February 29, 2012

I Believe I Can Fly (How'd That Work, Icarus?)

Hubris is a bitch.

You'd think that, as an English major, I'd be familiar with literary devices, and how they play out. The protagonist, impressed with his achievements and abilities, assumes too much, and pays for it. This predates English lit, even, as the term is Greek in origin. And let's not pretend that, back in day, our good ol' cavefolk ancestors didn't have the same concept. Some guy thinks he can chuck a pointy stick at a sabretooth tiger, and lo and behold, it works once. Probably, it did not work twice. Hubris.

So yeah, this is old school. Hell, this is older than school. In any case, I should know better.

But I thought I was invincible. I though I did all of the core and strength stuff you need to, that I wore the right kind of shoe (or lack thereof), and trained intelligently. Bulletproof, baby.

Enter hubris.

My left IT band is now rather inflamed, and I've been reduced to that guy hobbling up to the elliptical for an hour of light spinning, trying to coax my heart rate over 100 BPM. Granted, it's only been two days, and things are feeling quite a bit better. And at any rate, nothing but my transient pride depends on how fast I can manage the 5K in a week and a half.

But my income depends on my ability to make coffee. Well, that, and my ability to sweep, chat, hand over muffins, etc. But mostly, I make coffee. For a while there, that coffee was looking pretty good. By which I mean that I was pouring some pretty swank designs in lattes, and whipping up some lusty foam for cappuccinos.

Enter hubris.

Oh, wait. Hubris was that other thing. This is arete, a Greek word English hasn't co-opted, so I'll have to explain. Short version: It's the opposite. Whereas hubris is an overabundance of confidence, arete is a lack thereof.

There was a latte art "throwdown" last Friday night, of which I was made aware with plenty of time to prepare myself. I had a week to hone my hearts, rate my rosettas, and get ready to go kick some ass. Or pour pretty milk designs in espresso. Whatever. In any case, I did neither, because instead of psyching myself up, I psyched myself out, and went running instead. (See above for more info on how that went.) Maybe I'm a coward, maybe I just care too much. But whatever the reason, the result is the crappiest string of rosettas I've presented in months. 

So while hubris is a bitch, so is balance. If Space Jam taught us anything, it's that you must believe it to achieve it, but that you can't take anything for granted. So I'm going to lace up my... actually, my shoes don't have laces. But still, I will wear shoes, because I value health code. And then I'll go make some good drinks, to save the world from alien baristas that have stolen the skill-set of former WBC competitors.

February 23, 2012

Be the Change You Want to Drink in Your Coffee

Peter, of Project Vvlgr, left a comment on my last post. This is part of it:
It's easy to get lazy when you know that the vast majority of people you serve won't know the difference between exceptional work and a drink that was slapped together. I used to see it all the time - even baristas who knew their way around espresso machines would cut corners over time because they figure no one is watching. It's a slippery slope and one that few of us seem to avoid.
 I wrote, then rewrote, several responses, before ultimately deciding that I had enough to say to merit a separate post. And so here we are.

First, it needs to be said, Peter is right. Everyone has a lazy streak, and I'm no different. Even those of us who make every drink well don't make every drink as well as we can. That kind of focus is impossible to sustain for hours on end.

But it also needs to be said that, if we're not showing these people who won't notice the difference precisely what that difference is, how do we ever expect them to learn? How do we expect them to appreciate coffee in the way we want them to? Pragmatically, how do we expect them to keep coming back and spending money? If our product isn't noticeably superior to something that may be cheaper and more convenient, how can we fault them for choosing the latter?

Again, I am far from perfect. But I do try, I think, to serve product I'd happily pay for myself, and that represents our industry well. In the event that I stray, the above questions come to mind. They are worth remembering, no matter how good a given barista's current work tends to be.

February 21, 2012

I Want to be an Average Barista

I've trained two new (potential) baristas in the past few weeks. I tried, as much as possible, to avoid dogmatic repetition of technique; my way, after all, is not the only way. Rather, I simply explained why I did things the way I did, and what I hoped to accomplish.

I don't think it's arrogant to say that these sessions went well. Both individuals left them capable of steaming up a glossy pitcher of milk and pulling lovely bronze shots. They even managed to combine them in a way that suggested the potential for latte art, given a little more dedicated practice.

