September 29, 2010

National Coffee Day

That we choose specific days to highlight aspects of our life which are omnipresent is, of course, more than a little odd. One might be Thankful for the bountiful harvest (or at least the plethora of grocery stores) any day, for example. And why, exactly, should people limit themselves to Halloween when it comes to fanciful costumes? I want to dress like Han Solo every day, dammit.

This is how I feel about national coffee day. Apparently, today is that day. I'm not sure who started it. Neither am I sure when, or why. Frankly, odd as it may sound, I don't much care. My initial plan was to craft something of a love letter to coffee, my magnum opus, my protest against mortality, a piece of lyrical alchemy which might live and be loved forever.

There are two reasons why that isn't going to happen. First of all, I'm not entirely sure I'm capable of writing something quite like what I had in mind. It's one thing to theorize about crafting a masterpiece; but it's another thing altogether to actually create one. But more importantly than that, it would seem disingenuous. The thing I enjoy most about this blog is that it allows me infinite creative freedom. I don't plan anything, frankly. Truth be told, I don't really know what I'm going to write, even when I'm already typing. I go, and end up wherever I will. Thus to sit, intent on writing anything like an epic treatise, would seem horribly contrived.

It is also worth noting that every day is "coffee day" to me. As much as this may come across as sarcasm, it isn't. Nor is it a tongue in cheek comment on caffeine dependence. I mean that, quite honestly, coffee is an integral part of my day, every day.

I wake up. If I'm working out in the morning, I have coffee, and nothing else. If I'm mauling myself later, I have coffee, two eggs and toast. I have another cup on campus, or at work, mid morning. Then another around lunch, and another mid afternoon. Sometimes, if I'm feeling indulgent, I'll drink another in the evening. That sounds like a lot -- and it is. I never claimed to be good at moderation. It's a rather frightening concept to me.

But the point here goes well beyond my liking the taste of coffee, or the minor buzz it gives me. Coffee, in a very real way, shaped who I am. Working in and around a coffee bar chiseled away my shy exterior, revealing the relentless extrovert which, to that point, had been hidden. Quite literally, most of the friends I've made post high school I met, in one way or another, over coffee.

I am not alone in this. Coffee bars are places of study, of conversation, of flirting and sulking. They are places of art and science, work and play. They are a unique place which melds apparently opposed concepts to form a strangely coherent whole. And the drink itself, central to the whole experience, is the most consumed beverage (not counting plain water) on earth. It is a daily ritual for, quite literally, the majority of people on this planet.

If it feels like I'm using grandiose terminology, know that I've not come close to hyperbole. Which is, perhaps, why even entertaining the idea of writing "the" coffee article was always foolish. Something so ubiquitous is difficult to encapsulate with words, no matter how good one might be with them. And so, despite the urge to keep writing, I'm going to stop now. There's infinitely more to say, but nothing to add.

September 27, 2010


There are few things more pleasurable than the embrace of a warm bed on a cool morning. The thick comforter shields the air's crisp bite, you compacting underneath.

But there's the alarm. For the third time this morning. You reach for the snooze again, as much from habit as intent. Some part of your brain catches the gaff. School. Work. Shit. Whatever it is, your warm bed must be abandoned.

There is a not insignificant part of me which screams, every morning, to submit to the siren song of sleep. It would be the easiest thing, and what would it hurt? You work hard. You deserve it. Of course, there is a slightly larger part of me which screams slightly louder, telling me that certain obligations must be met.

But meeting obligations is hard. I need help. And I think you know where I'm going with this. Frankly, you know where I'm going with every post, so I'm not at all sure why I insist on these unnecessarily verbose introductions. Oh well.

Back to the point, which, in case you haven't guessed, is coffee. The point is always coffee.

But hold on, because I'm totally justified in saying this. A nip in the air can be combated with clothing, sure. And I do that. I am rather fond of jackets, coats, and long sleeved shirts. Were I ever to find a halfway decent cardigan I could pull off, I'd be in to that as well. I think the young Mr. Rodgers look would work well for me.

