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Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Savor and enjoy coffee with Q Grader Eric Conlin of Alessi Philippines

Eric Conlin (left) on how to prep coffee

I learned a thing or two when I attended a coffee masterclass from Q Grader Eric Conlin and Chief Operating Officer of Conlins and Alessi Philippines. It was truly an educational afternoon for a coffee lover like me, that there is a flavor profile in tasting a coffee,  it requires a scale when brewing a coffee, that a good coffee beans cost a whooping php24000 a kilo and is available in the country,  how a coffee should be roasted. I was informed of Robusta and Arabica , how the two differentiates. . That Robusta  is characterized by its woody and earthy flavours while Arabica coffee is by its sweetness and acidity, fruity and zesty flavours and intense aroma. That a good coffee tastes sweet and aromatic, and should enjoy without the sugar and creamer.

Eric Conlin has one of the finest palates in the country when it comes to coffee, and his is a story that’s never been told.

The one thing you learn when you speak to Eric Conlin is that, sometimes, you need to take your time. Sometimes, you need to slow down to understand things. Sometimes, it takes a while for everything to make sense. It’s something he’s learned the hard way. And it’s something he’s about to tell us now.

It’s late afternoon at Bonifacio High Street when we catch up with Eric. He’s spent the last few hours in an interview with the press, talking about his experience as a coffee grader, his life outside of the country, and how he came back when his brother, Harris, asked him to join Conlins — a roaster of premium luxury coffee in the Philippines. Outside, the late afternoon sun begins to dim, slows down, and turns in for the evening. The walkways begin to get crowded, but here, inside the store, Eric remains largely undisturbed, and over the course of the evening, that will hardly change.

Eric is the Chief Operating Officer of Conlins and Alessi Philippines, having helped Harris build the brand in the years that he’s been back. Since then, Conlins has grown and expanded, bringing in high-grade coffee makers from Europe and high-concept household items from Italian design company Alessi. But before that, Eric had been a dog washer, then he managed indoor playgrounds, then he worked in door-to-door sales, going up to random people and asking them to buy whatever he was selling at the time — all sorts of things. Eventually, he began to work in the espresso bars in Vancouver, before finally becoming the manager of a chain of toy stores.

“It’s all part of the experience,” Eric explains, talking about his life abroad, the odd jobs he’d taken up, and what it’s like to live on a budget.

Eric had been fond of the toy stores he managed, being a collector himself. What interested him most was Lego, how the kits would start with a single brick and turn it into something else entirely, one piece at a time. With over a hundred different Lego sets and numerous action figures — from comic book characters to cartoon personalities — in his collection, Eric had found a place he could settle into, at least, for a while.

Back in the Philippines, Harris was already laying the foundation for Conlins. The brand had been in a state of expansion, finding a good deal of success as people warmed up to their coffee products and demand began to increase. It was then that he made the call to Eric, knowing that his experience in the Canadian coffee industry would be useful in developing Conlins.

That caused Eric to pause. It was a difficult choice. He had grown used to being surrounded by the things he enjoyed the most. Working at the toy stores was not such a common opportunity for a collector, and it granted him a fair discount on their products, allowing him to keep adding to his plastic towns and castles and buildings.

“It was hard to leave,” Eric admits, “But it was time.”

And so Eric packed his bags in 2005, moved back to the Philippines, and joined his brother at Conlins. While his work in the espresso shops in Canada offered the company a new perspective into the industry, it was his experience with toys, and his own philosophy, that would help shape Conlins into what we know it to be now.

“Part of the fun of Lego is the process of it, the journey of building the item,” he explains, “Some people will rush to build the piece, but Lego is about the finding, the sorting out, the act of putting it together. And you know it’s never just the end product, and that resonates with everything we do. It shouldnt just be the end.”

“You have to sometimes step back and look at what you’re going through,” he explains further, “Once you have the piece completed you can remember what you had to go through to get to the end.”

