March 31, 2012


I imagine customers might be bothered if I tossed a beetle in the blender with their drink.

The story provides all the facts, and no opinion, which is why I chose it for the link. You see, I have a rather hard time mustering much in the way of anger over this topic. Truthfully, I have a hard time mustering much of an opinion at all.

The uproar seems to come, mostly, from two camps: Those who think it's just nasty, and those who are vegan.

To the those who think it's gross: Well, maybe it is. But it's certainly common. And if you knew everything you were consuming, every time you sipped a fast food concoction... well, a bug might not be the nastiest thing.

To the vegans: Don't drink it. You're not going to miss much, I promise. If you had it in the past, don't beat yourself up over it. These things happen, and you're doing the best you can.

This is not to say that I wholly agree with Starbucks' logic here. While moving away from artificial ingredients is fine as a general practice, this is still a giant sugar bomb. It is as far removed from strawberries as Coca Cola is from kola nut. And really, are we that concerned over a little red food coloring? Some think it causes ADD, but again, I'd posit that it's the sugar in processed foods that is the more likely culprit. The research, to this point, agrees.

But this is not a story about health, so much as it is consumer power. If sales take a big enough hit, Starbucks may make a change, or remove the drink altogether. So while this is something of a non-story, it has the chance to grow in to an interesting case study.

March 30, 2012

Two (Or Three?) Rosettas, One Cup

There is a blog called It has not been updated in some time, and so far as I know, is defunct. That is, very often, how the Internet works. There is no dramatic sign-off, no farewell or goodbye, just an end. Or maybe not. In any case, this was the website that first introduced me to the idea that you could put two rosettas in the same cup. But - and note the italics for emphasis - you could. I could not.

One day, it occurred to me that I might try anyway - if only to see my folly demonstrated clearly. So I poured, doing so as I otherwise would, only leaving enough room in the cup for another rosetta. As much as possible, I turned off my mind, and simply poured. When it was finished, the result was surprising. Looking up at me were two crisp, if a little whispy, rosettas.

"Holy shit," I said.

Since then, I've poured many more doubles, of much greater quality. I've even managed a passable triple - though I am no Hiroshi Sawada. There is nothing different - certainly nothing outright better - about my technique. The only change was in my effort. That is, the change was that I made the effort at all.

Of course, latte art is not merely a matter of will. There is a great deal of practice required, and something of an art to the art. But while those things mattered, the only thing holding me back was the assumption - erroneous, as it turned out - that I wasn't good enough. All it took to prove myself wrong was the willingness to do so.

To be clear, I am not an exceptional case. The other baristas with whom I work have had similar results, pouring things they never thought they could , simply by actually trying to do so. I've seen some pretty fantastic work, both free-pouring and etching.

The lesson is simple: There is nothing wrong with a botched effort, only in a lack of effort. Try more, fail more, succeed more. And make better coffee in the process.

March 27, 2012

Why I'm Glad to be Baristing

It occurred to me tonight that I'm lucky. It's hard not to feel this way, when reading a piece in Outside Online, discussing shark attacks. I'm quite happily a Kansan, and thus not likely to become dinner for a giant fish. (Though some perspective is worthwhile here: We've nearly eaten them to extinction, whereas they consume only several of us a year.) The Great Plains, after all, lack Great Whites. Happily.

But this is not about sharks, and my not being eaten by them. Nor is it about the nice weather, or the pleasant runs it has afforded me. No, this is about coffee. Because this is always about coffee. And it is about something human as well: Validation.

I went to work today, and so did many other people. It was Monday, and so you might expect the usual cavalcade of begrudging hello's and bleary-eyed nods. Kansas just made the Final Four, after all, and this was the first day back from Spring Break for KU students. I thought that many people would simply not show up, and that those who did might wish they were elsewhere.

But not only was business steady, it was downright pleasant. I was told, more times than I can specifically recall, that I was appreciated, and that the service I provided was something like a godsend. Ultimately, I think this is what people want from work, and from life in general. They want to feel needed, liked, and as I mentioned before, validated.

This is bordering on mushy, and so I'll try and be careful. However, it does need to be said that I, and probably many other baristas, are uniquely lucky in this regard. How many other jobs can one do, and be told on a daily basis that you and your work are valued? Too few, probably. And yet we, who are privileged enough to hang out at a coffee bar and get payed for it, are also praised for it.