Of course, these sessions are helpful for me as well. In elucidating my technique, I am forced to justify things that might otherwise be mere habit, at this point. And by focusing on that technique, I keep it sharp. But that's a bit dry. More importantly, it emphasizes the fact that my job requires a skill set that A) Few have; and B) A lot of people seem to think is pretty cool.

Sadly, the process also makes clear a fact that is much less cool: There are a lot of shitty baristas out there. I don't mean to throw my compatriots under the bus - well, yes I do. But I don't want to look like a dick for doing so. Because the fact of the matter is this: I want everyone out there to be as good as I am, and really, it's not that complicated.

Despite the lack of complication, simple is not always easy. That is, while steaming milk well is not fundamentally complex, it requires some practice, and something like the correct technique. Many I've seen simply don't have it. There are also certain rules that ought to be followed. You should not, for instance, leave espresso locked in the head, without pulling the shots. But I see this very thing happen - and taste the burnt result - far too often, when I order an espresso.

Of course, this is not the fault of the individual baristas. They were never taught, and as such, simply don't know better. Perhaps they could be motivated to seek out internet content, but really, how much of it is worthwhile? (I say, knowing full well that this is internet content, and could be easily dismissed as such.) No, the fault is with those who trained them - or perhaps, those who opted not to.

I'm not advocating for everyone to get certified. I'm not, and I think I obtained the needed skills regardless. What I am arguing for is this: We, as professionals, should take enough pride in our work, and be pragmatic enough, to ensure that our trade is well represented. That I am exceptional is unacceptable, because really, I'm not uniquely gifted. I should be average, and if I were, this would be a better business, both in terms of happiness and profit.

February 18, 2012


The next time you prepare coffee, wait. Pause at every moment, take every action. Do not eat the apple; rather, eat every bite thereof.

This is advice I can give better than take. And yet it has given me the best, most consistent coffee I've ever made at home. I have no new equipment, just a renewed focus on the task.

And I have patience. I wet the grounds, and allow for a full bloom - however long it takes. I don't count; I don't rush; I don't douse. Once the bed is solid, I pour again - slowly, again. This takes however long it does, and however much water is required.

It's all very serene, and produces sublime coffee.

February 16, 2012

A Pithy Life Philosophy

This applies to making coffee as well. Let's not make this harder than it has to be.

February 14, 2012

Project Vvlgar Interview

It's fitting, on Valentine's Day, that I link to a blog after my own heart. It's called Project Vvlgar, and I am interviewed here. This is not typical coffee talk. Or rather, perhaps it is. Baristas and coffee shop patrons are both stereotyped as being prone to meandering dialogs on life, the universe, and everything. This, I suppose, is an accurate reflection of that. 

The site also has a nice aesthetic, somewhat minimalist, and very clean. Given that, you will probably want to look around a bit; this is an idea worth indulging. At the very least, read How to Drink (and Enjoy) Black Coffee, as well as What Tastes Better, a Latte or a Cappuccino? Both posts cover ground that's well trod, but almost never as well or as clearly. If I taught Coffee 101, these would be required reading.

February 12, 2012

Psycho Wyco 50K Race Report


I woke up before my alarm, and felt the press of chill air.  It reminded me that it was hovering around zero outside, and that I was going to go run in said weather. This was not a thrilling proposition. Still, I rose, got on every bit of black technical gear I could fit on my person, and walked upstairs. I made oatmeal with carob powder and Broadway's Yirgacheffe, hoping to invite some East African running magic.

I read a bit then, hoping to distract myself with Yoshida Kenko. His words did nothing to slow the clock, however, and soon enough, I was on my way. I turned to Iron Maiden next, hoping that "Run to the Hills" would make an apt theme song for the day.

Loop 1: Why 10 Miles Does Not an Ultra Make

I pulled my scarf up over my face. A guy standing behind me did the same, and commented that "It really helps, man." I nodded, and turned to face the grassy field. There was no gun, no bell or any other auspicious means of turning us loose, but the race director managed without. With that, I opened up what I felt was a sustainable stride, knowing that I had a day's worth of running to do.

