May 21, 2010

Quick and, well, not awful

Coffee is not a luxury item. Not for some caffeine addicts anyway. Coffee is right up there with food, air and water on a "things needed to survive list". As such, it is impertive that coffee be available to such persons at all times. Unfortunately, this sometimes means sipping stagnant brews, sitting for god only knows how long on gas station hot plates.

But it doesn't have to be this way. The addict can get their fix from several reputable places, no matter the situation.

First, there are drive thru restaurants. McDonalds has made quite the fuss about their coffee initiative. To the giant's credit, they do use 100% arabica beans, producing a non offensive cup. But if you're looking for strength or flavor, you'll be sadly dissapointed. The brew, in my expereince, has always been flat and bland.

A better drive thru option is Dunkin Donuts. The chain first introduced Americans to decent coffee over fifty years ago. Ever since, they've used 100% arabica beans, and ground and brewed them fresh. Again, if you're looking for a nuanced cup, you won't find it here. But even a discerning palate will be pleased enough with Dunkin's reasonable quality.

Although it isn't available quite yet, Starbucks will be moving subsidiary Seattle's Best Coffee in to Burger Kings everywhere. Once that takes place, BK will usurp Dunkin Donuts as my drive thru coffee option.

Of course, there are times where even stopping at a drive thru seems like too much effort. You're in a hurry, road tripping or whatever, and can only stop for gas. Thus you're left with gas station coffee. But you needn't dispair. Some chains actually keep their coffee brewed fresh, and contained in actual pots, thus ensuring that the brew is at least hot. Quiktrip is the best such option, if you're in an area where they exist. They, like the previously mentioned options, only use arabica beans, and generally keep their pots fresh. But no matter where you live, there is probably at least one gas station which can be counted on to provide a decent product. Once you find such a place, make a mental note of it.

I all of these options aren't available, Starbucks VIA and free hot water from gas stations works in a pinch.

Finally, whatever youo do, stay far, far away from the machine poured "cappuccinos" offered at gas stations. Please, for your sake and mine.

May 14, 2010

Any way you want it

I will not say very many nice things about frappuccinos, ever, so this post is somewhat out of character. That said, although the snob in me still finds them abominable affronts to coffee, I appreciate their improvement.

Are the great? No. Good. No. Something I would drink if starving and parched, near to the point of death? Still, no. 

But better is better, and credit should be given where it's due. 

Once upon a time, Starbucks used to make frappuccinos with a prepared, syrupy mix, which was concocted the night before. The resulting product separated quickly and easily, and tasted more of candy than anything else. Still, the sugar bomb had its devotees, as sugar bombs will. Perhaps those die hards will not like the new method. But I think that most will.

It isn't anything too revolutionary. In fact, it's the sort of thing that prompts you to wonder why it wasn't done sooner. 

Instead of using the pre-mixed base, Starbucks now constructs their frappuccinos with instant coffee or espresso, and milk. Whatever syrups you desire are then added, along with ice, and the whole thing is blended together. 

This allows for customers to more fully suite the beverage to their tastes, first of all. It also allows for decaf and soy frappuccinos, for those who want/need them. The freshness factor is also worth noting. 

From an employee perspective, the new method is superior as well. There are no mixes to make, and thus no mixes to throw out either. Thus there is less waste, and less dishes. Both are certainly good things. Milk also seems to blend with the ice more smoothly than the syrupy mix did, which makes the drink much easier to pore. 

So while I still wouldn't drink them, I appreciate the fact that others do enjoy their coffee (or sometimes not coffee)/milkshake things. We have to hook the kids somehow, after all.  

May 12, 2010


There are students out there much more dedicated than I. Truth be told, most students are probably more dedicated than me. After all, I'm the guy blogging about coffee during finals week. Not exactly academic stuff. But hey, you have to prioritize. 

Regardless, this being finals week, many undoubtedly plan on staying up to obscene hours of the night/morning in order to cram as much information in to their brain as will fit. A great plan. In order to do this, said individuals will ingest caffeine by the hundreds of milligrams. 

