December 27, 2012


It is December 27, a day that is not regarded as anything but a moment in time between two MOMENTS IN TIME, Christmas and the New Year. It is a day spent recovering from long drives to distant relatives so that one can sustain a night of relatively sterile partying that your 18-year-old self would merely call pre-gaming. And then it's off to 2013, full of possibilities and resolutions, things do to and things to be.

Today is December 27, a day without any meaning - except that which you give it. Maybe you make your resolution a few days early; maybe you simply make the change. Becoming is a process best started in the ever present NOW, since it's all we live in anyway. The future is always the future; today you can say tomorrow forever.

But I'm not writing about plans for weight loss, job security, or any such thing. I don't pretend to have any particular wisdom or life coaching credentials beyond this one: I know how to enjoy a moment accompanied by coffee, how to enjoy the coffee itself. I know how to enjoy the process of making it, to indulge the ritual. I can look at the oil swirling on the surface, and know that there are impossibly complex things taking place. It is a beverage of endless complexity and yet so basic.

I know how to take this day - any day - and create something beautiful. It isn't forever - nothing is - but the sensation is real; the meaning is real.

Resolve to do the same. Resolve to give yourself that time and that pleasure, to find beauty and meaning in simple things. Resolve that happiness is a decision you make right now, not 6 inches to be lost by next year or a debt to be payed off.

It is December 27, a moment in time. It is just a day. It is just a day. It is 24 hours of life, an impossible set of circumstances conspiring to make THIS; and here it is. It is opulence and luxury and opportunity beyond words; and here it is.

December 26, 2012

Give Yourself the Gift of Good Coffee

Maybe you got some cool coffee gadget for Christmas. That's cool. I hope you find it useful.

But maybe you didn't. Maybe you had your eye on some fancy electric gizmo or whatever and you didn't get it. You're thinking that you're stuck drinking shitty coffee for another year because you're broke from buying everyone else great gifts and they only got you a CD from some shitty twee hipster garbage band and god maybe some other crap too but you can't even remember.

Well, no. Good coffee doesn't require fancy equipment, nor does it require a lot of money. Skip laundry for a couple weeks because who really cares just febreeze your pants and use that money plus the change sitting on your desk to buy this stuff:

1) A plastic Melitta cone. Sure it's plastic and you wouldn't decorate with it like you could a Chemex but you just want to make good coffee remember? It costs like $3 at a grocery store and it's stupid easy to use. Pour water of grounds. DONE. Yeah the technique can get fancy and complicated but most of that is needless posturing.

2) A tea kettle. I found one for free in my parents' basement but maybe you aren't that lucky and have to buy one. That's ok since a decent kettle only costs about $15 and holy shit that's a lot more than couch change right? Well whatever it's a lot cheaper than an electric water heater or specifically designed pour over kettle with a skinny long neck that stops the water from coming out too fast because OH MY GOD I can't pour water without having my hand held. If you're still too broke for this option just boil water in any pot or even just microwave it in a cup.

3) A grinder. Ok this actually gets pretty expensive as a decent burr grinder will run you $80+ and that's a lot of money but actually totally worth the investment if you can afford it. If you can't get a blade grinder which yeah kinda sucks but is still better than having pre ground coffee even if you do have the barista do it for you at the shop where you really should be buying your coffee.

4) So yeah, get good coffee. Probably go to a shop you like so you know the coffee isn't shitty and if the shop is good they'll have roast dates and even grind it for you if you need them too just make sure to get it ground for that Melitta you totally already bought which is a slightly finer grind than they probably use at the shop. Also don't buy a ton because then it's gets all stale and musty and you like to visit your local shop all the time anyway right? And yeah this costs money too but whatever it's the COFFEE  part of making good coffee a.k.a. is pretty fucking important.


December 23, 2012

Being Easy

Running and pulling shots matter a great deal to me, and are thus the primary concern of this blog. Both endeavors, though hands on, are still largely about speed. To be a good runner is to be a fast runner, of course. And although there is growing tolerance for pour over bars and other "slow coffee" methods, most customers want their drink within a 90 second window. And that's fine.

In some ways, it's become more than fine. It's become a set of circumstances to which I am so well adapted that, when they are absent, it feels as if something vital is missing. Without the urge to GO, to get shit done quickly, precisely, and exactly, I feel like something of a bum. Life without grindtamppullsteampournext is lacking something, and it's noticeable, even for this one week.

There is a place for such activity, and value in embracing it. I don't think I'll ever rid myself of the pleasure I get from manic activity, from simply doing things. But there is value in not doing such things as well, in inaction and stillness. And that's something I've never quite been able to embrace, though I'm realizing, more and more, that I really ought to.

I took a three hour walk today, out by the lake. There is a trail there which I run a great deal, but I'd never walked it before. It was cold and somewhat wet, the sky tinged with a soft grey. There was snow and the ground too, and a little ice. It felt like Winter. I had rice, beans, and coffee, then set off. I didn't take my phone or an MP3 player and there were no cars nearby. There was the crunch of my feet on the dirt, the ice crystals cracking beneath me. Otherwise it was silent. My only company was the skeletons of trees and the wind, omnipresently pressed up against my face, finding its way inside my coat. I got cold but embraced the sensation, feeling just that one thing and not really minding anything else. I thought about nothing and did nothing but walk.

It was a spectacularly useless afternoon spent doing nothing of any value at all and yet I feel very good having done it. I feel refreshed, as if my mind had been thirsty for such a thing and had now drank its fill.

A customer once told me to be easy and I think he was right.

December 21, 2012

5 @ 7

We tend to ascribe a somewhat negative connotation to competitiveness, especially among those of us who lack the talent to post national class times. To be competitive, while running a 38-minute 10K, is seen as somewhat self indulgent folly. And so it's a difficult thing to explain to people, why you care, when there will never be medals or accolades of any significance. And it would be harder still if they knew that the medals you did have were tossed in to a pile, or left in the car, or forgotten elsewhere.

But words hide within them meaning beyond what we often see, and "compete" is no different. Compete is not, as we tend to think, merely about striving to destroy someone else, to train harder or to race faster than them. No, compete comes from the Latin competere, which means "to strive together". Competition is that group training run where the miles tick off at X:XX when you'd normally be running Y:YY, drawing on the collective energy of the group to fuel your efforts. It is beautifully feral behavior, dressed up in compression shorts and wicking fabric.

As per my usual habits, this digression is inspired by recent events. I ran last night. I ran for the first time in several weeks, which is still a couple weeks sooner than recommended. But there was snow on the ground. There was an orange sun fading behind the trees, just over the river, and a quiet gravel levee on which to run. There were houses and the lights of downtown on either side, cars and people and walls and heat and so many other things; but here there was nothing but the dirt, snow, and the possibilities that lay in propelling one's self over it.

And there was an invitation to compete. Not to run against, but with, two other runners, both of whom have considerably more talent and accolades than I. The scenery was right, but this was harder to turn down. To run with a marginally faster group and to competere is simply right. Distance training is so often a solo endeavor, but is in that way detached from our primordial running roots. If the paleoanthropologists are to be believed, we evolved our bipedal skill as a pack, running at things which we might eat, and away from things which might eat us. Simply, our strides our made to be synced.

So I ran. I ran across the gravel and the snow and the ice, three wide, chests out and legs churning in time. We talked between our breaths, through the pooling saliva and despite frozen lips. We ran in to the biting wind for 2.5 miles, then turned and let it push us back. We finished in 35 minutes, peeled off our gloves and hats, and said that it was good. We breathed deeply but not hard, shook hands and parted ways.

My foot hurts a little today. I expected as much going in, however, and so this is no surprise. You have to know when you're making an unwise decision, and the potential repercussions. But you also have to know when to make the right decision, smart or not.

December 20, 2012

Adios, Ristretto

To call the New York Times "the paper of record" is to pay it a great compliment, but it is not quite sufficient: It is perhaps the only paper that matters in this country. And so it mattered a great deal that Oliver Strand's Ristretto column appeared in those hallowed pages, given space beside other more celebrated indulgences such as wine, food and fashion. It elevated in the eyes of the lay-reader the humble cup of coffee to something beyond a black and bitter stimulant. And to those of us who live coffee, for whom the industry is our home, his column was a thing to be celebrated. This was a voice stating our cause on the nation's largest print stage, discussing without irony the craft of coffee, and those who are committed to it. It felt like we mattered, just a little bit, when reading about Bear Pond on the same pages as whatever lardcore eatery is currently trendy.

And it's gone now.

We are reminded on the front pages of that same paper that there are real and genuine tragedies in the world today, and that this is really not so bad, when viewed with the right perspective. So I won't call this tragic, or try and ascribe to it false importance. It was a very good newspaper column that will no longer exist. And it was only ever about coffee, really. There is no tragedy here.

And yet it's hard not to feel a sense of loss, like the community is being cheated just a little bit. This was not just a column that wrote informative articles on how to better prepare coffee, or how to procure it in certain cities. Beyond merely informing the readership about those specific things, its very existence argued that this information was worth having, that coffee was a thing worth discussing and considering. Put simply: If coffee mattered to you, Ristretto mattered to you.

There is a void now. Coffee has other articulate voices, to be sure, but they are largely sequestered away on personal blogs or in industry specific publications. James Hoffmann simply cannot reach the same number of people, and no one subscribes to Barista Magazine unless they're already convinced that the trade is worthwhile. Ristretto had that platform, and an audience of the nation's tastemakers to speak to. And in Mr. Strand, it had a voice that was educational without being condescending - something the coffee industry famously struggles with. The reader was never made to feel foolish for having never heard of a Hario V60. Instead, they finished the article interested in trying coffee prepared with one. I once had a customer order a cortado specifically because it was mentioned in Ristretto.

Of course, the tide of specialty coffee is still rising. Even within our industry, this is no measure of doom. There will be other writers in other publications doing many of the same things - perhaps Strand himself will return elsewhere. He does have a book on coffee, set to be released sometime soon I hope, for which I have high expectations. But make no mistake, this is a setback, and it is disappointing. Ristretto was, in the paper of record, the coffee column of record.

And now we are left with nothing but its record, which you can and should read.

December 18, 2012

Time Off or Time Missed?

