January 29, 2011


Friday nights and Saturday mornings are a little busy for me, so I have neither the time nor the inspiration to write a typically massive post. But frankly, this is probably more entertaining anyway. Oh, how far we've come.

January 27, 2011

Middle Age Epiphany

Starbucks is set to turn 40 this year, an age at which, according to the cliche, the now middle aged coffee company ought to look in to buying a Corvette, and perhaps dating a 25-year-old blond.

But far from entering crisis mode, the coffee giant seems to be doing quite well. The numbers, slumping several years ago, are trending upwards again. And the quality is emphasized in a way it may not have been during those "down years" as well. Seattle's Best Coffee, that other brand owned by Starbucks Corp., is stepping out from under the green apron, making a name for itself, establishing a brand, and probably pushing those numbers up yet higher (a subject I'll especially keep my eye on).

So no, this is not a time for middle aged crises. Not when things seem to be going so well for Starbucks. And regardless, birthdays are for celebrating anyway. How, if you're a cultural icon, synonymous with coffee, do you celebrate? Probably by doing a great many things, most of which I don't know about yet. Maybe there will be cake; I don't know. But I do know that there will be coffee.

And as of today, I know what that coffee tastes like.

I'll spare you the details of the circumstance. But suffice to say, there were important people visiting my friendly neighborhood Seattle's Best cafe today. These important people brought with them a sample of this special 40th anniversary blend.

The beans are quality, as you'd expect. And they are sourced from four different regions, each bringing a distinct set of flavors and nuance to the blend: Ethiopia, Columbia, New Guinea, and Sumatra. The roast is dark, as evidenced by the oily sheen on the beans.

I ground the beans fine, and prepared them using a Melitta pour over cone. Several minutes later, the water had done its job, and there was nothing to do but drink. Though actually, that over-simplifies the act of coffee tasting.

First, we sniffed the brew. The smell was deep and sweet, with chocolate and dark cherry hints. Both of those things were found when the coffee was slurped as well. The flavor as whole, however, cannot be simply described as like those two things. In fact, it can't be pinned down with my vocabulary. The coffee is complex, as you'd expect, given the variety of beans used. That complexity yields a bevy of flavors, experienced all across the palate. The acidity is felt widely too, despite the dark roast. The combined effect is hard to quantify, but it is certainly interesting. And it is very, very good as well. It's the sort of coffee that deserves to be sipped and savored slowly, dissected and discussed.

In the not-too-distant future, you'll get the chance to do just that. If I were you, that's a chance I'd try hard not to miss.

January 26, 2011

A Recipe, Revised

Feeling a bit nostalgic, I decided to browse past posts, see if there was anything I wanted to correct, or perhaps add to. Though this blog hasn't been around too long, opinions are fluid things; and though we humans like categorical thinking (as is often said, we like putting things in boxes), we like to move from one category to the next. To whit: The older the post, the more elitist my opinion might seem, regarding coffee, and the alteration thereof.

But in so doing, I discovered something. My aptly named "Dry Cappuccino Post" has been read more than any other. This despite the fact that I didn't link it on facebook (or any other site, for that matter), and I hadn't yet appeared anywhere else in the coffee blogoshpere. Though I'm still a small fish in a small pond, I was a veritable minnow then. And yet, somehow, more people have sought ought and read that post than any of my other pieces.

This raises a few points. First, there is the horrifying possibility that people are out there searching the internet for cappuccino preparation techniques, and finding me as a resource. Second, that means there must be a lack of more legitimate options. And third, it means that I had better clean up the post a bit, if people are actually going to use it.

Initially, I had written it after preparing what I considered to be a very good dry cappuccino. It was not a piece I put much thought in to, and it certainly wasn't intended to be a definitive guide to anything. That said, I think the advice given there is actionable, and the steps listed, if followed, should produce quality foam. Thus I don't plan on changing any of the listed steps, though the wording might be altered a touch. I will certainly break it up a bit, and format things differently. Which is to say, I will format it, period. The initial post was one tedious paragraph. Again, there is good information there, but extracting it might be difficult. So I will make it more user friendly.

