September 29, 2012


People ask, but it's a challenge really, more than a question.

"Can you make ________ well?"

"Is your ______ as good as Starbucks?" 

"How's your _______?"

They know you'll say it's good, because you really shouldn't say anything else. Even if you believe otherwise - which you shouldn't, really - the most basic business acumen dictates selling them what they want, and that means confirming quality. 

Given that the answer is never really in question, and that the question itself really isn't a question, what they really want is for you to make the drink, make it well, and prove it to them. Prove that it's a great whatever, better than Starbucks, better than your nearest competition.

I love those questions - or, if we're going to name them honestly, challenges. I love the chance to make something to a specific taste, cater to the details of a "picky order", and if I'm being honest, fucking nail it. 

Better than Starbucks? Easily. Better than wherever else you've come from? Chances are, yes. I had better think so. If I'm knowingly making a suboptimal product, there's a problem. 

This is a matter of pride, but also, mere pragmatism. It would be lovely to think that my shop makes money because people simply cannot resist my dazzling wit and feathered bangs, but I know better. While the barista matters, and people appreciate and value the personal interaction (and the hair), the drink still has to be dialed. 

It's a revelation I know: Good drinks lead to better business. 

So, customers, speaking on behalf of every good barista I've ever known: Tell me your drink is hard, that you're picky, that only so and so at such and such has ever made it right. Ask me if I can do it at all, or, god forbid, better than ever. I'll smile, give a succinct confirmation that yes, I can, and yes, I will. I'll make the drink, then smile again, as you tell me how great it is. "Thanks," I'll say. "Told you," I'll think.

September 25, 2012

Espresso Anxiety

I would love to tell you that I love all of my drinks equally, if differently, but that would be a lie. The truth is that I have favorites, as do you. I make my favorites with a certain attentiveness that - again, if we're being honest - is not present for every drink. When I pull shots for a appreciative double-drinker, I care more about the quality of the crema than when I'm pulling for a large mocha.

Perhaps this shouldn't be the case. Perhaps it's a problem - and really, I am trying to address it. But I think, also, that it's inevitable. It is, in the words of many who have had nothing better to say, what it is.

And so I'm going back to the double, a drink I've been preparing with increasing frequency, much to my delight and also, sometimes, horror. Again, it's not that I don't care about every drink, just that I care a little more about those that seem somehow to be pure, like something I'd drink. And there is something fundamentally revealing about espresso, consumed as is. There is neither milk nor syrup to hide the bitter imperfections, should you error. And so I both love it and fear it, because it's an opportunity to either pass or fail the most basic of tests.

Espresso, after all, is the basis of almost everything else a barista makes at a coffee bar. If you can't do that well, then you can't do much more than count change. It's a bit like the omelet test, something I'm told many would-be cooks are subjected to. In it, the applicant is asked to make an omelet, and are appraised solely on that. They may get the job, or they yolk may be on them. (Very sorry for that. I couldn't help it.) It is simple, but not easy.

In my last post, I discussed perfect espresso a bit, but never really got around the most fundamental quality it must have: Good taste. We can quibble a bit over what that means, whether we want lemon (Schomer says no) or cherry or bourbon or cocoa. But we want it to taste good, or at least, not like burnt prune juice.

And so we pull, carefully attending to the dose, the leveling, tamping, polishing, etc. We pull, counting the seconds, watching the stream, fist dripping, then almost but not quite flowing, like maple syrup or amber or honey or, well, like good espresso. We serve and we hope. We watch for clues, the first sip, swirl, and then the face. A grimace? A smile? A twitch? What was that? Something? Nothing? We are anxiously looking without trying to look like we're looking, waiting for them to finish, and they do, say thanks, but did they mean it? Was it, like, thanks for the great espresso? Or was that a pity thanks, as in thanks for nothing, I'll never see you again?

We don't know  - and won't ever really be sure, no matter what is said, or how practiced we get - until the next day, when they come back, and we do it again.

