December 31, 2011

Review of Reviewing

If I've learned anything the past few days, it's that the quickest and easiest way to get blog hits is to do a review. It's also proven to be the best (only?) way to generate significant comment traffic. This is not revelatory, nor is it hard to guess why. People Google a thing, perhaps with the word "review" attached, and click whatever comes up. If it's this blog, so much the better.

This raises an interesting question, however: Who the hell asked me?

This point can be extrapolated to most any review writer, of course, but me being me, I'm going to focus on me. I think it's only fair, if I'm going to call in to question anyone's credentials (and possibly, to an extent, everyone's) that I start at home.

I remember the first time I was contacted to do a review. Or rather, I don't remember the specific instance. What I do remember is the sensation. I was a bit giddy, and more than that, flattered. Someone wanted to know what I though, not just of a coffee in general, but of their coffee. They wanted my opinion, which I had already been inclined to give. Only now, it had been lent a dose of credibility.

Or had it? This is a question I've wrestled with for a while now, and not yet come to a decent answer. How do we establish credibility? Who decides what opinions matter? After all, a customer might try some of the single origin beans from Broadway Cafe that I serve at work, and declare them awful. They would be "wrong", because there is something of a consensus that Broadway makes some sweet coffee. And they do - at least according to me.

But again, why do I get to decide? I have been in the biz for several years now, and I have read most everything available on the subject. I'm informed, no doubt. And I do consume both a great deal of coffee and a great deal of variety. My palate is well traveled, and well versed in what coffee should taste like.

That experience matters, probably, insofar as it lends a touch of real world credibility to whatever coffee related stuff I write. But I think it's the writing itself - and more importantly, the fact that anyone reads it - that creates the real authority. In that sense, this whole business is a bit like money. A one hundred dollar bill, by virtue of its materials, is worth next to nothing. It is not worth one hundred times the amount of a one dollar bill, certainly. And yet it is, because we have all agreed to accept it as such. By out collective cognitive dissonance, we have made this reality.

What this means, specific to the discussion of reviews, is that the only way an opinion matters, is if enough people think it does. Starbucks would never concern itself with something I wrote, because not enough people read me. But were Oliver Strand to crucify a company policy in the New York Times, that would merit a response, or at least some action.

If this all sounds a bit Orwellian, well, it is. 2+2=5, if we all say it does. To be right is to have the majority say you are. At least in terms of coffee quality, this is the case. There is no objective truth, nothing that is provably good or bad. Broadway's Yirgacheffe is the former, a decaf soy latte the latter, however, and no one would dare argue the point.

This is part of the reason why, typically, my reviews say nothing of how a coffee grades on some imagined scale. I'd rather focus on describing the characteristics of it, and let you decide if it's something that sounds appetizing. Because, though there are certainly rules about what one is supposed to like, the truth is rarely that simple. I've confessed an affection for the occasional quick 'n dirty cup of coffee, and however much I might deride them (never out loud, of course), the decaf soy latte drinker possesses perfectly valid tastes.

So, who asked me? All that matters, really, is that enough people did. Hopefully, they continue.

December 27, 2011

Poured Over

For all of my talk about simplicity, there is a distinction worth making: Simple isn't easy. Or at least, it isn't necessarily. A mile is a simple unit of measure, found on many roads, clearly marked. And yet running it, at full effort, is not at all easy.

This realization dawned on me this evening, as I struggled over a review. It's not up yet, obviously, nor will it be for a few days. This has nothing to do with the coffee itself, and everything to do with my preparing it. There's been some talk in the comments section, and on this blog in general, about pour over technique. Generally, I've been of the mind that it's best ignored.

But recent tastings are forcing me to reconsider this point. Trying the same bean, several different times, and getting a different cup can do that. It can make you question your technique, your equipment, and maybe, whether you're qualified to judge coffee at all. Anyone can write words on a free blog; who decided my opinion matters?

My confidence is not that eroded, it's worth noting. I'm quite good behind a bar, and I steam milk like a badass (insofar as that's possible) Still, if one is to review coffee, then one must also review the ways in which they make it. Right now, if I'm being perfectly honest, my pour over method isn't good enough; so any beans treated with it may not be done justice.

That said, I plan on fixing this. If that means abandoning the method in favor of a press pot, so be it; though I doubt anything that drastic will be required. Still, if I need a Hario V60, tell me. If a Chemex is needed, tell me that. Most of all, if there is anything resembling a definitive "how to do a pour over correctly, or at least, consistently" write-up, please do point it out.

I've never done a call for comments before, but consider this a first. In the meantime, I'll do some digging on my own.

December 24, 2011

To Beard, or Not to Beard

Take a look at the founding fathers of Handsome Coffee Roasters, the LA based offspring of Intelligentsia's best and brightest. Notice, if you will, the facial hair. (Yes, it's only 2/3 present.)

This, then, is Geoff Roes and Anton Krupicka, dueling at the 2010 Western States 100. Both would break the course record, held previously by the clean shaven (though still successful) Scott Jurek.

If these are the primary endeavors in which I seek success in life - making coffee and running on dirt - then it follows that I ought to do what the best do. And though there are exceptions (as in the first picture), a good swath of facial scruff seems to predict some measure of talent in both.

So I said, earlier this week, when I vowed to make a legitimate attempt at growing something. Well, I'm backing down from that challenge. Call me a quitter if you like, but sometimes, I think you just have to be honest. It's not happening for me. I look like a 14-year-old who has just discovered that, unlike the rest of his classmates, he has to shave. And so he won't, precisely to make that point. In junior high, maybe you can get away with that. But not in college, and certainly not post-grad.

Then I'll be brief. O happy razor! This is my face; there shave, and let me live. (5,000 points to anyone who gets the reference.)

December 22, 2011

The Third Dimension of Making Coffee

I'm going to steal a line now, a problem which is compounded by the fact that I don't recall from whom I'm stealing. "Minimalist running is running in 3D." Or something like that. The basic point is that, even on pavement or concrete, you're more aware of your foot placement, and thus more aware of the entire experience of running. That sensory feedback, after you're attuned to it, makes the whole movement feel almost accidental or, perhaps better, inevitable. It becomes like breathing, in that stopping would take conscious effort.

Now I'm biased, on this point. I was not a runner - not really - until I stumbled in to a pair of Merrel Trail Gloves. I had thought, before that, that mediocre 5Ks were the limits of my abilities, and that running was a thing to be endured rather than enjoyed. Now, my times have dropped in to the "somewhat respectable for a recreational guy" range, and my better race performances seem inversely proportional to the amount of stuff on my feet.

But you've almost certainly heard enough about barefoot/minimalist running recently. It's an omnipresent trend, even outside of the running bubble. It's done all the good things for me that you're sick of reading about, so I'll stop here. What I will do, after several paragraphs of blustering, is bring this thing around to coffee.

The concept of "running in 3D" struck me, not just as something I actively get, but as something with pretty good crossover potential. One might do anything "in 3D", which of course, to me, leads to coffee. Minimalist runners talk about "ground feel", the rapport your feet share with the earth that informs everything else your body is doing. The point is that you put as little material as possible between yourself and the experience.

This, I think, correlates quite nicely with the growing trend in the coffee business of pour over bars. We remove the mechanical element, involve ourselves in the process, and feel how we maneuver the grounds. The extraction rate, immersion, temperature, and everything else, is up to us. And yet it's not, when at its best. When it really goes right, the whole experience becomes thoughtless. You aren't "going through the motions", as if brushing your teeth, but rather embodying the Confucian ideal of effortless action.

Of course, a certain amount of neurosis can disrupt this. A great number of would-be-barefoot runners still don't trust their body, paradoxically, and so end up fretting over the minutia of form. They don't trust their senses to give them the feedback they need, or their body to respond correctly. When we worry too much about the "right" way to do a pour over, we lose the intimacy of the preparation. It becomes a formula rather than poetry.

The ideal, then, is something like trusting the feedback your eyes and experiences give you. You know, on some level, what the slurry ought to look like, how it ought to swell and bloom and writhe. Simply make that happen, trusting what you see, and what you feel. That, I think, is preparing coffee "in 3D". It doesn't require bullshit gimmickry. Quite the opposite. It requires a stripped down connection with the activity, an immersion that leads to bliss.

December 21, 2011

Winter Coat

Licata's beard, with man attached

Yes you can, proclaimed Outside magazine, run a Tough Mudder. Well, probably, I thought. I imagine I could slog through a ten mile pit of slop, and hopefully finish ahead of the Crossfit Endurance crowd. (As an aside, 200 pound men attempting to toe run, ala the Pose method, is great comedy. So thanks for that, Crossfit, if nothing else.) This was not a worthwhile goal for my break, if only because I'm already targeting a 50K.

I read Barista Magazine then, which included a profile and interview with Peter Licata, winner of the 2011 United States Barista Championships. Licata, a local barista made good, is noted for his successful competition record, his commitment to quality Hawaiian coffee, and his beard.

I went for coffee then, to another of Lawrence's downtown cafes. The barista, a careful and precise sort, had neatly groomed stubble. I walked for a bit, attempted some Christmas shopping, then stopped in to another cafe. The bar here was tended by less manicured stubble. In both cases, I enjoyed a well pulled double. The first round was richer, fuller, a robust 2 ounces of chocolate and cold suppressing comfort. The second was brighter, more acerbic and acidic, bits of black cherry cutting through the crema.

Caffeinated, I went home, and made my blog rounds. This includes a fair bit of trail/ultra runners, such as Anton Krupicka, Dominic Grossman, Nick Clark, Bryon Powell, Geoff Roes, and other beards. I mean runners. Or do I?

It hit me, then. Having barista'd for near on 5 years now, and run my fair share of trail miles (including one semi-botched ultra), there is a certain expectation I've yet to live up to. I have never, despite infrequent efforts, managed more than a lazy week's worth of not shaving. I have never committed to facial hair, and as such, it has never committed to me.

