September 30, 2011

Better Than the Rest; Not the Best

Being the best is relative, of course, and fleeting beyond that. But even still, there are cases in which it can be applied, with some level of objectivity. I can say, for instance, that at my previous coffee bar jobs, I made the best drinks. (There is one exception here, which I'll get to later.) What I mean by that can be debated, but would serve no greater purpose than the questioning the meaning of "is". If you're reading this, you have some basic idea of what good shots and good milk look like, and how they combine to create a good drink.

This, along with the flowery prose in my last post, probably has you ready to comment on my unbridled arrogance - if not outright condemn it. But hold on a moment. My stature as "best" at my previous cafes doesn't speak to any feelings of grandeur on my part. Rather, I was just about the only one invested in learning the craft. And that's really what it comes down to - investment. There is nothing inherently difficult about the skill of making a drink, nor is their any innate ability required. All it takes is the desire to seek out a proper method, and then consistent practice. As with many things, those ingredients will get you a long way.

Neither is this meant to condemn previous coworkers. Many people have other interests, and better things to do than watch latte preparation videos on youtube. As it turns out, I don't. But for them, that's honestly fine. They're better than I am at countless other things; and as they say, to each their own. They spent time doing whatever it was they enjoyed, and so did I. The fact that I'm the one to start a coffee blog probably tells you something about what I enjoyed then, and still do now.

All of this is really fine print, however. It's tangential rambling, mostly just to try and make sure I don't come across as a prick. (Mission accomplished?) The point, ultimately, is that I made better drinks than my coworkers for those years.

But not now. Now, the other three people working on my staff (one of whom I worked with previously, and is the aforementioned exception) And, far from damaging my ego, it's inspiring. The environment is more collaborative than any I've experienced before, and as such, we're all learning. It's competitive as well, so we're all striving to improve - though, as noted before, not at each others' expense.

These last several days have featured the most consistent drink quality any of us has ever produced. Were any one of use clearly "the best", none of us would be improving as we are. Thus the (somewhat paradoxical) conclusion, that perhaps being the best isn't really satisfying. At least, being better than those around you isn't. The goal, ultimately, is to realize your potential, to be better this week than the last. More fundamentally, you want to enjoy yourself, and that's hard to do without having something to reach for. Most of all, it's best if others are reaching with you.

September 29, 2011

National Coffee Day

The idea of one day devoted to an integral part of daily life for most Americans is, in my mind, a bit silly. It's a bit like having "National Pants Day", or "National Food Day". But disregarding my feelings for the moment, today is National Coffee Day. As such, I feel compelled to write something of appropriate magnitude, a piece with scope and relatability for the masses.

After an hour of thinking, however, I've decided that I'm not that creative. I'm almost incapable, in truth, of coming up with ideas for posts. Rather, I simply write what's (more or less) handed to me. Someone or something hits the first domino, and my fingers simply fall in to place on the keyboard.

And so so here we are. I'm writing, not about the holiday at all, but about one fleeting moment - completely unacknowledged by all present.

We begin the scene at the tail end of something that might be mistaken for a rush, but is in fact much too easily handled to deserve such a title. I am making a latte, an act which might be like brushing my teeth at this point, if brushing my teeth were my most prized skill and object of total focus. Still, the process is a familiar one, and I execute it as such.

The espresso is beautiful, looking like rust and tasting like honey. The milk is opaque, as smooth as wax. I pour, tilting the cup and maintaining a pencil-width stream of milk. As the crema rises, I aim the nose of the pitcher down, and at the back of the cup. White begins to cascade, and I twitch my hand back and forth, doing my best mimic of a metronome. As the wave ripples, I pull the pitcher back, then push forward again.

The rosetta is nice to look at, but to my eye, unremarkable. I set it on the counter, nod to the customer, turn and wash the pitcher.

I hear, over the water, something like the misbegotten child of "wow", "ah", and "oh", then excited chatter. I don't know what they're saying, because it's Chinese. But I feel then like it's a holiday. They've told me as much, and convinced me when the calendar could not.

