May 31, 2011

The Comfortable Fallacy

Narratives work. They makes sense, and more importantly, they make other things make sense. They are more than a telling of events; they are a way of framing those events. We want the story understood and felt a certain way, so we tell it a certain way, cast certain characters a certain way. 

Despite that -- or perhaps because of it -- they are simple. Characters are not just cast; they are miscast, colored black or white, void of nuance. 

I was reminded of this, following game 1 of the NBA finals last night. The Miami Heat are a villainous cast, LeBron James the most damnable of the lot. Dallas is composed of aging veterans, never haves and never wills, who still just might.  

These are the stories as they are written. But they are simple -- too simple -- attempts to create drama where the game itself is somehow not enough. 
I bring this up now, because they finals are now, and thus it makes a convenient time to address the issue of perceived villainy. In the coffee world, this can only refer to Starbucks. They are the Heat, in this context, the big money monolith that does things wrong, but sits at the top nonetheless. 

This is an easy story to tell. You can hate the sameness of the lobby, the omnipresent green apron and Pike's Place roast. You can hate the tall/grande/venti sizes, and wonder why exactly a caramel machiatto is named as it is. Most of all, you can hate just how many there are, the perception that they crush competition that is trying to win "the right way".

It's an easy story to tell, and perhaps even easier to accept. But it's wrong nonetheless. Success of one entity might defeat a smaller one, might seem Goliath with no viable David. In the micro, this seems unfair, and worse, disastrous for variety. The Heat will ruin basketball; Starbucks will make bitter the coffee world. 

But perspective, a glimpse at the macro, gives a different view. The Heat will not ruin basketball, and have certainly not done so already. Quite the opposite is in fact true. The NBA regular season hadn't seen the level of interest this season generated sense Michael Jordan's prime. The postseason is must see TV, conversation fodder for even non-sports fans.

Starbucks is the same. They are the gateway drug for the non-fan. Those high school students might switch from Rockstar energy drinks to Starbucks' frappuccinos, but would never touch black coffee from a third wave roaster. First of all, they wouldn't have access. Starbucks is everywhere, and because of this, they bring coffee everywhere. They proselytize and spread the message. Most will never become zealots, will be content to go to church on holidays and leave their bible untouched on the shelf. But there will be those who adopt the creed with vigor, who seek out the small local places.

When they do, it's our job to win them over, to show them that the elite coffee we claim is in fact that good. But I don't think as many would make the journey, or would even want to, if Starbucks hadn't bade them that adolescent welcome.

May 27, 2011

Big Beans, Big Taste

There is a certain weight of expectation that comes with a sample. You assume that you are being sent something good, and that you ought to identify it as such. Failure to do so might reflect poorly on your taste, moreso than on the product itself. 

To like something is brilliant, but to want to like something is anxious business.

Thankfully, there was no need for neurosis, in this case. The Elephant Bean, called such because the bean is quite large, did not disappoint. It's quite good, in all the ways it claims to be. You can read my full thoughts here

It's worth noting that I drank several cups over the course of several days, and used three different methods of preparation. Thus, I think my experience is sufficient.

May 21, 2011

The Kobolds

I have to admit, I never expected to get an email from a music PR guy. But given that it concerned a coffee themed song and video performed by a band whose name may or may not be an oblique Dungeons and Dragons reference, I'm happy that I did.

May 18, 2011

Once and Future

I'm 23 years old now, and I guess I feel it, although I have to confess ignorance as to what exactly that means. I am 23, and I feel as I do, so I suppose I feel 23. That's logical, but it seems to be missing something. When people talk about feeling their age, they talk about certain aches and pains, certain feelings triggered by hormones in flux, or perhaps a now fleeting memory. That is, they talk about their age implying certain experiences. And they say that they are having those experiences; thus, they are feeling their age. 

I'm 23, and part of that, I think, is anxiety about the future. I'm supposed to be fretting about the job market, about debts to be payed off, and debts yet to be created. There will be no social security for me, no government net to catch me if I fall on hard economic times. And let's face it, that's the trajectory many of us are on. There are no jobs. The jobs there are don't pay. We are a generation with no anticipation of financial success. We will either pursue it regardless, ducking our heads under a hail of paperwork, our cubicles as trenches, or we will accept our defeat with panache, opting instead for a life of masturbatory self fulfillment. 

