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So, with [ profile] bigtig and [ profile] susandeer here now, there are other people in the house who occasionally drink coffee. And, hey, that’s good enough to justify buying a new coffee machine, right? Besides, they got me three bags of good coffee for Christmas.

Besides, making coffee with the Chemex every morning was, well, getting kind of annoying. Drip machines have the advantage of requiring a relatively minimal amount of thought to work. They have the disadvantage, though, of… well, usually not making very good coffee.

At least, most of them don’t. This Dalek love child is a “Moccamaster Clubline,” made by Technivorm in the Netherlands. What makes it so special, you may ask?

  • It’s one of a very few coffee machines out there that actually brews coffee at the right temperature: about 200°F, just below boiling.
  • It also brews pretty fast.
  • The coffee’s as good as the Rube Goldberg-ish vacuum pot I have.
  • It’s almost as fun to watch as the vacuum pot.
  • It looks at least as cool.
  • But it’s a lot faster and easier to clean.
  • And most importantly, “Technivorm” sounds like a bad sci-fi movie monster. C’mon.

And really, this is good coffee. I bought a gold-tone filter to go with the machine, but brewed this first pot using a paper filter, and it came out much better than I’d expected—and my expectations were pretty high. (For the record, this was one of the coffees from Bennie and Sue, a Tanzanian Peaberry from Don Francisco.)

I’m doing a little triage on my coffee torture devices; I’ve moved an espresso machine I almost never use out to the garage (when I want espresso, the stovetop moka pot does a pretty good job, honestly), and have tried to make a bit of space on my grandmother’s baker’s rack for the Chemex and vacuum pot. I’m likely to keep the French press close at hand, but the Clubline may, for practical purposes, take the place of the other two.

(N.B.: The image is from Sweet Maria’s, the home roasting store I ordered the machine from.)

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So I’m sitting in Ritual Roasters in San Francisco’s Mission District currently. It’s packed—I was lucky to find a seat. The one I found is a table between two history majors (judging by what’s on their table) having literate conversations about friends and film, and another guy working on a Mac—writing Ruby on Rails code in TextMate.

Every time I wander up to San Francisco, I’m reminded of why I like the city.

This particular coffee shop is said by some to be the best in San Francisco, or possibly the Bay Area. Not having been to many shops up here I can’t say that for sure—while I’ve had coffee from their most often-named competitor, Blue Bottle of Oakland, I haven’t had it from Blue Bottle yet. I’m not sure this place’s cappuccino beats my favorite South Bay locale, Barefoot Coffee Roasters, but it’s the equal (and that’s saying something). Ironically, Ritual gets their coffee from another shop that I’ve been to: Stumptown Coffee in Portland, Oregon.

(As an aside, a way to tell a really good coffee shop is if their cappuccinos and lattés have “foam art” on them: the espresso and foam mixed to be somewhat abstract representations of leaves or apples or what have you. This may sound like it’s just aesthetics, but you can’t do foam art unless you’ve learned how to steam milk the right way. If your cappuccino has a separate layer of sudsy milk froth the barista spooned out, they fail.)

So why am I here? Basically, just to get to the Mission District. I’ve never gotten up here before. This is, I gather, where most of the artists migrated to after they were priced out of SOMA. Or maybe the other way ’round. At any rate, they’re priced out of both now, effectively, so I have no idea where most of them are going. Oakland or South SF, maybe, although one of my coworkers griped about how all the artists and musicians were moving to Seattle.

I need to find something to work on while I’m here other than reading of the Rails guy’s shoulder. I have a couple other posts to think on, but mostly have writing I should be, well, writing on. I don’t know whether this is really a good environment to do that in, but it is inspirational in its own way.

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So I’m off in Fort Bragg for an afternoon—

“Wait,” you may say. “Why would you do such a thing?”

Well, I don’t have a really good reason. I set out to go to Ukiah, but somehow ended up here instead. Are we clear? No? Never mind. We can say it just seemed like a good idea at the time, and it still does.

I’ve driven through Fort Bragg a couple of times before but I’ve never actually stopped before. The name makes one think, not unreasonably, of military barracks, but actually it’s a coastal village full of Victorian buildings—many of them real, not reconstructions—and funky little shops. Right now I’m at a coffe shop with free wireless, looking out the street window, and every building I see is Victorian in style, and the stores include a hair studio, two art galleries, a couple funky clothing stores and something called “ER Energy,” which might be a solar energy store or might be a New Age store. I can’t tell from here. The people I see wandering around seem to be a random mix of people who look like loggers (and might be), old hippies who’ve actually gone back to nature instead of just talking about it, and college age eco-tourist types with rainbow hair and black Birkenstocks.