We ran across the grass, and up a stretch of pavement. Already, slight though this was, you got a sense of the incline to come. A left turn, and we were on the bridle trail. There was a small pack in front of me, sprinting across the dirt, keeping a pace I couldn't imagine was sustainable. (As it turned out, this was just a year to yield unprecedentedly fast times.) That being the case, I settled in to my usual role: Guy in between the lead and the mid pack.

Still, I felt as if my pace was respectable. The trail had been massacred in the not too distant past, and had frozen that way. As such, the dirt was pock marked, and difficult to find a steady stride. This was magnified by the fact that I had worn Saucony Hattori, zero drop, 4 oz shoes, with nothing like protection.

After the first aid station, the trail turned in to a much more agreeable stretch of single track, and took on a very wandering personality. There were switchbacks aplenty, ups and downs, roots and felled branches to hurdle. The bulk of the middle miles were thus, and provided the most fun running. This was trail running as I prefer it, a constant varying of stride length and cadence, and with nothing that really murders your feet.

Feeling good - it was early, after all - I opened up a bit, passed a number of people, and sprung in to another clearing. This, again, was a grass field, with a stretch of pavement. It was also a very long - albeit gradual - hill. Here was the halfway(ish) point, which I bypassed without taking any calories. I was feeling spry still, and it simply did not occur to me that the hills could be sapping my glycogen as quickly as they were.

I returned then to weaving through single track, and then back to the gnarly bridle trails. Here were the true monsters of the race, hills that everyone else seemed content to hike. I, full of hubris and nerves, opted to run every single one of them. Brimming with confidence, I thought that this was not so hard.

The first loop ended in 1:29.

Loop 2: A Shit Sandwich

Can I do that two more times? I answered yes, I could, and moreover, that I could do it faster. And so I begun the second loop, running with the lead pack in mind.

That idea was short lived, however, as the early stages of the bridle trail found my stride shortened, my posture hunched, and my side cramping. It occurred to me that I had not yet taken in any calories, and that this, probably, was bonking.

I heard the crunch of footsteps behind me, and turned to look. Distracted just for a moment, I tripped, and landed directly on my right knee cap. "You all right?" asked the guy behind me. "Yeah," I said. That quick, he was no longer the guy behind me, and vanished in front. I worked my knee out, hobbled for a few hundred yards, and found that it was fine.

I continued at my shuffle until the first aid station, where I drank two cups of orange something, and turned on to the single track. This was more to my liking, and the sugar helped. Still, the cramping had not abated, and I longed for the port-a-potty at the halfway point. Such is the glamor of trail ultras.

The grass field preceding the halfway aid station - and my salvation - was a welcome site. At the aid station, I opted for coke instead, and wondered why I hadn't been doing this all along. If nothing else, it tasted like calories, which the orange business didn't; moreover, it had caffeine. And the lavatory was, predictably, quite helpful.

My energy returned, my guts felt (oh so much) better, and the single track beckoned. I opened up again, only to have my energy levels plummet quickly. I attempted some mental math, and decided that the calorie deficit in to which I had dug myself was probably rather massive, and that I was paying for it now. "Eat early; eat often." It's sage advice, and I had ignored it to my detriment.

I used the varying grade to trick myself in to running faster than I could have otherwise, and finally, happily, found my way to another aid station. Here, I downed an entire pack of Cliff Shot Blocks, and the caffeinated little gummy squares did their magic.

This time, I walked the hill, and finished the second loop in 1:46.

Loop 3: Ignorance is Bliss

At the start/finish, I saw my dad, who had finished his 10(+) miler. I told him I felt good, which was not a lie. Despite my idiocy, nothing really hurt, and I had managed to crawl out of my caloric ditch. 1:45, I told myself. Do that, and you can get under 5.

And so I set off, with that singular goal in mind. I would finish, and do so comfortably, I knew. That alone gave me a sense of euphoria, a high that's impossible to quantify and difficult to describe. I tried to harness that, and to get my hips to open up, to manage something like a running gait. It didn't work, really, but I still felt good.