But I am no sartorialist. And as anyone can tell you, true feelings, warmth included, come from the inside. What better way than coffee? None. None even come close. Coffee, first and most obviously, is hot. So when you drink it, you feel warmer. But even the holding of it helps. Truthfully, that's how I started on my coffee journey. My hands were cold. I had no gloves. I did have access to free coffee, however, so I used it as a portable hand warmer. Finally, caffeine, stimulant that it is, helps give your body's base metabolic rate a little boost, thus resulting in residual warmth.

Somehow, I've managed to write something of a lengthy entry on why one might want to drink coffee when it's chilly. In other revelatory news, one might consider eating when hungry, or drinking water when thirsty. But if I'm obvious, forgive me, as I'm also quite enthusiastic. I have a great deal of affection for coffee -- that much we have established. But I absolutely adore the crisp Autumn air. Combine the two, and I'm a man who could want for little else

September 24, 2010

Big fat phony

Allow me to introduce myself. I am, quite succinctly, I liar. I have sold myself as a knowledgeable barista, a passionate participant in the art and science of cafe culture. And that is wrong.

You see, I work at a Seattle's Best Coffee. Before that, I worked at a Starbucks. And before that, a little campus spot, nestled in a food court. I have never worked outside a corporate environment. My last two stops, I've had an automatic machine, the kind that pulls shots with the push of a button.

I am the fry guy, the sandwich stacker, the anonymous youth completing a string of mundane tasks a chimp could master in a day.

If you believe any of that, I would kindly direct you back to the top of this post. I am a liar. Still, some of what I said is true. The vast majority of my experience is under the Starbucks umbrella (as it owns SBC), that hulking monolith of coffee evil. And yes, I don't grind and tamp my own espresso. I know how, having done it before. But admittedly, I'd be a bit rusty.

So all that being the case, how is it that I can present myself as any kind of an expert? After all, there are any number of coffee connoisseurs out there, more educated than I; and there are better baristi as well.

I suppose the answer to that is this: I am not an expert, nor have a ever tried to present myself as such. I am, first and foremost, a fan. That guy writing the blog about his favorite team doesn't actually take the field on Sundays, after all; yet he has his opinions, his own brand of expertise. I'm like that guy. I am not among the barista elite. Not in Lawrence, certainly not in any context larger than that. Nor is my knowledge of coffee particularly impressive when compared to any number of local roasters, who are tangibly involved at steps of the process I've never even witnessed.

But I know some things, and I think a lot more. And, the internet being what it is, I can present those things on this page. I plan on continuing to do so for quite a while. Maybe one day I will be the most skilled barista in Lawrence -- but probably not. I might also become the area's foremost java expert -- but again, that's unlikely. That's also just fine. I will be as good as I can get, and know as much as my brain will gather. And I will keep writing, because, as far as coffee bloggers located in Lawrence go, I might actually be the best.

September 22, 2010

On books and covers

I've always been told that it's bad form to start a writing endeavor with a question. Now, having made a statement, I'm free to ask away.

What does a black coffee drinker look like? A mocha devotee? How about a grande half caff skinny vanilla latte fan?

I'm guessing you have your ideas. And shame one you, because that's racist, sexist, or some other kind of -ist that you don't want to be. You certainly can't, and should not, attempt to label a person based on what they choose to drink.

But I can. Because I have a blog. And internet anonymity (despite the fact that I'm quite public about my identity) lets me get away with saying whatever I want.

A black coffee drinker is frequently a middle aged to old person. They are direct, not usually waiting for you to ask what they want. "Just coffee," they say. Gender seems to play little to no roll here. If young, a black coffee drinker is a somewhat whispy psuedo-hipster. Like me. Some whispy pseudo-hipsters add cream and sugar however, thus making them less cool. Which, in hipster land, actually makes you more cool. Whatever.

