For the blondes in the audience

In lieu of an update, just a link to the best blonde joke ever, as spotted by Joel.

Essential tool for the libertarian barista

File this under stuff I really like. Now that I’m back behind the espresso bar, I decided it was time to invest in my own tamper. (For the non-coffee people in the audience, a tamper is the thing a barista uses to compress loose espresso grounds into a puck before extracting a shot from them.) Deciding on a brand of tamper was easy. The hard part was coming up with an appropriate engraving. Then I hit on this libertarianesque design and I knew I was in business:

libertarian espresso tamper

Coffee geeks will recognize the tamper as a Reg Barber. Libertarian geeks will recognize the cuneiform as “amagi,” the earliest known written depiction of the word “freedom.”

It just arrived today. Can’t way to start using it.

Luthor vs. Wayne

Forbes has a surprisingly amusing feature called The Fictional Fifteen in which the magazine profiles fifteen fictional billionaires. The fake article about the rivalry between Lex Luthor and Bruce Wayne is especially good, and gets major points for throwing in a reference to Ted Kord, a.k.a. the recently deceased Blue Beetle.

Link via Fantom Comics, my friend Matt Klokel’s cool new comic shop in Tenleytown.

Many a slip, continued

New York, whose laws were also struck down in the Granholm v. Heald case this year, has revised its laws to allow direct shipping of wine to consumers. Yet as the New York Times reports, just changing the law hasn’t been enough. Red tape and bureaucracy at the New York Liquor Authority is holding up the process by placing burdensome regulations on shippers like FedEx and U.P.S. Wineries who have properly received their New York shipping licenses find themselves without shippers willing to deliver their goods.

At issue are the reporting requirements the Liquor Authority is imposing on delivery companies. FedEx and U.P.S. use computerized boxes to record deliveries to expedite service and streamline record keeping. The agency would require them to use special paper forms just for making wine deliveries in New York, adding complexity to the process and slowing down shipments. The paperwork would be excessively time consuming:

The Wine Institute sent The New York Times what it said was a copy of the paper form that New York was seeking to have shippers use when making wine deliveries.

The form requires the delivery person to fill out by hand the name and address of the shipping company, a license number of the shipping company and a number assigned for the particular delivery, as well as the name of the winery, a shipping number for the winery, the winery’s license number and the winery’s address. Then the deliverer must fill out the name and address of the person receiving the shipment as well as information describing the kind of identification presented, and the time and date of delivery. The signature of the recipient is also required.

State law explicitly allows for electronic documentation. The complicated paper requirement is purely the work of the Liquor Authority. According to the article, a deal to allow shipping with U.P.S. may have finally been reached, but it just goes to show how even liberalized wine laws can put up significant legal hurdles to the free trade in wine.

[Via The Morning News.]

Many a slip betwixt cup and lip

Six months after the Supreme Court struck down its protectionist wine laws, the state of Michigan has passed new legislation allowing direct shipping to consumers. The law includes a few hurdles, such as a $100 licensing fee, a requirement that wineries receive a faxed copy of the purchaser’s drivers license, and a limit of 1,500 cases per year for each winery, but it’s a significant improvement over prohibiting all direct shipping from out of state.

The bad news is that the fight is far from over. Aspects of the new law are designed to benefit the state wholesalers’ cartel. While out of state wineries can ship directly to consumers, they must still go through the wholesalers to get to retailers and restaurants. This is a blatant concession to special interests without even the veneer of plausible justification that the old ban on direct shipping carried. (Michigan and New York claimed their bans were to prevent minors from buying alcohol, which might have made sense had not the bans exempted in-state wineries.)

Since the new law treats in-state and out of state wineries differentially by allowing only the former to sell directly to restaurants and retailers, a judicial challenge is sure to arise. The situation is almost identical to that of Virginia, where that state’s preferential retailing laws are being successfully challenged in Brooks v Danielsen.