September 21, 2012

Thoughts on Perfect Espresso

So, the planned conversation on espresso did not go as planned. For me, it did not go at all. Short version: Technical difficulties.

Still, I was introduced to several new people and a myriad of new perspectives, and perhaps, I'll have an opportunity to jump in to the next roundtable. 

In the meantime, however, I wanted to share some loose thoughts I had on "perfect espresso", what it is, and how we might seek it. 

The first - and perhaps, most important - point is that espresso perfection is a journey with no tangible destination. We are seeking something inherently arbitrary and subjective, and yet, like the Supreme Court with pornography, we feel intuitively that we'll know it when we see it. 

Yet despite the inherently impossible nature of the quest, it is worth undertaking. While perfection is unattainable, quality is very real, very tangible, and at this point, the least we can do. We have access to quality equipment, beans, and technique, such that bad espresso isn't excusable. 

Unless, of course, you don't have one of those three things. These are the ingredients without which great espresso simply will not happen. So, if your beans suck, fix that. If your equipment is dirty, broken, or otherwise sub-optimal, fix that too. And learn decent technique. Find videos of the best baristas online, watch, and then practice. Mostly practice. 

What about the specifics? What about pull time, gram dosage, bean blending, etc.? On those things, I'm mostly agnostic. There's a wide range that works, and without knowing the details of every situation, we can only really say that those things will inevitably vary. My best advice is to ask your roaster what they do in their cafe. Chances are, they know best how to treat their beans. 

Finally, sometimes, forget about all of those things. Perfect espresso - or at least as close as we get - is never really about those things anyway. Rather, it's a cumulative sensory experience, a compilation of every bit of present context. The best shots are the ones you pull (well, maybe not, but I prefer my own handiwork), present in every sense of the word for every aspect of the preparation. That sense continues through consumption, everything around you mattering, and yet not, context totally informative and irrelevant. 

Perfect espresso is in your hands, your mouth, all around, right now. It is a moment, poetically similar in length to the shots themselves, short, concentrated, beautiful. 

September 18, 2012

Perfect Espresso Roundtable

A savant, well, that's a stronger word than I would use. But regardless, there is this, the Coffee Savants' Roundtable discussion on how to create the perfect shot of espresso. And I am attending, along with several others, whose opinions I value highly. It should be a lively occasion, and hopefully I add something to it. Regardless, you can watch the entire thing unfold at 8 PM central time. And really, you should. It'll be more interesting than whatever procedural is on network TV at the time.

September 12, 2012

Hawk Marathon Race Report, and Satisfaction in Service

It was 2 am, or something like that. Truthfully, time gets lost, even during races, when it's that late/early, and you've been up since 5 am the previous day, and ran a marathon sometime in that period.

About that marathon.

I ran in fourth until just past the halfway point, showing surprising patience, not knowing where anyone else was. This was a windy, technical trail, after all, so for all I knew, there was no hope of grabbing a podium spot. (If, you know, local trail races had podiums. They don't.) But I knew I was chasing a shirtless guy wearing yellow Kinvaras, and another guy wearing Newtons, and so I kept my eyes out for them, trying to keep my pace decent despite the total lack of perspective.

And then they were ahead of me, only just, and then, as quickly, I was with them. They glanced back, and I imagined them thinking something like "Oh shit.". But there were still 8 miles to go, so I would sit and wait, let them work to try and drop me, and then kick up the final hills.

Or not. The guy in the Newtons tripped, and appeared to twist his ankle. He told me and the Kinvara guy to keep going without him, and we didn't need much convincing. In third now, I was full of adrenaline, running a trail I was familiar with, following a runner who seemed to be slowing drastically.

And so I moved, just before the final aid station, thinking that I could lengthen my gap while he refueled. Of course, doing that would require that I not stop myself, a decision that I decided was unwise with 6.5 miles still to go. So I split the difference, drank 4 ounces of Coke (crucially, I didn't fill my bottle or grab any gels), and gunned it.