Actually, this seems to be eco-tourist weekend. I stopped in Hopland on the way here, a little town not too far south of Ukiah, and it was full of folks attending “Solfest,” which is theoretically a solar living festival—although it had bluegrass and folk/alt-country concerts and a few avowedly political speakers like Jim Hightower. Me being me, I was there for lunch, and the Bluebird Cafe was serving with no wait.

So what’s there in Fort Bragg besides hippies and cool architecture? Well, there’s fog. And cold weather. In San Jose today I suspect it was around the mid-80s; in Hopland and Ukiah, it was ten degrees warmer, but in Fort Bragg, it’s more than twenty degrees colder. Yes, it’s a mid-August day and it’s barely breaking 60. This is a bit below the average here—although only a bit: the average high in August is only 67. Of course, the average high in winter is 56, so I suppose it’s fair to describe the place as cool but mild. It’s overcast here from the coastal fog, which I suspect is the area’s natural condition. Could I deal with sunless days being the rule rather than the exception? That’s a back-of-the-mind concern for me, since I still have a notion of looking for work in the Seattle or Portland areas down the road. At any rate, a byproduct of this is a new lightweight jacket for me. I’d intended to bring my old windbreaker (a 15-year-old one that [ profile] brahma_minotaur has made a few “My God, do they still make those?” comments about at cons), but managed to leave at home. I suppose this is finally an excuse to retire it; the new windbreaker seems more effective. (Possibly because it’s not fifteen years old.)

Well, that’s not all there is in Fort Bragg. There’s also the North Coast Brewing Company, which happens to have a restaurant and tap room here in addition to their brewery. So I know where I’m likely to end up for dinner tonight.

Of course, I’m still about five hours away from home. I did make a cursory hotel search an hour ago online and everything seems to be booked, so I’ll probably just end up getting in very… very… late. Such is the risk of aimless wandering!

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That really wasn’t what I intended to happen yesterday.

The morning had a quick not-really-interview with a recruiter, about a position that I don’t think either of us believes I’m actually qualified for (the client wants a few pretty specific skills that I don’t have), then another stop at the doctor’s office to drop things off. The office is in a little “medical district” very close to the Highway 17/85 intersection, and I figured I’d take Highway 17 over the mountains down to the Ugly Mug in Soquel.

Route to Soquel

Now, I’ll be the first to admit there are, in fact, coffee shops closer than the 26-mile journey that represents. In fact, my favorite coffee house in terms of the actual coffee is Barefoot Coffee Roasters in Santa Clara, and they’re much closer! But I discovered the Ugly Mug over a year ago, though (during my last work-free stretch), and somehow fell in love with it. It’s everything a stereotypical college coffee house should be: dark wood, nooks and crannies, fairly lively conversation with regulars—and unlike Barefoot, enough space to spread out a little and get work done. And as is proper for a college coffee hangout in this day and age, free wi-fi and power outlets available.

But, somehow, this isn’t quite what happened.

See, I decided that, well, since I was already over “the hill”—that is, to the Santa Cruz side of Highway 17, and onto Highway 1, the Pacific Coast Highway—I’d go down just a few more miles to look at the ocean.

And I did that, stopping at one of the state beach overlooks just south of Soquel, walking around the beach a little.

Then I figured, well, maybe I’ll keep going just a little farther.

But “little” is such a relative measure, isn’t it? I ended up going around Monterey Bay, and at that point, I wasn’t that far away from the Big Sur coast…

So. Yeah. I never actually made it to the Ugly Mug. I just kept going down the PCH.

I stopped along the coast a few times. I got a brownie and a Cafe Americano at the Big Sur Bakery, a fantastic restaurant I’ve written about before. I stopped briefly at Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park. I got stuck waiting for CalTrans to clear a mudslide somewhere around Limekiln State Park—but that was okay. It was a beautiful day at that point. There was a line of cars and nobody really seemed to mind being stuck there.

As things worked out, I pulled into Morro Bay around dinnertime, and went to the forebodingly named “Taco Temple” on the recommendation of members. Despite the name, the food was pretty terrific, reminding me oddly of some of the family restaurants in the Florida Keys—a bright, clean but no-frills look.

