April 28, 2012

Rwanda: One Exceptional Example

I've made my affection for all things Yirgacheffe known. I find it a welcome break from convention, a clean and crisp cup that shows that coffee doesn't always taste like coffee. That said, it's not for everyone. It is not, despite my love for it, what I recommend people start with, if they're new to specialty coffee. So, perhaps not surprisingly, the Yirgacheffe is something of a controversial drip offering, at my place of business.

But of course, nothing is for everyone - except on the rare occasion that it is. I hadn't seen such a coffee during my several years as a barista, until this last week, when we brewed a nice little number from Rwanda.

And I do mean little. The first thing you notice is the size of the been; it's tiny, like a little coffee pellet. The bean itself is very light as well, which might lead you to expect a bright, acidic cup, like something from Ethiopia or Kenya.

And you wouldn't be totally wrong. There is a sweetness to the brew, and certainly more acid than a Sumatra. But whereas the Yirgi is light and lemony, the Rwanda is boldly smoky, assertive in its character and body. It's like hickory smoked barbecue in a cup, and it was universally loved. Our staff adored it, as did every customer that commented.

Now, I should say that this bean was from Broadway Coffee, and that my cafe carries their product. But I should also say that their products are uniformly unique and exceptional, each bean coaxed to its full flavor potential. You can't buy their Rwanda online, sadly; although if you live in the Kansas City area, you can get it at their cafe.

But you can search out something from Rwanda, wherever you might get your beans. Though this is only one example, its a compelling one to me, a startling example of an overlooked region proving why it shouldn't be.

April 26, 2012


There's been something lacking here recently: Words about coffee.

Clearly, this is an odd state of affairs, and one that cannot abide. The United States Barista Championship was this weekend, contested while I was marathoning. I checked my twitter afterwards, and followed along with Sprudge's unique commentary. I could have written about that, but didn't, opting instead to hash out a rather long tale of foot bleeding and hip mobility, hill climbing and rock hopping. Simply, I've never competed, and thus don't have much in the way of commentary on the subject.

What I decided to do instead was ambitious, a Joycian odyssey (see what I did there?) in to Lawrence's own coffee bar scene. It's big, for a smaller town, and quality too. It's a lot of good things, but it's proven hard to write about. Or rather, it's proven hard to condense. There are different shops with different cultures, dingy basements to Starbucksy Starbucks. There is variety, but mostly, there is a lot to cover.

And so we will start, in the great tradition of fantasy novels, with a map.
This is downtown Lawrence on Google Maps, after typing in "coffee".

April 23, 2012

Free State Trail Marathon Race Report

I don't remember the first time I ran at Clinton Lake, the local state park. I do remember that I skipped class to do it; though I can't say why. My memory of the subject is fleeting, comprised mostly of sore knees, slow trotting, and pulling up just short of an hour. Sixty consecutive minutes had been my goal, and although I didn't reach it, the ache in my joints suggested I had done enough.

One year ago, I ran the Free State Trail Half Marathon in 2:14. And I do remember that. The race started, as mine tend to, with a gusto-laden stride, too long and too fast. I clung to the leaders, thinking that pace was a thing to be willed, rather than earned. My training had been fractal, slow jogging whenever I felt like it, with the odd track interval session thrown in. I remember the trees, dirt, mud, and water crossings. I remember falling behind the leaders, stumbling down hills, and twisting my knee. I remember wishing that I had worn something other than road racing flats, and mostly, deciding that this trail racing thing was really too hard, and too painful.

I thought back to those moments, to those sensations, Saturday morning. I sat in my car, hiding until the sun crested the hills, and felt some paradoxical cocktail of confidence and fear. In the year since that half-marathon, I had run two ultras (one somewhat well), and put together some actual training. I had reason to believe in my fitness was up to the task awaiting me.

But then, hadn't I been confident before? And hadn't I been wrong before?

Here I was, nervously swatting my exposed quads, worrying about how my singlet fit. Here I was, wearing a singlet to begin with, wondering if that itself was fraudulent. Split shorts and singlets were for real runners. I remembered the person that couldn't run these trails for one hour, and wondered why he was dressed like this.

