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Coffee: Competition & Collaboration

September 24, 2015

It makes sense that the Capital Region would not have a strong culture of competition. As large as the area may be, we’re really a collection of small towns that every year suffer through bitter winters. People have to huddle together in order to survive.

Okay, that may be a bit overly dramatic. But everyone here knows everyone else. In a small town, everybody is interconnected. It makes it hard to put the business across town in your crosshairs when you sit on the same boards for the same charities. The lack of competition is one factor that I think artificially keeps restaurant prices high in the region.

Competition has other positive outcomes beyond economic ones. It also encourages people to perform at a higher level, and raises standards across the board.

One of the things that’s exciting about living here in the Capital Region today as the area is evolving is watching the interplay of competition and collaboration work out, when new and interesting businesses are opening up at a fantastic pace.

You don’t have to look any further than tonight’s coffee contest in Troy.

I wish I could go to this thing. I was asked to judge, but the schedule just wouldn’t allow it. In my place I recommended one of the shining stars of the Yelp Elite Squad, Ewan M. But once again the best baristas in the Capital Region are coming together to strut their stuff in a latte art contest. It’s called Thursday Night Throwdown, TNT for short, and it’s totally free to attend.

You can see the details on Instagram or on Facebook.

Tonight will be the first time that Superior Merchandise Company in Troy hosts a TNT. Up until now they have been at Stacks Espresso in Albany. Some of you may know Matthew Loiacono. He recently left his gig at Uncommon Grounds buying green coffee beans and roasting them in Saratoga Springs to run the coffee program at Troy’s new super cool boutique. Boutique may be the wrong word to describe this place, but it’s fabulous.

Anyway, Superior Merch now has one of the fanciest espresso machines in the region. I know that the Whole Foods has a La Marzocco, and so does Healthy Living Marketplace in Wilton. It’s like the Ferrari of coffee makers, and if anyone can think of a fourth La Marzocco in service around these parts, I’d love to hear about it.

There are other shops with excellent machines, don’t get me wrong. For years the equipment at Stacks (formerly Caffe Vero) was the finest in the area. But ultimately, it’s about the skill of the operator and not the precision of the equipment. A great cook can produce masterful meals on crap cookware too, so don’t let anyone tell you that you’ve got to have a $200 knife if you want to start noodling around in the kitchen.

What we need, more than better equipment in the region, are more skilled operators behind the grinders. And it’s competitions like this one tonight that can get the people pulling espresso shots to care more about what they do, and aim higher than their counterparts at Starbucks who simply push a button.

While this is just a latte art competition, steaming milk correctly is hard. And the only way you can execute great latte art is to make sure the steamed milk has very very tiny bubbles, microfoam, if you will. Of course to get that contrast in the cup, your espresso needs to have a thick crema. That emulsification of the coffee’s oils under heat and pressure are what make for a great shot of espresso. So the baristas will have to pull good shots too.

Baristas will buy into tonight’s competition, and the winner will walk away with the pot of money. The buy in is only $5, so if you have a favorite barista anywhere in the Capital Region, maybe this morning you can offer to spot ‘em the entry money.

Our coffee culture is growing, and that’s exciting. And despite this competition, the great coffee shops of this area are still in collaboration mode. For example, tonight’s TNT was supposed to be held at Stacks. Last minute technical difficulties might have led to the event being cancelled. But Matthew, who like Ron at Stacks is part of the 518 Coffee Collective (which has been woefully quiet lately), rose to the opportunity and is hosting it at Superior Merch.

It’s great to see competition and collaboration work hand in hand to improve coffee in the Capital Region. Hopefully, some of you can make it out to Troy tonight for the event. Even if you aren’t bringing your favorite barista along in tow.

One Comment leave one →
  1. September 24, 2015 10:28 am

    I am to barista coffee as you are to beer, so I will not be at this event. But I want to congratulate you for the analysis of how a collaborative environment in the Cap District, with everybody on the same charity boards, leads to a lack of competition. I think you’ve cracked the code. Good work.

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