I've had a lot of free time today, and will have plenty more in the coming days. One of the biggest perks of my job is that I get a week's paid time off, twice a year. It's a boon that nary a barista receives, and I'm duly grateful for it. But as I sit here, I can't help but wish I had eight hours of my day spoken for. I can't help but wish I had milk to steam, shots to pull, floors to sweep, shit to do.

My last break was spent trying to log a 100 mile week, for no reason other than to see if I could do it. In the running community, a 100 mile week is legitimately high training volume - far too high, truthfully, for someone of my talent and experience. (My usual volume is between 45-70 miles, depending on numerous factors.) But given my lack of anything else to do, it proved easy enough. 100 miles, over the course of 7 days, averages out to 14 miles a day. This might sound like a lot, but it's worth remembering that I could run 2-3 times a day, and take smaller, more frequent bites at the apple. (This is what elite runners tend to do. Keep in mind, also, that they cover miles much faster than me.) I got it done, and my legs didn't even fall off. Although I hadn't done anything truly noteworthy, there was a definite sense of accomplishment waiting at my driveway, as I loped to the imagined finish line. The week had been productive, even if no sane person would agree.

But remember that whole foot thing? You probably do, since I won't stop writing about it. Well, it still can't stomach running one mile, never mind 100. In 2-3 weeks I can "ease back in to it" (so says the doctor) - but not yet. For now, I'm (still) ellipticaling (spellcheck says this is not a word but dammit, there needs to be a verb form) and lifting (pathetically light weights).

In other words: It is Tuesday. I will not make coffee again for a week. I will not run again for several weeks.

So, I've spent most of today watching videos of other people making coffee and other people running. These are beautifully shot, featuring world class baristas/runners doing what they do. It is damn near pornographic. Watching the videos, my brain swims with ideas and inspiration. I imagine that I'm pulling those shots, or that it's me rocketing up a technical 20% grade. I go to bed and dream of tamping techniques and Killian Jornet. (But not like that. And not at the same time.)

And then I wake up and my foot hurts and it's 6 A.M. and I don't have anywhere to go and the only coffee I have to make is for myself and fuck, now what?

Deep breath.

This is a good thing. I keep telling myself that, and I even sort of believe it. There are cleaning things to do, books to read, and even cooking to experiment with. And there is still the gym, providing me with a means to elevate my heartrate and cling to (and perhaps even build) some fitness.

Those are a few of the things I have, and they are good. Really. But even those two massive things I lack are not suddenly negatives, just by their absence. I will tamp again very soon, and run again not too long after that. I will return to them with a renewed vigor and an absolute conviction that yes, these are the things I want to spend my time on.

It is a beautiful and lucky thing that I have hobbies that inspire me - and I'm even paid to do one of them. To bemoan the fact that I am deprived of both for a relatively short amount of time misses both that perspective, and of course the fact that I'm getting paid to do nothing.

So yeah, it's all good.

December 17, 2012

Skinning Cats

I really don't like starting off by requiring you to read something else. Ideally, this blog could function in a vacuum, and add value to your life, independent of anything else. But, reality doesn't function that way. And even if it did, I don't have any unique wisdom to impart. Oh well.

So what I'm going to do is this, basically: I'm going to ask you to read the article posted above. Then, I'm going to steal the author's concept, and apply it to coffee. Got it? All right then, let's go.

We as baristas, shop owners/managers, and internet "gurus" have to sell something in order to distinguish ourselves from the competition. If I tamp like every other barista, why should you hire me? If I run my business the same way, why should you buy from me? And if I write the same things, why should you read me? The answer, of course, is that you wouldn't. So if I'm truly interested in marketing either myself, my shop, or this blog, I have to convince you that I have some unique, some way of doing things that runs counter to what conventional wisdom dictates.

Make no mistake; this is often a good thing. Every business needs innovators, and coffee is no different.  We need to baristas, managers, and writers who are willing to simply try shit sometimes.

But the crucial thing is that we remain humble, and never lose sight of the fact that there are many right ways. Coffee is an impossibly complex plant, with nearly infinite viable uses and preparations. While we explore those uses and seek to innovate, we need to avoid denigrating and trampling the efforts of others.

Using an inverted Aeropress may yield a good cup at your cafe, but that in no way invalidates the right-side-up using cafe down the street. Nor does it mean the pour-over guys around the block are a bunch of tools. Dare they serve a blend? Perhaps they even roast their beans a shade darker than you.

It's all good.

So long as you're all using good beans, and tending to them a careful and attentive manner, the result will almost always be quality.

December 16, 2012

Things Change and Life Goes On Unless a Shark Eats You

We spend most of our lives, not finding ourselves, but finding shit to busy ourselves. It changes a lot and that's cool. 

In my youth, I went from basketball (shitty at it) to riding my BMX around (shitty at that too) to sitting on my ass and reading (this never changed and boy, at least I've always been good at it) to college where I took up lifting (which I actually got kinda good at until I exploded a non-essential organ) and coffee (still truckin') and running (fucking foot still hurts). 

So that's me. I'm 24 and probably not done exploring obsessions. If this blog still exists in 10 years we may find that I've traded in running for something else. I doubt it - heaven is at 120-150 BPM, a nice easy cruising heart rate - but you never know. Maybe there is a Zumba instructor inside of me waiting to burst out. Maybe my Crossfit mocking will redirect in to a passionate love for kipping pullups. Maybe I will overcome my crippling fear of sharks and move to some isolated beach and surf my life away - until I get eaten by a giant fucking shark because god that could totally happen. Think about it. (True aside: I will never, ever do a triathlon, because I couldn't possibly swim in a lake. Any water that I can't stand in and isn't totally clear is just not happening. There could be big gnarly things that could eat you in it and you can't tell me otherwise. Also, triathlon tights look funny.)

Maybe I will learn to write personally and with real verve without relying on profanity. But you know, probably not. 

Coffee though, that's sticking around. I'm going to keep drinking it because it's awesome and also I have a crippling addiction to it. I will continue to obsess over a great cup and beautiful shots and god help me, if I can't keep making those things for money I will have to find a damn fine shop. After spending a few years pulling shots to your exact tastes, trusting the process to someone else would surely take time. 

But I'll probably have to spend it one day - it's only a question of when. I imagine I will not live out the rest of my life as a barista, because people just don't. Maybe that's accepting a stupid paradigm, but whatever. Someday I will maybe wear a tie to work, but god I hope not, because what a stupid piece of clothing that is. Think about it. It's a random piece of pointy cloth dangling from your neck and strangling you a little bit all day. AWESOME. 

For now though, I'm happy doing what I'm doing, wearing t-shirts to work and sometimes even wearing the same one two days in a row. I'm so hardcore. 

December 14, 2012

Some Sappy Kumbaya Stuff

I sat in a chair and drank very small amounts of Sumatra from a ceramic demitasse, feet not quite up on the counter, decidedly not working. There was a man behind me in a blue who looked in every way like a mechanic, only he was working on my espresso machine, which was broken. People approached the counter and I told them the news; they reacted in the variety of ways you would expect. Some were apathetic, others borderline distraught. 

It is very nice to be a consistent highlight in someone's day - right up until that point where you aren't. Then the responsibility weighs on you and, no matter how much you know this shit just happens, there is an pervading feeling of impotence. Sure, there is nothing to be done - but that's the point. Being powerless to fix such a crucial problem sucks, nearly as much as disappointing loyal customers does. 

Things are fine now. Things were fine soon after, really; the time between the break and the fixing was only about 3 hours. The repair guy did his job and was awesome, as he usually is. He managed to fix the whole deal without requiring me to buy a new part, saving me nearly $500. When you're shop is a fairly low cost, low volume operation, that's huge savings. Obviously. 

So that's two guys I've managed to mention in the last few days - the espresso machine repair guy and the milk guy - without whom I'd be some degree of fucked. And I don't mean to say merely that someone who does their job is essential - although that's true; they are themselves lifesavers, consistently nice people who do great work for me - even if it means losing money. (God, that was some weird punctuation in that sentence, huh?)

It's that kind of service I aspire to, not just in work, but in life. I don't believe in any sort of cosmic meritocracy, nor do I think any positive actions guarantee you'll be rewarded; but worrying about that is missing the point anyway. Doing good work is rewarding for its own sake, and damn, it can go a long way towards making someone else's life better. 

And the chain doesn't stop at one link.

Because espresso repair guy fixed my machine so rapidly, I was able to get back to making drinks - even catching the most disappointed of the earlier customers in time. In short: He made my day better, which allowed me to make a few other people's days better. Not to get all "We Are the World" or anything, but yeah, maybe I will just a little. 

There really are, for all of the awful things we read about and see presented to us ever day, nice people doing things that nice people do. They are not saving the world or curing cancer but they are providing their own small scale salvation, working as they do and as they can to enrich the lives they come in contact with. 

And I am saying that that, more than anything else, is the ideal behind our profession. Make good coffee, yes, but be a good person too. You never know how much it might matter. 

December 12, 2012


I admire a lot of things about a lot of fitness cultures. But in some ways I think I just like the aesthetic. That is, I like that there is a community of people who commit themselves to doing that thing, using it as a mechanism to take control of their bodies and thus, by proxy, their lives. Maybe that sounds overzealous, but talk to someone who's heavily involved in just about anything and you'll know it's true. Whether it be trail running (mine), skiing, skating, BMX, cyclocross, crossfit (which I'm only listing to be nice, because really I kinda hate it), olympic lifting, surfing, judo, etcetcetc...., it doesn't matter. You have a thing and it takes time to master, and so you spend it, working on yourself and with or against others. You dress similarly and share a vocabulary and you subscribe to magazines. You call yourself a whatever and you have a community, and that's awesome, essential I think to being a truly happy person.

So, baristas.

We have that too, or we should, really. There are magazines with articles that people who make coffee for a living really should read. Barista Magazine and Roast Magazine are the two I read, and I'm not going to tell you that you should too - but really, you should.

And god, there are blogs. So many that I can't list them all. But here are a few barista blogs (or not, in the case of one) I can't live without: Vvlgr (sadly inactive for a while, but still a great resource), Sprudge, Jimseven. There are approximately one bajillion more, with half of those having something valuable to offer. And I'm here too, filling the rambly stream of consciousness corner the market just DEMANDED.

