October 31, 2010

Cream and Sugar

I have espoused an almost militant avoidance of cream and sugar before, both online and to anyone who will listen. I congratulate customers who ask for their coffee black, and occasionally chastise those who do otherwise.

After all, my barista "character", if you will, is even more sarcastic and charmingly antagonistic than my more natural self. Which I've discussed before. The area behind the bar is something a stage, the baristi the actors giving a performance. It's not just my job to make the drink; it's to make doing so interesting, in and of itself.

But I digress. My barista philosophy has been discussed before, and will be again. But this post is about cream and sugar.

Which surely invites the question: Why post on that topic at all? Hasn't my stance been made clear enough. Well, yes. In general, I think coffee tastes much better black. I'd even go so far as to say that, if you're doctoring your coffee, you really aren't tasting the coffee at all. It takes very little cream, and not too much sugar, to render all coffee a creamy-sweet beverage with the same texture and taste, regardless of the brew which forms the base.

And so, if you say you like coffee, yet never drink the stuff straight, I must disagree with you. Respectfully, of course, but also quite firmly. Coffee is the black liquid; adding other stuff to it makes it something else altogether, I think, although that beverage is nameless.

But again, none of this is new. I'm a psychotic purist, probably an evangelical elitist on this point. This is not news. What is, is that I drank coffee with cream and sugar yesterday, and in fact do so every so often.

Wait, what? Am I really that kind of hypocrite? Am I the vehemently religious senator who browses the personal ads on craigslist? Perhaps, but I don't think so.

You see, coffee has many different uses, for many different contexts. When I'm drinking coffee to drink coffee, I drink it black. The taste is better, and of course, much truer. But I do drink coffee for other reasons, on occasion.

A splash of cream makes coffee, already the best beverage for a cold day, all the more comforting. There's something uniquely warming about fat when the temperature drops.

And then there is coffee as a pre-workout beverage, or pre-race drink. When performance is the goal, both cream and sugar give coffee that little caloric bump to get your body firing on all cylinders. It is for this reason that I consumed coffee with cream and sugar last night.

It was the end of a long day at work, yet I had a workout planned; and I'm not the type to cheat myself. And so I grabbed a coffee, splashed some cream in it and added two packets of raw sugar. The drink now provided me with caffeine, a little comforting and hunger silencing fat, as well as six grams of sugar to fuel my initial efforts.

The workout went well, so I dare say the drink did its job. Now, back to my black coffee, and rigid elitism.

October 28, 2010


Breakfast. Let's take a second, and deconstruct that word. We have "break", first of all. And then, of course, there is "fast". Combine the two, and we have the concept of breaking one's overnight fast. That is, since you've been sleeping, you've not been eating. And so, after waking up from a hard night of cellular reconstruction, your body might well want some calories.

I say might, because many are not inclined to hunger first thing in the morning. Perhaps it's the uptick in catabolic hormones; or maybe it's just lethargy. In any case, breakfast, for many, is coffee. Sure, the may put some cream and sugar in it, but the bulk of their morning stimulation is caffeine. That's it.

And that, I think, is not good. Now I do not subscribe to the notion that breakfast is "the most important meal of the day", or that it's any kind of panacea. There are plenty of lean, healthy, breakfast skippers out there. But regardless, I think that, for most people, starting the day with some calories is a good way to ensure steady energy and avoid over-snacking or binging later.

But, while there is some controversy concerning whether one really ought to break their fast, or perhaps would be better served waiting until they've built up some hunger, most diets seem to agree that eating in the morning is a good thing. That is not the case when considering what the breakfast ought to be composed of.

A common breakfast, for those who do eat, is some sort of heavily refined starch, usually sweetened. Not much protein to speak of, and very little fat. Say, something like a granola bar, or a sweet cereal. And then there are the extremes. We have the paleo and low carb folks, for whom starch of all kinds is considered poison. A breakfast for them typically consists of eggs, just about any style. Usually, vegetables join the party. Then we have the heath food inclined vegetarians/vegans/flexitarians/etc. These are the whole grain eaters, the consumers of complex carbs and fiber.

There are doctors on ever side of the debate, wielding evidence like a hatchet. I happen to think the paleo folks have something resembling a point, in terms of short term weight loss. Chronically high insulin levels make you fat. Lower carb intake lowers insulin levels. But I do not, in general, think this diet is useful beyond the very short term -- and only then for the obese. While the human brain can run on ketones and glucose metabolized from protein, I believe the function to be, for most, suboptimal. The health food folks have their points as well. Complex carbs do supply a steady supply of glucose to the brain, as well as glycogen to working muscles (important if you're an exerciser).

