March 31, 2011

The Barista Diet, In Practice

You've tried everything. You've counted calories, cut carbs, flung fat - but you didn't get the results you wanted. The reason is simple: Most diets only focus on food, exercise, or the combination thereof. They focus on one part of your lifestyle, rather than the whole of it.

The Barista Diet is different. You don't just eat like a barista - you live like one. And after a few weeks of living like one, you'll start to look like one. Soon, you'll have concave cheeks, shaggy hair, and no legs to speak of. The Barista Diet isn't expensive - but you'll need to invest in some new belts.

But don't take my word for it. Or rather, do, because I don't have any doctors on board with this. Which is fine, really. Baristas are thin, doctors very often are not. Who are you going to believe? 

Even still, The Barista Diet is based on sound science. Hidden behind every other diet's foibles and shenanigans is one simple equation: calories in - calories out. If there is a deficit, you lose weight; if there is a surplus, you might gain a little. Your activity levels often determine where these additional calories are partitioned.

But while The Zone focuses on golden ratios, Paleo diets ban modern foods, and the Skinny Bitches deny animal products, The Barista Diet is easy to follow - and you still get to enjoy your favorite foods.

The reason is this: You'll be so active, and eat so little, that you really can't help but achieve a calorie deficit. Weight loss is inevitable.

The simplest way to follow The Barista Diet is to become a barista. But those jobs can be hard to get, and frankly, you might have a real job already. No worries though, The Barista Diet can be practiced from even the most humble of cubicles. No matter your job or situation, you need only follow these basic tenants.

1. You've heard that breakfast is the most important meal of the day, but don't let that fool you in to giving it any attention. On The Barista Diet, you'll be waking up early, and jetting out the door almost right thereafter. Maybe you'll shower, but it's not encouraged. Once at work, you start attending to the things you would have started, had you showed up ten minutes ago. At a convenient interval, stop, and get coffee. This is also where you might grab half a bagel, scone, or some other assorted starch. Eat it as quickly as possible, and consume more coffee. 

2. Once your day starts, you don't get a break, and you don't sit. If you work in an office, give away your chair. Don't stand still either. Whatever space you've got, pace around in it, even when there's nothing to do. When there are activities, attend to them with a bustling, neurotic focus, like a nicotine deprived smoker trying to lite a cigarette. Keep drinking coffee throughout the day, and have a separate cup of ice water on hand. If you didn't finish your handful of breakfast scraps, you may nibble on what's left. Otherwise, this is a fasting period. 

3. Also during this period, you'll need to practice The Barista Diet's fitness routine. You move around a lot, and stand constantly, so your legs and core are already engaged. But those wispy arms need working too. If keeping a gallon of milk around isn't practical, find a moderately sized dumbbell, and bring it with you. Curl it randomly, and almost constantly, throughout the day. In between sets of curls, use that same dumbbell to do tricep extensions. Do as many sets of both as you can, as often as you can. 

4. When your shift is over, it's time to head home, or often enough, somewhere else. Dinner is whatever you want, with one caveat - it must be payed for in cash. If you get tips, so much the better. If not, portion out a reasonable amount, depending on how awesome you were at work. Keep in mind, however, that you need that extra cash to pay for gas, parking tickets, beer, and cigarettes. Cheap sandwich places are encouraged, as is sushi, and most pantry staples.

5. Stay up too late, doing whatever hobby you have. The more hipster credibility it lends, the better. Thus knitting, reading Kafka, or writing cords for your music project are all excellent ideas. You should also consider frequenting bars, supporting your nocturnal brethren.

6. Repeat the next day, as often as you can.

Remember, The Barista Diet isn't about changing the way you eat - it's about changing the way you live. Follow it right, and you'll be living thin in no time.

March 29, 2011

River Rotation Half Marathon

He had been there since the beginning of the race, sitting on my tail. Maybe he was pacing me; maybe he was holding on for dear life. We had started near the front together, letting the lead pack pull just out of striking distance. But that was fine. If either of us had aspired to give chase, we could have done so. We could have let our legs, bursting with adrenaline, glycogen, and ambition, carry us to an unsustainable pace.

As it was, we had passed two members of that pack, but not seen anything but fleeting glimpses of the others. They appeared briefly, as dancing legs and bobbing heads amongst trees, far enough away that we couldn't tether ourselves to them.

And so we ran, with nothing but the others' pace to judge our progress. There were turns in the trail, logs and trees to be hurdled and ducked under. But they didn't track our movement. The only gauge was whether we moved faster or slower than the other.

