November 28, 2010

Practice Makes Good Coffee

Riding a bike is not, as they say, like riding a bike. That is, one cannot simply ride well, if well is to mean quickly and in control, without having practiced. Today, as if I needed to be taught that lesson, I rode a ~9 mile trail with my brother. It was, as bike trails go, somewhat friendly. I say this never having ridden any other trails, of course; but even still, goings could have been tougher.

And yet I could not keep up. I suppose, were I so inclined, I could make excuses about my bike being from Wal-Mart, and his being a Specialized (albeit used). But that would be disingenuous. The fact is, I had to go slow at many points, otherwise I'd have wrecked more than the one time I did. And even when I decided to go fast, it should be noted that my fast was not as fast as his fast. But I had never ridden a trail at all, much less this one, so my relative lack of grace was to be expected.

I also played basketball for a good two hours not too long after. I was, if I'm being honest, one of the less talented players participating. I don't handle the ball well, nor am I a deadly marksman shooting. I can run, of course, but having the best cardio on the floor doesn't count for that much. And so I was left, pink faced, drenched in sweat, and with a cut on the nose from an errant elbow, to hobble back to my car, and then home.

I made dinner, of course, but also coffee. I ground the beans, dosed them appropriately, boiled the water, and then poured with a practiced hand. Satisfied from my oatmeal, I drank the coffee slowly. It was Ethiopian Yirgacheffe, roasted very light by the aptly named Roasterie. The acidity and light lemony notes were quite refreshing on the palate, as they always are; but they were perhaps more so in this context, having just ran myself in to the ground.

As I sipped, it occurred to me that the method I had just used to prepare my coffee - a manual grinder and Melitta cone - was one that, not too long ago, I struggled with, but have now achieved some level of consistency in performing. What's more, all of the steps were carried out with a sort of nonchalance, my mind free to drift elsewhere, to other places and times. That being said, the coffee was prepared well.

The lesson for me today is thus that the old truism about practice making perfect is, perhaps, not something to be dismissed offhandedly. Whatever it is you do, doing it well requires doing it a lot.

November 27, 2010

Of Buttons and Humble Beginnings

Coffee as hand warmers. So reads a button we've got at work. It's pithy, cute, and oddly accurate. Allow me a bit of nostalgia in telling you why.

There was a time, only several years ago, when I did not drink coffee. In fact, the stuff seemed decidedly bitter and unpalatable to me. On the rare occasion that I ventured in to a coffee bar, I would order a chai latte. And while I must confess to still possessing a decided weakness for chai, black coffee is of course my forte now.

But again, that was not always the case. Coffee is, as you'll all have heard, an acquired taste. That is, the person who first drinks coffee and enjoys it is rare indeed. Even I, as avid an advocate for the stuff as you'll find, will readily admit that. How I went about acquiring that taste is where the idea of coffee as a hand warmer comes in.

Quite simply, at a previous job, one of the benefits was free coffee. It was winter, and it was cold. And since my hands are nearly always freezing (really kind of odd, actually, but another story altogether) I took to grabbing a cup of coffee, and carrying it around campus with me.

It would be simple to say something about the rest being history, but the truth is, I didn't start drinking the coffee itself. My first foray was a latte, purchased from a Starbucks located in a Target store, which I put two packets of honey in. I can tell you, without exaggeration, that I was somewhat afraid to try the stuff. I'm not sure what I expected, honestly - but I didn't expect to like it one bit. Of course, I found myself oddly smitten by the end of the cup. My latte affinity eventually allowed me to drink coffee, loaded with (skim) milk and honey (I was, and remain, something of a health nut). The additives became unnecessary at some point. 

So coffee as hand warmers is, to me, more than a cute little button. It's something of a signpost for me, marking the beginning of what has become, obviously enough, one of my primary passions in life. Weird.

Do Work

I'm done exhaling now, having somewhat exhausted myself yesterday. Truth is, I'm about to do as much - if not more - work today, so my reprieve will be short lived. But here's the thing. Black Friday is busy. You know that much. And so, working as I do, in a coffee shop in Borders, I figured we would be busy. And then there was that free drink coupon...

So yes, suffice it to say, I steamed a lot of milk yesterday. But as much as I'd like to offer that familiar complaint of the allegedly overworked part-timer, to bemoan my misfortune and lament my already miscast lot, I simply can't oblige. Because the truth is, I had fun yesterday.

There is the fact, first of all, that I rather enjoy working while I'm at work. Now Gen Y'er that I am, this may come as something of a surprise. We are alleged to be a generation mired in apathy, disengaged from genuine work and real human interaction. Needless to say, I think this is - to put it kindly - bunk. There are lazies, of course, and underachievers as well. But show me a generation without.

I'm digressing now, however, as I tend to do. The point is, I find a certain satisfaction in being busy. Whether this is rote, tedious labor or something more stimulating, I can derive some similar feeling.

But of course, there is a special place in my heart for cafe labor, for steaming milk and grinding beans in euphoric haze, passing the hours with a hiss in my ears and a "Have a nice day" perched omnipresent on my lips.

And so yesterday left me feeling a bit spent. But well spent, if you will. There is every likelihood that today will be every bit as taxing. But so too is there every chance that it will be just as satisfying.

November 24, 2010

Men's Health Publishes Something Not About Erections or Biceps

Men's Health, by in large, stirs up a mixture of frustration and resentment in my gut. This owes mostly to the fact that the publication seems intent on promising all-night sex romps, bulging biceps, fast cars, faster race times, and just about anything else our idealized male should want. Which is not to say, of course, that these things are not desirable. My point is merely that one might be better of seeking rational advice when it comes to those things, rather than exaggerated promises.

Now all of that said, is on my (rather extensive) list of websites which get a daily visit. I tend to choose sites, not because I agree wholeheartedly with their conclusions, but because I am interested in their content, or they provide reasonable information. In fact, I frequent several sites which espouse views I decidedly do not adhere to myself. Men's Health, occasionally, falls in that category.

