April 29, 2011

Play Nice

There is a part of me that wants to post daily rants about things customers say, to mock their ignorance, or in some cases, total lack of social grace. That part of me would discuss the lady who asked if "you have any lattes here", or the endless stream of individuals who don't know that, in fact, a cappuccino has foam. I might bring up the people who want their drink faster, sweeter, wetter, any way but how they got it. 

I could do that, and possibly make a moderately entertaining read of it. People kvetching about the idiocy of the mundane is funny; hence the success of every sitcom to ever have any. 

But in doing so, I would turn myself in to another character from sitcom central casting, that elitist prick server, wallowing in what little authority I've got, lording it over the heads of those who just want their coffee, hold the attitude.

It's for that reason that I will not bitch - though I will note that I could - but instead, talk nice, write nice, and generally speaking, try and be nice.

This is not a novel concept, but they are roots worth returning to, whence we happen to stray. I was reminded of this, when reading the mission statement for Handsom Coffee Roasters. In sum, this is a trio of elite baristas, saying that they want their coffee to be accessible, and the people serving it to be nice. If these three, from whom many would forgive a great deal of pretension, strive for such noble simplicity, then by what justification would I do otherwise?

The answer: I wouldn't. This is not to say that I wasn't nice before, or that I won't tease in the future. This is merely a reminder that the service industry is about making people happy, first and foremost.

April 26, 2011

Penny Pinching

Benjamin Franklin said that a penny saved is a penny earned. I don't know for sure, not having spoken with him, but it seems the sort of thing he might have said, famous as he was for frugality. But in Franklin's day, a penny was worth saving. Now? Not so much.

Thus I offer the following: A penny tipped is a penny wasted.

It's not that I don't appreciate the gesture - if, of course, the gesture is a polite one. Maybe you're tipping me a penny because you don't appreciate the condescension with which I detail what exactly a dirty chai is. But let's assume, for just a moment, that you're trying to be nice.

Keep the change. No, seriously, keep it. I'm just going to toss the penny in the penny cup - the clearly labeled receptacle for pennies. Again, I appreciate the appreciation, really. I'm not one to turn down generosity. But if you've only got a penny, throw it in the cup. It exists for that singular purpose, after all.

And do what, then? Just say thanks. Just be nice. I like tips, obviously. I'm glad to get them, especially when I feel they're earned. But kindness is rewarding in its own way - seriously.

I'm struggling to think of a way to end this without sounding like a prick, because really, I think my message is clearly the opposite of that. I'm trying to say that it's not about the money, that we should all play nice, hold hands, and sing kumbaya all day.

But mostly, if you're going to tip, tip. Seriously. I need to support my racing habit.

April 25, 2011

Just Tamp

This is a play, somewhat inspired by Tom Stoppard's Travesties. Though one of the principles shares my name, this is fiction, so I made a lot of stuff up.

There is a bar, the sort you might see in any coffee shop. The counter is decorated with plastic wrapped baked goods, some of which are, of course, vegan. There are four coffee pots, one flavored, two single origin, and the requisite decaf. They are specked with something that might be coffee stains, the name tags bent and withered. Beside them, somewhat incongruously, is a laptop computer, barely open. Behind the counter, there is an espresso grinder, and of course the machine too. It is a La Marzoco, has two group heads, two steam wands, and looks to be the the neatest item behind the bar. It certainly has the appearance of being more well kept than the man tending it, who looks slightly out of sorts, with hair that must have been left as it was upon waking. His jeans don’t fit especially well, and neither does his shirt; both are severely dusted with espresso. He is detached, aimlessly wiping the counter, but looks up, as if the audience has approached.

Barista: Hey. We don’t wear name tags here, which is cool, or aprons either, which I like even better. But to the first point, my name is Alex Beecher.

(A pause, as if the audience might respond.)

Right. Anyway, aside from the lack of name tags and aprons, there are other perks to this gig. There is coffee, first of all, which I like altogether too much. If you get a chance, you really should try the Indian Malabar. It’s the only fermented coffee I’ve ever tasted, and the result is interesting, if a bit astringent. There is also a certain craft to preparing espresso drinks that I enjoy. I’m probably the most enthusiastic milk-steamer you’ll find. But mostly I enjoy the customers. Coffee bars attract all kinds; but they also attract interesting, opinionated kinds. I mean - latte art.