People who drink sugar bombs fall in to several categories. They might be bros, fratty sorts who want the caffeine without actually tasting coffee. Their palate is too settled on beer and liqueur, after all. Skinny girls who shouldn't be able to maintain their figure also drink these things. But it's OK, because they get skim milk and will only eat a Kashi bar for dinner. Then, there are the middle aged and up people, who used to fall in to the former categories, only now they're not so thin anymore. Metabolism is cruel like that.

Which leads me to the sugar free folks. These are your relatively thin people, college aged an up, talking on their cell phones, traipsing about town in their Nike Lunar Glides and running shorts. They frequently browse the diet and weight loss section, eager to discover that magical macronutrient percentage which will optimize their figure. And no, these are not all women.

You might disagree with this assessment. You may think to yourself, "Self, I drink black coffee, yet wear running shorts all the time." While I will concede that my definitions are not likely to be bullet proof, I think it's equally possible that you're lying. Which is not healthy, frankly. Admit it, you want a skinny vanilla latte, you Jillian Michaels reader.

September 20, 2010


I stand from my chair, hands placed idly in my pockets. "Hello. My name is Alex Beecher, and I'm an addict."

"Hi Alex." The chorus of middle aged monotony echos briefly, then dies quietly. The voice is one, from several mouths. Each, however, seems indistinguishable from any other. They are John or Jane Doe, respectively, animated only by force of habit.

I glance at each, eyes whisking past every anonymous visage, searching for a foothold. I lick my lips, open my mouth to say nothing.

A voice reaches out, saves me from drowning in the miasmic silence. "Welcome Alex. Have a seat."

I do have a seat, at least. That's about all I've got, but it's something. I sit and slouch, staring at my feet like they might start dancing. I rub my hands together, the friction generating a warmth I don't feel.

A sting, a pulse, a throb. A crack in my skull, and my sanity starts oozing out. To hell with everyone else here, these would be martyrs, trying to kick the habit that's already so thoroughly trampled them. Two dollars. That's all my reprieve would cost. Two dollars, and I could be content. I could walk right out of here, quit before anyone would miss me.

Would it make me weak? To fall of the wagon before I even sat? Maybe, maybe not. But it would make me happy. And what kind of strength might I find here? Is this strength, mumbling about some damnable addiction every Wednesday night? Let them curse that devil's brew. Let them lament past failures and wasted years.

I stand, resolute. My name is Alex Beecher, and I'm an addict. I don't want to be anything else.

September 17, 2010

Better with age

I've not written too much about specific coffee, or even my specific place of business. Were I not clear, I work at a Seattle's Best. This is relevant information A) If anyone would care to stalk me; and B) As a preface to my writing about a coffee SBC sells.

It's fall. Or, to give it the more pleasing name, it's Autumn. This is a good thing, because the weather is no longer unbearably hot. It is much nicer bike riding and running weather, both of which are things I find myself doing quite a bit of. It is also the time of year when SBC rolls out its Autumn Reserve blend.

Wow. A pretentious named coffee. Can't wait. Doubt if you like, but the Reserve blend is, in fact, awesome. It also is made from beans which have been held back, or if you prefer, reserved.

Specifically, Sumatran beans are aged for several years. Typically, I think this is about five. In any case, the result is lovely. The coffee gets downright spicy, sweet, and full of playful flavors. It's really does taste warm, and well, perfect for Autumn.

If you don't have an SBC in your area, Starbucks also uses aged Sumatran beans in its Anniversary and Christmas roasts. And I know you have a Starbucks in your area.

Of course, if you happen to be around Lawrence, you could buy some from me. Which begs the question: Is it creepy of me to solicit customers on my blog? Dangerous? Maybe. But it seems like a good idea for now. But just to be safe, perhaps I should say this instead: Come get a coffee from me if you are not prone to outbursts of violence, or in any way a dangerous person to be around. There. That's better.

September 15, 2010

Too much of a bad thing

They say there's a first time for everything. But then, they also say you shouldn't start a post with a trite, mind numbing cliche. So clearly, I do not see things exactly as "they" do. Which is good, I suppose, because they say an awful lot.

They say you should avoid high impact exercise, saturated fat, and excessive caffeine. If they're right, I should be falling face first on this keyboard any second now.

