vienna coffeehouse conversations

Visitors to the Austrian capital now have an opportunity to get to know the Viennese from a totally different angle. Informal Vienna Coffeehouse Conversations bring together locals and tourists for an evening meal and coffee accompanied by stimulating conversation in that quintessentially Viennese environment: the coffeehouse.  (Organizers were inspired by Viennese coffeehouse culture, which was added to the UNESCO list of intangible cultural assets in 2011.) A special “question menu” inspires the newly acquainted companions to talk about travel, friendship, and family as they enjoy a three-course dinner together in one of a pair of Vienna’s most popular coffeehouses, the Adolph Loos-designed Café Museum and Café Am Heumarkt, a bohemian relic from another era. Conversation-based meals have become a quirky trend in travel, having popped up at street festivals and art galleries from London to Singapore in recent years and even finding their way into the world economic forum in Davos. Think of it as a blind date with guaranteed benefits – or at least a great cup of coffee.


upon a floating gypsy village we come

After leaving JBI we came upon Ko Payni, a floating gypsy village at the head of Phang-Nga Bay. Anachronistic as that sounds, it was nevertheless established by nomadic Malay fisherman near the end of the 18th century. (Check out the brief video clip or double-click the panoramic below to get a sense of the scale of the environs.) At that time Thai law limited land ownership solely to people of Thai origin, so the resourceful gypsies built a settlement on stilts, skirting the law on a technicality while giving themselves easy access to the fisherman’s life. As the community grew prosperous, it expanded and today the village is home to some 1,500 people, a mosque, and even a football pitch, all built on barnacle-covered poles over the sea. As I arrived late in the day, I had time for little more than a coffee and a quick poke around, but it left me wondering what the village must be like in the moonlight – and at bed time as the water laps beyond the gaps of the wooden slatted floors.

gypsy panorama

ko payni


coke is the culprit

American Airlines has come up with a new explanation for The Mystery of The Falling Down Seats in some of its Boeing 757 airliners. The answer? Soda pop. Coffee. Snacks. Really. Something called the seat lock plunger mechanism can “get gunked up over time with people spilling sodas, popcorn, coffee or whatever and that can affect that locking mechanism on the ground that locks the seat to the floor,” airline spokeswoman Mary Frances Fagan said Friday. Apparently, worn locking pins can get stuck when food and beverages spill onto them, allowing seat rows to come unhinged, she said. American earlier said saddle-shaped clamps installed to hold the seats down were put in backwards. And while this might explain what happened to the three recent American flights that experienced loose seats, it doesn’t explain why the problem has affected only American flights, or why it’s happened so many times in such a short period.

Besides presumably cleaning out the gunk, Fagan says American mechanics are “taking extra steps to ensure that the seats do not dislodge from the track.” That includes installing industrial-strength metal ties as a backup. American insists after these newly installed mechanical ties are in place, no more seats will be dislodged.

The National Transportation Safety Board — which investigates U.S. civilian aircraft accidents — does not track loose-seat incidents, spokesman Peter Knudson said. American, however, has said maintenance work was not to blame for the problems. Vice President David Campbell also dismissed the possibility that the problems could be linked to an ongoing labor dispute. Last month, a judge threw out American’s contract with its pilots union. Since then, pilots have staged what the airline calls a slowdown that has caused the number of flights that are delayed and canceled to skyrocket. More than 1,000 American flights have been canceled and 12,000 delayed in the past month alone. Airline management has blamed the situation on pilots filing what it says are frivolous reports about aircraft problems. The pilots union has denied management’s assertion. American Airlines also filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection late last year.