The horn went off, without so much as a countdown. The marathoners turned, and staggered down the road. Four of us pulled slightly to the front, myself holding behind. The man in the lead had a spectacular vaudevillian mustache, and the man behind me wore American flag shorts, with a singlet adorned with the word "BEEF". None of this seemed odd.

I spent the early portion chatting with a man from Omaha. He had begun to direct races there, and told me about a number of interesting races in Nebraska. I offered back monosyllabic chatter; clearly, he had more wind at this pace than me. Noticing this, I resigned to let him chase the mustache, and to ease off the pace.

The easing proved all too comfortable, however, as the middle miles slogged on. These were my hometown trails, rocks and roots I knew well. And yet I found myself shuffling, more than running, picking my way through the rocks, rather than bursting across them. My stride was that of someone who was running a 100-miler, not a marathon.

It occurred to me that I was going to get passed a lot, and that I really wanted to get to the halfway point. There, I could get Coke.

The man - who looked an awful lot like a taller Ryan Hall - wearing the BEEF singlet easily slid past me, just before a particularly rocky portion. I fell as he did, mostly because I was trying to read what the acronym ZIP stood for, which was also in bold type. (Zinc, Iron, Protein, as it turns out.) I laughed, and pulled myself up. I had talked for weeks about how comfortable I was on these trails, and how I never, never, fell.

One isn't so bad, I thought. The blood on my knee made a nice accessory, and if anything, served to invigorate my stride for a bit. Then I fell again.

Several more miles passed, without incident, but also without an increase in pace. I begged my hips to open up, but it was no use. I held in my mind a video of Geoff Roes and Uli Steidl, methodically ticking off stride after stride, working their way up a thin swath of dirt. In my mind, I was grinding out the same sort of effort - just a whole lot slower.

The halfway point gave me the Coke I had waited for, and the knowledge that I had covered half the required distance. I felt, on the same day that some were racing 100K, rather pathetic. I had run 13 miles, and was tired. It occurred to me that the only way to defeat that sentiment was to run, so I did. I ran from my paranoid sensation of weakness, and forward. Always forward.

But not very far forward, before I was struck by a powerful need to use the restroom. Does The Pope shit in the woods? I asked myself. No matter, I thought, because I had to. And so, Leave No Trace suggestions fresh in my mind, I waded trough the grass, and far off the trail. My proudest moment, this was not, but these things do happen.

I resumed running, and found my pace still lacking. There was no doubt that I could move forward, and do so comfortably, for hours more. I felt like I could run 50 miles. And while there was comfort in that, it wasn't the goal for the day. I wanted to run - to race - a marathon. And that took a gait I couldn't seem to find.

My ultra-shuffle took me to a clearing, and a path next to a fishing spot. There were men by the water, relaxing, certainly unconcerned by whatever I was doing. And there was a man behind me then, his pace like a metronome. I stepped aside, letting him by before we resumed running in the woods.

His company was pleasant, and we chatted for several minutes. I told him that I was going to hold his pace for as long as I could manage, and wished him a good race when I no longer could. But as he disappeared ahead, I felt encouraged. He had run 3:38 the previous year - good for 3rd place. He said that he was ahead of that pace, with about ten miles to go.

Under four? I asked myself. Would I be happy with that, and could I manage it? Yes to both, I decided. In a race where one might expect to win with anything under 3:30, sub-4 would suffice.

There was another aid station, positioned such that I could see many of the chase pack. To my surprise, I also saw the man who had passed me at the lake, and the then-departing BEEF shirt wearer. And so I told myself a lie, which happened to be completely true: You need only run a hard 10K. Your legs can manage that, and your lungs haven't really been taxed to begin with. The twenty previous miles were prelude; this, now, is the race.

It was a lie - but I wanted so badly to believe it, that I did. For the first time since the opening miles, I felt like I was running. I took the downhills with abandon, thinking that my quads and knees could be sore the next day, and nothing would be lost.