The solution I choose for myself tends towards the middle. That is, I eat starch. I like it, first of all; and I dare say extreme weight loss is not a goal I need aspire to. I also eat fat and protein, from both animal and vegetable sources. I think most people would benefit from a similar plan. Breakfast is a meal too, and too often overlooked. You wouldn't eat a tiny snack for dinner, so why would you start your day that way?

Try this current favorite if you want something really substantial. You almost certainly have all the ingredients necessary.

1 cup dry oatmeal
1 tbs crunchy peanut butter
1 whole banana
1 cup liquid

Microwave the oatmeal, using the milk in place of water if you want the extra fat and protein. I happen to think water results in a better texture, however. In any case, nuke the oatmeal, and stir in the peanut butter. Then, mash up the banana (it can be messy, but oh well) and stir it it.

And then, of course, drink coffee.

October 25, 2010

Coffee and health

I had an odd task today. Odd, in that in seemed something that, to me, shouldn't need doing at all. As I set about trying to sell coffee as a healthy beverage to my communications class, it became clear to me that misconceptions persist.

To lay it out, as plainly as possible, the general public still seems to think of coffee as something of a guilty indulgence. It is useful, they think, only insofar as it provides a caffeine buzz. But even that, they fear, can be addicting, and thus should be limited.

Basically, the evidence goes like this: Coffee drinkers have significantly reduced risk of developing diabetes, Parkinson's and Alzheimer's. The statistics are consistent and weighty enough that, although correlation never proves causation, coffee must be considered at least a positive factor in staving off those diseases.

Most people do not have the desire to read medical journal articles concerning coffee, of course, but if you do, google scholar and pub med have endless material to pour over.

Even still, most people seem to think that these statistics are somehow accidental, that healthy people just happen to drink coffee, say, not that coffee has health benefits. Worse, many still impose imaginary harms on coffee.

Once upon a time, there were those who thought coffee caused cancer. Thankfully, that line of bull has mostly been done away with. But even still, equally inaccurate statements persist. Coffee causes high blood pressure, stomach ulcers, sleep apnea, etc. Worse yet, caffeine is addicting.

Conventional wisdom, in this case, is anything but. There is no data that shows any sort of positive correlation between coffee and hypertension, excessive stomach acidity, or any of the other negative health effects one might dream up. And there is no such thing as caffeine addiction. That is not my opinion, but rather the official medical stance. It is not classified as a drug of dependence; therefore, one can no more be addicted to coffee than apples, grilled cheese sandwiches, wearing pants, etc. Demonstrating a preference for any one of those things, or even habitual use, is not the same as addiction.

As best I could, I said as much in class this morning. I'm not sure I changed any minds, of course, as that's very hard to do. But at the very least, I hope I made people question some of the assumptions they take for granted.

October 24, 2010

A drink after work

Downtown Lawrence, crisp air, a stale bagel and a rich cappuccino. Tonight, I wanted for nothing else. Which is not to say that I do not appreciate company. As anyone who knows me can surely attest, I enjoy conversation. Sometimes, I even let the other person talk.

But tonight was night for walking, for thinking and not thinking. Sometimes -- ok, oftentimes -- the latter is preferable.

And so I departed from work, walked the block to Henry's and ordered. I talked with some strangers and the barista first. The barista was nice, asking, with obvious sincerity, how my drink was. This is something I try and do often, not just because it seems nice, but because I genuinely care. If your drink isn't what you wanted, I want to know so that I can make something you like. She seemed to have that same interest.

Of course, the cappuccino was great. They always are at Henry's, which is why I go so often. The espresso is sweet, but most of all, the baristi are all quite good. I mean that in every sense that I've discussed barista quality. They're friendly and polite, as well as knowledgeable and skilled.

So, cappuccino and stale bagel in hand, I walked out the door. Mass street was crowded, as you'd expect on a Saturday night. I didn't expect so many Halloween costumes quite yet, but oh well. As Customer Jim (something of an omnipresent man downtown) said: "It's Lawrence."

And so it is.

I never did figure out exactly what the bagel was supposed to be. It tasted vaguely of raisins, and there looked to be spots, so that's my best guess. But I could be wrong. In any case, it was gloriously bland starch -- exactly the compliment I wanted. The cappuccino, again, was lovely. So was Mass. And so, on the whole, was the night.

October 18, 2010

India, not just for tea, apparently

I am, depending on which post you read, alternately humble and arrogant. Perhaps I am some mixture of the two -- which, I think, most people are if we're being honest. That said, I tend to think rather highly of what I think. Furthermore, I tend to think that I possess a pretty substantial body of knowledge, at least when it comes to things I care enough to learn about.

