January 28, 2012

Goodnight, Sweet Prince: A Farewell to Splenda

My history with artificial sweeteners is a sordid one. Several years ago, my quest for a certain aesthetic led to the frequent consumption of things that were not quite food, intended to mask the unpalatability of my diet at the time. These things were sprinkled on my oatmeal, consumed from shaker cups both pre and post workout. They filled in myriad blanks, stimulating my taste buds where food was lacking.

Those days are past, and happily so. Rather than chase that ghostly artifice, I now know the sweetness of yams, carrots, and fuji apples. Indeed, these are the sorts of things that now fill my (organic cotton, if that tells you anything) grocery bag. There was nothing purchased on my last trip which was not a nearly unaltered plant - unless you consider tofu and rolled oats heavily processed. (And no, paleo crowd, I have not become fat or diabetic in the last few years.)

I should confess here that, quite shamefully, I still fall victim to the odd diet soda. There is a local, organic coop that carries only stevia and erythritol sweetened varieties, of which I try to exclusively partake. But I am not as fastidious as I'd like, and both coke and sprite zero have crossed my lips at least once in the last several months. I do plan on changing that, however, if for no other reason than to deprive the Coca Cola Corporation of my meager funds. Thankfully, I have nearly unlimited access to coffee, a beverage more rich in caffeine and health promoting compounds - not to mention, much tastier.

But that's me. There are those for whom coffee and artificial sweeteners are not separate entities, but in fact go hand in hand. Coffee, sans skim milk and a pink, blue, or yellow packet, is nigh undrinkable. And these people may well be disappointed in my coffee shop's restocked condiment bar, which lacks that artificial rainbow.

To be clear, this was not my choice, but that of my owner. For the sake of consistency, I will not carry these things, because the breakfast cafe he owns doesn't either. While my taste dictates doing away with all of them, so too would it banish the real sugar, and probably all the syrups too. Still, I'm happy to defend my owner's call.

I could point out that these packets contain dextrose and maltodextrin, both simple carbohydrates with a glycemic index similar to white sugar. I could note that all of them seem to kill rats - albeit in monster doses. Assuming that my customers are not rats, I could cite a study which shows aspartame consumption to alter postprandial insulin levels and glucose regulation - in humans. (If this makes you wonder why I drink this stuff at all, well, me too.)

Furthermore, it's not as if we're lacking for sweeteners. We still have local honey, raw and white sugar, and now carry stevia packets as well. The brand we carry lacks any additives, and thus doesn't perfectly mimic the taste of sugar, nor the immense sweetness of the chemical creations. But it does come from a plant, not a lab, and has actually healed damaged beta cells in diabetic rats, increasing both insulin production and sensitivity. Also, it doesn't affect serum glucose or insulin levels in humans. Because of this, it's recommended by a number of European and Asian governments for diabetics. (But not ours, suspiciously. Another tangent for another time, and probably a different blog.)

Finally, I could suggest that, just this once, they try their coffee black. But let's not get carried away.

January 22, 2012

Blonde Ambition: A Starbucks Veranda and Willow Review

It's said that gentlemen prefer blonds. Increasingly, this is the case in the coffee community. The belief is that roasting a bean deprives it of some essential flavor, and that to minimize that loss, the roast should be as short as possible. But until recently, this was a trend isolated to the specialty coffee community. The larger corporate entities still promised "bold" options (read: dark as hell), with the implication being that lighter was weaker.

No longer. The nation's largest coffee companies (Starbucks and Caribou) are both offering their lightest roasts to date. I'll have a more in depth discussion of Caribou's offerings, probably later this week. Starbucks, for its part, offered up the Willow and Veranda blends.

The former is comprised of Latin American and East African beans. As such, there is a hint of acidity in the cup. It is a delicate bite, however, and will strike the experienced Yirgi drinker as decidedly subtle. But if we assume that the average Starbucks drinker has not ventured far beyond the realm of the green apron, this coffee will probably be an eye opener. Because while it is light in roast, it is not without taste.

The Veranda blend is yet more subtle. The African beans are absent here, and as such, the hint of acid and wine is missing. What is left is a smooth, mellow coffee, but without any pronounced flavor notes. It sits lightly on the palate, and will probably serve as a comfortable entre in to the world of lighter beans for the dedicated Pike's Place drinker.