September 22, 2011

Starbucks' Anniversary Shirts

Nevermind the loosely enforced dress code, I'd almost always wear black regardless. Perhaps it's an aesthetic representation of my coffee preference, or maybe just another step towards my inevitable hipsterism. In any case, my fashion sense is limited mostly to monochromatic shirts, paired with whatever jeans lack visible stains at the time. If I'm not running, that's probably what I'm wearing.

But inevitably, there are those in the coffee community who have more broad sartorial desires. Provided they're Starbucks fans, several name designers may have something to offer them.

For $85, celebrate Starbucks’ 40th anniversary.  Three noted designers — Alexander Wang, Sophie Theallet, and Billy Reid — have been tapped to create the $85 t-shirts commemorating the coffee company’s anniversary.  The trio are all past recipients of the Council of Fashion Designers of America/Vogue Fashion Fund award, which offers grants to emerging American designers.
The t-shirts will be available at Nordstrom or can be bought online directly from Starbucks itself.
All three tees relate back to coffee and Starbucks’ business, with Theallet’s cleverly covered in a map of the world, apparently to represent the chain’s global ubiquity.  We particularly like Wang’s tee for its subtle utility, however — it depicts a milky coffee stain turning into Starbucks’ Siren logo.   So when you eventually spill coffee on your designer t-shirt while rushing to work, you can just claim that splatter is supposed to be there.

September 20, 2011

Not Worth its Salt

Work with coffee long enough, and you'll try things. I suppose it's the same with any endeavor, but coffee is the one with which I'm most familiar, of course. In any case, however captivating the basic tasks are, you'll inevitably be motivated to step outside of that routine, and to try things. Things that might sound awful, and might be just that. But you never know unless you try.

Today, that's what I did.

A preface, first of all - or perhaps a justification. I take my coffee and espresso black, and have no real desire to do otherwise on a consistent basis. Still, many people do use condiments; cream and sugar are the most ubiquitous. The intrepid barista - perhaps searching for a competition worthy signature drink - might try other things.

So we're clear, putting something in coffee is not uncommon. Not that anyone would contend that it is, of course. Putting something in the portafilter with espresso is less normal, except for turbinago sugar, in which case you've got a "Cuban". But still, this is an acknowledged drink. It's on the occasional menu, and any barista worth their salt will know how to prepare it, if ordered.

Speaking of salt... It doesn't work so well, when added to the portafilter, and pulled with espresso. In fact, the result was truly awful. I sipped, cringed, then managed another bit. Then I tossed the rest, unable to imagine finishing even the ~1.5oz that remained.

But you work with coffee long enough, and you try things. Dreadful, horrible, palate blanching things.

September 16, 2011

Giorgio Milos, the Answers

Credentials are not the same as qualifications, no matter how often the two are equated. Expertise is not easily quantified by titles, or even at all. Having said that, it's hard to argue with Giorgio Milos' resume.

He is  illycaffè's North American barista in residence, as well as an instructor at illy’s Università del Caffè. He is certified by the Specialty Coffee Association of Europe as a Master Barista and trainer. He writes about coffee for The Atlantic, and oh, won the Italian Barista Championships in 2008. 

I am certified by no one, mostly self trained, write only for this blog, and have never competed in (let alone won) a barista contest. Regardless, I was asked if I might have some questions for Giorgio, and if I might like to run his responses. As it turns out, I was interested. And so here we are, after a brief exchange. 

What makes a great barista?
Well tasting is the ultimate proof, but let me start from the beginning. If I can see behind the bar, I look at equipment quality -- everything, the machine, tamper, grinder -- and maybe even more important, how well that equipment appears to be maintained, and how clean and orderly the area is.  I'll watch the barista at work and see if the basics are being handled properly, especially the extraction time for espresso, which shouldn't exceed 30 seconds for a single shot. Of course, I'll ask what brand of coffee they use -- it doesn't have to be illy! -- and see if it is stored properly, if I can.  I look at presentation in the cup, where an unbroken, rich brown crema on top and a "clean cup," meaning no coffee running down the sides, I know there may be something good awaiting my palate.