Well, stubble, it's time you and I spent some time together. I'm 23 years old now, a young man by most measures - but a man nonetheless. And sometimes, men grow beards. Baristas and trail runners do, anyway. Let's see if puberty stuck.

December 20, 2011

Going Out For Coffee

I imagine my response was not typical.

The owner of the coffee bar/s at which I work informed me that I'd be getting a week of paid time off, to be taken over the holiday, and wasn't that great? I stopped short of asking if I had to take it, and if perhaps I could just scrub floorboards instead.

"Well, um, if you do need hours, call me. I'm not going anywhere. At all. So I can work. If you want. Please. No really. Don't hesitate." I couldn't have sounded more like a desperate would be boyfriend, grasping at the unraveling strands of an unraveling relationship.

He assured me that they would be all right, and that I might relax. Perhaps I could go somewhere, or maybe just find ways to entertain myself around Lawrence. I said that I would think of something, knowing well enough that I probably wouldn't.

So, yesterday. Day one. I awoke whenever my body felt like it, and went about preparing oatmeal and coffee. The former was fine, the latter, strangely, was off. It tasted just fine - good even. I brewed using my usual pour over technique, and used some very good beans (that I need to review, probably). But as I sat, sipping in my black jeans, I realized that I didn't need to wear the jeans at all. And that informed me of the problem.

So I kept the jeans on, found a suitable shirt to toss on as well, and headed out the door. I drove downtown, and walked through the "wintry mix" to a coffee shop. My shoes had gotten soggy, my hair matted, and the rest of me, cold. I could have stayed home, saved my feet and my money. But as I looked around, seeing the people, hearing the sounds of grinding and hissing and popping, mostly, just caking myself in the atmosphere, I knew why I didn't.

I ordered a double espresso, sat at the bar, and sipped. I looked out the windows at the people walking by, hunched and half jogging, trying to dodge the precipitation. I saw others reading books, entranced by laptops, and chatting with someone else. There was flannel and jeans, thick rimmed glasses and jazz that sounded like it was filtered through a sock. And the coffee tasted right.

December 18, 2011

Green Mountain Espresso Review

Sometimes, we have to be honest with ourselves, even if that means challenging established dogma. Do I enjoy trail running so much because of the endorphins, the achievement, or is it just the shorts? (I'm not sure I can answer that, honestly.) Do I, artisan barista though I am, really feel like doing a pour over preparation this morning? The answer, on the proper occasion, is no.

So if we grant that there are times for laziness and convenience, then it follows that we should compromise as little as possible in that pursuit. Quick and easy coffee should still be drinkable, though not exquisite. I've reviewed Kcups before, finding the Barista Prima series from Green Mountain coffee completely palatable. This may sound like faint praise, but I'm picky. This, then, is a short review of Green Mountain's Espresso Blend.

First of all, I should say that two things struck me: The art on the box is nifty, and it's noted as "extra bold". Now, generally speaking, I hate the word bold. It's best used to describe the actions of some antiquated hero, not the flavor of coffee. But in this case, it's nice, in that it denotes a higher dose of grounds. Thus, I assumed that this would brew up well enough.

Today, I took the opportunity to find out. Having returned from a two or threeish hour trail running excursion, I wanted something to drink. And water or sports drinks, though probably more appropriate, didn't sound as good as coffee. (They never do.) But neither did I feel like using my Melitta. So, I popped in the Kcup, watched an oddly incapable Green Bay Packers offense struggle against the Chiefs, then brewed.

This is were expectations come in to play. I wasn't using an espresso machine, so there was no crema. That's ok. This was a drip preparation. Nor, honestly, did I expect any of the flavors the box claimed. What I wanted was simply a black cup of something that would demolish anything I could have grabbed at a gas station on the way home. And this did the trick. It was coffee that, as many might say, tasted like coffee.

Now I should say, this item has been discontinued. I grabbed it because it was on sale at a local grocer, while the Barista Prima series was not. Given the choice, I'd still opt for the latter. And yes, I just reviewed a product you probably can't buy. How very useful.

December 15, 2011


If there has been a relative lack of words here lately, it's only because there will probably be too many soon. I'm getting a week off (paid!), which is, paradoxically, somewhat awful. It's not that I don't have a life, so much as the one I do have is largely constructed around spending 8-10 hours a day doing coffee related things. Still, I'll make do.

In the mean time, be inspired.

December 10, 2011

A Mocha For Breakfast

If I can piggyback a bit, the New York Times certainly has the room to carry me. And Mark Bittman is a big reason why. He's authored many cookbooks, and frankly, more useful food polemics than the more famous Michael Pollan.

His latest deals with breakfast cereal, or in other words, America's morning bowl of candy. We're told it's the most important meal of the day (for some reason), but people are often too busy (they'd say) to prepare something themselves. As such, they pour crisped up something or other from a box, douse it in milk, and consume.

I'll stop there, because there's no reason to write the linked article again. What I will do, however, is draw a parallel with coffee.

There is an ever increasing body of scientific literature that links coffee drinking with lower incidence of just about everything you want to avoid. It probably does some good things too, especially if you're about to go run.  But while the evidence is growing, it's unfortunately irrelevant for most coffee drinkers. That's because, when most people refer to their morning coffee, they are, in fact, talking about a bucket of milk and sugar.

Before I go any further, I should say this: There is nothing wrong with people making that choice. I ate a cookie yesterday, and do not feel as if I've contributed to the metabolic epidemic in this country. Eat what you like; drink what you like.

It is a little troubling, however, to see the number of people for whom a mocha is breakfast. It's not that they can't enjoy such a drink - just that it's better served as a treat, rather than a meal.

Perhaps more troubling is that these are the sorts of coffee drinks most likely to be consumed by the younger crowd. Teenagers do not drink black coffee. They do like milkshakes though, even with trace espresso tossed in. This is a lifetime taste we're encouraging, and perhaps, some damaging consequences are being facilitated.

Of course, none of this is really my concern. Nor, in fact, will it be a revelation to anyone. No one orders a mocha thinking that it's the healthy choice. Perhaps I'd be better served not to undermine my sentiments so soon after expressing them, but in this case, it can't be helped. What to eat and drink is a free choice, as it should be. But sometimes, the better decision has to be noted.

December 8, 2011

This Round's On Teacher

Though I may occasionally sound the embittered recent graduate, I'm reasonably positive about my college experience. There were things about it I didn't care for, of course. Mostly, I felt there was too much emphasis put on filling out seemingly endless gen-ed requirements, rather than focusing on areas of interest. But by in large, I feel like I learned things. And that's mostly the point.

Still, there are those teachers who strive to reach those mired in a me-esque apathy. They may do so using any number of techniques, but I doubt that any work as well as buying your students coffee, as no fewer than three teachers did today.

Sure, it's probably a tax write-off. And no, it's not any great expense. But the gesture is appreciated. So too is the caffeine; at least by those who consume it. A fair few opted for hot chocolates instead, which, given the freshmanish look to the students, wasn't a surprise.

But there was an exception to this rule. One teacher ordered for her class, rather than letting them choose. 12 shots of espresso - one for each student - were requested. As I worked, enjoying the rhythm of pulling shots, she told them a little about the drink they were about to receive, how they might modify it, and how they should consume it. I don't know what class this was, but Espresso 101 seemed an appropriate name at that time.

Of course, the reactions were equally instructive. Most recoiled a bit, marveled at how strong this little ounce of liquid was, and exclaimed something unintelligible. But whether they like the taste or not, all seemed to enjoy the experience. It was, at the very least, something new - Dare I say, a learning experience?

In any case, kids, welcome to academia. I'm sure I'll be seeing you all again. 

December 6, 2011


Lest my last post give you the impression that I've abandoned my health conscious ways, I assure you that I remain as neurotic and nutrient cognizant as always. A healthy cardiovascular indulgence burns a fair number of calories, sure; but recovery - and thus future performance - suffers when the diet quality takes a nose dive.

Of course, three beers is not such a travesty. Probably, some alcohol is better than none, so long as that boring advice about moderation is kept in mind. There were carbs... and... uh... antioxidants. Beer is made from whole grain Barley!

And in this case, milk. Which brings me, rather conveniently, back to dairy. It's a topic I've focused on in the past, abandoned, and now return to once more. Sort of. Basically, my past posts dealt with fat, and how its presence in food and drink doesn't immediately bulge your waistline. In fact, though calories are calories, the sweet stuff mixed with skim is probably "worse" for you, in the long run.

(As an aside, and since I've never mentioned them before, nuts are fantastic. This is not breaking news, but while we're on the subject of fatty foods, they deserve mention. Morning coffee is one of life's sublime pleasures; but so is fresh ground peanut butter in a thick bowl of oats.)

But this is not a health and fitness blog. (Which does raise the point: What kind of blog is this? Shouldn't I have some idea?) My primary concern is with taste, and preparing the best (however we define that) drink for the customer, every time. This is an impossible goal; but I find those to be the most satisfying to pursue.

And so it is that my primary aversion to skim has nothing to do with its lack of dietary fat. (In truth, very few Americans are consuming too little.) No, skim simply tastes awful. I've said so for some time now, but hadn't actually tried it in... months? A year? More, maybe.

I changed that today, having been slightly prompted. I was asked by a frequent latte drinker what I though switching whole for skim would do to the taste of her drink. "Well," I said, "There will be a lot less fat, so the texture will change more than the flavor. It'll probably feel a bit thin, and lack the creamy texture that whole has. Honestly, I don't think I've ever heard of someone preferring skim."

But she was undaunted. I prepared the drink, taking care not to stretch the wispier skim milk too much. "I think I like it better," she said. A first time for everything, I supposed. Though I couldn't suppose quite that much; cognitive dissonance has its limits.

