December 31, 2011

Review of Reviewing

If I've learned anything the past few days, it's that the quickest and easiest way to get blog hits is to do a review. It's also proven to be the best (only?) way to generate significant comment traffic. This is not revelatory, nor is it hard to guess why. People Google a thing, perhaps with the word "review" attached, and click whatever comes up. If it's this blog, so much the better.

This raises an interesting question, however: Who the hell asked me?

This point can be extrapolated to most any review writer, of course, but me being me, I'm going to focus on me. I think it's only fair, if I'm going to call in to question anyone's credentials (and possibly, to an extent, everyone's) that I start at home.

I remember the first time I was contacted to do a review. Or rather, I don't remember the specific instance. What I do remember is the sensation. I was a bit giddy, and more than that, flattered. Someone wanted to know what I though, not just of a coffee in general, but of their coffee. They wanted my opinion, which I had already been inclined to give. Only now, it had been lent a dose of credibility.

Or had it? This is a question I've wrestled with for a while now, and not yet come to a decent answer. How do we establish credibility? Who decides what opinions matter? After all, a customer might try some of the single origin beans from Broadway Cafe that I serve at work, and declare them awful. They would be "wrong", because there is something of a consensus that Broadway makes some sweet coffee. And they do - at least according to me.

But again, why do I get to decide? I have been in the biz for several years now, and I have read most everything available on the subject. I'm informed, no doubt. And I do consume both a great deal of coffee and a great deal of variety. My palate is well traveled, and well versed in what coffee should taste like.

That experience matters, probably, insofar as it lends a touch of real world credibility to whatever coffee related stuff I write. But I think it's the writing itself - and more importantly, the fact that anyone reads it - that creates the real authority. In that sense, this whole business is a bit like money. A one hundred dollar bill, by virtue of its materials, is worth next to nothing. It is not worth one hundred times the amount of a one dollar bill, certainly. And yet it is, because we have all agreed to accept it as such. By out collective cognitive dissonance, we have made this reality.

What this means, specific to the discussion of reviews, is that the only way an opinion matters, is if enough people think it does. Starbucks would never concern itself with something I wrote, because not enough people read me. But were Oliver Strand to crucify a company policy in the New York Times, that would merit a response, or at least some action.

If this all sounds a bit Orwellian, well, it is. 2+2=5, if we all say it does. To be right is to have the majority say you are. At least in terms of coffee quality, this is the case. There is no objective truth, nothing that is provably good or bad. Broadway's Yirgacheffe is the former, a decaf soy latte the latter, however, and no one would dare argue the point.

This is part of the reason why, typically, my reviews say nothing of how a coffee grades on some imagined scale. I'd rather focus on describing the characteristics of it, and let you decide if it's something that sounds appetizing. Because, though there are certainly rules about what one is supposed to like, the truth is rarely that simple. I've confessed an affection for the occasional quick 'n dirty cup of coffee, and however much I might deride them (never out loud, of course), the decaf soy latte drinker possesses perfectly valid tastes.

So, who asked me? All that matters, really, is that enough people did. Hopefully, they continue.

December 27, 2011

Poured Over

For all of my talk about simplicity, there is a distinction worth making: Simple isn't easy. Or at least, it isn't necessarily. A mile is a simple unit of measure, found on many roads, clearly marked. And yet running it, at full effort, is not at all easy.

This realization dawned on me this evening, as I struggled over a review. It's not up yet, obviously, nor will it be for a few days. This has nothing to do with the coffee itself, and everything to do with my preparing it. There's been some talk in the comments section, and on this blog in general, about pour over technique. Generally, I've been of the mind that it's best ignored.

But recent tastings are forcing me to reconsider this point. Trying the same bean, several different times, and getting a different cup can do that. It can make you question your technique, your equipment, and maybe, whether you're qualified to judge coffee at all. Anyone can write words on a free blog; who decided my opinion matters?

My confidence is not that eroded, it's worth noting. I'm quite good behind a bar, and I steam milk like a badass (insofar as that's possible) Still, if one is to review coffee, then one must also review the ways in which they make it. Right now, if I'm being perfectly honest, my pour over method isn't good enough; so any beans treated with it may not be done justice.