But I'm fine. Promise.

In any case, I do agree with them on some things. For instance, they say it's bad to waste. I'll second that -- in most cases. But not today. Today, I dumped at least 12 ounces of coffee down the drain.

In my defense, the liquid I dumped was only coffee superficially. I maintain that it was actually violently over-steeped black tea, perhaps with some ink for color.

I should have known better. Not long ago, I posted on the alleged double shot of espresso I purchased from a campus library. It was, quite possibly, the worst thing I've ever tasted. But it was slight in volume, thus I finished it. This coffee today, purchased from a campus convenience store, was 16 ounces. Finishing that much of that coffee may well have killed me.

Thus I did the only thing I could do -- I dumped it. Sometimes losses must be cut, dreadful coffee wasted. But, more urgently, my palate needs cleansing.

September 14, 2010


When I started this blog, the intent was to establish it as a collection of musings on coffee I had just tried, shops I had recently visited, etc. That, obviously, has not turned out to be the case. Rather, I've written much more about general topics than specifics, frequently getting downright didactic. But, if only for today, that original mission will be fulfilled.

Uganda. It's a country, like most in Africa, which has what we will generously call a dubious reputation. Unless you're reading a depressing newspaper story about it, chances are the nation never crosses your mind.

Until today, I was the same. Ethiopia and Kenya were semi-present in my thoughts, due to their significance in the coffee world. Ethiopia, specifically, holds a special place in my heart. It was the cradle of coffee, as it was for humanity itself, and still produces my favorite beans. Or at least, produced my favorite beans until today. That's because, well, Uganda.

I hadn't ever seen a single origin coffee from Uganda before today, nor had I even heard of one. So, when I saw it at the Merc, trying it was a foregone conclusion. Just for the sake of doing it, I had to taste.

The first impression is silky smooth, mild but not without body. The taste lingers on the tongue, fizzing on the tip, and teasing acidity. It was a picture of balance. Enough weight to satisfy, yet soft and fresh.

My first thought was: "How could I have missed out on this for so long?" My second was: "How has everyone been missing out on this for so long?" Finally, I though: "This needs to be fixed." And so it does. Ugandan coffee. It rules.

September 13, 2010

Keep the change

I am currently working at my third coffee bar, but my first where I'm allowed to collect tips. This is obviously a nice little perk. There are the financial benefits, but the tangible appreciation is every bit as nice. It's one thing to say "Hey, that drink was pretty good"; It's another thing altogether to let George Washington speak on your behalf.

There is still the question of whether one needs to tip their barista. After all, they make above minimum wage, often twice as much as servers at restaurants. Few would argue that waiters and waitresses don't deserve tips. In fact, it's a necessary addendum to the price of your meal. They make jack shit. They take care of you and, ideally, are pleasant company when you want them to be, and out of the way when you'd rather they vanish.

A barista is not totally unlike that, but the more obvious comparison, of course, is to the bartender. Hell, "barista" translates to bartender in Italian, even. And the jobs are virtually the same. The talk to you as much or as little as you'd like, are knowledgeable about the product, and get you your damn drink. If you just get a beer or a coffee, there's probably not much need to tip. After all, most anyone can pour liquid in to a glass (although there is a right way to do it). But say you purchase a mixed drink, or in the barista's case, something that requires more than just coffee. In that case, tip. Please.

Again, the money helps. Baristi are not wealthy people. Trust me. We make more than waiters, but still less than ten dollars an hour. And it is skilled labor. If you don't believe me, walk behind the counter, and try to pull your own shots, and steam the milk. You will make a mess. If, somehow, you manage to make a drink as well, it will be awful. A decent barista makes all this look easy -- and after a while, it gets to be -- but don't think that makes the task altogether simple.

Finally, in the words of one of my better tipping customers, "There's a culture here. Not everyone knows it, but we do." He's right. By tipping, you're filling your role in said culture. You feel good for doing something nice (even though, at most, you're typically dropping an extra buck); And trust me, the barista feels even better. There's no satisfaction like knowing you're appreciated, that the work you do is valued. So express that appreciation. Tell them that you like the drink -- if in fact you do -- and why. They'll love you all the more for your knowledge.