Despite a less than stellar summer, I think I won’t be giving up on United Airlines just yet.


live blog: bang into bodrum

Situated at the end of a peninsula jutting into the Aegean, Bodrum, Turkey – home of the Greek historian Herodatus – is these days better known as a coastal holiday resort. In ancient times the town was called Halicarnassus – famous for the Mausoleum of Mausolos, one of the original seven wonders of the world. Destroyed by successive earthquakes, the Mausoleum today lies in ruins. Of interest however is the fortress of Bodrum Castle, which overlooks the harbor. Built by the same Knights who later fled to Malta via Rhodes, the castle has been turned into a museum of underwater archaeology, with a collection of amphoras, ancient glass, bronze, clay, and iron items recovered from ancient shipwrecks in the Aegean Sea. It’s also a great place to sip a Turkish coffee.


home baking

After a day on the trail of white-tailed eagles there was nothing more inviting than the sight of a sign at the side of the road in Pennyghael advertising home baking. Naturally we pulled over. Inside we found strong coffee and the even stronger aroma of warm scones coming out of the oven. Three cheers for truth in advertising. And for seconds.


irish coffee (non-blarney edition)

According to sources, the first Irish coffee was invented and named by Joe Sheridan, head chef at the restaurant and coffee shop in the Foynes terminal building. (A precursor to Shannon Airport, Foynes was the last port of call for seaplanes on the eastern shore of the Atlantic. During Word War II it would become one of the biggest civilian airports in Europe) The coffee was conceived after a group of American passengers disembarked from a Pan Am flying boat one miserable winter evening in the 1940s. Sheridan added whiskey to the coffee to warm them. After the passengers asked if they were being served Brazilian coffee, Sheridan told them it was Irish coffee and the name stuck. In 1951, Stanton Delaplane, a travel writer for the San Francisco Chronicle, tasted what had by then become the traditional airport welcome drink and was smitten. Returning home he told his friend Jack Koeppler, owner of the Buena Vista Café and the two set about trying to recreate the drink. Stymied by the Irish flair for floating the cream on top, the duo went so far as to seek help from the city’s then mayor, George Christopher, who also happened to own a dairy. He suggested that cream aged for at least 48 hours would be more apt to float, and so it did. In later years, after the Buena Vista had served, by its count, more than 30 million of the drinks, Delaplane and the owners claimed to grow tired of the drink. (And who can blame them, the currency had been cheapened: bastardized versions of a drink that were less hot toddy and more like hot candy had popped up everywhere.) A snark after my own heart commented that the problem with Irish coffee is that it ruins three good drinks – coffee, cream, and whiskey – but you’d never surmise that from the crowds that still take the Hyde Street cable car to Maritime Park in search of the original elixir. In fact, if you’ve never tasted a proper Irish coffee, you have no idea what you are missing – two go down nicely on an afternoon, while three guarantee a lovely start to the evening. Here’s how it’s done: Fill a glass goblet with hot water, then empty. Pour in hot coffee until about three-quarters full.  Drop in two sugar cubes. Stir. Add a full jigger of whiskey and top with a collar of lightly whipped cream. Do not stir. Drink piping hot in two or three sips. Okay, four at most.


coffee klatch: blue bottle

The sudden spring weather that’s forced crocus and daffodil into blooming all over NYC  isn’t the only reason to rejoice this week:  Oakland’s Blue Bottle Coffee Co. has finally flowered below-stairs along the Rockefeller Center concourse. The arrival of the Bay-area culti-roaster known for its devotional handling of single-origin beans is welcome news for Midtown, which despite an oppressively dense concentration of office drones has til now sported just a single coffee shop of note, the Swedish import Fika. (And more on that sliver of Nordic Nirvana in a future post.) Even more unexpected at yesterday’s opening was the noticeable lack of lines – though I expect that’s just an accident of calm before the storm. This is, after all, primo coffee – with primo prices to match. Yet it’s an altogether friendlier Blue Bottle, too: when my Yirgacheffe YCFCU pour-over managed to somehow fall through the counter’s antediluvian cracks, an adorable cap-clad barista apologized profusely, offering up cookies and a free beverage on my next visit.  At the hipper-than-thou Williamsburg outpost, I probably would have been upbraided for the inferiority of my boots before being forced to join the back of the line. Forget about letting the proletariat eat cake – let us drink coffee instead. Coffee revolution, welcome to Midtown.