What’s your favorite drink to make?
Oh, my favorite coffee drink is espresso…My everyday method is actually using illy's iperEspresso capsule system, because it creates perfect espresso in the cup every time in about 30 seconds.   Portion controlled systems are where equipment is headed at home, both at the lower end for brewed coffee and at the higher end for espresso. You can't argue with what they deliver in convenience, quality and consistency, and growing numbers of our on-premise accounts are using iperEspresso for those same reasons.  But I'm a traditionalist at heart, so when I have the time, I prefer grinding, tamping and pulling the old fashioned way.  On weekends, I like to use my Moka pot.  It reminds me of home!  In the summer, I like to also drink iced espresso. I don’t use milk.

What is it about coffee that makes it such a unique social beverage?
Coffee was the official drink of the Enlightenment and some of the most important artistic and cultural movements were born in the first coffee bars. This is why coffee is the perfect companion to culture and illycaffè for over twenty years has been choosing art, literature, and creativity as a whole to express its own values and its philosophy. The act of sharing a cup of coffee, the ritual behind creating it and interaction with the barista creates a social environment and encourages discussion.

Because these are topics on which I've endless interest - and because his answers are satisfying in terms of length and depth - I'm going to devote subsequent posts to examining each answer. But for now, I'll just thank Giorgio and illy both.

September 15, 2011

Managing Expectations

The lessons that stick with us are not always those on a syllabus. Perhaps the most enduring example from my High School experience is this little nugget: "Don't lower people's expectations before you start. Let them decide you're horrible on their own. They might even think you're great."

It was a speech class, and the teacher had heard enough prefaces that were, in fact, apologies for hypothetical transgressions. It's not that there is anything wrong with "I'm sorry", in the same way that there isn't anything wrong with hot sauce. But you might want to use both judiciously.

I bring this up now, because yesterday was a good day for foam. More than usual cappuccinos stacked on unflavored lattes, and even a few macchiatos. But it's not just that these orders were placed, as by whom they were placed. Which is to say, educated coffee drinkers, who knew what they wanted, and had some basic grasp of what their drink ought to look like. My kind of people in general, but one stood out.

"How good is your cappuccino foam?" she inquired. Taken out of context, this seems an aggressive query - and it is, at least, rather blunt. But if you've seen the quality of cappuccino often served, even at otherwise well-run establishments, you'll feel the question justified.

The first instinct of some might be to engage in a preemptive strike against her expectations, say something like "fine", or "I'll do my best". Others will start further back, and perhaps try and manage things further. After all, start expectations low enough, and you don't disappoint anyone.

But I remembered that High School lesson. I tried to keep the hubris from sprouting, and my proclamation becoming too boastful. "Good," I said, in a flat monotone. "You'll be happy with it."

She ordered, thus leaving only the matter of delivering. Which isn't so hard. Forget the expectations in general, and just steam the milk. Easy.





Accept thanks, offered in the form of a post-drink "Wow."

September 13, 2011

Instant Gratification

There is a point at which the quality of coffee consumed is outweighed by the mere presence of the stuff. This correlates nicely, which is to say that the more arduous the circumstance, the worse coffee you'll find palatable.

It is with that preface that I must admit to consuming Trader Joe's instant coffee this Saturday night. Furthermore, I must confess that, in the moment, it was as satisfying as the finest Yirgacheffe. If you feel inclined to revoke whatever card I carry for my coffee elitism, now would be the time to do it. I couldn't argue, really. I drank instant coffee, knowingly and willingly, without the slightest bit of coercion. And I liked it.

But there are circumstances.

Well, sure. But there are always circumstances. What sort of circumstances justify such a travesty?

See the previous post, for starters. If you can't penetrate the overly-verbose prose, or simply don't care much for my frequent running-related diatribes, this is basically the gist: There was a 100-mile ultramarathon. I signed on to help, and in so doing, ended up logging about 40 miles myself on Saturday. (As an aside, I should note that this isn't bragging. I don't think I'm any kind of remarkable athlete. Rather, I think everyone is capable of more than they think, and that you can teach yourself to keep picking your feet up. But I digress.)

The scene, then, was the same picnic shelter mentioned previously, stocked with various kinds of salt, starch, and sweets. In short, there was endurance fuel aplenty, save for caffeine, my favorite kind. I had brought to bottles of cold press, which had been used to prepare the morning's hot coffee. But morning, for everyone there, was between 4:30 and 5:30. Thus it went quickly - and with plenty of thanks to the provider of it, I might add.