So, seeing that there was some skim left in the pitcher, I poured it in to a demitasse, and sipped. Granted, there was no espresso, and this was only a taste. But I couldn't imagine wanting for more. It tasted, to me, like someone had blended up a bag of cotton balls in water, microwaved it, then substituted it for milk.

Of course, your mileage may vary. There are legitimate reasons to cut fat from your coffee drinks, if you plan on consuming it elsewhere. Some simply don't handle drinks that heavy very well, while others have an aversion to dairy in general. (On that note, I'd say soy tastes much better to me than skim does. It does, however, cost extra.) And then there are those who, though incomprehensibly to me, like skim.

Well, there's at least one.

December 4, 2011

Left Hand Milk Stout

"Dude, look at you, drinkin' that hipster beer and shit. But nah. It's cool man."

And so I was, and so it was. Though PBR has the reputation as unofficial hipster beer of the unwashed masses, there is a segment that prefers craft brews. It follows, logically, that someone who appreciates specialty coffee might like their other beverages derived from a similarly obscure background.

I don't, really. Or rather, it's not the craftiness or the niche factor that drives my beer preference. It's simply a matter of taste. I like beer that does not taste like rancid water, but beyond that, I can't say too much. I'm akin, in this field, to the coffee drinker who knows that they like coffee, but not really what or why.

I do know, however, that I really enjoy the beer pictured at the top. It's a stout, but rather sweet, tasting a bit like chocolate milk. It's easier to drink that you expect, and not as heavy either. All in all, it makes for very comfortable hipster beer drinking. One can lean up against a wall, sip it with skinny jeans and a thin smile, and feel entirely superior to all the mixed whatever drinkers in the crowd. That's what hipster beer is for, right?

In any case, though I'm a very (very, very) infrequent drinker, I really do enjoy this brew. What's more, the website lists several others that I feel compelled to try. Describing a porter as having espresso notes is a sure way to lure me, after all.

December 1, 2011

Pickled Coffee

Coffee, put in a pickle jar, held tight by fingers protruding from cut-off mittens. A hat, with feather, perched over sharp eyes and a loose beard. Something about that is right. Coffee, had with no pretense, in whatever and however. But mostly, coffee, had with a certain contentedness and happiness.

This contrasts, more than a little, with the aesthetic presented on numerous other occasions. But it's something like the ideal I imagine. Not the beard, or the gloves, or any of that. But the picture, which somehow is more than the sum of those parts. A picture, which can results from innumerable other ingredients. It's an aesthetic that has nothing to do with how it looks, and everything to do with how I see it.

If this makes no sense... well, there's really no "if" about it. This certainly makes no sense. It's an idea floating around in my head, of what coffee should be, of what it should mean, that carries with it an entire set of otherwise unrelated connotations. Generally, the lack of pretense is an agreed upon virtue. But how we go about perceiving that is much less a shared trait.

And that's ok. We'll agree on that too, probably, if nothing else. But still, coffee in a pickle jar. How can you not smile?

The Gift of Ignorance

The blueberry scone? Oh, that's the blue-specked one. With the blueberries in it. And the pumpkin bread is orange. Like a pumpkin. As for precisely what makes a brownie vegan, well, you'll have to ask it. Everyone, it seems, has different reasons; but I'd hazard a guess towards various ecological concerns.

These are the things  - or at least, the sorts of things - that occur to me, at random times, on random days. You think them, but don't say them. To do that would make you something other than nice - snooty, perhaps. And since I was told, just recently, that I am not one of those "snooty baristas", things better left unsaid tend to stay that way.

Which is not to say that there's an endless pool of snark welling up inside me, but rather, is more of a comment on the perceived state of the profession. We are a demographic from which snootiness is expected, perhaps, and thus encouraged.

Oh, you don't know what a dry cappuccino is? Here, let me help you, by tilting my head slightly, raising my eyebrows, and exhaling. There. Now you've learned, not what the drink is, but to not ask. Most of all, you've learned that ignorance will not be tolerated, but instead, made cruel spectacle of.

This is not the way it should be, or the way it has to be. Nice people think not nice things, and even say them sometimes. But a pattern emerges. It's said you can tell a lot about a person by how they treat food service employees, but the opposite is every bit as true.

I've talked about this before, of course. Generally, I believe in playing nice. There is a place for snark, dispensed judiciously, a touch of seasoning on the entree of general congeniality. But just a touch. More, and you mask the fact that baristas are paid to hang out at a coffee bar all day. It's an enviable situation - though I'm biased.

Sure, some questions may seem unnecessary. But ignorance is bliss, for those with the answers. Without the questions, we'd be automatons, replaceable by push-button machines serving dismal coffee. The blueberry scone? On the left. Thanks.

November 26, 2011

In Other News, Good Coffee is Good

When asked, "What is art?", Picasso is said to have responded with "What is not?"

Gas station and hotel coffee, for starters. As an Italian gent, I'm sure Pablo fancied a well pulled double, with perhaps the occasional dollop of milk foam. We might assume that this consummate renaissance man never had the putrid, black water served for our "convenience" at otherwise well meaning mid-western locals.

Well good for him. But not so good for me.

I am spoiled, no doubt, though the extent to which that is the case wasn't clear to me before these last few days. I've grown accustomed to drinking Broadway Coffee at work, and other small roasters at home. These are single origin beans, handled by practiced and passionate hands at every step of the process. You taste the result - bright, clear, complex flavors.

And then you have something else, something that could hardly be further removed from that vintage. This is not a revelation. Or at least, it shouldn't be. Specialty coffee ought to be special; otherwise, what are we doing with our lives?

But there is knowing, and then there is knowing.

The latter requires experience, a few days of absence making the heart grow fonder. And mine, having just finished a cup of Peter Asher's New Guinea, is all aflutter. I am spoiled, perhaps something of an elitist. But whatever I may be, I am with good coffee sending a surge of dopamine through my brain.

November 22, 2011


First things first: If diet coke and espresso form a rather less-than-the-sum-of-its-parts mix, diet coke and cold press make something so much better. It's like chocolate sparkly dessert coffee, or something like that. It's so good you almost won't be ashamed to admit it, sipping it behind the counter, insisting to anyone that asks that you're just drinking iced coffee - nevermind the bubbles you think you see. You still won't put it on the menu, though; if for no other reason than admitting to creating (and having to name) the abomination.

Be thankful for that conversation, that will never happen. And while we're at it, be thankful for other things as well. Be thankful for pour-over cones, single cup trends, and lighter beans. And be thankful for the overly-sweet stuff that actually makes you money. Mostly, be thankful for the source of that money, the customers - who are really much more than that. There are surely other things as well, specific to you. But I wouldn't know anything about that.

But I do know about myself, and the things I'm happy about, this random day in November.

- That this blog has supplied me with free beans, to such an extent that I've not paid for a bag in... longer than I can recall.

- That anyone reads this, honestly.

- That I'm getting to play coffee bar manager, on a daily basis. And no one is making me stop.

- Latte art. I can do it.

- The races I ran, both the positive results and the negative. You learn from all of it, maybe more the latter.

- The trails out at Clinton Lake. I haven't had a bad run there, and every race goes better than I had hoped.

- That this isn't the end of anything. I can, rather unbelievably, call myself a coffee bar manager and ultramarathon runner (well, I ran most of it...). But the coffee, running, and writing, will all get better.

November 21, 2011

A Runner By Any Other Name

The question of identity is a complicated one, with divergent answers that inspire controversy to confusion. But sign yourself up for a club, and that's that. You're a member - whether there's a card to carry or not.

The above is the running club to which I belong. Lawrence, as you likely know, houses the University of Kansas Jayhawks. The Trail Hawks moniker, probably, is inspired by that. But I don't know for sure. A name tells you a lot - but not everything.

Still, my name is fairly instructive. That is, my club name. The Trail Hawks, at some point which, as best I can tell, is arbitrary, bestow upon new members a "Hawk Name". It is a name. That ends with "Hawk". But moreover, it tells the rest of the club something about you. And, since they pick it, it shows how they see you as well.

My name? Barista Hawk. As if there could have been any other choice.

November 18, 2011

Diet Coke + Espresso = .....

Legend has it that Earl Grey tea was first made by accident, the product of tumultuous waves rocking a boat carrying both black tea and bergamot oil. When the product, soggy and astringent, made its way to England, it found reprieve on the palate of Earl Grey himself. So smitten was he with the concoction that he made it his daily tea. Others, prone vulnerable to the influence of a powerful man - and, perhaps, a decent tea - followed suit.

That's the legend. The truth is somewhere, hiding from a more-interesting story.

True or not, happy accidents are a time honored tradition in the culinary world. Put this and that together, see what happens. You probably won't die, and you may even find the next great thing. With that in mind, it's the rare barista that hasn't tried to put espresso where it doesn't belong.

Early Grey, born of a random mash-up, was attempted yesterday. The result was predictably awful, the oil turning violently bitter and leaving an aluminum coat on the tongue. I looked at the other leaves, trembling in their clear containers, and decided that none could withstand espresso.

My eyes turned to the right, however, to the fridge in which we keep our soda and juice. Espresso is potent stuff, strong and hearty. But it cannot melt corrosion off of car batteries. For that, you need coke - regular or diet will do. I opted for the latter, because whatever dangers aspartame may hint at, it's probably better (or at least less deadly) than corn syrup.

I poured a can of diet coke in to a cup, with ice, and pulled two shots. They were - thanks, in part, to my new baskets - lovely. I had left a little room in the cup, but not nearly enough, as it turns out. The coke fizzed, bubbled, and a tan head spilled on to the counter. It looked like a chemistry experiment, which I suppose it was. Once separated, the aesthetic was similar to a dark beer - black body, rusty orange head.