But I must give credit where credit is due. That link, right there, is a fantastic little read, citing a study which shows ANOTHER health benefit, enjoyed by coffee drinkers. Both of the other links in the article are good reads but *ahem* nothing I haven't written about myself.

Coffee seems to be protective against a number of degenerative diseases?

And what's that? It's best when fresh ground, and prepared manually?

While this stuff isn't groundbreaking, it is nice to see a decidedly mainstream publication - in fact, the most read in America - jumping all over the coffee bandwagon.

November 22, 2010

Coffee, Addiction, and Bad Rapping

I am more patient than I feel at the moment. I know this, because I've held my tongue before, when doing the opposite would likely have been forgiven. And yet it's hard, flanked on all sides by would-be rappers, whispering their emphatic proclamations of surely imagine exploits in a raspy staccato, not to shout something, anything, which might lead to their shutting up.

But perhaps my nervous aggression owes to something other than the suburban gangsta spouting off to my right. I haven't had my coffee yet today, after all. A quick look at my watch reveals the time to be 8:43. By now, I should have consumed one cup, perhaps two. Coffee deprivation for one so addicted, we're told, leads to irritability. I've joked about this myself before; but I've only ever done exactly that - joked. There exists, however, something of a broad consensus that coffee is addicting, and that a side effect of abstaining, for the addicted, is a prickly aloofness.

This is the part where I would love to trot out several scientific papers, touting something like a consensus. Unfortunately, that can't be done. That's because, despite the amount of research done, there is very little agreement on A) What something has to do, in order to qualify as "addicting", and B) Whether coffee fits whatever that criteria is supposed to be.

Despite the differences, the argument is generally framed around caffeine. Caffeine is a drug, of course. And it's one that has effects on the brain that many people enjoy. It's also true that people can experience withdrawal symptoms from it. And so, that being established, it looks like we have something of an open and shut case. Caffeine is an addictive drug, found in coffee; therefore, coffee is addictive.

But let's slow down. There are many things, almost innumerable things, that trigger similar neurological responses. Eating a piece of dark chocolate, seeing the face of an old friend, petting a dog, sprinting - all of these things stimulate certain "pleasure" receptors in the brain. And all of them, once experienced habitually, tend to be sought out. In their absence, frequent consumers feel pangs, physical and/or emotional. And so it can be said, rather definitively, that these things are habit forming. Coffee, almost without argument, falls in to that category, at least. But addiction is something else altogether.

What exactly it is, is up for debate slightly, but generally agreed upon as being a phenomenon caused by psychoactive drugs which temporarily alter the chemical makeup of the brain. If we accept that, then coffee, by virtue of its caffeine content, is addictive. It is worth noting here, that despite that fact, The Diagnostic and Statistic Manual of Mental Disorders does not list caffeine as a drug of dependence. That is, in the most strict medical sense, one cannot be addicted to caffeine.

But there are the anecdotes to consider. And I legitimately do not want to diminish the real experiences of real people, who may claim to have been beholden to coffee as a junky is to heroine. But one can find, as well, people claiming to have been addicted to carbohydrates, to exercise, to a television show or just about anything else. All of those things, while not psychoactive drugs, certainly do cause temporary chemical changes to the brain, resulting in sensations which one could be driven to seek, and miss in their absence.

I've put on a pair of clunky, ear wrapping headphones now, in a failed attempt to shield myself from the auditory onslaught with which I am still being bombarded. So long as I stay, and as long as they do the same, there will be no reprieve. There won't be any coffee, either. Neither of these things will do, of course, and so I must be off - to save my ears, and my sanity.  

Cafe Culture

I was interviewed by a professor of mine about coffee culture, or cafe culture, or something along those lines. The interview was relatively brief - probably no more than 10 minutes - because I was working at the time. Which is all the better, probably, as that's a topic so broad, so dense, that I could spend all night attempting to untangle it, and make no more progress than Sisyphus.

That said, I think I have some idea what he was getting at. His thesis work is on cafe community, as near as I can tell - to what extent such a thing exists, and what such a thing can be said to be. My role is this was twofold: I am a barista, first and foremost. By this I mean, as I've said before, not just that I make coffee, but that I've crafted much of the persona that is "me" around this fact. From that perspective, I can speak. But I am also, of course, a consumer of this culture.

The questions tended towards a inquiry in to why people go to cafes. It is a question worth asking, because it is one which seems to have an answer so obvious that no one knows it. That is, people go to cafes, and have for long enough, that why they go no longer seems worth asking.

But he is asking it; and last night, he asked me. I don't have a transcript. If I did, I would certainly post it here, because I felt, at the time, like was answering the questions with a degree of lucidity. But I can regurgetate my general thoughts, to some extent.

Coffee as a community endeavor goes back as far as coffee goes back. Though coffee's origins are as murky as the brew itself, there seems to be something like a consensus that it was consumed as a part of religious rituals in ancient Ethiopia. To minds not numb to artificial stimulation, a hearty brew such as that most surely was, could easily lend a sensation beyond the typical wired jolt we know today.

Coffee was consumed, throughout history, as a communal event. It was as food was, a thing to be had, but also a thing to be shared. One did not simply drink coffee as a morning pick-me-up.

But of course, these days are not those days. Not even close. These days, coffee is a stimulant, as often enjoyed in a car, or a pre-dawn kitchen as any other place. So, then, is there still any sort of cafe culture? Or is it just any other fast food stop?

The answer, to both I think, is yes. Yes, one can grab a coffee, quick as you please, and be on their merry, now caffeinated way. That is certainly possible, and in fact, a daily routine for many.