I continued to hit up the coke at every aid station I reached, and to use the downhills for speed, and the uphills for knee saving. I reached the halfway aid station, right on pace - but no faster. I knew that the hills at the end would not allow for a fast finish, so I had better hurry.

I did so; or at least, I did what felt like hurrying at the time. A sense of frustration grew as I realized my goal would not be realized, as the scenery refused to fly by at the pace I desired. It was quickly drowned out, however, purged my the memory of the Heartland sufferfest. I reminded myself that I was 23, and only a runner for about 18 months. I had made progress, I told myself, and it did not feel like cold comfort.

I finished the third loop in 1:54, and the race in 5:10.

Things to Consider

If you're thinking about running the 2013 edition of this race, and somehow stumbled on this report, this is for you. Learn from my mistakes.

- Eat. The race saps calories, and the deficit sneaks up on you. Once it's there, digging out is a bitch.

- Wear whatever you like on your feet, but know that the bridle trails could chew you up. There are rocks on the single track, but mostly, you can avoid them. For stretches on the bridle trail, there is nowhere comfortable to step.

- Train for hills. I did this, and quite a bit of it. I also felt like I handled the vertical sections better than most, and in fact, did all of my passing on hills. Also, do something to strengthen your hips/glutes, as you'll be needing them. Speed is important, but not at the expense of strength. With all modesty, I can note that I've soundly beaten many of the top 50K/20 mile finishers in 5Ks; but this is not a 5K, and this time, they soundly beat me.

- Pace smarter than I did. The distance is hard, and so is this trail. No matter how good you feel early, hold back. It's better to feel good late.

- Know that one of the best ultrarunners is the world has the course record - Andy Henshaw, 4:15 - and understand what that implies: This is not a fast course. Still, know that some people can run it relatively fast. Sub-5 is pretty sick, but doable, if you're smart, and in very good shape. After all, I'm neither of those things, and came close.

February 10, 2012

Black Toenails, and the Pursuit of Happiness

There is nothing obviously pleasurable about running 31 miles. This fact is magnified, when one considers the 5,000 feet of vertical gain; the rocks, roots, and otherwise formidable terrain; and the temperature, which will likely by less than 10 degrees.

Such an undertaking is, on its face, foolish, ascetic, and perhaps masochistic. Humans and other organisms seek homeostasis, to preserve equilibrium and resources. To undertake such a taxing ordeal is to run counter to one's base physiology, to risk harm for very little potential reward.

But this is precisely what I aim to do this Saturday. It is a pursuit not constrained to that day, however; if you hope to run well, you have to run quite a lot beforehand. And so I have, spending a great deal of time training that might otherwise have been devoted to eating coconut milk ice cream.

I want to win, of course, and to hit some arbitrary time goal (under 5 hours). If I do this, and avoid severe injury, I will feel that this whole endeavor has been a successful one. Fueled by this realization, I will begin the process anew, targeting another race - again, at least marathon distance - a couple of months in the future. I will do this, and I will not spend nearly as much time eating ice cream as I might like.

I am not compelled to do this by any outside force; and even the racehorse, when it feels the sting of the crop, can choose not to run. This is the exercise of free will; though it does not begin to account for why. That answer is an old one, and fundamental too. It has been uttered in every tongue, and darts from infantile lips to this day.

Why? Because. Because I can. Because I should. But ultimately, because I want to. Because, while we are pain avoiding creatures, we are equally compelled to pursue meaning, achievement, and purpose.

There are any number of quotes on this subject I could invoke, and many wise words spring to mind. And yet, from that noble pantheon, a simple phrase stands out: Do epic shit. This is borrowed from a facebook friend, and is probably not a reference to anything that ever appeared in Latin. But nonetheless, that's the idea.

Of course, epic can refer to scale, but also to more mundane greatness. And so I've occupied today with that kind, grinding and tamping, twisting and tapping, pouring and pulling. So yes, do epic shit. But also, make epic coffee. That's more than just the idea; it is, instead, my ideal.

February 7, 2012

James Hoffmann Interview

There is no attempt at a witty headline here, nor even the usual sub-head. What we have instead is mere substance, the sort of quality content you might even learn something from. Of course, I've attempted such pieces before, often giving advice on how one might improve their drinks and/or customer service. But it needs to be said, a fair bit of my thoughts on those subjects are influenced by James Hoffmann, former World Barista Champion, and fellow internet coffee writer. As such, it occurred to me that there might be a great deal to be gained by simply asking the man some questions. I did so, and he was kind enough to answer them. To be clear, my questions are in italics.