(Alex stops, both for emphasis and to gather himself. He does clearly care about milk steaming.)

Okay, so, latte art. Yesterday, this girl shows up - which she does most every day - and she gets her drink. It’s a soy latte - soy! - so I only manage a halfway decent rosetta. The leaf looked a little shriveled, but it’s soy, so whatever. Now, I’ve talked to her before. Not outside of work, but plenty of the usual customer banter and small talk. Her name is Lauren, she’s an English major with a focus on creative writing who loves hand-rolled cigarettes, Lady Gaga, and PETA. Mostly, she’s so over it, whatever it happens to be at the time. But she’s cool. Anyway, I make her drink, and comment on the emaciated rosetta; she does too.

Alex looks up at the lights, expectantly. When nothing happens, he throws his hands up, mutters assorted profanity, then strides over to the light switch, turns it off, waits several moments, turns it back on. He quickly tries to look busy, as if he were caught in this moment. It is at this point that Lauren enters. She is of average height and build. You can especially tell about the latter, since her black jeans leave little to the imagination. Her shirt and hair are jet-black too, both of which offset her decidedly pale complexion. She has a large cotton shoulder-bag, with a number of left-leaning political stickers on it. Sticking out is the cover to Eating Animals, by Jonathan Safran Foer, and a pair of earbuds. Alex moves to the center of the counter, behind the register, and leans over. Lauren, however, meanders a bit.

Alex: Hey.

Lauren: (To the tune of Bad Romance by Lady Gaga) Ra ra ah ah ah, roma roma ma.

Alex: Excuse me?

Lauren: Gaga, ooh la la.

Alex: (Who clearly, at this point, has not seen the earbuds.) Do you want your usual?

Lauren: I want your ugly, I want your disease. I want your everything as long as it’s free.

Alex: (In on it now.) I’m afraid I only do that for a more substantial tip than anyone has yet offered.

Lauren: (Removes earbuds.) Huh?

Alex: Oh nothing. (Like he’s been thinking it for a while, and just can’t resist.) You know, I have to say, I find it a little odd that someone who frequently wears Fugazi t-shirts likes her.

Lauren: Why is that?

Alex: Well, aside from the obvious genre gap, there is -

Lauren: She’s totally punk.

Alex: I’m waiting for the sarcasm.

Lauren: Well then you’ll be waiting for a while, because I’m being serious.

Alex: But she’s the most popular thing in music right now; she practically is the Zeitgeist.

Lauren: (Like she’s got him.) Do you even know what that word means?

Alex: Could I define it? God no. But I can use it. And regardless, you’re evading the issue. Namely, you’re evading attempting to salvage your punk credibility.

Lauren: First of all, I’m not interested in whatever credibility you’re imagining. But here’s the deal: Punk isn’t about the same three guitar cords played over and over; it’s not about tattoos or spiked collars; it’s not about Danzig or Rollins or whoever; it’s an attitude. She’s punk because she rose to the top of the pop charts by not giving a fuck, and having the balls to say whatever, play whatever, wear whatever, do whatever. Basically, she became the biggest pop star on Earth by embracing and exploiting the nonsense inherent in the genre.

Alex: Right. Because no female pop star ever rose to fame and fortune by writing dance hits and turning herself in to a larger than life character. (Says it with a cough.) Madonna.

Lauren: (Notices that there is a laptop creaked open, off on the far side of the counter.) So what does the tastemaker have on his iTunes then?

Alex: Oh nothing, really. I don’t even have an MP3 player. Honestly, I’m not even sure what’s there. Just some stuff.

(Alex and Lauren both narrow their eyes, tense, then dart for the computer. Lauren gets there first. She flips it around, begins clicking and smiling.)

Lauren: You can get started on my drink, by the way. I’ll find something good.

(Alex pauses, but thinks better of lunging for his computer. He turns slowly, but before he can start, Lauren finds something.)

Lauren: Oh my god. How loud can this go?

Alex: What?

Lauren: Nothing. Soy latte. Go. Make it happen.

(Alex begins making the drink. When he gets to the espresso grinder, Lauren clicks emphatically. Lady Gaga’s Just Dance begins to play.)

Alex: (Eyes widening in realization and horror.) Wait. No.

Lauren: Can’t this thing get any louder? But no, no waiting.