But there is, I think, a communal aspect to coffee, and thus the cafe, that can't be ignored. As I've said before, "having a coffee" is a cultural euphemism for meeting, for chatting, for breaking ice or burying hatchets. And I can't say why this is, for certain. While coffee is a stimulant, there is no particular reason why it should be the social lubricant that it is, and not some other beverage. No reason, other than history, which is often reason enough. That something has been done for many years perhaps shouldn't be grounds for its perpetuation - but it frequently is just that. People have been getting together over coffee for as long as there has been coffee.

Granted, there are infinite varieties of social interaction playing out at every cafe, every day. Perhaps students are meeting, using the tables to lay out notes, and the caffeine to stimulate tired minds. Around them, there are old friends and new ones, strengthening and creating bonds.

This may sound overly romantic, but I don't think it is. Humans are, at heart, social creatures. And so seek to find, or even create, society wherever we come together. A cafe is no different, in that regard.

There is more to be said on this subject, to be certain. Truthfully, there are volumes more to be written, perhaps books - both fiction and non. But for now, this is all I will say: Coffee's most potent stimulatory effects are not caused by caffeine, but rather, the thrill of genuine social interaction, the palpable satisfaction that can only be derived from looks and words cast back and forth across a table.

November 20, 2010

Diamonds in the Rough

Before you do anything else, click the link above this text. In truth, you may have already done so, because I did put it first. But some people like instructions, and so here they are, in plain text.

That was the break for you to read. Okay. Done. Now then, on with the commenting.

This story was sent to me by a reader. On that note, thank you, and anyone with any similar suggestions is encouraged to send them my way. I'm only so creative, thus any help generating post topics is appreciated.

In any case, we've got a barista, who has worked at a decent list of places. In a blind taste test, he preferred 7-Eleven's coffee to several other, widely available coffees - perhaps most notably, Starbucks.

First of all, it is worth noting that, educated though this one man seems to be, he is still one man. And no matter how well informed an opinion may be, it's still just one. That needs to be said, obvious though it may be.

But, generally speaking, my reaction is a positive one. Though I enjoy sipping and slurping coffee from any given obscure region, the fact is that I appreciate good coffee - that is, merely good coffee. Frankly, that's what most people are going to drink most of the time. And, although 7-Eleven is the winner here, our barista seems to find pleasant things to say about most all the coffee he tastes.

This, to me, presents the rather optimistic notion that one need never be far away from palatable coffee. And that is a notion I want very much to believe in. Because, connoisseur though I fancy myself, I am, at heart, an addict.

November 19, 2010

Swords, Sorcery, and Coffee

If you look at my bio, just below the picture to the right, you will notice several things. First, that I am most certainly flexing in the picture. Humor me. But second, you will note that I mention being interested in things that are not, in fact, coffee related. One of those things is nutrition, and I've posted on that topic numerous times - though I've always tried to make it somewhat coffee related.

I also mention being an English major. Perhaps, given the breadth and verbosity of my posts, that goes without saying. But in any case, there it is. Finally, I mention an affinity for geeky fantasy literature. Whereas many pseudo-intellectuals, perhaps, prefer to devote their leisurely reading time to Kafka, David Foster Wallace, or some similarly erudite author, I prefer my fantasy/sci-fi literature.

Succinctly, I'm a nerd, and enjoy that sort of thing. I don't think any further explanation can be provided, or is even needed, for that matter.

In any case, there is, of course, one bit of fantasy that stands above the rest - for its notoriety, if not its quality. That being the Lord of the Rings Trilogy, and to some extent, The Hobbit. Hobbits, among other traits, enjoy eating absurdly often, and always to excess.

This leads to frequent meals, with charming little names. It is an idea that, to steal another idea from a former coworker, applies somewhat to my coffee habit.

I have my cup, upon rising. Then I have another after my first class, another with lunch, another before I work out, and then, usually, one in the evening. In other words, my mug is virtually an omnipresent fixture in my left hand. 

Or, if you prefer: Breakfast coffee, second breakfast coffee, lunch coffee, afternoon coffee, supper coffee, evening coffee, etc. Admittedly, these titles are neither charming nor creative. But Tolkien I'm not. There's a reason I stick to rambling blog posts, and make only occasional forays in to fiction - most of which I would never let see the light of day.

But although I've not absorbed Tolkien's penchant for world-building, plotting, or scenery description, I have, perhaps, absorbed his characters' habits for habitual consumption. That, I suppose, is something.

November 17, 2010

The Dry Cappuccino Post

I must admit to receiving a certain thrill when a customer orders a cappuccino. When the word "dry" enters in to the picture, I get some mixture of focused and giddy. It would be hyperbole to compare this state to the proverbial "zone" an athlete enters before a competition. But although it's not the same sensation, it's not totally dissimilar either.

I am excited, first of all. Excited, both because there is someone out there who like foam as much as I do, and because I get to prepare said foam.

Though I've made it clear before, it's something that cannot really be overstated: I like steaming milk. I'd park myself behind an espresso machine, preparing a drink a minute all day, if only a thousand bits of circumstance didn't prevent it. But when someone orders a dry cappuccino, those circumstances drift to the periphery, and I'm free to engage the milk with the proper attentiveness.

Though, as with any drink, there are certainly more than one way to prepare this beverage, this is my way - and I think, of course, the best.

Pour the milk in a bigger pitcher than you think you'll need. If the milk fills the pitcher more than 1/3 full, you're in trouble.

Dip the steam wand just below the surface of the milk, and open fire. That soft, gentle hiss you expect when steaming milk for a latte will emanate. Normally, that's the goal. Here, you want that hiss a tad more violent, and with an occasional spit.

You need to stretch the milk a lot; and in order to do so, you need to drop the pitcher pretty quickly. But go too quick, and you have giant bubbles, not quality foam. If you're doing it right, the milk should still be hissing and spitting, as mentioned above, but doing so in a relatively uniform manner.You should also be able to visually gauge where the tip of the steam wand is. Keep it just below the surface of the milk, not submerging the whole head, not pulling all the way out.