For me, both coffees pass the "Would I pay for it?" test. My affinity for African beans would suggest that I prefer the Willow, and I do. However, the Veranda is nice as well. Neither will steal market share from small batch roasters, coaxing the character out of single origin beans. In fact, they may well add to it, by expanding the palate of the average American coffee drinker. Thus the expansion to the Starbucks line is, I think, good news for everyone, regardless of preference.

January 20, 2012

The Secret to Making Latte Art

I am far from the best latte artist. Truthfully, I do not even consider myself good, except that I can do latte art at all. This seems to impress a number of people, who have never seen better. The conversation usually starts with a smile, a slight gasp, and a question: How did you do that?

I used to explain the technique. I used to mime the action of tilting the cup, pouring the milk, all the while explaining that this would only be possible with good milk, and a rich layer of crema to pour in to. Sometimes, if they had worked at a coffee bar before, this would make some sense to them. If they had not, it would accomplish nothing, except make the whole thing seem more alien.

I have a better answer now: Practice.

Perhaps it sounds dismissive, or protective of some industry secret. But it's simply true.

There is no technique one can adopt to become a prolific basketball player. But one can shoot a lot, and increase their odds. Which is not to say that technique doesn't matter; just that technique, unrefined and untempered, won't produce optimal results.

So if you want to make latte art, make latte art. Practice pouring it on every drink, even those without crema. (When you can get a rosetta to appear on a chai latte, you'll know you're getting somewhere.) Practice pouring it whether you're using soy, skim, whole, or half and half. Practice whether you're going to cover the drink with whipped cream and syrup.

There are enough technique guides, videos, and how-to's already. Pick a style that seems to work for you, and then change it as dictated by results. Or simply start from scratch.

But mainly, start.

Everything is practice - Pele

January 16, 2012

Trail Races Need Better Coffee

There are a bevy of ways in which the local trail running community's collective psyche is a good fit for mine. Or at least, it's a good fit for what I want to do, if not what I ought to do.

An example, from last Friday night: My plan, going in to the fat ass event (a rather long explanation, but think of it as a massive group run, in which you can notch all the mileage you like), was to run for 5 hours. I would take it easy, and probably end up averaging about a 9 minute mile.

In short, while my legs thought this was a great idea, my stomach did not. In between loops, I stepped in to, shall we say, attempt to appease the gurgling and cramping via expulsion of the antagonistic material. Most people - quite reasonably - would tell you to stop running at this point. But these are not most people. Rather, they offer up a salt cap, advice on what to consume (I opted for nothing, and was grateful for it), and tell you get back out there. And so I did. Paces hit, la di da.

But I've just written three paragraphs about a rather slow training run - sorry about that - without ever approaching what was to be the topic of this post. While the trail running community and I have much in common, there is one (unfortunate) discrepancy: The need for good, rather than merely present, coffee.

The coffee at the fat ass run was instant, and about the color of a weak iced tea. A few people commented that, given the volume of creamer (gotta love corn syrup solids and hydrogenated oils in your coffee) they were going to put in it, the taste of the original product didn't much matter. I didn't say anything, because I was too busy feeling nauseous, and because it was free anyway.

This was Friday night. Sunday morning, I decided to race a 5K. I justified the decision with the fact that it was on the 50K race course, but mostly, I just felt like it. I ran the uphills like I needed a walker, and the downhills like I wanted that to be the case. I looked at my shadow, and pictured the disparity between that shuffle, and the visual of actual fast people on a track. I decided, after a moment's glance, that I was not Galen Rupp. A look up at the three people in front of me revealed that they were not either. But on this morning, they were closer than I was.

Still, you find your satisfaction and consolation at the finish line. The guy who won - marked by me at the start as some old dude who had no business toeing the line - just ran in the USATF Master's Cross Country Championships, a month after polishing off a "slow" 2:40 marathon. Second and third were high school kids, decked out in their school singlets and flats, both of whom had placed high at state this year. And then there was me, 4th place and 20-something age group winner, distinguished mostly by my ability to pour pretty milk designs in espresso.

So I felt pretty good then, but would have been better with coffee. I saw a table offering some, and thought that it might go nicely with the mug I had just won (a much better prize than a medal). But as I approached, the color of the liquid became clear. It was a tree sap shade of brown, and oh god, it was being scooped from a bag and right in to the cup. Instant. Again. Only this time, there was a difference: They wanted 2 dollars for a cup of it.


This brings me, finally, to the title of this post. Trail races need better coffee. Notice I do not say excellent coffee, or even good. I understand that my standards are too high, and that to meet them would cost an inordinate sum of money. I also understand the challenges inherent to outdoor brewing. But there are solutions - oh so many. Most easily, a cold press concentrate could be mixed with hot water, on the spot. Failing that, larger pots could be brought from nearby indoor facilities, or purchased from local shops.