So yes, this post is merely about another post. I'm writing about my writing, something that could seem an exercise is self-gratification -- and perhaps it is that, on some level. But mostly, I'd like to think this post will be useful, if only because I hope the post it's about will be useful. This written, The Dry Cappuccino post will be edited. Hopefully it will be more read -- and better used -- in its new incarnation.

January 25, 2011

Can It

At the heart of SBC's new image is availability. That is, you can get Seattle's Best Coffee at Burger King, Subway, Steak and Shake, Borders (I should know about this one), and various other locals that might not typically be considered premium coffee venues.

Very soon, you'll be able to add grocery stores and gas stations to that list. Seattle's Best announced today that the company is entering the canned coffee market, currently less occupied than it might be, given American's love for caffeine and convenience.

The canned lattes are straightforward enough; one is just coffee, milk, and sugar; the other two add either chocolate or vanilla to the mix. All three are 12oz, and are projected to retail at $1.49 a piece. Keep in mind, a 12oz coffee from a cafe typically costs ~25 cents more than that. This, again, fits well with SBC's push to become as ubiquitous as the parent company, Starbucks.

That raises an interesting point however. Starbucks already has its bottled frappuccinos (not the same as the blended beverages sold in cafes, obviously), canned lattes, and canned "double shots". There are also canned coffee beverages from energy drink makers, Rockstar and Monster. And so, although the market isn't crowded, it isn't totally empty either. In theory, however, the SBC canned lattes are different in both size and price from Starbucks'; they are somewhere between the canned lattes and double shots. They are less expensive than the energy drink coffees also, and one might hope that SBC, coffee company that it is, can produce a better tasting coffee beverage than either Rockstar or Monster.

And that, of course, is the rub. Price and convenience matter; and it has to be said that the SBC canned lattes are entering at a very competitive price, and ought to be very easy to come by. They will be cheap, probably more so than their competition, and they will be just about everywhere cold, canned drinks are sold. But if they don't taste good, well, neither of things will help much.

About the taste, I can't say anything right now, other than that I eagerly anticipate trying them. And oh, I could also say that I'll be doing so sometime in the next few days. Samples are en route, thus I'll soon be able to give my impressions, for whatever they're worth.

Jazz and Joe

This, now, is genuinely my 100th post. To celebrate, take a moment, sip your coffee, and listen. If you don't feel 100x cooler at the end of the song, I don't know what to say.

January 24, 2011


I came to the computer today, intending to write something about the trenta. If you've not been paying attention, the trenta is Starbucks Co's new size -- 31oz -- to be used for iced drinks. As people have noted, the human stomach is not quite that voluminous. And so, even were we discussing water, that size might be a bit much. But coffee? That's a lot of caffeine; and, if we're talking about iced mochas or frappuccinos, that's a metric ton of calories.

But frankly, I'm at something of a loss as to what I might add to the discussion. Yes, the drink is huge. Yes, the concept seems a bit absurd. But yes, people will buy it, and the decision will most likely end up being justified via sales. It is, after all, the dollar that speaks the loudest, not some internet consensus. Perhaps my wit has run dry, but I can't find it in me to mock the concept, and certainly I've no motivation to damn it. To trot out a popular phrase in athletics: It is what it is.

What moved me to write today was not some new innovation, but rather something that is certainly quite old. I walked in to Wescoe Hall today, ankles feeling a bit stiff, head a bit cloudy, wondering if I might have stayed in bed after all. Certainly, morning coffee and all, the idea had crossed my mind. But it was just that, an idea, and one I could not afford to entertain with any seriousness. Showing up to the first genuine day of classes is something of a requirement, if you want to do well. And I do want to do well -- at least, well enough.

First up was a class on technical writing, which was as interesting as you might expect. To practice, we were tasked with writing a basic recipe; my group was assigned a grilled cheese sandwich, something I have actually never made. Even still, I think I know the basics. What's more, I've read far too much food related literature, and cookbooks too; thus I was already quite familiar with how one should phrase things. We whittled down the wording, and ended up with something satisfactory. So did every other group. The class ended, and I left, feeling slightly less than inspired.

