go? What do I want to drink? Who is new? What haven’t I seen or experienced?

Forget Winter. Spring is coming. Get me out of here.

Where would you like to see the Little Cup explore? What’s so special about your favorite stops?

Big Central Competition! (That would include US… NEXT YEAR, YO!)

Just in case you didn’t realize that Coffee is a Contact Sport.

Via Sprudge (think New York Post for coffee enthusiasts), we have Day One coverage of the Big Central competition for the US Barista Championships and Brewers Cup! Hosted in Minneapolis this year (and oh how jealous I am), the Big Central Region covers the entire central section of the US, from ND to Texas, and Michigan to Louisiana. And that’s a LOT of great coffee places — Intelligentsia (Chicago), MadCap (Grand Rapids), Cuvee (Austin,), Dogwood (St. Paul/Minneapolis, go Josh!), Colectivo (Milwaukee, formerly Alterra), and packing the competition is Kaldi’s with FOUR, count ‘em, FOUR shot-pullers (St. Louis).

All inspirational, all quality, all treating coffee like the fun and srs bznss that it is.

If you’re a geek like me, make sure you check out the performance videos — or go all-out and spend your weekend watching the livestream (who needs stoopid football, anyway?).

So where are we? Even South Dakota is in the game this year, with two baristas from Coffea Roasterie in Sioux Falls!

COME ON. SOUTH DAKOTA. ARE WE GOING TO STAND FOR THAT??!!??

We have some really slam-bang up-and-coming coffee spots percolating around the state. It would be fantabulous if we had a gaggle of baristi at the 2015 competitions! Who’s game?

North Dakota Represent!

(For your viewing pleasure, the previous Big Central winner, Pete Licata. Yes, this is a Real Thing and Pete is awesome! *fangirls*)

This is what a Latte Art Throwdown looks like. In Arkansas!

Onyx Coffee Lab in Fayetteville, Arkansas hosted a Throwdown for Baristas in their metro area. What a beautiful space to highlight — and an inviting event. Fun!

http://vimeo.com/75573219

Fayetteville proper has a population of 76K, their four county metro area is only double Fargo’s region. A Barista Jam or Throwdown is totally doable.

2014, I’m looking at you.

Do you know a Barista who takes part in Art? Let’s get in touch!

Learning to Fly

“That’ll never fly here.”
— Well-meaning curmudgeon

The good people of North Dakota don’t much care for change, in many ways. And for good reason. One glance at most of the world around us and you’ll find a litany of ticks in the column of Bad Things In Life that have either failed to show up here or are very slow in coming. Being semi-Luddite is considered a plus in places, leaving ND as an oasis of common sense in a world where break-ins are but a nuisance to police, while little girl lemonade stands are a public health hazard.

Seriously, what?

Here, we live in a bit of a bubble that for whatever reason has kept lots of positive things in and many negative things out.

Sounds like a recipe for stagnation, but that’s not the case. North Dakota was the first state to be completely wired, including the largest fiber optic network in the country. Ask any farmer — any — if he could do without his GPS in his tractor. Two-thirds of all phone service is conducted via cell, making us fourth-highest nationally in wireless-only households. Higher than California. (!)

And need I bring up fracking technology?

In the culinary arts, though, we seem to turn to comfort food — fair burgers and kuchen, church suppers and lefse, sticky buns, summer sausage, and a home-grown garden tomato.

Oh, and beer. We drink a lot of beer here, too.

So where does this “coffee culture” stuff fit in? There’s nothing wrong with a warm thermos of Folgers, but what about “expresso” (sic)? Is it just a frou frou fad, or is it of the devil? Or does it fit somewhere in between?

When, in the early Oughts, I mentioned that a coffee house would make a lovely addition to the declining downtown, a local curmudgeon — well-meaning and sincerely caring about the future of his town — harumphed to me, “That’ll never fly here!”

I can understand his skepticism. North Dakota was still battling a decades-long population decline and brain drain of young people. Services and worldly consumerism centered in the four big cities. (Two, if you believed the Red River to border on the edge of civilization — or at least the worlds of UND and NDSU.) And while Starbucks was the stuff of legend with venti tales brought back from journeys through far-flung airports or the Mall of America, it was always considered Too Outside, too blue-sky for North Dakota. Even getting a Subway Sandwich shop was a BFD for any small town. McDonald’s? A pipe dream.

So “fancy coffee,” like indoor water parks, was reserved for vacations, reunions, or weekend shopping trips. Unless you were college-bound.

But a funny thing happened on the way to the decline and fall of Great Plains Civilization. First, the world economy tanked, and North Dakota was left standing as the only state with a budget surplus and unemployment under three percent (thank the Luddites). Then, as demonstrated by the existence of the platypus, we found that God has a sense of humor, and he gave us Oil.

Black Gold. Texas Tea.

Well the next thing you know, our out-migration problem reversed, full-throttle, helping drive our population to an all-time historical high. With no jobs in popular (read: warmer) states and plenty here on the “frozen tundra,” the influx of outsiders from all over the country brought both good and evil to our way of life — a story for another blog. But they also arrived with a thirsty habit for specialty coffee. And if there’s one thing we know about Americans and their habits — we love them, we want them now, and by god, we’ll pay for them if it’s the last thing we do.

This is illustrated by the exaggerated so-called Death of the Four Dollar Coffee, compliments of the past (and current) Recession. While yes, Starbucks closed a few stores and re-emphasized a more practically-priced cup, it turns out they and the industry proper not only weathered the storm but actually grew since 2007. No matter how much Katie Couric wanted Howard Schultz to admit it just wasn’t working anymore.

How does all that fly in North Dakota, then? To paraphrase Spiderman’s Uncle: with great growth comes great responsibility — to be open to positive change, to be willing to offer the people what they want and grow our local economies in the process. We need to be a teensy bit cutting-edge while retaining our heritage of wait-and-see. Our small and large towns want to attract workers and new residents, and to do that we need to make it worth their while to stick around. A little more like the home they came from, with the added benefit of remaining true to ourselves.

To show the world that we can have our espresso and drink it, too.

So we have small cafes and big chains, over a hundred of them, sprinkled around the state, with more popping up every day. Drive-thrus and sit-downs. Home decor shops and college-age coops. And, for the first time, we are seeing shops that roast their own, or do pourovers and siphons, that offer cold-brew, and pull shots off of machines we have to work at to pronounce… shops that take the culture of coffee more seriously because there is a market for that. And we see more rural downtowns with “Espresso” signs in the window, attracting the school kids and the widows and the working women — along with the farmer and the truck driver and, by heaven, even the well-meaning curmudgeon once in a while.

(I’ve seen him there. Just don’t let on.)

We Luddites are flapping our coffee wings as hard as we can around here, on the verge of the next practical step. And God knows, we’re all about being practical, even while we engage in the risky dreams of rural living.

Taking off is just a matter of time.