Once the pitcher begins to fill, you should feel a warmth building on the side. Once you've got the quantity of foam to make the desired drink, let the wand submerge. I'm not a fan of plunging all the way to the bottom, as some are. I think it's better to simply let the elevating foam cover the wand. This helps texture the foam you've created, and prevents excess rolling. Continue steaming until you hit 140-150 degrees, then stop, and set the pitcher down.

Then, and only then, should you go about pulling your shots. Setting the milk down gives the foam time to separate and settle, which makes for easier preparation. Once the shots are pulled, you go about scooping the foam in to the cup. A bigger spoon works better here. Now, it should be said, I normally think using the giant spoon to assist in milk pouring is a mistake. But here, when you don't want to pour any milk at all, it really is the only way. So yes, you scoop the top layer of foam, and dollop it on to the espresso. Fill the cup, and be generous, because foam doesn't really spill.

If you've done it right, the cup should very light, almost as if it's still empty. Ideally, the customer will notice this when they lift it, and offer you some sort of congratulations. Dry cappuccinos are often botched, so the demanding customer is often very appreciative. At this point, there is nothing to do but graciously accept your thanks, offer your best "All in a day's work", and move forward -- hopefully with a new usual customer created.

Angels and the Devil's Brew

Writing is an exercise in self restriction, as much as self expression. That is, the challenge in writing is often found in what you exclude, what you choose not to write. Very often, I ignore this challenge altogether, and simply ramble to my heart's content.

But this post will be to the point. I mentioned that my cafe managed to gather 72 bags of coffee to be donated. I did not say to what organization, however; nor did I mention anything beyond the most general detail.

So I will say this: Seattle's Best Coffee, or Borders, runs a promotion where people can donate bags of coffee to Soldier's Angels. As best I can tell, this organization exists to provide soldiers overseas with some of the comforts of home. Our job, at the cafe, was to get as many bags donated as possible.

The goal was 23. We got 72.

How did we exceed the expectations? Two things: An enthusiastic staff; and hats.

The former almost goes without saying. Myself somewhat excluded, most everyone turned quite easily in to shameless, charisma dripping shills. I did okay as well; but for all my hubris, I must admit that there were better.

And the latter? Well, my boss bought halos, and a viking helmet. The halos fit well with that "Soldier's Angels" theme... and the viking helmet was pretty awesome too, I suppose. But in all seriousness, they were great ice breakers, and served to get most everyone interested in the concept.

So that's what that was. We did something nice for other people, and managed to make ourselves look good in the process. I'd say that's a success.

November 15, 2010

It's a Huge World, After All

There is an oft noted myth of American superiority, which persists to most all things at all times. It is noted in sports, where the American champion is called the world champion, despite having competed with no team outside of the United States - save, perhaps, the odd Canadian squad.

The San Francisco Giants won the World Series, you may, have heard, defeating the Texas Rangers to claim the title. It is worth noting that the United States has never won the fledgling World Baseball Classic, however. And so it must be said that a team from Japan, Colombia, Venezuela, or Cuba, could, in a seven game series, take four from the Giants. This is not to say that it would happen, of course. And it is worth noting, American sports - excluding soccer - tend to be the best funded, and thus attract the world's best talent.

But that example, at the end of the day, is not terribly controversial. Most accept that MLB is the world's best professional baseball league. There are other instances where that notion seems laughable, of course. Ryan Hall, the fastest American marathoner ever, would be soundly crushed by at least ten currently running Kenyans. And no one insists that the MLS champion could compete, on a weekly basis, in England's Premiere League, Spain's La Liga, or even Frances Ligue 1.

But even with those examples, there is an arrogance to be found. That is, there is a question of why Americans aren't the best, which contains the inherent supposition that America and its citizens are gifted beyond anyone else, and quite capable of ruling any competition they set their collective minds to.

People want to know what America needs to do to win the World Cup; because of course, America has the athletes to do so, they just play other sports. This is trotted out every four years, with laughable results. What if LeBron James played soccer? Or can you imagine Chris Johnson as a winger? This is an absurd, one way comparison, that assumes these sports are somehow more athletically taxing, and that the world's best soccer players couldn't have turned out to be the world's best American football, or basketball players. Who is to say, for instance, that Frank Lampard would not have been Peyton Manning, had he been born in America?

The assumption in distance running is that, either Americans don't work hard enough, or that there is some inherent advantage to running at the high altitudes of East Africa. Those two things well be true enough; but neither ought to suggest that, with the same mileage at the same altitude, the best American should be equal to the best Ethiopian.

There is this notion in coffee, as well (yes, I finally made the connection). The United States and Italy, most seem to think, drink coffee the most, and prepare it the best. Italy did it first, and America, as we've established, is though by Americans to be great at all things. And so it logically follows that the best baristi in the world must reside in those nations as well.

Simply, this is incorrect. Norway drinks, per capita, more coffee than any other nation. The next three are Scandinavian nations as well. The USA is 9th, and Italy 12th, for the record. But so what? Those countries are cold. Thus they drink more coffee. This is, simply put, not news. What of quality?

On that, Scandinavia wins as well. Granted, the World Barista Championships has only been contested since 2000; but in that time, Denmark has four winners, Norway two. Mike Phillips of Chicago did win the USA's first title last year, but no Italian Barista has ever placed in the top three, even. Australia and Great Britain have also made consistently strong showings.

Now even by my standards, this is a lengthy post, with nothing resembling a cogent point. Not yet, at least. And so let me try and make one, here at the end. There are many ways to make coffee, and to drink it. The American way, the way we are most familiar with, is not the best. In fact, there may not be a "best" way, so much as there are different ways. And so I would like to make more posts, in the future, on the type of coffee most associated with a given region. But for the moment, I'll stop.