I sipped the froth first, and found it thick, almost chewy. It was not pleasant, but not offensive either. Seeking consistency, I stirred it in, and tried once more. This time, the flavors meshed better. It was bitter, sweet - bittersweet, you might say - and just a little flat. It tasted like I had left the coke out for too long, and something had gone ever so slightly rancid - but in the least awful way possible.

Still, I'd never put this on the menu as anything other than a novelty. Cold press and coke would almost certainly work better, though I can't be sure. At least, it probably wouldn't produce dishwater soap on top. I guess I'll just have to try.

And on running shoes: My last post discussed my looking for a workhorse/racehorse, a responsive shoe with enough underfoot to handle 50-70 miles a week, 20+ mile training runs on pavement, rocks, and dirt, that doesn't feel like a brick or a slipper. I can't say that I've found it, but the Mizuno Wave Musha 3 is the closest I've come. I'd prefer a lower heel and more flexible midfoot, and its trail performance has yet to be tested. Still, I've never run in something so pavement/treadmill friendly. It neuters the impact, without dampening your response. Now, if New Balance would sneak the MT110 out the door just a little early, I'd have a perfect, two-shoe stable.

November 13, 2011

Good Enough, Isn't

I ran a half-marathon yesterday, finishing in 1:32:08 - good for 9th out of roughly 300. Given the course, the temperature, and the wind, I'm quite pleased with that time. I'm certainly pleased that I didn't need to demolish myself to achieve it. I ran comfortably, and trusted that my fitness would be enough to produce a respectable time.

This will not be a full-fledged race report, as I've done before, as there is very little to write about. It was a hilly course, which I enjoy. The downhills are free speed, and the uphills offer a break from the impact of running. There were some nice people, and overall, the race was very well run.

What I want to talk about, instead, is the above picture. That's me, mid-stance. Other than some minor hip collapse, my form looks decent. I look cold, like I'm running a 7 minute mile in to a stiff, frigid breeze. Because I am. You may notice that I'm wearing a pair of Saucony Hattori, a shoe marketed as more of a tool for strides than anything. Certainly, you wouldn't put serious mileage on them. Maybe, if you're very efficient, you could race a 5K in them.

That picture was taken near mile 9, of what would end up being the fastest (and easiest) half marathon I've ever run. (Talking about speed is relative here, as what is fast for me may be awfully slow for someone else. Suffice it to say, given my history and relative inexperience, this was a good time - for me.) My legs, you may notice, are still attached. It's also the first race I've done in the Hattori, always opting for more traditional flats in the past.

Also, the past few weeks, my drink quality has improved. It's not that it wasn't good before, just that the consistency was dialed in. My shots pulled more evenly, with richer crema, and at a comfortable rate. The baskets were getting dented, but no matter, the results were the best I'd ever experienced.

So, I changed nothing, embraced the status quo, and went with "good enough".

Or, I bought new baskets. These, to be exact. I've used them for one day, yet already, the results are undeniable. All of the things my shots were doing better before, they've improved on further. In this case, "good enough" was anything but.

That's where I'm at with my shoes, as well. I'm running better than ever before, by any metric you'd like to use. It would be easy to embrace the status quo, to assume that my barefoot simulators are best, in all circumstances. But I don't really believe that. So I'll try to find a flat, with enough underfoot to be a workhorse, yet spry enough to be a racehorse. And I'll try to improve, because ultimately, what's on your feet merely allows you to take advantage of your fitness.

November 11, 2011

Looking for Failure

"Only those who risk going too far can possibly find out how far they can go." -T.S. Eliot

Now Eliot, it should be said, may not be the best person from whom to take life advice. He wrote The Wasteland, after all, perhaps the most dense miasma of words to ever earn the title of poetry. But, manic depressive though he almost certainly was, Eliot was on to something here.

Without the risk of failure, there will never be success. But more than that, failure itself is instructive. When the mere thought of doing something scares you, it's probably worth a shot.

I remember standing at the starting line for my first half-marathon, contemplating the lunacy of running 13.1 miles, wondering if I might just die. I did not; although I did manage to lacerate my feet in several places, and pace myself so foolishly as to walk most of the last mile. But I also finished in 1:39 - not bad for a trail race. The confidence that race gave me helped push me from "guy who runs a bit and does other fitness related stuff in order to be thin" to "runner". I've since run a 50-miler, and am currently looking forward to running farther, faster, and more.

Taking over management duties for my coffee bar was even more horrifying. Fail at a race, and you fail no one else. But fail at a job, and the customers, employer, and coworkers all go down with you. At least a little bit. That's the fear, anyway, that the weight of responsibility will crush you, that orders won't happen, and that business will vanish.

Still, that fear was reason to accept - beyond the obvious financial incentive. I did not know if I could do it - and on some level, I still don't. Yet, others seem largely pleased. Sales are up, costs are down, people are happy. No one, as best I can tell, wants me dead. I'm getting comfortable in the bigger shoes, which is reason, in and of itself, to be afraid. Comfort, too easily, can turn to complacency. And that's when the hammer drops.

Of course, if you keep running, it'll probably land behind you. And that's my plan. Stay just a little afraid, go looking for failure, and see where I end up.

November 10, 2011

About That Hipster Barista Meme

That hipster barista pic I took? Well, it's catching on just a bit. With just over a hundred views, it's already scooted on to the first "upcoming" page. People seem to enjoy it. Which is good, I suppose, because I enjoyed taking it. However, if this thing is to become more of a thing, then I ought to say just a little more about the inspiration for this venture.

Or rather, I ought to direct you somewhere else - here, to be exact. Now, having read that, you've probably got something like an opinion gestating. Perhaps you think this fellow takes himself too seriously, or maybe you think he's right to be offended.

I don't really think either of those things, since I don't think the meme really has much to do with coffee at all. Sure, it's called "hipster barista". But look at the original picture again. See an espresso machine? A coffee cup? Anything at all like that? No; there aren't any pictured. The focus, rather, is on the scarf, the chest tattoo, and the "I mean super serious business" face being made.

That, I think, is why our barista is a bit peeved. If coffee were the joke, I tend to think he'd be laughing right along. But since people are making jokes at his expense, well, that's a little harder to swallow. Still, that's exactly what he should have done. Run with the joke, let people know you're in on it, and embrace it. To take offense is to confirm the kind of attitude the picture suggests. And that's a problem.

I realize there are those in the coffee community who will not like my opinion on this, nor will they appreciate me attempting to further the meme. Maybe I'm just exploiting the whole thing for attention; maybe I don't respect the business enough. Maybe, but I don't think so. If this blog were about getting attention, it would have a nicer background, a lot less words, more reviews, and less rambling about running. And if I didn't value coffee, I wouldn't have spent most of my adult life working with it.

Ultimately, this isn't meant to be a statement about anything. It's a joke - maybe a funny one, maybe not. But - as I'm all too fond of saying in real life about supposed drama - it's whatever. Life is serious enough as is, without our taking it as such.

November 9, 2011

Keep it Simple, Stupid

I received a useful bit of advice from a local roaster recently, although I didn't write about it at the time, nor have a done much to take it to heart. But it occurred to me this morning, as I attempted yet another in an endless succession of tweaks to my pour over brewing method. The result, as usual, was usual. Which is not to say that it wasn't good - very good, even - so much as it was the same kind of good it typically is. (Tense shifting and passive voice in the same sentence? Looks that way.)

I was at a tasting, and his coffee was being provided. He talked us through the affair, noting the differences between different washes, origins, roasts, etc. To the attending group, all of these things seemed revelatory. Their knowledge, previously limited to what the bag told them, was expanding rapidly, and they probed further. The questions were charming and heartening, showing a genuine interest in knowing more, in brewing right, and ultimately, in drinking better coffee.

These are interests I share, and as such, I had questions as well. They were specific, and not surprisingly, concerned with matters which might be called minutia. He looked aside, twisted his mouth, and without the implied "you" said that "A lot of people make things too complicated. I think, basically, drink what you like."

If this statement strikes you as completely obvious, congratulations, you're less neurotic than I. Too often, I'm driven by a desire to do things right, merely for its own sake. The enjoyment gleaned from the product is secondary, seated behind the satisfaction from a job - if not well done - done properly. So it is with my pour over technique, always changing, and not based on the extend to which I enjoy the product. The same is true for my espresso prep, milk steaming, and milk pouring.

Probably, there is some extent to which this is needed. If one is to do something for a living, one might be inclined to devote a fair bit of thought to doing it optimally. If the unexamined life is not worth living, then the unexamined job is not worth doing. But there is a line there, somewhere. Things can be analyzed until they are scarcely things anymore, reduced to parts of components parts.

Thus it's useful to remember, coffee is actually rather simple. And while I tend to make things too complicated, that truth is not sufficient justification for its own perpetuation. Fresh ground quality beans, mixed reasonably with hot water, will yield an enjoyable product. And it's that product, and the enjoyment of it, which ought to be the focus.

November 6, 2011

Better Than Football and Beer

There is something right about a Sunday morning spent drinking Ethiopian coffee, watching East Africa's finest distance runners torch the New York City pavement. And although Kenyan dominance is at its apex, Ethiopia represented itself well, claiming the first two spots in the women's race. The unrelated Mutais of Kenya topped the men's field, Geoffrey (he of the unofficial fastest marathon ever) dropping the proverbial hammer on everyone else.

You watch, noting the arm carriage, foot strike, turnover, and facial expressions. You try and glean from those things anything you can, hoping to emulate their technique - and thus their success. You feel a bit like an 8-year-old flipping your bat around like Barry Bonds in the back yard, thinking his timing mechanism will enable you to crush 40 homers a year. (We'll not mention the steroid induced forays beyond that number, in his later years.)