But what will they use as a source? Some will rely on soda, or energy drinks. Which is fine, I suppose, if you're in junior high. Those who have grown out of their need for sugar bombs will turn to coffee. 

But even within that category, there are ways to optimize caffeine consumption. Plain ol' black coffee works great, especially when consumed in enough quantities. But the amount of water that comes along with the caffeine might have someone running to the bathroom too often. 

If that's the case, consider espresso. Espresso is simply concentrated coffee, thus, by volume, it has more caffeine. One could easily shoot several shots down in a matter of moments. Of course, you could also enjoy the drink -- and probably should -- but that's not the point in this scenario.

Some gas stations now have coffee with added synthetic caffeine. If you don't care about the taste and have a death wish, this might be worth looking into. 

My best tip correlates nicely with an earlier post: Basically, that fat is your friend. You see, caffeine is fat-soluble. That means that, in order to absorb and utilize it fully, your body needs dietary fat. So the old trope about drinking coffee on an empty stomach being more effective? Wrong. To get wired more effectively, drink your coffee with or immediately after consuming food. Adding half & half or heavy cream to your coffee is an even easier route to take. But again, I must recommend that you lay off the sugar. Although there are a myriad of great reasons why you should, the one that's most relevant to this discussion is that sugar prompts a spike, and subsequent precipitous drop in energy levels. Despite what you've probably heard, caffeine is a much more stable source of energy, due to its blood sugar stabilizing properties.

May 11, 2010

So how is tall small again?

I haven't seen Role Models, the movie from which this clip is taken, but I feel pretty confident in saying that I've just posted the 
best part. Comedy works best when it's relatable. Thus that scene works because Paul Rudd (KU grad, by the way) is 
expressing a frustration held by many.

And for what it's worth, he just so happens to be right. Tall means, well, it's English; I think you can figure that one out. 
Grande is spanish for large, or big, or something like that. And venti is just the Italian word for 20.

Great. But why? Because Starbucks is modeled after Howard Shultz's vision of a European coffee house, thus he sought 
to invoke the sorts of names one might find there. Which wouldn't be quite so complicated, if American's didn't like their 
food and beverages so large. In europe, one might order a coffee or cappuccino in a 6-8 oz serving. That would be the 
norm, in fact. Starbucks does have an 8 oz cup, which they call a short. You have to ask, but I recommend
doing so, if you value flavor over quantity.

Thus if there's a short, albeit hidden, the next step up is a tall. Again, in Europe, a 12 oz beverage would be fairly
substantial. And a grande, which is 16 oz, would be pretty huge. No one would ever dream of ordering a 20 oz coffee, so 
there was no appropriate European name to borrow for the venti.

Now that all kind of makes sense, until you glance over at the iced drinks. Starbucks' largest iced cup size is 24 oz, yet 
is still called a venti. Thus in Starbucks land, are we to assume that venti just means large, and not 20?

Frankly, I don't know. And I don't care either. I'e never actually met a barista who insists that you order a drink 
with the shop's exact lingo. But if you want to blend in, just read the menu board. My personal preference, and what
I think is easiest, is just to order drinks using numbers instead of names. Small can be confused, whereas 8 oz is 8 oz is 8 oz.

May 10, 2010

Lazy latte

The idea of a vacation, I think, is to recharge one's self. Thus in theory, I should have been motivated to do any number of things this morning. Like scramble my own eggs. Like make my own coffee. Like put on pants.

But I just wasn't motivated. No, some of the residual relaxation hadn't yet dissipated. So I trudged upstairs -- no pants, no eggs, no fresh coffee.

Instead, I broke my fast on a mammoth bowl of Arrowhead Mills puffed rice, wetted ever so slightly with Westsoy unsweetened soy milk. But as I sat and munched, it occurred to me that this was a rather low protein meal. There were eggs, of course; but scrambling or otherwise cooking them sounded suspiciously like work. 

The soy milk, then. But drinking it, plain and cold, sounded too boring. Then it hit me: I could make a lazy latte. 