Sometimes, take your work home with you. Make it a part of who you are, because fuck hating your job so much that you just can't stomach the idea of dealing with it for more than 8 hours a day. Become a lithe hipster barista dirtbag who sneers at people who order things the wrong way... or maybe not quite that far. But you get the idea. So anyway, join the club. EVERYBODY ELSE IS DOING IT AND I'M NOT SAYING WE'LL MAKE FUN OF YOU OTHERWISE BUT PROBABLY WE WILL.

December 11, 2012

The Milk Man

The vast majority of my writing here is not planned in any real sense, but is instead an outpouring of spontaneous thought. Maybe this gives it a certain "urgent" quality; maybe it just seems hurried; maybe it's just awful. But there are certain ideas that have bounced around my head for some time, sitting there, collecting dust, doing nothing in particular.

One of these ideas is to say something about my milkman.

I would like to say that he is nice, that he is good at his job, and that we should remember to thank people like him. There are a lot of parts and pieces that have to come together to make a coffee bar work well; us barista folks are really the last link on that chain. And though it's tempting to think that we're the talented craftsmen the people are clamoring for, the truth is a little more humbling - but no less true.

So, the milkman. I'm not going to say his name, or give any real details about him, because I don't know that that would be appropriate. I've made the decision to exist as myself on the internet; he has not. And I won't simply tell you that he is nice, or that he is good at his job - although both of those things are true.

He's nice, in the folksy and chatty way you expect the classic, black and white TV milk man to be. He also made our staff cinnamon rolls (he sells these at the local farmer's market, and they are not from a cannister) today, which is a small gesture that managed to make several people very obviously happy.

So, there's that.

Also, on the instance that I forgot to order any milk at all, he filed and delivered an order for me, averaging together what I had ordered the last several weeks to form a reasonably accurate guess of what I'd need. I'd have been fucked without that.

And I'm looking at this now, remembering why I never seem to publish this. I want to tell you that he's nice and that he's good at his job - and I've done so. But it's hard not to look at the words on the screen in front of me and know that I've failed somewhat, that I've fallen horribly short in depicting what a genuinely good guy he is, and has proven to be over the nearly 4 years he's delivered dairy for me.

Very soon, however, I will click "Publish". If you're reading this, I've already done so, of course. (Isn't this whole present tense writing thing awkward?) I'm not doing this because I think I've given the man a fair account, a glamorous profile, or even written a decent post. I'm doing this because there are people who make your job both possible and more enjoyable, people like my milk guy, and we really can't thank them enough.

December 9, 2012

College Town

KU's academic semester is coming to an end, and as it goes, so goes a great deal of my business. When people call Lawrence a "college town", what they mean is that there is a certain youthful, hipster vibe to the coffee shops, and a certain broish, douchey vibe to the bars. There are art galleries and a skate park and other things that are maybe not what you expect from the place everyone still knows as Dorothy's home state.

But literally, it means that a great deal of Lawrence's population is transient, gone for several months out of the year. Business owners/managers do not forget this fact, I promise, because of the financial impact it makes.

And so here we are, creeping towards that money sapping 40 days or so without students, and I'm thinking a lot about it. Both how the shop will do and how I will do, because I'm somewhat neurotic about things in general, and it's my job to be neurotic about this thing specifically.

But I can't, just can't, focus on that entirely. I can't think of these people as merely potential purchases, because I've seen them too damn much recently, and, uh, feelings and stuff? I've written about this before, as you may recall. If you haven't, that post went very much like this one seems to be going. I talk about how I genuinely, like, care or something, and mention that the prospect of never seeing certain regulars again is not entirely a pleasant sensation.

So I'm not going to rehash that post. It's here, if you care to read it. My post count is getting somewhat high on this blog, as I've maintained a decent output for about three years now. Still, that post sticks out as one my better offerings, so I dare say it's worth your time.

So, one semester later, and we're doing that dance again. I'm saying goodbye to people forever in my usual flippant ways, wishing that I could convey something beyond the icy apathy that seems to come out. But for all of my (sometimes fairly personal) writing here, I'm not very good at being forthcoming in person. So I say thanks, and return to work, mostly so I don't have to say anything else. I go over alternate lines in my head, contemplating another universe in which I'd actually say something. But I just rinse the pitcher.

Life goes on. I know that, and all of my beatnik pop-zen reading reinforces it. People come and go, and so do we. Our lives are all better off for our interactions and experiences, and so we go to acquire new ones, to add to our life's scrapbook.

It's just nice, I guess, to have people tell you nice things, to say that you were a bright spot in their day, every day, that you meant something to them. It's nice to hear it, and it's nice to aspire to it, to have a job where your expressed purpose is to be a sort of omnipresent friend. The coffee is great, of course, but maybe a bit beside the point. This job is really about the people, what you mean to them, and though we don't ever say it, what they mean to you.

December 8, 2012

Triple Rosetta Therapy

Today I made the best triple rosetta of my life, but there's no picture, so you'll just have to take my word for it. I would tell you what I did, except it was the same steps as always, no better. I pulled good shots and steamed good milk and poured well and then, well, there it was. It happened and then she drank it and it was gone. No one else saw or cared, but it was beautiful, I promise.

And it felt good, for reasons beyond the usual.

I haven't run in about two weeks now, and yet the foot still hurts. Probably, standing for 7-10 hours a day isn't the best thing for recovery, but oh well. Nor have I heard the results of my x-ray, so I still don't know how long it will be before I can return. Although I'm working very hard to maintain some fitness via death by elliptical and general strength training, I have to be realistic: The longer I don't run, the more foolish running a trail 50K in early February becomes. I'm quite close to emailing the race director, and dropping to the 10 miler.

This, I think you can surmise, sucks. Running is cool and all, and so is working out for its own sake; but it's not training. Training has a purpose, and in turn, gives you one. Coming off of a third place finish at the Heartland 50 miler, I had hoped to be competitive here, despite a strong field. The area's best distance trail runner (maybe ever) is going to race, as is an Olympic trials marathoner (female, but whatever, I can't run a 2:40 marathon). Those two - and probably about ten others - will run about 4:30, maybe as fast as 4:15, and compete for the win.

This is not to say that 10 miles can't be a challenging distance, or that longer races are somehow better or more valid tests of skill. In the words of someone I read on the internet but can't remember: "A fast mile is still cooler than a slow marathon." But no matter how much I tell myself that, the challenge of racing the shorter distance is somehow just less inspiring, less omnipresently looming in the corner of my mind. In other words, for the first time in a long time, I'm not thinking about an upcoming race, every minute of every day.

And so, back to the triple, because this is still mostly about coffee, I think.

Without the looming threat of a 33ish mile trail race against some pretty accomplished runners, it's nice to have something else to fall back on. It's nice to focus on coffee, both running the shop and making the drinks. Mostly, it's nice to take pride in a skill, to know you're good at something you care about, and to know that it's there for you ever day.

Let's just hope I never break a wrist.

December 6, 2012

Let Them Make Cake

Figs in a scone is some sort of minor revolution it seems, a shocking development on the bleeding edge of pastry science. Anyway, it confused the hell out of people today. Verbatim, one asked: "Can you even do that?" I replied that yes, I could and did - or rather the baker did - and told her she should probably eat it. She did, and loved it.

Had it been blueberry, there would have been no questions, no cringes, neither shock nor awe that we had dared put such an exotic(?) fruit inside a scone. But we had, and so there was. Different is different, but people react in the same ways.

The same, as when we, whatever deity you like forbid, dare put "vegan" on the label for a baked good. To do so is to condemn said baked good to sit lonely on the shelf, until such time as it's eaten by the staff or given away to some very nice hippie folks who compost our coffee grounds. I do not think that anyone has ever eaten a brownie and thought to themselves that they would like more egg flavor, but perhaps I'm mistaken.

The victim today was the so-called "vegan breakfast cake", a brand new item which I will try desperately to rename, since honey (the sweetener in said cake) is not technically vegan, even if it does seem to be considered kinda sorta maybe ok by many in the community. But even disregarding that, we had sold absolutely none of it, since anyone who inquired about the name only seemed to do so in order to mock the very notion of dairy/egg free cake, and insist that it must taste like cardboard paste.

So I called it carrot cake (which it is, basically, without the frosting), and people bought it, ate it, loved it. No one complained about the lack of eggs.

If it seems like I care a bit too much about this, it's because maybe I do. We have a baker, a real human with a real stove for whom making awesome pastries is her life's work. Sometimes she makes things that do not have blueberries, and that's ok, because new can be exciting and delicious in ways you didn't know were possible. Figs in a scone? Cake without eggs? Fucking right.

I'm not saying trust everyone. Some places make awful drinks and awful food and deserve your doubt and derision. But some places make good drinks and good food that has never seen the inside of a freezer truck. Some places care because making good things is what they do, and a very real part of who they are. Trust them. They won't serve you something they don't truly believe in.

December 4, 2012

Requiem For an Injury

I don't know when it became normal for my roommates to talk to their TV, but it is. And I don't mean to say that either of them are talking to the programs or characters; no, they address the TV itself. They tell it hello, and then say "ON", and on it goes. I don't recall when that became what I was used to, but I do recall not having a remote control as a kid, having to get up to change the channel. I recall thinking that that was cruelly difficult, since I wasn't always sitting right there, and sometimes I was busy eating. I remember thinking that technology would rid us of the need for physical intervention, and thinking that that would be a wonderful world. I remember thinking, and thinking that thinking was all anyone should ever have to do.

I don't know when that changed, or how, but here we are. I am twisting my foot about, trying to manipulate it in a way that does not hurt, and failing. I would like very much to stop thinking about it, to get moving on it, to lose myself in the rhythmic contractions of quadriceps and hamstrings. It is nice out, the kind of nice that you want to bottle up and save for vacations, or weddings. It is the kind of nice that should be experienced, which is not the same as merely noticing it, or feeling that it is there.

Experience, I've realized, is not about knowing, or thinking. It is doing and feeling and living, and you cannot ask for these things by name, cannot call them down from the sky, cannot turn them on with a word. You cannot say "RUN" and then do it, wake up to find yourself sitting on your floor, embracing your foam roller while the brown rice cooks. Experience is the moment you are in, this step until it's the next step, downhill until it's up. You walk up stairs and your calves quiver and you smile because the rice is done and you have beets to put in it.

