November 26, 2011

In Other News, Good Coffee is Good

When asked, "What is art?", Picasso is said to have responded with "What is not?"

Gas station and hotel coffee, for starters. As an Italian gent, I'm sure Pablo fancied a well pulled double, with perhaps the occasional dollop of milk foam. We might assume that this consummate renaissance man never had the putrid, black water served for our "convenience" at otherwise well meaning mid-western locals.

Well good for him. But not so good for me.

I am spoiled, no doubt, though the extent to which that is the case wasn't clear to me before these last few days. I've grown accustomed to drinking Broadway Coffee at work, and other small roasters at home. These are single origin beans, handled by practiced and passionate hands at every step of the process. You taste the result - bright, clear, complex flavors.

And then you have something else, something that could hardly be further removed from that vintage. This is not a revelation. Or at least, it shouldn't be. Specialty coffee ought to be special; otherwise, what are we doing with our lives?

But there is knowing, and then there is knowing.

The latter requires experience, a few days of absence making the heart grow fonder. And mine, having just finished a cup of Peter Asher's New Guinea, is all aflutter. I am spoiled, perhaps something of an elitist. But whatever I may be, I am with good coffee sending a surge of dopamine through my brain.

November 22, 2011


First things first: If diet coke and espresso form a rather less-than-the-sum-of-its-parts mix, diet coke and cold press make something so much better. It's like chocolate sparkly dessert coffee, or something like that. It's so good you almost won't be ashamed to admit it, sipping it behind the counter, insisting to anyone that asks that you're just drinking iced coffee - nevermind the bubbles you think you see. You still won't put it on the menu, though; if for no other reason than admitting to creating (and having to name) the abomination.

Be thankful for that conversation, that will never happen. And while we're at it, be thankful for other things as well. Be thankful for pour-over cones, single cup trends, and lighter beans. And be thankful for the overly-sweet stuff that actually makes you money. Mostly, be thankful for the source of that money, the customers - who are really much more than that. There are surely other things as well, specific to you. But I wouldn't know anything about that.

But I do know about myself, and the things I'm happy about, this random day in November.

- That this blog has supplied me with free beans, to such an extent that I've not paid for a bag in... longer than I can recall.

- That anyone reads this, honestly.

- That I'm getting to play coffee bar manager, on a daily basis. And no one is making me stop.

- Latte art. I can do it.

- The races I ran, both the positive results and the negative. You learn from all of it, maybe more the latter.

- The trails out at Clinton Lake. I haven't had a bad run there, and every race goes better than I had hoped.

- That this isn't the end of anything. I can, rather unbelievably, call myself a coffee bar manager and ultramarathon runner (well, I ran most of it...). But the coffee, running, and writing, will all get better.

November 21, 2011

A Runner By Any Other Name

The question of identity is a complicated one, with divergent answers that inspire controversy to confusion. But sign yourself up for a club, and that's that. You're a member - whether there's a card to carry or not.

The above is the running club to which I belong. Lawrence, as you likely know, houses the University of Kansas Jayhawks. The Trail Hawks moniker, probably, is inspired by that. But I don't know for sure. A name tells you a lot - but not everything.

Still, my name is fairly instructive. That is, my club name. The Trail Hawks, at some point which, as best I can tell, is arbitrary, bestow upon new members a "Hawk Name". It is a name. That ends with "Hawk". But moreover, it tells the rest of the club something about you. And, since they pick it, it shows how they see you as well.

My name? Barista Hawk. As if there could have been any other choice.

November 18, 2011

Diet Coke + Espresso = .....

Legend has it that Earl Grey tea was first made by accident, the product of tumultuous waves rocking a boat carrying both black tea and bergamot oil. When the product, soggy and astringent, made its way to England, it found reprieve on the palate of Earl Grey himself. So smitten was he with the concoction that he made it his daily tea. Others, prone vulnerable to the influence of a powerful man - and, perhaps, a decent tea - followed suit.

That's the legend. The truth is somewhere, hiding from a more-interesting story.

True or not, happy accidents are a time honored tradition in the culinary world. Put this and that together, see what happens. You probably won't die, and you may even find the next great thing. With that in mind, it's the rare barista that hasn't tried to put espresso where it doesn't belong.

Early Grey, born of a random mash-up, was attempted yesterday. The result was predictably awful, the oil turning violently bitter and leaving an aluminum coat on the tongue. I looked at the other leaves, trembling in their clear containers, and decided that none could withstand espresso.

My eyes turned to the right, however, to the fridge in which we keep our soda and juice. Espresso is potent stuff, strong and hearty. But it cannot melt corrosion off of car batteries. For that, you need coke - regular or diet will do. I opted for the latter, because whatever dangers aspartame may hint at, it's probably better (or at least less deadly) than corn syrup.