Albert Einstein said “Any intelligent fool can make things bigger and more complex… It takes a touch of genius – and a lot of courage -- to move in the opposite direction.” In coffee, ought we move "in the opposite direction", and if so, how?

I don't think we need to move in the opposite direction, but we certainly need to be a little less fearful of exploring other directions.  As an industry we suffer a bit from group thought and a coherence of ideas that probably squashes innovative thinking.  Cafes today don't look much different to cafes 10 years ago, but the product they serve has changed massively.  Moving in other directions is usually the result of questioning certain ideas and standards and more of that could only be a good thing.

People enjoy drinking coffee, and baristas enjoy making it. This is pretty fundamental. And yet, the relationship between the two parties, too often, seems fraught with misunderstanding, condescension, and a general adversarial tone. How do we bridge that gap?

I think it comes down to more empathy and training of service approach from owners and operators. We know what we need to do, though perhaps we haven't yet worked out how to train the level of service we want to see.

I've been to quite a few shops, and always watched how the resident baristas pull shots; I've yet to see anyone have exactly the same technique. As someone who trains coffee pros, how do you approach teaching something with that much innate variety? Is there a "right way" to make coffee, or just a right result?

Coffee making is a recipe, and the better written the recipe the more consistent the technique and preparation that goes along with it.  We often train a parroting of technique, not necessarily the deeper understand of why we do what we do.  If you understand why an 18g dose works in a particular basket, and why 30g of espresso liquid works well then people will aim to hit those numbers because of understanding of why the resulting espresso tastes good. Training people to taste to understand how to adjust a recipe is the final key - and probably the most difficult part.

As myself, several years ago: I'm a new barista, with little to no formal training. But I'm smitten with this whole thing, and would like to get good. Aside from practicing, what can I do to achieve that? What are some good resources to seek out?

In the US then I'd look to the SCAA/BGA.  Outside of the US it gets a lot trickier.  The internet is useful because it frees information, but for the new learner it is difficult to gauge the value and accuracy of information out there.  There isn't really much in the way of structure for planning and executing a career in coffee - which is both a terrible shame and a massive problem for the sustainability of coffee quality on the preparation side of things.

What did competing do for your skills as a barista, and what sort (if any) of barista could benefit similarly?

Competition gave me honest, brutal feedback on where I was good and where I (badly) needed improvement.  It gave me goals and focus, and any barista interested in improving can benefit.  If you just play to win then it can be a frustrating and unrewarding experience, but approaching it with a more open mind generally yields great results and an increased fervour for coffee.

What does coffee mean to you? (I'll grant that this could seem rather vague. Hopefully, it's just open ended.)

I don't know.  I've thought about it, but coffee is too big to mean any one thing to me.  It isn't that it is big in that it necessarily overwhelms my life (which it definitely does from time to time) - more that there is so much to it.  I'm indescribably lucky, and grateful, for the opportunities it offers me - to travel, to learn, to share, to meet people.  There is more to it than I can ever know in my lifetime and I'm ok with that.  Coffee is just the big umbrella idea over all the pieces underneath that intersect - coffee production or cafe culture, the world of tasting to the world of business.  I'm not sure I am even able to be coherent in my explanation at this point!

February 6, 2012

Starlight, Starbrite: A Caribou Review

Though the biggest national presence in coffee, Starbucks is not the only chain. Caribou coffee, spreading from the upper mid-west, is laying claim to the green apron'd giant's crown. Thus, Starbucks rolls out its lightest blends ever, and Caribou produces its own. (Caribou also expanded the other side of the spectrum, producing, quite literally, the darkest bean I've ever seen. I'll talk more about it soon.)

I found the Starbucks offerings quite palatable, certainly preferable to Pike's Place in terms of distinguishable flavor and character. They passed the "would I pay for it" test, with the necessary caveat that I'd only happily do so in a setting where small batch coffee was lacking. This was not a slight, so much as an acknowledgment that mass produced beans can only be so good.