But my perception, it seemed, was not wholly accurate. There were footsteps again behind me, two runners that I could see, and others that I imagined.

And then it was fun. I flung myself down the hills, and charged up them. I felt myself pulling away, looked back, and found that I had. I felt a sticky substance in my right shoe, looked down, and saw that my venerable Hattori had a larger-than-usual hole in the upper, and that there was red spreading from that area. I felt proud, in a sense, like I had earned some sort of validation. I was running in split shorts and a singlet, but I had a bloody shoe!

My enthusiasm grew as I hit the final aid station. I downed two more cups of Coke, and ran with whatever I had left towards the finish. This was a section of the trail I knew especially well. It was rockier than most, and hillier too. But this was a 5K now; and I had run two 5Ks on these same rocks.

My pursuit, it seemed, had the same idea. They appeared again; first as the crunch of shoe on rock, then was the swish of shorts, and finally, as the breathing of a man laboring. I ran harder, because there was nothing else to do. My arms swung, and my stride lengthened. I held my gap, but did not lengthen it. And so I ran harder yet, and the gap remained the same.

There was a hill then, which I remembered walking up the previous year. I was near the finish, I knew, one final push from sprawling across the timing mat. Roes again in mind, I worked up the rocks, picking my way across them.

But there was still no gap, and this time, when I tried to run harder, there was nothing. A man in a blue shirt passed me, then one with a Salomon hydration pack, and finally, one with a red shirt. They were all very courteous, thanking me for pushing the pace to the finish. I stepped aside, clearing the trail for them. I congratulated then on matching that pace, and then besting it.

I saw my Dad, as I climbed the final hill. I smiled, and pointed to my shoe. 23 years old, and still pointing out a stubbed toe to my Dad, I thought. There was another surge behind me, though for this one I had an answer. I sprinted the final yards, leaned across the line, and finished in 3:46:50, 8th overall.

There was more Coke at the finish, but I didn't drink (or eat, for that matter) anything. I smiled, shook hands, accepted and extended congratulations. I talked with several people I knew previously, and a couple I had met during the race. We had shared the trail and the experience; and now we related it, with words and smiles. I felt tired, sore, elated, and so many other things. But whatever else, I felt, at least, like a runner.

April 19, 2012

Marathon on the Mind

If yesterday's post seemed a bit Nike-centric, and perhaps a bit running related, I hope you'll forgive me. My mind is on the marathon at the moment, on the 26.2 miles (as if a trail could be measured that well) of winding mud I hope to navigate somewhat quickly this Saturday.

If you've been reading for any length of time, this tangent will not be a surprise to you. Every so often, I attempt a rather long race, and my mind gets occupied with that. Sure, there are shorter dalliances, about which I usually say little to nothing. Winning a couple 5Ks is nice, to be sure, but not nearly as satisfying as my 16th place finish at the Psycho Wyco 50K. And though there is effort involved in running any distance, there is a lack of drama, and of romance, to distances that do not have the known risk of breaking you.

And there, in that potential for disaster, one finds the addiction. It is a potent cocktail, adrenaline and endorphins mixing with a million other things, some yet without names, to produce a unique state of presence. You are there, on the trail, and the whole world is under that canopy, contained in the mud, rocks, and roots over which you traverse. You are there, and you could not be anywhere else, could not be doing anything else. There is nothing more important than that hill, and getting to the top of it.

It is pure, primal, feral, free, and so many other things. But it is, ultimately, indescribable. Perhaps this is why so many words have been devoted to the distance, why writing on running produces eloquence unmatched. While we must ultimately fail in our attempts to capture the essence of our pursuit, the effort leads to beautiful heights. In that way, the writing and the running are alike. You don't run to win the race, but to find something in yourself. And you hope, likewise, to make something better, using your effort to carve a positive image of the self. You leave your fears and neurosis scattered on the trail, litter to be swept up by the feet of your fellows.

