Pull up a Chair: in Conversation with Purista

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First of all, I just want to say that it’s a massive honor to welcome you to the Table. I’m a really big fan of your website, Purista. Before we get started, could you introduce yourself and tell us all a little about you?

We are David and Mae the word makers, picture takers, and palates behind newbie coffee review blog Purista. As it relates to our Purista ideals, we are passionate about many things in their pure form. Food, art, music, life, you name it. We embrace the stereotypical crunchy PNW lifestyle. Most prevalently, David loves photography, and Mae’s greatest passions revolve around plant based cuisine. Also, we’re family people. Our family, as it functions today, consists of the two of us, a three year old daughter, and a  six year old calico cat. There are all kinds of crazy antics at the Purista Pad!

We just put down roots in Tacoma, WA and bought a “charming” little house. We say “charming” with sarcasm because it’s been one challenge after the other since we moved in, but we think we’ve got it mostly under control for now.

Do you have a background in coffee? A coffee “origin story,” as it were?

Our coffee origin story is long, so we’ll try to break it down in simple form. Mae fell in love with coffee at our daughter’s age. Living in the land of the drive-thru coffee stand (greater Seattle area) in the early 90′s, her grandmother drank lattes after they went to ballet classes and craft stores, which Mae stole sips of while granny wasn’t looking. By the age of fourteen she was convinced that she should drop out of high school and work in coffee for the rest of her life. She got her first job, as a barista, when she was seventeen and worked it for two years.

Enter meeting each other in 2009. We moved in together after dating four months and a couple months after that bought our first “adult” coffee maker. It was a four cup Mr. Coffee, it was heinous, but that is how David started drinking coffee. The only thing we were doing right was grinding our coffee per batch. We drank our two cups of coffee each, every morning, with flavored syrup and heavy cream. We went to Starbucks every weekend, plus some for Mae who was working in retail.

This went on until sometime around April of 2011 when we procured a French press. We were no longer happy with Starbucks super dark roasts, so we sought out something new at our local co-op and then it was all downhill from there, though we were still using heavy cream and sugar. We moved from Boise, ID to Renton, WA in February 2012 and bought a Bodum Bistro burr grinder. We visited a few decent coffee shops in Seattle and were inspired to learn more and drink really good coffee. Our French press broke, and we went without fresh coffee at home for a couple months.

We went vegan in September of 2012 and stopped the cream and crap, subsequently we stopped getting heartburn and acid reflux from drinking coffee. Then we nabbed a CHEMEX! That was in January of 2013 and pivotal in our evolution. When we got the Chemex we committed to drinking our coffee without additions, really tasting it. We got some coffee journals to start documenting, and then started training our palates. After the Chemex we started plotting to get an AeroPress, then a Hario hand grinder, and so on and so forth.

We did most of our learning and growing in the 7 months before we started the blog.

I’ve really enjoyed reading your blog as it progresses. What was it about your love of coffee that made you decide to start a blog?

In July of 2013 we got it in our heads that we should expand our coffee brewing apparatus beyond Chemex, AeroPress, and French Press by purchasing an espresso machine. The idea was sort of a joke at first, but Mae thought we could rationalize the purchase by starting a coffee blog. Our original intent was to use the blog as a means to record our personal exploration of specialty coffee (ie. coffee we bought), beyond just the spreadsheets that we keep for our own record.

Mae had a year of experience running a personal/lifestyle blog, but it never gave her the satisfaction of making connections based on similar interests, so having a very specific type of blog seemed especially attractive. It took us a month from idea to inception to design the site and get some content in the works. In that first month we already had roasters sending us their coffee.

We had no idea that it would take off like it has.

What about it have you enjoyed the most?

Our favorite part of what we do is how many connections we get to make! We’ve met so many incredible, smart, interesting, kind, and talented people through our blog. We love the way so much of the coffee scene is eager to share information and learn together.

Most of what we have learned since we started Purista has come directly from the roasters and baristas that we’ve had the pleasure of meeting. If we didn’t have the blog we wouldn’t be getting out and experiencing the area we live in either, so it’s been great for us in so many ways.

Of course, drinking lots of delicious coffee all day, every day is a nice perk too.

You’re often pulling up chairs here at the Table, and I thank you for all of your support – what are some of your other favorite coffee blogs?

IMG_7362In all honesty we don’t read many other coffee blogs. That’s a bit of a guilty admission, and it’s not because we don’t think it’s worth our time, but we’re so wrapped up in working on ours amid the chaos of life that we don’t regularly check many out. Mostly we read what we see on Twitter, so that’s how we end up at The Table.