I walked down the hall, looking ahead to the gym, wondering if I should change out of the race t-shirt I was wearing. Somehow I thought it could seem arrogant, advertising the fact that I had run a 15k, to those who barely drag themselves to an elliptical. And to those who do better, I though I might look somehow less like a runner, or perhaps less fit than I seemed to think I was. The neurosis was too much, though not abnormal for me.

I decided that it was okay if I wore my race shirt, and that people might be concerned with other things besides the aesthetic I presented at the gym. That conclusion comforted me, but not so much as the gurgling that caught me ear. It was a hissing bubble, then a pitter of liquid. I looked to my right, and saw a ten cup Mr. Coffee, toiling away, seated on a table of some office. The room was small and windowless, like a cell, only smaller and less homey. There were books too, but no person. I stopped for a moment, took in the sound. Though I didn't catch a whiff of the brew, and though it was Folger's anyway, I felt a substantial perk in my mood.

This was a happy marriage, coffee and academia, the sort of comforting sameness that one expects, and yet never tires of. It's a marriage that dates back to the penny universities, to intellectuals spouting whatever their rapid firing neurons prompt them too, revelations coming at the expense of any reservations. And though enlightenment era Europe this was not, the hearkening back brought a sense of tradition, and of comfort too.

I sat in my next class then, looking around the room, feeling very much like an English student embedded in all the trappings of academia. There was an enthusiasm amidst that monotony, an interest that persisted and overshadowed slumped shoulders and drooping eyes. The third class was better yet, everything coming together to paint a familiar picture, a cast of characters one might find in a script. There was more enthusiasm here, the sort of jeans, haircuts and sweaters one expects too. I didn't look the part, but I felt in nonetheless.

It would not be hyperbole to say that my interest, my general satisfaction with my surroundings, was derived largely from that 15$ Mr. Coffee, bubbling, hissing, dripping, soothing. In that, coffee has stimulatory effects beyond caffeine. It has, as I've written before, the power of context, of invocation. And that is a power not to be underestimated; it can, after all, make me enjoy school.

January 22, 2011

A New Level

I've been on a particularly verbose kick lately, writing long pseudo-narratives that, while structured around coffee, are not particularly informative. I wanted to change that a little, or at least offer some variety, and so I set out to pretend I was something like legitimate media. That urge, and my own curiosity, led me to contact Seattle's Best Coffee, and ask if I might speak to someone about the new levels system of coffee, and perhaps other things as well.

Very quickly, I received a message in the affirmative, confirming that I could indeed speak with someone. That someone turned out to be Jenny McCabe, director, Communications and PR. Which is to say, she is far more important than anyone I expected to speak with.

But if I was a bit surprised, and perhaps also flattered -- I really don't consider myself to be anything like legitimate media -- those emotions took a back seat to excitement. I would get to ask questions of someone who, no doubt, could answer them; and who also has plenty of experience doing just that. So yes, I was excited.

But as I said, I am not quite a journalist. And as a decided amateur, I didn't have a voice recorder, or any such thing; so you won't be hearing the conversation in full. And no, I can't transcribe it here, either. It really is too bad, because I would very much like for everything Jenny said to be available to you. She did a wonderful job explaining everything, detailing it all as part of a cohesive identity, or perhaps a corporate narrative.

That said, I will try my best to pass along the key points, as well as some tidbits I found particularly interesting.

The levels system Seattle's Best Coffee now has stems from a desire to, in her words, "de-mystify premium coffee". That is, most Americans drink coffee, and most would purport to like it, on some level. And yet, most are also scared away by my crowd -- the borderline elitists, opining about rossettas and single origin Ethiopian beans. The goal was thus to make good coffee, but to make it simple to understand, and easier still to access.

And so what of the coffee quality? It is one thing to make it simple -- and 1 through 5 is pretty basic -- but something else entirely to make it good. That was, initially, my concern. I feared that there would be a lack of variety, lack of distinct flavor, and only differences in roast. As I've written before, that turned out not to be the case. Not even close, thankfully. In truth, I find the new blends more distinctly individual than the old, simple names or no. This, perhaps, owes to the blending and roasting philosophy. While the marketing is simple, the goal here is to achieve a consistent and quality flavor that is unique to each level of coffee. It encouraged me to hear that; and it encouraged me more that I could taste it myself.

