October 31, 2012

An Important Question

The best writing advice I ever received was delivered by my Fiction Writing II teacher, himself not yet a professor, and who looked exactly like Tobias from Arrested Development. He told us that, with everything we wrote, we ought to ask "What work is this doing?"

Something about that resonated with me. I think it may have been the word "work", invoking something utilitarian about our attempted artistry. The words and sentences should each do something, add to the collective whole and help work towards something. They should not simply be floating, frivolous things, however beautiful the intent.

So let's take that question, and use it on coffee drinks we have on our collective menus. What work is this doing? That is, why is it here? What role does it serve? What niche is satisfied?

A cafe au lait is different from a latte in obvious ways. The former is made with drip; the latter with espresso. But that's not really crucial information to most customers. So we ask, what work are those drinks doing? What does an au lait do that a latte does not? If you like X, which should you get?

A mere listing of ingredients is not satisfactory here. A cappuccino is not simply a foamier latte. There are different experiences to be had, expectations to be met, and work to be done.

But what is that work? What job is each drink looking to do? Answer that, and we can build a better menu, and recommend more appropriate drinks.

October 27, 2012


Venture in to any coffee shop - mine included - and you'll nearly always see a bevy of signs, filled with chalked drink names and descriptions. There's a lot to take in, for your average customer, and so many of them don't, opting instead to ask the barista for what they want. There are those, however, who do gaze at the whole menagerie, characteristically swamped by the informations presented to them.

Neither scenario is ideal, of course. We'd rather have something clear, concise, and useful. We'd especially like something useful, given that the entire point of a menu is to streamline the ordering process. Efficiency is the goal, and most shops - again, including mine - are not achieving this.

The problem, in almost every case I've seen, is volume. Nearly every drink one could commonly order is listed, with a description, sizes, prices, etc. It's all a bit too much. It's all a bit, to use current internet parlance, TL;DR.

The volume is such the people, very often, don't even bother. This leads to misunderstandings, and frustrations on the part of both baristas and customers. Clearly, this is opposite of what we want our menus to do.

So, I'm going to set about fixing mine. Or rather, some of my coworkers with better penmanship will set about the task. In any case, it's easy to blame customers for being slow orderers, readers, or apparently clueless. But those assumptions are both useless, and usually, false. They're our menus, and it's our job to make the useful. So let's do that.

October 22, 2012


Today is, for a little while yet, Monday. It is that most dreaded of days, the start of the workweek, heralded by the bleeping of alarm clocks, greeted by bleary eyes and sour moods. And it must be truly awful, for all I hear about it. Customers tell me; cashiers at other places I visit tell me; everyone tells me.

They tell me, and I wonder, either this must be a great lie, or something bordering on tragedy. Either people simply like to complain that much, or they simply hate their jobs that much. Neither is a pleasant conclusion to reach, of course, but I find the latter to be worse.

And I don't have much to say, beyond simply that that's too bad. I like Mondays; I like my job. I like, I guess, that maybe I can help people hate Mondays a little less.

Of course, I also know that not everyone has the same luxury that I do, by which I mean the same lack of responsibility. I can split my time between the coffee bar, the trail, and the gym, because I have no responsibilities to anyone or anything else. I'm young, and lucky, and I get that.

But still. No one gets in to the coffee business simply because they like the beans. You deal with hundreds of people a day, many of them every day, so you have to love that too. On some level, you have to love them too. And so you want better for them, if not people in general. You want them to be happy, to enjoy whatever sense of fulfillment and enjoyment your life affords you.

You want them to love Mondays, because Mondays mean a chance to make things, do things, to be amongst people and life. You want them to love Mondays, because you're there, right then, a part of their Monday. You want to elevate the whole mess, if that's what it truly is, or at least offer something like a reprieve.

What you don't want is a cold transaction, bills changing hands, social graces grunted inaudibly, the malaise solidifying. So don't let it happen. Choose better, because people come to you for more than coffee.

October 19, 2012

Consider the Cow

I've lived in Kansas my entire life, more or less, which means a lot of things, but I'm going to take this somewhere you're not expecting. This is not about The Wizard of Oz (please), hills (we have them), or general ass-backwards education policy (no arguing that, sadly).

No, this is about cows. Stay with me.

Living in Kansas, cows have been somewhat omnipresent in my life. If you drive anywhere outside of any town, you see them. You may in fact smell them from further away, particularly if you venture near  some of the less "free range" operations. This state's history, even, is largely defined and created by the cattle trade, the iconic longhorns being driven up from Texas, through the towns of the wild west.

Despite this closeness - or perhaps because of it - I've never really thought a great deal about cows. They seem, after a while, like scenery. You see them, but they lack the graceful power and spectacular musculature of horses, the personality and cuddliness (a technical term) of dogs and cats, and so they're more or less dismissed.