We exited the woods and arrived at the drink station marking mile 10, a table with Gatorade and bananas under a tarp. He stopped; I didn't. There were 3.5 miles to go - only a little more than a 5K. I could run that without eating or drinking anything; I exclusively ran those without eating or drinking anything, in fact. He would raise his blood sugar, rehydrate, and run faster. But for the 30 seconds he stopped, I would press on, punish myself to victory.

Or rather, I would punish myself to 5th place. I had resigned myself some time ago to the fact that I wasn't finishing in the top 3 - the only places to earn awards. 4th was also out of reach. I had seen that group, eyes forward, glazed slightly, and traded thumbs ups with them. They were heading back, finishing the final loop of the trail, and they were at least 2 minutes ahead of me.

But there was still a victory to be had, still one competitor to defeat. He would chase me, but he would not catch me, could not pass me. They call these small battles, but they are still worth winning. Adrenaline responds to the chase, that primal desire to catch your prey - or to avoid becoming it.

I ran, entering the woods again, alone with my breath and my thoughts for the first time. It occurred to me that there was a sharp pain in my right foot, like a nail was being driven in to it with every impact, and that most parts of my lower extremities were giving out. The mind was willing - demanding, even - but the legs were beginning to ignore orders. Still, I ran, keeping close to my pace out of habit.

"An object in motion tends to remain in motion," I told myself, seeking solace in physics, confidence in the natural order of things. I clung to those cold certainties, forgetting the hot sweat, the cold air, the searing pain. Most of all I did not look back.

But the trail took a violent curve, almost a U-turn. He was there, not more than 10 yards behind me. I hadn't heard him catch me, not one breath or footfall. But there he was, like he had been all morning, on my tail.

My mind dug to its ancestral roots, finding some feral cortex, and with it, a reservoir of strength, speed, and adrenaline. It found a need to run, a need to be faster than the thing chasing it.

I surged. There was no longer anything effortless about my gait. The strike of my foot did not automatically lead to a kick of my leg, which did not then lead to a forward swing. Every movement took concerted effort, every step and every breath an intense focus.

I began glancing back, rarely at first, then more often. My lead had doubled, but no more. His pace hadn't budged, and neither had his effort. He ran while I flailed.

But this was not the time for conserving energy. I had gambled, and so there was nothing to do but run with the consequences - and away from him.

Only I couldn't. My advantage shrunk, some invisible line pulling him towards me. I felt him coming, then, for the fist time, heard him. There was a breath that was not mine, measured and steady. There was the rustle of his shorts, a swishy metronome ticking off each stride.

"Good run," he said, while shooting by me on the left.

I didn't respond then, mostly because I didn't have the breath to spare. I tried to surge again, to draft behind him like he had done to me. I tried that for all of 20 yards, before the futility of it became clear.

As I watched him pull away, I was surprised to find nothing like malice or bitterness. Instead, there was acceptance, a comfortable peace at knowing I had wrung every bit of effort from my sinew. There was also gratitude. It had been a good run, I knew, and so much better for having shared the chase.

March 26, 2011

The Profundity of Practice

You miss every shot you don't take.

With that in mind, I poured, and poured, and poured. I tamped each dose of espresso, trying to find the optimal level of pressure. Sometimes I succeeded. Sometimes I did not. There is a level of variance, of intricacy that I can't put in to words. But it's the sort of thing I can't imagine ever being rote. It takes presence, a concentration on the moment.

Steaming milk is the same way. I've done it for years now, and yet every pitcher acts differently. The wand needs to be deeper this time, wider the next. It varies. You don't ever develop a set pattern, so much as you develop a feel. You learn to trust that feel, the pressure you feel on the side of the pitcher, the hiss and the whoosh emanated from the milk, to tell you what you need to know. Rules are fine. So are videos, thermometers, and any other apparatus. But they aren't the same as doing.

You miss every shot you don't take. And for every one that you do, your feel develops, so does your touch and your confidence. Thus, the likelihood that your next shot goes in increases.

That is the beauty of doing. You might be good - maybe even the best - but you learn with every action. You are better now than you've ever been, yet not as good as you're going to be. It's a nice spot to be. You feel accomplished, but not satisfied. You are driven to get better, confident that you'll achieve that next mark, because you got the last one.

All of this is to say, I think I made some great drinks today. Customers told me so, at least. Several commented on some smart looking rosettas, with exclamations of "Wow", "Look and that", and "That's beautiful". There is more to a good drink than a pretty pour, of course, but it's a solid indicator of quality nonetheless. And I think my art was not misleading. The crema was a deep, golden brown, a perfect canvas for the stark contrast provided by the milk.