That said, I plan on fixing this. If that means abandoning the method in favor of a press pot, so be it; though I doubt anything that drastic will be required. Still, if I need a Hario V60, tell me. If a Chemex is needed, tell me that. Most of all, if there is anything resembling a definitive "how to do a pour over correctly, or at least, consistently" write-up, please do point it out.

I've never done a call for comments before, but consider this a first. In the meantime, I'll do some digging on my own.

December 24, 2011

To Beard, or Not to Beard

Take a look at the founding fathers of Handsome Coffee Roasters, the LA based offspring of Intelligentsia's best and brightest. Notice, if you will, the facial hair. (Yes, it's only 2/3 present.)

This, then, is Geoff Roes and Anton Krupicka, dueling at the 2010 Western States 100. Both would break the course record, held previously by the clean shaven (though still successful) Scott Jurek.

If these are the primary endeavors in which I seek success in life - making coffee and running on dirt - then it follows that I ought to do what the best do. And though there are exceptions (as in the first picture), a good swath of facial scruff seems to predict some measure of talent in both.

So I said, earlier this week, when I vowed to make a legitimate attempt at growing something. Well, I'm backing down from that challenge. Call me a quitter if you like, but sometimes, I think you just have to be honest. It's not happening for me. I look like a 14-year-old who has just discovered that, unlike the rest of his classmates, he has to shave. And so he won't, precisely to make that point. In junior high, maybe you can get away with that. But not in college, and certainly not post-grad.

Then I'll be brief. O happy razor! This is my face; there shave, and let me live. (5,000 points to anyone who gets the reference.)

December 22, 2011

The Third Dimension of Making Coffee

I'm going to steal a line now, a problem which is compounded by the fact that I don't recall from whom I'm stealing. "Minimalist running is running in 3D." Or something like that. The basic point is that, even on pavement or concrete, you're more aware of your foot placement, and thus more aware of the entire experience of running. That sensory feedback, after you're attuned to it, makes the whole movement feel almost accidental or, perhaps better, inevitable. It becomes like breathing, in that stopping would take conscious effort.

Now I'm biased, on this point. I was not a runner - not really - until I stumbled in to a pair of Merrel Trail Gloves. I had thought, before that, that mediocre 5Ks were the limits of my abilities, and that running was a thing to be endured rather than enjoyed. Now, my times have dropped in to the "somewhat respectable for a recreational guy" range, and my better race performances seem inversely proportional to the amount of stuff on my feet.

But you've almost certainly heard enough about barefoot/minimalist running recently. It's an omnipresent trend, even outside of the running bubble. It's done all the good things for me that you're sick of reading about, so I'll stop here. What I will do, after several paragraphs of blustering, is bring this thing around to coffee.

The concept of "running in 3D" struck me, not just as something I actively get, but as something with pretty good crossover potential. One might do anything "in 3D", which of course, to me, leads to coffee. Minimalist runners talk about "ground feel", the rapport your feet share with the earth that informs everything else your body is doing. The point is that you put as little material as possible between yourself and the experience.

This, I think, correlates quite nicely with the growing trend in the coffee business of pour over bars. We remove the mechanical element, involve ourselves in the process, and feel how we maneuver the grounds. The extraction rate, immersion, temperature, and everything else, is up to us. And yet it's not, when at its best. When it really goes right, the whole experience becomes thoughtless. You aren't "going through the motions", as if brushing your teeth, but rather embodying the Confucian ideal of effortless action.

Of course, a certain amount of neurosis can disrupt this. A great number of would-be-barefoot runners still don't trust their body, paradoxically, and so end up fretting over the minutia of form. They don't trust their senses to give them the feedback they need, or their body to respond correctly. When we worry too much about the "right" way to do a pour over, we lose the intimacy of the preparation. It becomes a formula rather than poetry.

The ideal, then, is something like trusting the feedback your eyes and experiences give you. You know, on some level, what the slurry ought to look like, how it ought to swell and bloom and writhe. Simply make that happen, trusting what you see, and what you feel. That, I think, is preparing coffee "in 3D". It doesn't require bullshit gimmickry. Quite the opposite. It requires a stripped down connection with the activity, an immersion that leads to bliss.