We do like seeing how other reviewers tastes compare and contrast with ours though so we check out The Coffee Adventures and the Table for that. Ground to Grounds is our new favorite on a count of varying content and great design. We love the snark and witticism of Om Nom Nom Coffee. FRSHGRND is fabulous too. Sometimes we read reviews of coffees we’ve tried on Coffee Review too, but that’s mostly to stroke our egos.

Everyone has a different angle when it comes to their coffee blog: smdlr is all about photography and coffee culture, FRSHGRND is an overview of Aaron’s travels, his photography, and coffee experiences, and The Coffee Adventures is an shows off Jamie’s journeys in coffee. How do you ensure that Purista has a unique identity?

The way we set Purista apart starts in the name. Our identity is first and foremost about our belief that coffee should be enjoyed in it’s purest form. That impacts how we put value on the coffee we’re reviewing and the experiences we have at coffee bars. Aside from that, we have the coffee at home thing going for us. Neither one of us is a barista and we don’t think that discredits us because we’re still brewing and drinking really good coffee at home.

If you look at our other content, as in not reviews, we feel like we present information with a more “in the comfort of home” approach. We like to get cozy and personal with our coffee, with other coffee people, and in our coffee related experiences. We think that if people can nerd out over coffee, learn how to brew and where coffee comes from, foster their interest, and develop their taste in the comfort of their own home that it will be easier to convert the masses into specialty coffee drinkers. Easier than cramming all of that information down their throats while you make them a $5 brew in five minutes and make them feel uncomfortable and overwhelmed.

Do you remember the first “real” specialty coffee you tried? Can you tell us about that experience?

Our first real specialty coffee that we tried was mentioned, though not specifically, in our coffee origin story. We were saving that for this question. The first real specialty coffee we tried was from DOMA Coffee Roasters from Post Falls, ID. We had picked it up at our local grocery co-op in Boise after buying a French press. It was either their Carmela’s blend or The Chronic. Either way, we loved it, with cream and syrup. We continued ordering from them long after we moved over here and the first coffee we brewed in our Chemex was Virgil’s blend, we think, something with aromas of tobacco, chocolate, and wooden boat… They were roasted a little darker than we really enjoy now, but not into scorched into oblivion.

The first SO we tried was something from Bluebeard, which is now our hometown coffee shop.

Where has your coffee journey taken you so far?

Thus far our journey in coffee has taken us into some phenomenal shops, the intimate workings of a few roasteries, to Coffee Fest which was invaluable to our networking, into the world of home roasting, and on what will be a lifelong adventure for us. It has also given us a great medium for palate development and inspires us to try more new things to further that. Mostly though coffee has been a catalyst for relationships, and for us that is the ultimate motivation. There is so much out there for us to learn and do still, and so many other people to meet.

What are your goals with your website? Where do you want to go with it?

We have so many goals for our site! We’ll be happy to realize any of them in the next year, but some of them will take longer. As it relates directly to the blog, we’d love to get more content about people and places, do more fun things like videos, improve our media and social networking, and also to get more interaction with our readers. From an indirect angle, we are using the blog for exposure and as a learning tool for establishing our own business sometime in the next five years.

During the next year we plan on upgrading from an air popper to a more controlled, larger volume home roaster so that we can take Purista to farmer’s markets. The blog will most likely grow with our business, by the time we are opening shop somewhere we’ll probably start doing some sort of guest reviews, though it’s hard to say that for sure because of the structure of our reviews and the lineup of devices we use to vertically taste.

One thing you do on your site that no other coffee review site does is the “vertical tasting,” in which you use every toy you have at your disposal to brew the coffee you’re reviewing. Do you have a favorite device? How long does it take you to review one coffee? Do you brew with all of your devices at once and drink them side by side?

So, for our vertical tasting we don’t actually taste every method side by side. “Vertical tasting” was really the best descriptor for our process though so we ran with it. It would be hard to differentiate after a certain amount of tasting and we don’t want to go into our note taking with a blown palate.

We brew up 2-3 methods per day and take notes in a spreadsheet on the brewing parameters, aroma, body, acidity, flavor, finish, rating, and any extra notes. The extra notes come into play if we had a bad brew on our end and help us correct it upon re-brewing. At this rate it takes us two days (if we don’t have to re-brew) to take notes on our five methods, and then a day or so for photo taking, image production, writing, editing, and publishing. So three days total, if we’re on track. Mae might have undiagnosed adult ADD, so there are discrepancies sometimes.

