June 30, 2011

Care Bears and Coffee

I'm stealing this from Sprudge, a site I imagine is big enough not to mind. Regardless, it's too great not to share. Nevermind that the characters are essentially teddy bears, or that the whole dialogue takes place in a lush meadow rather than a coffee bar. Ignore that, and embrace the truth of the message, Stephen Hawking voice and all.

June 28, 2011

Stunted Skill, Random Rosettas

Skill is often spoken about as a static thing, an entity which, once possessed, is yours forever. This is a comforting notion, but unfortunately false. Skill is not a finish line, and becoming good at a thing is not the same as being good at it.

People tend not to care how well you could throw a football in high school. But if you're really that good now, well, you're Peyton Manning. And people certainly do care.

My latte art, then. Even at my best, I wasn't terribly good. Still, I could usually get something approximating a decent rosetta on an average latte, inspiring compliments and smiles from people who, thankfully, have never seen this site. Every once in a while, the planets aligned, and my rosetta turned out remarkably good. As in, legitimately, I'd post this on the internet and not feel ashamed good.

It's been about a week since I've managed one of those, however, and it must be said that my general aesthetic quality has dropped. Now, are my standards higher? Sure. Once upon a time, I'd have been thrilled to have a deformed onion topping a drink. Now I expect better; and I'm not getting it.

Why? Good question. I don't have a good answer though, other than to restate my original point: Skills aren't static. I was better last week than this week, and hopefully better next week than ever before.

June 27, 2011

Minimalist Ideas, Maximalist Results

As much time as I spend doing anything else, at least as much is spent reading. Currently, a great deal of that time is devoted to running and fitness literature, or more broadly, sports science. If you've even a passing interest in that area, you've surely been exposed to the running shoe/form debate. Truthfully, I find the whole thing just a little odd, and probably a case of misapplied focus. Most people would run better and be hurt less with proper training/nutrition, while simply running in something that they find comfortable.

This line of thinking, how equipment effects technique which effects product, has correlates in innumerable other activities -- yes, one of which is making coffee. How much does technology help? Does it, perhaps, actively detract from quality? Might a more human touch be better?

As with the shod/unshod debate, I think this is a false dichotomy. There is a point at which too much human control is ceded, and the product suffers. But I'm not sure where that line is in every case, or even most cases. I'm sure it varies a great deal.

A high volume cafe (like a high volume runner) probably has greater need for technology. Barefoot running will not produce optimal results at 70 MPW, especially if most of that is on pavement. In this case, shoes almost certainly help.

People argue that the Nike's of the world are more marketing machines than anything else, more focused on creating a product than a tool. It's a cynical view, but not one without validity. However, the Nike's of the world still outfit the best runners in the world, from the local 5K winners to Bernard Lagat. There is pride at stake for the former outfit, and quite a bit of money for the latter. If training in trainers was suboptimal, they'd probably not be doing it.

And as a certain amount of mileage at a certain pace is probably easier to achieve with some cushion and support, serving a certain volume of coffee is easier when using electric brewers, and not simply pour over methods. Try to tell the 15 people in line that, sorry, it'll be a few minutes before I brew this one cup, the cherry notes simply won't sparkle right if mass brewed. Then duck, and acquire a sense of context.

Of course, there is the other end of the spectrum, the Brooks Beast of running shoes and McDonald's model of espresso. Here, the human element is as far removed as possible, with the assumption being that the human element will only make things messy. The machine is more efficient, quality be dammed, and thus it's better. The problems here are fairly obvious. Primarily, the product suffers, and is in fact often produced in a less efficient manner.

There is no best fit between those two extremes. At least, there is no one best fit. Volume matters, as does the type of cafe you purport to be and the customer base that draws. In finding fit, it's best to leave dogma at the door. Pay attention to what works, and most importantly, what works well.

June 25, 2011

New Site, Same as the Old Site

You will notice, if you've been here at all, that things look different.