December 21, 2011

Winter Coat

Licata's beard, with man attached

Yes you can, proclaimed Outside magazine, run a Tough Mudder. Well, probably, I thought. I imagine I could slog through a ten mile pit of slop, and hopefully finish ahead of the Crossfit Endurance crowd. (As an aside, 200 pound men attempting to toe run, ala the Pose method, is great comedy. So thanks for that, Crossfit, if nothing else.) This was not a worthwhile goal for my break, if only because I'm already targeting a 50K.

I read Barista Magazine then, which included a profile and interview with Peter Licata, winner of the 2011 United States Barista Championships. Licata, a local barista made good, is noted for his successful competition record, his commitment to quality Hawaiian coffee, and his beard.

I went for coffee then, to another of Lawrence's downtown cafes. The barista, a careful and precise sort, had neatly groomed stubble. I walked for a bit, attempted some Christmas shopping, then stopped in to another cafe. The bar here was tended by less manicured stubble. In both cases, I enjoyed a well pulled double. The first round was richer, fuller, a robust 2 ounces of chocolate and cold suppressing comfort. The second was brighter, more acerbic and acidic, bits of black cherry cutting through the crema.

Caffeinated, I went home, and made my blog rounds. This includes a fair bit of trail/ultra runners, such as Anton Krupicka, Dominic Grossman, Nick Clark, Bryon Powell, Geoff Roes, and other beards. I mean runners. Or do I?

It hit me, then. Having barista'd for near on 5 years now, and run my fair share of trail miles (including one semi-botched ultra), there is a certain expectation I've yet to live up to. I have never, despite infrequent efforts, managed more than a lazy week's worth of not shaving. I have never committed to facial hair, and as such, it has never committed to me.

Well, stubble, it's time you and I spent some time together. I'm 23 years old now, a young man by most measures - but a man nonetheless. And sometimes, men grow beards. Baristas and trail runners do, anyway. Let's see if puberty stuck.

December 20, 2011

Going Out For Coffee

I imagine my response was not typical.

The owner of the coffee bar/s at which I work informed me that I'd be getting a week of paid time off, to be taken over the holiday, and wasn't that great? I stopped short of asking if I had to take it, and if perhaps I could just scrub floorboards instead.

"Well, um, if you do need hours, call me. I'm not going anywhere. At all. So I can work. If you want. Please. No really. Don't hesitate." I couldn't have sounded more like a desperate would be boyfriend, grasping at the unraveling strands of an unraveling relationship.

He assured me that they would be all right, and that I might relax. Perhaps I could go somewhere, or maybe just find ways to entertain myself around Lawrence. I said that I would think of something, knowing well enough that I probably wouldn't.

So, yesterday. Day one. I awoke whenever my body felt like it, and went about preparing oatmeal and coffee. The former was fine, the latter, strangely, was off. It tasted just fine - good even. I brewed using my usual pour over technique, and used some very good beans (that I need to review, probably). But as I sat, sipping in my black jeans, I realized that I didn't need to wear the jeans at all. And that informed me of the problem.

So I kept the jeans on, found a suitable shirt to toss on as well, and headed out the door. I drove downtown, and walked through the "wintry mix" to a coffee shop. My shoes had gotten soggy, my hair matted, and the rest of me, cold. I could have stayed home, saved my feet and my money. But as I looked around, seeing the people, hearing the sounds of grinding and hissing and popping, mostly, just caking myself in the atmosphere, I knew why I didn't.

I ordered a double espresso, sat at the bar, and sipped. I looked out the windows at the people walking by, hunched and half jogging, trying to dodge the precipitation. I saw others reading books, entranced by laptops, and chatting with someone else. There was flannel and jeans, thick rimmed glasses and jazz that sounded like it was filtered through a sock. And the coffee tasted right.

December 18, 2011

Green Mountain Espresso Review

Sometimes, we have to be honest with ourselves, even if that means challenging established dogma. Do I enjoy trail running so much because of the endorphins, the achievement, or is it just the shorts? (I'm not sure I can answer that, honestly.) Do I, artisan barista though I am, really feel like doing a pour over preparation this morning? The answer, on the proper occasion, is no.

