Cafe Review | Barismo boils coffee down to a science
Roasters in Arlington usher in a new age of quality brews
Published: Wednesday, September 16, 2009
Updated: Wednesday, September 16, 2009 08:09
Logan Hudson works swiftly and deliberately, carefully packing the metal filter with espresso grounds until the surface is level and smooth. He attaches the filter to the machine, hits a button and mentally calculates the time it should take for the espresso to start dripping. As it pours, Hudson keeps a keen eye on the color and texture, acutely aware of any variation. Finally, the cup is filled with rich, deep-brown liquid. "Nope, not quite right," says Hudson, promptly tossing the creation into the sink. He begins again.
The staff of Barismo Coffee Roasters, located on 169 Massachusetts Ave. in Arlington, are what you might call perfectionists. "Some places serve a lot of coffee; others are all about the coffee," said Jamie van Schyndel, age 31, co-owner of Barismo along with colleagues Ben Chen and Hong Xue.
Barismo is a small roaster with a focus on manual brewing methods and a commitment to quality, location-specific beans. With just two custom-made roasters, Barismo only sells beans to local shops. "It's very much about the relationship," said van Schyndel. "If I can't drive there in stiff traffic in half an hour, I probably won't take the account."
A fairly sparse space, Barismo is not what most college students would typically think of as a coffee shop. With no WiFi, no comfortable couches and no sandwiches to munch on between class readings, Barismo is more of a kiosk than a café.
Van Schyndel is just as unassuming, but is perhaps the true picture of the passionate barista. He runs his hands through a batch of roasting coffee beans and critically observes each bean from behind a pair of thin, oval glasses. Between tasks, he spouts off encyclopedic knowledge of roasting and brewing, always straightforward and occasionally bitingly honest.
"I have a reputation for telling people what I think," admitted van Schyndel. "But I'm not out there to lecture anybody ... I just like the coffee we sell and want to sell the coffee I like."
It may come as a surprise that van Schyndel is not a lifelong coffee-drinker. He got his first taste of coffee a mere six years ago, when he moved to Cambridge after managing restaurants for several years. This late introduction to coffee made van Schyndel critical and selective. "Long-time coffee drinkers are tolerant," he said. "I was like ‘I don't like this. I don't know why people drink this ... this is very bitter.'"
Van Schyndel has had trouble in the past finding farms that are willing to sort their beans to meet the high standards he holds for his product. He requests a level above what is considered the highest grade coffee. "It's kind of nuts when you start with something that's already expensive and then you throw 20 percent of it away," said Van Schyndel. "I made a trip to Guatemala and went to nine places. Three of them gave me the time of day, and the rest said I was crazy ... but I want to work with people who want to do crazy stuff."
Van Schyndel learned his technique from a Taiwanese roaster, whom he described as "maniacally obsessive." That attention to detail is what makes coffee roasters like Barismo unique. "It's a matter of how insane you are, how obsessive you might end up being," said van Schyndel.
In both brewing and roasting, Schyndel takes a scientific, methodical approach. Barismo uses methods which are considered archaic by many American coffee shops, like hand grinders, siphon brewers and cloth woodneck drippers. For van Schyndel, it's not so much a step backward as a revival of the barista's role as coffee connoisseur. When van Schyndel prepares Kenyan drip coffee in the siphon, the café space seems to transform into a lab. Van Schyndel's analytical technique pays off: The Kieni had a complex flavor, with brown sugar notes and a fruity taste that opened up as the coffee cooled.
In order to help customers replicate their experience in the shop, Barismo sells coffee bags with specific brewing guidelines and some of its special equipment for the more coffee savvy.
One thing customers won't find on the bags is a flowery description of flavor. "Telling the customer how to get the taste is more important than a romantic description of the taste," said van Schyndel. The key, he said, is keeping it simple so that customers have room for their own interpretation of a particular brew.
"The great thing about coffee is there's no golden road, no great path to success," said Van Schyndel. "In three years, what we're doing could be an old hat. Some new kid could open a roastery down the road, and whatever's cool a few weeks ago could be past."
For a study-friendly environment in which to enjoy Barismo products, try two of their nearby retailers in Cambridge: Hi-Rise Cafeé and Simons Coffee Shop. For more information, visit www.barismo.com.