And the money is nice, too.


I've written before that a certain bond exists among baristi. Those of us who spend our working hours behind a coffee bar, and our other hours near one, of course have coffee in common -- but much more as well.

We have stories. Oh so many stories. Tales of customers, great and terrible. People who love you, hate you, and everything in between. People who are just weird, and can't be ascribed any specific descriptor.

We share knowledge others consider trivial. We know the difference, not just between African and South American beans, but between Kenyan and Ethiopian, Colombian and Peruvian. We love the hiss of milk steaming, appreciate the pour, and savor the result.

And we talk. We talk, because you aren't a good barista if you aren't a good talker too. At least once a week, I meet a stranger, who is a friend in coffee. We talk, we smile, and we go our separate ways, but to similar places.

This is to say nothing of one's coworkers. War analogies are cliche, and perhaps even insulting to those who have experience the genuine article. But even still, there's a feeling of closeness that comes from exhaling together, having faced down an impossible rush.

I sat, just 24 hours ago, in the corner of a bar with my current coworkers. I drank coffee. They drank other things. Eventually, so did I. We laughed at nothing and everything. We talked about grave matters, ridiculous matters, and many things that did not matter. We had one hell of a time. I know I did.

September 10, 2010


As much as I pretend otherwise, it is probably the case that most people drink coffee for the caffeine. They view it not as a drink to be enjoyed, but more as an energy supplement to be used for its utilitarian value. That's fine.

I understand that life, for many, is characterized by a constant state of sleep deprivation, poor eating habits, and other factors that lead to fatigue. But life goes on, whether you're being dragged, or doing the dragging. Caffeine can help you do the latter.

I've blogged, earlier, on caffeine's merits as brain fuel. Specifically, how it can help students study longer, and with more focus than they might otherwise manage. But frankly, that's not caffeine's most relevant purpose for me, student though I technically am.

No, I value caffeine more for its endurance boosting properties. As in working out. Seriously, grow up people.

There is science to support this. I won't quote it, or even link to it, but you can find studies with a quick search. I simply want to keep this as straightforward as possible.

Thus this, in the most succinct terms I can muster, is what caffeine does for you, relative to endurance: First of all, it literally does extend the ability of your muscles to perform aerobic work. But, perhaps more importantly, it lessens the perception of effort. That is, you feel like you can run harder, so you're more likely to do so. It also, a bit surprisingly, leads to quicker recovery, so you can hit the road the next day.

Typically, it takes about an hour for caffeine to really peak. Which is nice, because an hour is about the closest to a race you really want to be drinking anything (excepting, of course, long runs which require hydrating on the move). What's more, the effects last 4-5 hours, which ought to be enough time for you to finish anything marathon length or shorter.

Also, contrary to popular belief, coffee consumption leads to a net water gain. Its effects as a diuretic are vastly overstated. In fact, coffee isn't significantly (in the actual scientific sense of the word) more a diuretic than plain water.

Another excuse to drink coffee? You bet.

September 8, 2010

Liquid tragedy

Generally speaking, it is not a good idea to purchase coffee from a machine that looks like it ought to be dispensing coke instead. It is, perhaps, an even worse idea to purchase espresso from such a machine. I probably could have told you this before today -- but not from experience.

Earlier today, I found myself in the library. This is not, in and of itself, particularly remarkable. Libraries are places college students are expected to spend a decent amount of time in, after all. But they are not exciting places, frankly. Nor are they great places for purchasing coffee. Still, the former fact sometimes negates the latter.

Thus, after burying myself in homework for a couple hours, I desperately needed some sort of chemical jolt. But The Underground, and the Pulse coffee bar contained therein, were such a long walk -- probably like 100 yards or so. I didn't feel up to it. And so, with 78 cents jingling in my back pocket, I approached this dusty anachronism. Allegedly, it vended coffee and espresso -- both of which could be had for 50 cents.