I poured a can of diet coke in to a cup, with ice, and pulled two shots. They were - thanks, in part, to my new baskets - lovely. I had left a little room in the cup, but not nearly enough, as it turns out. The coke fizzed, bubbled, and a tan head spilled on to the counter. It looked like a chemistry experiment, which I suppose it was. Once separated, the aesthetic was similar to a dark beer - black body, rusty orange head.

I sipped the froth first, and found it thick, almost chewy. It was not pleasant, but not offensive either. Seeking consistency, I stirred it in, and tried once more. This time, the flavors meshed better. It was bitter, sweet - bittersweet, you might say - and just a little flat. It tasted like I had left the coke out for too long, and something had gone ever so slightly rancid - but in the least awful way possible.

Still, I'd never put this on the menu as anything other than a novelty. Cold press and coke would almost certainly work better, though I can't be sure. At least, it probably wouldn't produce dishwater soap on top. I guess I'll just have to try.

And on running shoes: My last post discussed my looking for a workhorse/racehorse, a responsive shoe with enough underfoot to handle 50-70 miles a week, 20+ mile training runs on pavement, rocks, and dirt, that doesn't feel like a brick or a slipper. I can't say that I've found it, but the Mizuno Wave Musha 3 is the closest I've come. I'd prefer a lower heel and more flexible midfoot, and its trail performance has yet to be tested. Still, I've never run in something so pavement/treadmill friendly. It neuters the impact, without dampening your response. Now, if New Balance would sneak the MT110 out the door just a little early, I'd have a perfect, two-shoe stable.

November 13, 2011

Good Enough, Isn't

I ran a half-marathon yesterday, finishing in 1:32:08 - good for 9th out of roughly 300. Given the course, the temperature, and the wind, I'm quite pleased with that time. I'm certainly pleased that I didn't need to demolish myself to achieve it. I ran comfortably, and trusted that my fitness would be enough to produce a respectable time.

This will not be a full-fledged race report, as I've done before, as there is very little to write about. It was a hilly course, which I enjoy. The downhills are free speed, and the uphills offer a break from the impact of running. There were some nice people, and overall, the race was very well run.

What I want to talk about, instead, is the above picture. That's me, mid-stance. Other than some minor hip collapse, my form looks decent. I look cold, like I'm running a 7 minute mile in to a stiff, frigid breeze. Because I am. You may notice that I'm wearing a pair of Saucony Hattori, a shoe marketed as more of a tool for strides than anything. Certainly, you wouldn't put serious mileage on them. Maybe, if you're very efficient, you could race a 5K in them.

That picture was taken near mile 9, of what would end up being the fastest (and easiest) half marathon I've ever run. (Talking about speed is relative here, as what is fast for me may be awfully slow for someone else. Suffice it to say, given my history and relative inexperience, this was a good time - for me.) My legs, you may notice, are still attached. It's also the first race I've done in the Hattori, always opting for more traditional flats in the past.

Also, the past few weeks, my drink quality has improved. It's not that it wasn't good before, just that the consistency was dialed in. My shots pulled more evenly, with richer crema, and at a comfortable rate. The baskets were getting dented, but no matter, the results were the best I'd ever experienced.

So, I changed nothing, embraced the status quo, and went with "good enough".

Or, I bought new baskets. These, to be exact. I've used them for one day, yet already, the results are undeniable. All of the things my shots were doing better before, they've improved on further. In this case, "good enough" was anything but.

That's where I'm at with my shoes, as well. I'm running better than ever before, by any metric you'd like to use. It would be easy to embrace the status quo, to assume that my barefoot simulators are best, in all circumstances. But I don't really believe that. So I'll try to find a flat, with enough underfoot to be a workhorse, yet spry enough to be a racehorse. And I'll try to improve, because ultimately, what's on your feet merely allows you to take advantage of your fitness.

November 11, 2011

Looking for Failure

"Only those who risk going too far can possibly find out how far they can go." -T.S. Eliot

Now Eliot, it should be said, may not be the best person from whom to take life advice. He wrote The Wasteland, after all, perhaps the most dense miasma of words to ever earn the title of poetry. But, manic depressive though he almost certainly was, Eliot was on to something here.

Without the risk of failure, there will never be success. But more than that, failure itself is instructive. When the mere thought of doing something scares you, it's probably worth a shot.

I remember standing at the starting line for my first half-marathon, contemplating the lunacy of running 13.1 miles, wondering if I might just die. I did not; although I did manage to lacerate my feet in several places, and pace myself so foolishly as to walk most of the last mile. But I also finished in 1:39 - not bad for a trail race. The confidence that race gave me helped push me from "guy who runs a bit and does other fitness related stuff in order to be thin" to "runner". I've since run a 50-miler, and am currently looking forward to running farther, faster, and more.

