Wednesday, August 15, 2012

The Houston Espresso

Perfect Afternoon Espresso at Paulie's

Nescafé no es café. (Instant coffee is not coffee.) – Mexican Saying

In college, I worked for a spell behind an espresso machine. Little did I know how much I would come to like consuming such concentrated caffeine later in life. I didn't care for coffee at all back then. My, how time will change a man.

Living in Brazil after college, I learned to enjoy good coffee, especially espresso. Powerful amounts of coffee are consumed in Brazil, where drinking it is as much about community than anything. It's a reason to break from the routine and socialize.

In 2008, Emily and I passed through Portland, OR on our honeymoon. Known for its artisan coffee culture, the city is often described as having some of the finest espresso in the US.

Where we live today, in Montrose, several entrepreneurs are making high-quality espresso drinks for sale. Below, I've listed my favorite shops in the area, either already in business or soon to be. Typically, these shops roast their own beans or source them from local roasters. Together, they are the heart of a coffee community that may one day rival Portland itself:

Blacksmith Coffee Bar. Behind this shop are the proprietors of Anvil and Hay Merchant in tandem with Greenway Coffee, perhaps the most popular local roaster and shop. These guys do it right, and I look forward to their opening in the old Mary’s on Westheimer.

Boomtown Coffee. Recently opened, Matthew, the owner, roasts his own beans. I like his play on energy terms. I ordered the “core sample,” and it did not disappoint.

Catalina Coffee Shop. The mother of coffee shops in Houston. I started going to this place shortly after getting married, and I haven’t quit. Its light roasting and exact brewing methods produce tasty coffee regardless of origin. My typical order is the "americano," regular or stout. My favorite is the "cortado," which is equal parts milk and espresso. Yum. I also buy its own brand of roast, called Amaya, for home and frequently see it in bars and restaurants around town. For home brewers, I can recommend Catalina's brew guide.

Down House. To those who haven’t been: check it. Not only is their coffee program solid, their draft beer lineup is too. It's a bit of a hipster scene, but the food, coffee and beer make up for that. To my knowledge, these guys brew Cuvee Coffee beans from Austin.

Double Trouble. Tucked away in a vibrant strip of Main Street, I was expecting more of coffee shop feel, especially since it was early when I went one Saturday. What I got was the feeling that I should be ordering a cocktail. Save for the barman, no other coffee drinkers were to be found. I'll try it again.

Greenway Coffee. As I've been only once, I don't have much to add about the shop itself, other than the location in Greenway Plaza is less than desirable (if not for parking alone). These guys do more for awareness of coffee culture in Houston than anyone.

Paulie’s. This casual restaurant opens late and is closed on Sunday. Not my early-morning option, but I love an occasional espresso in the afternoon. Their coffee presence is unassuming, but their beans are sourced from Greenway and brewed on point. Good folks, too.

Revival Market. This Heights market brews Greenway beans as well. Like Paulie’s, it's more of a restaurant than a coffee shop. Zero disappointment. If you don't mind the crowd, try Revival for breakfast on Saturday morning.

Southside Espresso. From roaster Fusion Beans arises another new locale on Westheimer. Located between the much acclaimed Uchi and Montrose corner restaurant, Aladdin, Southside Espresso is “coming soon.” I don’t know more than that.

Sweet Cups Gelato & Espresso. I found this place by accident, right on Montrose, in the same strip as Canopy. I was impressed by the house-made gelato and sorbets that Jasmine, the owner, had on display. This San Antonio transplant spent time in Italy to learn her crafts and sources beans from a rotation of local roasters. I ordered an espresso from Fusion, and it was delish, done just right with crema on top. She doesn’t open until 11am.

Whole Foods Market (Montrose). I like the coffee bar at Houston's newest Whole Foods, especially since it opens at 7:00 a.m. Available are solid shots and java from a variety of brewing methods you would find in a specialty coffee shop.

A coffee culture is brewing in Houston. Give it a shot.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

The Modern-day Craftsman

Photo: niallkennedy
A bad craftsman blames his tools. - French Proverb

A few weeks ago, I watched an interview with Jack Dorsey, Chairman of Twitter and CEO of Square. He described one of the founders of Instagram, a former colleague of his, as an “amazing craftsman.”

More recently, on my way to work, I listened to an interview with rapper and actor Ice-T. In reference to his new film, Something From Nothing: The Art of Rap, he used the word “craft” to describe the making of rap music in his era. Ice-T: a craftsman?