The aesthetic, while perhaps a bit plain, is appropriate. This blog has always featured walls of text, and no real visual element. To imply otherwise is to present a dishonest front, and one that always seemed a bit much to me. It looked very much like the sort of thing someone would make upon realizing that blogger gives them the power to do so, without considering whether it worked or not. I've decided, after thinking on it for a while, that it did not. And while this new look may seem spartan, it's romantic to me, in that it's reminiscent of that most pleasant of reading devices -- books. Simply font on white makes for comfortable reading, I think.

The title, then. Changing an address is risky business, in that old visitors may have a hard time finding the new location. Changing it to an invented word is, perhaps, lunacy. But if that's the case, then I'm guilty. Suffice it to say, I think the new title is a more accurate representation of what this blog is, what I write about, and what I'm about. It's pithy, and not a probably too cute alliteration. 

That said, if you had any measure of affection for the old place, it would be helpful if you'd put out a word for the new one. I'm not aiming to expand my audience preposterously, just to keep the one I had.

Coffee is Good

I actually do drink coffee. This probably should go without saying, but for a coffee blog, I write precious little about the taste of the stuff, and the overall experience of consuming it. Maybe it's because I take that sort of thing for granted; maybe it's because I don't consider one man's individual tastes worth sharing.

But I do drink coffee. And what's more, I like drinking it. More often than not, I'm actually excited by the prospect. It's like when you're a kid, and you realize that ice cream is about to happen. You salivate, you anticipate, knowing that however good you think it's going to be, it'll actually be better. (Truthfully, ice cream still makes me feel that way.)

Coffee can be like that. Should be, really. It shouldn't be toxic brown sludge, taken down to stimulate an otherwise lethargic mind and body. It shouldn't be something you drink out of necessity. It should not be a pill popped, a prescription tolerated.

Coffee should be good. It should taste good, smell good, feel good. It should be everything your flannel wearing friend who just got back from Colorado swears this craft beer you just have to try is. 

June 24, 2011


I've written a little about the economics of coffee before -- very little. Basically, I've noted that prices are trending up, and that such a trend has consequences. Well, this does appear a trend, and not a fad.

There is a quote at the end which offers hope, I think, or at least something like optimism. I'm going to assume you didn't read the entire piece (I didn't) and deliver the punchline here: "People who like good coffee are going to have good coffee."

Which means people need to keep making good coffee. People don't complain about high prices, so much as low perceived value. 

June 21, 2011

As Clear as Crema

Espresso seems something of an esoteric craft. There is a ubiquity to coffee, and no such mystery to that substance. People know, by in large, what it is, and how to prepare it. There are many more advanced techniques, of course, and plenty of idiosyncrasies to indulge if you'd like. But electric drip coffee makers are the stuff of just about every kitchen, often requiring no more than the flip of a switch to operate. 

Espresso is not like that, I'm reminded frequently. It's not that there are pointed questions often -- though when there are, it's something of a treat -- so much as there are confused looks, abstract inquiries, and awkward misstatements. 

This is forgivable ignorance, as only the smallest of minorities will ever use an espresso machine, and thus have cause to know exactly what it does, and how it does it. This is not to imply that there is a reputable, widely accepted barista handbook out there, detailing the proper way to tamp, tap, twist, and pull.

Truthfully, even that statement is too specific. There is a substantial school of thought that drifts decidedly in the "less is more" direction. For these baristas (I wonder, do they also run barefoot?), only the tamp is necessary, and even that should be subtle. Tapping only serves to loosen grounds; twisting is best left to wedding receptions and drunken relatives. 

Still, it's not hard to find a good barista who does all of those things, and believes their espresso would suffer without them. And there are talented minimalists as well, pulling good shots with little more than a 20lb tamp.

Esoteric? Yes. Impermeable? If one is looking for a definitive truth, then yes. In that regard, espresso might be compared to basketball, or (the aforementioned) running, in that the result determines the validity of the means used to acquire it.