It was, as I returned from my last lap of the evening, about 8 PM. Calories were the first priority, which I consumed easily enough. After choking down several handfuls of pretzels, a bagel, and two cups of tomato sauced pasta, my appetite felt somewhat sated. At least, my stomach volume had mostly been filled, which required a stop to eating, lest I lose the food I'd just consumed.

Still, I felt a bit off. Granted, one might expect to feel a bit off, after spending 8-10 hours running over technical trail. But this was not an "off" born of exertion, but rather deprivation. Simply, it had been far too long - and with far too little sleep - since I had last consumed coffee. A reasonable man might have gone to bed. A reasonable man might also not attend ultras, and offer to do "whatever needs done". So no, I would not be going to sleep for some time yet. There was, perhaps, more to do. At the very least, there were other volunteers to entertain with my witty banter.

Thus, we finally wind back around to the start. The only coffee left available was Trader Joe's instant. I dosed it, or rather, I poured it until it covered the bottom of the cup. This seemed appropriate, to my glucose-starved mind. There was just-off-the-boil water, which I poured to the cup's rim. I sniffed. It seemed flat, a little like acrid smoke.

Then I sipped, and sipped a bit more, then gulped. Then, it was perfect, because it was there. The caffeine and the residual endorphins made fast friends, danced a stimulatory tango and resigned fatigue to the periphery. I stood, paced, grabbed more pretzels, then considered going back out. I decided that another cup would be necessary, consumed it, then decided that my regained energy would be better spent regaling the other lagging volunteers with information about quinoa's amino acid profile and the sole of my running shoes.

September 9, 2011

The Trail Head

At some point, you realize you really ought to be afraid. By any conventional metric, what you are about to attempt is foolish, at least - and probably dangerous too. And yet you're smiling, excited. The adrenaline prefaces the endorphins, and you can't help but wonder if this is all some chemical mask. Perhaps your body is hiding the fear behind this veil of ecstasy. Perhaps this is the sensation of shock, blocking the pain before it has a chance to set in.

Maybe all of that is true. But maybe those conventional metrics are only good for measuring conventional things. Maybe the measures are faulty, and maybe the conventions are too.

I walked towards the picnic shelter, a humble wood awning overlooking dense brush, and lower, Clinton Lake's North Shore. People milled about, which was almost surprising. These were ultrarunners, a species of pseudo-humans, endurance creatures bred from whipcord and bone. Or so the perception is. The reality, as it turns out, looks very much like the average. The visible fitness was unremarkable. There was beer, burgers, and pasta, consumed in fairly typical picnic quantities.

Peel back that vainer, however, and realize that there are two kinds of veggie burgers present: One is vegan, the other is not. The beer is darker, heartier, and from obscure brands. There are no sandals or hiking boots, only running shoes, flat things built for slicing through dirt and rock. And the shirts do not proclaim allegiance to any sports team, but rather names and dates of races and distances past. People are eating quinoa salad, whole wheat pasta with tomato sauce, discussing veganism and lycopene and midfoot striking.

But they are talking, to each other and to me. I brought cold press coffee, of which no one is partaking. That's because they're all getting up at 5:00 AM to race 100 miles. The coffee might be appreciated then. And that, in case you're wondering, is the crazy part. That's what sets this dinner party apart from the 30 or so others, this huddled mass of cloaked cardiovascular godhood.

I'm the barista for this event, insofar as I brought the coffee. It's what I do. It's what people have come to expect of me. I'm not racing, however. But the dramatic prelude isn't a facade - I am running. How far, I don't know. Nor am I really sure how fast. But it will be 23 miles, at least, of moderate jogging, at least, on rocks and roots and slippery dirt. At least. It's called pacing, or circuiting, both of which make the endeavor sound nearly effortless. It's not.

This is the part where, once again, I realize the degree of effort involved in said task. I know what it takes; and I know that it takes a lot. I know a lot of things, but mostly, I don't know much. Trail running is like that. Things happen. Bad things, good things, glorious things. I'm banking on the latter. In case of the former, I did bring those two bottles of sweet black release.