Taking over management duties for my coffee bar was even more horrifying. Fail at a race, and you fail no one else. But fail at a job, and the customers, employer, and coworkers all go down with you. At least a little bit. That's the fear, anyway, that the weight of responsibility will crush you, that orders won't happen, and that business will vanish.

Still, that fear was reason to accept - beyond the obvious financial incentive. I did not know if I could do it - and on some level, I still don't. Yet, others seem largely pleased. Sales are up, costs are down, people are happy. No one, as best I can tell, wants me dead. I'm getting comfortable in the bigger shoes, which is reason, in and of itself, to be afraid. Comfort, too easily, can turn to complacency. And that's when the hammer drops.

Of course, if you keep running, it'll probably land behind you. And that's my plan. Stay just a little afraid, go looking for failure, and see where I end up.

November 10, 2011

About That Hipster Barista Meme

That hipster barista pic I took? Well, it's catching on just a bit. With just over a hundred views, it's already scooted on to the first "upcoming" page. People seem to enjoy it. Which is good, I suppose, because I enjoyed taking it. However, if this thing is to become more of a thing, then I ought to say just a little more about the inspiration for this venture.

Or rather, I ought to direct you somewhere else - here, to be exact. Now, having read that, you've probably got something like an opinion gestating. Perhaps you think this fellow takes himself too seriously, or maybe you think he's right to be offended.

I don't really think either of those things, since I don't think the meme really has much to do with coffee at all. Sure, it's called "hipster barista". But look at the original picture again. See an espresso machine? A coffee cup? Anything at all like that? No; there aren't any pictured. The focus, rather, is on the scarf, the chest tattoo, and the "I mean super serious business" face being made.

That, I think, is why our barista is a bit peeved. If coffee were the joke, I tend to think he'd be laughing right along. But since people are making jokes at his expense, well, that's a little harder to swallow. Still, that's exactly what he should have done. Run with the joke, let people know you're in on it, and embrace it. To take offense is to confirm the kind of attitude the picture suggests. And that's a problem.

I realize there are those in the coffee community who will not like my opinion on this, nor will they appreciate me attempting to further the meme. Maybe I'm just exploiting the whole thing for attention; maybe I don't respect the business enough. Maybe, but I don't think so. If this blog were about getting attention, it would have a nicer background, a lot less words, more reviews, and less rambling about running. And if I didn't value coffee, I wouldn't have spent most of my adult life working with it.

Ultimately, this isn't meant to be a statement about anything. It's a joke - maybe a funny one, maybe not. But - as I'm all too fond of saying in real life about supposed drama - it's whatever. Life is serious enough as is, without our taking it as such.

November 9, 2011

Keep it Simple, Stupid

I received a useful bit of advice from a local roaster recently, although I didn't write about it at the time, nor have a done much to take it to heart. But it occurred to me this morning, as I attempted yet another in an endless succession of tweaks to my pour over brewing method. The result, as usual, was usual. Which is not to say that it wasn't good - very good, even - so much as it was the same kind of good it typically is. (Tense shifting and passive voice in the same sentence? Looks that way.)

I was at a tasting, and his coffee was being provided. He talked us through the affair, noting the differences between different washes, origins, roasts, etc. To the attending group, all of these things seemed revelatory. Their knowledge, previously limited to what the bag told them, was expanding rapidly, and they probed further. The questions were charming and heartening, showing a genuine interest in knowing more, in brewing right, and ultimately, in drinking better coffee.

These are interests I share, and as such, I had questions as well. They were specific, and not surprisingly, concerned with matters which might be called minutia. He looked aside, twisted his mouth, and without the implied "you" said that "A lot of people make things too complicated. I think, basically, drink what you like."

If this statement strikes you as completely obvious, congratulations, you're less neurotic than I. Too often, I'm driven by a desire to do things right, merely for its own sake. The enjoyment gleaned from the product is secondary, seated behind the satisfaction from a job - if not well done - done properly. So it is with my pour over technique, always changing, and not based on the extend to which I enjoy the product. The same is true for my espresso prep, milk steaming, and milk pouring.

Probably, there is some extent to which this is needed. If one is to do something for a living, one might be inclined to devote a fair bit of thought to doing it optimally. If the unexamined life is not worth living, then the unexamined job is not worth doing. But there is a line there, somewhere. Things can be analyzed until they are scarcely things anymore, reduced to parts of components parts.

Thus it's useful to remember, coffee is actually rather simple. And while I tend to make things too complicated, that truth is not sufficient justification for its own perpetuation. Fresh ground quality beans, mixed reasonably with hot water, will yield an enjoyable product. And it's that product, and the enjoyment of it, which ought to be the focus.