What is a lazy latte, you ask? Microwaved milk and instant coffee. Yes, it really is lazy. 

But didn't I just write a treatise on latte quality, in which I state emphatically that properly steamed milk is essential to crafting a great drink? Well, yes. That did happen. But a lazy latte is not designed to supplant the genuine article. Rather, it is intended only to satisfy a craving when one has neither the motivation nor the finances to do so any other way.

My lazy latte consisted of 8 oz microwaved unsweetened Westsoy and one Columbian VIA packet. It was not great, certainly; but it was exactly what I wanted at the time. 

You can make your own lazy latte just as easily, provided you have three things: Instant coffee, milk or a milk substitute, a microwave (or stove top). The stove top method allows for whisking, which actually does aerate the milk a bit, thus more closely approximating the texture of steamed milk. But that's almost too much effort for a lazy latte. You can simply nuke your liquid of choice for ~2 minutes, add the instant coffee, and stir.  

May 9, 2010

Rocky Mountain high

John Denver swore up and down that his popular song was a reference to a natural high; that is, the feeling exaltation that accompanies a feeling of oneness with nature. Not drugs. Seriously. To try and infer as much, according to him, suggested an overactive imagination searching for controversy.

Having spent the last couple of days nestled at the base of the Rockies in Golden, CO, even a cynic like myself can't totally dismiss the possibility that maybe Denver was on to something. As childish as it may sound, there's something endlessly romantic about a mountain vista.

But this is not a nature blog. I write about coffee, because frankly, even in the face of such beauty, that's what I'm primarily concerned about. Thus I present to you the coffee which was presented to me, over the course of my visit.

The first coffee I enjoyed was a Bolivian Roast from Z's Espresso in Lawrence. It was subtle and soft, lacking the nutty acidity of a Columbian or the cocoa of a Guatemalan. The coffee was, for the hour especially, a bit too subtle for me.

Next up was a Columbian roast -- or rather, a Columbian VIA from Starbucks. I've already posted my opinion on the "brew" before. It's creamy and nutty, perfectly acceptable stuff, but nothing better.

And now to Golden, the downtown of which houses several coffee shops. What's more, nearly every establishment, regardless of purpose, seems to have coffee. Thus I like the town for more than the lovely scenery.

The Denver inspired (perhaps) Higher Grounds served up a dopio macchiato. The espresso itself was heavy and dense, lacking the usual caramel sweetness. The dollop of foam on top was exquisite, however. The barista steamed the milk well, then tapped the pitcher with a spoon. That little trick settles the foam to the top, and gave me exactly the texture I want in my foam.

Cafe 13, which I visited twice, served up both an iced coffee and a standard brew. The coffee was something of a house blend, and as such, promised little in the way of exotic flavor notes. Instead, it only claimed to be a smooth drink, which it was. But speaking of smooth, the iced coffee was that and so much more. Cafe 13 uses a cold press to prepare their iced coffee, which removes acidity altogether. The result is sweet and cocoay, dessert without and cream or sugar.

I also went to a Starbucks, because it was the only place open at the time. It was the best Pike's Place Roast I've had, I'm pretty sure. I blame the altitude for my inability to match it.

Most of my coffee consumption was at the Golden Hotel, however, not any given shop. Which, normally, would mean a steady diet of Folgers. Which, charming as it can be, would not have been as good as what was offered instead. So what did the Golden Hotel have? At their restaurant, wedding reception and desk, I'm frankly not positive. My palate tells me it's a darker roasted Latin American blend. And, especially for free, it was very very nice. A bit heavy and lacking in bite for breakfast, but a lovely compliment to food -- perfect for after dinner.

In two days, I managed to down more than my fair share of coffee. But it's me. That's what I do. True to form, Golden seemed to invoke a high beyond just the caffeine rush, however. But unfortunately, lovely as the scenery is, Lawrence's spectacular coffee scene was not matched. And so I will return home to the land of Oz and pancake jokes, knowing full well that the coffee is better, thus with my nose in the air (or in a cup of coffee).