It's this world of presumptions in to which Caribou's Starlight Blend enters. My opinion was further nudged in the negative direction when, upon examining the bag, I could find no mention of the beans used in the blend. I opened it then, and found the beans looking up at me on the lighter side of medium - hardly the crackling bronze I'd imagined.

But the smell was enticing, and so I tried to cast my biases aside, and brew.

*It's worth noting here that my palate skews towards acidity, dominant fruit notes and heavy sweetness. These are the sorts of things I prefer, and as such, inform my views.*

The smell was honest, and the taste delivered. The result was sweet, with a dense layer of acidity. It was, for the most part, exactly what I profess to like above. Your tongue feels the weight of the coffee, and yet it wouldn't be right to speak of a truly heavy body; more like a honey sweetness, syrupy and thick. The comparison I came back to most was that of a good trail mix: Cherries and dates mixed with almonds. And like trail mix, I imagine this will appeal to a broad spectrum of drinkers. It is neither so light nor acidic to displease those who prefer "the dark roast", though it professes to occupy the opposite niche.

This was my first taste of Caribou Coffee, a chain of which I'd heard, but never seen. On first blush, color me impressed. The quality of beans, attention to coaxing out their unique flavors, and then blending them appropriately, is evident here - chain coffee or not.

February 3, 2012

Easy as Chai: The Gateway Drug

No doubt, you serve them. Perhaps you were one, in days gone by. I was. Standing at the counter, thinking that all of those scratches on the chalkboard meant nothing, and no matter, I didn't like coffee anyway. (There was a time, I promise.)

But I didn't wonder for long. No, I knew what I wanted, and it's the same thing I recommend to similarly dispossessed people today: Chai.

More properly, we might call this masala chai, or "spiced tea", in Hindi. (A rough translation.) But we don't call it that, and in a country where one can find 24 oz "mocha cappuccinos" at gas stations, such tradition is clearly disposable.

Semantics aside, the drink is not too far removed from its Indian roots. You start with black tea, and steep it with several spices. There are no hard and fast rules about what you must use, but cinnamon and cardamom are usually expected. The tea is sweetened - again, with any number of things - and warm milk is added. (Milk has a big place in Indian culture, and as such, is the traditional choice. Even still, I think soy works better here than with coffee.) The result is rich, creamy, warming, and sweet. It is both stimulating and comforting.

Of course, very few places make their own chai. Most use either Tazo or Oregon brand, both of which offer several varieties. And while both are decent (I really prefer Oregon, in a pinch), I've found better taste and room for creativity when the recipe is one's own. The biggest variable to toggle here is sweetness. You can leave one concentrate sans sugar, and allow the customer to consume as is, or add their sweetener of choice. The calorie conscious crowd like the control, and the local foodie hipsters admire the craftiness of it all.

Regardless of demographic, I've never had a person respond unfavorably to chai. It seems everyone likes it.

There are other advantages as well. First, it's an easy drink to make. You mix the concentrate with milk, steam, and pour. When it's iced (a non-traditional, but quite good, spin), it's as quick as a drink gets. And because it feels like a premium beverage, it sells like one, despite lacking espresso.

Of course, you can add espresso, which is where chai really shines as a gateway drug. The dirty chai - the same drink, but with espresso - is the perfect transitional beverage. When a customer wants something that "is coffee, but like, sweet", this is where I point them. The result is still plenty sweet, but much more balanced. And there is that espresso, slipped in underneath the veil of creamy spice, both boosting the caffeine content and the price. (Not that I'm all about the money, but sales matter.)

As with the chai, no one has left any less than thrilled with the result. And that, of course, is where you really create business. Up-selling 75-cents is nice; creating customer trust is immeasurably more so; giving a positive welcome to the cafe atmosphere is bigger still. 

New Media, Same As the Old Media?

There have been a lot of words written about writing, and about the new age thereof. Thanks to formats like the one you're reading now, the erstwhile gatekeeper now guards a passage anyone with the internet can circumvent. Start a blog, write what you want. It's that simple.