Sometimes. Not every drink was as good; though I certainly didn't serve anything that I wouldn't have been happy to receive myself, were the roles reversed. Still, there is fine, and there is better. Better is the goal, sometimes achieved, but always targeted.

And so, though I'm pleased with those 10% of drinks that were perfect (or thereabouts), I'm much more focused on turning that 10% in to 25, then 50, then god only knows.

You miss every shot you don't take. So you practice, knowing that fruit is born from the labor itself, not just the results.

March 25, 2011

The Barista Diet

With all humility, I think I can say that I'm in pretty good shape. I finished a trail half marathon in 1:39:08 last weekend, and have several 5k age group awards. Once upon a time, I could have lifted some moderately heavy things, but that's only now relatively true. (I'm about 145 lbs.) 

If this sounds like bragging, it isn't. The blogosphere is filled with more impressive models of fitness than I, both in terms of aesthetics and performance. There are those with 1:15 half marathon times, and others with 3% body fat at 200+ lbs. 

It is merely a statement of fact, meant to make clear that, as far as regular folks go, I'm somewhat fit. This context is necessary, because I want it to mean something when I say that barista-ing is work. As in, it's genuinely taxing physical labor.

Or at least it can be, provided the bar is busy. Standing, moving, shuffling around behind a counter and out in front of it for 8 hours is enough to wear on even the most calloused feet.

Then there is the tamp. It varies, from bar to bar, but most advocate for at least 30 lbs of pressure, per tamp; some go upwards of 50. That, in and of itself, is not much. But neither is standing up. Either one, extrapolated out and with enough volume or frequency, can certainly be, however. 

All of this is to say, I think I've solved the mystery of why baristas tend to be so thin. The job doesn't pay spectacularly well, first of all, so meals are typically infrequent, and equally insubstantial. And lunch breaks? That's a nice thought, but nothing more. Combine those factors with an 8 hour plyometrics session (hopping around behind the bar) and a zillion shoulder presses (the tamp), and you've got a best selling diet plan just waiting to be written.

March 21, 2011

A Thousand Words to Say

The more you read, the more you think you ought to. The more you know, the more you find yourself ignorant. These are called paradoxes, but they are actually fairly intuitive truths. I'd like to add one, if I may. The more you have to say, the more difficult it is to say anything at all.

This is the position I've found myself in, of late. I've got a new job now, which needs to be written about. But how? There is so much to say, and though I've hardly got an editor putting a word limit on me, I do aspire to something like brevity. (I rarely succeed, however.)

I should write about the place, the people, the equipment, the beans, the atmosphere, everything. There is simply so much to cover that I have a hard time deciding where to start. Thus the dilemma, which has left me altogether silent. Still, there is nothing to be done, other than to do it. One can wax and wane, ponder how or if, ad infinitum. At some point, action must be taken. So instead of wondering how to write, or what to write, I will simply write.

I work at Milton's now, which is both a downtown restaurant and campus coffee shop. At both locations, I am a barista. (At the latter, one couldn't be anything else.) I work with Broadway coffee, a small Kansas City based roaster. Both locations use the La Marzocco espresso machine you see everywhere. 

That is the most basic info required to understand where I'm at now, and what I'm doing. It also provides an essential bit of background, before I launch in to other things. And I will do that shortly, because there is still so much to be said. Suffice it to say for now, however, that I am excited.

March 15, 2011

A Better Barista

I am an English major, as noted in my info to the right. As such, I should probably do a better job spell checking, by which I mean that I should probably start spell checking. If I want this blog to appear credible, it is advantageous to appear as if I have a basic grasp of when to use "the" vs. when to use "they". The opening line in my last post (which I'm leaving as is, for the sake of pointing it out) makes it unclear if I have this ability. (Though in truth, it's just a typo.)

This question of credibility is one I've pondered before, and not come up with anything resembling a good answer. There are barista blogs out there, written by former world champions, and people with legitimate aspirations to that title. There are other coffee blogs too, written by relative giants in the field. 

That said, I think I'm a pretty good barista. But it has to be said that my opinion might be colored by my perspective - or more accurately, my lack of it. I've not been to many coffee shops outside of Lawrence; certainly, I've not been to any that produce hardware-winning baristas.