So if we grant that there are times for laziness and convenience, then it follows that we should compromise as little as possible in that pursuit. Quick and easy coffee should still be drinkable, though not exquisite. I've reviewed Kcups before, finding the Barista Prima series from Green Mountain coffee completely palatable. This may sound like faint praise, but I'm picky. This, then, is a short review of Green Mountain's Espresso Blend.

First of all, I should say that two things struck me: The art on the box is nifty, and it's noted as "extra bold". Now, generally speaking, I hate the word bold. It's best used to describe the actions of some antiquated hero, not the flavor of coffee. But in this case, it's nice, in that it denotes a higher dose of grounds. Thus, I assumed that this would brew up well enough.

Today, I took the opportunity to find out. Having returned from a two or threeish hour trail running excursion, I wanted something to drink. And water or sports drinks, though probably more appropriate, didn't sound as good as coffee. (They never do.) But neither did I feel like using my Melitta. So, I popped in the Kcup, watched an oddly incapable Green Bay Packers offense struggle against the Chiefs, then brewed.

This is were expectations come in to play. I wasn't using an espresso machine, so there was no crema. That's ok. This was a drip preparation. Nor, honestly, did I expect any of the flavors the box claimed. What I wanted was simply a black cup of something that would demolish anything I could have grabbed at a gas station on the way home. And this did the trick. It was coffee that, as many might say, tasted like coffee.

Now I should say, this item has been discontinued. I grabbed it because it was on sale at a local grocer, while the Barista Prima series was not. Given the choice, I'd still opt for the latter. And yes, I just reviewed a product you probably can't buy. How very useful.

December 15, 2011


If there has been a relative lack of words here lately, it's only because there will probably be too many soon. I'm getting a week off (paid!), which is, paradoxically, somewhat awful. It's not that I don't have a life, so much as the one I do have is largely constructed around spending 8-10 hours a day doing coffee related things. Still, I'll make do.

In the mean time, be inspired.

December 10, 2011

A Mocha For Breakfast

If I can piggyback a bit, the New York Times certainly has the room to carry me. And Mark Bittman is a big reason why. He's authored many cookbooks, and frankly, more useful food polemics than the more famous Michael Pollan.

His latest deals with breakfast cereal, or in other words, America's morning bowl of candy. We're told it's the most important meal of the day (for some reason), but people are often too busy (they'd say) to prepare something themselves. As such, they pour crisped up something or other from a box, douse it in milk, and consume.

I'll stop there, because there's no reason to write the linked article again. What I will do, however, is draw a parallel with coffee.

There is an ever increasing body of scientific literature that links coffee drinking with lower incidence of just about everything you want to avoid. It probably does some good things too, especially if you're about to go run.  But while the evidence is growing, it's unfortunately irrelevant for most coffee drinkers. That's because, when most people refer to their morning coffee, they are, in fact, talking about a bucket of milk and sugar.

Before I go any further, I should say this: There is nothing wrong with people making that choice. I ate a cookie yesterday, and do not feel as if I've contributed to the metabolic epidemic in this country. Eat what you like; drink what you like.

It is a little troubling, however, to see the number of people for whom a mocha is breakfast. It's not that they can't enjoy such a drink - just that it's better served as a treat, rather than a meal.

Perhaps more troubling is that these are the sorts of coffee drinks most likely to be consumed by the younger crowd. Teenagers do not drink black coffee. They do like milkshakes though, even with trace espresso tossed in. This is a lifetime taste we're encouraging, and perhaps, some damaging consequences are being facilitated.

Of course, none of this is really my concern. Nor, in fact, will it be a revelation to anyone. No one orders a mocha thinking that it's the healthy choice. Perhaps I'd be better served not to undermine my sentiments so soon after expressing them, but in this case, it can't be helped. What to eat and drink is a free choice, as it should be. But sometimes, the better decision has to be noted.