But this all, as tends to be the case when discussing Starbucks corporation, is part of a larger picture. If Starbucks is serious coffee, Seattle's Best is being set up its sense of humor. Which is not to say, as indicated above, that the quality of the coffee is to be compromised. Rather, Starubucks is the Kant reading, skinny jeans wearing, shaggy hipster in the corner; or perhaps the Banana Republic clothed, hair quaffed pretty boy; Seattle's Best is not so self assured as all that, not so image conscious, and not so damn uptight. That is the goal, at least. And it is a goal that will certainly be pursued. Say this for Starbucks Co: It can craft and sell an image. Seattle's Best is getting its turn in the limelight now, getting to perform its routine, and see how the crowd responds.

There is more to be said here, and certainly more to be said in the future on this subject. But I'll leave that in the future, where it belongs.

January 19, 2011

Life Goes On

I suppose I looked the part of a barista then, clad in a gray sweater and jeans. The steely, wool top was thick and warm; its bulk highlighting my lithe frame -- the sort of build one seems to expect of those who tend coffee bars. I had stubble too, a haphazard collection of stringy black hairs dotting my face, climbing from hollow cheeks to sunken eyes. Thus I sat at the bar, hunched over my phone, looking very much like the sort of person I am -- which I suppose is entirely appropriate.

The man on the other side of the counter ground the espresso that was to form the base of my latte, and I watched. He moved with the practice and assurance of years, but not the malaise. There was no apathy in his flick of errant grounds, nor in the press that followed. He set the now-loaded portafilter down, avoiding that unforgivable sin of locking it in to the head too early in the process; the espresso would not be put to the torch.

He filled the pitcher with milk then, approximately a third of the way. Only then was the portafilter locked in to place, and the water set to extracting the shots. I was due two shots, despite having paid for one; perhaps the tip earned the extra espresso. I could not angle myself to see the milk as he steamed it, but his eyes never left what must have been a compelling vortex. The steady hiss -- only interrupted by those perfect little ticks and spits -- told me that the milk was textured right. And although there was no thermometer in the milk, I had little doubt that his hand, resting on the pitcher's side, would serve the purpose every bit as well.

I looked away, focused for a moment on the snow that had begun to fall more steadily, and in greater quantities. I observed the people walking outside, retreating in to their clothes and away from the cold.

And then there was the grinder again, whirring and clicking. The barista was adjusting the setting on the machine, making it infinitesimally more coarse.

"Too fine?" I asked, already knowing the answer. 

He looked up, eyes wide, evidence to a feeling of surprise that someone had noticed his activity, and what's more, correctly diagnosed it. "Yeah," he said, and was back to work. I appreciated his haste; the portafilter was wiped clean, the espresso in it tamped, and the whole apparatus in place, yielding its liquid extract in moments.

These shots pulled to his satisfaction, and he assembled the drink. It was presented to me in a saucer, on a platter, and with a spoon. The presentation spoke to a degree of care, but not so much as he had demonstrated. "Thanks," I said.

"Yeah," he responded. "How is it?"

"Good," I said.

"Good," he replied.

I crossed my legs and turned, facing the windows, watching what had become something of a flurry. The latte was good, of course, perfectly consistent in both flavor in texture, retaining both the sweetness of the crema and the steamed milk. It was rich and delicious, but satisfying for reasons beyond that. It probably would have been good with the first two shots the barista had pulled; but it was better with the second set. That he had taken the time -- less than a minute though it was -- to get the drink perfect, rather than simply right, made the whole experience a confirmation of why I go to cafes, and why I love them so.

The preceding was written about Signs of Life, a cafe and bookstore located in Lawrence, KS. The barista was named Chris. I hope neither mind the mention.

January 15, 2011

Judging the Man by his Collar

One look at the size of his collar, at the fit of his coat, and I knew he had a preference concerning cappuccinos. Not everyone does, of course. Truthfully, something like a majority of the people ordering them would be better off asking for something else -- either a latte, or perhaps the sort of thing vended from a gas station machine.

