June 26, 2012

Working With What We Have

Reading a copy of Small Farms Journal, left behind the counter either on purpose or not, but for no reason I could discern, was revealing. It was an exhibition of anachronistic and anarchic views, spelled out with just enough colloquialism, and maybe not quite enough grammar.

I read about grape planting, how real farmers don't wear shorts and flip flops, what type of cow does best in a given climate, and a heart-string-tugging ode to a 30-year-old mule whose time had come, and who, at article's end, was shot in the head with a .45 caliber pistol.

Most pages had something that would have been too obvious parody, were it not to be taken seriously. "Be the Black Sheep", proclaimed a headline of an article discussing the merits of, yes, black sheep.

Still, there was something striking about the whole thing, an impression of an intense devotion, of business and art commingling. It wasn't just that a man had written an article about shooting his mule, Ruth, in the head, or even that he imagined her pulling a plow straight in Heaven's gardens. No, it was that he had thought to write this article at all, and that there is, apparently, an audience for such pieces.

This was and is quite foreign to me. Gun to my head, I'm not sure I could put a gun to anything else's head. Maybe take it to the vet first, before deciding "it was time"? But no, my feeling wasn't wholly, or even primarily, one of judgement. Foreign. That's what it was, said plainly but best.

Some part of me wanted to imagine a bridge, to pretend some camaraderie between myself and the authors of the pieces I read. We shared, while not the trade itself, the feeling that we were doing something most people simply don't "get", that they see as a landing spot for people who, sadly, can't manage to pull themselves above working as mere providers.

But my imagination couldn't span the gap between the realities, couldn't suspend my disbelief. It was a comparison I knew - or thought I knew - these farmers would hate. They wrote of leather hands and muddy boots, of working, literally, with bullshit. And I had just finished pouring two sets of latte art, for customers that had specifically requested it, tipped, and responded with an almost embarrassing amount of enthusiasm. No, mine is a profession for men who are wispy, not hardy, who deal in luxury beverages and toil in air conditioned places of recreation.

I arrived home, and dug out a copy of Barista Magazine from under my bed. I looked through the pages, trying to adopt the eye of someone else, someone not neck deep in coffee. I saw articles about different extraction ratios yielded by different Toddy techniques, discussions that hinged on tenths of grams and single degrees. There were blurbs about espresso machines, the brushes and soaps that might best clean them, and a thousand accessories to decorate them with. People talked about coffee like it mattered, really mattered, about how their time spent behind the bar defined them, and how others just couldn't get it. I tried to use that imagined distance, to see this as frivolous bullshit, a hobby job for hipsters who aren't ready to trade in their black tees for black ties. But mostly, I though about how no one got shot.


  1. Its interesting to read thoughts from the perspective of a seasoned Barista about the farming lifestyle. Interesting because who I am today. After many years seeing things in the way not many people understand, in the artisanry of coffee, I now spend my days with shovel in hand and garden trowel at my side ready to put in a solid day of hardy farm work. With my mind's eye I can see the bridge between your life and that of the farmer who has to shoot his poor old Mule. To oversimplify, you are as the farmer, dedicated to the connection of the environment around you, honing your skills to prepare the perfect product for whomever offers their coin. When the time to create presents itself you feel a sensation only artists feel when given a canvas. A canvas with established outlines and curves you must guide around with your instruments of creation. And when it comes time to pass along what you've worked so hard to prepare, there's a humbling sensation of joy knowing that what you've done will be appreciated. And the love and joy that you poured into your work of art will pass on into the universe. Basically, that farmer and you share a commonality that not many people openly recognize these days. Its the connection to something that you love with a passion and the willingness to let it go. Go forward to where ever, which allows you to move on to the next cycle. Although yours may be faster, from one drink to the next.

    ...And Ruth might not be a mule, but that employee that's not quite the Barista she used to be.

    1. I was hoping someone would comment who actually has experience with farming. And you've done more than that. Thanks for the perspective, and drawing the connection quite well.

    2. Having been a "homesteader" in the 1970's only to leave that world for the life of a financial planner, who now is also a small coffee roaster and a "foodie," I see no difference between making that perfect latte or engaging in small farming. Both occupations are about meeting life with passion. Our modern lives gives us so little opportunity to appreciate anything. Some choose to find it in growing heirloom strawberries in our backyard, others in an incredible latte in the morning that has a piece of art right in our cups! Most have lost any memory of it. My congratulations to anyone who finds passion and then shares it with those around them who hunger for more in their own lives.

    3. Can't argue with any of that. I also look forward to seeing what becomes of the site your comment links too; "slowverygoodcoffee" sounds like a great concept.