This is the exact same process that Conlins had to go through. It had to be built one step at a time, brick by brick, bean by bean, until it became one of the most renowned roasters of world-class coffee in the country.

“A big challenge for us when we started in the Philippines was that it was an instant coffee market,” Eric remembers, “It still predominantly is.”

In a country that’s used to sachets, the three-in-ones, the quick way of doing things, the fine art of coffee was a strange concept. This was the first thing they had to consider. How could you teach a community to drink coffee in all the ways it’s meant to be appreciated? How could you ask the community to learn to enjoy the entire process? There’s much to understand in the appreciation of coffee — the preparation, the timing, the technique, the taste.    

“There’s an art behind all of those,” Eric says, “You’re supposed to enjoy and savor it.”

“When you’re on a trip,” he says, drawing a comparison, “you don’t just rush, you have to casually, leisurely browse.”

The brothers decided that they needed to help people understand the art behind coffee and why Conlins was so committed to creating a premium label. To do that, they would also need an even deeper understanding of coffee. With this in mind, Eric decided to fly to Hong Kong to undertake the Q Grader exam — one of the most difficult tests for anyone in the coffee business. A Q Grader is a professional cupper certified by the Coffee Quality Institute, an international organization that regulates the system of grading specialty coffee according to its quality. It requires more than just a sharp, defined palate, necessitating a deep knowledge of the entire art of making coffee. The distinction, however, more than outweighs the cost, and becoming one would help Conlins immeasurably, as Eric would be able to grade their coffee while being able to use his knowledge to educate other people about the craft.

The Q Grader test subjects examinees to 22 trials over the course of six (6) days. From grading different levels of bitter, sweet, and salty; to triangulation tests; to identifying the origin of coffee and preparing your own cups — the Q grader challenges both the skills and the patience of each participant.    

“I’d like to say I was calm and collected but there was this element of stress there’s really no way to properly prepare for it,” Eric remembers, “There’s no textbook saying that for this coffee, this is what you’re gonna taste. You have to come up with your own descriptions, your own taste.”

But Eric soon learned that there was something that would make the exam much more difficult. The Coffee Quality Institute decided that it would shorten the duration of the test to three days. All 22 trials would have to be done in record time.

“In six (6) days it’s easier because your palate gets to rest more. It’s a little more relaxed,” Eric mentions “After a while, and keep in mind these tests are back-to-back, your nose and your palate get tired. At the end of the day everything starts to taste the same.”

Each phase of the test saw their numbers dwindle as the examinees began to fail, and soon, there were only a few left. Despite the taxing processes, Eric moved on. By the end of the third day, out of the 30 who had begun, only three (3) were left.  Eric had finally passed.

There are a little over a thousand qualified Q Graders in the world. There are nearly 300 in the US, more than 60 in Australia, less than 10 in Switzerland, and so on.  Eric Conlin is one of only two in the Philippines.

“Even after taking the exam, it just makes you want to learn more,” Eric says of the experience.  “The key thing for me is I want people to be able to understand,” Eric says, “I want people to be able to identify one origin from the other. Cause not all coffee tastes the same.”

This goal has been behind Conlins’ development ever since, and the company has largely succeeded in following it.  By hosting coffee appreciation sessions and by setting up a space in their Bonifacio High Street boutique where people can stay and have coffee, Conlins is bringing the love of coffee to people one cup at a time.

From its beginnings in 2002, Conlins has created several lines of luxury coffee, with many different types falling under each range. Its Artisans Coffee line is a collection of coffee blends, all made with precision and treated as an art form; the Designer Coffee range takes premium coffee beans from different origins, identifies the limitations of each one, and blends them together to overcome these constraints; Bluenotes, on the other hand, is a range that is completely made up of arabicas — the largest selection in the Philippines; while Aroma Coffee combines beans from three different continents and focuses on coffees/espressos with nutty, fruity tones and deep flavors.