The saddest part of the Michigan law is that it reportedly contains a provision that will outlaw all direct sales to retailers and restaurants if it is ever declared unconstitutional. This cements the wholesalers’ cartel position while screwing over the local wineries, who will suddenly find themselves deprived of their largest market. That’s exactly what is happening to Virginia wineries while they wait for the state legislature to pass laws that will withstand constitutional scrutiny.

The obvious solution is to have free trade in wine, allowing any winery to sell to any retailer. Alas, the obvious solution becomes almost impossible to implement once special interests become entrenched. The three tier distribution system that initially protected local wineries has now become the single greatest threat to their survival. At a time when the Supreme Court, FedEx, and Internet retailing should have made wine liberalization a fait accompli, they suffer in a public choice nightmare.

Tom Wark has more commentary that is, as usual, right on target.

Open gloating thread

As expected, the D.C. City Council passed its long debated smoking ban yesterday. Health fascists, feel free to gloat in the comments section. Assorted notes on the subject:

1) Brooke Oberwetter will be on Washington Post’s Live Online to answer questions with Smokefree D.C. rep and amateur Lego roboticist Michael Tacelosky at 2:00 pm.

2) What is the deal with Mayor Anthony Williams’ sudden declaration against the smoking ban? If he really meant it, his opposition might have been a little more useful sometime before the bill’s passage became a veto-proof certainty. Call me cynical, but it looks to me like this might have just been his way of being remembered by smokers and bar owners as an opponent of the ban without having to actually make enemies on the other side through effective action. Thanks anyway, pal.

3) Quote of the day goes to Health Committtee chairman David Catania:

“I’m pleased that we were able to move forward on this important health issue,” Catania said. The fact that both sides are not totally happy with the bill means it was a good compromise, he added.

When government takes away some liberty, but not as much liberty as it really wants, everybody wins!

4) A doff of my hat to Carol Schwartz, who fought the good fight and made the single no vote on the measure.

Holiday links

Wondering what to get me for Christmas this year? You can’t go wrong with the 2006 calendar from France’s Journée Nationale du Fromage, featuring a different sexy model (female) and hunk (of cheese) for each month of the year. Oh, l’Ossau-Iraty, you never looked so adorable.

Seriously though, here are a couple of sites from the past year of blogging you may find useful during the holidays.

Metawishlist — Amazon’s wishlist feature is handy, but even Amazon doesn’t carry everything. Metawishlist works with any item sold on the Web, uses tags for organization, and can be quickly updated with a bookmarklet.

Elfster — Want to organize a secret Santa gift exchange? Elfster makes it easy by sending email invitations, drawing the names, allowing anonymous questions, and letting users create wishlists. I liked the site when I got to beta test it in 2004, and it looks like it’s gotten even better since then.

[Thanks to Sarah for the cheese model link!]

Cato gets bloggy

The Cato Institute has launched a new cross between a monthly magazine and weblog called Cato Unbound. The site will feature a monthy feature essay followed by solicited responses and then reader discussion. Leading things off, editors Brink Lindsey and Will Wilksinson have lined up a thought provoking list of three constitutional amendments public choice theorist James Buchanan would like to see. Akhil Amar, Alex Kozinski, and William Niskanen are slated to reply. That’s a great line up to launch with. If it’s any indication of things to come, this will be one very interesting weblog.

Aeropress review

Best wishes to Jacob -- Alan Adler 2005Not long after my post on new coffee inventions went up, I received an email from Aerobie and Aeropress inventor Alan Adler. It turns out that Alan is not only a talented inventor, but also a super nice guy. He sent me a complimentary Aeropress to try out and, when I told him of my love of Aerobie, included an autographed one of those. That one of a kind astonishing ring now hangs proudly on my living room wall.

For the past couple of weeks I’ve been trying out the Aeropress with several different coffees, both at home and with better equipment at a coffee shop. To guard against personal bias, I got input from some of my barista and coffee loving friends as well.