September 8, 2011

Another Lesson

In the event that I get bogged down in technicalities, days like today are instructive. You learn, time and time again, that the job is not truly measured in tamping pressure or extraction rate. And while the quality of the product should never be far from the focus, it's not the most vital thing.

That distinction goes to the people on the other side of the counter. They are, as we're often reminded, the reason baristas exist. Without customers, there are no orders, no money, and thus no job. For those who do enjoy the job, that's plenty reason enough.

And yet it's not wholly explanatory, or even largely. For while I enjoy the job, my interactions with customers have little to do with ensuring their repeat business. Frankly, it's about the furthest thing from my mind. What I am concerned with, rather, is their happiness.

This is the part where you roll your eyes, shake your head, or otherwise express that your bullshit detector is sounding. That's ok. I don't expect to convince anyone of my benevolence. That's because, for the most part, this isn't benevolence. Neither is this a parasitic relationship, but a symbiotic one. I'm happy that they're happy, to put it simply.

Am I that needy? Maybe. Am I that chatty? Certainly. The why isn't known to me, nor is it terribly important. Things can get endlessly complicated if you let them, and I certainly can do that. But this is simple, really. We are social creatures, wired to take pleasure from familiar company, and stimulating exchange of ideas.

That caffeine happens to be around to provide additional stimulation is only of added benefit.

September 6, 2011

The Sad Vegan(?)

It is the job of anyone in the service industry, most of the time, to leave customers feeling better after the interaction than before. Most of the time. There are occasions were truths must be told, hearts broken. Today was one such day.

The customer approached, a young woman who's appearance I don't recall with any specificity. She smiled, and had a cheery air to her voice. Her disposition seemed, on the whole, positive. She ordered a soy mocha, no whipped cream. Thus far, no alarms.

Then, she noticed the vegan brownies, and grabbed one. But she didn't just take one. "Ooh," She said. "A vegan brownie." The italics were my cue. A vegan, I thought. Wait. A vegan? A mocha?

"Umm," I said. "If you're looking to avoid dairy, the chocolate we use is milk chocolate."

A shift. Palpable. "Oh," she said. "Then something without chocolate." What she felt, likely, was a sensation of alarming disingenuity, the accusational stare of so many dairy cows, judging her from behind the factory walls.

Or perhaps something not quite so dramatic as that. I don't pretend to know the depth of her vegan pride - or, honestly, if she's vegan at all. But I do know that the cheery disposition she entered with was not what she left with, though she assured me that the drink she ended up with was every bit as good as the mocha she had desired.

Perhaps. I'd like to think it was. But however good, it was not chocolate. And chocolate, however good, now seems less of an option for her. So did I do her a service, or quite the opposite? Was ignorance bliss, or is knowledge power?

This is the part where I don't have an answer.

September 1, 2011

Element Shaolin Review

I was right, as it turns out, in assuming that a skate shop would have my most desirable shoe options. I found a wall of flat shoes, modest in appearance, designed to be stood in for hours at a time. I also found the above, which is not a skate shoe per se, but is made by Element.

So, you bought knock-off Tom's?

I would say no, if only because Tom's hardly invented the slipper/house-shoe design. But it is popular now, so the comparison insists itself in to the discussion. The aesthetic is different, in several ways. And I have to admit, I like the minimalist appearance.

Mostly, I bought the most comfortable thing I could find. The canvas upper and inner lining feel great on bare feet or socks. The hold isn't great, but I'm not running in these. The cork blended mid-sole is cushion enough for my feet, without being awkward or cumbersome. The shoe has left my legs feeling better at the end of a shift than anything else I've worn - which is a priority, when you've got running to do.

Of course, your mileage may vary. Anyone looking for great traction should look elsewhere. And if you want arch support, or any manner of stabilizing or cushion features, you'll not find them here. The shoe's greatest appeal is in it's ability to disappear, and allow you to feel as if you're not wearing it. Call it addition by subtraction, a time tested design, or cynical pop-Buddhist marketing.

But you can also call them 25$. For a moderate shift's tips, I can hardly imagine a better barista shoe.