November 14, 2010

The Artifice and I

So it turns out people like flavored coffee. I don't have any large scale studies to back this up, nor do I think any have ever been done. If you want tangible proof, look at the fact that Starbucks is aggressively pursuing that market segment, which the company had totally ignored until less than a year ago.

So I suppose that should have been my first clue. When I got the first packet for that particular promotion, back in my green apron days, I ought to have known that flavored coffee was popular.

But I didn't. Perhaps as much out of a stubborn refusal to accept the fact as anything else, I rejected the idea that anyone might drink stuff flavored with, well, whatever "artificial flavors" are. Now give Starbucks credit, in that regard. The company's flavored coffees are ground with something like the ingredients the coffee is meant to taste like. That is, the vanilla flavored coffee has actual vanilla in it - or did, somewhere along the line.

But most are not like that; and the flavored coffee I sampled yesterday listed nothing resembling natural flavors.

There was the peppermint mocha trio, first of all. It smelled particularly minty; but I'll be honest, I think most of the flavor gets lost in a sort of astringent tang. Then there was the ginger spice coffee, which smelled even better. The spice notes hit the nose well, but not the pallet. As was pointed out to me by someone much too young to make such observations, the bitterness inherent in coffee seemed to cancel out the sweet flavors you could smell, once both hit the tongue. Whatever the mechanism, the spice showed a tad, but not so much as was hinted.

I say all this, but the customers to whom I sampled enjoyed both. The flavored coffee went much faster than the Sleighbell Blend which had been prepared - which, despite the chintzy name, is nothing more than a spicy dark roast. And most all the customers reported liking both. Perhaps that owes something to me presence, as people tend to like things better when they think someone might be disappointed if they think otherwise. Or perhaps I was just that charming. Who's to say? They might have even like the coffee that much. We did sell a couple bags. We also had something like 72 bags donated, which is a spectacular number, and will have a post shortly.

In any case, the whole event was successful, I have to say. I got to talk, with unmitigated enthusiasm, about coffee, for about two hours. And people were genuinely receptive. Sometimes, they even approached my level of perky extroversion. If it takes artificial flavors to produce that kind of real display, then so be it.

November 10, 2010

The Fact on Fiction

For some reason, someone, somewhere, sometime, decided that November was the month to write a novel. Not finish one, not publish one, but write the entire thing, all 50,000+ words, and call it good.

And now, it's kind of a big deal.

Which, I suppose, ought to be considered a good thing. Reading is good; writing is, perhaps, better, in that it requires the cognitive processes needed to produce content, not just process it. And so whatever impetus one can provide to spur the collective imaginations of Americans, too often content to absorb rather than create, should be lauded.

Of course, most of the work produced in a month is going to be rushed; and a lot of it is written by people who, if we're being generous, are somewhere on the wrong side of James Joyce. But surely, some of it is good. The laws of physics, or something, seem to dictate that with such a volume of writing, something good must come from it.

On that, I have but one wish: Someone write a good coffee novel. To the best of my knowledge, this has never been attempted before. No tales of globe trotting bean pickers, cafe sitting pseudo philosophers, or chicken legged baristi. This is really as shame, because coffee is so often a vehicle for stories. Going for coffee, of course, is almost synonymous with catching up with old friends, or perhaps meeting new ones. And so it stands to reason, to me at least, that such a phenomenon deserves to be explored in its own narrative.

Of course, this raises the obvious question: Why don't I just try and write one myself? Well, first of all, I haven't a clue how one would go about plotting such a venture. In fact, I haven't much of a clue how one goes about plotting in general. I have no doubts that I could write 50,000 words in a month (just read my posts); but I am much less sure that those 50,000 words would have anything to do with one another, and come together to form anything beyond a series of loosely tied together addled ramblings.

There is the fact that, when it comes to writing, I'm very fleeting. That is, I have very little interest in writing something if it can't be finished in one sitting. An idea strikes, and I pound out words until it feels exhausted. Sometimes, in truth, the order is reversed. But the point is, the idea of sitting down daily to the same manuscript, of embracing any sort of continuity, scares me.

So no, I am not the man for the job. Someone else is out there, however -- at least I hope they are -- penning the first great coffee novel.

November 8, 2010

The Vehicle Counts

There is a part of my daily coffee routine which I've not mentioned. This is odd, of course, if one considers the sheer volume of stuff that I do mention. I have numerous posts that, in truth, are only tangentially related to coffee at all, yet none on the vessel from which I drink coffee.

Perhaps this is emblematic of a larger oversight. Perhaps the vessel is taken for granted, or disregarded when considering the quality of the drink. But as the saying goes, the Devil is in the details. In this case, so is the perfect drink.

The cup I travel with, and use most often, is ceramic, with a silicon sleeve and lid. The materials are not accidental. Ceramic holds heat very well, but so do many other materials. But unlike, say, stainless steal, ceramic actually is relatively stainless. When we're dealing with coffee, that's important.

But it's the silicon I'm particularly happy with. The sleeve is nice, of course, in that it keeps me from burning my hands. Calloused though they are at this point, they aren't invulnerable. And the ceramic does get rather hot, which, as I said, I think is a good thing. The lid is a bigger deal, however. There is a case to be made for drinking coffee without a lid. That much must be said first of all. Doing it that way allows for optimal slurping and smelling, and thus better tasting. But people are busy. Thus lids are needed. Silicon, unlike plastic, say, is virtually tasteless. So my coffee, even when slurped through a whole in the lid, tastes like coffee, and not the lid itself. And though silicon does get brown, it cleans quite easily.

There is also the ecological impact to consider. I drink a lot of coffee. In doing so, I'm already responsible for paper filter use, energy in brewing the coffee, growing the coffee, transporting it, etc. All of this is to say, I leave a not insubstantial carbon footprint via my coffee habit. However, by using the ceramic mug, I am, at least, not responsible for the waste of cups, lids or sleeves.