Desperation and curiosity conspired together, and their combined efforts led to my purchasing something from this machine. I chose the espresso, more because I wanted to see just how awful it could be. Curiosity only ever killed cats, right? Not coffee drinkers.

I examined the cup, after extracting it from behind its cloudy plastic curtain. It looked, perhaps, like 3-4 ounces of liquid, though I doubted very much that it was in fact 3 or 4 conventional 1 oz "shots". But to my surprise, their appeared to be something like crema topping the beverage. At least, it was vaguely caramel colored. And so I did the only thing left to do, and sipped.

Imagine, if you will, a bottle of water, left in the back seat of your car for a week. Then imagine that said water was filtered through the contents found in a dumpster outside the worst coffee bar you can imagine. Imagine that, for some reason, you decided to drink the result.

It was far, far worse than that. Flat and pungent as can be, it was absolutely the worst thing claiming to have anything to do with coffee I've ingested in my life.

Desperate for reprieve, I hastened over to the nearby Pulse, and purchased a double shot of real, honest to goodness espresso. Comparatively, it was liquid bliss.

September 7, 2010


A cappuccino is, perhaps, near the pinnacle of espresso snob beverages. Oh sure, a purist may prefer a machiatto, or perhaps straight espresso. But no drink better combines both espresso and steamed milk. That is, milk that has truly been stretched, not just heated -- as can seem to be the case with a latte.

Cappuccinos are also fucking hard. You have to stretch the milk enough to generate quite a bit of foam, while controlling the process enough to avoid giant bubbles -- and spillage. Mostly the spillage. Which sounds easy, really. Only it's not. Somehow, some way, once milk gets going, it's like a boulder cascading off a cliff. You can stop it, sure, but only by allowing some damage.

In this case, by damage, I mean a mess. Such was the case today, as a first time milk steamer attempted her first cappuccino. I had my face right over the pitcher, observing the process. The milk careened towards my face, and I was the damsel tied to the proverbial tracks. There was nothing for it but to sit idly and take my medicine.

Of course, the milk actually turned out quite nice -- the amount that was still in the pitcher, anyway. Which is to say nothing of the various lattes she prepared, all of which were far too good for someone just learning the craft.

The lesson here -- And why is it I always try and end on some type of lesson? I'm not Jerry Springer -- is that cappuccinos are fickle bitches. Whether your a complete beginner or the most grizzled of veterans, they will kick your ass. But it's ok, because they're delicious.

Speculation on dairy

Usually, when I pose something of a question, or a problem, I do so with the ultimate aim that I reveal the answer. The purpose of a blog is nothing if not to make its writer look smart. And so I do try to have all the answers -- even the wrong ones.

But not today. Today, I wonder about goat's milk.

I'd just like to pause for a moment here, and let that last sentence sink in. *exhale* OK.

In all seriousness, goat's milk is the most consumed form of dairy in the world, favored just about everywhere but the United States. I could go on about its fatty acid profile, its high levels of calcium, or its unhomogenized fat globules -- but I won't.

Instead, I will speculate idly on how goat's milk would steam, and otherwise perform, when used with coffee. In the realm of taste, goat's milk skews a bit towards UHT treated cow's milk, in so far as it tastes rather overtly sweet. Even in its fattier incarnations, goat's milk just doesn't have the same inky thickness that whole cow's milk does.

Thus one can reasonably assume that goat's milk would taste even sweeter when steamed, as some of the sugars would caramelize. How unhomogenized milk would stretch, however, is something of a mystery to me. The fat globules are small enough (the reason why it isn't homogenized in the first place) that I don't think you'd end up with a lumpy latte. Either shake the container first, as you would with any non-dairy milks, or count on the swirling action during steaming to do the work. I imagine it probably would.

Of course, I don't actually have experience with a goat's milk/espresso combination. Nor do I have the slightest clue where one might go about finding a place to accomplish as much. But an interesting item to ponder, none the less.

September 5, 2010

Kids drink the darndest things

A little girl looked at me today, as if I were the dumbest creature she could imagine.