In 1956, at the start of the marathon, Emil Zatopek is said to have declared that "Men, today we die a little". And perhaps he was right. Though the part that dies, if anything truly does, is vestigial. What you are left with is more, a greater sense of the self, of what you and everyone else around you are capable of. You gain respect for the land over which you ran as well, as it serves as your omnipresent pacesetter, counsel, challenge, and inspiration. You feel a certain intimacy with even rocks, after racing over them.

But there is a certain futility in that description. As hyperbole-laden as it may seem, it falls short. It falls inevitably short, since words, however powerful, are so much smaller than the sum of human experience. They cannot take the full measure of miles, no matter how measured.

April 18, 2012

Firing Magic Blanks

Success is a difficult thing to quantify, and probably impossible to ever achieve, in totality. Those who get it want more, and those without envy even that. And so we turn to those with promises, lists that spell out how to get from our current drudgery to our aspirational heights.

I'm a sucker. Write an article about the secrets to faster recovery from hard workouts, and I'll read it. Nevermind that it'll be the same stuff about ice baths and a 4:1 ratio of carbs to protein consumed in some mythological post-workout window. Promise secrets to making better coffee, or running a better bar? I'm there, even if I could write the article myself.

We want magic bullets, no matter how many times we fire blanks.

So I'm not here to make any promises, to tell you that I have any new insights in coffee, or much anything else. But I'm also going to tell you that that's a good thing, and here's why: Whatever it is you want to do, whether it be run a marathon, make good coffee, write a book, fix your car, do the laundry, teach your dog to sit, whatever, you almost certainly know how. You probably have the knowledge and have the tools.

They say that there is nothing new under the sun; and they're half-right. There may not be much in the way of new knowledge, but there are new opportunities, and new days. That's what the sun reveals ever time it rises, a chance to do that thing, whatever it is.

(And yes, that is a picture cribbed from a Nike ad at the top; and yes, the general tone of this entire post is very "Just do it". I already admitted to being a sucker. At least I'm an honest one.)

April 15, 2012

Flamingo Latte Art

That is a flamingo.

Or, more accurately, it's steamed milk, deftly flicked on to a bed of crema. But that sounds a bit arrogant, doesn't it?

It's the results of my 10,000 hours, my blood, sweat, and tears, etched in to a bronze plate. Too melodramatic?

Very well then. It's a latte. A pretty one, I think, with my attempt at a bird. The inspiration was this:

Now then, my result is comparably lop-sided, but nonetheless charming. It looks a bit like the bird on Odwalla bars and juices, which my place of business does carry. So perhaps this is brilliant synergy on my part. But there I go again with the hyperbole.

The truth is, this is garden-variety profundity. This is the result of progress and ambition, of inspiration and youtube. This is what happens when you aim higher, and pour better.

April 12, 2012

Labor and Love

Good advice, from an espresso machine repair man today: "If you want to make a lot of money in the coffee business, you better start with more."

I smiled, and tamped, creating the shots that would test his work. I rolled what he said around in my head, trying to find a response, and the proper balance between wit and wisdom. "Yeah," I said. It was all I could manage.

I brushed the rim of the portafilter, locked it in to the head, released the water, and watched. A drip, syrup and amber congealing in to a thin stream, twisting in to a waiting shot glass.

I glanced at the repair man. He was 50, maybe 60, with white hair cut short like a summer lawn. His hands were creased, but they lay on the counter then, resting. He wore a full-body blue suit, with a name tag stitched on, indistinguishable from an auto mechanic, unless you looked around his tool box a bit. I glanced at him, but his eyes didn't move. They were fixed on the shots.

They finished pulling, and then neither of us moved. "Looks good," he said.

I nodded. "Yeah."

He started putting his tools away, and I began replacing mine, ensuring that everything on and about the machine was as it had been. (Other than the thermostat. That was new - thankfully - and the reason for his visit.) The customers, who had been milling about, waiting, began to trickle to the register.

The first ordered a latte, and I took to making it. The repair man watched again, looked at my tamp, tap, brush, twist, and everything. He watched the milk steam, the shots finish, and the two combine. He saw the milk cut, like a white stream, a twisting swath in the burnt orange crema, and form a rosetta.

"Looks good," I thought, but didn't say. He didn't speak either.