To complement their products, Conlins brought in luxury coffee machines for their roasts — the Swiss-made Jura super-automatic espresso machines, German-made WMF espresso machines, and Italian Wega semi-automatic espresso machines. It also decided to include Alessi in its wares, an Italian firm that uses art to create everyday things such as kitchen implements.

With several outlets — Conlins Coffee World in Park Avenue, CW Lifestyle Cafe in the Mall of Asia, Alessi Flagship Store in Fort Bonifacio, and Conlins Elements in Greenbelt 5. As the market continues to grow, and the understanding of coffee begins to take hold, it’s quite possible that there will be more in the near future.

            “I can say Conlins was built by a team of people,” Eric mentions, “It wasn’t built by one person. It was built by a lot of people working together to get it to where it is.”

             “As for me,” he says towards the end, “I’m nothing special.”

            Eric might claim to be one bean among the countless in the brand’s sack, one brick in the Lego-like structure of the company. But with his story, with what he’s done to take Conlins to where it is now, it’s easy to see that there is much more to his story than he cares to admit.  ###

The Story of Alessi

“I think that this will be the goal of design in the future (or at least, my goal for my future in the sphere of design): transforming the gadget function ascribed to objects by the consumer's society into a transitional opportunity, namely into an opportunity for consumers to improve their perception of the world.”
- Alberto Alessi

Alessi was founded by Giovanni Alessi in 1921, a company that produced crafted metal products for kitchens. Set in the Italian municipality of Omegna, an area with a long tradition of wood and metalcraft, Alessi began creating artisanal pieces that were focused on the experience of the user. More than simple kitchen implements, Giovanni wanted to design pieces that enhanced the perception of the owner, opening their senses to a greater breadth of awareness of the seemingly mundane.

Alessi in the Philippines

When Alessi opened in the Philippines, it was something of a surprise to the market. While there had always been suppliers of European houseware, none could give as much value as it did. Alessi was simply different. It was a brand that made the ordinary rather more interesting, more unusual. Not just by making them out of precious metals or modern technology, but with how the company itself approached design. Alessi’s value was in the concept of its pieces themselves, the way they interacted with their owners, the way they made people feel.
             Conlins, the company that brought it to the country, had been looking for a brand that would complement their existing ranges. Known for their own line of luxury coffee blends and being the distributor of high-end European coffee makers, it wanted to extend its reach to include household items that would fall along the same lines of quality. They wanted a brand that had a vision that was like their own. It was then that the company decided on Alessi, and the first shop, displaying some of the most iconic pieces of the brand, opened at Bonifacio High Street in 2007.
“In the same way that we want people to appreciate the intricacies and nuances of what different coffee origins have to offer, we want them to experience what designs from all over the world are like. We brought Alessi into the Philippines because we felt that it was the right time for the Philippine market,” says Harris Conlin, Chief Executive Officer of Alessi Philippines, “We were looking for a brand that can speak to a variety of people, one that was in line with the mission of Conlins. This brand should be able to transcend the values of quality, function, and price.  We found these qualities in Alessi. Their objects have the ability to speak and convey messages, bring forth emotions and express cultural values; though not through the use of words, but through shapes, lines and forms. This is a quality which we call the poetic value of an object.”

            “If the person can understand the value - not only the value in price but the value of the product, the story behind the product, it adds character, it adds weight to why they would want it,” he continues.

            Each piece in the Alessi product lines tells a story, and this is precisely what drew Conlins to the brand. They wanted to make this approach to lifestyle, this appreciation of making art out of the mundane, available to the Philippines. To date, Alessi has collaborated with over 500 creators, including the celebrated French designer Philippe Starck and the German-born Richard Sapper, two of the most important designers of their generation. Each designer, in turn, has a unique approach to design, a different way to appreciate the common.

            “When they design, they create. They’re artists and their thought processes in these pieces are shown through the use of lines, the use of shapes,” Eric Conlin, Chief Operating Officer of Alessi Philippines, explains, “These elements will speak to a customer, or to the people who collect Alessi. When you ask somebody what appeals to them sometimes we don’t know how to describe it but there’s something that just speaks to you.”