What this trip did for me—besides cost me more than I should have spent in fuel—was recenter me. The Big Sur coast may be the most beautiful area I’ve ever been to, honestly. Being there makes me feel brighter, calmer. It reminds me of just what it is I like about this state. I like many things I found in Florida; I’d like to go back to the Southwest and explore much more of it; but if I won the lottery, if I could live anywhere, I might just end up along Big Sur somewhere.

I also had time to do some thinking about where I want to be, what I want to do. I haven’t come to any definite conclusions—that’s a lot of insight to ask of a day trip—but I’ve come to at least one conclusion that’s rather shocked me: I may want to aim for contract work, not permanent work.

Every interviewer comes up with a question that’s a variant on, Where do you see yourself in five years? As standard as the question may be, in the 21st century tech market, a three-year anniversary is relatively rare. What I’m expected to say—what I usually do say—is that I expect to be with that company, on a career track. But right now, I don’t feel like there’s a company out there I could honestly say that to. (There’s a non-profit or two I could honestly say that to, and I’ve applied to one and may apply to more.)

I suppose I am, basically, in the frame of mind where one joins—or starts—a startup. I even have an idea or two, although I haven’t fleshed them out well enough to decide whether any are (a) worth pursuing and (b) commercial.

But maybe where I see myself in five years is working for myself. In a cabin, not too far from the Pacific Coast.

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So it’s ten minutes past 11 am here. This morning I’ve

  • made coffee (Caramel Vanilla Nut, in the Keurig)
  • renewed my resume on Monster
  • renewed my resume on Dice
  • checked new job listings on those sites (nothing useful)
  • redid my Craiglist resume and reposted it

Job hunting in this field is kind of surreal, isn’t it?

Craigslist has a quirk in that it will let you enter HTML, but it will still wrap things in paragraph tags and add line breaks and generally muck with your HTML unless you put everything all on one line. BBEdit actually has a command to do that. There weren’t any new positions worth applying to on CL, either, though.

I’m again running into my own quirk: I don’t really have a portfolio I can show people. I have a few writing samples, I have a few HTML pages, but there’s a lot of stuff I’ve done that’s pretty much in the category of “here’s my resume, trust me.” For technical writing I can get away with this to some degree; for web development it’s harder. I’m not sure whether having one uber-spiffy web site down the road will make up for that or not. (Of course, I’m not sure whether I’ll have such a web site any time soon.)

It was a good weekend; I drove out and around the Bay area for almost all of Saturday, even ending up on the outskirts of Sacramento. I got to visit the quasi-legendary Mike’s Burgers in Cotati for lunch, wandered through various parts of Sonoma County, and ended up in Fairfield, of all places, for dinner. Sunday I spent almost entirely at the house puttering around on things, online and off. I did make that beef stew on Thursday as threatened, and I have three portions frozen now.

What’s on the agenda for today? I have more leftovers to dump out of the refrigerator and vague thoughts about making something Mexican, or just doing a pasta sauce, for which I have almost all the ingredients I’d need already—although I’ll have to go out and get mushrooms. Or maybe green peppers and sausage, or something. This is not a good day to go out, though; it’s raining fairly hard out there. It’s a good day to be in with more coffee, possibly reheating beef stew, maybe catching up on TV, maybe (gasp) actually getting back to fiction reading, something I’ve done shamefully little of the last, well, couple of years. Which may be in part why I’ve done so little fiction writing the last couple of years, too.

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I am having a cup of… well, I won’t call it one of the most popular flavored K-cup coffees, particularly since you won’t learn about it from Keurig, but it’s one that seems to have a fanatic following among those who’ve tried it: Green Mountain’s Wild Mountain Blueberry.

Yes, blueberry coffee.

The disturbing thing is that… well… it’s actually pretty good. A little bit of turbinado sugar to bring out the sweetness (I’ve found every flavored coffee seems to need this), and it’s a fine dessert drink. While I can only presume it’s artificial, it nails the flavor quite well—even down to a bit of a bite I associate only with fresh berries—and against all odds, it tastes good in coffee. And it’s even fair trade.

Although it makes me wish I had some lemon pound cake to have with it.

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Okay, I’ve been using the Senseo I wrote about for three months at work… mostly. As time has gone on I’ve been making more time to brew better coffee at home, or even stopping for coffee at coffee shops on the way in–the very thing that having the Senseo was supposed to prevent me from doing. Clearly, there is trouble in Podville.