I think that's what it is to feel 23, to eye the swirling maelstrom, wondering how we might navigate it. No one really expects to get through it; you just want to keep your head above water for as long as possible. But if that's what 23 is supposed to be, it's not what I'm experiencing. I'm generally pleased, which is not the same as apathetic. I care about a lot of things; but caring does not require endless neurosis. 

I've got my coffee gig, and right now, I'm happy with that. I get to work with ingredients I enjoy preparing, consuming, and learning about. And I get to share them with swarms of people a day, a captive audience for my conversational indulgences. I have goals as well: to make a better drink that I ever have before and the best drink a given customer has enjoyed, to improve my latte art from passable to exemplary, and to do a more consistent job of wiping off counters. 

But you can't do that forever, people say. And they're right, most likely. But no one does anything forever. Certainly, no one sticks with the first "real" job they get right out of college forever. Things change. Life happens. Maybe I'll be a barista until I'm dead. Maybe that will be in 80 years; maybe I'll get hit by a bus tomorrow. Maybe I'll own a cafe, or work for a roasting company, or source beans, or do any number of coffee related things. Maybe this blog will blow up, and I'll have book deals and sponsorships galore (but probably not). Or maybe someday I'll decide that cubicle looks awfully comfortable, that the hail of paperwork looks more like a light spring shower. 

I don't know, and there's no way of knowing. But that shouldn't be cause for anxiety. Ignorance is bliss, after all. So yes, I'm 23. Yes, I work at a coffee bar. And yes, I'm quite happy with that.

May 17, 2011

It's My Party

Happy birthday to me. 23 years gone, and graduation in less than a week. This feels like it ought to be a time for reflection, for talking about what was and how it invariably influences what is and will be. But that also sounds like work -- more work than I feel like putting in today, in fact. Maybe when I'm older.

May 14, 2011

Soy Bomb

I was reading this the other day, and was surprised, since I had never really entertained the idea that a coffee bar might not offer soy. It's become so ubiquitous, not just in cafes, but American culture in general, that the omission of soy seems very much a noteworthy thing. And yet it's not presented as that, in this case. Rather, it's simply a matter of taste. Soy doesn't work well with coffee, so it will not be offered.

Naturally, some people were offended by that notion. And I can't imagine such a move playing well in any cafe I've ever worked.

There are those who prefer the taste, and on that subject, I can hardly say they're incorrect. There is a certain subjectivity to that sensory experience that can't be denied. And yet, even trying to be objective, I feel that there is the matter of quality, that actual milk might be tangibly superior to soy. Certainly, it's more traditional; but that alone isn't sufficient justification. So no, as much as I might like to, I don't think I can say that actual dairy tastes better than soy, with or without coffee. There just isn't a way to measure it.

That brings me to the health argument. You'll not find a more controversial food than milk -- except, perhaps, soy. Both are held up as near panaceas, perfect proteins that build muscle, burn fat, cure cancer, etc. But both are also hormone destroying killers as well, depending on who you listen to. So who's right. Well, I am. Or more accurately, the research is. Despite what the vegan armada would have you believe, lactose tolerant persons have no reason to avoid dairy. In fact, people probably should consume more of it. The protein in milk is isolated and sold as supplements, as is conjugated linoleic acid, a fatty acid found in milk. Dairy is also high in stearic acid, a saturated fat has numerous document health benefits. This is not to say that soy is nutritionally void, just that it's not the powerhouse that dairy is.

Some drink soy for reasons other than preference, however. They might be lactose intolerant, or allergic to casein or whey. In any case, they have no choice but to avoid dairy. For them, soy can be useful, insofar as it allows a passable latte experience. Of course, some would argue that said latte is not passable, and that the customers would be better off drinking black coffee. I agree with that, for myself. But again, there's no accounting for individual taste, which varies infinitely.

All of this presumes that soy's quality matters, to an extent. Perhaps it's irrelevant that soy may or may not ruin coffee, or that it may or may not spike estrogen levels (it doesn't). Maybe all that matters is that some customers are going to want it, therefore coffee bars ought to have it. Nice as that sounds, it doesn't logically follow. A customer might well like a great many things, all of which no coffee bar can accommodate. They might want a pancake flavored syrup, and we may not have that. True, if the shop down the road does, we may lose that customer. But that's the vote of the market -- the only vote that really counts in business. 