I think, also, that I'm a pretty good writer. But there's an inherent subjectivity to the distinction "pretty good", that makes it pretty much meaningless. That is, I feel like I can write passably well, until I start reading something written by a real journalist. The writing isn't just good, it's alive, compelling, flirting with the sublime. Each sentence is a piece of candy, the book a near bottomless bag. You take one bite, and you can't help but want for the next. Suddenly, my wit feels shallow, my craftsmanship poor. I'm cobbling together particle board; they're laying brick and mortar.

I wonder if my barista skills would seem as pallid, when compared to someone who is good, not just in a corporate satellite, but in whatever context you might put them in. Set them against the best, and they fit in, because that's precisely what they are. 

Truthfully, I don't wonder. I don't have to. I am not that good a barista; I am certainly not as accomplished. But if this sounds defeatist, I would argue that it's not. No one is as good as they can be, and no one began as good as they got. This is all to say that passion for becoming good at a thing is almost as important as being good at it. Certainly, it's necessary if one is ever to fulfill their potential.

I'm writing this now, because I'm about to escape from the purgatory I've languished in. (A barista without a coffee bar is not a happy camper.) I won't write anything specific of yet, for a number of reasons. But suffice it say, I will end up at a coffee bar where my skills will be elevated, because they will need to be. This is an exciting time for me. Being good is good; being better is better.

March 14, 2011

Starbucks and the Zeitgeist

They New York Times began its profile of Howard Schultz - or more accurately, Starbucks, as the behemoth turns 40 - with a dictum: Raise your hand if you remember when Starbucks was cool.

I glazed over the rest of the piece, not because that line turned me off (it didn't), but because it's not a new story. Starbucks rose meteorically, embodied the 90's as purely as boy bands and Bill Clinton, then fell hard. It's back now, financially.

But the piece throws down that initial gauntlet; Starbucks, it says, is no longer the tastemaker; Starbucks is no longer cool.

Perhaps, mid-westerner that I am, I'm not qualified to comment. Trends arrive here after they've long fizzled on the coasts, and New York is, after all, New York. Tastes are made there, then exported to the rest of the world, in fashion, food, and everything else.

It is true, at least, that Starbucks' financial rise from the ashes does not signal a similar reclamation of its cultural standing. Starbucks will never be coffee the way it was, the way Kleenex is tissue. Neither does it have that elitist appeal. There are local coffee shops everywhere now, selling single origin seasonally available beans, with pour over bars and latte art "throwdowns".

If that lost fringe signifies Starbucks is not cool, I imagine Schultz and Co. are fine with that. Tastemakers are elite, but they are also few. And Starbucks attracts the masses - if not in 90's numbers.

Though Lawrence is a sample size of one, I think it's nonetheless instructive. There is no shortage of would be elites, of people whose tastes strive to appear refined. I should know, as, in all honesty, I'm probably one myself. These people will tell you that any downtown cafe outclasses Starbucks, that there are local roasters and purveyors of Broadway, PT's, that no one who really has a taste for coffee need venture in to the land of the green apron and frappuccino.

They aren't wrong. But here's the thing: Every semester, the University Daily Kansan polls students on favorite eateries, shops, and yes, cafes. Starbucks wins. Every. Year. Is it a popularity contest? Yes. Is it won, largely because of the uncultured palates of Johnson County fraternity/sorority freshmen? Ye... Perhaps.

Does it matter? Frankly, I have no idea.

March 12, 2011

Three Dollar Threshold

While most of the nation frets and kvetches over rising gas prices, there are those of us who worry more about our fuel of choice - coffee. Arabica beans are, as of right now, more expensive than at any time in 34 years. Estimates are that consumers might end up paying 10-12% more for their daily fix, often times bumping even a small coffee over the two-dollar threshold.

Some places have responded already (I've seen a few in Lawrence), and they are hearing the complaints. "For that size?" people say, incredulous. The barista shrugs, manages a sheepish grin, and says "Yeah."

The customer does not know that Arabica beans are now more than three dollars a pound; if they did, they probably do not care.

But - and pardon the moralizing here - they should care. And if they care about their local cafe, they should continue to support it. There are all sorts of cliche lines about voting with your dollar, but it's a simple truth: Local coffee shops function perpetually close to the red. In order to survive, such places need to charge a little more. Thus, if you want such places to survive, you have to pay a little more.

This is economics on a level even I can understand. It's great to talk about supporting local, buying grass-fed beef and farm-fresh eggs, etc. Quality counts, and quality costs. So if you value local, if you value quality, you pay for it. Because, as painful as it is to shill out that extra dime for a coffee, it's much worse to lose your favorite cafe.