But I'm not going to run tonight, not going to have that experience. Instead I am going to drive to my gym and spin on an elliptical, going nowhere. I will plug in headphones and listen to shrieking and screaming vocals about vile things and I will think that I should go faster and harder so I will. I will sweat the same and breath the same and my muscles will sort of twitch in the same pattern but no, no it will not be the same. The air will be nice but the kind of nice that feels like maybe you did bottle it and then forgot about it and now it's kind of stale but you should probably use it anyway since it's bad to waste. I will walk up the stairs and not touch my foam roller and eat rice cereal because I don't feel like cooking and I will not put beets in it since that would be gross.

I will go to work in the morning and stand on my feet but not think about them. I will grab a tamper and tamp because that's what you do with a tamper. There will be microadjustments and the whole damn ritual; golden bronze espresso will trickle like syrup and I will pour milk in it in ways that people seem to enjoy and their happiness will become mine, their smile reflected on my face. I will not care about my foot which will be fine in like a month anyway, and I will experience people and there will be words between us, words that are not "ON", and I will think a lot about all of this.

December 3, 2012

Running, or Perhaps Not (With Update)

As I write this, it is 6:30 AM, and I am drinking a fairly mediocre cup of coffee (my fault, really). I am reading all of my usual internet things, one of which - the local newspaper - informs me that it is 65 degrees. Lest I am mistaken, I check the calendar, and see that it is, indeed, December. Instinctively, I'm happy, thinking how pleasant such a temperature, pre sun, will feel. I will run 7 or so miles before work, and feel so refreshed, so high, that people will think I must clearly have received chemical aid.

But there is the small matter of my right foot, somewhere around the 4th or 5th metatarsal, a small pain that becomes a big pain after attempting to run a block. This is not a new pain; it's been with me since Heartland, a race - being 50 miles and all - that might leave one with an injury or two. Still, I ran, because taking time off for minor pain is not something young people with the desire to race foolishly long distances do. And I suppose I fit that mold, having completed two 50 milers, two 50Ks, and two marathons in the last 13 months. So I ran, until it got worse, and then worse still, and then until I couldn't any more.

So if this is a metatarsal stress fracture - my amateur diagnosis - I won't feel cheated. It is a common injury among runners, with higher incidence among those who habitually go really far, and even more correlation with those who mid/forefoot strike. This is not to say I'll be pleased, of course, especially given that the weather has brought out so many more people than would normally be running this time of year. And there is also the matter, you know, of not running for weeks, or maybe even a couple months, that irks me. I don't hate cross training with ellipticals and weights, but after a while, it all feels rather pointless. Running, while fun for its own sake, feels like you're doing something, getting better and building fitness, all to cash in your earnings on race day. Gym work, as much as I might like it to, does not lend that same satisfaction.

But, life happens. And life, for one who decides to label themselves even a slightly serious runner, means getting hurt now and then. That inevitability makes this not so bad as it might be; you'd be naive to think injuries only happened to others. Still, there is some hope, which is perhaps why I'm writing this now. Perhaps I want some catharsis, hoping that some cognitive relief will trickle down to my foot.

We'll see. I've got a trip to the doctor today, to get a professional diagnosis. I'll update here with whatever information I get, because I'm going to pretend you're invested in this as well.


The thing about feet is that everything in there is pretty small, and so damage can be hard to see, when it exists, often due to some swelling. As this is the case with me, I didn't get a specific diagnosis, outside of confirming that nothing is completely snapped. Of course, I had figured this already, given that I can stand all day without any pain at all. So we're nowhere new, really, but I'm somewhat encouraged. Worst case? I'm out two months. Probably it's more like one month. It depends on the degree of the damage - or if there is any, really - once the doctors can get a clearer picture. In any case, I'll do my best to hold on to - and in some cases, build - my fitness in the interim.

December 2, 2012


Chaos is big, heavy word, with implications for things far greater then general coffee bar problems. So I probably shouldn't use it here, except that things have sometimes felt very chaotic, in leu of that thing I mentioned earlier, my owner's new shop. Still, I know, very nearly running out of lids, sleeves, tea, and I think that's about it, is not "chaos". But damn if it didn't feel like it.

I spent an inordinate amount of time leaning against the back counter, gazing out the windows, hoping for things to magically rectify themselves, for the delivery truck to arrive, finally. I kept - at least I think I did - a calm external demeanor, but inside, I was often anxiety ridden. Lids? Lids? You can't run out of those. You just can't. But we almost did - and would have, were it not for some creative lid acquisition on my part.

And that's to say nothing of the food, which we did not have any of for three days, and only had limited options the other two. Telling people that they can't have a cookie or scone or whatever sugary starch bomb their heart desires can trigger a fit of pouty rage the likes of which you've never seen, or maybe you have, in which case I feel sorry for you. Things run out, of course, especially when you have no kitchen to make them for you, but that's not reason enough, apparently. Not to be the guy who bitches about society and stuff, but it's really quite sad to see how many people apparently have no ability to delay gratification, to hear that they can't have exactly what they want, right at that moment.

I think - and hope - that this blog is an outpouring of positive feelings the vast majority of the time, that I have a very optimistic view of customer service interactions, and coffee bar culture in general. But we're all vulnerable, all capable of bitching about relatively trivial things - which these are, ultimately, I realize - when they seem to consume a week's worth of time.

Still, I tried to do my best, and think that was still pretty good. Not one of those problems was my fault -  or anyone else's, for the most part - so there was no point in letting anxiety drown my other mental processes. You control the things you can control, and let the other things sort themselves out. And I did, mostly. There was still coffee, there were still drinks, and we didn't actually end up running out of any lids or sleeves. I tried to be grateful for all of that, and for the 98% of customers who understood that shit happens, that sometimes you can't have a scone, that life goes on. They were - and always are - great, and the best part of the job.

Looking back on things, that's the lesson. It's easy to let small things ruin hours, and then days, and then weeks, and where then does it stop? Nothing is ever perfect, but most of the time, most things are pretty great. Focus on those, control what you can control, work hard, and stay positive. Even if we - myself included - can't meet that perfect standard, we can strive for it.

November 28, 2012

This is Not a Sale

Things are often rather simple; sometimes so simple that we never believed it could really be that easy. Occam's Razor works in scientific theory; but we want complexity, an answer hidden like a pot of gold at the end of our own private rainbow.

In coffee, we want a new brewing technique or apparatus that allows us to reach previously impossible heights of body, clarity, character, and flavor. And while ambition is not to be discouraged, I think we forget, too often and always to our detriment, that it's mostly about the bean. We shouldn't forget the level of minutia we indulge in when we ponder other things.

So remember that, this... Cyber week? Or whatever we're calling it. Buy some cool shit if you want, if you really want new gear. Support sites like Espresso Parts that do our industry a service by their existence and quality of stock - they deserve it. And of course, don't forget your local cafe, many of which provide supplies for the home barista - and awesome service as well, I'm sure.

You'll be supporting the economy or something, which is a thing I guess we're supposed to do, right?

But don't, please, buy stuff just to buy stuff. Don't burden your already cluttered counter with another gadget that you'll play with once, and subsequently condemn to a lifetime of ignominious dust gathering. You don't need more anything; and in any case, if you work in coffee, you probably can't afford anything either.

November 23, 2012


Black hands and red arms quivering, it ended, and I looked around at something that felt like a mess, but was really just empty space. I looked a block down, at what really was quite a mess, and saw all of that old shit, plenty more new things, none of it together in any meaningful way yet. I saw ends and beginnings, other people's sentiment, and felt mostly that this was just another day.

It's a funny thing, cutting hoses, carrying grinders, brewers, and espresso machines. It feels wrong, scandalous even, like you're breaking shit, maybe even stealing it. And so there is a tingling sort of sensation that goes along with doing something you aren't supposed to, although perhaps some of that is just the fact that a lot of those things are really quite heavy.

It's tiring work - not the sort of thing 145 lb runner/baristas are well equipped to handle - but I took it, because it was there, and better than nothing. The owner of my shop, you see, long ago started a different place, which is now closed. He's opening a new place nearby, and I, along with a much more morose (they were more attached than I, understandably) staff, substituted ourselves for actual movers.

Hipster Moving Company, I suggested, noting the apparent uniform of moccasins with skinny black jeans. Apparently, we all thought manual labor would be best undertaken wearing our flimsiest footwear and tightest pants. In the future, we should probably stay away from such work.

But although there is this great change, the shop I run will be relatively unaffected. Or at least it ought to be. The future in food service, perhaps more so than any other industry, fluctuates constantly. It takes nothing more than a few bad months to tank even successful, venerable operations. And even if money is no problem, it takes only the whims of one person to close an establishment.

So no, I don't have delusions about this. I'm good at my job, and run a business that makes money every month. But that can change. And even if it doesn't, profit is no lifetime guarantee. Businesses come and go, as do people, as does everything else. To believe otherwise is to engage in a high level of cognitive dissonance.

I'm not saying that attachment to people or things is bad, of course. Such feelings are really only worth having because of their fleeting nature. If I had eternity with my machine and my customers, I couldn't possibly enjoy them as much as I do now, knowing that someday, I'll be without all of that. Someday, I'll work somewhere else, maybe even do something else (though I can hardly imagine it), and see different people. And it will be satisfying, I hope, just as my present circumstances are.

All of this is to say, change is not a bad thing. People have been saying that things are getting worse forever, a pessimistic view that is, ironically, rather comforting. If pessimism has such ancient roots, and there is still so much to enjoy, how bad could things really be getting?

So yes, change. It's happening, always, eternally present, and thankfully so.
Are we to look at cherry blossoms only in full bloom, the moon only when it is cloudless? To long for the moon while looking on the rain, to lower the blinds and be unaware of the passing of the spring—these are even more deeply moving. Branches about to blossom or gardens strewn with faded flowers are worthier of our admiration.

Yoshida Kenko

November 20, 2012

Thanksgiving Coffee

So this may surprise you, given my general tone, but I'm not going to write anything overly long and professorial about Thanksgiving, our grand imperialist festival that is now, mostly, about being forced to watch the Detroit Lions play football.