But as I looked up from the ticket, glancing over the espresso machine, I knew that he was not in that crowd. He was neither ignorant nor apathetic. His posture was too perfect for that, his gait too self assured, and the collar on his coat altogether too large. He eyed the cookbooks like someone who might be able to properly fold an omelet.

"How dry do you like your cappuccinos?" I asked. He glanced up, his eyes open in the way that says "Me?" I looked back in the way that responds "Who else?"

"Wet," he said. No explanation, and certainly no question.

There was nothing left but to do it then. A wet cappuccino is a mixed breed of sorts, something of a hybrid latte and genuine cappuccino. It ought to be smooth and consistent, like a latte, but not so milky as that. It should thus be foamy, but not so light and airy as a cappuccino. It resides in that ether between the two, and is something of a challenge for that.

I set to stretching the milk, settling in to a soft spot just to the left of the vortex, nicking the edge and coaxing a thick hiss from the milk. I let the wand penetrate deeper as the liquid rose, texturing and smoothing, eliminating bubbles and inconsistencies. The requisite temperature reached, I cut the steam,  and set the pitcher down. I had hit my target, or thereabouts. This was no dishwater foam; it was refined and dense.

I poured, and as the milk entered the cup, so too did doubt begin to fill my mind. Too light. Too airy. Too dry. I lifted the cup, and knew that I had made a perfect cappuccino -- but not a perfect wet cappuccino. I had missed my mark by millimeters, having perhaps stretched too eagerly and thus landed near -- but not on -- the bull's eye.

"I think it might be a touch dry," I confessed.

He fingered the foam, lightly at first, then scooped a portion to his mouth and licked. "How deep is the foam?" he asked.

"It ought to be consistent," I said. "I don't use a spoon unless I'm making one totally dry. The whole thing should be about like that. But pick it up; I think it felt a little light."

He did, and took a sip as well.

"I have more milk left over," I said, preempting the request I expected would come.

"Would you..." he paused, and cocked his features, not quite finishing the question -- but setting the cup down.

I used a spoon then, holding back what foam there might have been, incorporating more milk in to the drink that I now estimated to be 15% dryer than intended. He took it, sipped, and professed satisfaction.

Whether he was, I was not. A wet cappuccino may be something of an ambiguous drink, residing at several possible points on an imaginary continuum, but my ego struggled to accept that I may not have fully vanquished the challenge laid before me.

I watched him drink as he walked away, still with the same posture and stride that had clued me in to his distinct tastes before, noting again the size of the collar.

January 13, 2011

The Taste of Tyranny

We like to think of ourselves as individuals, as free thinking, free living, self determining beings. And though we harbor that fantasy, and nurture it as well, we know better. We know that we are social creatures, but more specifically, pack animals. That is, we find comfort in the herd, the safety and anonymity it provides.

But if we are as sheep, then there are also those who function as shepherds -- those anointed as "tastemakers". They move the flock where they will, guiding it where they will, protecting their investment more than any individual.

These are the individuals featured in Details, telling men that khaki/ navy is the color combo you need to be wearing right now. Those in Men's Health, advocating the rampant consumption of whole grains and lean protein, sprint intervals and deadlifts.

They tell us what to wear, what to do, what to watch. But more importantly, they tell us what to think, about ourselves and others. If we make some effort to achieve the standards they set, then we have taste, then we are somehow correct. Those who fail to do so are either pitiably ignorant, or worse, some combination of unwilling and unable. They are wrong, either by choice or by failure.

Coffee is not without this phenomenon. There are those who grind right before brewing, who sip and swirl, who discuss notes of cocoa and speak of bright, sparking acidity. Those -- a group I include myself in -- cast coffee as a beverage rather than a drink, a luxury rather than a mere caffeine vehicle. We look down our noses at the Folgers drinking masses, loading their insipid brew with hydrogenated soybean oil. We avert our eyes as they ladle sugar and cream in to their coffee, curl our lips at the mention of "skinny" or "vanilla". We are the ones with taste, they the stragglers to be left for the wolves.