coffee klatch: rbc

I’m so tired of hearing people bemoan the lack of quality coffee in New York City. No, we are not Portland, people; I get it. We can barely even afford to live within the five boroughs, yet you think an artisanal, single-origin, fair-trade, organic coffee roaster has the deep pockets – as well as the chutzpah - to set up shop here? Blue Bottle aside, get over yourselves. This city is too vast, too commercial, too fast to support that kind of college town kaffee kultur. (Good luck finding your 3AM bulgogi fix in Portland, by the way.) Still, if you know where to look there is some really good brew to be found. Which is why I’m starting an occasional post on the best joe joints in town.  First up: RBC, an unassuming – almost missable – sliver of a shop on Worth Street. Not enslaved to the output of a single roaster means new batches of micro-roasted beans arrive every few weeks. (San Francisco’s RitualRoasters, Grand Rapids’ MadCap, and Coava out of, yes, Portland, are just a few of RBC’s culti suppliers.)  Some are for hand-crafted pour-overs, others are destined for the coveted Slayer espresso machine. The $20,000 toy is the only one in the city – and the object of many a java fetish. The extreme control and variable brew pressure of the Slayer allows baristas to use seasonal, single-origin coffees that wouldn’t ordinarily be prepared as espresso. Which means at RBC a cappuccino arrives with perhaps the rarest flavor of all: nuance.


caffeine driven

It’s a caffeine driven society, and more and more people are taking the time to learn how to create stronger brews and get their custom caffeine fix. I, for one, happen to know a thing or two about brewing a strong cup of Joe. In my kitchen I probably have more coffee paraphernalia than cookware.  For lazy weekends, the insulated French Press has no equal. A double-double espresso is the only thing that gets me started before the gym. When my mad-scientist mood strikes, let me play with my favorite new toy, a Japanese coffee siphon. And that’s just the equipment. Beans are a whole other fetish: Continental Blend smuggled in my luggage from the UK; fair trade beans from Tanzania; a Kenyan mild roast liberated on safari; shade-grown Mexican decaf; “emergency” packs of Ethiopian Sidamo.

Great coffee’s no secret. Which is one of the reasons why truly bad coffee makes me so angry. With that in mind here are 10 tips for getting the most out of your beans. Now, you’ve no excuse.

Tip 1 – Buy Better Beans: No, I don’t just mean the most expensive bag in the coffee aisle. Fresher beans equal better coffee, so look to smaller, independent coffee shops that stock beans which are roasted on the premises or nearby. Quality establishments will stamp your coffee with its roasting date, so you know you exactly how fresh your coffee is. Coffee taste peaks from 1-3 days after the roast, and if stored properly will last up to two weeks.

Tip 2 – Store Correctly: Contrary to popular belief, you should never store beans in a freezer or a refrigerator. Coffee actually absorbs aromas from surrounding foods, and freezing the coffee will alter oil properties affecting taste. Krups recommends transferring whole bean coffee into an airtight container after opening, and storing in a cool, dry and dark place.

Tip 3 – Do it Yourself: Freshly ground coffee makes a world of difference, as beans start losing flavor immediately upon reaching the grinder. Grind beans yourself right before you brew, and pay attention to the coarseness of the beans, as different filter shapes require different textures. For example, mesh filters require a coarser grind, while paper filters require a finer grind, and espresso requires grinds with a sand-like consistency for optimum flavor.

Tip 4 – One for Good Luck: Measure ground coffee out to equal one tablespoon of grinds per 5 oz of water, plus one heaping scoop at the end for good measure.

Tip 5 – Water Works: The quality of the water being used is extremely important. Use cold, filtered water, especially if your tap water is not of good quality or emits a strong odor or taste.  Since coffee is 98% water, the taste of the water will come through in the brew.