(Alex turns on the grinder, the noise of which mostly blocks out the song.)

Lauren: (In time with the music.) Just tamp, gonna be ok, da da do-mmm, just tamp, pull that crema babe, da da do-mmm, just tamp, gonna be ok, t-t-t-tamp, tamp, tamp, j-j-just tamp.

Alex: (While still working on the drink.) Wow. Really?

Lauren: Impressive, right?

(Alex doesn’t respond; he is too bust pouring the soy milk. He tilts the cup with the espresso in it, pours a thin stream of soy, then rocks the pitcher back and forth before finally pulling a tight line through the middle. He examine his work, and doesn’t look satisfied.)

Alex: More impressive sounding than this is impressive looking. I can’t manage decent latte art with soy; I’m beginning to feel like Sisyphus, trying this every day.

Lauren: Eh. It’s whatever. It tastes the same regardless.

Alex: True on the last point; but it is not whatever. Good latte art requires thick, rich crema, which is only yielded from properly tamped espresso. And of course, it requires correctly textured milk. Finally - and most importantly - it requires a skilled, attentive barista.

Lauren: Ok. But my point remains; in fact, you granted it straight away. The drink tastes just as good regardless. So you don’t get to show off. Like I said, it’s whatever.

Alex: Sorry, I got a bit side-tracked, waxing romantic about coffee.

(Lauren nods with far too much gusto. Alex pushes on regardless, either not noticing or not caring.)

The point is this: Latte art requires all the elements that it takes to make an exceptional drink. It’s a signpost that says “Hey, this drink is awesome.”

Lauren: No, it says “Your barista is so impressed with his own skill at pouring milk in a cup that he insists everyone else pay attention.” It’s totally masturbatory; no one but the person doing it gets anything out of it.

Alex: That’s not true at all. I have customers comment on my latte art fairly often.

Lauren: Fine. But they aren’t commenting on it for the reasons you mentioned. They don’t know or care how you made it; but they know they get to be part of your super cool coffee intelligentsia if they recognize it, and pretend to be impressed.

Alex: So you find it totally unbelievable that someone might be legitimately impressed by a decent rosetta?

Lauren: Never half as impressed as you are for making it.

Alex: Well, at least we’ll never have to worry about that then, since yours is a soy latte, and thus un-latteartable.

Lauren: I won’t have to worry about that, and I won’t have to worry about any of the other things that come along with dairy either.

Alex: Like? We can’t milk dead cows. I thought you vegetarians were all about that sort of thing.

Lauren: Vegan. And we do have a problem with confining animals, pumping them full of hormones, forcing them to gorge on an unnatural diet, contributing to global climate change via factory farms-

Alex: (Interrupting.) You’re saving the world, one latte at a time.

Lauren: It’s much easier to be cynical than productive.

Alex: And it’s easier still to drink milk, like a normal, lactose tolerant person.

Lauren: Oh I was wrong then; you’re not just cynical, but lazy too.

Alex: Maybe. But this is hardly the best evidence to support that point. Putting self-deprecation aside for the moment, I’m mostly aware of the pro-vegan arguments; but I'm also aware that soy steams like shit.

(Lauren removes Eating Animals from her bag, and sets it on the counter.)

Lauren: You should be made aware of this one. Have you read any of his stuff?

Alex: I read Everything is Illluminated for a book club. I’ve actually read that too.

Lauren: So you, a non-vegan-

Alex: Non-vegetarian.

Lauren: Whatever. Why would you read a pro-vegan work if you aren’t interested in converting?

Alex: For the same reason that I read The Hobbit, but had no interest in becoming one; it struck me as a good read, so I read it. That’s what books are for.

Lauren: If you’re only after some base level of amusement, maybe. But books have changed the world, and certainly changed minds. Plus your comparison is way off; this is non-fiction.

Alex: Prose is prose; entertainment is entertainment. It’s not unlike your latte.

(Lauren looks down at her drink. The foam has settled now, firming up the wispy rosetta.)

Lauren: What?

Alex: You don’t care about the message of the latte, the focus and the craft and the care-

Lauren: Spare me.

Alex: You don’t care about the message of the latte; I don’t care about the message of the book. You only care if the latte tastes good; I only care if the book reads good - excuse me, reads well.