There are few things as pleasurable as a good cup of coffee. I know that, and I understand how important such pleasures can be in an otherwise ho-hum morning. And there is something to be said for community as well - indeed, I have said a lot about if before. But mostly, for now, I'm just saying that I'm lucky. People spend lives searching for validation, for people to tell them that they matter and are, by whatever standard, good enough. I've found a job that gives me that, and a virtually non-existent risk of shark attack.

March 25, 2012


Newer is not always better, especially when my browser has trouble handling it. And so it is that I've returned to a more default layout on this blog, with no moving parts, but still plenty of white space. Really, it's as if journalism school taught me nothing.

There is one change, however, that I imagine will stick. If you look to your right, amidst the slight cluster of archived post and general profile info, you will see a twitter account. This is because, sadly, I now have one. I haven't quite decided why yet, except that everyone else is doing it, and I'd hate to be the last lemming to jump. Also, it may help me get more traffic, which, while not the goal, isn't totally beside the point either. So follow me if you like. There will be a myriad of random tweets, I imagine, but also blog post updates. So hooray for that.

March 20, 2012

Beauty, and Milk Foam

Latte art fascinates me. It speaks to the practical and the whimsical all at once, a fleeting affirmation of due diligence and the beautiful chemistry at work in the cup. Like bioluminescence, it is born of things invisible to us, combining to create something beautiful. It speaks to the dedication of the barista, to their experience and their investment.

It speaks to a number of things, different to each of us, which is why I find it so fascinating. To me, however many words I might devote to it, the pleasure derived is a primal one, not unique in human experience but as yet unmatched, like looking at the combusting sun spread across an otherwise barren horizon. It is a beauty that needs no explanation, inspiring a feeling best expressed by a blissful expulsion of air, lacking in voice or enunciation. Ah.

And it is unique as well, no one like the other, every barista's hand an induplicable variable. We have here testimony to this phenomenon, and tribute as well. Though there are the usual derisive comments about overpriced coffee and ego-inflated baristas, there is also this:
Sure, it's a minor and ephemeral art, and I can understand why it eludes a lot of people. But it brings a touch more beauty to the day. We need more such touches, whatever the motives.
Thus art, I think, is its own justification.

March 15, 2012

Dare to Compare

The industry is making money, but doing so, in part, thanks to those ever so convenient "pods". Oliver Strand, James Hoffmann, and others, have written about this already, but even still, I am compelled to add a little something.

The focus, generally, is on the price of the things. It's substantial - stupidly so, when one considers the quality of the beverage produced. And yet it is fast, easy, and convenient. There is nothing to clean up, only a plastic pod to throw away. (Which, I might add, is something else to consider. Coffee filter waste is one thing; this is quite a bit more egregious.)

But mostly, I think this is about fear. Those of us in the coffee profession would like to think we're doing something worthwhile, and that we will be able to continue doing it. We value or jobs, and we really do care about creating a quality product. When that product is shunted for something inferior, it can seem something of an insult. Furthermore, it can threaten our financial viability. We fear becoming anachronistic, a host of John Henry's, put out to pasture.

In his latest post, Hoffmann calls this fact "depressing".
It is easy to point out the flaws – it doesn’t taste amazing, it is expensive.  It is proving that this stuff doesn’t really matter to the market.  Maybe we’re going to continue to ignore it, while it may slowly make what we do increasingly obsolete.  No one is going to argue that vinyl doesn’t sound better, but it doesn’t do much to change the fact that this matter less and less to people, and technology is catching up all the time. Depressing right?  If anything it ought to be inspiring us to do something about it, to move specialty coffee out of the place where people compare amazing coffee to single serve, preground pods.  I have no idea how we do this, but it is certainly worth thinking about…
Allow me to present one idea: We allow the comparison. I do not think the success of Kcups, Nespresso, and their ilk prove that people don't value flavor and quality; rather, I think it supports the notion that such things are not ubiquitous. I think if there were a distinct difference in taste, people would notice, and they could be convinced it's worth the (usually less) money. The onus is on us, then, to make coffee that is amazing, and to sell it to people. We need to force the comparison, and have faith in our product and ourselves.

Call this naive if you like, but I can't help but believe in good coffee. If we don't, how can anyone else?

Building on the Foundation

I've been thinking about business lately. This is not to imply that I've never cared about it before, or that I have any particular impetus to care about it now. But it's there, sitting nearer the front of my mind than before. Perhaps it's the allure of newness, or rather the opposite. Perhaps, now that my drinks and various other things have achieved whatever arbitrary standard I set in the past, it's time to set financial goals.