Tip 6 – Don’t Hesitate: Brewed coffee should be enjoyed immediately, as it will begin to lose its optimal taste immediately after brewing. If you must use an electric drip, coffee should never be left on a burner plate for longer than 15 minutes, or it will develop a stale, burnt taste. If not serving immediately, pour coffee into an insulated container. As a rule of thumb when using thermal carafes, run a little hot water in the carafe prior to brewing, otherwise it will cool down the liquid much too quickly.

Tip 7 – Become a Coffee Connoisseur: Much like a fine wine, coffee should be enjoyed with all the senses. Take note of acidity, aroma, bitterness, body and nuttiness. For in depth coffee tasting, or “cupping” tips, check out the guide from CoffeeCuppers.

Tip 8 – Quick Sips: For maximum caffeination drink smaller, more frequent servings (about 1/4 cup every hour).  Research shows that caffeine works best in small, frequent doses, and a large cup can actually lead to a crash.

Tip 9 – Butt Out: Studies show that caffeine combined with nicotine intake significantly reduces caffeine’s staying power. And while I once lived for the magical liaison of coffee and cigarettes, nicotine actually suppresses the effect of caffeine, cutting some of its stimulating properties in half.

Tip 10 – Cat Nap: Since it takes about 20 minutes to feel the effects of coffee, and sleep is the only solution to really offer a feeling of restfulness, the best way to get that second wind is by drinking a cup, then taking a quick nap while the caffeine sets in. You’ll wake up feeling alert and refreshed – just be sure to close your office door first.


eggs to order

Even with expectations of a Spartan culinary spread, the bush breakfast promised during this morning’s game drive sounded too cool to pass up – and well worth the extra-early rise. A thermos of coffee arrived at my tent with the sunrise and next thing you know we were off in search of wildebeest. “In search” might be a bit of a misnomer, however. Across the river from Sala’s Camp a mega-herd had come to graze, which made the whole enterprise less White Hunter, Black Heart and more Jeeves and Wooster as we, in effect, toured the great herd. Nevertheless, driving in a hundred thousand-strong herd of animals brings is its own thrills and sense of adventure. Alighting on a large rock in the middle of the herd, the driver and tracker set up a proper table, chairs, a wash basin and I breakfasted on fresh fruit salad, yogurt, muffins and good, strong coffee amidst the most unbelievable surroundings. When the driver asked me how I liked my eggs I thought he was joking – until I noticed the sweet smell of bacon and sausage coming from the direction of the Land Rover, where they had hooked up a small gas stove. Who was I to argue? I went for two: sunny-side up, please.



appropriately themed reading matter


blue mountain bike ride

Port Antonio is nestled between twin harbors on Jamaica’s northeast curve, where mist-shrouded mountains drop down to the sea and tourists are few and far between. Orchids, bananas and palm trees grow in profusion here. Waterfalls drop into fern-edged pools. And some of the island’s most elegant villas are tucked along hillsides overlooking secluded coves. Life moves at a slower pace here than it does elsewhere on the island – not that anybody anywhere in Jamaica is ever in any kind of rush – lending a vibe of authenticity which both Mobay and Ocho Rios sorely lack. There seems to be more time: to take advantage of swimming and snorkeling in the shimmering Blue Lagoon, which is fed by freshwater springs and said to reach a depth of almost 200 feet; to worship a little sun on the sand at Frenchman’s Cove, a favorite spot among shell collectors and sunbathers; to do, in fact, nothing. Eschewing more leisurely pursuits, however, I’ve opted to go cycling through the Blue Mountains, home of Jamaica’s eponymous – and very expensive – coffee, as well as its tallest peaks. Excited about traveling on two wheels, I’m nevertheless feeling a conflicted sense of both freedom and foreboding.


live blog: the difference between ooh and ahh

Starbucks’ new 31-ounce Trenta iced beverage has finally made it to The Big Apple, following a successful rollout across America’s Frappuccino-starved Heartland. Is it me, or does Trenta make the already oversized Venti cup look downright demure in comparison? Oh, and the difference between ooh and ahh: that would be an additional seven inches ounces.


it’s a bird, it’s a plane ….