May 11, 2011

On the Trail, With Coffee, and Nothing Else

People will tell you that this was a bad idea, that running a significant distance on little to no food does no more than promise a bonk, that dreaded precipitous decline in blood glucose that leaves legs heavy, and the mind swimming.

"Eat breakfast", they would urge. "You're going to go run a half-marathon." 

But I didn't listen, mostly because, as a rule, I don't. I had coffee at home, then stopped at a Starbucks for a 20oz iced coffee (as strong as the barista would willingly make) on the way to the race. I was wired, full of nervous energy and impossible expectations. I was invincible; the distance was mine to conquer.

They call alcohol liquid courage, but I don't think that's quite accurate. I never feel brave when tipsy, so much as I feel unhinged. Coffee, for me, does the job much better. Caffeine dulls whatever aches and pains might exist, then fills the body with adrenaline. You feel an urge to "go", and an endless ability to do just that.

And so, fueled by that perfect elixir, I ignited the trail, tearing my way to a course record and a win. 

I wish.

Truthfully, I landed wrong fairly early on, and apparently sprained my right LCL slightly. It hurt, and robbed me of the necessary flexibility to kick, and thus to run fast. That combined with a bevy of other aches and pains -- likely from having run another half 6 days prior.

The caffeine couldn't silence those pains, nor could it convince my brain that some glucose wasn't desperately needed.

And so, in reality, I hobbled to the finish in 12th place. 

I didn't walk well for the next few days, and a couple of weeks later, I still can't run for more than several minutes at a time. 

Man cannot run on coffee alone; though that will not stop me from trying.

May 7, 2011

Diminishing Demand

I wrote, not too long ago, that coffee had crossed the three dollar threshold for the first time in decades. Subsequently, and not surprisingly, coffee shops began upping their prices. Customers voiced concerns, but it seems now that they may have done more than that.

Arabica coffee retreated for the third straight day on signs of sliding demand. Sugar fell, while cocoa rose.

Coffee inventories in warehouses monitored by ICE Futures U.S. in New York rose 1.2 percent in April, the first monthly gain since October 2008. Mild-bean prices offered by producing countries are the lowest in two or three years, according to Rodrigo Costa, vice-president of institutional sales at Newedge.

“We have witnessed a fall in demand,” Costa said by telephone from New York.

Arabica coffee for July delivery dropped 0.7 cent, or 0.2 percent, to settle at $2.8755 a pound at 2 p.m. on ICE Futures U.S. in New York. The most-active contract slid 4.1 percent this week.
As you can see, that three dollar threshold has been crossed again; this time, it's going in the other direction. This is certainly not a precipitous drop, but it shouldn't be disregarded either. 

Clearly, there is a market for coffee. That includes, we tend to think, a growing market for more expensive, specialty drinks. This trend doesn't prove otherwise, but it does tend to suggest that coffee -- at least the pricier stuff -- is still a luxury item to most people. As such, it can be done without, when the price creeps uncomfortable high.

Whether this trend continues, and whether prices adjust to reflect it, will be worth watching.

May 6, 2011

On Art, Again

The roof looked a bit high, the figures a bit small, but all things considered, it was a decent enough mock-up. Things were where they ought to be, roughly, and it wasn't to hard to derive a sense of the scene. A success, then, if not an altogether rousing one.

Such was the diorama, discussed in class today -- this same class where my little attempt at a play was to be discussed. 

I rambled back and forth, trying to tease out exactly what I was going for with it. I talked about Tristan Tzara, and from him to Lady Gaga, about libraries and cafes and coffee. Mostly, I talked about coffee. Whether I ever said what I meant, I don't know; and whether I meant anything at all is equally ambiguous.

Eventually, I stopped talking, mostly because I had to at some point, and the point where I chose to do so seemed as good as any I was ever likely to find. "So that's basically what I was going for," I said.

The resulting conversation was enthusiastic, if a bit meandering, not terribly unlike my own attempt at describing the work we discussed. The academic viability of Lady Gaga was discussed, considered, and summarily embraced. The similarities, both ideologically and stylistically, to Travesties, were noted. People laughed a bit, and it seemed as if the play succeeded on at least that level.

It was decided that the Alex character and the Alex person are largely correct, insofar as latte art does look cool; even if it is not practical, and does not, in any way, make the drink taste better, it is viable for that reason at least.

In that regard, both the character Alex and me Alex are somewhat Joycian, as in James Joyce, insofar as we tend to think that art is to be enjoyed and celebrated. If it looks cool, and makes you smile, then it's worth it.