This weekend, however, I thought about cows, when I was charged by one. Heartland - the race I was running - largely takes place on private pasture, and as such, cows sometimes mill about. But about 16 miles in to my race, one particular heifer had had enough milling, and felt the need to get some running in herself.

As I shuffled along, a heard a rustle, and then saw a great black mass hurtling towards me. I turned, and my headlamp illuminated (it was a night race) the silhouette of a large, black cow, a rippling mass careening right at me. "Oh fuck," I yelled, and darted off the side of the road, the absurdity of this whole thing not yet dawning on me. When it did, I laughed to myself, imagining DNF'ing a race due to injury sustained via cow trampling. This was not Pamplona, after all.

At work and decidedly not trampled the next day, I set about ordering milk, which we all know comes from cows, but I'm not so sure that we know it. That is, milk comes from a plastic jug, the grocery, and the milk guy who brings it there. It is a white foodish liquid that we use to make drinks, pour pretty designs, and generally center our barista lives around. It is a commodity and an artistic tool, but not something that actually comes from a living thing - which of course, it is.

Now, I don't do calls to action, or editorial pieces. My style - insofar as I have one - is to throw ideas out there in a somewhat coherent (hopefully) stream of consciousness. So I'm not going to tell you that cows are people too (there are better and more articulate sources for that already), or that you should think or feel a certain way about them.

What I am suggesting is this: In an age where we're justifiably concerned about farm-to-cup coffee sourcing, and everything that goes along with that, perhaps we could spare a moment's thought for those other farms, and those other producers, without which we wouldn't be able to do our jobs. So while I'm not trying to tell you what to think of cows, I would like to say that maybe you try thinking about them at all.

October 16, 2012

Soy Foam at the Mountain Top

It's amazing how mundane an ultra feels, while you're doing it. It really is as simple as one step after another, an exercise in mental as much as physical endurance. And when it's done, that's it. You return to your life, and find it unchanged. The person who rings up your gas at the Kwik Shop still doesn't smile, and that customer still wants a non-soy/dairy milk. You limp a bit, but mostly hope people don't ask why, because the whole thing can be a chore to explain. "Yes, it's far. And yes, people run it. No I can't really tell you why, other than because. Sometimes you just do things."

But there is comfort in that sameness, in the routine. It helps, of course, that I rather like mine. Monday came, as it does, and Tuesday after it. People came and bought their usual drinks, and we talked about the usual things. It was, despite the sameness, not mundane; and it never really is.

I trained another person, as is happening a lot lately. The owner of my shop is opening up another, and it largely falls on me to bring the would-be-baristas up to speed.

I made, probably, my best triple rosetta. Perhaps this has to do with the above, as explaining my milk texturing and pouring has a way of focusing my efforts. No matter how good you are, you're better when you really dial things in.

And I made the best dry soy cappuccino in the history of Earth. Really. Allegedly, there are shops who will tell you this cannot be done. They are either lying, or wrong. Maybe they can't meet the challenge, or perhaps it's too daunting to attempt. But I've climbed that mountain, tasted the air, and it's real. Let me tell you, it's real. The dry soy cappuccino can happen, and don't let anyone tell you otherwise.

In summation, I feel more proud of my ability to stretch soy milk than my ability to traverse 50 miles somewhat quickly. Weird.

October 14, 2012

Heartland 50 Mile Race Report

"Pain in the legs is a taste of zen." Yamada Roshi

So let's start there.

The final manned aid station for the Heatland 50 mile race was 8.2 miles from the finish, and I shuffled in, watching a mass of headlamp lights stream down the hill behind me. My hip flexors ached, and my stride refused to open up, a result of the 40+ miles of flat dirt road running - or rather, muddy road running.

I took three gels, and stashed them in my Nathan pack, planning to need only two of them. I sipped some Coke, and an attendant informed me, shockingly, that I was in third place. This, I did not know. Fourth or fifth, I had thought, but not third. And yet here I was, apparently, just a little over 10K from my first top-ten ultra finish.

I stepped out from under the tent, and gazed up in to the sky. It was crisp and clear, the stars and white miasma between them stark and urgently present.

I walked about twenty yards, and then ran, as best I could. I shuffled up on my forefoot, my legs spinning out to the side with every step, further aggravating the hip flexors.

Ouch. Ouch. Ouch. Fuck. Fuck. Fuck. Three every second, but they kept coming, and kept moving forward. There was solace in that pain, that feeling that I had earned this, and that it would not disable me. It hurt, but it was not an injury. Sometimes you just know. And I knew, also, that I just had to keep going. My lead may have been small, but even a half-mile is a long way to make up in 8.

Zen or not, there is a certain trance you enter in to in any endurance event, where your body accepts the mind's instructions, the cold logic of "the faster you go, the sooner you finish". And so I followed the lights, squishing and slipping after the headlamps ahead of me, and away from those behind me. I was a ghost among others, our shared pains and desires driving us towards those brighter lights down the road, forever just so close, like a desert mirage.