Whether these are solutions on a grand scale, I don't know. But I do know that, for my local races, they will be solutions I implement. The best way to insure that I have better coffee to drink is to bring it myself. Something tells me no one will mind.

January 14, 2012

Further Reading, My Comments

James Hoffmann, thankfully, has begun blogging again. The internet - especially that little niche devoted to coffee - is better off for it. But James needs neither my plaudits nor my publicity - meager as both are.

James' site led me here, to a discussion about books. The author grants that coffee - as I've discussed frequently - is poorly represented in print. Given that, he asks readers to contribute a couple of books they think coffee professionals might benefit from reading, or at least, that they themselves benefited from.

My answer was as follows.
This is an interesting topic. First of all, I think it needs to be said that there's a paucity of good writing on coffee. Some decent material exists for the industry pro, but for the passionate lay person, there is nothing. Nothing that explains the process, the technique, the history. (Or at least, there is very little. The Devils Cup and Uncommon Grounds come to mind, as exceptions to my own statement.) And there is nothing like the swelling canon of food lit, from chef memoirs to local food manifestos.

Of course, there are some very insightful blogs. But again, I'd argue that those are trafficked almost exclusively by insiders. For a beverage that is such an omnipresent cultural landmark - not to mention, a massive commodity, and daily consumable for the majority of adults - coffee is ill represented in print.

But I digress. Despite all that, there are obvious lessons to be learned from food writing. But that, I think, is too obvious. So I'm going to pull a couple favorites from left field.

What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, Haruki Murakami: I have to admit, I'm biased, as a runner. But even disregarding that, what we have here is a man discussing the whys and hows of his life, and how this seemingly mundane action (running) has informed who he is, both as a person and as a writer. It is about doing, about working at your craft, because that's the only way to be as good as you want to be.

Travesties, Tom Stoppard: Here we have a play. To attempt to summarize the plot is to fail. But it is also to miss the point. Stoppard writes plays of ideas, it's been said, and everything on the surface (and there is a lot of it) serves as the vehicle for said ideas. This play asks a series of questions on art. What is it? What does it do, if anything? And at the end of the day, is it, or the creator of it, worth a damn? Aside from the entertainment you can't help from derive, the play makes anyone who creates for a living think about what they're doing, and why.
Whoever you are, and whatever you do, it's important to take ideas and inspiration from different places. Failing that, we get a product and environment, stagnant and muddled by intellectual incest.

January 12, 2012

Hot Drinks on a Cold Day

The snow covered the ground in a thin sheet, rippling with every sharp agitation by the wind. The customers sunk their hands in to pockets, clenched every fiber, and did their best imitation of a turtle, sans shell. Once inside, they relaxed, released their bodies from the rigid slump. Their mouths opened, exhaled, and the red slowly dissipated from their faces.

"Whoo", they said. "It's cold out there."

It's a funny thing, weather, so obvious and yet omnipresent fodder for discussion. And so I obliged, answering that yes, it was, and that I was quite glad to be stationed behind an espresso machine, preparing hot drinks for those less fortunately positioned.

We read from our scripts, delivering lines with no particular elan. After all, we'd played this scene before, and so many times. This was a familiar stage, with no audience save ourselves. A rehearsal, then, everything said with an implied wink and nod, everyone involved in actualizing the fiction acutely aware of the process.

But the cold was not a prop, nor were the drinks meant to remedy it. And neither, of course, was the process of making the drinks a practiced mime. These things were all real, and lent a touch of substance to words that might otherwise have been ethereal.

It was cold, yes, no less so for being stated so frequently, or so needlessly. And the drinks were every bit as comforting, warming to those receiving and preparing them. The tangible, grounding words and sentiments, masking the cliche.

It's cold out there. A good day for coffee.

Yes, of course. And the sun rises in the morning, sets in the evening. And yet, that perpetual truth loses none of its splendor. A sunrise or sunset can still move a person that has seen countless, a red or purple protrusion in to the atmosphere eliciting a sense of childlike wonder.

So yes, it's cold out there. Yes, it's a good day for coffee. These words, these facts, the smiles as people clench their cups, strip away whatever cynicism I might have. It skirts the surface of my conscience like the snow on the sidewalk outside, and is quickly discarded with a sharp gust of something that should - but simply cannot - feel like a mere cliche.