March 11, 2011

On Coffee and Habit

Ask any person why they drink the coffee they do, and aside from the usual "I like it", the answer is probably going to have something to do with habit. This is an assumption on my part, but I think it stands up.

The very act of drinking coffee is ritualistic, or at the very least, habitual. So the specifics are, it follows, likely to be influenced by that habit as well. There is a favorite mug, and that coffee which seems to pair best with it. It's the morning ritual, as stimulating in its comforting sameness as the couple hundred milligrams of caffeine.

Perhaps that's why I'm still drinking Seattle's Best Coffee. I no longer work for the brand, of course, so whatever loyalty I felt in that regard should have dissipated. Neither can I make the case that I need to be familiar with it, in order to better describe and sell it.

And yet, for the past few weeks, it's SBC's Number 1 that I've been drinking. Ask me why, and aside for the usual "I like it", the answer is probably going to have something to do with habit. That is, I've been drinking SBC for a while now, and thus developed a taste for it. And there is the matter of taste, which shouldn't be totally overlooked. The Number 1 is as light a roast as you're likely to find, biting and acidic, a perfect morning kick-start, in my estimation. I called it a marriage of orange juice and coffee when I first tried it, and that sweet tanginess persists.

But it's not just about taste, because it can't just be about taste. As much as I do think SBC is quite good, that has to be parsed in relative terms. That is, it's quite good, considering it was roasted in another city, quite some time ago, then shipped here, to sit on a shelf until purchased. There are local roasters from whom I could buy beans, purveyors of single origin artisan coffee roasted yesterday.

And yet I'm not buying those beans, though, by any objective criteria you wanted to apply, they are probably "better". Certainly, they would lend me more credibility. There is something intuitively off about a coffee blogger - and thus, one might not incorrectly assume, something of a coffee snob - choosing corporate coffee over local stuff, mass roasted blends over carefully crafted single origin beans.

And yet that's what I'm doing. Is habit the answer? To an extent, I'm sure it must be. Working with SBC, I've been surrounded by it, drinking and preparing it for a while now. So there is a familiarity to it. However biting the acidity of Number 1, it is a friendly bite, like that from a pet. You know it; you trust it.

That familiarity is valuable, given the context in which coffee is consumed. It is a ritual, as much a part of my mornings as the sun rising and fighting the urge to skip showering. Consistency, not changing the variables too much, or even at all, ensures that ritual's continued success.

March 10, 2011

I Drink, Therefore I Am

If yesterday's post seemed a bit odd, well, perhaps it was. But fiction was my first literary love, and I think there is exploring to be done of the intersection where it meets coffee. That is, since coffee is so omnipresent in our society, consumed by most every person most every day, those contexts are ripe for exploitation in fictional scenarios.

But that's enough about that, for now. I'm interested today in the matter of identity. Specifically, I'm interested in the matter of self-identity, how one sees and defines one's self.

If it's true that the majority of Americans do drink coffee, and that some plurality profess enjoyment of it, then it probably follows that we might call that same number "coffee drinkers". Technically, it's correct. They are consumers of coffee, so the label fits.

But whether we might call them that - while important, generally - is not terribly relevant to this specific conversation. They drink coffee, and so we might call them coffee drinkers - but would they self-identify as such? That is, if we asked them to list defining characteristics, would coffee consumption make the top ten? Top five? Would it ever be mentioned?

The answer, of course, is that it depends. It depends on the person, and not simply whether they drink coffee, but how much a part of their day it is. This can have to do with chronology, but I think self-imposed significance is more important here. If a daily jaunt by Starbucks is the highlight of your day, then it probably doesn't matter that you don't park there for three hours.

That's the tricky thing about self-identification. Since it's that one person doing it, it's entirely subjective, based on nothing more than some self-image and fickle influences thereon.

Were I to take the Orwellian track, I might use this as evidence against the very idea of self-identification. That is, since it's only one person's opinion - and not a very credible opinion, frankly - it is basically irrelevant. What matters is how people perceive you. Granted, an individual has some room to influence this perception, but it is hardly a choice.

Now, let's take a step back, and exhale. That's a bit all over the place, and truthfully, you could run yourself in circles ad infinitum.

The answer might be as simple as this: It's self-identity; you get to choose. Having evidence to support that choice helps, of course, but it's not a prerequisite for making the choice.

But that seems an unsatisfactory answer, given all the verbal wrangling it took to get there. But I think, in this case at least, it makes sense. Coffee, omnipresent though it is, is viewed by most as a mundane necessity. Calling one's self a coffee drinker is, in some ways, akin to labeling one's self a food eater. It almost goes without saying; so indeed, why say it?