November 6, 2011

Better Than Football and Beer

There is something right about a Sunday morning spent drinking Ethiopian coffee, watching East Africa's finest distance runners torch the New York City pavement. And although Kenyan dominance is at its apex, Ethiopia represented itself well, claiming the first two spots in the women's race. The unrelated Mutais of Kenya topped the men's field, Geoffrey (he of the unofficial fastest marathon ever) dropping the proverbial hammer on everyone else.

You watch, noting the arm carriage, foot strike, turnover, and facial expressions. You try and glean from those things anything you can, hoping to emulate their technique - and thus their success. You feel a bit like an 8-year-old flipping your bat around like Barry Bonds in the back yard, thinking his timing mechanism will enable you to crush 40 homers a year. (We'll not mention the steroid induced forays beyond that number, in his later years.)

But ultimately, you know better. It's not any of those things that makes the runner. Nor is it the shoes, despite all the talk these days about them. (I'm as guilty as anyone.) The outward appearance is merely the chassis, under which the real work is being done. The heart, lungs, muscles and skeleton all pushed, strained and tortured - their protests ignored. It's that mental fortitude that wins and loses races, the ability to override and ignore your governor. That's as true for you and I as for Mutai.

And that's how I watched the New York City Marathon, coffee in hand. To be anything but inspired is to lack a pulse. And so I'm going to have another cup of Yirgi, head to the trail, and see how high I can push mine.

November 5, 2011

Hipster Barista Meme

There has been too much controversy recently over the "hipster barista" meme, created and propagated on quickmeme. Well, instead of offer an insightful take on the "issue", I opted to do this.

November 1, 2011

Peter Asher's Yirgacheffe

There are several things worth noting, right off the bat. First of all, this coffee was provided to me, so that I could offer my opinion on it. If that suggests bias, then so be it. Second, I have a disproportionate fondness for coffee from this particular region. At its best, it's clean, fruity, and refreshing, like a not-to-sweet lemonade on a summer day. And finally, this specific coffee embodies all of those traits perfectly.

But let me back up, for just a moment. The coffee in question is Peter Asher's Ethiopian Yirgacheffe. The company is a small one, based out of Champaign, Illinois. It offers wholesale coffee, much of which is sourced directly from a farmer with whom the proprietors have a relationship.

The Yirgacheffe is despribed thusly: What did the Olympic gold-medalist say to the Rastaman? It isn’t difficult to understand, really ... That a country with some of the highest mountain peaks in Africa as well as some of the lowest elevations on dry land would provide some of the purest, simply unmitigated premium coffee beans around. Waterfalls, active volcanoes, prehistoric and medieval history, a biblical monarchy; This land has everything! Some even say that its home to the emergence of the first humans. Well, did you know that it’s also the birthplace of the coffee bean? Just look up the history of coffee to see for yourself.

Ethiopia’s had quite a while to get it right. This hot cup of coffee captures the simple pleasure of what it means to be human. Our roast of these ancient beans extracts the clean, pure, slightly fruity quality that only they could offer. Simply put its some of the best coffee in the world. So, what did the Ethiopian Olympic gold-medalist say to the Rastaman? Welcome home.
Well. That's certainly not your average bean description. Not once is the word "bold" invoked, nor are there flavors or mouthfeels discussed. The bag itself sheds a little more light on what to expect, though again, there is a certain profile expected from a Yirgacheffe. You expect bright acidity, light body, and a tangy taste of lemon. As it's a washed bean, roasted light, these flavors are concentrated and direct. Of course, this leaves a little less room for error. Yirgacheffe, mishandled, can be acerbic and pungent, rather than clean and smooth.

With these preconceptions in mind, I opened the bag. The first thing to note is the bag itself: it contains a clever little plastic zipper, which can be used to re-seal the bag. You can then squeeze out the air through a one way opening, thus leaving your beans fresher for longer. If you grind them all at once, or order them ground, this would be especially useful.

In any case, I did neither of those things, grinding 4 tablespoons of beans for a pour over setup (somewhere between regular drip and espresso setting). I set 12 ounces of water to (just off the) boil, then went about pouring, in my regular pattern.

The smell, rising from the cup, had the vague lemon aroma of an Earl Grey. The taste delivered on that promised flavor, sweet but soft. Though there was certainly a clarity to the acidity, it never seemed biting, not the slightest bit astringent. The word clean, used in the description, comes to mind. It was smooth, almost too easy to drink too quickly. And so that's precisely what I did, not savoring the cup as much as I had intended to.

I don't have any numeric rating scale, or any other metric for grading coffee. I find the whole endeavor too subjective for that. I can say, however, that his coffee is everything a good Yirgacheffe ought to be, and lives up to the creative description and my expectations for the region. If a step away from dark, nutty or earthy is what you're looking for, or if you'd just like a taste of caffeinated summer, this is a very good place to start.