July 26, 2011

A Customer Credo

James Hoffmann is a big deal, for the obvious reason that he's a former WBC winner, and the less obvious reason that he produces a pretty high volume of public opinion. He is not shy, nor should he be. The guy has credibility, to the point where he can make seemingly sacrilegious statements in to gospel in some circles. (His declaration that crema is "rubbish" comes to mind.)

This is a recent post from Mr. Hoffmann, in which he notes that, in order to get good service at his bank, he basically needs to act like an asshole. He speculates that, perhaps, that's why some customers act the way they do. Perhaps we only respond well to vitriol.

"We" is a difficult thing to speak for, since there is no such uniformity. But I can speak for myself. I put this in the comments section on Hoffmann's piece, but I want to re-"print" it here, since I do a better job of summarizing my coffee shop credo than usual. At least, I do a pithier job of it.

Make the best coffee you can. What people want to do with it after that is their business. And be nice. It's not that complicated, really. People don't want anything unreasonable from their coffee shop experience. They want their drink, and to be treated in a way that is, at least, not condescending. If they've experienced something other than optimal service elsewhere, and are perhaps a little contentious because of that, it's an opportunity to earn their trust, to show them you do things better.

That's it. Nothing complicated, and nothing that ought to be difficult either. Some people are going to be assholes, because some people are assholes. But no one should feel that they need to be.

July 25, 2011

How to Be a Good Barista

I can say, without undue hubris, that I'm good at my job. We can quibble endlessly about what that might mean, discuss how one might quantify drink preparation and customer service quality. We might even debate whether it's possible to do so. So given that, I can't prove I'm good at my job. But I can say so, and I will.

Being a self-professed good barista, I can now declare how one might join the ranks. I still can't tell you what skills are strictly necessary to receive one's imaginary certification, of course. In that regard, I'm taking the Supreme Court's ruling on pornography to heart: I can't say exactly what it is; but I know it when I see it. 

So, having said that, I am willing to go out on one limb in particular: To say how one becomes a good barista. There are several steps, each vital to the process.

1. Find a coffee shop that's hiring. Apply. Take whatever shift you're offered. This will be closing. Sorry.

2. Do the job. At this point, you will mostly be preparing cold press and cleaning the espresso machine. You will forget to empty the pots. You will probably not make drinks. When you do, they will not be very good. At all. That's ok.

3. Continue doing the job. Your frustration at being mediocre will lead you to seek out online resources. You will find better ones than this. You might even seek out a talented barista at your place of business or a training school. These are viable options, but mostly, you need to develop your own feel.

4. Make lots of drinks. Then make more. Try every different technique you've seen or read about, then several more you just came up with. Eventually, some will feel right. Later, your drinks will become good. People who have only ever had Starbucks will be impressed.

5. Do this long enough that people begin to wonder when, if ever, you're going to get a real job. Start calling yourself a barista, rather than saying you work at a coffee shop. Be thin. Have stubble (if male). Talk about everything with everyone, always acting more interested and educated than you are. Pretend to care about issues, but mostly, don't.

6. Make more drinks. As many as you can. Do latte art, to impress the people who have had more than Starbucks. Talk at length about the quality of your crema and foam. Think that, maybe, you could compete. Realize that it's easier to talk about it than get crushed by more talented people. Keep talking about it anyway.

7. (Optional) Start a blog.

July 21, 2011

Life Isn't Fair, and Neither is Coffee

Education means a lot of things to a lot of people. It means numbers and letters, things both esoteric and practical. It means degrees, more degrees, or real life experience. Probably, it means some mess of all of these things most of the time.

But for right now, I think it's important to consider one specific aspect of education: Current events. It's a junior high class where I come from, and not the sort I recall taking very seriously. Never again was an entire class devoted to the idea, though I had plenty concerning events and people long dead. This is probably a fallacy on some level. There are those who will tell you that history is instructive; it teaches you where we've been, and thus where we might be going. That's all well and good, but not so vital as understanding where the hell we are in the first place.