When you feel that you ought to, basically. And if you feel that it's important enough to mention, then you're probably right. I'm generally all for objective criteria, but not in this case.

March 9, 2011


He looks up from his mug, following the cascade of sugar up the hand pouring it. There is a girl there - the waitress - and she is smiling, chomping on a piece of gum.

He does not understand this, but says nothing, mostly because it's 3 A.M.

"I thought you needed it sweet, sugar," she says.

He is not sure if this is happening, or if he's imagining it. This is a scene from a movie - from a thousand movies - and the waitress a cardboard cutout straight from casting.

The sugar stops.

"Well?" she says. "Ain't you gon' drink it?"

He does not think that he will, and he does not want to. But he is polite, and she has prepared the coffee for him. The diner is empty, so is the road. No one else is around to drink it, and so he decides that he should.

He lifts the mug, slurps, and takes a moment. It tastes like sweet, hot water. It is how he imagines Oscar Wilde might have taken his coffee, indulgently sweet, maybe offensively so.

He sips again, slurps, then drinks. His neurons fire, and he is grateful for the caffeine, if not for the method of delivery.

His brain is functioning now, and so he begins to gather his thoughts. He is running, and has headed this way because it seemed a bad place to run, and thus a worse place to follow. He stopped here for coffee, because he needs to keep running, and maybe for bacon, too.

He decides that when the waitress come back he will order bacon - four slices, crispy - with buttered toast.

He does not see the waitress however, and wonders if she is out back, smoking. She is not waiting on other customers, because there are no other customers.

Minutes pass, and he finishes his coffee. There is a film on his tongue, and so he gulps down his water. The film remains, however.

More time passes, and he wants to leave now. His stomach is trembling, gurgling, and the bacon no longer sounds good. He tries to stand and look for the waitress, but the cramping sensation in his abdomen will not allow it.

He tries to steady his breathing, and notices that his vision is blurry. He wipes his eyes, but feels nothing. He notices that he does not feel the table when he touches it, does not feel the booth or the floor either.

Then he notices that he does not feel anything, and notices nothing more.

March 8, 2011

Fast Runners Drink Coffee Too

Dathan Ritzenhein has the dubious distinction of being one of the latest, best hopes for American marathoning. It's too bad, really, that his successes on the track are not enough, that he's judged by his future ability to - perhaps - wrest 26.2 mile dominance away from East Africa. But while that may be, on some level, unfortunate, Dathan's blog has just given us a lovely bit of encouragement, a sense of coffee comradely.

I can’t roll out a bed and hit the pavement running.  I remember when I could sleep until five minutes before I needed to leave the house, now it takes me over an hour to be able to get out the door for a run.  I cannot run without coffee in the morning and breakfast.  The same goes for my afternoon run, if I don’t get a cup of coffee I am useless.  I guess I have gotten soft, but sitting there in the morning with a cup of coffee is a simple pleasure I can’t go with out.

March 6, 2011

Lessons on Life From a Plastic Cone

I try, when possible, to relate things to other things. Life is not so much about isolated incidents as collected experiences, so this makes sense to me. I often see things and think of them in terms of coffee, or in a similar context. 

My oatmeal today, for instance, was better than it's been in ages, for no other reason than I did it right. Which is not to say that there is one specific right way, of course, but there is a certain attentiveness that helps. Simply, doing it right means doing it as best you can; it means paying attention; it means trying; mostly, it means caring. 

Were it not for my Melitta revelation - or perhaps it would be more accurate to call it my Melitta rediscovery - this oatmeal would likely have been the usual slop. It would have been palatable, maybe even something I would call good, but not satisfying. It would not have been as good as it was, if I had used quicker oats, a microwave, skipped the salt or hurried the cooking. 

Instead, I used thick, rolled oats, dosed the salt ambitiously, and set to a rolling boil, before dropping to low and letting it sit until congealed. The result was fantastic, even before I added the peanut butter, sweet in that grainy sort of way, hearty and dense too.

Valuing your time does not mean filling it with as much activity as will fit; it means using it well. If you have an hour in the morning, why not take that extra few minutes to enjoy your coffee, to prepare it right? It's all to easy to be seduced by ease, by lack of effort, to fall in to that lazy trap. If you have less time - what might even seem like not enough - then perhaps sacrifices in quality need to be made. But do schedule accordingly. 

That is the lesson to be learned from an unassuming little plastic cone: Effort and attentiveness are rewarded, and needn't be complicated.