That's an odd sentiment for me, in and of itself. I've always approached coffee bar work as fundamentally simple. If you make good drinks and are pleasant, the cash will come in, and things will function as they ought. This has basically been the case. Though I won't bore you with the numbers, I have looked them over, and they are fine. We're in the black, which is good - and was not wholly the case prior to my managerial tenure.

Of course, I don't pretend to have made any brilliant business moves. I cut the hours a bit, as we were open too late, and luckily happened upon a small staff that cares about this sort of thing as much as I do. Costs went down, and with all respect to the previous baristas, the drinks got better. (I was a customer were I now work for several years previous to my being hired.)

Still, the work before me was very good, and the brand is well established. I owe the previous staff an awful lot, and most of my job has simply been staying the course. That, and emphasizing the two things I mentioned previously: Making the best drinks I can, and generally, trying to be a decent guy to interact with.

I plan on continuing to do those things. But I wonder, are those things enough? I don't have the answer here, so much as I'm just letting my thoughts air themselves out in this forum. If you have any insight, please contribute. Clearly, for a coffee shop to make money, the baristas have to be inviting, and the drinks must be good. After that, you try and watch frivolous expenses. This is the foundation, which I feel rather confident is solidly built at this point.

But what, if anything, should be added? Those previous things are necessary conditions for success, but are they sufficient? Again, I don't know for sure. But it's something I'm thinking about, and trying to work out for myself. I feel confident in my abilities as a barista. It's a skill set I'm passionate about and practiced in. But as a manager? I'm still quite new at that, and sometimes, I feel it. This, if it's not obvious enough, is one such time.

March 10, 2012

Dustin Hoffman, Steak, and Identity

I am reading a New York Times profile of Dustin Hoffman, having just finished another about a yoga instructor, the name of whom I've forgotten already. The interviewer sets the scene for Hoffman, noting the ashen sky, his tennis shoes, and that they are sitting down to lunch. Then, as an aside, we are told that Hoffman has ordered the "steak and chips". (We are in England, and so the latter is in keeping with local nomenclature.) The yoga instructor, we are told, is a vegetarian.

We are told these things, because they create the picture of the person, and serve also to confirm it. Hoffman is a an aging slice of Americana, and even when abroad, eats as such. The yoga instructor is slim, bald, and has a jarring lucidity in his eyes. We are not told of the wheatgrass drink he consumed for breakfast, or the quinoa he will have for lunch; but it is not hard to imagine.

You are what you eat.

There is a similar phenomenon regarding what you drink. It too suggests things about you, and would equally be at home in a profile. We might also be told that Hoffman ordered a beer, or that he had coffee. We can imagine him scoffing at the myriad of flavor descriptors given to the brew, satisfied with coffee being coffee, same as always. Our yoga instructor, probably, does not drink coffee. Perhaps he is worried about adrenal fatigue.

Of course, I could be wrong. But unless we know otherwise, those assumptions seem safe. Or at least, they feel right. Everything about people informs everything else about them, and the whole gives us an idea about the parts. And so we generalize, we guess, we bullshit, because that's the best we can do. And often, that does get us pretty close.

Of course, sometimes it misses wildly. But this is not about how one ought to judge a book, merely how we do. It's worth keeping in mind, that what we eat, drink, and otherwise consume creates and perpetuates who we are.

March 5, 2012

The Future and Madcap Latte Art

I am sitting here, ready for work, wondering why, and for how long. Don't take this to mean that I'm seeking other employment - I'm not. I am, however, contemplating the future, because it's there, and thus worth thinking about.

There are machines that allow the consumer to push a button, and make a coffee, a latte, or whatever else they might like. These machines are themselves rather pricey, and the pods they use much more so. This is not an investment based on price (or quality?), but rather, convenience.

It's like these people never saw Terminator.

So is our job dying? It doesn't appear to be. While the "convenience" end of the spectrum is experiencing growth, so is the "quality" side. People want coffee NOW, but also, to enjoy it. Cafes can provide both services, giving access to already brewed pots, and ought to be staffed by people who rock.

If that sounds vague, it's because this is a difficult thing to put words to. So watch this video instead; it shows what I'm not telling.

Latte Art from Hybrid Media Co. on Vimeo.