And in that judgment, we are wrong. One cannot truly make taste for anyone but one's self, insofar as experience of stimuli, and thus the perception thereof, is entirely subjective. There is nothing right about black coffee, sourced from some obscure, third world farm; nor is their anything wrong with stale robusta beans, milked via a Mr. Coffee. There is only preference. And in that, one has some measure of freedom, some right to enjoy what they enjoy, and to do so on their own terms.

This is not some advocacy for rugged individualism, no poetic waxing for some mythological ethic. This is nothing more than a verbose confirmation of the obvious, which is too often forgotten: Drink what you like.

January 11, 2011

The Damndest Thing

I have never intended this blog to be a catalog of daily events. And yet, some things just need to be recorder, if not for posterity, then for the sheer absurdity of it all.

Today was a slow day, remarkable only for the time it allotted me to alphabetize and organize the altogether messed up fitness section at Borders. I was not successful -- not even a little bit, truthfully. The whole things seemed such an uphill battle that I could never muster the will to give it significant effort. And so I messed with it for a while -- half working, half browsing -- then went on my break.

I had rice and beans with pork at Esquina, perhaps my favorite thing to eat these days, especially when it's topped with habanero sauce. But I digress. Lunch and a coffee had, I was ready to work; and thankfully, there were more customers, so that I actually did get to work. There were drinks and jokes made -- some better than others, typically -- and one particularly good rossetta as well. But on the whole, this was a day not worth writing about. Good, but not noteworthy.

Then sauntered in a man who, shall we say, was not altogether present. His walk was a giveaway; but if one missed that, then his muddled drawl made the point clear enough. He asked if we had outlets, and I responded that we did, in the cafe seating area. It was an attempt to brush him off, and it failed. Future efforts would be no more effective.

He began mumbling about something, and reached in to his coat pocket. His hand lingered, and my mind entertained the idea that he might have a gun, and might be disengaged enough to use it. It occurred to me that I would rather die some other way, not huddled behind a counter, victim of misplaced drunken rage.

He removed his hand, revealing a deck of tarot cards. He said that he wanted to practice his gift; I responded that I had best get back to work. "Why do you wanna run away, ALEX?" he asked, looking not entirely at me, gesturing as if on stage. It attempted to ignore him, to brush him off, to go about my business. But his vaudevillian act continue, unabated. Thus I assumed that the best way to be rid of him might be to humor him, and so accepted the reading he had begun giving already.

There were several cards with kings, which he assumed to mean that I had an inflated opinion of myself. I, he asserted, liked to be in control, to think that I determined my life's trajectory. Or rather, that's mostly what I said. He mumbled about the pictures on the cards, saying very little that made much sense. But he warned me, nonetheless, that this attitude would lead to trouble.

He pointed to a card: "Look. You're trying to run away with all these swords... but it's not gonna work. See... see," he moved his finger to another card. "You're gonna set yourself on FIRE." His eyes widened, as if I were already ablaze. I tried my best to remain polite, smiled, and nodded. My sarcasm shone through, however. "You're not buying any of this." he said. Surprising. He was, perhaps, more astute that I had assumed. His hand moved to another card, this with a chariot pictured. "But beware... the two headed horse." Perhaps not.

There were customers then, and I went about helping them far too attentively. There was another person working, after all; and she could have assisted them easily on her own. I stood, making drinks, stocking things, generally staying busy, and far away from the man who was not leaving. Far from it, he was approaching the center of the counter.

He told me that it didn't matter what I though, of myself, or of my life. What mattered was love, our relationships with people. I responded that I did not disagree, but that the two things were not mutually exclusive. One needs to have a grasp of who they are, a grip on their own life, before interactions with others can be expected to go well.

It seemed I had struck a nerve. A series of accusations followed. I was a liar, self-interested, and doomed to fall from the ivory tower on which I perched. I was other things too, which I will not repeat. It is at this point that the whole experience crossed whatever line it had been flirting with, no longer amusing in a perverse sort of way, it was now uncomfortable, and more than a little insulting.

The reprieve came, and none too soon. My boss walked behind the counter, examining some papers so as to suggest my involvement. The man smiled, walked away in something of a hurry, and assured me that he would be back. My boss, for what it's worth, did not think he would remember anything about this night, much less where he had been and to whom he had spoken.