That said, it's probably easier to understand history than the present moment. We have the benefit of hindsight concerning the former, and nothing so convenient for the latter. Perhaps that's why no one teaches current events. It's hard to teach something you can't claim knowledge of yourself. Best leave it to future generations. Let them decide what happened, rather than try to figure out what's happening.

Even still, I think anyone who would be educated makes an attempt to be informed regarding current events. Perhaps they don't read every inch of every paper ever day; perhaps they even spend time on entertainment. That's healthy, at the very least, and probably shows a broader grasp of current events than one who focuses solely on geopolitics.

Admittedly, it's much more likely for a person to go the other direction. It's comforting to place your concerns with things that, ultimately, don't matter much. That's why people obsess over things like sports, gossip, food, fitness, and whatever else. That's why I have a gym membership, and couldn't imagine the alternative being possible. That's why I read fantasy novels. That's why this blog exists. Serious things are serious enough without our taking them seriously. But emotionally investing in one's ability to pour milk in a cup is just the right kind of frivolous.

But there are those less glamorous pages, those stories that don't involve spectacular levels of sex or violence. These deaths are unglamorous, anonymous. This is faceless suffering, numbers placed in an unfortunate spreadsheet column, never spared more than a fleeting moment's guilt, if that.

If being educated requires an awareness of current events, then it also requires an awareness of this sort of thing. It requires a knowledge that most of the world is starving to death, while the rest is committing suicide by corn syrup. And it requires a knowledge that this gap is widening as fast as first world waistlines.

This is not a new revelation, of course. There have been doomsday prophets for as long as there have been days at all, cynics and alarmists who would find the end from the beginning. But while this isn't new, it is the furthest thing from alarmist. It is fact, not disputed by anyone willing to objectively examine the data. We have too much; they have too little. We are getting more; they are getting less. They long for daily bread, while we anguish over what processed flour might do to our abs.

I'm externalizing this to an extent. When I say "we", I might as well say "me". I wonder if 100 grams of protein a day is "enough", when the World Health Organization sets the bar at a fraction of that. Even still, most of the world falls short. And I could go on, noting just about every aspect of my life, from the bed I wake up in to the computer I'm typing this on.

There is coffee, too, probably the best example. I work with it daily, making, by global standards, a ridiculous sum of money. I am paid enough to eat what I want, as often as I want, to see movies and buy new clothes on a whim, to fill up a car I drive with little though devoted to its emissions. And this is all for an absolute luxury, a thing not one person on Earth has ever or will ever need. There is the water it takes to brew a pot too, when most of the world can't get a clean cup a day. There is the electricity, which requires fossil fuels. Not to mention the milk. Not to mention the transport of the beans themselves, which cannot be grown in the United States, but must be shipped at significant cost. Not to mention the farmers, the mono-cropping, the species wiped out so I can drink what I like.

Of course, there are people who would do things better. There is fair trade, which may or may not be fair at all. But even if the latter is true, there are small companies devoted to cultivating relationships with small farms, with growers who do things right. There is the superficially trivial fact that coffee, though not strictly necessary for anyone, feels like it is for most people in this country. It makes their day tolerable at least, and at best, might make them happy. That's my job, as I see it. If what I do is indeed a luxury, if my life is one most of the world could never dream of, then making the best of it is the least I can do.

While ignoring current events, the darker realities of right now, might be easy, so is guilt. Feeling bad allows one to feel superior without doing anything. This isn't to say that I have the answer, or that I'm doing anything but poorly justifying my greedy existence on some would-be moral ground. But whatever the answer is, it's not feeling guilty. It's certainly not feeling bad at what others lack, and worse about what you've got. And while we're searching, being happy and and trying to inspire the same in others is the best I've come up with.

July 20, 2011

A Dreadful Fantasy

If there have been a lack of words here recently, you can blame Joe Abercrombie, whose skill at putting them together so dwarfs my own that I hardly feel qualified to do it at all. He's popularly considered the best young fantasy writer - maybe the best, period, if only George Martin would die - which is almost an insult, insofar as fantasy writers are barely considered writers at all. They deal in swords and sorcery, rather than the human condition, weave massive epics without touching on anything real. And all that passive voice. 

There is a post somewhere else contesting that false conclusion, but for now, I'll just say that it is wholly false.