But ultimately, you know better. It's not any of those things that makes the runner. Nor is it the shoes, despite all the talk these days about them. (I'm as guilty as anyone.) The outward appearance is merely the chassis, under which the real work is being done. The heart, lungs, muscles and skeleton all pushed, strained and tortured - their protests ignored. It's that mental fortitude that wins and loses races, the ability to override and ignore your governor. That's as true for you and I as for Mutai.

And that's how I watched the New York City Marathon, coffee in hand. To be anything but inspired is to lack a pulse. And so I'm going to have another cup of Yirgi, head to the trail, and see how high I can push mine.

November 5, 2011

Hipster Barista Meme

There has been too much controversy recently over the "hipster barista" meme, created and propagated on quickmeme. Well, instead of offer an insightful take on the "issue", I opted to do this.

November 1, 2011

Peter Asher's Yirgacheffe

There are several things worth noting, right off the bat. First of all, this coffee was provided to me, so that I could offer my opinion on it. If that suggests bias, then so be it. Second, I have a disproportionate fondness for coffee from this particular region. At its best, it's clean, fruity, and refreshing, like a not-to-sweet lemonade on a summer day. And finally, this specific coffee embodies all of those traits perfectly.

But let me back up, for just a moment. The coffee in question is Peter Asher's Ethiopian Yirgacheffe. The company is a small one, based out of Champaign, Illinois. It offers wholesale coffee, much of which is sourced directly from a farmer with whom the proprietors have a relationship.

The Yirgacheffe is despribed thusly: What did the Olympic gold-medalist say to the Rastaman? It isn’t difficult to understand, really ... That a country with some of the highest mountain peaks in Africa as well as some of the lowest elevations on dry land would provide some of the purest, simply unmitigated premium coffee beans around. Waterfalls, active volcanoes, prehistoric and medieval history, a biblical monarchy; This land has everything! Some even say that its home to the emergence of the first humans. Well, did you know that it’s also the birthplace of the coffee bean? Just look up the history of coffee to see for yourself.

Ethiopia’s had quite a while to get it right. This hot cup of coffee captures the simple pleasure of what it means to be human. Our roast of these ancient beans extracts the clean, pure, slightly fruity quality that only they could offer. Simply put its some of the best coffee in the world. So, what did the Ethiopian Olympic gold-medalist say to the Rastaman? Welcome home.
Well. That's certainly not your average bean description. Not once is the word "bold" invoked, nor are there flavors or mouthfeels discussed. The bag itself sheds a little more light on what to expect, though again, there is a certain profile expected from a Yirgacheffe. You expect bright acidity, light body, and a tangy taste of lemon. As it's a washed bean, roasted light, these flavors are concentrated and direct. Of course, this leaves a little less room for error. Yirgacheffe, mishandled, can be acerbic and pungent, rather than clean and smooth.

With these preconceptions in mind, I opened the bag. The first thing to note is the bag itself: it contains a clever little plastic zipper, which can be used to re-seal the bag. You can then squeeze out the air through a one way opening, thus leaving your beans fresher for longer. If you grind them all at once, or order them ground, this would be especially useful.

In any case, I did neither of those things, grinding 4 tablespoons of beans for a pour over setup (somewhere between regular drip and espresso setting). I set 12 ounces of water to (just off the) boil, then went about pouring, in my regular pattern.

The smell, rising from the cup, had the vague lemon aroma of an Earl Grey. The taste delivered on that promised flavor, sweet but soft. Though there was certainly a clarity to the acidity, it never seemed biting, not the slightest bit astringent. The word clean, used in the description, comes to mind. It was smooth, almost too easy to drink too quickly. And so that's precisely what I did, not savoring the cup as much as I had intended to.

I don't have any numeric rating scale, or any other metric for grading coffee. I find the whole endeavor too subjective for that. I can say, however, that his coffee is everything a good Yirgacheffe ought to be, and lives up to the creative description and my expectations for the region. If a step away from dark, nutty or earthy is what you're looking for, or if you'd just like a taste of caffeinated summer, this is a very good place to start.

October 30, 2011

Barista Prima K-Cup Review

I have to be honest. The seemingly relentless drive towards automation turns me off a bit. I feel, despite my age, like the proverbial old man on the porch, lamenting the long-gone good ol' days. Back then, people hand-pulled their own shots, and milked the cow right behind the counter.

But those (purely imagined) days are past. We live in a time obsessed with time - the saving of it, and the profiting from it. We like things now, but we do not want to compromise quality. Knowing that, it's not surprising that the Keurig coffee maker (and similar machines by several other companies) have become staples at homes and offices. They allow for the preparation of a perfectly acceptable cup of coffee, with the push of a button.

But acceptable to who? For that 99% of the coffee drinking population, quality is on the periphery, nudged to the side by chemical dependency. For those, who survived on Folgers for years, this is undoubtedly a godsend. But I am the 1%, the coffee intelligentsia. For me and my ilk, such technology is blasphemy, no more coffee than Wonderbread is bread.

If I can remove my tongue from my cheek for a moment, it's worth noting the degree of hyperbole there. Still, there is some truth to the matter. K-cups are largely created and marketed without an eye on those who might fancy a pour-over produced cup. But that's changing.

Green Mountain Coffee's new Barista Prima K-Cups claim to be "designed for the passionate coffee lover. Each cup reflects the consummate artistry and handcrafted care that only the most skilled baristas can deliver - until now." I'm not the most skilled barista - but I am decent. With that in mind, I took to tasting the Columbian cup. (Which was a review sample, for purposes of full disclosure.)

It's the lightest of the four offerings, and the only one that declares an origin. (The others are House, Italian, and French.) The description is as follows: Accented by wondrously bright, bold fruit notes and a distinctive hint of walnut, this deeply roasted cup elevates satisfaction into a realm all its own.

Obviously, this is confident marketing. And so it was with a hefty dose of cynicism that I sipped the coffee. That cynicism didn't last, however. While the result was not quite up to the lofty claims (really, it had no chance), the claimed flavors were present, with just a nip of acid on the side. The roast was a hair darker than I tend to prefer, but will provide a more hearty, woody flavor to those who want that sort of thing. Most noteworthy (and unlike all other K-Cups I've tried), the coffee didn't seem woefully under-dosed. That is, one K-Cup yields one legitimate cup of coffee, without over-extraction and resulting bitterness.

This will not replace the Hario cone or the French Press in the kitchens of those who don't mind crafting their coffee. But for those who would rather not (or even the lazy or rushed mornings), this is the best thing I've tried. It's as easy as can be, and of sufficient quality that you don't feel you've totally traded taste for convenience.

October 24, 2011

Coffee's Advocate

Another day, another study suggest that - more than make life worth living - coffee might well save it. This is not particularly noteworthy, in and of itself. The study only notes a correlation, which proves little to nothing. What's more, the mechanism is unclear, and the gap in consumption is massive. So what we've learned, really, is that people who drink a lot of coffee tend to have once type of cancer less than people who drink almost none. As such, there is no call to action, and it's said that people shouldn't start drinking coffee if they don't already enjoy it.

Were this one isolated case, I'd agree. Taken by itself, this one study isn't significant enough to support advocacy. But taken on the whole, there's a massive (and growing) body of evidence that suggests coffee deserves to be considered alongside fruits and veggies as potent natural medicine. And those, of course, are advocated for (however ineffectually).

Fruits and veggies are justifiably considered nutritional necessities, containing vitamins and phytonutrients that do innumerable good things inside the human body. But for all of the studies that suggest this, there are precious few that provide a causative link. And like the above study, taken on an individual basis, one might not think an apple a day worth eating. But we know better. We can take the cumulative knowledge, and glean from it that people should eat colorful plants, often at the exclusion of less nutritive things.

Thus, increase consumption of fruits and veggies; decrease consumption of less nutrient dense pseudo-food is considered sound advice.

In that same vein, I offer the following: Increase consumption of coffee, tea, and water; decrease consumption of sweetened liquids.

That, I think, is reasonable advocacy. No one needs to like coffee. But no one needs to like kale, either. You'd still be better off eating a side of that than french fries. So too can people make wise choices in their quest to hydrate and caffeinate. Coffee is a good one. So is tea, and of course, water. Anything sweetened, on the other hand, is probably not a good decision - whether it's sugar or sucralose/asparatame/neotame/etc. doing the sweetening.

October 21, 2011

The Kindness of Strangers

Blanche DuBuis: Whoever you are, I have always depended on the kindness of strangers.

It's a line, both tragic and iconic, from A Streetcar Named Desire. Apart from being mandatory high school reading, Streetcar helped vault the career of Marlon Brando, and to broach topics previously untouchable in American theater. Blanche, an archetypal southern bell languidly clinging to her physical prime, is being taken to a mental hospital when she utters that signature line. It references her promiscuity and physical dependency, as well as her inability to form meaningful relationships grounded in real emotion. (The genesis of this downward spiral was discovering her then fiance's homosexuality. Again, not something discussed much in those years.)

Though there is specific context to that line, and an aura of shocked disillusionment, so too is there a more broad context. There is the fact that Blanche's name might as easily be replaced by any of ours, and the line would retain its veracity and impact. We all depend on the kindness of strangers, and conversely, are often the stranger on whom another is depending.

These are small actions, most of the time, unnoticed. But those instances in which they are apparent, they ought to be noted. Were it not for a stranger's Tylenol, my haggard finish of the Heartland 50 miler would have been more painful - if not impossible. And were it not for those who took minutes off of their time to stop and walk with me, to boost my spirits and encourage me on, dropping might have seemed an option. As it was, I couldn't fall short of the expectations they had set. They said I could finish, and so I would do so.

My job gives me a beautiful opportunity to be the stranger in question, providing extra change here or a sample scone there. Those are the obvious deeds, the tangible ones. There are things besides that, the jokes that hit or the drinks that satisfy a need beyond caffeine.