December 8, 2011

This Round's On Teacher

Though I may occasionally sound the embittered recent graduate, I'm reasonably positive about my college experience. There were things about it I didn't care for, of course. Mostly, I felt there was too much emphasis put on filling out seemingly endless gen-ed requirements, rather than focusing on areas of interest. But by in large, I feel like I learned things. And that's mostly the point.

Still, there are those teachers who strive to reach those mired in a me-esque apathy. They may do so using any number of techniques, but I doubt that any work as well as buying your students coffee, as no fewer than three teachers did today.

Sure, it's probably a tax write-off. And no, it's not any great expense. But the gesture is appreciated. So too is the caffeine; at least by those who consume it. A fair few opted for hot chocolates instead, which, given the freshmanish look to the students, wasn't a surprise.

But there was an exception to this rule. One teacher ordered for her class, rather than letting them choose. 12 shots of espresso - one for each student - were requested. As I worked, enjoying the rhythm of pulling shots, she told them a little about the drink they were about to receive, how they might modify it, and how they should consume it. I don't know what class this was, but Espresso 101 seemed an appropriate name at that time.

Of course, the reactions were equally instructive. Most recoiled a bit, marveled at how strong this little ounce of liquid was, and exclaimed something unintelligible. But whether they like the taste or not, all seemed to enjoy the experience. It was, at the very least, something new - Dare I say, a learning experience?

In any case, kids, welcome to academia. I'm sure I'll be seeing you all again. 

December 6, 2011


Lest my last post give you the impression that I've abandoned my health conscious ways, I assure you that I remain as neurotic and nutrient cognizant as always. A healthy cardiovascular indulgence burns a fair number of calories, sure; but recovery - and thus future performance - suffers when the diet quality takes a nose dive.

Of course, three beers is not such a travesty. Probably, some alcohol is better than none, so long as that boring advice about moderation is kept in mind. There were carbs... and... uh... antioxidants. Beer is made from whole grain Barley!

And in this case, milk. Which brings me, rather conveniently, back to dairy. It's a topic I've focused on in the past, abandoned, and now return to once more. Sort of. Basically, my past posts dealt with fat, and how its presence in food and drink doesn't immediately bulge your waistline. In fact, though calories are calories, the sweet stuff mixed with skim is probably "worse" for you, in the long run.

(As an aside, and since I've never mentioned them before, nuts are fantastic. This is not breaking news, but while we're on the subject of fatty foods, they deserve mention. Morning coffee is one of life's sublime pleasures; but so is fresh ground peanut butter in a thick bowl of oats.)

But this is not a health and fitness blog. (Which does raise the point: What kind of blog is this? Shouldn't I have some idea?) My primary concern is with taste, and preparing the best (however we define that) drink for the customer, every time. This is an impossible goal; but I find those to be the most satisfying to pursue.

And so it is that my primary aversion to skim has nothing to do with its lack of dietary fat. (In truth, very few Americans are consuming too little.) No, skim simply tastes awful. I've said so for some time now, but hadn't actually tried it in... months? A year? More, maybe.

I changed that today, having been slightly prompted. I was asked by a frequent latte drinker what I though switching whole for skim would do to the taste of her drink. "Well," I said, "There will be a lot less fat, so the texture will change more than the flavor. It'll probably feel a bit thin, and lack the creamy texture that whole has. Honestly, I don't think I've ever heard of someone preferring skim."

But she was undaunted. I prepared the drink, taking care not to stretch the wispier skim milk too much. "I think I like it better," she said. A first time for everything, I supposed. Though I couldn't suppose quite that much; cognitive dissonance has its limits.

So, seeing that there was some skim left in the pitcher, I poured it in to a demitasse, and sipped. Granted, there was no espresso, and this was only a taste. But I couldn't imagine wanting for more. It tasted, to me, like someone had blended up a bag of cotton balls in water, microwaved it, then substituted it for milk.

Of course, your mileage may vary. There are legitimate reasons to cut fat from your coffee drinks, if you plan on consuming it elsewhere. Some simply don't handle drinks that heavy very well, while others have an aversion to dairy in general. (On that note, I'd say soy tastes much better to me than skim does. It does, however, cost extra.) And then there are those who, though incomprehensibly to me, like skim.