Thus concluded, perhaps, the most odd -- certainly, the most disconcerting -- encounter of my career tending coffee bars. But it's also a good story, which is why I tell it here.

January 10, 2011

Meaningless Moderation

I've written quite a bit about the health benefits of regular coffee consumption. And in that advocacy, I'm hardly a fringe blogger. Even the powers that be in nutrition science say that "moderate" coffee consumption is at worst benign, and probably good for you.

But there is that word, moderate. What is moderate intake, exactly? It's a vague term, amorphous at best, and possible void of meaning outside of personal context. That is, moderate for me is not moderate for you, or him, or her, etc.

Thus I think encouraging "moderate" coffee consumption is rather useless, insofar is it's not an actionable recommendation. So what then ought we look for? There are numbers too, milligrams trotted out as optimal. Most in the field of nutrition encourage somewhere in the neighborhood of 300, up to possibly 500 milligrams of caffeine a day.

To translate: That's about the caffeine content of two small (12 ounces) cups of coffee, or one large. And that, frankly, will strike many people as spartan, rather than moderate.

For me, however, that dose seems about right. Sure, I'm quite capable of ingesting amounts vastly exceeding that; but there is a law of diminishing returns. That is, there is a point where the benefits of drinking coffee decline, dissipate, and then, in some cases, become negatives.

Thus I think the issue should be parsed a bit differently. There is no need to encourage "moderate" coffee drinking, for the reasons already discussed. What I'm much more interested in is optimal coffee drinking. And that, I think, means limiting the volume a bit.

Doing so allows for the health benefits of coffee to be realized, while keeping the potential negatives of higher caffeine doses out of the picture. But that's not really what I'm concerned with. I like coffee. And I like liking coffee. In the same way that a wine lover might enjoy a glass after dinner, a coffee lover can better savor a cup of coffee in the morning when it's just that, a cup, and not merely a vehicle for caffeine, to be dosed throughout the day.

In short: More is not better. Better is better.

January 6, 2011

Pick a Number

Seattle's Best, you may have heard, has a new "levels system" of coffee. The old blends are gone, and in their place are blends given a number, 1-5. It is simple, perhaps too simple for some. But for others, it is no doubt a welcome respite from the sometimes esoteric world of coffee. One need only assign themselves a digit, corresponding with roast preference, and that is that. Your coffee destiny is sealed.

For most customers, that will be good enough. They will assume they like the darker roasts, because most people do. But there is nuance and subtlety to coffee -- even these coffees -- beyond that. And so I feared that we would simply have the same flavor profile, roasted five different ways, and thus only the appearance of variety. This would have been, if not an outright tragedy, something close.

But this is not the case. Despite the simplification of the naming system, the blends have been given more variety, certainly, and possibly more flavor too.

One is bright and crisp, acidic and sparkling. It's seltzer coffee, if such a thing could exist, or perhaps a marriage of those breakfast staples, coffee and orange juice.

Two is not so biting, does not fizz on the tongue. But it is citrusy as well, sweet and light, refreshing like good lemonade. It is, if I'm being honest, my favorite of the bunch.

Three is the middle, and tastes like it. There is nothing much I can discern as far as flavors go; it strikes such balance in every way as to be noteworthy in none.

Four is spicy, and sweet too, just a little dark, and just a little rich. Though it's dark, there is not a hint of bitterness, the flavor notes being struck too soundly for that. It is an interesting coffee, with things to pick through on the tongue. Very good, and in my mind, the coffee I would recommend to most drinkers.

Five is a French roast, and has all the character one would expect given that. It makes no effort at moderation, striking instead for the fringe of darkness, roasted to the point of oily black. It is bitter, and it is stark in its lack of much else. It is thus precisely what it wants to be, and what fans of such a blend desire.

Though I could be more excited about the new blends, were they named something, anything really, I have to say that I'm generally pleased. One can have quibbles with the marketing, but not, I think, with the taste. In that regard, these coffees are an improvement over the old.