But even then, there is uncertainty. A good shot, in basketball, is one that goes in; it's not so easy to define a good shot of espresso. Volume varies, as does flavor, consistency, color, and everything else you can thing of.

Clearly, this is not a guide to espresso, nor is it meant to make it any less murky a subject. I'm not sure that there is an authority on the stuff, but I'm absolutely certain that if there is, it's not me. As for my technique, I currently use this approach: One hard tamp, two light taps, another softer tamp.

June 20, 2011

Whither Work

The line between imitation and thievery is murky, though even still, I think I'm drifting a bit towards the former. There is inspiration, of course; but there is also taking an idea.

Privilege is not a concept unique to any one writer, or any one set of circumstances. But it is put in terms that, for me at least, are very palatable, here.

It echoes a sentiment that I try to maintain, that I do not have a real job. Not really. I am payed to arrive, do tasks, and then leave. So in that most technical of senses, I am employed. 

But a job is something more than that, though the exact definition is vague to the point where I won't attempt it. It is not working in a coffee bar, however, which is what I do.

And there's your punchline. It's not that I have to work today; I get to work today.

June 14, 2011

Morning Synth

There is a small iPod dock, sitting under the counter at work. The reception being what it is, we have two options: The local NPR affiliate, or the even more local student radio station. The former has Morning Edition and All Things Considered going for it, but classical music in the interim, which I haven't the education or temperament for.

Student radio is something of a mixed bag; though the bag is mixed slightly differently depending on the DJ at the time. Usually, the mornings alternate between less than mainstream hip hop (the sort with something of a narrative and coherent lyrics, lacking bass heavy dance loops) and less than clubworthy electronic music (also lacking synthy dance loops, as well as some of the trancier elements). 

Neither of these are typical cafe music; at least, that's the impression I've gleaned from my experience and customers. Which is to say, basically, that neither are indy rock or jazz. Neither are as quiet or introspective as those either, which may seem to some to contradict the conventionally thought of cafe ethic. 

Neither are, in short, the sort of thing you might listen to while wearing thick rimmed glasses, an Autumn colored flannel, skinny jeans, and carefully haphazard semi-long hair. They are more reminiscent of very different aesthetics; though not as different as if the music were the kind noted in the above parentheses.

But it works, I think. Coffee bars are, at their best, active places. Though they are often though of as quiet, communal gathering places, or deathly silent study halls, they are more often places of quick comings and goings, a transition from this point in the day to the next. This activity is accented by the grinding and whirring and tapping and hissing, punctuated by the transactions and hand-offs themselves.

They are not quite dance clubs, of course, and though the aesthetic needn't be as thoroughly dredged in hipster as is often assumed, it probably isn't mixers and faux-hawks either.

Though truthfully, it isn't the aesthetic I'm concerned about, so much as the attitude. Whatever music is playing at a cafe isn't so much entertainment as it's a soundtrack. And in so far as that's the case, I prefer a soundtrack which sets an upbeat tempo, one where things happen, and happen quickly, with maybe a little too much gusto.

June 12, 2011

Short on Scale

English is the assumed language of many places on Earth, of commerce in general, and of Lawrence, KS, at the very least. One might thus assume that any transaction taking place in Lawrence, KS, ought to be conducted in English, with perhaps the odd Italian word thrown in for necessary prentention.

Machiatto, for instance. Con panna.

In truth, cafes are often derided for the foregin nomenclature, mocked for superficial affectations.

Why grande, and not simply medium? And venti? It's all so confusing.

Fortunately, the smaller two cup sizes are straightforward enough: short and tall. They are English, and moreover, they are ubiqutous. A short thing is defined as something that is not tall, and vice versa. It is a relationship in the tradition of yin and yang, cast as perfect opposites.

Given this, I had assumed there would never be confusion on the matter of those two sizes, and how they relate. Short is short; tall is tall. More importantly, short is shorter than tall; tall is taller than short.

That assumption crumbled today, it's structure undermined by one simple query: "Which one is smaller?"