I'm not going to do that, both because others can do a much better job, and the reason is sort of besides the point now anyway. You hang out with family - blood relatives and otherwise. But most of all, hopefully, you reflect on how lucky you are, and think on all the wonderful people and things in your life.

No, that's not sarcasm.

My generation is known for it's lack of genuine sentiment, its indulgence in cynicism and sarcasm at the expense of genuine feeling. We're called - among many other things, of course - the "lost generation", considered to be wandering aimlessly, driven by either our fantastical whims or dystopic paranoia. We are a collection of twenty somethings that, taken on the whole, seems more motivated by who we are than what we do.

Well, whatever.

I don't know. I'm not - as if there could really be such a thing - a voice of this generation, or for anyone but myself. But so long as I am speaking for myself, I can disagree with that characterization, if only by displaying absolutely genuine sentiment.

So, that said, I'm genuinely thankful for quite a lot. To show my thanks, I'm going to give away my perfect Thanksgiving recipe!

Step one: Make awesome coffee.

Step two: Drink it black.

Step three: Feel superior to everyone else drinking artificially flavored pumpkin crap.

What was that about cynicism and sarcasm?

November 18, 2012

Bad Shots

I will not name the place, both because doing so would be unkind, and you're unlikely to visit Lawrence anytime soon, regardless. But it was a Lawrence coffee bar, which I entered, having already consumed two cups of coffee and two shots of espresso earlier in the day. The sun was setting and it was getting cold, though not there yet, and I wanted something to work from the inside, as my coat is only so thick, and I am myself quite lithe.

The espresso machine looked dirty - superficial concerns, but I noticed. There were grounds strewn about, a rag draped over the steamwand. To the side, there were ceramic pour over cones, each filled with old sediment. I noticed that too much was clumped high up the filter, a sign that the pourer had not allowed a full bloom.

These things did not encourage me, but I ordered a double espresso, having already been dissuaded from trying the pour over. The barista had thick rimmed glasses and full sleeves of tatoos - at least looking the part of hipster coffee savant. He did not demonstrate such capacity, however, clicking on the grinder, and walking away, to do nothing at all, so far as I could tell.

After a too long grind, he dispensed, tamped, and pulled. I heard a buzz as the machines stirred to life, and then the espresso poured forth, too rapidly, too light. Ten seconds and it was done.

"Two fifty," he said.

I paid with three ones, tipped fifty cents, and damned ever so slightly that my courtesy had cost me earned tip money.

I took the shots and left, walking with my paper cup, which yes, I know, is not the way to enjoy espresso properly. But I enjoy walking, and the promise of a cold night had not yet been fulfilled; it was yet pleasantly crisp, the aesthetic quite nice, and so I wanted to enjoy a walk while enjoying my espresso.

The walk was nice; the espresso was thin, bittersweet, with an aggressive pungency. I puckered like the cup had been full of grapefruit juice; which, oh by the way, I hate grapefruit juice. I pounded the shots and kept walking, grimaced, and then walked some more, until the taste of autumnal air had whisked away the film of truly awful espresso.

November 14, 2012

Dosing by Volume

Depending on your degree of involvement in the whole specialty coffee thing, you may or may not be familiar with weighing coffee. Traditionally, it's been dosed in terms of volume - which any baker can tell you is less accurate. The solution here is, of course, to use a digital scale, which is neither expensive nor difficult to use.

But not everyone is ready to invest in more gadgetry, which is fine, since the difference in accuracy between the two methods needn't be large - provided you measure accurately. Or perhaps it would be better to say that you need to dose, rather than measure, accurately, since many coffee bags suggest an improper dose: 1 tablespoon per 6 ounces of water.

Now, those who measure by weight and indulge in a greater deal of specificity will notice inherently that there are problems with this method. But for my sake - and most others' - it does a good enough job - or it would, rather, were the dose not half of what it ought to be.

Of course, these same bags do say that you can adjust for taste - which, of course you can. Still, though, we're most people will not simply jump to a dose twice as high as the one suggested, and may not make their way there at all. They want to make their coffee "right", so they follow the directions, more or less.

Well, don't. Two tablespoons of whole bean coffee per six ounces of water (some people say eight, to account for water loss, but we'll not worry about that now) is, so far as I'm concerned, the standard volumetric dose for high quality coffee. Ignore any bag that says otherwise - unless, of course, you enjoy hot water, flavored with a faint hint of coffee.

This blog, for the most part, does not indulge in "how to's", since there are no shortage of them already, and in any case, I don't pretend you ought to listen to me. But I'm making an exception in this case, both because I think this problem (such as it is) is fairly common, and the solution uncommonly simple.

November 12, 2012

The Human Experience

It is 1:30 in the morning on a Sunday night, and I am in bed, so to speak, although not quite attempting sleep yet. I am thinking about running and life and the trajectory of both, already worrying about a 50K that is months away. I am still wearing my running tights, somewhat due to their warmth, but also because I simply like the association. If I do enough runner-y things, then perhaps that rubs off, and I get as good as I want to be. Maybe.

Tomorrow is Monday, of course, which means work, and also that I really should be asleep. But I am doing this instead, and not only because of the running trepidation.

I've been thinking about people, our nature, and work. I am neither a biologist nor an anthropologist, but I do read quite a bit on both, albeit recreationally, and feel somewhat that this statement is well informed and safe.

Humans are, for all of our dissociation from nature, still a product of it, still somewhat captive to our ancestry and biology. We are unique in some regards, but not unique in being unique. We are animals with features that other animals don't have, in precisely the same way that other animals are distinct.

We can then surmise, quite easily, that we, being animals still, might be driven by similar primary motivators. And furthermore, that in our current environment, we have a severely skewed perception and interaction with said motivators. We are, to borrow a somewhat trendy and oft-used phrase, zoo humans. This does not refer exclusively to a lack of exposure to dirt and rocks (though it does refer to that, certainly, and I do love those things), but to a lack of less tangible things, and an excess of others.

This is not a call to abandon modern society and all of its trappings, or even to damn it. I've just finished two magazines and a book, and am using a laptop computer to compose this. Tomorrow, I will use an espresso machine to make coffee drinks. I am not looking to give any of these things up.

Not merely because I'm an indulgent hypocrite (though, you know, perhaps), but because all of those things, I would argue, have the power to satisfy some of the base desires of the human animal. We are often referred to as social creatures, and that's true. We need people, but not merely a swarm of then surrounding us - we need to interact with them. We need to read about their experiences and their adventures, share in the beauty of their lives through the beauty of their language. And we need a gathering place, somewhere to retreat from our numbing tasks and engage with one another, face to face, to share our days, every day, crafting a collective narrative.

I would argue that, ultimately, that is the coffee bar's calling. It is to be a watering hole of sorts, a place to meet, exhale, tell stories, and simply build familiarity. It is a fluid and fractal tribe, but about the best we can do these days. That, to me, is what work is. It's a chance to stand on my feet and use my hands, to make drinks that I love and sip on delicious coffee from an adorable little demitasse throughout the day. But mostly it's a chance to be a part of a community, to be a person amongst people, a human amongst humans, doing what is is that makes us happy, since the beginning of this infinite present.

November 9, 2012

Like a Virgin

They say you never forget your first time, which is not strictly true in every case, but still does a decent job of emphasizing the power of novelty. Still, in my case, I don't remember. I don't recall my fist tamp, steam, or pour. It's all one homogenous blur, evenly textured like the microfoam itself.

So, failing that, it's nice to experience novelty from the other side. I'm still doing a fair bit of training, and I'm still loving it. Mostly, because of that novelty. You get to see, first hand, the feeling of holyshitthisissocoolandI'mtotallydoingit develop, and then take hold. You see the seeds of the addiction that's so wholly ensnared you take root. And what's more, you're sowing those seeds. This is their triumph, mostly, but yours too, because you're making it happen.

Since it is new to them, it can't help but feel a little new to you as well. It reintroduces a sense of novelty in to your routine - in my case, about 5 years old. And it's great. Always. It simply refuses to get old, because their fresh enthusiasm becomes yours.

And that's that. You'd think there would be something about frustration with slow learners, or jealousy directed at those who pick it up a little too quickly. Maybe something about introducing what might be future competition, further saturating an already crowded barista market. Maybe something about how, with only one exception, all of these trainees are post-grad, like me, and oh no!, shouldn't they be getting a real job, what about our economy?

But no, there is none of that. Novelty, being what it is, leaves little room for cynicism, and so I have none. What I have instead, and refreshed repeatedly, is a sense of enthusiasm. Making a coffee drink is really pretty cool, and being good at it is especially so. So thanks, fellow doomed Millennials. Thanks for forever renewing my sense that doing cool shit - satisfying, fulfilling shit - is right on.

November 4, 2012

On Not Being a Dick

So I have confession, and I hope you'll indulge me: I like some things that you do not. And even the things we both like, I may like differently, or slightly different variations thereof. I like things that are wrong to like, things that would earn me derisive looks and perhaps sneers from the elite of whatever particular subculture we're talking about.

An example:

I like sub-sub-sub-genres of metal that you would expect a skinny kid with longish bangs to like, bands that you might even call emo, but absolutely are not, I swear, mostly because there is screaming and melodic guitar riffs stolen from Swedish death metal bands and breakdowns borrowed from the 90's hardcore scene. A real fan of metal would, of course, call me all sorts of awful things from behind their Gothenburg beard, some of which would probably even be true. The hardcore crowd wouldn't have mean things to say, because they would be too busy kicking my ass.

So yes, I like some shitty things, if we're being honest. You do too, I imagine, and it's ok to say that, because we're being honest here, remember?

Of course, for me, coffee is not one of those things. I like exceptional coffee, prepared exceptionally well. I like coffee that people who like coffee are supposed to like. Judging by the fact that you're reading this, you probably do too. Either that, or you're related to me, in which case thanks for reading.

Anyway, high five! We like good coffee. What's more, we like the right kind of coffee. We win! Let's all get together and make fun of people who put sugar in their coffee and like mochas.

Or we could, you know, not. People like what they like, even if what they like sucks, according to the tastemakers. Just remember that you like shitty things too, probably, so don't be a dick about it.