Of course, getting anyone to read it is another matter, and quite difficult. That anyone can start a blog means that many people do, and in such a maelstrom, it can be difficult to stand out. There are no shortage of tips on how to accomplish this, many based on the exploitation of new media formats.

With this in mind, we revisit the idea of the gatekeeper, whose demise was perhaps reported prematurely. A blog that already has readers can do an awful lot to help one that does not, either by linking or offering guest posting opportunities.

Mike, at Daily Shot of Coffee, has done all of those things for me.

First, there were these two articles.

Later, Baristing was listed as one of the internet's must-read coffee blogs.

My readership has grown quite a bit since then. I've been linked elsewhere, and contacted by companies both large and small for reviews and promotional opportunities (a discussion of two new Caribou coffees is forthcoming).

But before today, I'd never been featured in an interview.

They call the internet new media, but in some ways, it performs very much like the old. While there are now few regulations and restrictions on content creation, there are still arbiters and promoters, still those to direct the flow of traffic.

There is still the matter of content. Guest posting is a great idea - if the post is a good advertisement for your writing. And while linking generates first time hits, it does nothing for repeat traffic. Ultimately, this is still writing. People have to read it, and not hate the experience.

All of this is not to say that I have any particular insight on how one might create a popular blog, or even a good one. We can debate about whether Baristing is either of those things. What it says, rather, is that I'd like to return a blip of traffic to Mike's site, and that we're still playing by many old rules. 

February 1, 2012

The Secret Reason That Coffee You Bought Sucks

The attentive barista grinds, doses, and delivers a level tamp. He brushes the rim of the portafilter, and flushes the head. You look on from the other side of the counter, content to watch him work. He knows what he's doing, clearly, and so you await your demitasse. You see a trickle of gold, and then a stream, dispensed in to waiting and preheated ceramic. Well done again. The shots cut off at 30 seconds, and he hands the vessel to you with a detached smile. "Thanks."

The crema is unbroken, and your expectations rise. You smell tart cherry, a dusting of cocoa, and roasted nuts. You sip... and find it acerbic, a bit flat. You try again, and again are met with the taste of aluminum foil. Curious. Everything went so well - or so it looked. Perhaps your taste is maladjusted. Perhaps that curry was a bit strong, and your tongue just hasn't recovered. So you skip the tongue, and bomb the remaining ounce down your throat.

Not satisfied, your order a small coffee, to go. "Light or dark?" he asks. "Where are they from?" you respond. "The light is Yirgacheffe; the dark is our house. It's a blend of South American beans." You take the Yirgi, and smell lemon peel floating from the cup. This will be better, a palate cleanser. You drink, and taste over-steeped Earl Grey. The lemon is tangy, the acid too aggressive. Something is... off.

You leave the shop, cup in hand, thinking just a bit more on the matter. These things do happen, after all. But why? The barista looked like he knew his way around the bar, like he knew how to pull shots. And the coffee is hot enough, probably fresh-ish, at least. You grow a bit more confused. The barista certainly had the appearance of knowing how to make coffee.

I interrupt this hypothetical now, to point out that said barista may well have an honest appearance. He may indeed be very attentive in his coffee preparation, cross his t's and dot his i's. But there these are necessary, not sufficient, conditions. Espresso and drip coffee can be brewed at the correct temperature, with the correct dose, and still yield a suboptimal product. Probably, you've wondered on this. Probably, you've had good reason to.

The cause of our problem here is simple, but too often overlooked: Rancid oils. Even the most dedicated drink crafter can get lazy, when it comes time to close. It's late, you're tired, and the sandwich shop across the street is closing soon. You dump the pots, rinse the portafilters, and jet. Those oils do not leave, however. They stay, and they accumulate. One skipped cleansing is not significant. But too often, once become twice, and multiplies from there.

Thus anyone who would claim to be a good barista must also be a good maintenance tech and custodian. This is not the glamorous part of the job - insofar as any part of it is. There are no tips for this, no "Oh that's pretty!" or "Oh my god, this is delicious." This is thankless, no one will see, and really, no one will be the wiser if you skip. But you don't, and you can't. The best barista in the world is shit if their equipment is, and rancid oils turn any pot or portafilter in to exactly that. You're never too good to do the things necessary to make good coffee.