But altruism, while nice, tends to lose out when it battles with self-interest. Thankfully, in this case, there is no conflict. In buying a ceramic mug for (probably) less than 10$, you will easily make your money back shortly, as most coffee shops give a substantial discount to those who provide their own cup. Unfortunately, the Starbucks Co. is not among those, offering only a 10-cent discount. But perhaps that will change in the future. I'd like to think so, personally.

So all of that said, here's the rub: You really ought to invest in a ceramic travel mug. It's better for you, the environment, and your coffee.

November 7, 2010

For the Love of Coffee

For all of my talking about other things, this blog exists for one reason: I really like coffee. I like the taste, the smell, the feel, the lore, everything. But most of all, I like what comes with it.

There is a certain kind of relaxation that can only be achieved with a warm mug in hand. And sure, that mug can be hot chocolate, tea, or cider, I suppose. But coffee is, well, better than those things. Am I being objective? No, of course not. I would never claim to be such an awful thing as that.

But coffee, if I'm being honest, is best enjoyed with company. Tonight was a special example of that, as we tasted our various new coffees at our store meeting. It was, on the whole, enjoyable and invigorating.

Wait. A meeting? Enjoyable? Invigorating? Surely you jest.

Well I do jest frequently, but not in this specific instance. I am being quite honest when I say that my coworkers and I sat, discussing numbers and objectives, sipping coffee, and ultimately shouting out ideas and suggestions with a kind of enthusiasm only caffeine can generate. Caffeine, and a genuine passion for what one does.

Which, I must say, is the best thing about my current location. The Lawrence Borders is filled with people who love something in the store, and like a lot else. The cafe is staffed by people who love coffee, and more importantly, the chatting that goes best with it.

And so I sipped, and ate a whole wheat pretzel for what I will call my second dinner. The first was a bad of cashews, so I think I was entitled to more. We talked, smiled, laughed, threatened murder, and danced. All in all, I'd say that makes a meeting productive.

November 6, 2010

When Hard is Easy

There is something to be said for humility. How much, I'm not sure. Those who know me at all, tend to know me as a barista. There are others who do the job, of course, but few who let it define them as much as I. This has led to the feeling that I am somewhat good at the job.

In truth, if myth this is, it's one I perpetuate regularly. I believe cafe work to be, in part, performance. That is, the barista is an actor as well. And thus, if I perform well, the audience, or customer in this case, should come away impressed.

But there is something to be said for humility. And so, it is with all of my arrogance intact that I freely admit to being something other than the best barista at my own place of work. I should clarify that, in saying this, I refer only to the preparation of the drinks. But even still, that is the most important technical aspect of the job.

And in that regard, I am, at best, second best. For the past several years, I have taken my spot in front of the espresso machine, staring down rushes and pounding out orders with mechanical efficiency, but still an artistic touch. I believe that his has been the case for a reason: I am good at it.

But there is something to be said for humility.

And while I am good, there are better. Though I would have said as much before today, a clearer picture may not have been presented. Today, there was a rush, which lasted for the better part of an hour. I did not make one drink. Instead, I stood behind the register, passing orders to the right.

There, my coworker occupied the spot which I have come to think of as mine. But she did so in such a way that I was more than happy to cede the post. She finished orders as fast as I could produce them, with speed to spare. What's more, every drink looked perfect. I've no doubt they tasted perfect too. Like me, she's done this for a while. And like me, she takes pride in doing the job well. And with reason, because she does do it quite well.

Perhaps most telling, we stood, relaxed, chatting easily at the end of the rush. It was, we agreed, fun. More hours should be spent in such a state. Not hectic, mind you, but focused. There is a certain meditative quality to work, when you find the proper head-space.

Now she, though like me in some aspects, is very different in others. Notably, while I would say quite emphatically that I am pretty good at what I do, she will only begrudgingly admit it.

There is something to be said for humility. But let's say something for hubris while we're at it.

Reality Check

This blog has developed something of a sweet tooth of late, it would seem. A quick look at my bookshelf might make that less noteworthy, as it reveals a decided interest in food and nutrition.

In short, I find the subject fascinating. I have read Gary Taubes' Good Calories/Bad Calories, as weighty a book on the subject as exists. In it, Taubes mechanically dissects studies and observations from the past 200 years, attempting to piece together the evidence in to some sort of coherent picture. He wants to know why we're so unhealthy, and what we can do about it. His answer is something Dr. Atkins would be proud of. Taubes ends up endorsing protein and fat, while damning carbohydrates. A dinner of steak and green salad, hold the potato, please.

But you will also find Michael Pollan on my shelf. His nutrition advice? "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants."

Born to Run also has a spot. In it, Christopher McDougall profiles the Tarahumara of Mexico, likely the greatest endurance athletes the world has never seen. Scott Jurek and several other American distance athletes are also featured prominently. Although you will find very little to connect the cast of characters, there are two common threads: Running, and a diet high in carbs, even sugar. In fact, I cannot recall a scene in the book in which meat is consumed. There are eggs, on the rare occasion. But the Tarahumara are almost vegan, and Jurek is.

And so how, exactly, do I go about deciding what to eat in this context? Or, better yet, what on earth should one put in their coffee?

There is a clue in that sentence. What, on earth, indeed. Every bit of nutrition I've read comes back to one basic point: Eat stuff that exists in nature. On this point, Taubes and Jurek would agree.

This same truth holds true for coffee, I think. Honey is food. So is cream. If you like those things in your coffee, put them in. They are, in truth, not calorically significant. Beyond that, they are delicious. Honey has been a staple food for humans for as long as there have been humans. We have a sweet tooth, and will consume sugar, in the form of nectar, syrup, or fruit, whenever we can. Cream, though not as long consumed as honey, is a well established real food.