Say this for me: I swallowed my sarcasm, and responded as politely as I could manage. But say one more thing for me: I was not so polite as to refrain from writing about the utterance.

June 10, 2011

The Cold Hard Ambiguity

And here I thought we had something like an emerging consensus, the sort of thing that seems impossible in matters of taste. Of course, I should have known better. I should have known that a consensus is not sustainable, and invariably, creates its own backlash. 

But in this case, I was so sure. This was not opinion, not taste, but fact. Cold press wasn't just preferable to icing hot coffee; it was better. Any cafe that did it wrong was immediately shit-listed.

And that's just the point: There was a right way, and there was a wrong way. Now? Now I'm being told that my infallible truth is a lie, that my rich, complex cold-brewed coffee is oxidized sludge. 

The world is flat. 2 + 2 = 5. You should brew hot coffee over ice.

Of course, my first reaction is to reject this as nothing more than contention for it's own sake. But first reactions are often not the best reactions, and certainly not the most educated. So, the only thing to do is to try it myself. 

And then, perhaps, I can start the inevitable backlash against the backlash. 

June 9, 2011

The Buck Doesn't Stop

It's said that runners are the fittest group of sick an injured people on the planet, and among the general populous (thus excluding all pro and top level amateur athletes), I think that's a fair statement. The question is not if you will get hurt, but when, where, and how. Even success is accompanied with pain, as the most successful races are spent at the threshold of exertion, lungs, joints, and everything else screaming "Stop!"

And yet you ignore those signs, pretending your internal check-engine light is malfunctioning again, hoping that a gasket doesn't blow until after the finish line. 

It is not the frequency or severity of these injuries that's most astonishing, but the extent to which they are embraced. A runner rarely complains of their offending body part, chalking it up to shit happening, as it does. 

If there is blame, is it never placed at the Nike-clad feet of running itself. The runner might blame their shoes, their form, their lack of flexibility or strength. Most of all, they blame their own ambition, doing too much, too soon, too fast, and too hard. 

And they wait, those days, weeks, or months, until they can inflict new damage on their healed-enough body. Some might say this is an abusive relationship, but I see it as something of a model. There is responsibility, and it is taken. Running didn't hurt you; you hurt you. In any case, shit most certainly does happen.

This is a lesson too often forgotten when it comes to coffee, or consumables in general. The consumer is not to blame; the product itself is. Caffeine is indicted in the court of public opinion on a bevy of fraudulent charges, prosecuted by a host who would rather damn the substance itself than learn moderation.

Does a fifth cup make you jittery? Then have less, or space them out. Do light roasts give you an upset stomach? Then go dark. In any case, there is no antagonistic aspect to coffee.

There is a continuum on which every runner will be injured, provided enough running takes place. And there is a similar case with coffee, where anyone can consume a detrimental amount. That's a line worth finding, and respecting.

June 8, 2011

It's All Good

There is no such thing as a vacuum, which is not to say that people are forever condemned to dirty carpets, but rather is a statement against things existing in isolation. No idea is had without inspiration; no action fails to generate some kind of reaction. Picture a pond, a stone dropping in, a ripple; then dismiss the pseudo-zen imagery. 

This is not about rocks or carpets. It's about bread, coffee, muffins, mochas, and taste. It's about "What's/Is this good?", and the futility of what is truly a stupid question, no matter what a well-meaning grade school teacher might say.

Of course, you can forgive the questions as honest inquiry from the ignorant, a show of respect to the knowledge and taste of the barista. And isn't that what we want, after all? We mock the customers who douse our precious single-origin beans in cream, laugh at the preening caramel machiatto sippers. We know quality. We know it, and if only they would listen. 

And so our narcissism is indulged, our egos sated, by a curled lip, a pointed finger, and a simple question. 

But no cafe exists in a Hoover, and so, simple though the question appears, we stumble. "Well I like..." we say, before realizing the irrelevance of the point. "Well it tastes like..." we say, not answering the question. "It depends," we manage. "Everything is good if you like it." 