Abercrombie does root all of his swooping plot in reality, at least, the reality of emotion. The characters feel how you think they ought - how you think you would - rather than puffed up caricatures. They are flawed people, some more deeply than others. But even that is too judgmental a phrase. More accurately, they are complex characters. It's not a question of black or white, or even shades of gray, but rather the full spectrum of colors.

There are battles, because there are always battles. But there is no obvious objective; the two sides are fighting, mostly, because they are. We get the perspective of a litany of "main" characters, and brief interludes with smaller players. (Usually, they die shortly after introduction.) A common refrain is the myriad of ways in which war is a miserable business for all involved. You can't help but find yourself agreeing, almost feeling guilty for indulging in the violence fetishism that pervades so much popular fiction.

You almost want both sides to walk away, the characters to go home, and nothing much to happen. Almost. It's a disgusting business, war, but it's captivating. And so too is the characters' neurosis, their agony and their apathy.

This is nowhere more obvious that the morning scenes, the proverbial calm before the storm. These are people muttering about going to work, essentially, barely removed from our modern drudgery. It is also these scenes, however, which furthest remove me from the plot. It's not that I don't care, or that the writing is any less crisp, witty and descriptive.

I simply cannot stand the thought of waking up and facing a day's work without coffee. Nevermind the nights spent without a room, without a fire or food. Nevermind the almost certain prospect of horrific injury and pain. War is hell, they say, and Abercrombie does as good a job of illustrating that as anyone I've read. But if that's the case, war without coffee is the deepest circle.

July 16, 2011

Harry Potter and the Portafilter of Something Clever Sounding

Harry Potter, I think, is Gen Y's most shared pop culture experience. It's a substantial claim, but if anything, is insufficient, since the franchise clearly appeals to people both older and younger.


That's how I felt last night, sitting at the front of a line in a movie theater, hunched over a sudoku puzzle. Hours had passed, with hours still to go.

I thought about a lot of things in that time, passed judgment on innumerable outfits, and remembered that I really do hate sudoku, and that I probably should have brought a book.

And so I set the puzzle aside, half scribbled, and drew parallels in my mind instead.

I hated the idea that I might like coffee, growing up. I hated that idea that you had to like it, that it was an affection born of inevitability. I hated Harry Potter too, for similar reasons. I hated that everyone read it, that everyone had to read it. I had my own tastes, dammit, and didn't need to submit to groupthink on that level.

My abstinence didn't last. Everyone else was jumping off the bridge, and I'd be dammed if I didn't make myself a lemming.

I asked myself the question anyone over the age of 16 certainly did: "Am I too old for this?" Followed shortly by: "Is that kid dressed as Snape, using an all black Puma track suit?"

I decided no, I'm not, and oh my god, yes he is.

Finally, it occurred to me that I am a wizard.


I turn beans in to grounds in to a potent potion, a stimulant for the body and mind. I use a wand to change the texture of milk, and sometimes, make it triple in volume.

I wondered how awfully nerdy this would all sound to anyone but me.

July 13, 2011

A Matter of Character

I've written a lot - too much? - about context. Loosely interpreted, what I'm talking about is the course of events that makes up an experience, or in narrative terms, the plot. Put simply, it matters. Which is a bit like saying that breathing is important, if you don't want to suffocate. Of course plot matters. In the telling of a story, you could almost say that it is the story. Or, extrapolated back out in to the real world, one could say that our day is a compilation of our experiences.

There's nothing obviously wrong with that line of thinking, and again, it's one I've probably endorsed (intentionally or not) several times here. But there is a line somewhere, you know where when you cross it. Beyond this point, events are emphasized too much. You could say it's over-plotted, but I think under-charactered is a better (albeit less smooth sounding) term.

A story can be compelling with or without epic scope or well woven threads. But I cannot enjoy a story (which is very different from calling something objectively good, or not), no matter how original or well plotted, without interesting characters.

Think of it in terms of a road trip: The scenery might be beautiful, the car comfortable, and the bathrooms remarkably clean. However, if the company isn't stimulating - or worse, is actively annoying - you find the trip disappointing.