May 6, 2010

Meet carrageenan

My title is, admittedly, a little misleading. You and carrageenan have almost certainly met before -- probably hundreds, if not thousands, of times. 

That's because carrageenan is one of the many mystery ingredients you see (or choose not to see, in some cases) on ingredient lists everywhere. It's a polysaccharide (complex sugar) which is used as a commercial thickener, extracted from red seaweed. 

Although you'll find it in just about everything, carrageenan is frequently used in beverages to mimic a creamy texture where one does not actually exist. 

Like, I don't know, non-dairy milks and low-fat milks? As it turns out, yes.

Silk, the big brand name in soy milk, uses the thickener in their products. So too does Starbucks use it in their Silk knock-off. 

Now you might think milk is creamy and thick enough. Apparently, you would be wrong. Skim milk frequently uses carrageenan. Which one might expect, given that skim milk has the texture of chalkly water otherwise. But even some brands of half & half and heavy cream (seriously) aren't thick enough in their natural state, apparently. 

Carrageenan's ubiquity wouldn't be worth writing about, if not for two things: First, many people (myself included) prefer their foods to be simply what they are. Second, a rat study suggests that carreegeenan may cause cancer.

Wait, hold the phones. Cancer? Seriously? What doesn't cause that now days?

This might be cause for concern. Might be, because humans are not rats, the amount of carrageenan which was shown to be potentially dangerous was way more than one could reasonably ingest, and the product was degraded. This strikes me as similar to studies which show that OXIDIZED cholesterol (not the kind you eat) caused heart disease in rabbits (not capable carnivores like humans).

In this case, vague correlation does not imply, much less guarantee, causation. 

Which means, at the end of the day, don't worry about it. Do I prefer my soy milk (Westsoy) to be only soybeans and water? Sure. But I don't think that a few glasses of Silk will give me cancer, either. Nor should you fret over whether your milk is just milk, or contains other stuff. 

May 5, 2010

Whole latte love

Despite its ubiquitous presence at espresso bars, the latte is more American than it is Italian. The story goes that it was invented in California, to suit the American taste buds. Basically, your typical Italian cappuccino was too foamy -- and thus tasted too much like coffee -- even in pre 1950's America. 

Which shouldn't come as a surprise, really. Americans have always drank more milk than anyone (as an aside, I should say that I'm totally not looking that up, and just assuming). Lactose intolerance is also much more common in Italy than the United States, thus Italians could only handle so much dairy with their espresso. Americans, on the other hand, could drown their coffee in it. 

And they proceeded to do just that, and still do. Many now mask the taste of espresso behind even more veils, using flavored syrups and chocolate to craft vanilla lattes, mochas, and other disgraceful -- ahem, I mean decadent, *wink* -- drinks. 

But even the most snobbish among the coffee elite must admit that, properly prepared, a latte is a creamy and delicious treat. Steamed milk provides a fluffy, creamy, marshmallow like texture, and accentuates the naturally sweet espresso with its own sugar -- lactose.

For those of us -- *raises hand* -- who would like to avoid digestive issues and throat swelling, there are always alternatives. The best I've found, thus far, is UNSWEETENED soy milk. The texture approximates dairy well enough,  and the nutty flavor compliments the espresso quite nicely. 

Regardless of the "milk" used, a quality latte must consist of two things: Good espresso and properly steamed milk.

Good espresso is essential, of course, because no amount of milk can hide a bitter shot. For lattes, it also helps to use a slightly sweeter espresso, thus allowing it to cut through the milk.

But a latte, as the name would imply, is mostly about the milk. Too often, a barista steams the milk in such a way that the latte is 95% plain ol' hot milk, and 5% arid foam. This is too bad, because a good barista (like yours truly) can steam milk to a velvety sheen. The texture should be consistent, soft, and creamy. There should be no large, visible bubbles. Instead, the milk should glisten like shined metal. 

There are other factors to consider too, such as the aforementioned syrups (evil) and what fat percentage works best (whichever you like, but half & half is the correct answer), but those would make this post far too long.