April 14, 2009
Intelligentsia Roasting Works Tour
I was thrilled when Nick Griffith, head of West Coast Sales and recent Western Regional Barista Champion (as well as runner-up in the USBC in Portland) offered to give me and Christine a special tour of Intelligentsia's Roasting Works in Glassell Park, just a mile or so from my previous college apartment. I remember when this small industrial space opened a few years ago - I was excited because I had heard of Intelligentsia's growing influence from their Chicago operations. While the current retail cafe resides in Silver Lake, I thought it was be prescient to tour Intelligentsia's roasting works in the weeks preceding the highly anticipated opening of their Venice location, which is scheduled to open next month in May.
I invited fellow bloggers (or Internet food writers, as Christine prefers them to be called) along for the ride: Matt from Diglounge, Fiona of Gourmet Pigs, Javier of (formerly Teenage) Glutster, and HC of LA-OC-Foodventures. Of course, my lovely Christine joined us as well (whose blog also focuses a bit on food though she would gasp at being called a food blogger).
We entered the dark gray facaded building along San Fernando Road, across from the large Super King along the 2 freeway. The offices are the first room, where Nick and the rest of the bloggers were awaiting our arrival (we were tardy by five minutes - don't you love punctual bloggers?). We immediately entered the main storage and roasting facility, a high-ceiled room with nice skylights to illuminate the area.
The first part of the tour focused on the roaster, a custom, mid-century/vintage roaster that's been modified with new technology. The Intelligentsia logo is emblazoned on the front and the large machine is both beautiful and full of character with its dark steel and colored accents.
Nick told us that this machine roasts up to 40 kilograms of coffee at a time and is retrofitted with internal temperature gauges to improve the roasting quality. Above you can see some of the tubs of green coffee that Intelligentsia uses in their Black Cat Espresso. I was mentioning to the group that Black Cat's amazing quality, coupled with its superb consistency, is a testament to Intelligentsia's commitment to excellence. Nick was saying that recently they changed their blend to reflect a brighter, but still distinctively "espresso-y" character. The blend changes with whatever beans they can acquire by the season, so the flavor really changes minutely all the time. However, the roasters at Intelligentsia ensure that the quality of the blend is second-to-none, evidenced by its use as a standard-bearing blend across the country.
Another highly anticipated sight was the new barista "stations" (previously called "pods" but they're trying to change that use since it has other connotations). These new, sleek, custom-designed stations will debut at the Venice location, as chronicled on FoodGPS. Four of these stations will allow for a completely different coffee experience, with the station designed for maximum efficiency as well as improved customer interaction. The two-group Synesso machines have been customized to reveal their inner workings while a lower profile allows for a closer interaction when ordering. The stations will also be relatively mobile and height-adjustable so that the constant tampering that baristas need to do can accommodate their various heights (barista injuries are quite common).
After passing the office's kitchenette (which features a nice Clover machine...I'd like to have THAT in my office), we entered what I'll call the "lab", where espresso machines and grinders don the far wall and a stainless steel table sits in the middle. This is where Intelligentsia trains their baristas and prepares for competitions. Also on the table was the new 4-group La Marzocco machine, a 1970s machine that was one of the best of its day and has been hot-rodded to become one of the most specialized and advanced machines in the country. The beautiful wood paneling and the shiny parts make for a fantastic piece, and easily the pride of the company. The unique spec of this machine is that it has a variable pressure gauge that can vary the extraction pressure preset by the barista. Depending on the type of espresso, theoretically, a varied extraction could produce a more ideal shot of espresso for single-origins.
This new machine will be featured in the new Coffee Bar in Venice, which will feature hand-crafted coffee drinks and single-origin espressos from the La Marzocco. Don't expect any lattes to muddle your espresso here - the most they'll serve is a macchiato or cappuccino.
Nick pulled a shot in the new machine for us and it was beautiful. I didn't get to taste it since I didn't want to be greedy. I think Matt (Diglounge) took the honors. I'll be excited to try it once it resides in Venice.
The last part of the tour was seemingly boring for the uninitiated, but for a coffee-maven like myself, it was highly interesting. Since Intelligentsia works independently of Chicago, the roasting done in-house is evaluated by the staff. Each coffee is "cupped" or sampled/tasted before being evaluated using expert methodologies. Ultimately they use a 100 point scale like Coffee Review (modeled after Robert Parker). Nick said that generally the micro-lot coffees they feature generally range in the 93+ range, with some of their top coffees hovering near their top of the scale.
I was extremely grateful for Nick Griffith to give up an hour or so of his time during Easter Weekend. Apparently he has just come from an Easter egg hunt! But I think each of us were amazed at the excellence that abounds at Intelligentsia. Nick put it best by saying that Intelligentsia can't really do anything to make coffee better. As coffee leaves the farm, it's at the best it could be. Intelligentsia's job is to preserve that and communicate in an articulate way to the consumer, through bean or cup. With this approach - what we see being done at this Roasting Works in Glassell Park, they can't be far off from the ideal.
Los Angeles Roasting Works
2737 N. San Fernando Rd.
Los Angeles, CA 90065