May 4, 2011

Straight Business

Cold press is strong stuff, the concentrated nectar of a pound of course grounds, left to steep overnight and wrung through a filter. It tastes dense, heavy, like a lightly sweetened fudge. It's the sort of thing you're supposed to cut, at least 50/50, with water or milk. 

That's the conventional take. Some advise even weaker preparations, like the bottle I purchased this morning. "Mix 3 ounces of concentrate with 8 ounces hot or cold water to make a strong cup of coffee." The bottle wasn't very big, maybe 9 ounces total, so this may well have been to give the illusion of value rather than save the customer from jitters. 

But nevermind all that, because I drank it straight. I drank it straight, despite having a cup of coffee earlier in the morning; and I sit here now, drinking another.

Some might say this is a problem. They might be right. I'm not advocating for cold press chugging, or rampant caffeination by any other means. But to some extant, I value transparency. And in the name of full disclosure, I think it's important to note the kind of coffee drinker I am.

In short: I don't do well with moderation.

May 3, 2011

Castles in the Sky

Somewhere between theory and practice, there has to be a good fit. At least you hope there is, hope that lofty ideals needn't be totally compromised in the name of practical application. And the latter needn't be without artistry or panache, certainly not without quality. 

It's a false dichotomy, too often struck in the food and beverage world. 

Fast and convenient means inedible; yet gourmet requires pretension and a hefty price. 

This is the same thread that ran through my post about the USBC, discussing the difference between the performance they put on, and the daily task of tending a coffee bar. I said that there were probably things to be learned by watching them, but I couldn't pinpoint what, exactly. 

I think I have a better idea now. Or rather, I think I swiped a better idea. The bit about the space between theory and practice is lifted, with honors, from Rock & Roll, the second Tom Stoppard play to get reference here in as many days. Stoppard's Max is talking about communism; I'm talking about coffee. But even still, I think there's a relevant lesson here. 

What works in an ideal world is worth keeping in mind. We have our castles in the sky (another lit reference...), worthwhile aspirations, but not something we'll ever live in. But that doesn't mean we have to settle for the slums, either.

So while the USBC presents an ideal scenario - not one that could ever occur in even the most elite of cafes, much less the vast majority - it is still instructive and inspirational. This is the best we can do, given the best case scenario. Let's strive for that, whether we can possibly achieve it or not.

May 2, 2011

The Pitcher and the Pourer

In writing about the USBC yesterday, reigning (and not defending) champion Mike Phillips came to mind. Later, when watching Sunday night baseball, I saw Cliff Lee take the mound. Or maybe, I saw Mike Phillips take the mound. Let the speculation begin.

May 1, 2011

Dream On

The United States Barista Championship is an interesting watch. We've got sparkling equipment, as clean as the day it was built, and baristas, looking perhaps even more pristine. They talk about balance, about phases of flavor, fruit, chocolate, and a million other descriptors, seemingly pulled from a wine tasting handbook. 

It's beautiful, in a way, a sort of ideal cafe universe. In this utopia, customers don't mind waiting several minutes for drinks. They want direction on tasting every potential nuance in their espresso, and never ask for something like a frappuccino.

It's not just the circumstances which are ideal. Every barista is well dressed, tucked nicely in to tapered slacks and vests, neatly adorned with careful stubble and sharp jawlines. They flick and tamp and twist and pour with the sharp, practiced ease of a dancer.

But it is song and dance, in a way, performance for the initiated few, rather than production for the masses. One might thus decide that barista contests are to cafe work what a dunk contest is to basketball ability - a grand display of skills which are ultimately tangential to success when it comes to the genuine challenge. 

But I'm watching, regardless, transfixed on the dose of grounds in each portafilter, the angle and speed of the pour. Mostly, I'm watching all of that, piecing it together, attempting to absorb the cadence with which they work, the rapidity with which they construct prize drinks. 

It's not that I'm competing - though maybe, some day - but rather that, by whatever standard, these people are the best at doing what I do. It follows, then, that there is something be learned from watching them practice their craft. I'm not looking for specific techniques to pilfer, rather, I'm attempting what might better be called learning by osmosis. In watching the best, you absorb more information than you can consciously process, and surely, some of that must be useful.

Well, probably. At the very least, it's entertaining, and impressive too. Again, this is something of a dream scenario on display; and it's a dream I enjoy having.