Non dairy creamer may not be bad for you. Maybe Splenda isn't either. But I'm not sure. There just isn't enough of a track record yet. And so, in the mean time, put real things in your coffee. Things that you do not need to be a biochemist or nutrition geek to understand.

So what on earth do you put in your coffee? In short: Things that come from the earth.

November 5, 2010

Fake Poison

I state a lot of things unequivocally on this blog. But reality, of course, rarely lends itself to stark dichotomies. And so, often enough, I am left making statements that, though rather bold, may not be altogether substantial.

Of course, this is the internet. This is the land of ambiguity, faceless braggadocio, and virulent rage. I try and avoid that sort of thing. In part, because there is plenty of it already. But also because I am not anonymous. Which is not to say that I'm any kind of noteworthy, of course; only that I have my true identity posted to your immediate right.

But I'll get to the point now. And I have to say, getting to the point in only a couple paragraphs is pretty good for me.

Artificial sweeteners. Aspartame. Sucralose. The pink, blue and yellow "sugars", which are, of course, anything but. They are, in and of themselves, non-caloric. Although, it is worth noting, most are packed with maltodextrin and dextrose, carbohydrates which are actually more high glycemic than sugar itself. People sprinkle them on anything and everything, because what tastes good must taste sweet. And sugar, of course, will make you fat and diabetic. So load up the Splenda and down another low-fat turkey sandwich dear, that fat is practically melting off.

If it sounds like I'm veering towards internet rage, well, you're not too far off. It's not that I ahve any problem with people trying to lose weight. And I certainly don't fault anyone for avoiding sugar.

But here's the deal. I know I stated, from the get-go, that unequivocal statements are dubious. I believe this to be true. But I'm also a hypocrite. That is, I used to down artificial sweeteners like... well... candy. Which is appropriate in a sense. But now I sit, quite unsure of whether that is good, bad, or benign. After all, sugar is the stuff I've called metabolic poison before. Which, frankly, is too strong. A decent pancreas and insulin sensitivity can handle quite a bit of the stuff, in truth. And didn't I JUST WRITE about putting sugar in my coffee, pre-workout? But didn't I also just drink a Sprite Zero two days ago?


The truth is, I have no idea what the truth is. I don't know if fake sugar makes you fat, by triggering craving and wrecking your metabolism. I don't know if fake sugar gives you cancer, is to blame for world hunger. There is too much debate, too much evidence on every side, for me to pretend at being an expert.

But I do know this, unequivocally. If you drink your coffee black, you don't need to sweeten it with anything.

November 4, 2010

It's Whatever

Perhaps I know why there are so many paleo blogs floating around out there now... that was easily the most hits any post I've written has garnered. Easily. I suppose, were hits the sole metric for gauging my success here, I might take the hint, scramble some eggs with a big pat of butter, and head out the door, sans oatmeal or bread. Then, I should blog about how I have this totally new energy, plummeting body fat levels, and any other health benefit you could think up.

These are the things I would say, because they are the things others say. Paleo diets are, in large part, successful because they offer people a solution well outside the mainstream. "It's not your fault. You didn't over-eat and sit around too much. No, it was the evil grain that got you fat. Now have a steak."

It might sound like I'm mocking these people. But in truth, I don't begrudge anyone their success. Look at any diet book, any nutrition blog, and you will find scores of people claiming that this way of eating fixed everything that was wrong in their life. People who feel better eating no meat, to almost only meat, to any extreme you can imagine.

What works, works. And it's good that they found what works for them.

Coffee, of course, works for me. I bring this up, because, not unlike many food bloggers, I seem something of a militant fanatic for my lifestyle. Drinking coffee, and lots of it, works great for me. And I tend, of course, to think that it should work just about as well for just about everyone else too.

I know this not to be the case, however. It's not that I think coffee is unhealthy. I think the scientific literature pretty clearly supports the opposite being true, in fact. But rather, if someone does not like coffee, or does not feel well when drinking it, then they probably don't need to drink it.

If two different people can lose weight, lower cholesterol, and banish any manner of health problem by adhering to as divergent of diets as exist, then clearly, as if we needed more proof, there is a individuality to the functioning of the human animal. For some, coffee fits in to that picture beautifully. For others, it does not. And though I can hardly fathom that reality, I know it exists.

Which is for the best, really. More coffee for those who want it.

November 3, 2010

Paleo Coffee

I've alluded to something called paleo dieting here before, though only offered cursory explanation as to what it is. It is popular, first of all, with books and blogs aplenty dedicated to espousing the diet -- or rather, "lifestyle", as devotees would say.

But what is it, exactly? It is, on its face, a diet which encourages only the consumption of pre-agriculture foods. That is, anything that we speculate humans did not consume regularly as hunter-gatherers, we should not consume either. There is a lot of disagreement about the specifics, but on those points, I think most agree. Usually, the diet consists of lots of meat and vegetables, with some fruit and tubers depending on how you feel about their "high" carbohydrate content.

It stands in direct position to conventional dietary wisdom. More and more, nutrition luminaries like the Mayo Clinic and Harvard School of Health are encouraging little, if any, animal products. Paleo dieters scoff at this notion, pointing to biological and anthropological evidence which shows prolific meat consumption for all of human history. The problem, they say, is with neolithic foods, especially grains. Breads, pastas, even brown rice and oatmeal are eschewed, in favor of more nutrient rich and less starchy vegetables. And meat. Lots of it.

I've found this diet fascinating, in part because I find nutrition as a whole to be very interesting, but also because I'm a sucker for appeals to the natural. Oddly, for one who reads a number of blogs espousing this plan, I don't eat this way myself. In fact, I'm really not even close. I eat a pretty prolific amount of grain, probably less fruits and vegetables than I should, and little meat. First of all, this diet is inexpensive. A breakfast of oatmeal and peanut butter can be had for a week, at less than a dollar a bowl.