For a mile, this seemed brilliant. My chaser was nowhere to be seen, and I felt great, right up until I felt like shit. The transition was immediate, the proverbial wall smashing right up against me. Thoroughly bonked and without any calories to consume, I shuffled onward, tripped, and saw that my pursuit had not just reappeared, but caught me.

But there was so little race left, depleted or not, I would give chase. And so I did, not gaining, but not losing either. I kept the yellow Kinvaras in my sight, right up until a turn - I know it well - with about 1.2 miles to go. I took the turn, I think. I must have. Although that's not what the course for the race dictated, it's the only way to explain how I ended up on the wrong trail, forced to retrace my steps, and resume passing people I hadn't seen for quite some time.

I crossed the line in sixth, missing the imaginary podium, eleven minutes behind the yellow Kinvaras. I drank a Mountain Dew, felt pretty dumb, but mostly, was still pretty stoked. It had been, probably, the most fun race I've ever run, the closest I'd ever come to the sort of Beardsley/Salazar dueling you see on the elite level.

I went home, ate about 4 cups of rice and beans, a pint of cocunut milk ice cream, and foam rolled. I sat around for a few more hours, killing time until the evening, which would turn in to the night, which gets us back to it being 2 am.

Anyway, it was dark, and sort of cool, the stars almost urgently clear. I was working an aid station at the for the 100 milers, filling the bottles of a runner with ice, and then water and HEED, respectively. I zipped around, not wanting to delay someone who was, in theory, racing, declaring that I was a food service professional, with the irony and the punch drunkenness that comes from being - and this is the medical term - wiped the fuck out.

We sent him on his way and I ate some vegetarian chile, which included mashed potatoes and Chinese takeout levels of salt - all the better to fuel endurance - and then drank some Folger's Black Silk - which tasted like Broadway's Yirgacheffe at the time - not wanting to drink another Mountain Dew.

Other runners came in, looking pretty much like you'd expect at that point, and we did what we could for them. I drank more coffee and took some allergy meds, and then drank more coffee because I took the allergy meds. I wandered towards the trees so I wouldn't sneeze on the runner taking a nap in one of the chairs, wandered back, and was asked if I could pace him the 6.5 miles to the start/finish.

I said yes, presuming that he would either drop out there, or the RDs would pull him. I wanted to be nice, but you have to be realistic about these things. We set off, walking fast, making small talk. His name was Terry, 57, from Wichita (I think). He liked yoga and steam engines.

As we talked, I couldn't help but notice his tone was optimistic. He sounded awake, energetic, and hopeful. When we talked about his race circumstances, he kept saying he'd feel even better when the sun came up, and that he still though he could finish. The math said otherwise - he would have to run his 4th loop faster than his 2nd or 3rd - but I began to believe him.

We arrived at the start/finish as the sun came up. Terry ate, and I sat on a picnic bench, watching the 100-mile winner get interviewed by a local paper; he had finished over four hours earlier. Terry told the RDs he'd like to do the final loop, whether he got it in under the 32-hour time limit or not. As someone kindly bandaged my bleeding pinky toe, I told the RDs that he could make it. We only needed to cover 25 miles in 7 hours, and he was fine, really, and I was too.

And then Terry was running, disappearing down the trail. I chased, yelling back at someone that I was fine, it was only blood, and that we'd be back in time. I imagined I'd catch up with him easily. But, whether it was the sun or not, that took two miles. Terry, who hadn't run for something like 10 hours, was now running my marathon pace, and I wondered if I was going to be any help at all.

I did catch him, of course, when he resumed walking an uphill section, saying to me that he'd better save some for later. I agreed, and pointed out that if we only ran the easiest portions of the trail at that pace, he'd finish comfortably. Math was now on our side, so far as I was concerned.

My stomach was not, however. As we reached the first aid station, I stripped off my night gear, and headed towards the nearest restroom. Terry was moving well, and I told him I'd pick him back up at the next aid station, hopefully ready to lead a charge to the finish, if need be. He said that would be nice, and that he appreciated whatever impromptu pacing he could get.