Part of the problem is that the Senseo’s damnable fake crema–foam it produces on top of the coffee–deadens the flavor. The rest of the problem is that even many of the “good” pod coffees, well, aren’t good. I lucked out by trying BetterPods first; of their two big competitors, PodHead is hit and miss, and CoolBeans–not cool at all.

In addition to the pods, there’s another system from Keurig called the “K-Cup” (and most recently a new system from Kraft that uses “T-Discs,” for the “Tassimo” brewer). In the picture to the right, the little cups there are K-cups: single servings of coffee, and the plastic cup there is actually the filter.The Keurig is an entirely closed ecosystem: they’re the only people who make K-Cup coffee makers and only people who get licenses from them can make K-Cup coffee. This is the main reason I didn’t look too much at it, initially. However, I’ve noticed two things since then that made me reconsider it:

  • Keurig has a clue when it comes to licensees. If you’re stuck with a few brands, having them be Green Mountain, Gloria Jean’s, Van Houte, and Celestial Seasonings isn’t that bad. (Diedrich I’m dubious about, and I haven’t tried Timothy’s yet at all.)
  • You aren’t stuck with a few brands. Unlike the other systems, theirs is designed in a way that makes a little coffee filter for your own coffee pretty easy to pull off. The high-end Keurig that Williams-Sonoma sells comes with such a filter, and it’ll be available separately for the other machines shortly.

But, heck, I can’t afford another “coffee torture device,” as [ profile] tugrik has dubbed my collection. (Given that the Keurig machines actually have blades that puncture the K-Cup from top and bottom, it may apply well in this case.) Sure, my birthday is coming up, but… well, I tell myself that I’ll only get one if I can do it entirely with money from the change jar.

Sadly, tragically, I can. Even the tax.

(It’s a big change jar, you see.)

So, at lunchtime, I go to Fry’s and pick up the machine in the picture above, the B40. This is the no-frills version–no timers, no programmable cup sizes, no pimped-out blue backlighting. It has a power button and a “make coffee” button.

The first thing I notice compared to the Senseo is that the Keurig is built like a tank. It weighs more empty than the Senseo does full of water. Even so, it’s not louder brewing–although it’s not quieter, either, which I’d hoped it might be. Even though the machine isn’t taller, the spout is considerably higher than the Senseo, which had trouble handling normal-sized coffee mugs; this one could probably handle a travel mug (although it’d still only do eight ounces of coffee). The Senseo is cute enough, but this machine looks like it means business.

So how’s the coffee? Well, I’ve only tried two of the sample packs it came with, and naturally, some of the varieties I’m most interested in aren’t among the ones they include. Green Mountain’s “Nantucket Blend” is a mild–really too mild–breakfast blend type coffee, but it’s still head and shoulders over more than half the pods that I’ve had. No fake crema, and it actually tastes like, well, coffee. The paper filter in the K-Cup (c’mon, of course I took one apart) looks more like Chemex paper than Mr. Coffee, and the grounds are completely saturated. I also tried a flavored coffee, Gloria Jean’s “Butter Toffee.” I’m only slightly ashamed to admit I liked it–it reminded me a lot of “Toffee Coffee,” a drink that a Florida-based coffee chain makes with toffee syrup and whipped cream.

Is it worth the price? Hey, for spare change, I can’t argue too much.

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As a quick followup to my post on the Senseo pod-based coffee brewer, the pods from BetterPods came in yesterday and I’ve been trying them today. While nobody’s going to mistake it for freshly-ground, freshly-roasted coffee in a French press, the coffee the Senseo is producing is no longer gas station swill with added fake crema (espresso foam). Now, it’s about the equivalent of coffee ground the day before, brewed in my cone brewer. With, uh, added fake crema.

Through a bit of trial and error I’ve discovered how to optimize the coffee from this thing:

  1. Don’t use the Senseo brand coffee pods.
  2. While the water’s heating up, take the pod holder, put the coffee pod in it, and soak it with hot water.
  3. Stop the coffee pouring out just before it gets to a “full” 8 ounces.
  4. Stir the coffee up before drinking it, because all the strong coffee is on the bottom.

The two big problems with the machine, rather than the coffee, are that it doesn’t brew long enough—only Bunn seems to have mastered the trick of brewing coffee at insanely short speeds and still have it come out right—and that the charm of the fake crema lasts up until the time you, um, make a cup. This is something else the Bunn would avoid, but it’s stuck in a Catch-22: I wouldn’t spend that much money on a coffee maker that I wasn’t going to use at home, and at home, I don’t have any desire for a pod-based coffee maker.