            “Why is this plate special? What were the designer's thoughts, making this piece? It's never just about the function anymore,” he goes on, “If it’s just about the function, somebody can just opt for a banana leaf to eat off from or they can always eat from the saucepan. Why bother using the plate?  But when we start appreciating the processes, what we do every day, the things that seem mundane — why can’t they be special? And that’s the idea of using things that accentuate the everyday and make you appreciate life more.”

            As with most art, the appeal to any viewer or buyer may vary. One thing might speak to a person but another might view it an entirely different manner. A piece could bring forth memories, or the feel of the wind, or invoke the experience of an evening outdoors. The reason behind this is that all Alessi pieces start as an idea. That idea is then given form, driven into something tangible.It was brought into the world as faithfully as Alessi’s means could allow. In some cases, people are even left wondering how a piece is made, since none of them are ever completely direct in nature.

            The appeal of Alessi began to take hold in the Filipino market, and it soon gained a following, prompting Conlins to open Conlins Elements— one in Greenbelt 5 and another in Trinoma both carrying Alessi products. The popularity of the brand grew exponentially over the following years, and people outside of Luzon began to ask for its avalability in the Southern part of the country. Toward the final quarter of this year, Alessi is set to open a flagship store in Cebu, and as it continues to develop its position in the market, more outlets will undoubtedly follow.

            The appreciation of Alessi is one that comes in stages. Harris tells of how, when a customer first walks into the Alessi store, they might initially be drawn to the colorful pieces. The pieces with pop culture sensibilities might attract them with their wit, their humor. From here, they could eventually develop a taste for the monochromatic uniformity of metals, choosing to purchase pieces that are elegantly designed and with more complex thought processes. At this point they might develop a fondness for a certain designer or style, and begin to collect limited edition pieces made by the artist. Collecting Alessi, in this sense, is very much like collecting art, although it is art that has a precise function in the household or office.
            With its constant collaborations, Alessi has collected a substantial group of cultures and traditions, making it one of the most diverse companies when it comes to design influences. All of these, however, go through Alessi’s trademark processes of creation, and while they might be crafted with modern technology, each one is still made with the artisan’s principles in mind, and Italian master craftsmen are still entrusted with their production.

            “Because Alessi doesn’t have in-house designers, it brings in a lot of cultures. Each designer comes from a different part of the world,” Eric says, “So alessi itself is an eclectic brand bringing together cultures from around the world. Each designer brings a portion of themselves in their piece, and each piece has a story to tell. Its up to our clients whether they can understand or relate to the what the pieces want to convey.  But it’s even more special when a customer can create a story for themselves and relate to it themselves.”

            “Alessi opens our eyes to many different things, rather than seeing the world though closed lenses we are able to open not only our eyes but also our minds,” he goes on, “We are able to see life and the objects that we encounter in different manner; the obvious answer no longer seem as important as finding and appreciating the small details and intricacies.  Through Alessi we learn to see things not for what what they are, rather see them as what they can be.  We become aware and gain a new appreciation of our daily processes, things that we have always been taught as ordinary become extraordinary.”

            It’s the little things that happen in between the big ones that tell your story. It’s these tiny fragments that are told and retold each day, remembered with a single piece here, a single symbol there. When you take the time to appreciate each fragment, to understand the meaning behind them, then you begin to realize that there is much more to the everyday than you allow yourself to see. From the moment you wake up and take a look at the things that surround you, the things that you’ve collected over the years, the things that remind you of why you choose to do what you do, why you even get up in the first place —nothing will ever be the same.

 Alessi is available at the Alessi Concept store at Bonifacio High Street in Taguig (856-4452) as well as in Conlins Elements stores in Greenbelt 5 Makati (729.9698) and Trinoma, Quezon City (900-0668).

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