Well, there's at least one.

December 4, 2011

Left Hand Milk Stout

"Dude, look at you, drinkin' that hipster beer and shit. But nah. It's cool man."

And so I was, and so it was. Though PBR has the reputation as unofficial hipster beer of the unwashed masses, there is a segment that prefers craft brews. It follows, logically, that someone who appreciates specialty coffee might like their other beverages derived from a similarly obscure background.

I don't, really. Or rather, it's not the craftiness or the niche factor that drives my beer preference. It's simply a matter of taste. I like beer that does not taste like rancid water, but beyond that, I can't say too much. I'm akin, in this field, to the coffee drinker who knows that they like coffee, but not really what or why.

I do know, however, that I really enjoy the beer pictured at the top. It's a stout, but rather sweet, tasting a bit like chocolate milk. It's easier to drink that you expect, and not as heavy either. All in all, it makes for very comfortable hipster beer drinking. One can lean up against a wall, sip it with skinny jeans and a thin smile, and feel entirely superior to all the mixed whatever drinkers in the crowd. That's what hipster beer is for, right?

In any case, though I'm a very (very, very) infrequent drinker, I really do enjoy this brew. What's more, the website lists several others that I feel compelled to try. Describing a porter as having espresso notes is a sure way to lure me, after all.

December 1, 2011

Pickled Coffee

Coffee, put in a pickle jar, held tight by fingers protruding from cut-off mittens. A hat, with feather, perched over sharp eyes and a loose beard. Something about that is right. Coffee, had with no pretense, in whatever and however. But mostly, coffee, had with a certain contentedness and happiness.

This contrasts, more than a little, with the aesthetic presented on numerous other occasions. But it's something like the ideal I imagine. Not the beard, or the gloves, or any of that. But the picture, which somehow is more than the sum of those parts. A picture, which can results from innumerable other ingredients. It's an aesthetic that has nothing to do with how it looks, and everything to do with how I see it.

If this makes no sense... well, there's really no "if" about it. This certainly makes no sense. It's an idea floating around in my head, of what coffee should be, of what it should mean, that carries with it an entire set of otherwise unrelated connotations. Generally, the lack of pretense is an agreed upon virtue. But how we go about perceiving that is much less a shared trait.

And that's ok. We'll agree on that too, probably, if nothing else. But still, coffee in a pickle jar. How can you not smile?

The Gift of Ignorance

The blueberry scone? Oh, that's the blue-specked one. With the blueberries in it. And the pumpkin bread is orange. Like a pumpkin. As for precisely what makes a brownie vegan, well, you'll have to ask it. Everyone, it seems, has different reasons; but I'd hazard a guess towards various ecological concerns.

These are the things  - or at least, the sorts of things - that occur to me, at random times, on random days. You think them, but don't say them. To do that would make you something other than nice - snooty, perhaps. And since I was told, just recently, that I am not one of those "snooty baristas", things better left unsaid tend to stay that way.

Which is not to say that there's an endless pool of snark welling up inside me, but rather, is more of a comment on the perceived state of the profession. We are a demographic from which snootiness is expected, perhaps, and thus encouraged.

Oh, you don't know what a dry cappuccino is? Here, let me help you, by tilting my head slightly, raising my eyebrows, and exhaling. There. Now you've learned, not what the drink is, but to not ask. Most of all, you've learned that ignorance will not be tolerated, but instead, made cruel spectacle of.

This is not the way it should be, or the way it has to be. Nice people think not nice things, and even say them sometimes. But a pattern emerges. It's said you can tell a lot about a person by how they treat food service employees, but the opposite is every bit as true.

I've talked about this before, of course. Generally, I believe in playing nice. There is a place for snark, dispensed judiciously, a touch of seasoning on the entree of general congeniality. But just a touch. More, and you mask the fact that baristas are paid to hang out at a coffee bar all day. It's an enviable situation - though I'm biased.

Sure, some questions may seem unnecessary. But ignorance is bliss, for those with the answers. Without the questions, we'd be automatons, replaceable by push-button machines serving dismal coffee. The blueberry scone? On the left. Thanks.