November 1, 2012

Be Better than Cold Coffee

There are a lot of things worse than bad coffee, of course. That nearly goes without saying, but I feel like putting it out in front regardless, lest I venture in to #firstworldproblems territory. So yes, bad coffee is not so bad as, say, child soldiers in Africa. It is not even so bad as my $700 car troubles. But it is bad enough to note, and so I will.

My story: I bought a cup of drip, and it was cold.

Not my most artistically worded tale, nor my most dramatic telling, but I think it gets the facts right. It also conveys the simplicity of both the problem and the solution.

Cold coffee is bad. In order to avoid this mistake, brew appropriate amounts at appropriate intervals. Don't let large pots sit for hours.

Simple. And yet, despite that, this is not the first time I've had this problem. Nor is it the first time I've had this problem at this specific place. Though they have fabulous beans, I'm rarely willing to pay for their product, and this is why. Cold coffee, not matter how well treated at every preceding step, tastes like shit.

Now you know this already, I'm sure. You're a good barista, or a conscious consumer. You know that hot coffee is best consumed hot, because you're not stupid. So this is not about this specific instance, or how to avoid it. This is about having shitty coffee, whatever the reason, and learning from that experience, learning from the mistakes of others.

Don't leave your coffee out all day. Don't pull ten second shots. Don't scald your milk. Don't leave grounds and milk splattered everywhere.

All of this is obvious, and yet I keep seeing it. So, it stands to reason that you keep seeing it too. Internalize all of the idiocy, realize why you won't spend money at those places, and then be better than them in every way. Set a higher standard, and then live up to it. Be the kind of shop you'd happily spend your money at, so you're not screwing people out of theirs. Be fair to your customers, the farmers, and the roasters. Show respect to everyone that worked to provide you with the equipment you need to succeed by succeeding.

Simple? Yes. So let's do it.

October 31, 2012

An Important Question

The best writing advice I ever received was delivered by my Fiction Writing II teacher, himself not yet a professor, and who looked exactly like Tobias from Arrested Development. He told us that, with everything we wrote, we ought to ask "What work is this doing?"

Something about that resonated with me. I think it may have been the word "work", invoking something utilitarian about our attempted artistry. The words and sentences should each do something, add to the collective whole and help work towards something. They should not simply be floating, frivolous things, however beautiful the intent.

So let's take that question, and use it on coffee drinks we have on our collective menus. What work is this doing? That is, why is it here? What role does it serve? What niche is satisfied?

A cafe au lait is different from a latte in obvious ways. The former is made with drip; the latter with espresso. But that's not really crucial information to most customers. So we ask, what work are those drinks doing? What does an au lait do that a latte does not? If you like X, which should you get?

A mere listing of ingredients is not satisfactory here. A cappuccino is not simply a foamier latte. There are different experiences to be had, expectations to be met, and work to be done.

But what is that work? What job is each drink looking to do? Answer that, and we can build a better menu, and recommend more appropriate drinks.

October 27, 2012


Venture in to any coffee shop - mine included - and you'll nearly always see a bevy of signs, filled with chalked drink names and descriptions. There's a lot to take in, for your average customer, and so many of them don't, opting instead to ask the barista for what they want. There are those, however, who do gaze at the whole menagerie, characteristically swamped by the informations presented to them.

Neither scenario is ideal, of course. We'd rather have something clear, concise, and useful. We'd especially like something useful, given that the entire point of a menu is to streamline the ordering process. Efficiency is the goal, and most shops - again, including mine - are not achieving this.

The problem, in almost every case I've seen, is volume. Nearly every drink one could commonly order is listed, with a description, sizes, prices, etc. It's all a bit too much. It's all a bit, to use current internet parlance, TL;DR.

The volume is such the people, very often, don't even bother. This leads to misunderstandings, and frustrations on the part of both baristas and customers. Clearly, this is opposite of what we want our menus to do.

So, I'm going to set about fixing mine. Or rather, some of my coworkers with better penmanship will set about the task. In any case, it's easy to blame customers for being slow orderers, readers, or apparently clueless. But those assumptions are both useless, and usually, false. They're our menus, and it's our job to make the useful. So let's do that.

October 22, 2012


Today is, for a little while yet, Monday. It is that most dreaded of days, the start of the workweek, heralded by the bleeping of alarm clocks, greeted by bleary eyes and sour moods. And it must be truly awful, for all I hear about it. Customers tell me; cashiers at other places I visit tell me; everyone tells me.

They tell me, and I wonder, either this must be a great lie, or something bordering on tragedy. Either people simply like to complain that much, or they simply hate their jobs that much. Neither is a pleasant conclusion to reach, of course, but I find the latter to be worse.

And I don't have much to say, beyond simply that that's too bad. I like Mondays; I like my job. I like, I guess, that maybe I can help people hate Mondays a little less.

Of course, I also know that not everyone has the same luxury that I do, by which I mean the same lack of responsibility. I can split my time between the coffee bar, the trail, and the gym, because I have no responsibilities to anyone or anything else. I'm young, and lucky, and I get that.

But still. No one gets in to the coffee business simply because they like the beans. You deal with hundreds of people a day, many of them every day, so you have to love that too. On some level, you have to love them too. And so you want better for them, if not people in general. You want them to be happy, to enjoy whatever sense of fulfillment and enjoyment your life affords you.

You want them to love Mondays, because Mondays mean a chance to make things, do things, to be amongst people and life. You want them to love Mondays, because you're there, right then, a part of their Monday. You want to elevate the whole mess, if that's what it truly is, or at least offer something like a reprieve.

What you don't want is a cold transaction, bills changing hands, social graces grunted inaudibly, the malaise solidifying. So don't let it happen. Choose better, because people come to you for more than coffee.

October 19, 2012

Consider the Cow

I've lived in Kansas my entire life, more or less, which means a lot of things, but I'm going to take this somewhere you're not expecting. This is not about The Wizard of Oz (please), hills (we have them), or general ass-backwards education policy (no arguing that, sadly).

No, this is about cows. Stay with me.

Living in Kansas, cows have been somewhat omnipresent in my life. If you drive anywhere outside of any town, you see them. You may in fact smell them from further away, particularly if you venture near  some of the less "free range" operations. This state's history, even, is largely defined and created by the cattle trade, the iconic longhorns being driven up from Texas, through the towns of the wild west.

Despite this closeness - or perhaps because of it - I've never really thought a great deal about cows. They seem, after a while, like scenery. You see them, but they lack the graceful power and spectacular musculature of horses, the personality and cuddliness (a technical term) of dogs and cats, and so they're more or less dismissed.

This weekend, however, I thought about cows, when I was charged by one. Heartland - the race I was running - largely takes place on private pasture, and as such, cows sometimes mill about. But about 16 miles in to my race, one particular heifer had had enough milling, and felt the need to get some running in herself.

As I shuffled along, a heard a rustle, and then saw a great black mass hurtling towards me. I turned, and my headlamp illuminated (it was a night race) the silhouette of a large, black cow, a rippling mass careening right at me. "Oh fuck," I yelled, and darted off the side of the road, the absurdity of this whole thing not yet dawning on me. When it did, I laughed to myself, imagining DNF'ing a race due to injury sustained via cow trampling. This was not Pamplona, after all.

At work and decidedly not trampled the next day, I set about ordering milk, which we all know comes from cows, but I'm not so sure that we know it. That is, milk comes from a plastic jug, the grocery, and the milk guy who brings it there. It is a white foodish liquid that we use to make drinks, pour pretty designs, and generally center our barista lives around. It is a commodity and an artistic tool, but not something that actually comes from a living thing - which of course, it is.

Now, I don't do calls to action, or editorial pieces. My style - insofar as I have one - is to throw ideas out there in a somewhat coherent (hopefully) stream of consciousness. So I'm not going to tell you that cows are people too (there are better and more articulate sources for that already), or that you should think or feel a certain way about them.

What I am suggesting is this: In an age where we're justifiably concerned about farm-to-cup coffee sourcing, and everything that goes along with that, perhaps we could spare a moment's thought for those other farms, and those other producers, without which we wouldn't be able to do our jobs. So while I'm not trying to tell you what to think of cows, I would like to say that maybe you try thinking about them at all.

October 16, 2012

Soy Foam at the Mountain Top

It's amazing how mundane an ultra feels, while you're doing it. It really is as simple as one step after another, an exercise in mental as much as physical endurance. And when it's done, that's it. You return to your life, and find it unchanged. The person who rings up your gas at the Kwik Shop still doesn't smile, and that customer still wants a non-soy/dairy milk. You limp a bit, but mostly hope people don't ask why, because the whole thing can be a chore to explain. "Yes, it's far. And yes, people run it. No I can't really tell you why, other than because. Sometimes you just do things."

But there is comfort in that sameness, in the routine. It helps, of course, that I rather like mine. Monday came, as it does, and Tuesday after it. People came and bought their usual drinks, and we talked about the usual things. It was, despite the sameness, not mundane; and it never really is.

I trained another person, as is happening a lot lately. The owner of my shop is opening up another, and it largely falls on me to bring the would-be-baristas up to speed.

I made, probably, my best triple rosetta. Perhaps this has to do with the above, as explaining my milk texturing and pouring has a way of focusing my efforts. No matter how good you are, you're better when you really dial things in.

And I made the best dry soy cappuccino in the history of Earth. Really. Allegedly, there are shops who will tell you this cannot be done. They are either lying, or wrong. Maybe they can't meet the challenge, or perhaps it's too daunting to attempt. But I've climbed that mountain, tasted the air, and it's real. Let me tell you, it's real. The dry soy cappuccino can happen, and don't let anyone tell you otherwise.

In summation, I feel more proud of my ability to stretch soy milk than my ability to traverse 50 miles somewhat quickly. Weird.

October 14, 2012

Heartland 50 Mile Race Report

"Pain in the legs is a taste of zen." Yamada Roshi

So let's start there.

The final manned aid station for the Heatland 50 mile race was 8.2 miles from the finish, and I shuffled in, watching a mass of headlamp lights stream down the hill behind me. My hip flexors ached, and my stride refused to open up, a result of the 40+ miles of flat dirt road running - or rather, muddy road running.