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No, not really, although that’s what an office mate dubbed it.

I’ve been making my own coffee at my cubicle off and on for a while; when I (a) have good coffee at the house, (b) remember to grind enough for a couple days in the morning, (c) have remembered to actually bring the little ground coffee container back from the office so I can grind some in the morning, and (d) have the time to go through all this in the first place, it all works out well.

But those are a lot of conditions for a pretty scatterbrained guy to have, so after months of waffling, I decided to risk getting a single-serve coffee maker.

These are a bit of a fad right now: they use coffee “pods,” filter packs of preground coffee. After a bit of research, I chose the Philips Senseo maker, as it’s got the best reputation of the not-too-expensive machines. (The one everyone really likes is the Bunn My Cafe machine, but it’s hard to find a My Cafe for under $200!) I’d been spurred to this by coming across another machine from Melitta that was half the cost of the Senseo, but from what I can tell, Melitta is on the losing end of the pod war; everyone else has more or less standardized around the pod size the Senseo uses. (There’s another competing “consortium” called Home Café but their pods are close enough to be interchangeable, despite the protests of manufacturers. And, as a tech geek, it’s wryly amusing that coffee makers are having format standard wars.)

The Senseo’s a bit unusual in that it’s a cafe crema maker—it actually pumps water under pressure through the coffee pod, and creates espresso-like foam on top of the coffee. It actually creates a lot of foam, and it’s a markedly different density than a true espresso, but it’s an amusing gimmick. Given the speed at which these machines brew, I think only this trick or the classic Bunn “showerhead” speed brew system have a hope of really getting good coffee out.

Of course, to get good coffee out, you have to put good coffee in, and that’s what I was most worried about—the problem with preground filter packs is that ground coffee goes stale very quickly, on the order of one day after exposure to air! And, so far, pods are even worse than I feared. Senseo makes a great deal of noise about being partnered with Douwe Egberts, a coffee roaster from the Netherlands. Judging by the sad brown water the Senseo ejects into my cup, these guys are the European equivalent of Maxwell House. No, that’s not fair—to Maxwell House. I’m trying the only other widely available brand of pods for this thing, Yuban, which is made by Maxwell House. Yuban is a great improvement—it’s mediocre, but you can recognize that it’s mediocre coffee.

But, all may not be lost. There’s a few mail-order companies out there that are trying to make better pods; the one I chose to get a sampler pack from is called, straightforwardly enough, BetterPods. More coffee in each one, better coffee in each one, individually sealed immediately after grinding. I’ll find out next week.

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The last two jobs I’ve been at have had something relativelyunusual for offices: drinkable coffee. Not great coffee, but drinkable. One place had the typical packets of ground coffee, but it was Starbucks’ French roast; the place before that had coffee from Peet’s, our regional equivalent to Starbucks, which came pre-ground in big plastic containers. Bashing Starbucks is fashionable and not entirely undeserved, and Peet’s thinks more highly of themselves than they should. But, either of them are a lot better than the generic brand the company that services the coffee pots will bring you.

Alas, the company I’m at now doesn’t do that. They have coffee service coffee.

I’ve been thinking of doing something about this for a while, and I was toying around with the idea of buying a Senseo for the office. These are little machines that make single servings of “crema” coffee, which is essentially coffee made with an espresso-style brewing method but with several times more water, that can normally only be made with relatively powerful espresso machines. They’re neat little things, excessively European, and given their “pod system” (little single-serving packets of coffee), very convenient for an office.

On the down side, at $60 the machine’s fairly expensive (although not compared to espresso machines!), and it can only take its own coffee pods. I’ve heard they’re reasonably good blends, but if you buy a batch, how fresh is it? When coffee’s exposed to air, its flavor degrades fairly quickly. And what if you want a different blend? “Medium roast” is like “red wine.” You can find some nice red table wines, but a whole new world opens up if you get more specific. (And anyone who doesn’t think the wine and coffee comparison is valid has never had a freshly roasted estate Ethiopian Sidamo.)

So, after some waffling, I decided to get:

  • a $3 plastic cone filter holder that sits on a mug
  • a $3 box of paper filters
  • a $15 electric kettle

I ground about a half-pound of Casa Segura coffee this morning and brought it here in a Mason jar. In retrospect, this was probably too much, going back to the “exposure to air = bad” problem, but the chances are that even after a week it’ll be better than the coffee in the kitchen.

And, it’s always entertaining to get stares from coworkers. “You set up your own coffee brewing station?”


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February 2018

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