January 8, 2012

Jocolat Coffe, I Like It, Not That Anyone's Asking

Thirteen miles is not very far, especially when you're training to run more than 30. And so you try not to glance at the Garmin, try not to indulge in constant debates about whether this thing is on, or am I really going that slow? (It is, and you are.) But it's dark, and there are roots, and rocks, and mud, and you're awkwardly dancing around the trail in your neat little rubber soled flats, telling yourself that you're working stabilizer muscles, and visualizing that Running Times video about Geoff Roes slogging around the Alaskan wilderness at Grandma pace.

But you keep going, because running more is probably the best cure for hobbyjoggeritis (a sudden inflammation of one's innate slowness). Also, your car is that way, and so is a bathroom, and food.

This is an unsolicited review, or endorsement, which is probably good. Reputable companies would probably not send me things if I rambled about my muddy stumbling as the appetizer to discussing their fine product. Which leads me back to the run, and back to the car which waited patiently at the trailhead. In it, there was food, because I never carry anything on my runs (not so much a purist as lazy).  

Larabars make good post-run eating. They're tasty, portable, and satisfy whatever food related neurosis you choose to indulge in. Dairy free! Soy free! Vegan! Gluten free! And the ingredients are all, well, food. Just food. You wonder how it all rolls up in to such a convenient little rectangle, and how it ends up tasting like something other than a dry wad of neo-hippy health food.

Larabar has a line of chocolate infused bars, called Jocolat. There is an accent mark over the "o", which I can't replicate, so you'll just have to pronounce it like you would normally. As with their other products, the lead ingredient is dates, followed by some nut pastes. This gives you a healthy infusion of fiber, monounsaturated fat, and a little kick of protein. The dates also provide a bonk-breaking 21 grams of ohgodwherehaveyoubeenallofmylife sugar.

This one adds coffee beans to the mix, and it's killer.  It's satisfyingly unsweet, the cocoa allowed to shine in all its deep, complex glory, with whole beans adding both crunch and flavor. It's tempting to say the bar is like eating a mocha, except it's really nothing like that. This is cocoa, not Hershey's syrup, with not a gram of added sweetener beyond the aforementioned dates. And you don't have to drink a bucket of milk to get the benefit.

While I tend to leave it as a post-run treat, the applications are myriad. It's a healthy candy bar substitute, for your inner child/fat chick; and you could certainly do worse for a rushing out the door breakfast. And there are antioxidants, which is cool. I'm very against oxidants these days. They are so over. File this one under "things I like".

January 5, 2012

Broadway RC Yirgacheffe, Good Food Awards 2012 Nominee

This isn't a review, so much as blatant publicity. I work for a shop that brews Broadway's beans. They're a Kansas City based roasterie that does things on a small scale, with spectacular results. They don't have the niche cred of Blue Bottle or Stumptown, or even local darlings PT's. But for my money (and I do order this stuff), Broadway is as good as anyone.

My personal favorite - as if you couldn't guess - is their Ethiopian Yirgacheffe. It's super clean, refreshing, invigorating. It's like a glass of lemonade on the front porch you probably never had. But as LeVar Burton reminded us on Reading Rainbow, don't take my word for it.

The Good Food Awards has placed Broadway's Yirgacheffe amongst their finalists. The criteria, in their words: The winners of the Good Food Award for coffee will be distinguished by exemplary flavor - sweet, clean, well developed body, balanced acidity and phenomenal aromatics. To qualify for entry, roasters and coffee farmers must emphasize fairness and transparency from seed to cup, and be using third party certified organic beans. Once again, coffee is leading the way towards sustainability.

Now there are problems with requiring third party organic beans. Mostly, there are a lot of companies doing great things with farmers who, for a number of reasons, can't get the certification. Sometimes it costs too much; sometimes there are logistical issues. But the emphasis is headed in the right direction.

This is good food - or coffee, in this case. But it's also good coffee. The taste is impeccable. But beyond that, you're supporting good people (I've met some of them, and worked with the company for a while now) who do things the right way. This isn't hipster idealizing; it's not quoting Michael Pollan and then sneaking off for a Big Mac. This is indulgence and ethics climbing in to bed together.

And I'm pretty thrilled that I get to serve it.

January 2, 2012

Ethiopian Coffee, Double Strong

My fave soccer club, fresh off of a league championship, put the (spiked) boots to Defence Force yesterday. In the battle of awesomely named clubs, Ethiopian Coffee dominated, winning 4-2. Defence Force? Ha! More like... Let The Other Team Score Force.