Our favorite device is definitely the Chemex. We both enjoy brewing on it because it’s fun, and the clean cup is a good starting point for our reviews. On that note, we always start our review process on the Chemex because we’re so familiar with it that we can generally apply how a coffee brews in it to how it will extract across the other methods. Less re-brews for us, quicker review finishes. The method that always seems to surprise us is French press. It might be because we started drinking dark roasts in the press and we associate it with those, but every time a coffee brews really nicely in the press we’re like, “Okay, it definitely makes sense that so many people love their French press.” That and it’s extra gratifying to get a fantastic cup out of such an easy method.

I love your “lab’s” setup! How long did it take to put all of that together?

IMG_7441It’s fair to say that developing the lab actually started when we bought the Bodum Bistro burr grinder in February of ’12. After that a friend gave us a nasty little DeLonghi home espresso machine. We found a Mr. Coffee home espresso machine (the really cheap one) that made better coffee than the DeLonghi so we tossed that. Then we got the Chemex about a year after the burr grinder along with the Bona Vita and Escali (which is now obsolete, for us), the AeroPress a couple months after the Chemex (that is when we realized we were in pretty deep), the Hario hand mill to go with the AeroPress after we decided the Bodum was junky for consistency and range of grind sizes, the Silvia V3 in July of ’13 along with the Baratza Vario, and the Kalita a month or so later. Somewhere in the mix we got a trusty American Weigh scale. The vast majority of collecting paraphernalia occurred in a six month period. Now that we have to recall that, we feel a bit exuberant.

The truth of the matter is that any and all extra money we had in 2013 was spent on coffee stuff. Forget eating out, entertainment, and all that jazz. The cabinet that houses our coffee stuffs is made out of free shelves and wood that we found. The light colored wood is from slats from IKEA bed bases, that apparently people throw away ALL THE TIME. David works in apartment maintenance, and the volume of things that people throw out is appalling.

Eventually we’ll build a new sleeker one to compliment our lab/pad better, but it’s super functional and sturdy, and we don’t have counter space for any of it.

What lesson have you learned along your journey that has stuck with you the most?

As far as lessons go, the most valuable thing that we’ve learned is that you shouldn’t be afraid to experiment and learn things on your own. This applies to brewing coffee and blogging.

There are vast slews of information on the “right ways” to brew coffee all over the web. While we took to Home Barista and Coffee Geek with several issues, we usually had to resolve them on our own. It took us about a month and a half to find our groove with the Chemex, and about the same amount of time to produce good shots with our Silvia. We’ve had 6 months with the machine and we’re finally getting great shots with minimal adjustments, along with good milk texture.

As for how this relates to blogging; we were worried when we were starting our blog that our concept would be too difficult to execute, or that because it was different than the way other review blogs were doing it, that we would struggle to gain readership. In the end it’s because we do it our own way that it works out.

You have tried an awful lot of coffees since starting your blog. Out of all the coffees you’ve tried, could you pick out a favorite? How about a least-favorite?

What our favorite and least favorite coffees since starting the blog is the easiest question you could ask us!

Roast House’s Idido has been our absolute favorite, as in the one we had the hardest time not just drinking for pleasure all day long. Their roaster Aaron Jordan, knowing this, sent us some of the last of it as a housewarming gift.

The worst coffee we’ve reviewed was the Compelling & Rich Sumatra. Since people send us their coffees and our basically supplying us with product for our habit/hobby we felt a little guilty about reviewing it as brutally honest as we wanted to, so we boosted it. That doesn’t feel good on the conscience. First sip in on every brew method made Mae so nauseous she didn’t want coffee for the rest of the day. That sounds mean and dramatic, but it’s the honest to goodness truth. We’re hoping it was a fluke because the coffee scored like a 93 on Coffee Review.

(We’d like to put everyone at ease about our honesty and say that was the only coffee we ever had to boost a rating on and scramble for nice things to say.)

For all the “everyday” coffee consumers out there, what is the most important piece of advice you could give?

The most important piece of advice we can give “everyday” coffee consumers is to not be scared off by what you perceive as ostentatious. Don’t be afraid to try new things, new coffees, new preparations. But also, don’t order a doppio to come off as cool if you don’t really enjoy straight espresso.

The specialty coffee industry isn’t evolving towards vanity, just betterment.

Dipping your toes in first is totally okay when you’re having new coffee experiences. And remember, that coffee really can be an experience. See it as more than a jolt of caffeine to get you through the day and you might just find that your daily trip to the coffee bar is that much more enjoyable.

What’s the one piece of advice you wish that someone had given you when you first started in coffee?

We wish that someone had told us when we were starting out in coffee that we were going down a bottomless rabbit hole. Once you’re in you won’t be coming back out! That’s not really advice, but a fair warning would have been good. Maybe we wish someone would have told us to ask all the questions that crop up along the way…

You will always find someone who can help you out if you are willing to ask.

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