There is a craft movement afoot in this country, and entrepreneurs, the most nimble of job creators, are participating en force. These craftsmen mean business, and there are a few simple things on which the successful ones focus: quality, technology and the customer. All three work hand-in-hand.

One of my favorite craft categories is that of beer, a torch-carrier in the movement. The craft beer industry is comprised of 1,900+ small brewing companies and has experienced steady growth in recent times. According to the Brewer’s Association, the craft beer industry grew by 13% and 12% in 2011 and 2010, respectively, while sales of beer in general fell.

What's the difference? Craft brewers are innovative and passionate. Craft brewers focus on small-batch production and quality ingredients, which often amounts to higher prices. Customers are responding by paying the premium. Here in Houston, The Hay Merchant is a prime example of this. The bar serves craft beer only and is crowded every time I go.

Craft ideology spans into other categories, like food, coffee and even clothing. Billy Reid, a designer from Alabama, sells handmade clothing. His clothing is not inexpensive, but customers are willing to pay high prices for the quality product he produces, and thus his business continues to grow.

Important for craftsmen is the use of technology. The expansion of online commerce has spawned a proliferation of start-ups. Shopify, for one, provides businesses an affordable opportunity to easily establish a storefront online to sell beyond their local customer base. Inconceivable a decade ago, let alone affordable. Etsy, a community site, provides an outlet for artists to display and sell work to customers far and wide. My wife used Etsy to decorate our daughter's nursery, choosing to buy through the site on account of its original products.

Consumers are increasingly seeking ways to connect with people who make the products they buy. Jaime Wong, an entrepreneur, makes the case for changing consumer tastes in Fast Company, The Rise of the Micro Entrepreneurship Economy, writing, "As our appetite for labor swings away from the corporate culture and structure, so does our taste in buying."

People are yearning for high quality products, whether in the beer they drink or the clothes they wear. They are interested in traditions of the past... today. Craft products remind consumers of the way things used to be: slower, simpler, by hand. In that sense, consumers are returning to the days of old--and taking their money with them.

The craft category can be a step forward for those affected by economic slips or those simply interested in seeking income by profiting from what they love to do.

What's your craft? Find your passion. Focus on quality. And take advantage of technology to reach an expanded set of consumers ready for your product. You have the tools to make it happen.

Friday, June 1, 2012

My View of the Online Music Landscape

Photo: KUT Studio 1A, courtesy of longtime pal, Matt Reilly
Writing about music is like dancing about architecture. - Laurie Anderson

Music, for me, has always meant entertainment. I love watching and listening to music in all its forms. These days, particularly since Elena has been with us, most of such entertainment happens at home—and online. Streaming through our ceiling-mounted speakers is an evolving world of music that seems to have no end.

Innovations in recent years have expanded our online listening options exponentially. Knowing these options can improve your home entertainment capabilities—whether for dancing with your newborn, simply setting a positive tone in the house or playing new music to check out a different band.

With that, there are numerous ways to begin exploring. Here's a glimpse of today's online music landscape from my viewpoint:

MP3 files. Originally brought to the fore by the likes of Kazaa and Napster and legitimized by Apple, this format caught on like wildfire. Recently, the surviving services have moved into "the cloud" and the field has become highly competitive, with Google and Amazon both heavy-hitting players today.

How does it work? If you don’t know by now, users download an application for a desktop or mobile device, and their music content is managed there. For people on the run, this is the default choice. It requires a negligible amount of maintenance—and collection, a concept I tend to avoid.

Internet radio. Pandora is the most popular name in this Internet-only segment. Internet radio service providers make a clean break from terrestrial radio (i.e., AM/FM). These companies employ a subscription-ad model, which can generate significant revenues. Other players in this space, like, Rdio and Spotify, accept a subscription fee, providing users with an ad-free experience, or give “free” service whereby listeners hear an advertisement every few songs.

We paid $36 to Pandora this year, and while I love that there are no commercials at that price, the depth of its song base is weak. Most artists I can name are searchable, but beyond the first few songs played according to my selection, quality seems to decline no matter how interactive I am with the platform. My sense is that quality (i.e., depth and breadth of offerings) will be the ultimate difference maker in this segment.

Streaming video. This includes such sites such as Vevo and YouTube Disco, where users have the ability to create playlists and interact with a connected community of users. This is a fun way to see music online and discover new artists.