March 5, 2011

Ethiopian Coffee; No, Not That Kind

My writing career - if a blog, on its own, constitutes as much - began several years ago, as a sports writer for the University Daily Kansan. I wrote about basketball mostly, because basketball is mostly what people want to read about at KU. Unless it was football season, of course, in which case that dominated my column space.

I don't write about sports much anymore, which is not to say that I've lost interest in the matter - though my interest has certainly waned. It has more to do with the fact that other interests have taken over. In the realm of athletics, I'm more interested in my own pursuits; namely, finding a local 5K I can win. Failing that, I suppose collecting age group awards isn't the worst thing.

Coffee is mostly to blame, of course, since the vast majority of my writing has to do with that infamous brew. But finally, that false dichotomy can be struck down; it needn't be that I write about coffee at the exclusion of sports. 

Addis Ababa – Ethiopian Coffee maintained its second place ranking in the Ethiopian Premier League with a 2-1 victory over Dedebit FC here today, reported the Addis Ababa-based website,
The much anticipated match between the league’s runner-up and third-placed team did not disappoint football fans, who packed the stadium to its full capacity.
It was Dedebit, which opened the score thanks to its midfield general and former Ethiopian Coffee player Dawit Fekadu, who scored 32 minutes into the first half. And that’s how the two teams went to the dressing room for half-time.
Ethiopian Coffee leveled the score (56”) courtesy of an own goal by Adamu Mohammed of Dedebit. Twelve minutes later, Coffee went ahead after the referee awarded a controversial penalty kick. Sisay Demissie was the scorer.
I've found my new favorite team.

March 4, 2011

Morning Melitta

Simplicity. There is something to be said for it, when you're still mired in your morning malaise. Your alarm clock blaring, half awake, you roll about and tug on covers, but the offending noise does not stop. So you rouse yourself, and with some effort, do not return to bed. There are things to do, probably.

Among those, coffee needs brewing. It will not make itself; though we are getting ever closer to that. So you dose the grounds, fill the tank of your automatic brewer, and flip the switch. It gurgles, spits, and pops, and in about four minutes, produces something which might be called coffee.

This is the norm, I think. The appeal is not in the artistry of the process, nor the flavor of the product, but rather the simplicity. Early mornings make that already attractive idea downright seductive. I've not completely ignored its siren song.

Full disclosure: I own, and indeed use, an $11 Mr. Coffee automatic drip machine. I have pre-ground coffee that I use for it. If my credibility among the coffee elite is diminished or altogether lost - if indeed I had any to lose - then so be it. There are mornings where I am not awake, and the simple act of preparing coffee with a melitta seems not so simple.

And though I say it, I know it isn't true. Pour over brewing needn't be as complex as it's sometimes made out to be; it needn't be as complex, even, as I've made it out to be. One must set a given amount of water to boil, dose beans, grind, place the grounds in the filter, in the melitta, and on the mug. Then the pour.

There is anxiety over what constitutes optimal pour over technique. Perhaps it is better to pre-wet the filter, to pour with methodical, zen like concentration, to wet the grounds like a gentle spring rain. In my experience, however, all that leads to a cup which is indistinguishable from one where the grounds are evenly and completely wetted. Provided you don't douse thing whole thing, and give the bloom a chance to settle a touch, I don't know that the technique matters too much.

Simplicity is pushing a button, but it is also relying on simple methods, old methods, that produce a better cup. Caffeine is a priority in the morning, no doubt, but not so much as enjoying the coffee.

March 2, 2011

A Matte of Taste

Writing is, in and of itself, a difficult act. Language capturing experience, and then attempting to replicate it for the later consumption and enjoyment of others sounds futile, and perhaps is, yet is still attempted. There are some who succeed more than others; or perhaps I should say, some who succeed differently than others. There is no more one way to write than there is speak, and uniformity in either would be regrettable. 

Still, the degree of verbosity a given write utilizes is noteworthy, and frequently cited as a hallmark of their craft. Hemingway might, for instance, write a sentence that is plain and declarative, whereas Dickens would weave together several clauses, interspersed with every bit of punctuation you can imagine. Neither is correct; though for what it's worth, I'd read Hemingway ad infinitum before I'd read Dickens once.

This struck me this morning, as I purchased my coffee, and read the tag attached to the pot. The specific descriptions applied to the brew are not important, so much as the form used. Certain flavor notes are described, compared to other, familiar things. Sometimes, feelings and emotions are drawn upon as well, a feeling the coffee gives, more than a tangible taste sensation. 