She had ordered a mocha. Simple enough, and a very common order. Only she was young -- had to still be in grade school, in fact.

So I did what seemed obvious, and asked her if she wanted a hot chocolate instead.

Then came the look. She narrowed her eyes, cocked both her head and hips. "I love coffee," she said.

Now I am not normally one to argue with customers. They can get what they want, and so long as I can accommodate their request, I'll do so. But this was a special case. She loves coffee? Right. Whatever. But at the very least, she's got to drink decaf. Kids that age are boundless bundles of energy as is.

Once again, the obvious thing turned out to be the stupid thing. "Caffeine," she said. One word. Not a descriptor, but a command.

Suddenly I'm not seeing a little girl anymore, but some 240 lb wall of ripcord and granite, grumbling through course facial hair about how he wants his gawdamn coffee.

So fine, I oblige. That is my job, at the end of the day. Let her try the thing, take one sip, and learn her lesson.

Or let her take one sip, declare the drink fantastic, and walk away satisfied.

The lesson here? Maybe something about how books shouldn't be judged by their covers, or something like that. But moralizing isn't my thing. Maybe, it's just that little kids are fucking scary.

September 4, 2010

Some like it wet

I've written a bit -- and though quite a lot -- recently, about how a latte ought to be prepared. As you likely know, I've long espoused the virtues of microfoam, and stated unequivocally that a latte ought to be made almost entirely of this substance.

Maybe -- just maybe -- I was wrong. Perhaps a latte, as its name would imply, ought to be mostly milk. That is, perhaps it ought to be, shall we say, somewhat thin and watery. Let's just say, for the record, that I don't believe this to be the case. I think a latte should have some texture to it, that you should be able to tell it was steamed, not just microwaved.

Clearly, however, my opinion is not a universal one. There are numerous baristi out there, and many customers as well, for whom a latte more or less implies "no foam". Again, I am not such a person.

Thankfully, there is such a thing as the wet cappuccino. Rather than it's light-as-a-feather, texture of a cloud cousin, the dry cappuccino, the wet version is more than the dry foam scooped off the top of ultra stretched milk. Rather, it is milk, stretched more or less to cappuccino dimensions, then simply poured as one would a latte.

This drink is something of a godsend for folks like myself, who love the taste of espresso, and love foam, but want a little moisture to soften things up. The whole drink ought to be a treat, down to the last bits -- which, no doubt, need to be scooped out with a finger.

September 3, 2010

Under pressure

Pressure is a key part of the barista's job. It's necessary to pull espresso, steam milk, and deal with the crowds.

Different sorts of pressure are, of course, applied in each circumstance. All are essential, however. Perhaps, one could even call them routine.

This is true, in so far as the first two actions are performed often enough that they become second nature. Milk can be stretched by sound, or touch even, given enough experience. Even the crowds, so daunting at first, become part of a comfortable routine.

But there are situations, still, that can throw even the most seasoned barista off their game.

The first, and perhaps most obvious, is the crafting of a drink for an individual who, let's just say, strikes the barista's fancy. Perhaps you ramble a bit more than normal, your co-workers wondering what the hell has gotten in to you. You trip, spill milk, then stretch it too much -- and oh fuck -- you totally forgot to pull the shot, and toasted the grounds to ash. Even still, you limp towards the finish line, hoping against all reason that maybe you can get a latte art heart on the drink. Tada! A amorphous blob. You finally hand over the drink, which by the way, they wanted iced.


Coworkers and bosses can be tough customers, in so far as you want to make something extra special for them. However, assuming that they actually like you in the first place, this interaction should be a casual and friendly one, resulting in an easy to prepare drink.

Fellow baristi, who work for other shops, however, are much more difficult. You have the constant, nagging sensation that they're evaluating everything you do -- judging your every move. Poured too much milk. Steam wand too deep. Shot too fast. Pour too rapid. If, however, you do get everything right, your coffee sibling tends to appreciate your work more than a less educated customer might.

