Not many restaurants attempt, much less achieve, serious coffee service, but Empire State South is a notable Atlanta exception. The Midtown restaurant from chef-owner Hugh Acheson features a full Counter Culture Coffee program, with beans from neighboring North Carolina, and Alfred Lopez runs the caffeinated show. I met Lopez after my November 20 lunch at ESS, and he subsequently discussed his connection to coffee.
What’s your very first coffee memory, good or bad?
So, my first coffee memory was actually as a young boy in Boy Scouts during a pancake breakfast we were hosting. We were up so early and were so tired, so the older kids started drinking coffee. That coffee got passed around and eventually made its way to my hands. It was like a little cup of sunshine. If the scoutmaster was Kaldi, all the scouts were the dancing goats. It was good times.
In all honesty, I’ve never had any really bad coffee experiences. I’m pretty laid back and humble. There is a little bit of sunshine in every cup. My first experience as an adult was during my freshman year of college. I was looking for a part-time job and found one in coffee. I was the youngest person in the shop and it was super old school. Topping off macchiatos and cappucinos with overly aerated milk using a spoon and making cubanos by adding sugar to the portafilter and pulling a shot. It was awesome. I was 18, most of my coffee experience was in going to Starbucks. I mean, I’ll be honest. Looking back, the shop and practices weren’t that great, but everybody has to start somewhere. Very few people get to start at the best place.
At what point did you know that you would work with coffee for a career?
So, I have to take a step back for a brief second. For me, science was my life. I was a physics major in school and wanted to work in the science industry. When I looked at thing, I always tried to find out how it worked on the micro (or quantum) level. For something like physics, you have to look at things in a different light to see how things really work as opposed to self-perceived assumptions. At my first job, I started realizing certain things about coffee, milk and the like. I wasn’t that immersed into physics yet, but the lab side was starting to push through and the scientific method started helping me, at least on a personal level, understand coffee on a more personal level.
With that bit of knowledge, I can better talk about coffee as a career. To say I will do coffee for the rest of my life is a little hard to fathom. I just turned 27 in December and I plan on furthering my education past what I have now. But, and that is an enormous but, I can totally do coffee for the rest of my life if the right opportunities manifested. I look to Alton Brown as my first inspiration in the food world. Not saying that I’m not inspired by Hugh, I mean, he is amazing and to me, very charismatic. I get his sardonic humor, at least I think I do… But imagine yourself watching Alton Brown breaking down the how and why and history of a food or ingredient. It was ethereal. It was like the first time I watched James Burke, the British historian who starred in the Connection series. James Burke was my first man-crush.
So in my latter years, after leaving school and getting into coffee full-time, I became enamored with coffee. The process, the science, the theories. Testing things out and recording the results on your palette and then eventually on a moleskin. I met a few incredible baristas from all over. And as I did that, I realized something kind of sad. The presence of coffee chemist or even scientist wasn’t prevalent. I mean, you had people testing things out and recording their data on forums on at cuppings, but the actual art of doing real research and writing reports about it and that becoming established doctrine just wasn’t there.
What was your very first shift like behind a coffee bar, and where was that?
My first shift was awesome. I had studied the menu so much and I was ready. The practical skills weren’t there, but the desire was there in spades. I was always a detail-oriented person, which is always half the battle in most industries. My real insight on coffee wouldn’t come until several years later when I got a little more into my major at school and would enter a completely different coffee arena.
How did the opportunity come about with Empire State South?
How I got a job at Empire State South was very interesting. I was originally hired when Empire was first opening. But I didn’t take the job. It wasn’t anything against the restaurant nor anybody working there. Sometimes life leads you in a different direction. You have to think of Robert Frost at times like that. “Two roads diverge in a yellow wood, and I — I took the one less traveled by.” I lamented my decisions for a while, but continued working other places making coffee and taking classes. There was a point where I felt overlooked by the coffee world. I worked super hard, had a plethora of knowledge, and had a desire to learn more and more about it. And then one day, I got a message from David LaMont of Counter Culture Coffee. Empire State South needed a barista and he recommended me. I was elated. So I ran on down to Empire and met with Emily, who was the current barista manager, and chatted with her about coffee for a bit. She wanted to schedule me for another interview, but already knew she was going to hire me. A few months later, and I literally mean a few months later, Emily left Empire State South to work for a coffee Roaster and I was asked to take her place.
Who have been your coffee mentors, and what did they teach you?
I remember people like David LaMont of Counter Culture Coffee speaking candidly about coffee in saying that coffee looks at wine with a green eye and wishes that they can get to that point one day. I believe that wholeheartedly.
What’s your favorite aspect of working in coffee?
I love coffee, but in loving it, you have to see it’s flaws. Coffee is making so much progress and their are so many smart people getting into coffee. We have milk chemistry and extraction classes. I mean really, we are looking how light bends and refracts in coffee to test concentration of sugars and other molecules. That is amazing!
What’s your preferred brewing method at home, and why?
As far as brewing method, there is nothing else but a Chemex. It is classy and unique and the extraction is amazing. I this coffee does great with aeration, so using a device like a decanted goes well with it. I was a huge french press and peculator fan in 2004 to 2008. I like the novelty of the siphon and think an Aeropress is cool and convenient. Pour-overs are nice, but are like HD DVDs fighting a war with Chemexes.
If you could only have one more shot of espresso, who would you let pull it for you and why?
I don’t know who I would want to pull my last shot of espresso, but I know what it would be. Finca Kilimanjaro. Any Scots Labs coffees/espressos always hit a certain soft spot for me. If I had to pick somebody, it would be Dan Mueller at Octane in Atlanta. He is super awesome and worked his way up. He is honestly an inspiration for any barista who is just getting into it.