Coffee, of course, is one such thing. I think I know a lot about it -- more, probably, than anyone else I know. I will, of course, admit that there a plenty of others, more deeply embedded in the industry that I, whose collection of knowledge dwarfs mine. But be that as it may, I know my coffee.

At least, I would like to think that I do. Which is it came as something of a surprise to me, frankly, when I saw a coffee I had never seen this morning. I drove to Dunn Bros, after pulling on a pair of jeans and t shirt which seemed, all things considered, to be in wearable condition. There, I purchased a double espresso and a evol burrito. The burrito is a neat little concept, if a bit gimmicky. The idea is that the ingredients are mostly organic, all sustainable, and made with as humane practices as possible. But it also tasted good, which is nice, and isn't the grease bomb that typical breakfast burritos are. That is, one can eat it, take a look at the nutrition information, and feel better, not worse, about their consumption.

But I digress. Somewhere there is a blog about breakfast burritos. But this is not that blog. This is about coffee. To that point, the espresso was terrible. I don't know where the barista put my crema, but it wasn't sitting on top of my shots where it's supposed to be. Past that, the taste was as bitter as non-espresso drinkers claim all espresso shots are. I came very close to putting sugar in it, if that tells you anything, and it really should.

This would have been a pretty forgettable little breakfast, if not for the fact that, upon finishing that "espresso", I saw I sign for a coffee from India. India, of course, is famous for its tea, curry, and musical numbers. All of which I enjoy in their place, but not so much as coffee, which frankly, I did not know India produced. Unfortunately, Dunn Bros didn't have any on tap at the time, so I have no idea how it tastes. But I'll find out soon enough, I think; and when I do, I'll be sure to write an obscene amount about the experience.

October 13, 2010

A difference of miles and degrees

A look at a map will not yield much in the way of separation between Lawrence and Olathe. And yet, to any resident of the area, the two towns seem wholly dissimilar. Olathe resides in Johnson County, and is thus thought of, by most, as a bastion of middle class, middle aged, god fearing white folks. Lawrence is not so wealthy, and hardly so mainstream. It embraces the odd, to such an extent that it perpetuates such behavior. To live in Lawrence, to be part of whatever scene there might be, is to embrace and further one's own eccentricities.

In some ways, I fit in rather nicely in Lawrence. Much better than I'd guess I would in Olathe, in any case. Though I'm hardly the blatant individualist by Lawrence's rather lofty standards, I certainly do have my eccentricities. My coffee obsession, let's say, might be foremost among those. And so, when I found that I'd be working in the Olathe Borders location, helping to man its decimated coffee bar, I thought I'd be in for a hair tearing evening of soccer moms and skinny vanilla lattes.

What I found, in fact, was a much more pleasant experience that I'd have hoped for. For one, the majority of my drinks sold were straight coffee. Which, of course, warms my heart just a little bit. But what I found was that soccer moms aren't necessarily the evil soulless you know whats they're often made out to be. That is, affluent WASPs can be nice. At least last evening, they were, with not one exception. All the customers were friendly, and although the tips were severely lacking, I chalk that up more to their lack of knowledge of coffee bar culture in general, rather than any general rudeness.

That combined with the familiar setting (corporate setups do have their advantages in that regard) assisted me in what, all things considered, felt like a downright productive shift. In fact, I think I steamed some of the most consistently perfect milk I've ever produced. Which, perhaps, owes to the fact that I was very attentive to the entire process. Though the setting was eerily similar, it was not the same. That, I think, led me to pay very close attention to every minute detail, so that nothing would go wrong. I think I succeeded. Of course, since I doubt very much I'll ever be working there again, the perfection (or not) of my close isn't my greatest concern. Rather, I'm happy that all the customers seemed happy with my efforts, and that I was happy they were happy.

October 10, 2010

Old wisdom

I sat in my car tonight, aching, tired, and feeling rather noir -- if not for the chinese takeout style box of grape nuts and blueberries in my lap. Today was one of those days that people talk about when they refer to "one of those days". You nod, because you know. You've had them. Today, I did.

I say that, but by most tangible metrics, today was a good day. I made 13$ in cash tips, more in change. I had some pleasant conversation, appreciative customers, and managed to get everything done in an efficient manner.

There is a list there, but as I think on it, only one part of it really stands out: appreciative customers. As I sat in my car, felt my feet throb, wanting nothing more than to creek my head to the side and fall asleep, it was not the sense of accomplishment, and not even the money, that provided me with a sense of contentment. It was the thinking back to smiling faces, to thanks received, to orders made well that gave me solace.