Stomach settled, I drove to the next aid station, and tried not to fall asleep in my car. I drank another Mountain Dew, felt marginally better, and then saw Terry popping out of the woods, heading up the route's biggest hill. I shuffled over to the aid station, made plans for what we'd need, what sort of pace would be required, and then ran ahead to hook back up with Terry.

We ran in to the mostly disassembled aid station, grabbed several gels, and filled our bottles. Quickly, we plunged back in to the trees, Terry still running the flat sections, and walking the hills. I was doing the math constantly, telling him how fast we were clocking our miles, and how his pace was consistently exceeding what was needed. There was no longer any doubt in my mind that he'd finish, and I told him that. Just keep doing what you're doing.

We arrived at the next - and final - aid station, and were greeted by an enthusiastic host. There was Gary - the club's Godfather, basically - who had manned that aid station for over 24 hours and made the addictive chile; Terry's wife, who thanked me, and who ushered him off with a kiss; Alan, who I had seen the previous morning during my race, and who volunteered to pace if I could go no further; Adam,  who had won the 50-miler (by 50 minutes); and others, of course, who I would recall if I hadn't been so damn tired.

The finish assured if no mistakes were made, Terry took the technical portions carefully, but still ran when prudent. We were making good time, good conversation, and came up on another two runners. One was Donnie, on his way to finishing his first 100-mile race. He was paced by Bryan, who had worked the aid station with my prior to assuming his pacing duties. Together, we decided to form a proud 4-man caboose, hiking and jogging the remaining 3 miles. Bryan and I congratulated the two soon-to-be finishers, and they continued on, spirits suitably high.

When we emerged form the woods, Bryan and I peeled off to the side, leaving the finish to Terry and Donnie. There's had been the race, and this was rightly their moment. I watched them get their buckles, take pictures, and smile. I sat on the picnic bench, happier at that moment than at any race I'd ever finished myself.

And while that sounds both overly sentimental and self aggrandizing, I promise neither are my motivation. These are simply the sorts of things that happen at trail races, and are a large reason I'm drawn to the sport of running way too fucking far on dirt and rocks.

Furthermore, I am - and at this point, it really is basically my entire identity - a barista. Anyone who sticks in the service industry for long does it because of moments like this - if a little less dramatic. We like being told that we made someone's day, if only by making their drink, or simply being nice.

So yeah, it only took me a few thousand words to bring this around to this blog's primary subject matter. Service: Do it right, and you feel awesome.

September 10, 2012

PT's Flatlanders Barista Cup

These last few days have been rather epic, and I'm trying to put some words together about that. Until then, I'm just going to post this.
PT's is a local roaster, located in Topeka, which has produced beans and baristas of national repute. The event is free to the public, and there is another latte art competition Saturday night, after the "pros", with a 5$ buy in. I plan on involving myself somehow, whether as one of the 30 official competitors or not.

September 3, 2012

Remember to Forget

It's absurdly cliche for a man of my age, disposition, and occupation to find zen writings interesting, but here we are. While we're here, I'd like to share something with you, a poem I found on this blog.
To listen to the songs of birds, I skipped the evening meditation,
enjoyed a patch of grass by the edge of an ancient mountain stream.
Pleasure recollected depends on a beautiful phrase;
the appreciative mind meets with a close friend.
Spring water cries out in a rocky valley;
pine trees echo when wind is coming.
I drank a cup of tea and watched the flowing and stillness.
Quietly and naturally I seemed to forget the return of time.
-Cho Eui Seon, 18th century Korean poet, calligrapher, painter, tea-maker, and Taoist philosopher
I'd also like to ask why it is that tea has a monopoly on introspection, on meditation and relaxation. Furthermore, I'd like to posit that this need not be the case; that coffee can be enjoyed with such serenity; that it need not be a beverage relegated to hurried mornings and more frantic days; that it can, indeed, offer a respite from the maelstrom.

Try, if only once, to drink your coffee with the same attentiveness described in the poem. You may not forget time, but you'll likely remember what it's like to really enjoy coffee, rather than merely consume it.