Even coconut mochas, extra hot, skim milk, no whip. Even pitch dark beans from everywhere and nowhere in particular, flooded with milk, sweetened enough to send someone from zero to diabetic in seconds flat. 

We pause, and so do they, both wanting direction and having none to give. We stand in front of our silent orchestras, arms paralyzed, pining for that familiar symphony. "Are mochas good?" Sure. Well, maybe. Not to me. But to him? To her? To you? Yes? No? Maybe? Ihavenoeffingclue?

A breath. "Most everyone likes them. It's chocolate. Hard to mess that up." The music plays, and brings our arms to life. "I think you'll like it."

June 7, 2011

The Empire Strikes Back

I wrote, just a few days ago, that Starbucks' ubiquity and presence is not so damaging as some make it out to be, and in fact, may be beneficial. My argument is best summed up with an old saying: A rising tide lifts all boats. And while truisms frequently are not, there is relevant wisdom in this case.

But good, bad, or indifferent (as if anyone with an interest in coffee could be) feelings aside, there is no denying that Starbucks is a major player in the food service realm, a titan that so eclipses the coffee category that it scarcely belongs in it.

I could tell you why I think that is; but my opinions are merely that, and crafted from well outside the relevant sphere. To read more educated opinion on Starbucks' return to prominence (dominance?), see this blog on Forbes.

June 4, 2011

A Reflection on a Reflection

There is an oft-entertained idea of role reversal, the hypothetical "How would you feel?" directed at persons perceived to be acting callously. At it's core, this is empathy, and it's a necessary human trait. Without it, one can't function in a social environment, and is labeled a sociopath. 
But there are degrees of empathy; I'm not concerned with the radical ends of the spectrum. Rather, I'm thinking about the apparently mundane, the connection between customer and barista. 

I'm both, of course, in many cases. But when I visit another cafe, that's an interesting dichotomy. It's a useful experience as well, one that shows me what to do, and what actions are probably best avoided. 

Today was not so instructive, but was, nonetheless, interesting. 

I left my shop, having closed, and stopped at another on the way back to my car. I ordered a large cold press, and called it such.

"So an iced americano?" the barista asked. The tone was familiar to me. It asked, but also told, said that I didn't have a clue what I was talking about. 

""No," I said, "I'd like to use cold press, not espresso." 

Her demeanor did not invite further comment. "If you get water with the cold press, it's an americano. Is that what you want?"

I smiled, let the snark pile up in the back of my mouth, and said "Sure."

"There's a lot of terminology," she offered, helpfully. 

There was so much I wanted to say then. I was tired, running on little sleep, a long shift, and no food in ten hours. "I know," I though. "Maybe that's why you can't keep it straight." Or perhaps: "Just give me the damn coffee; hold the failed attempt at a vocabulary lesson."

I said neither, of course, opting instead for a neutral grin and a diplomatic "Oh, I know."

June 2, 2011

Golden Arches; Golden Espresso?

McDonald's is big business. And more and more, it's becoming big coffee business as well. The fast food giant boasts "premium roast" coffee (an ambiguous term, at best), and espresso beverages (prepared with the push of a button). But it's not about the quality; it's about the price, and the ubiquity.

That's the assumption, at least. 

But Australia's McDonald's branch, despite doing good business, is promising to step up its game. There are the usual lines about better beans, a better blend, and renewed focus on the details. It's the sort of corporate speak you expect to hear, except for one line:

"McDonald’s will launch a richer, darker coffee blend and a national training program to train employees to be dedicated baristas."
It's the last part that took me by surprise. McDonald's did pioneer the assembly line method of restaurant cooking, and so it makes sense that if you have a fry guy, a cashier, etc., you might also have a coffee guy. 

I would really, really like to go on a tangent about how this is a disgrace to the job title, or something to that effect. But I have to confess that I don't know for sure what the job will entail. Will the Australian machines be the same, one button, one drink, affairs that American stores have? If not, will the "barista" position ever reach the States? 

For now, we'll have to wait and see.