So this is not revelatory advice, I know, but then I never claimed to possess new wisdom. But perhaps this old wisdom will do well enough: Be nice. It makes people's day. The opposite is true as well, of course. The kid on the other side of the bar, or cleaning your table, ringing up your groceries, whatever, has a life, concerns, etc. There's a pretty good chance he doesn't like his job much; although I do like mine, so there is certainly that.

In any case, this day was, at its end, satisfying, only because people smiled at me and told me I did well, that their drinks tasted good, and that they hoped I would have a good night. The small gestures add up. And as much as I love coffee, I love people loving coffee (or whatever they got) even more.

October 4, 2010

The worst and best

Horror stories abound in the running community, tails of poor runners with full bladders and angry stomachs. On an every day run, that is not such a bad thing. You can stop, take care of business, and move on. But in a race, when minutes, even seconds count, you cannot stop.

And so it was that yesterday morning, I consumed only five ounces of the coffee I had purchased. I had 9.4 miles to run, and that would take long enough as is. If I had to stop, hop off the trail, hide behind some tree, relieve myself, things would only get worse.

This was the right decision. I still cramped ever so slightly at about the halfway point. But that's to be expected, frankly. Running stimulates the digestive system, thus when you're stomach is basically empty (as mine was) you cramp a bit. Better than having it be full and... well, never mind.

And so finished with a time I was pleased with, a little over 1:12. My place wasn't so lovely, but then this was a competitive field. Had I run this well in smaller 5ks, I probably would have won them. This is not to say that I'm some looming prodigy. I am, instead, just some in shape guy, who can beat other, less in shape guys, but not real runners.

Having mauled myself thoroughly, I inhaled two Great Harvest honey wheat rolls, stumbled to my car, and chugged the tepid coffee I had left there, almost two hours before. At most any other time, I would have turned my nose at the very thought of consuming room temperature coffee. Abysmal. Tragic. Obscene. And yet I committed that beautiful blasphemy, guzzling it eagerly.

I was thirsty, after all. I didn't bring in water with me, nor did I stop to drink any at the stations. I figured that, while I might not be as fast as many of the other runners, I was probably more willing to do serious harm to myself. So I didn't drink. Nor did I slow a bit down the many hills. Instead, I launched myself down them, content to pound my quads and feet in to oblivion. I cannot describe these as good decisions, per se, but I do think they helped my time. So take that for what it's worth.

In any case, by the time I consumed that coffee, I was thirsty enough to drink other, much less tolerable liquids. And any sort of stimulation, caffeine or otherwise, was welcome, given my complete bonkness at the time. And so I drank, and felt much better for it. Even still, a lesson learned, perhaps it's time to invest in a thermos.

October 1, 2010


Caffeine is a stimulant -- that much we know for sure. But coffee is so much more than caffeine. It is a sum of various cultural connotations, innumerable factors which cannot be succinctly described. These factors, though I know not which, somehow make coffee a beverage which acts as much more than a stimulant.

Of course, this is not the case for everyone. There are many people who drink coffee simply for the jolt, either as a morning kick start, or an afternoon pick me up. But I would like to think that, on some level, even those people know that there's more to it.

For me, there is. Coffee is part of a winding down ritual I call on most every day. Actually, several times most every day. The first sip, and many thereafter, is always punctuated by a deep exhale. I sigh, my shoulders heave and fall, and whatever tension I might have felt dissipates. I suppose there are chemical explanations for this. But I would like to think that I am more than Pavlov's dog, that my euphoric tinge is more than an expectation of adrenal stimulation.

There is the smell, first. The smell, which invokes a plethora of positive connotations. Sunday mornings, crisp air, box scores and fried eggs. Not just the best part of waking up, but the sole reason for doing it.

And the taste, of course. It depends on the roast, the beans, the brew, and many other factors. There is no such thing as one coffee taste, no matter how many may try and say so. Citrus and chocolate, herbs and spice, smoky timber. You can find all of these, treat your tongue to a subtle cornucopia of flavors.

The warmth. That embrace of the cup, the inhale, the exhale, the head tilt and the smile. The warmth is physical, and emotional too. I am not prone to romantic notions, nor to thoughts of anything beyond the immediately and rationally explicable. But this is a warmth which cannot be measured in degrees, a comfort like an heirloom blanket.

Admittedly, I'm wallowing in contradiction. Coffee, since its first consumption, has been an agent of energy. It is the savior of the afternoon office worker, the midnight studier, the early riser. I do not contest any of these uses. Rather, I simply make the case that, caffeine or no, the ritual and comfort of coffee consumption lends itself quite well to relaxation. It is the perfect accompaniment to a rainy day, a charming book, and an affectionate cat.