There were three more drinks to make, by then, and so I was quickly back to work. "Looks like your back in business," he said.

"Happily so," I replied.

"It's a labor of love though, isn't it?" He asked, but it wasn't a question. "If you love it, it never feels like work."

I wiped a portafilter, and purged a grouphead. The water came with a click, hot, and ready for some alchemy. "It is," I said. "And it doesn't."

April 9, 2012

Paper Dignity

"People with college degrees are working at Starbucks."

The horror. The shame they must feel, to go to work every day, to make money for making coffee. Better that they go back to school. Better that they seek more degrees, further confirmation of intellectual worth. What a terrible economy this is. A cubicle for every man; that should be the goal. Let those without degrees make things; let them sully their hands.

Ahem. Some context, perhaps.

I heard that quote on NPR today, uttered by a reporter while discussing the difficult economy. It seems a degree doesn't guarantee anyone an office these days. Nor - and this is the implication - does it promise a job of which one can be proud.

This will not be a post about chasing your dreams, or about doing what makes you happy. No, this is more about pragmatism, and elitism.

On pragmatism: A job is a job, and "real" if the money is. While most baristas (myself included) are not payed lavishly, the money is usually sufficient. It is, in most cases, what a recent graduate would make in most any other field, especially when tips are factored in. And if we're talking specifically about Starbucks, it needs to be said that the giant pays quite well, and offers a lot of room for advancement.

On elitism: A person with a degree is no better than a person without, and no more deserving of a job that pays enough, or the satisfaction that comes from doing it.

I have a degree from the University of Kansas in English, obtained without a great deal of effort, and in large part, because I was born in to fortunate circumstances. I had good schools, enough money, clothes, and food. I had a stable family unit and plenty of friends. Change those variables, and the degree may change - or even disappear.

In any case, degree or no, why is physical labor shameful? Does fixing cars require less processing of information and problem solving skills than trading stocks? Even if it did, does that make the job - and thus, those who do it - any less necessary?

Of course not. And yet we still get quotes like that, meant as an off-hand jest, but nonetheless full of judgment. And that's really a shame. Everyone does something with their lives, and there are worse paths than employment at Starbucks.

April 4, 2012

A Few Words on Tea

There is something to be said about tea.

Truthfully, I am not the man to say much about it, however. I don't know much, apart from the fact that we have it, and so does every other coffee shop. I also know that it's something I've never given much thought to, and probably, you haven't either.

And that's really too bad. Because, coffee though it isn't, it's still on the menu. And so long as that is the case, there's an imperative to prepare it correctly. For the longest time, I didn't do that. And in my experience, most people are repeating my mistakes.

The problem is a simple one: We brew tea with water meant for brewing coffee, and often, without much consideration for time. As such, this water is usually in the neighborhood of 200 degrees, and the bags are left in the water for however long. (It probably goes without saying, but quality counts too. Like coffee, a better ingredient yields a better product.)

Thankfully, the solution is equally simple: We need only monitor the water temperature and steep time. If you've got an electric water kettle, this is easily done. If not, you can dilute your brewing water with tap, with a milk thermometer used to measure temperature.

As for the temps and times, it varies. A lot. Check with your tea provider for specifics, regarding your own stock. But, in general, blacks and herbals should be steeped hotter (200+ degrees), and for longer (4-5 minutes); greens and whites should be cooler (150-160 degrees), and shorter (2-3 minutes). If you're figuring things out on your own, you could do worse than starting with those numbers.

There is, of course, much more to be said about tea. It's a classic beverage, with cultural and historical implications that go well beyond what its current cafe status might imply. I have to wonder, how much of that is because it's prepared improperly? How many people think that they don't like tea, because the only thing they've ever had was old, steeped to death, or both? Me, for one. It wasn't until a die-hard showed me the ropes that I knew there were ropes there at all.

But in any case, this isn't about me, you, or what anyone working at the bar likes. This is about taking pride in your job and your product, and serving things that taste good. Tea, coffee, or otherwise, I'd like to think we're all fundamentally aiming for that.