But more often, I marvel at the kindness of customers, so often cited for their transgressions. I'm as guilty as anyone, quipping and complaining about the minutia of a mispronounced order or the mention of Starbucks. But there are so many more moments - too many to do justice to - that strike the opposite note. There is the customer who will wipe up a mess they made - or even one they didn't. There is the customer who fills the half & half carafe himself, or the customer who asks you how much longer you're open at the sight of a broom. I depend on these things, and on the everyday kindness, the smiles and the thank yous.

So does everyone. We are social creatures, but more than that. A social creature has meaningful interaction with a select few, but we expand far beyond our circle. Some say this cheapens the relationships we form, as there are so many, or hardens us to others. No doubt, these things can and do happen. But were it not for the kindness of strangers - on which we all depend - it would be so much more the norm.

Coffee Genius

Well, this is certainly something. Perhaps it's a sign of the Food Network's decline, or television's as a whole. Another reality/competition show. Great. Yawn. One thing it's not is subtle. Dripping with Iron Chef inspired panache, the whole thing seems to delight in its absurdity.

A confession: I adore the aforementioned Iron Chef, both the original Japanese model and the American import. I'm probably even more fond of Chopped, the more hectic and random variation on the cooking competition theme.

I like food. (Who doesn't?) And I like theatrics. (Same question.) Of course, incorporating that in to one's drink making is troublesome, if not altogether impossible. Speed is more the issue, and customers are probably not willing to try red snapper (or whatever "mystery ingredient") in their latte. And that's probably fair.

Even still, some part of me sees shows like this and thinks: "Why not coffee?" Well, there are probably a lot of reasons, but really, I don't want those answers. I want to imagine a giant conveyor belt and a bar area that looks like something off of a Star Trek set. I want someone to make this show, and I want to watch every episode, over and over, forever. Then, one day, I want to be on it.

Sure, there are already barista competitions. But, even for those of us who really care about the craft of coffee prep, those can be a chore to watch. You can't really see anything, and none of the tedious bits are edited out. Basically, the whole thing needs a producer, some glitz, and some Food Network air time.

(If anyone with the power to make the above happen reads this, I don't need any compensation, just take the idea. Please. And then, while we're at it, give me a show where I travel to coffee shops around the world, a la Diners, Drive Ins and Dives. Ratings gold.)

October 18, 2011

Debating Semantics

Some of my most successful days - if we're measuring by won/loss records - were spent in an ill fitting blazer, talking too rapidly about abstract foreign policy issues. I cited sources, but mostly, feigned the kind of authority it seemed I'd need to win. Usually, it worked. In the cases that it didn't, the other team blustered more convincingly than I. Such is the (comical, in hindsight) world of high school debate.

"Judge," I'd say, making sure to address the middle aged volunteer by their customary title, "We're debating semantics." Well of course, one might say. That's what you do in debate. But my point was this: We're spending time stressing over words rather than issues. There are child soldiers in Africa who depend on my plan passing. And also, I need another medal.

The plea seemed to work, fairly often. I'd lobby that the judge ignore the technical shortcomings of our plan, "Strip away the semantics", and do the right thing. It worked, not because I was a brilliant or hard-working debater, but because I had targeted a straw-man. People hate semantics; or at least, they think they do.

Despite that, I knowingly spend too much time emphasizing semantics. "Which is the darkest?" a customer will ask. "Well," I respond, "That's really not a very useful dichotomy. None of our single-origin beans are roasted dark, so as to preserved their unique characteristics. Given that, it's really a matter of what you prefer, in terms of body, acidity, and general flavor profile."

They blink, more confused than when they asked the question. It's not for the acquisition of bad information; everything I said was true. But it's useless to them. They want the information they asked for, as simply as possible. "Judge, the barista is debating semantics."

And I am; and I have; and I will. I like words, and I like coffee. Those things combined - along with my general love for trivia - lead me to over-share, and often enough, to avoid really answering the question they asked. I say pretty things, skirt the issue, and cast a "Oh you didn't know that? Well consider yourself learned" glance at the customer.

I really should stop doing that. Which is, as much as anything, why I'm writing this. I spend an awful lot of time talking about the things I do right, and the things I think are positive about the coffee bar experience. But sometimes, I do the wrong thing. Sometimes, I create a less-than-rosy experience. Sometimes - too often, honestly - I focus on semantics, and not the child soldiers in Africa.

So, which one is the darker roast? The sumatra.

October 14, 2011

Closing Time

They call it dusk, when it relates to the light/dark ratio permeating the sky. I learned, in a British literature class, that this period could also be referred to as "gloaming". It's a fantastic word, and more people should use it. Regardless, I'm talking about a similar period, that time when closing fades over in to closed - only not quite. You glance at the clock, and see the hands dancing in place. Should I sweep? Should I flush the second head? Should I even start messing with the drawer?

Yes, you should. Or at least, yes, I do. That doesn't mean those things won't get interrupted; they will. Nor does it mean certain tasks won't get undone; they will as well. You'll sweep, then spill the knock box. Customers will arrive at the eleventh hour, and ask for whatever drink requires you to use the device you just cleaned. You will want to tell them no, to bribe them with the soon-to-expire muffin, or perhaps that entire pot of coffee that's about to get dumped. But you'll make the drink anyway, maybe slightly emphasizing how much stuff you have to get back out and move around. They'll tip, and then you'll feel slightly like a dick.

None of this is a comment on how things ought to be, just how they are. Maybe there should be a rule against ordering large mochas in the last 15 minutes a coffee bar is open. But where's the line? And whenever you close, there's always that time right before that, which is now as fraught with potential for unwanted messes as that time we just did away with. So no, this is not about ideals or ambitions, gumdrops or rainbows.

This is about reality, and realizing that so long as you're open, you're open. Madden can wait. Dinner does not need to be started early. This is about realizing that, even after you realize that, you won't be any less caustic. You won't rush any less, or try as hard to avoid eye contact. You'll still hide in the corner, broom in hand, trying to peek at reflections like Jason fighting Medusa.

Mostly, this is about trying to pin down this phenomenon. You know it; you've lived it. But there's no word for it. Certainly, not one as cool as gloaming.

October 12, 2011

A Return to Coffee

One final word, on that race. (The report is fast becoming the most read thing I've put together, so I feel vindicated in spending so much time writing about it.) It would be easy, given that I fell so short of my stated goals, to be disappointed. Thankfully, it's just as easy not to be. Events happen; we choose how we perceive them. I ran 35 great miles, despite my mistakes. And those mistakes will be learned from. If this were easy, there would be no satisfaction in success. I can choose to be encouraged, and thus choose happiness; or, I can choose to be discouraged, and be pissed. I'm taking the former.

But enough about that. Today, I got back to work, after four days off. I am a barista first and foremost, who runs on the side - not the other way around. And much better, as it turns out, at making coffee drinks than running 50 miles. Of course, you could argue that making drinks is easier; but take someone who's never done either, and both will yield awful, messy results. The point is, the latte art clicked; the shots clicked; my feet clicked (ouch). I felt comfortable. I felt, as cliche as it sounds, at home.

And that's the odd thing. Or rather, I say it's odd, because there's the expectations that it is. But really, my affection for coffee bar work is well documented. It's just that most people hate their jobs - or so we're told. But I don't. Not at all. In fact, I miss it when I'm gone, and feel somehow infinitely right in returning. And this sentiment I'm expressing? Built up after a whopping four days off.

God forbid I ever have to do something else.

October 10, 2011

Heartland 50-Mile Race Report

I alluded to being prepared for every possible outcome previously. But of course, while those things cross your mind, they don't dominate. They can't. You have to think you'll succeed (however you measure that), or the starting line only precludes a walk to the gallows.

But there has to be balance. Hubris is punished, severely and constantly. Thus you strive to equate your respect for the distance with a respect for your fitness. Lean towards the latter, and, well, you'll end up like me.


The starting line was inauspicious, which was only surprising if you expected this to be a mega-marathon. There was a streak of white flour strewn across a paved road, and behind it, about 50 people. The disparity in appearances took some digesting, even disregarding my previous knowledge of the subject.

We huddled, then spaced out, roughly gauging how fit we looked in relation to everyone around us. I stood behind three well-equipped runners, all sporting Salomon gear and running store technical shirts. I had no hydration device whatsoever, thinking that there would be cups and fluids every four(ish) miles.

At the start, the three in front set the pace, and I followed, along with two others. We chatted a bit, once we turned on to the gravel road, and settled in to our pace. (On that note, I should say that, if this was gravel, steel wool is a toothbrush.) We comfortably slid in to the first aid station, which was no more than a marked cooler by the side of the road. There were no cups.

Frustrated, I pushed it. Slowly, a gap emerged between myself and the three behind. The two others had fallen behind. I was feeling good, and let my legs go. At about the nine-mile mark, I arrived at the first manned aid station, downed two cups of HEED, then sprinted off.

By now, I realized that building any substantial lead would be impossible. So I slowed just a touch, and the three trailers caught up quickly. I finally asked about what pace we were keeping, and was a bit horrified to hear we were regularly clocking 7:30 miles on some gnarly rock. Still, my pride wouldn't let me drop too far back, so I stayed with them until the second manned station, at mile 17.

There, I met my Dad (my crew for the evening), who gave me the water bottle I should have started with, and a change of shoes. By the time I left, the three had built a lead of at least 100 yards, and I resigned to let them go.

I ran alone until the turn-around. My legs were beginning to feel sore, but not horribly so. I expected some muscles soreness after running the first half in roughly 3:40, and was getting just that. Even still, I felt strong. I imagined an eight-hour finish, with which I'd have been pleased, and felt capable.