Which brings me to the most pressure packed situation of all: The totally clueless ass hole. In the aforementioned situations, there are possible pleasant outcomes. There are ways in which you can hit all the right notes, and strike up a pretty nice tune. Not so, in this case. No matter how you make whatever it is that you make, you will do it wrong. In fact, you will make a drink totally unlike what they wanted. You are such a dolt that you can't even comprehend what their totally obvious drink preference is. And what's worse, the drink you make sucks. It tastes horrible, is too bitter and too sweet and too watery and too foamy and just fucking WRONG.

You should probably go dunk fries for a living, except that you'd fuck that up too, somehow.

September 2, 2010

It's not right, but it's ok, I'll drink the latte anyway

A good barista ought not throw one of his milk steaming brothers and sisters under the bus. We are a fratersorority of sorts, a collection of coffee jocks, united by our common craft.

Thus this is something of a difficult criticism to make, considering that the barista did not make my latte incorrectly. In fact, the waiter even went out of his way to make sure that it was she who prepared it. Clearly, he trusted her abilities.

He was right to do so, most likely. It was not her abilities that let her down. As far as I could tell, everything preceding the pour was perfect.

And, technically speaking, even the pour itself was right. The barista held back the foam, then placed a cap on top. That is exactly what many baristi routinely do, what many websites espouse as correct, and even what certain training manuals will instruct.

But hell if I don't think it's vastly inferior to what I'll call the integrated method.

In my opinion, a barista should stretch the milk only slightly, such that the whole of it is velvety, creamy and soft. Then the barista should pour the contents in to the espresso in a controlled, steady stream, as close to the side as possible. A latte prepared thusly ensures that every sip -- not just the first -- is filled with that decadent mixture of milk, foam and espresso.

The foam cap method, on the other hand, leaves the drinker with thin, whispy milk, after the cap has been consumed. It also makes the barista look bad, as if they couldn't steam the milk right to begin with. The sad thing is, most baristi can steam milk well enough to craft a great latte. They just hold themselves back, by holding the foam back.

September 1, 2010

Whether the Weather

A heavy sky weighs down over you. The air seems to cling like a wet sock, musty and damp. It is neither hot nor cold, but manages to impersonate the malevolent aspects of both. A jacket will keep the drizzle from you, but it is far too humid for layers. A t-shirt leaves you defenseless, endlessly assailable. You will not be comfortable. Like so many, you seek comfort in food and drink. But there, too, are conundrums.

Yet there is coffee. There is always coffee.

You stand in line, weighing your options. Hot or cold? Damn. Must everything, even this most base of pleasures, be an ordeal?

I, earlier this day, was this "you". So, in hindsight, perhaps I should have framed this entire narrative in the first person. In any case, I found myself considering whether a damp, muggy, oppressive, 72-degree afternoon demands hot or iced coffee.

This morning, the decision was simple enough -- hot. It was cooler then, as the sun hadn't yet turned campus in to a rice cooker.

So iced, right? Easy enough, except that 70 degrees is still 70 degrees. Hardly cool, but near enough to comfortable that, shorts and t-shirt clad as I was, a slight chill was not out of reach.

Thankfully, the decision was made for me. The barista in charge of this particular campus coffee shop noted that their iced coffee was running a little acidic. My interest piqued. Acidic iced coffee? I had tried such a brew before, at Starbucks. But that was just hot coffee, with ice added to it. Hardly the same thing as the Toddy prepared brew offered on campus.

This, I had to try. And so try I did. The result was pleasant, probably more so than I expected, frankly. Iced coffee, for all that I do love it, can feel a bit heavy in its richness. Like chocolate, say, you really can only consume so much -- unless, of course, it's balanced out by the proper touch of sweet. Good iced coffee will be, typically, even without the addition of sugar. In any case, this particular iced coffee, of Guatemalan ancestry, did indeed have a bite. It was neither heavy nor rich. Still, it maintained that smooth feel you expect from cold brewed coffee. To continue the chocolate analogy, let's call it bittersweet.

In theory, I should tie back in to the the second person, narrative beginning now. But my creativity has run quite dry, in that regard.