Vevo and Disco have deep troves of music. I found Amos Lee, played often in our house, this way. Be ready for limited commercials, both in the videos themselves and on the sites containing them.

Public radio online. This is my favorite segment, and for users who can navigate their way around it, the path to musical discovery can be long and happy.

I'm a longtime fan of public radio, having visited a station or two in my day, most memorably KRTS in Marfa. My top five stations for choice programming are KCRW (Los Angeles), KEXP (Seattle), KUT (Austin), KXT (Dallas-Fort Worth) and WXPN (Philadelphia).

What do I like about listener-supported radio? Local flavor and support of independent artists. In a few minutes, I can tune into any city to get a feel for its music and cultural scene. And I've heard countless interviews with artists I would otherwise know nothing about.

These stations are often on university campuses. They are often commercial-free, the best thing going in radio. Most stations have their own apps. These apps have a variety of features, again free, with on-demand access to station archives. Live sessions and concerts are common across the top-tier public radio stations.

A few noteworthy music shows syndicated on public radio airwaves are: American RoutesUnderCurrents and World Cafe. There are many, many more. NPR Music has become a leader in online music and offers several shows through its portal.

There are a couple of downsides to public radio online—one is control. It is lost to a certain extent, making the listening experience less personal. Two is that these "community stations" raise money a few times a year, and when they do, there are interruptions to routine listening. In the past, I have supported KUH (Houston) and KUT, and most recently, KXT. The choice to do so—or not—is yours.

What are your thoughts on the online music scene? What do you like about it? Which model will survive, or can they all? What is your preferred listening experience?

Friday, May 4, 2012

A Gift of Love

Elena Kay Covey on Day 15
A daughter is a gift of love. - Unknown

Emily gave me an iPhone for my birthday in March, which was a major facelift to my communications repertoire. Further, I just finished Steve Jobs, the biography, so I'm excited about Apple and its sleek products and their capabilities.

Via my new do-everything device, I've found two technologies that I like and am confident will continue to shape the way we create photos and communicate: Instagram and TumblrThe birth of our beautiful child, Elena, was the driving reason for my initial interest in them.

On the day Elena was born, I loaded Instagram onto the phone, and my use of the app has kindled a new-found liking for photography. I've been using it to capture what I can of the precious moments in her first two-plus weeks. I'm on a streak to date, having snapped at least one photo of her per day.

Since Instagram is an app only and provides no webpage to store and view portfolios (an interesting aside in terms of where mobile technology is headed), I created a shortform blog with Tumblr to post photos of Elena online. (Note: Instagram does allow for sharing pictures with a multitude of sites, Tumblr included, and robust sharing within the app itself.)

Give the tumblelog a look here. While the pictures online now are of Elena only, my intention is to diversify what's there, probably moving the majority of those taken of her onto a private page.

Enjoy my pictures of the greatest gift... that of love, that of a daughter, that of little Elena.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

About Writing

Atlantic view in Bahia, Brazil
“I hate writing, I love having written.  Dorothy Parker

This morning, as I sat down to write, I had a number of thoughts, but wasn't sensing a common theme. I  flipped through a few blogs I hadn't yet read from earlier in the week, seeking inspiration for a blog post of my own.

I came across a post by Tim Ferriss, whose content is normally full of pop and often interesting. His timing is uncanny, too. This particular post was centered on an interview with Paulo Coelho, Brazilian author of one of my favorite books, The Alchemist, among several other big sellers. The interview topic: How I write.

How people write is fascinating to me, and there are a variety of methods. The prolific novelist, John Irving, for example, is rigorous in his process of writing. It involves grinding sessions of up to nine hours per day, seven days per week. Coelho's process is seemingly more relaxed but no less complicated.

The idea of channeling thoughts onto paper is described well in this TED Talk, A new way to think about creativity, by Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Eat, Pray, Love, which I never read. If you don’t want to watch all of the video, scroll to 10:00, when she speaks about the poet Ruth Stone and her feeling of a poem coming on, at which time she would rush to find a piece of paper and pencil so she could write it down.

The idea of writing over a scenic view is romantic, but it's the less glamorous in life that drives me to write: it's the observation of everyday life. It's the timely capture of thought. It's the discipline of a supporting process.

I’m a mere part-time writer, a weekend blogger. I don’t devote enough time to the craft for it to matter, but do find real satisfaction in keeping it up. In this, my fourth year of blogging (and post number 49), it hasn't gotten any easiernor is any less effort requiredto publish meaningfully.