By now, there was a substantial gap between myself and the leaders, as well as myself and those following. This was lonely, silent trudging, the only sound the metronomic crunch of my foot on gravel. I had started with an mp3 player, but turned it off. The night was nice enough to not require distraction. Steadily, I made my way forward, concentrating on maintaining an easy effort.

Still, I bombed down the hills, as a nearly effort-free way to make up for lost speed. This, as it turned out, was not altogether wise. These were rolling, gradual hills. They were akin to setting the incline at "3" on a treadmill, in either direction, and they were very long. So my bombing was long and arduous. And my knees were beginning to feel it.

Even still, when I next saw my Dad, at mile 33, I was confident in a strong finish. I was solidly in fourth, and third was close enough, should he slow. But I wasn't counting on that. I took advantage of a second wind, courtesy of some ginger snap cookies, and went looking for third. I found him, not too long after, recognizing the glow of his Salomon gear at the bottom of a hill. Motivated, I charged, and my already aching knees disapproved. Specifically, my right IT band seized, and I stopped. After a few minutes of attempting to stretch it out, I decided to try and walk it off.

As it happened, that's what I'd spend the rest of the night doing. Walking. From about mile 35 on, I didn't run more than 10 yards consecutively. It hurt, first of all. But primarily, my leg simply wouldn't extend enough to make an attempt at the running motion. My goal of a sub-8-hour finish vanished, and I trudged across the finish line in just under eleven hours. 

My Feelings on All of This

It would be very easy to feel defeated right now. After all, I can't really walk, and nearly everything on my body hurts just a little bit. There are dark spots on top of my feet, where I'm almost certain I pulled something. And yet I'm encouraged, paradoxically, by my strong start and awful finish.

I started too fast, as I tend to do, but held the pace much better than I had any right. On that course, I'd have been very happy with my half-marathon, full-marathon, and 50k splits. But of course, the race was 50 miles. And my 50 mile time, sadly, was not anywhere near what I wanted and expected.

Mostly, the whole experience is motivation. I tested my fitness, and found that it's improved significantly sense I began doing this somewhat seriously. By all rights, I should be pleased with where I'm at, and I am. But I'm far from satisfied. That's where the finishing death march comes in. I proved I could run all those previous distances well; but there's still this challenge, incomplete. Until next year.

October 8, 2011

The Edge of Something That May or May Not Be Glory

If it seems I've been posting more lately, I have. And if it seems that his may be due to some creeping anxiety over today's race, it is. When this blog began, I claimed to strive for content that informed as much as entertained. I did not simply want to turn this piece of the internet in to my own personal dumping ground for daily happenings.

I've obviously failed in that initial goal, but have perhaps succeeded despite that. I've realized the therapeutic nature of writing for it's own sake, regardless of perceived valued of content. Furthermore, I've realized that content created for that reason is often much more compelling than something cobbled together with a specific aim in mind. (Objectively, such content tends to get more hits as well.)

All of this is to say, recently, I've been dumping quite a bit here. Sorry. But I'm nervous, anxious, excited, and just plain ready. Ready to stand at some powdered line in the grass, look up at a slate sky and chase the horizon.

Since putting in the 40-ish mile training/volunteer/etc. run several weeks ago, this race has been nearly my whole focus. Because of that, my coffee bar managing has been something of a godsend. Without something else over which to obsess, I may have started running laps around Lawrence until I collapsed. Thankfully, I've not lost my ability to obsess over coffee, and the making of it. These last few weeks have seen the best latte art I've ever produced, as well as the pleasant acquisition of a new bean (Costa Rican Tarrazu).

Coffee has also proved an invaluable training tool. Without it, morning runs would be impossible, the prospect of a ten-hour-day keeping me in bed. The more-frequent afternoon runs would be no easier, as post-shift legs are even lazier than pre-shift. The night runs would probably have still happened, if only because they were fueled by the kind of nervous energy that even caffeine can't produce.

Which brings me, finally, to the ironic use of coffee this morning: As an agent of relaxation. Caffeine aside, morning coffee is part of a comfortable routine, and a pleasant reminder that this is a morning like any other. It triggers the release of pleasure hormones, and less scientifically, just feels good. It's a drinkable security blanket, a warm cup of everythingisfine. 

And everything is fine. We'll see if I still feel that way in 24 hours.

October 7, 2011

Carbs: A Love Story

Managing a coffee bar has the obvious advantage of providing one with free coffee. The only limiting factor, really, is how much of a loss you're willing to stomach in order to caffeinate yourself. It can be a tricky balance to strike, drinking enough coffee to get work done, but not so much that you end up in the red. I usually limit my consumption to one or two mugs a day, with perhaps a double shot of espresso somewhere in there.

But today, I focused my gastronomical efforts on carbs, more than coffee. Carbohydrates have had their reputation sullied in the last decade or so, and not wholly without reason. Americans get most of their surplus calories from added sugar, which is of course a carbohydrate. Those of us who can do math (calorie balance, anyone?) never really fell for the Atkins hype, however, and stuck by our potatoes and oats.

And, occasionally, less wholesome options. Coffee bars tend to have some manner of baked goods, and mine is no exception. In fact, it's very much the rule. There are scones, muffins, cinnamon rolls, cookies, granola bars, breads, bagels, and I think that's all. It can be hard to keep track. Save the bagels, all of those are prepared by an in-house baker. The resulting pastries are massive, fresh, and exceptional.

And they have lots and lots of sugar. Normally, a have a decided aversion to the sweet stuff, the product of too much neurosis on my part. But normally, I'm not racing an ultra the next day. So, given these special circumstances, I decided to take advantage of yet another perk, courtesy of coffee bar management: Eating some of the stuff I was going to waste at the end of the day.

A few bites of  raspberry-oatmeal bar and oatmeal-cranberry cookie later, and I felt a surge of sugar whisking through my veins. I tried to will it in to storage, attempting the alchemy of converting glucose to glycogen. I wondered how anyone could make a daily habit of ingesting these things without bouncing off the walls, then realized just how tasty they were, and decided that I could probably get used to it. The (vegan) oatmeal-cranberry cookie, specifically, could easily become a dangerous habit. It utilizes mashed banana to compensate for the lack of eggs, and the result is more moist and sweet than any yolk could produce.

And hey, both items have oatmeal and fruit in the name. How bad could they be? Right? Right?

October 6, 2011

Restless Legs

I'm trying to find the words to make this sound more erudite, and suitably epic; but they escape me. I suppose sometimes embellishment distracts from the real magnitude of what ought to be the focus. I suppose this is one of those time.

So here it goes: I'm racing 50 miles this weekend. It's an ultramarathon called "Heartland: Spirit of the Prairie", held in Kansas' Flint Hills. The course consists of dirt and gravel, winding through said hills. It is not technical, but in that way, it is perhaps a different sort of challenge. Focusing on the rock you hope to not trip over allows for an isolated focus, and thus an ability to ignore the scope of your effort.

This race allows for no such delusions. There is only you, the other shuffling feet, and the beautiful expanse. Hills, rolling to the horizon, like waves on the ocean. And you, traversing them. Progress is intangible; perspective is impossible. But progress occurs, so long as you keep picking your feet up.

And my feet feel ready. Too ready, perhaps. To borrow a phrase from Roger Bannister, my legs feel "full of running". I've tapered, or so I think. Mostly, I've just done very little this week. What I have done has been easy. Nothing hurts, or is even sore. This is good, obviously. And though I know that, it's no council to my body. It wants to run, to find the point of discomfort and push against it. But that will come soon enough.

No matter how well one does in such a race, discomfort is inevitable. Things will hurt, maybe even cease to function momentarily. Your brain will protest. Sensing a deprived glycogen store and a mammoth calorie deficit, it will urge you to stop. Self preservation is a powerful motivator, so ignoring that voice will be difficult. Maybe you will; maybe you won't. Maybe you should; maybe you shouldn't. It depends on a host of things. What are your expectations? How did you train? How did you start?

There are too many scenarios. But still, I've tried to imagine all of mine in the last week. I've imagined a debilitating cramp or a sprained knee. I've imagined a crescendo of endorphins and adrenaline propelling me to a beautiful, nearly effortless run. I've imagined first place, last place, and every place in between.

And I've thought, too. I've looked at my race times, compared them to the field. I've come to the conclusion that, by the numbers, I should do well. I should, according to the sign-up website, win. This is, at once, shocking, horrifying, and inspiring. But mostly, it's irrelevant. Once we start running, past times and past places won't influence anything.

And that, ultimately, is what makes this whole endeavor so appealing. It's pure. We all start together. We all run that way. We all come back. First one to finish, wins. No refs, no teammates, no dropped balls or popped tires. No power-lines, either. No buildings. There is only you, the other shuffling feet, and the beautiful expanse.

October 4, 2011

Coffee and Community

I've written a lot about various bits of cafe culture, and the community that seems to form between those who frequent a particular bar. Of course, my perspective is that of the one person a coffee shop patron (usually) has to talk to. After all, without the barista, there is no drink. And that's a problem.

So my perspective is not that of the customer; and it's certainly not that of an academic. This is not to say, however, that cafe culture has gone entirely without study in the past. More notably to me, however, is the current work being done, right under my noes, by a former teacher of mine. There is nothing published yet (when/if it is, I'll certainly link it here), but the topics of study are fascinating to me.

Coffee shops, when first introduced to Europe, became breeding grounds for intellectual discussion. Speculation and inference says that switching from a depressant (alcohol) to a stimulant (coffee) helped to get neurons firing, and perhaps even helped give rise to the enlightenment. In short, the Arab world gave the West more than its retained classical library. This tradition of coffee shop as a "penny university" continued, some argue, until very recently.

The last decade has seen cafes transform slightly. While they are still places of congregation, they no longer foster the same sense of community. At least, that's the emphasis of my former teachers' study. He notes that people hide behind laptops and earbuds, shirking human interaction in favor of performing private functions. They are, paradoxically, collectively alone. At best, this can be called ambient socialization, but probably nothing more.