(Alex and Lauren both narrow their eyes again, as if this is the old West, and they’re waiting to draw. Lauren shoots first.)

Lauren: Be that as it may, right now my drink won’t taste good, because you haven’t given me a chance to touch it, so it’s getting cold. I think I’m entitled to another.

(Alex doesn’t budge, until Lauren flips a dollar bill in to his tip jar. That spurs him to action.)

Alex: Fine.

Lauren: (With a smile.) Da da do-mmm, just tamp.

(Lauren steps over to the computer again, clicks, and re-starts Just Dance, modifying the lyrics as before.)

Alex looks up at the lights, wistfully, then anxiously. When they do nothing, he throws up his hands, and mutters assorted profanity. He strides purposefully for the light switch, and flips it off.


April 17, 2011

Good Head

"Guinness," I said, feeling a bit trite. There were other Irish beers to be had, and I was ordering that most American of the bunch. At least, I was ordering that which most Americans are familiar with. I felt like I was grabbing a cup of Sumatra, turning away brews from some mystical corners of wherever. 

Regardless, I watched the bartender pour. I had heard that Guinness was to be treated a very specific way, and so I wanted to see precisely how much attention to detail that required. I wish I could elaborate on what the man behind the counter did, but my knowledge of beer is severely limited, and so I only really know that he poured slowly, in stages, and that there was some sort of metal thing that he used to skim the head.

But I noticed something familiar about the bartender's demeanor. It was busy, and yet he ignored everything but the pour. His eyes focused, his movements tightened, and his brow furrowed slightly. He poured like I might know better, like I wasn't some college kid, ordering a beer because they're cheaper than mixed drinks. He poured like I would care, which showed, in no uncertain terms, that he cared. 

And then he set the beer down in front of me, a tall mahogany glass of attempted masculinity on my part. I thanked him, and meant it, then laughed. There was a clover drawn on the head of the beer. That, I hadn't noticed. I thanked him again, commenting on the novelty. He brushed it off, saying that he had poured several thousand.

I tipped, and then considered doubling it. I had a good beer, but moreover, I had a demonstration of the kind of barista I'd like to think I am. I'd like to think that, even after thousands of lattes, I pull every shot and steam every pitcher of milk like every customer is Oliver Strand. I'd like to think that my attempts at latte art amuse customers as much as his shamrock did me, cluing them in to the fact that the guy behind the counter cares.

April 6, 2011


Coffee is good, I think you'll agree. Given that basic assumption, the preparation of it becomes remarkably simple. 

That's what I've tried to keep in mind, as I've learned myself, and as I've attempted to pass on some of that knowledge. Coffee doesn't need me to make it taste good; neither does espresso, milk, or whatever else I might serve. My goal is not to make it better, but to simply get out of the way, and let it be good. 

This is a difficult concept for me to grasp sometimes, and more often, a difficult concept for me to embrace. Part of what drew me to coffee bar work in the first place was the apparent difficulty of the task, the seemingly esoteric nature of the barista ritual. 

Part of me wants to think that, four years later, I've begun to master some form of ancient Chinese kung fu. But I know better. The more time I spend behind a coffee bar, the more I come to realize how sublimely simple the job can - and should - be. 

On it's face, this might be a disappointing revelation. If the craft of espresso is simple, then what exactly have I been doing these years? And what of those who have been doing it longer, and better? Have we all been wasting our time, toiling to master some skill, the important aspects of which can be learned in a half hour?

Simply, no. To a degree, experience is necessary to realize the simplicity. Without it, you're bound to be intimidated be the whirs, clicks, hisses, roars, and general chaos. It's a cacophony that only sounds like a symphony once you've played it enough. 

Newness also lends itself to misplaced ambition, a need to do more instead of do better. Newness looks for the optimal drop rate and angle to ensure perfect milk; newness looks for the right combination of tamping, tapping, and twisting to pull the perfect shot. 

Experience realizes that there is no perfect way to do those things, and that there needn't be. The ingredients are already as they should be, and perfect in that sense. The barista's job, then, is to do as little as needed to combine everything. Basically, the barista needs only to not screw things up. 

What that means differs by barista, and differs by drink, which is the biggest reason experience is vital. Only with that can you learn what milk should sound like, what a puck should feel like. 

So that's been my goal, both with myself and the people I'm instructing. Complication is not a virtue; do as little as you can, as well as you can.