January 5, 2011


It was 7 PM, or thereabouts, and I had just begun my moderately productive pacing about the cafe. There were things to do. But my brain was addled, full of everything but what needed to be there, as is so often the case. And so I checked the grind setting on the espresso machine, the quality of the milk I had steamed, and forgot to dispose of the excess. It was sweet and rich, velvety and with just a hint of tang. It was as it ought to have been. Not surprising, but reassuring nonetheless.

But the thing about cafe work is this: There are customers. And there was one then. She had been something approximating a regular before, had ordered some kind of latte several times a week. She smiled, and informed me that she had given up coffee for new years. It was her resolution. She, in her words, wanted to detox.

She kept talking, speculating out loud about what she might order instead. "I wouldn't do that," I said. A flat, emphatic statement, as if she had declared considering a self-lobotomy. But context matters, and I was talking several sentences behind her.

"What? Why not?" Was there something particularly offensive about the green tea latte she had settled on instead?

I assured her that it was fine -- tasty, even -- a spiritual, citrusy cousin to the always delicious chai. But enough about that. I went about completing the transaction, taking her money, giving some back, graciously accepting the 97 cents that fell in my tip jar.

Why? I didn't know -- couldn't, even. Weight loss? Sure. I understand -- perhaps too well -- neurosis about one's physique. And the first wealth is health, said some philosopher, I think. I suppose I appeared every bit the cliche then, espousing the impossibility of her effort, while lauding it as charmingly ascetic.

"I couldn't do it," I said, not caring a whit whether I appeared the consummate addict, or perhaps just a jilted dealer. This is where she was supposed to deliver a pithy statement, as wise as succinct, opening my eyes to the tragedy of my ways. To need something, to be unable to contemplate going without, is a weakness, she might have argued.

"It will be hard," was all she said, before declaring that, after one day of mild lethargy, she felt clear headed and energetic -- as opposed, one might guess, to running on low octane stimulant fuel.

"Good luck," I said, trying to sound something other than patronizing.

January 2, 2011

All in the Wrist

Art is subjective, they say. And like so many other bits of wisdom offered up so frequently, there is truth to it. What looks appealing to me, may look like nothing much to you. The same is true for just about any sensory stimuli.

And yet while art is subjective, and beauty in the eye of the beholder, there must be some common frame of reference. I say that, because there are things which people find beautiful -- or at the very least, worth noting -- across cultures, and across time. It is that shared sense of wonder and awe that one might feel when admiring a particular vista, treeline, or other natural phenomenon. It is, perhaps, more subjective when one moves to things created by human hands. But nonetheless, though there can be disagreement about merit and quality, so too can there be a shared admiration.

It is with that in mind that I discuss latte art. I've mentioned it before, but never in any great detail. This owes to two things, primarily: First, latte art is non-essential. That is, a latte without art can taste just as good as one with. But second, and perhaps more relevant, I was never all that good at it. Truth be told, until recently, I could never manage anything like a decent rossetta, or even a consistent heart. Now, both of those seem squarely in my grasp.

How? Practice. I wish that I could say I had some revelation, some divine bit of technique which has lent me the wisdom needed to perform. But no. That wouldn't be true. I simply tried, and tried, and tried. You get the feel for things after a while, and that feel becomes better. Eventually, like milk steaming itself, you learn basic concepts to adhere to. But you also learn that there is no one way to do things. Every drink is different, every pour a new challenge.

And that is a good thing, and a satisfying thing. Though I should be clear, this is not because of any overwhelming response from customers. At most, I've heard a "Huh. Cool." So is latte art almost purely masturbatory then? Well, perhaps in a sense. It's true that latte art evolved as a means for talented baristi to show off. And it persists today as a similar exercise. But that demonstration of skill is also an indication. That is, the barista that can produce a pretty latte can also produce one that tastes right, and has the proper texture. I have made this argument before, and I say it again only to emphasize the point.

I would never argue that my rossetta is Art with a capital "A", never say that's it's much more than an impressive demonstration of barista skill. But even still, I would never say that an impressive display of skill and concentration at one's job is, in any way, frivolous. Quite the opposite. There is a beauty to the simplicity of it. Because it is simple. Easy? No. Quite difficulty, actually. But it's not complicated. And that, I think, ought to mean that latte art is something most people can enjoy looking at -- or at the very least, drinking.