The point is this: Context matters, but not as much as people. A friend losing a job feels more tragic than thousands of lives lost to genocide, not because of any objective criteria, but because of personal connection. We are, despite our best efforts, not rational creatures so much as we are social. And in many ways, this informs the context we choose for ourselves, the environments we inhabit, the events we partake in.

Relevant to my topic, it informs their choice of coffee shop. Convenience matters, as does price, and of course quality of product. But people will sacrifice on all of those levels to talk to someone nice, or at the very least, to not be treated like crap. This may seem a circuitous route to take to say, essentially, be nice. And it is. Very. But it's important, I think, not to just make the point itself, but to justify it, and to do so using the impetus for the thought.

July 7, 2011

World's Strongest Barista

Finding World's Strongest Man on ESPN as a child was like finding out school was serving pizza for lunch that day. Sure, the product wasn't that great, if you thought about it. But why think about it? Why not just enjoy the cheesy, greasy surprise?

And so I did. I reveled, on those otherwise lost summer days, in the drama of tires flipped, boulders lifted, and pillars held. There were men with names like vikings, and thighs the size of legend's World Tree.

Fast forward a few years. I make coffee for a living -- a profession that has its own world championship. But the World Barista Championship, great as it is, lacks a certain drama that can only be sponsored by MetRx.

Perhaps the WBC is a little too heavy on the technique, and not focused enough on the raw athleticism and strength it takes to be an elite barista.

I'd like to change that, by suggesting possible additions to the WBC, inspired by some giant named Sven. Including even one of these scenarios in the competition would go a long way towards solidifying the reputation of baristas as paragons of fitness.

#1 The Tamp: It's a simple move, fundamental to the very craft of making coffee. This is a simple idea, too. Press on a scale, as hard as you can. Most pressure wins.

#2 Portafilter Dislodge: This, sadly, is almost as common an occurrence as the former. Some jackass (totally not you) slammed the portafilter in to the head a few minutes ago. Now it's stuck, and it will take an act of god to remove it -- or your raw power!

#3 Crate Carry: The milk man has arrived, but left as quickly, and without putting anything away. Carry as many crates of milk as you can, from the back door, to the fridge. Time is a factor.

#4 Down and Dirty: So you know that one fridge that doesn't have wheels, and no one ever sweeps under? Yeah, you have to lift it, and hold it for as long as you can. Preferably, your coworker will have finished scrubbing by then.

#5 Coffee Curl: Grab two, 3-liter airpots (full, of course), and curl them for reps.

#6 Blender Burn: Congratulations, you made something kinda like a frappuccino. Only you don't have an industrial blender, or Starbucks' magical mixing ingredients, so the whole concoction is stuck at the bottom of the blender. Shake it until dislodged, in to a cup. Penalty for spillage.

#7 Box Toss: You've just received your general stock order, but all your limited storage space is full. Get all the boxes on to the unreachable top shelf, either by tossing them, or by doing your best King Kong on the Empire State building impression.

July 5, 2011

Easy as - Well, Maybe Not

There is often a disconnect between what the customer and barista expects to be common knowledge about coffee. This can lead to tense moments, and occasionally, terse exchanges. One is elitist, the other ignorant, and neither is pleased.

But these moments can be put aside for now, because today I received perhaps the most appalling inquiry of my customer service career.

Me: Hey.
Man: Hey, uh, what floor is this?
Me: First.
Man: Ok, so where is the 4th floor? I need to find that.
Me: .... Up.
Man: (silence)
Me: Up. Three floors. The stairs.
Man: (walks away, quite in a hurry)

I'll never complain about "Do you have lattes here?" again. I swear.

July 4, 2011

A Study in Excess

To say that I over-analyze things is to say that Antarctica is cold; there is truth there, but in horribly insufficient quantities. That said, I'm perpetually looking for ways I might better prepare espresso. Such a search led me to this video, which is, perhaps, the worst thing I've ever seen. The upside to the blatant absurdity is that it makes great (if unintentional) comedy. And happily for me, I'm quite certain that whatever I'm doing with whatever equipment I've got produces better results than all that bluster.