My posts are usually part of an exhausting process, made up of many thoughts coming together into a single, coherent stream of words. On the whole, the process is cathartic, a form of stress relief, ending with a sense of accomplishment and a clear mind. The complete exercise ends up being beneficial to my mental health.

When I sit to write, I typically have a few thoughts in mind. Maybe I've scribbled them on pieces of paper during the week. It never seems to matter, though, what I accumulate in terms of notes. For this post in particular, I had 15 to 20 “ideas” scribbled, but none of them made the cut, hence my reason for poking around on the net for inspiration.

As a rule of thumb, I don’t write about my job. Blogging for me is as much about clearing my head and de-stressing from work as it is about personal fulfillment.

Like Coelho, I first procrastinate, seeking inspiration through a variety of websites, videos, etc., before getting down to businessand then I don't get up until I'm comfortable with where my post is headed.

Once I feel like my content is in a decent state and have shaped a body, I pass it to Emily, and she provides a few directional suggestions and an edit or two. From that point, it's hopefully a matter of tightening screws. I may break for a while, going for a workout or running an errand, and come back later for another series of edits. Then, voilà, I let it rip.

From beginning to end, one post takes me four to six hours. While the entire process can be excruciating, the result is worth it: a living, breathing repository of writing in digital form.

Without question, I like writing most when I’m done. Clicking “Publish,” and finally putting words online, is akin to finishing a long run or workout. I hope the reading involved is not such a process.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Discover Your Story

(Chris Seay, Pastor at Ecclesia Church, emphasizes the importance of living your own story.)

Living your own story is about acting in a manner that is consistent with your set of core values. I admire those among us who act consistently, no matter the company or environment in which they find themselves. These folks are true to themselves. They are what I call the “consistent few.”

How many of the consistent few do you know? I know less than a handful.

A member of the consistent few looks at himself in the mirror every day, and sees who he should see, not an unrecognizable person living someone else’s life. He assumes his own story, mistakes and all. He doesn't waste time worrying about what others think, or care what’s said about him. He likes himself just as he is. He understands his own limits and motivations. He is not misled by artificial incentives better fit for another man.

Why is it important to be consistent?

In my life, discontent arrives when I allow myself to be pushed into doing something that’s inconsistent with what I believe—something not reflective of me. The contrary is true when I'm acting in a consistent manner. It is then that I find my flow and excel at whatever I'm doing.

The discovery of my story, in part, is found through writing. It is through this blog in particular that I have begun to discover, understand and appreciate the unique value in my own story.

That brings me to my relationship with the city of Houston, and how this relationship has also been a driving force in shaping who I am today. The city has been an integral piece of my story.

Born and raised in Houston, my relationship with the city has blown hot and cold.

For years, at the top of my bucket list has been to live somewhere else with Emily for an extended period of time. I think it would be amazing to live abroad with her.

In my experience, I've found nothing more perception-shaping than being steeped in the ways of another culture. Making such an experience as a couple has been a mission of mine. I've been frustrated at times that it has not happened for us, because for so long, my very fulfillment was staked into the idea that it would.

Moving abroad has always felt within reach. We live in an ever-flattened world, where business is regularly done across borders. I work for a company with offices spanning the globe. I work in the energy business, one of the most global there is. I have several friends and colleagues who have made life-changing journeys abroad.

To be sure, consulting in the energy world has provided plenty of short-term international experiences that I may not have gotten otherwise, but the right opportunity to move abroad has not come about. That’s not to state that it won’t happen, and if it were to happen, that we wouldn't openly accept it.

Looking back on the past few years, remaining in Houston has been altogether positive: I've come to love the city in new and previously unknown ways. I've come to realize that we are meant to be here.

While coming to appreciate the value stemming from our familial histories in Houston, Emily and I have carved out our own lives here. We have made space for authentic living in a city that, in and of itself, has evolved just as we have, growing more open and cultural.

As Houston continues its economic advancement, welcoming more people from all over every day, the quality of life here improves proportionally. It is rife with opportunities on a variety of levels. The city has developed dynamically, accommodating young professionals. Take the resurgence of Washington Avenue and the Heights for example, or the vibrant local coffee scene that is taking root.

At 35, my story—in a lot of ways—centers on Houston and the relationship I have with it. I have come to enjoy the city and its offerings. I'm content with it. So being here adds a measure of consistency to life.

There’s more to my story, yes, but the first step to telling your story is to discover it.