Actually, no; it’s my new piece of Japanese fetish kitchenalia: a coffee syphon [sic]. I’ve been fascinated by the idea of a coffee siphon since I first visited Blue Bottle in San Francisco.  Their version looked more like a renegade backyard pot still than something suitable for the home brewer, yet there was no denying the wonderfully rounded taste of the coffee.  In Philadelphia for the weekend, I stopped for lunch at a little hole in the wall in Chinatown on the recommendation of a friend.  She said I wouldn’t believe it at first, but their coffee was amazing.  I didn’t – and it was.  Aside from serving up inexpensive and tasty Cantonese food, a small section of the front counter was devoted to a handful of siphons and specialty coffees, like Jamaican Blue Mountain and a Japanese charcoal roast I had never heard of before.  The diminutive proprietress took pains to explain the entire process as she performed it before serving the coffee in tea cups laid out formally on a tray with accompaniments.  It was a little like witnessing a tea ceremony without the geisha. I love a good ritual and knew I’d be hooked from the moment she started to fresh-grind the beans.  The  resulting brew was dark and steamy, with a faintly acidic bitterness from the charcoal roasting.  This was no morning java jolt but more like a digestif.  At $6 a cup – and $70 a pound – I wasn’t about to start experimenting with that particular roast but I did opt to indulge myself with a new toy. Stay tuned for future updates as I expound on the ritual of the coffee siphon along with what I’m sure will be a multitude of experiments, too.


i spy with my little … iced espresso

My summer addiction to Starbucks is well known, if not well documented. (uh oh, until now that is) Iced venti quad espresso, please, with a generous splash of soy milk and yes, do fill it to the brim with ice.  On average I can go through about four of these babies a day – which is one reason why I’ve recently taken a liking to decaf.

I’ve also noticed the disquieting trend of being asked for your name when you place an order  – as though hearing someone shout “I’ve got a triple tall extra whip mocha caramel non-fat chai for Precious” across a crowded shop someone makes the experience that much more personable – or the wait that much less interminable. The first time it happened to me I was taken aback.  I didn’t know what to say, so I pretended as though my iPod was too loud to hear and ignored the cashier.  I tried to walk away and wait at the bar but the barista asked me my name, too.  Trapped, I muttered  “Mike” – though if anyone were to actually call me Mike I would give them a stiff talking to.  When my drink came up at the bar, I was shamed:  all these people I would never see again now knew me as Mike, the four-shot iced junkie.

Later in the day, however, the idea popped into my head that I didn’t have to be Mike.  Or even Michael for that matter.  At Starbucks, I could be anyone.  I could even be … a spy, secretly sent to do coffee recon.  And so began what has become my harmless summer amusement!  My first fib was put into play later that evening when I claimed to be Oliver, in honor of my friend’s new baby.  The next morning on the way to work I was Aiden – another friend’s new baby.  In rapid succession a flurry of false identities (and occasional accents) breezily followed easy-peasy: Bradley, Topher, Archie, Will, Jack, Jonny, Marcus, Augustus, Jesus, Dougie, JT, BJ, KJ, Jake, Scooch, Jasper, Zeke, Kim, Con, Cort, Howie, Ross, Chandler, Joey.

I’m growing so bold I now pay with my credit card while still giving them a different name.  Screw you, Starbucks,  I’m starting to secretly think – I’ve got a higher purpose going on here.  Now just give me my coffee before I call out the ninja assassins – or corporate wonks, depending on the day.  Well, not really.  But with a heat wave firmly entrenched and a belly full of stitches and three more weeks to go before I travel again I’ve got to amuse myself somehow, don’t I?


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