Whether this is inherently good or bad is beyond the scope of the paper, and indeed, not really an academic question. Regardless, the fact that the study is being done at all is exciting to me. Coffee shops (and the beverage in general) are such an integral part of the American experience, that it only seems logical. He's apparently considering several other cafe-centric paper ideas, including one examining the ways in which customers and baristas use each other to fill social needs. For obvious reasons, I'm particularly interested in that, and would like to be interviewed.

For the time being, however, this is all still percolating.

September 30, 2011

Better Than the Rest; Not the Best

Being the best is relative, of course, and fleeting beyond that. But even still, there are cases in which it can be applied, with some level of objectivity. I can say, for instance, that at my previous coffee bar jobs, I made the best drinks. (There is one exception here, which I'll get to later.) What I mean by that can be debated, but would serve no greater purpose than the questioning the meaning of "is". If you're reading this, you have some basic idea of what good shots and good milk look like, and how they combine to create a good drink.

This, along with the flowery prose in my last post, probably has you ready to comment on my unbridled arrogance - if not outright condemn it. But hold on a moment. My stature as "best" at my previous cafes doesn't speak to any feelings of grandeur on my part. Rather, I was just about the only one invested in learning the craft. And that's really what it comes down to - investment. There is nothing inherently difficult about the skill of making a drink, nor is their any innate ability required. All it takes is the desire to seek out a proper method, and then consistent practice. As with many things, those ingredients will get you a long way.

Neither is this meant to condemn previous coworkers. Many people have other interests, and better things to do than watch latte preparation videos on youtube. As it turns out, I don't. But for them, that's honestly fine. They're better than I am at countless other things; and as they say, to each their own. They spent time doing whatever it was they enjoyed, and so did I. The fact that I'm the one to start a coffee blog probably tells you something about what I enjoyed then, and still do now.

All of this is really fine print, however. It's tangential rambling, mostly just to try and make sure I don't come across as a prick. (Mission accomplished?) The point, ultimately, is that I made better drinks than my coworkers for those years.

But not now. Now, the other three people working on my staff (one of whom I worked with previously, and is the aforementioned exception) And, far from damaging my ego, it's inspiring. The environment is more collaborative than any I've experienced before, and as such, we're all learning. It's competitive as well, so we're all striving to improve - though, as noted before, not at each others' expense.

These last several days have featured the most consistent drink quality any of us has ever produced. Were any one of use clearly "the best", none of us would be improving as we are. Thus the (somewhat paradoxical) conclusion, that perhaps being the best isn't really satisfying. At least, being better than those around you isn't. The goal, ultimately, is to realize your potential, to be better this week than the last. More fundamentally, you want to enjoy yourself, and that's hard to do without having something to reach for. Most of all, it's best if others are reaching with you.

September 29, 2011

National Coffee Day

The idea of one day devoted to an integral part of daily life for most Americans is, in my mind, a bit silly. It's a bit like having "National Pants Day", or "National Food Day". But disregarding my feelings for the moment, today is National Coffee Day. As such, I feel compelled to write something of appropriate magnitude, a piece with scope and relatability for the masses.

After an hour of thinking, however, I've decided that I'm not that creative. I'm almost incapable, in truth, of coming up with ideas for posts. Rather, I simply write what's (more or less) handed to me. Someone or something hits the first domino, and my fingers simply fall in to place on the keyboard.

And so so here we are. I'm writing, not about the holiday at all, but about one fleeting moment - completely unacknowledged by all present.

We begin the scene at the tail end of something that might be mistaken for a rush, but is in fact much too easily handled to deserve such a title. I am making a latte, an act which might be like brushing my teeth at this point, if brushing my teeth were my most prized skill and object of total focus. Still, the process is a familiar one, and I execute it as such.

The espresso is beautiful, looking like rust and tasting like honey. The milk is opaque, as smooth as wax. I pour, tilting the cup and maintaining a pencil-width stream of milk. As the crema rises, I aim the nose of the pitcher down, and at the back of the cup. White begins to cascade, and I twitch my hand back and forth, doing my best mimic of a metronome. As the wave ripples, I pull the pitcher back, then push forward again.

The rosetta is nice to look at, but to my eye, unremarkable. I set it on the counter, nod to the customer, turn and wash the pitcher.

I hear, over the water, something like the misbegotten child of "wow", "ah", and "oh", then excited chatter. I don't know what they're saying, because it's Chinese. But I feel then like it's a holiday. They've told me as much, and convinced me when the calendar could not.

September 22, 2011

Starbucks' Anniversary Shirts

Nevermind the loosely enforced dress code, I'd almost always wear black regardless. Perhaps it's an aesthetic representation of my coffee preference, or maybe just another step towards my inevitable hipsterism. In any case, my fashion sense is limited mostly to monochromatic shirts, paired with whatever jeans lack visible stains at the time. If I'm not running, that's probably what I'm wearing.

But inevitably, there are those in the coffee community who have more broad sartorial desires. Provided they're Starbucks fans, several name designers may have something to offer them.

For $85, celebrate Starbucks’ 40th anniversary.  Three noted designers — Alexander Wang, Sophie Theallet, and Billy Reid — have been tapped to create the $85 t-shirts commemorating the coffee company’s anniversary.  The trio are all past recipients of the Council of Fashion Designers of America/Vogue Fashion Fund award, which offers grants to emerging American designers.
The t-shirts will be available at Nordstrom or can be bought online directly from Starbucks itself.
All three tees relate back to coffee and Starbucks’ business, with Theallet’s cleverly covered in a map of the world, apparently to represent the chain’s global ubiquity.  We particularly like Wang’s tee for its subtle utility, however — it depicts a milky coffee stain turning into Starbucks’ Siren logo.   So when you eventually spill coffee on your designer t-shirt while rushing to work, you can just claim that splatter is supposed to be there.

September 20, 2011

Not Worth its Salt

Work with coffee long enough, and you'll try things. I suppose it's the same with any endeavor, but coffee is the one with which I'm most familiar, of course. In any case, however captivating the basic tasks are, you'll inevitably be motivated to step outside of that routine, and to try things. Things that might sound awful, and might be just that. But you never know unless you try.

Today, that's what I did.

A preface, first of all - or perhaps a justification. I take my coffee and espresso black, and have no real desire to do otherwise on a consistent basis. Still, many people do use condiments; cream and sugar are the most ubiquitous. The intrepid barista - perhaps searching for a competition worthy signature drink - might try other things.

So we're clear, putting something in coffee is not uncommon. Not that anyone would contend that it is, of course. Putting something in the portafilter with espresso is less normal, except for turbinago sugar, in which case you've got a "Cuban". But still, this is an acknowledged drink. It's on the occasional menu, and any barista worth their salt will know how to prepare it, if ordered.

Speaking of salt... It doesn't work so well, when added to the portafilter, and pulled with espresso. In fact, the result was truly awful. I sipped, cringed, then managed another bit. Then I tossed the rest, unable to imagine finishing even the ~1.5oz that remained.

But you work with coffee long enough, and you try things. Dreadful, horrible, palate blanching things.

September 16, 2011

Giorgio Milos, the Answers

Credentials are not the same as qualifications, no matter how often the two are equated. Expertise is not easily quantified by titles, or even at all. Having said that, it's hard to argue with Giorgio Milos' resume.

He is  illycaffè's North American barista in residence, as well as an instructor at illy’s Università del Caffè. He is certified by the Specialty Coffee Association of Europe as a Master Barista and trainer. He writes about coffee for The Atlantic, and oh, won the Italian Barista Championships in 2008. 

I am certified by no one, mostly self trained, write only for this blog, and have never competed in (let alone won) a barista contest. Regardless, I was asked if I might have some questions for Giorgio, and if I might like to run his responses. As it turns out, I was interested. And so here we are, after a brief exchange. 

What makes a great barista?
Well tasting is the ultimate proof, but let me start from the beginning. If I can see behind the bar, I look at equipment quality -- everything, the machine, tamper, grinder -- and maybe even more important, how well that equipment appears to be maintained, and how clean and orderly the area is.  I'll watch the barista at work and see if the basics are being handled properly, especially the extraction time for espresso, which shouldn't exceed 30 seconds for a single shot. Of course, I'll ask what brand of coffee they use -- it doesn't have to be illy! -- and see if it is stored properly, if I can.  I look at presentation in the cup, where an unbroken, rich brown crema on top and a "clean cup," meaning no coffee running down the sides, I know there may be something good awaiting my palate.

What’s your favorite drink to make?
Oh, my favorite coffee drink is espresso…My everyday method is actually using illy's iperEspresso capsule system, because it creates perfect espresso in the cup every time in about 30 seconds.   Portion controlled systems are where equipment is headed at home, both at the lower end for brewed coffee and at the higher end for espresso. You can't argue with what they deliver in convenience, quality and consistency, and growing numbers of our on-premise accounts are using iperEspresso for those same reasons.  But I'm a traditionalist at heart, so when I have the time, I prefer grinding, tamping and pulling the old fashioned way.  On weekends, I like to use my Moka pot.  It reminds me of home!  In the summer, I like to also drink iced espresso. I don’t use milk.

What is it about coffee that makes it such a unique social beverage?
Coffee was the official drink of the Enlightenment and some of the most important artistic and cultural movements were born in the first coffee bars. This is why coffee is the perfect companion to culture and illycaffè for over twenty years has been choosing art, literature, and creativity as a whole to express its own values and its philosophy. The act of sharing a cup of coffee, the ritual behind creating it and interaction with the barista creates a social environment and encourages discussion.

Because these are topics on which I've endless interest - and because his answers are satisfying in terms of length and depth - I'm going to devote subsequent posts to examining each answer. But for now, I'll just thank Giorgio and illy both.