The first thing we noticed was the design. It’s made of lightweight, durable plastic, is surprisingly small (compare to a Coke can below), and very clever. The press is made of three components: a screen for holding the filter, a chamber to hold the water and grounds, and a plunger to push them through the filter. The set also comes with a scoop for measuring the coffee, a stirrer to agitate the grounds, a funnel for depositing them into the press, and a large supply of paper microfilters with a handy dispensing case. A small touch I like is that the chamber and the plunger are both marked with calibrations for 1-4 cups’ worth of brewing water.

The Aeropress is just slightly bigger than a can of soda

One of the best features of the Aeropress is how well the plunger and brewing chamber fit together. Unlike the metal screen on a French press, the end of the plunger here is made of solid rubber and forms a tight seal with the chamber. This allows the user to create significant air pressure when forcing the water through the grounds and keeps the press amazingly clean. The edges of the brewing chamber are left with practically no coffee residue on them and all the grounds are compressed into a puck. To clean up, all one has to do is unscrew the filter screen, push the plunger to eject the grounds and filter, and give the device a quick rinse. French press owners will appreciate this convenience.

The brew time is also faster than a French press because it uses a finer grind. The total recommended brewing time is about twenty seconds (I sometimes wait a little longer), including some brief stirring and the plunge (compare to four minutes on a French press). A second advantage of the finer grind and shorter brew time is that I think it makes the Aeropress more forgiving of uneven grinding. Unless one has a good grinder at home, coffee ground coarsely for a French press will still probably include a lot of finer particles. These will be overextracted at four minutes brew time and contribute bitter flavors to the resulting coffee.

So how about the coffee from the Aeropress? It definitely exceeded my expectations. It comes out in a concentrated form that expresses the flavors of the beans. It can be stretched by adding water, though I like it straight as is or with just a bit of water. I prefer to use it with a slightly finer grind and water hotter than the 175 degrees the package recommends.

In my original post I expressed skepticism about the paper microfilters. In an email to me, Alan said that he tested them against a variety of fine metal filters. Blind tasters universally preferred the paper. My friends and I agreed that they work well; one barista remarked that the Aeropress is the least distorting paper filtered coffee maker he’s tried. It beats a drip coffee maker hands down.

The real test for me is how well it holds up compared to a French press. The flavor compares well. The body is different — not quite as thick and much more particle free. It won’t leave grinds at the bottom of your cup like a French press will and it won’t have lots of visible particles suspended in it. I like the texture a French press produces, though other drinkers may prefer a cleaner cup. The Aeropress will be great for them. I still use my French press on most days, but I do plan to continue using the Aeropress on a regular basis because I like the coffee that comes out of it. In fact, I used it this morning for a pleasing cup.

I still disagree with marketing the Aeropress as an espresso maker. Though it does use pressure to make a concentrated shot of coffee, it doesn’t produce any crema (perhaps it could in theory with hotter water, much more pressure, and some way of tamping the grounds, but it’s certainly not designed for that). Whether or not this should count as espresso is a matter of definition, but for me good crema is the very essence of espresso. That’s not to mean that the Aeropress coffee doesn’t taste good, but I would say that it produces a short black coffee rather than a shot of ‘spro.

I’d like to test the Aeropress a bit more on better equipment than I have at home so I could try more exact grinds and water temperatures, but I can say without hesitation that it makes a good cup of coffee when used correctly. I definitely recommend it above drip machines and I expect that many people who try it out at home will find it gives them better results than their current coffee maker. It’s not totally replacing my French press, but it does have the advantages of greater speed, ease of cleaning, more forgiveness on a poor grind, and taking the coffee off the grounds immediately after brewing. The small size and light weight also make it the ideal coffee maker for travel.

For more info on the Aeropress, check out the page on the Aerobie website. A list of sources where you can buy one for yourself is here.