I took three gels, and stashed them in my Nathan pack, planning to need only two of them. I sipped some Coke, and an attendant informed me, shockingly, that I was in third place. This, I did not know. Fourth or fifth, I had thought, but not third. And yet here I was, apparently, just a little over 10K from my first top-ten ultra finish.

I stepped out from under the tent, and gazed up in to the sky. It was crisp and clear, the stars and white miasma between them stark and urgently present.

I walked about twenty yards, and then ran, as best I could. I shuffled up on my forefoot, my legs spinning out to the side with every step, further aggravating the hip flexors.

Ouch. Ouch. Ouch. Fuck. Fuck. Fuck. Three every second, but they kept coming, and kept moving forward. There was solace in that pain, that feeling that I had earned this, and that it would not disable me. It hurt, but it was not an injury. Sometimes you just know. And I knew, also, that I just had to keep going. My lead may have been small, but even a half-mile is a long way to make up in 8.

Zen or not, there is a certain trance you enter in to in any endurance event, where your body accepts the mind's instructions, the cold logic of "the faster you go, the sooner you finish". And so I followed the lights, squishing and slipping after the headlamps ahead of me, and away from those behind me. I was a ghost among others, our shared pains and desires driving us towards those brighter lights down the road, forever just so close, like a desert mirage.

The pavement arrived, and I turned on to it, the finishing chute only a quarter mile away. I could see the red lights, marking the time, giving some semblance of meaning to this pronounced foolishness. I ran, imagining a sprint, but perhaps only flirting with an 8 minute mile pace, my quads searing, my mind flooding with chemicals you can only buy with your own two feet.

3rd overall

October 11, 2012

I'm Running 50 Miles Soon, So Here Is Some Mostly Unrelated Stuff

Wearing compression socks while writing is not a performance enhancer, as demonstrated by the quality of this lead sentence and the fact that I misspelled "enhancer" the first time around, only to be corrected by that handy little red line that protects whatever integrity as a legit writer I have.

But I am wearing a pair, because there is a 50-mile race on Saturday, and I'm doing it. If this doesn't seem to logically follow, let me just say that I'm not reaping any physical benefits by wearing them; I simply like to have them on, like a little kid who won't take his shoulder pads off after his first football practice.

Also, coffee things: I've been training a lot of people lately, and searching for a viable "milk" that is neither dairy nor soy.

The former is going well. Training is easy, really, to the point where I can't believe it was ever a source of anxiety. You show a little, tell even less, then let them practice. Then, when mistakes are made, make corrections (without being a dick). Repeat this for a few hours, and then a few days, and significant progress will have been made.

Perhaps I shouldn't say so, lest I threaten my job security, but it's really not terribly hard to elevate someone to competence as a barista. Of course, competence is not excellence. That requires practice on a longer timeline, and a refined feel for your machine, espresso, and milk. That can neither be taught nor rushed; it must simply be earned by putting in the hours.

The non-dairy/soy milk search is going less well. Almond milk refuses to accept any air whatsoever, getting sudsy and oh, bitter as well. Coconut milk, while a little better, still doesn't texture properly, and the flavor is far too pronounced. Rice milk is predictably thin and bland, doing little more than watering down the espresso.

There are other options, liquids made from hemp, oats, sunflower seeds, hazelnuts, etc. I've not tried them, and given the results thus far, I'm not keen to.

So, why bother? Because people ask. Not many, but enough. There are those who can't or won't drink dairy, which I understand. (Lactose intolerance is quite common, and some people would just rather be nice to cows. Legit concerns, both.) Soy avoidance confuses me slightly more, though I've heard all manner of reasons for it. Suffice it to say, people are allowed their neurosis, and if possible, I'd like to help indulge it.

But so far, I just can't. Or rather, I can't find a viable dairy/soy substitute. I can offer them a premium beverage that is gluten/soy/sugar/egg/lactose free, however: Coffee. Black coffee. It really is a miracle beverage, even enhancing endurance performance to a greater extent than compression socks.

There. I brought it around.

October 6, 2012

Brown Leaves and Grey Skies

With respect to that period in December, October, I think, can lay claim to being the "most wonderful time of the year". It is the year's gloaming, a season that goes beyond all the leaves being brown and the skies grey. The leaves, rather, are every shade on the autumnal palate, things that don't have names, a striking plethora of red to brown, and everything in between. And even the grey sky is not without variety; sometimes it's an even slate, others, a rolling whitecapped gunmetal.

It is also, as people have begun to tell me, coffee weather. And although I tend to think any weather is coffee weather, I have to agree, there is something even more satisfying about a cup that serves to drive the chill from your marrow.

So that's it. I don't have much more to add, which is rare, I know. But sometimes, there just isn't much to say. Drink your coffee, enjoy the weather, and be well.

October 1, 2012

What Matters

People complain about things, and that's fine. It happens, and it doesn't mean I - or anyone else - needs to pay it any mind. Still, I've been reading some high profile articles lately, damning the whole "foodie" thing, specialty coffee, fancy wine, etc. The argument, basically, is that we're latching on to relatively cheap indulgences to make ourselves feel privileged, that we're grasping at pseudo-elitism.

And while I understand that obsessing over single origin beans - or whatever other culinary delicacy you might fancy - is ultimately frivolous, I don't think that's what this is about. It is, rather, people being pissy that some people like things that they do not. Juvenile, yes, but just that simple.

Furthermore, we can be that reductive about anything, if we so choose. After all, people are dying right now, of starvation, disease, gunfire, etc. There are infinite cruelties being committed at this moment, at every moment, so we could easily decide to never enjoy anything.

But it just doesn't matter, they might protest. It's just coffee; it's not important. Well, sure. On a long enough timeline, whatever pleasure I derive from this beverage does not matter. In the grand scheme of things, it is totally irrelevant. But you know what? In a few thousand years, our cities will be gone, and so will we. The Universe is bigger than we are, so much bigger than we can possibly fathom. It doesn't care what coffee I drink, sure; but it doesn't care about anything anyone else does either.

This is neither fatalism or nihilism, however. I'm not saying that life and its pleasures don't matter to us - indeed, they are everything. So when I buy apples and sweet potatoes from local farmers, or Yirgacheffe from a local roaster, I'm not grasping at some imagined hipster ideal. I'm buying things that I like, from people I like, because it makes my life better, and there's too.

And, as much as anything ultimately can, that matters. I'm here, now, living the one life I know for sure I've got. It would be a shame to waste it drinking shitty coffee.

September 29, 2012


People ask, but it's a challenge really, more than a question.

"Can you make ________ well?"

"Is your ______ as good as Starbucks?" 

"How's your _______?"

They know you'll say it's good, because you really shouldn't say anything else. Even if you believe otherwise - which you shouldn't, really - the most basic business acumen dictates selling them what they want, and that means confirming quality. 

Given that the answer is never really in question, and that the question itself really isn't a question, what they really want is for you to make the drink, make it well, and prove it to them. Prove that it's a great whatever, better than Starbucks, better than your nearest competition.

I love those questions - or, if we're going to name them honestly, challenges. I love the chance to make something to a specific taste, cater to the details of a "picky order", and if I'm being honest, fucking nail it. 

Better than Starbucks? Easily. Better than wherever else you've come from? Chances are, yes. I had better think so. If I'm knowingly making a suboptimal product, there's a problem. 

This is a matter of pride, but also, mere pragmatism. It would be lovely to think that my shop makes money because people simply cannot resist my dazzling wit and feathered bangs, but I know better. While the barista matters, and people appreciate and value the personal interaction (and the hair), the drink still has to be dialed. 

It's a revelation I know: Good drinks lead to better business. 

So, customers, speaking on behalf of every good barista I've ever known: Tell me your drink is hard, that you're picky, that only so and so at such and such has ever made it right. Ask me if I can do it at all, or, god forbid, better than ever. I'll smile, give a succinct confirmation that yes, I can, and yes, I will. I'll make the drink, then smile again, as you tell me how great it is. "Thanks," I'll say. "Told you," I'll think.

September 25, 2012

Espresso Anxiety

I would love to tell you that I love all of my drinks equally, if differently, but that would be a lie. The truth is that I have favorites, as do you. I make my favorites with a certain attentiveness that - again, if we're being honest - is not present for every drink. When I pull shots for a appreciative double-drinker, I care more about the quality of the crema than when I'm pulling for a large mocha.

Perhaps this shouldn't be the case. Perhaps it's a problem - and really, I am trying to address it. But I think, also, that it's inevitable. It is, in the words of many who have had nothing better to say, what it is.

And so I'm going back to the double, a drink I've been preparing with increasing frequency, much to my delight and also, sometimes, horror. Again, it's not that I don't care about every drink, just that I care a little more about those that seem somehow to be pure, like something I'd drink. And there is something fundamentally revealing about espresso, consumed as is. There is neither milk nor syrup to hide the bitter imperfections, should you error. And so I both love it and fear it, because it's an opportunity to either pass or fail the most basic of tests.

Espresso, after all, is the basis of almost everything else a barista makes at a coffee bar. If you can't do that well, then you can't do much more than count change. It's a bit like the omelet test, something I'm told many would-be cooks are subjected to. In it, the applicant is asked to make an omelet, and are appraised solely on that. They may get the job, or they yolk may be on them. (Very sorry for that. I couldn't help it.) It is simple, but not easy.

In my last post, I discussed perfect espresso a bit, but never really got around the most fundamental quality it must have: Good taste. We can quibble a bit over what that means, whether we want lemon (Schomer says no) or cherry or bourbon or cocoa. But we want it to taste good, or at least, not like burnt prune juice.

And so we pull, carefully attending to the dose, the leveling, tamping, polishing, etc. We pull, counting the seconds, watching the stream, fist dripping, then almost but not quite flowing, like maple syrup or amber or honey or, well, like good espresso. We serve and we hope. We watch for clues, the first sip, swirl, and then the face. A grimace? A smile? A twitch? What was that? Something? Nothing? We are anxiously looking without trying to look like we're looking, waiting for them to finish, and they do, say thanks, but did they mean it? Was it, like, thanks for the great espresso? Or was that a pity thanks, as in thanks for nothing, I'll never see you again?

We don't know  - and won't ever really be sure, no matter what is said, or how practiced we get - until the next day, when they come back, and we do it again.