There is also the fact that, whatever the fossil record may show, it's pretty clear that the healthiest human populations in the world now do eat grain as a primary staple. Low carb diets (which, however they might protest, paleo diets almost always end up being) also tend to result in substantial weight loss, and muscle wasting if you don't consume a rather massive amount of protein. I am, in short, not interested in being sickly thin. I've been there before. It's not fun. The human brain also likes sugar a lot, which is not to say that one should slam Coke all day, but rather, that a steady supply of glucose leads to steady energy levels and mood. Grains tend to provide just that, provided they aren't overly refined.

I could continue, talking about the impossibility of feeding 6 billion people 1/2 lb of grass fed beef every evening, but instead, I'll just get to coffee. This is, after all, not a nutrition blog, however much I might flirt with that topic on occasion.

Coffee has always seemed something of a paleo gray area to me, not unlike butter. Both are decidedly neolithic consumables, however, both are consumed by most paleo dieters. The justification is that, while neolithic in origin, neither doom one to the modern diseases of affluence. Dr. Harris (who I've actually linked before, in reference to saturated fat) of paleonu sums this point up by basically saying that paleo dieters aren't in to historical re-creationism, but rather, recreating what he calls the "evolutionary metabolic milieu". Coffee and butter fit in to that, while a baguette does not.

But, coffee proponent though I am, I have to question the truth of that. If the goal is to, as closely as possible, align one's eating with what is, in theory, closest to our evolutionary roots, coffee must be eschewed. Though I would never argue that caffeine is bad per se, it is certainly relatively novel to the human animal. And it has, without question, numerous effects once it enters the body. Now there is substantial debate about whether these effects are hazardous, beneficial, or maybe just benign. But there can be no argument that caffeine does affect people. Some, to an extent that is not desirable. We all know the caffeine sensitive person, for whom one cup of coffee unleashes a cascade of deleterious neurological effects, and perhaps an upset digestive system besides.

And yet for paleo dieters, this is not enough. Some are caffeine sensitive, they say, but not all. If we can tolerate it, enjoy it, and benefit from it, then why not consume it. Because, I would answer, that same argument is not applied consistently. Coffee = perfectly fine if you like it and tolerate it. Fish/eggs/nuts = lovely paleo health foods, that need only be avoided if you're allergic. Grain = the devil, to be avoided at all costs, despite the fact that a statistically insignificant portion of the population cannot tolerate them, excepting of course celiacs and those who suffer from severe diabetes.

The paleo movement thus derives its specific set of orthorexic rules from decidedly inconsistent criteria. I will continue to enjoy my oatmeal with my morning coffee, neolithic agents of the apocalypse all.

No Words

There is something to be said for eloquent posts -- though how many of those I've managed, I honestly cannot say. There is also something to be said for clever posts, topical posts, poignant posts, and various other types. There is something to be said for each and every one of these things. But sometimes, there is nothing to be said at all. Sometimes, you just have to let your mustache do the talking.

Thank you.

November 1, 2010

Of Iron and Ethical Eating

I've always had a certain respect for vegetarians. Though some see them as overly sentimental, or perhaps needlessly orthorexic, I see people willing to sacrifice for their values. And I do mean sacrifice.

There is the fact, first of all, that meat tastes good. Some will argue with me on this point, but I'm a firm believer that just about every person has some animal flesh they enjoy consuming. There's just too much of it out there, and too many flavor and texture profiles, for that not to be the case.

But I think the larger sacrifice has to do with health. Now this, admittedly, goes very much against the current trend. Bill Clinton and Mike Tyson are now vegan, and everyone from Hollywood to Harvard is advocating for a diet higher in plants, and lower in animal products. If we're speaking purely about environmental and global economic issues, then I have no qualms. But, though I'm no nutritionist, I find the idea that abstaining from meat entirely is not a practice that confers optimal health.

Ok, fine. Whatever. What does this have to do with coffee? I'm getting to that, actually.

A vegetarian diet, almost by definition, is going to be deficient in several nutrient categories. Protein is the most discussed, and oddly, the easiest to meet without meat. There are plenty of decent protein sources that aren't animal flesh available to vegans, and even more if you allow milk and eggs. Granted, plant sources tend to be less concentrated, lack certain amino acids, and be less bio-available. But even still, vegans are not generally in any great risk of suffering from protein deprivation.

There is vitamin B12, which is not readily found in any plants. It is, however, in most fortified things and multivitamins. And since coffee has nothing to do with this, I'll say no more.

Iron is another story. People only really think of this nutrient in the context of women -- typically, those of middle age or more. But everyone needs it, especially if you're an avid exerciser (and I think everyone really ought to be). The best sources, however, are meat. Nuts and soy have some, as do legumes, but the phytates contained in these foods make the iron much more difficult to absorb. By some estimations, vegetarians need as much as twice the amount of iron meat eaters do, in order to compensate for this fact.

Now here's where coffee comes in. Coffee is, in general, a healthy beverage. I've said as much before, and I firmly believe it to be true. But even healthy things have nits to be picked, fringe concerns which might be magnified in certain contexts. Vegetarianism is the context in which coffee consumption might have one deleterious effect. Coffee, when consumed around the time you're eating food, makes iron less available to the body. If you're a meat eater, this isn't really a problem, as there's enough iron in your food that you can get away with not absorbing all of it. But for vegetarians, this can be an issue.

Not enough of one, however, that coffee need be avoided. The easiest fix is to consume your beans and spinach separately from your coffee. But if you're like me, and drinking the stuff all day, this isn't too practical. Thus we have the best option: A multivitamin with iron, or an iron supplement. Granted, supplemental iron is non-heme, that is, from a plant. Thus, it is the less bio-available variety. But chances are, the dose is significant enough that, provided you aren't subsisting on coke and fries, a vegetarian diet can supple enough iron, even in the face of rampant coffee consumption.

Of course, you could just eat the steak.