The whole thing, to be plain, was rather wordy. This is not uncommon, certainly, in the specialty coffee industry. To distinguish their beans from the inferior, mass produced fair, artisan roasters opt to describe every nuance a trained palate might be able to detect. Whereas Folgers might be called "bold" or "smooth" (though not accurately, in either case), a Peru la Florida bean might be described as grainy, toasty, yet still with flavor; like good, yeasty bread.

There is first what I will call the matter of bullshit. Are these flavor descriptors accurate, and if so, are they accurate for one person, 10% of people, or perhaps 90%? What percentage needs to be able to find those flavors in order for them to be there? If I say I see a unicorn across the street, and only 1 out of the 157 people in the area agree with me, then most would say that there is no unicorn. Thus, if no one but the person crafting the brew - and thus writing the description - notes a nuttiness, or a hint of lemon, it is worth asking if that taste is there at all.

Second, there is the matter of suggestion. If I am an authority on unicorns, and possess notably astute eyes, then perhaps I might convince several others that what I see is in fact a unicorn, and not, say, a a horse with a plunger on its head. And so if a reputable roaster claims to produce a brew that tastes of chocolate, one might be inclined to think that they taste it. In fact they might, though only because they already perceive the taste as they sip. The mind is a powerful thing, and the perception of existence has a great deal to say about the experience thereof. 

Finally, there is the matter of the exclusive, expert palate. It might be that Peru la Florida coffee tastes grainy. But it might also be that it takes a connoisseur to detect it. Perhaps, say, the unicorn is there, but I am the only person trained to see it. Everyone else sees only a Toyota. Does majority rule, even if the majority is wrong? Does 2+2=5 if enough people say so? Perhaps - but perhaps it doesn't matter. Objective truths are oddly subjective, and certainly subject to public whim.

Given that, it would be infinitely hypocritical of me to offer a definitive opinion. Certainly, even if I have an opinion of the subject, it can only be just that, my subjective experience, as interpreted by my brain, via my palate. It may be relevant to others; it may not. And if it is, there's no saying how many, and what demographics. The rub, then, is this: It is as close to indisputably true as anything can get that coffee does not, as so often said, "taste like coffee". There are flavors unique to each bean, to each roast, and to each brewing method. There are variables on top of variables, extending from the tangible to the abstract. Find what you like, describe it how you like. A coffee may taste like lemonade, a blue sky, or a punch in the face. The consumption of it is experience, and thus must be described in terms of other experiences. This is of course limiting and imperfect - but it's also the best we can do.

March 1, 2011

To Taste

There are foods so simple that even I can prepare them, so easy that even I will prepare them. You might think, then, that these base stir fries and porridges would have something like agreed upon rules for preparation. That is, there ought to be recipes. And there are recipes; it's just that they can't seem to agree on even the most basic of concepts. Does my one cup of rolled oats need 2 cups of water or 1 3/4? Should I add the oats to the water, then boil? Or should I get the water going first? And what about salt?

Does it matter?

Well, no. At least it shouldn't. But there are personalities like mine, persons who need to feel they are doing it "right". The process is as important as the product.

That in mind, how ought one dose coffee for brewing? It's a simple question, and one that, by now, you might think we'd have answered. But if there is a consensus, it's cleverly hidden behind a veil of dissent.

1 tbs coffee per 6 fl oz water is the set point advocated by most grocery store coffee bags. This probably owes to the fact that -- putting it nicely -- their target demographic is not so concerned with the taste of coffee. Thus we have the artisans, who advocate for twice as much, 2 tbs per 6 fl oz. They want you to taste every nuance and detail of their beans.

Both, at least, agree upon 6 fl oz as the base unit of liquid measure. But that is far from a consensus. Since an American cup is 8 oz, for ease of measurement and... other reasons, perhaps, some advocate for using 1 or 2 tbs of coffee per 8 oz of water, instead of 6.

Again I have to ask, does it matter? And again I have to say, not really.

I don't mean that dose has no effect on flavor. It is one of the most important factors. But there is no right way to do it, even if we assume uniformity of grind, brewing technique, etc. And we really can't assume that. A french press is not a Melitta is not a Chemex. Even a $15 Mr. Coffee is not a $110 Mr. Coffee. Thus it's a fallacy to assume that this one variable is the only thing that ought to be toggled, when in fact there are no constants.

The truth, then, is this: Do what produces a cup you like. It's not a satisfactory answer for those who, like me, want the "right" way. But it is probably correct, in this context and others.