September 21, 2012

Thoughts on Perfect Espresso

So, the planned conversation on espresso did not go as planned. For me, it did not go at all. Short version: Technical difficulties.

Still, I was introduced to several new people and a myriad of new perspectives, and perhaps, I'll have an opportunity to jump in to the next roundtable. 

In the meantime, however, I wanted to share some loose thoughts I had on "perfect espresso", what it is, and how we might seek it. 

The first - and perhaps, most important - point is that espresso perfection is a journey with no tangible destination. We are seeking something inherently arbitrary and subjective, and yet, like the Supreme Court with pornography, we feel intuitively that we'll know it when we see it. 

Yet despite the inherently impossible nature of the quest, it is worth undertaking. While perfection is unattainable, quality is very real, very tangible, and at this point, the least we can do. We have access to quality equipment, beans, and technique, such that bad espresso isn't excusable. 

Unless, of course, you don't have one of those three things. These are the ingredients without which great espresso simply will not happen. So, if your beans suck, fix that. If your equipment is dirty, broken, or otherwise sub-optimal, fix that too. And learn decent technique. Find videos of the best baristas online, watch, and then practice. Mostly practice. 

What about the specifics? What about pull time, gram dosage, bean blending, etc.? On those things, I'm mostly agnostic. There's a wide range that works, and without knowing the details of every situation, we can only really say that those things will inevitably vary. My best advice is to ask your roaster what they do in their cafe. Chances are, they know best how to treat their beans. 

Finally, sometimes, forget about all of those things. Perfect espresso - or at least as close as we get - is never really about those things anyway. Rather, it's a cumulative sensory experience, a compilation of every bit of present context. The best shots are the ones you pull (well, maybe not, but I prefer my own handiwork), present in every sense of the word for every aspect of the preparation. That sense continues through consumption, everything around you mattering, and yet not, context totally informative and irrelevant. 

Perfect espresso is in your hands, your mouth, all around, right now. It is a moment, poetically similar in length to the shots themselves, short, concentrated, beautiful. 

September 18, 2012

Perfect Espresso Roundtable

A savant, well, that's a stronger word than I would use. But regardless, there is this, the Coffee Savants' Roundtable discussion on how to create the perfect shot of espresso. And I am attending, along with several others, whose opinions I value highly. It should be a lively occasion, and hopefully I add something to it. Regardless, you can watch the entire thing unfold at 8 PM central time. And really, you should. It'll be more interesting than whatever procedural is on network TV at the time.

September 12, 2012

Hawk Marathon Race Report, and Satisfaction in Service

It was 2 am, or something like that. Truthfully, time gets lost, even during races, when it's that late/early, and you've been up since 5 am the previous day, and ran a marathon sometime in that period.

About that marathon.

I ran in fourth until just past the halfway point, showing surprising patience, not knowing where anyone else was. This was a windy, technical trail, after all, so for all I knew, there was no hope of grabbing a podium spot. (If, you know, local trail races had podiums. They don't.) But I knew I was chasing a shirtless guy wearing yellow Kinvaras, and another guy wearing Newtons, and so I kept my eyes out for them, trying to keep my pace decent despite the total lack of perspective.

And then they were ahead of me, only just, and then, as quickly, I was with them. They glanced back, and I imagined them thinking something like "Oh shit.". But there were still 8 miles to go, so I would sit and wait, let them work to try and drop me, and then kick up the final hills.

Or not. The guy in the Newtons tripped, and appeared to twist his ankle. He told me and the Kinvara guy to keep going without him, and we didn't need much convincing. In third now, I was full of adrenaline, running a trail I was familiar with, following a runner who seemed to be slowing drastically.

And so I moved, just before the final aid station, thinking that I could lengthen my gap while he refueled. Of course, doing that would require that I not stop myself, a decision that I decided was unwise with 6.5 miles still to go. So I split the difference, drank 4 ounces of Coke (crucially, I didn't fill my bottle or grab any gels), and gunned it.

For a mile, this seemed brilliant. My chaser was nowhere to be seen, and I felt great, right up until I felt like shit. The transition was immediate, the proverbial wall smashing right up against me. Thoroughly bonked and without any calories to consume, I shuffled onward, tripped, and saw that my pursuit had not just reappeared, but caught me.

But there was so little race left, depleted or not, I would give chase. And so I did, not gaining, but not losing either. I kept the yellow Kinvaras in my sight, right up until a turn - I know it well - with about 1.2 miles to go. I took the turn, I think. I must have. Although that's not what the course for the race dictated, it's the only way to explain how I ended up on the wrong trail, forced to retrace my steps, and resume passing people I hadn't seen for quite some time.

I crossed the line in sixth, missing the imaginary podium, eleven minutes behind the yellow Kinvaras. I drank a Mountain Dew, felt pretty dumb, but mostly, was still pretty stoked. It had been, probably, the most fun race I've ever run, the closest I'd ever come to the sort of Beardsley/Salazar dueling you see on the elite level.

I went home, ate about 4 cups of rice and beans, a pint of cocunut milk ice cream, and foam rolled. I sat around for a few more hours, killing time until the evening, which would turn in to the night, which gets us back to it being 2 am.

Anyway, it was dark, and sort of cool, the stars almost urgently clear. I was working an aid station at the for the 100 milers, filling the bottles of a runner with ice, and then water and HEED, respectively. I zipped around, not wanting to delay someone who was, in theory, racing, declaring that I was a food service professional, with the irony and the punch drunkenness that comes from being - and this is the medical term - wiped the fuck out.

We sent him on his way and I ate some vegetarian chile, which included mashed potatoes and Chinese takeout levels of salt - all the better to fuel endurance - and then drank some Folger's Black Silk - which tasted like Broadway's Yirgacheffe at the time - not wanting to drink another Mountain Dew.

Other runners came in, looking pretty much like you'd expect at that point, and we did what we could for them. I drank more coffee and took some allergy meds, and then drank more coffee because I took the allergy meds. I wandered towards the trees so I wouldn't sneeze on the runner taking a nap in one of the chairs, wandered back, and was asked if I could pace him the 6.5 miles to the start/finish.

I said yes, presuming that he would either drop out there, or the RDs would pull him. I wanted to be nice, but you have to be realistic about these things. We set off, walking fast, making small talk. His name was Terry, 57, from Wichita (I think). He liked yoga and steam engines.

As we talked, I couldn't help but notice his tone was optimistic. He sounded awake, energetic, and hopeful. When we talked about his race circumstances, he kept saying he'd feel even better when the sun came up, and that he still though he could finish. The math said otherwise - he would have to run his 4th loop faster than his 2nd or 3rd - but I began to believe him.

We arrived at the start/finish as the sun came up. Terry ate, and I sat on a picnic bench, watching the 100-mile winner get interviewed by a local paper; he had finished over four hours earlier. Terry told the RDs he'd like to do the final loop, whether he got it in under the 32-hour time limit or not. As someone kindly bandaged my bleeding pinky toe, I told the RDs that he could make it. We only needed to cover 25 miles in 7 hours, and he was fine, really, and I was too.

And then Terry was running, disappearing down the trail. I chased, yelling back at someone that I was fine, it was only blood, and that we'd be back in time. I imagined I'd catch up with him easily. But, whether it was the sun or not, that took two miles. Terry, who hadn't run for something like 10 hours, was now running my marathon pace, and I wondered if I was going to be any help at all.

I did catch him, of course, when he resumed walking an uphill section, saying to me that he'd better save some for later. I agreed, and pointed out that if we only ran the easiest portions of the trail at that pace, he'd finish comfortably. Math was now on our side, so far as I was concerned.

My stomach was not, however. As we reached the first aid station, I stripped off my night gear, and headed towards the nearest restroom. Terry was moving well, and I told him I'd pick him back up at the next aid station, hopefully ready to lead a charge to the finish, if need be. He said that would be nice, and that he appreciated whatever impromptu pacing he could get.

Stomach settled, I drove to the next aid station, and tried not to fall asleep in my car. I drank another Mountain Dew, felt marginally better, and then saw Terry popping out of the woods, heading up the route's biggest hill. I shuffled over to the aid station, made plans for what we'd need, what sort of pace would be required, and then ran ahead to hook back up with Terry.

We ran in to the mostly disassembled aid station, grabbed several gels, and filled our bottles. Quickly, we plunged back in to the trees, Terry still running the flat sections, and walking the hills. I was doing the math constantly, telling him how fast we were clocking our miles, and how his pace was consistently exceeding what was needed. There was no longer any doubt in my mind that he'd finish, and I told him that. Just keep doing what you're doing.

We arrived at the next - and final - aid station, and were greeted by an enthusiastic host. There was Gary - the club's Godfather, basically - who had manned that aid station for over 24 hours and made the addictive chile; Terry's wife, who thanked me, and who ushered him off with a kiss; Alan, who I had seen the previous morning during my race, and who volunteered to pace if I could go no further; Adam,  who had won the 50-miler (by 50 minutes); and others, of course, who I would recall if I hadn't been so damn tired.

The finish assured if no mistakes were made, Terry took the technical portions carefully, but still ran when prudent. We were making good time, good conversation, and came up on another two runners. One was Donnie, on his way to finishing his first 100-mile race. He was paced by Bryan, who had worked the aid station with my prior to assuming his pacing duties. Together, we decided to form a proud 4-man caboose, hiking and jogging the remaining 3 miles. Bryan and I congratulated the two soon-to-be finishers, and they continued on, spirits suitably high.

When we emerged form the woods, Bryan and I peeled off to the side, leaving the finish to Terry and Donnie. There's had been the race, and this was rightly their moment. I watched them get their buckles, take pictures, and smile. I sat on the picnic bench, happier at that moment than at any race I'd ever finished myself.

And while that sounds both overly sentimental and self aggrandizing, I promise neither are my motivation. These are simply the sorts of things that happen at trail races, and are a large reason I'm drawn to the sport of running way too fucking far on dirt and rocks.

Furthermore, I am - and at this point, it really is basically my entire identity - a barista. Anyone who sticks in the service industry for long does it because of moments like this - if a little less dramatic. We like being told that we made someone's day, if only by making their drink, or simply being nice.

So yeah, it only took me a few thousand words to bring this around to this blog's primary subject matter. Service: Do it right, and you feel awesome.