The pavement arrived, and I turned on to it, the finishing chute only a quarter mile away. I could see the red lights, marking the time, giving some semblance of meaning to this pronounced foolishness. I ran, imagining a sprint, but perhaps only flirting with an 8 minute mile pace, my quads searing, my mind flooding with chemicals you can only buy with your own two feet.

3rd overall

October 11, 2012

I'm Running 50 Miles Soon, So Here Is Some Mostly Unrelated Stuff

Wearing compression socks while writing is not a performance enhancer, as demonstrated by the quality of this lead sentence and the fact that I misspelled "enhancer" the first time around, only to be corrected by that handy little red line that protects whatever integrity as a legit writer I have.

But I am wearing a pair, because there is a 50-mile race on Saturday, and I'm doing it. If this doesn't seem to logically follow, let me just say that I'm not reaping any physical benefits by wearing them; I simply like to have them on, like a little kid who won't take his shoulder pads off after his first football practice.

Also, coffee things: I've been training a lot of people lately, and searching for a viable "milk" that is neither dairy nor soy.

The former is going well. Training is easy, really, to the point where I can't believe it was ever a source of anxiety. You show a little, tell even less, then let them practice. Then, when mistakes are made, make corrections (without being a dick). Repeat this for a few hours, and then a few days, and significant progress will have been made.

Perhaps I shouldn't say so, lest I threaten my job security, but it's really not terribly hard to elevate someone to competence as a barista. Of course, competence is not excellence. That requires practice on a longer timeline, and a refined feel for your machine, espresso, and milk. That can neither be taught nor rushed; it must simply be earned by putting in the hours.

The non-dairy/soy milk search is going less well. Almond milk refuses to accept any air whatsoever, getting sudsy and oh, bitter as well. Coconut milk, while a little better, still doesn't texture properly, and the flavor is far too pronounced. Rice milk is predictably thin and bland, doing little more than watering down the espresso.

There are other options, liquids made from hemp, oats, sunflower seeds, hazelnuts, etc. I've not tried them, and given the results thus far, I'm not keen to.

So, why bother? Because people ask. Not many, but enough. There are those who can't or won't drink dairy, which I understand. (Lactose intolerance is quite common, and some people would just rather be nice to cows. Legit concerns, both.) Soy avoidance confuses me slightly more, though I've heard all manner of reasons for it. Suffice it to say, people are allowed their neurosis, and if possible, I'd like to help indulge it.

But so far, I just can't. Or rather, I can't find a viable dairy/soy substitute. I can offer them a premium beverage that is gluten/soy/sugar/egg/lactose free, however: Coffee. Black coffee. It really is a miracle beverage, even enhancing endurance performance to a greater extent than compression socks.

There. I brought it around.

October 6, 2012

Brown Leaves and Grey Skies

With respect to that period in December, October, I think, can lay claim to being the "most wonderful time of the year". It is the year's gloaming, a season that goes beyond all the leaves being brown and the skies grey. The leaves, rather, are every shade on the autumnal palate, things that don't have names, a striking plethora of red to brown, and everything in between. And even the grey sky is not without variety; sometimes it's an even slate, others, a rolling whitecapped gunmetal.

It is also, as people have begun to tell me, coffee weather. And although I tend to think any weather is coffee weather, I have to agree, there is something even more satisfying about a cup that serves to drive the chill from your marrow.

So that's it. I don't have much more to add, which is rare, I know. But sometimes, there just isn't much to say. Drink your coffee, enjoy the weather, and be well.

October 1, 2012

What Matters

People complain about things, and that's fine. It happens, and it doesn't mean I - or anyone else - needs to pay it any mind. Still, I've been reading some high profile articles lately, damning the whole "foodie" thing, specialty coffee, fancy wine, etc. The argument, basically, is that we're latching on to relatively cheap indulgences to make ourselves feel privileged, that we're grasping at pseudo-elitism.

And while I understand that obsessing over single origin beans - or whatever other culinary delicacy you might fancy - is ultimately frivolous, I don't think that's what this is about. It is, rather, people being pissy that some people like things that they do not. Juvenile, yes, but just that simple.

Furthermore, we can be that reductive about anything, if we so choose. After all, people are dying right now, of starvation, disease, gunfire, etc. There are infinite cruelties being committed at this moment, at every moment, so we could easily decide to never enjoy anything.

But it just doesn't matter, they might protest. It's just coffee; it's not important. Well, sure. On a long enough timeline, whatever pleasure I derive from this beverage does not matter. In the grand scheme of things, it is totally irrelevant. But you know what? In a few thousand years, our cities will be gone, and so will we. The Universe is bigger than we are, so much bigger than we can possibly fathom. It doesn't care what coffee I drink, sure; but it doesn't care about anything anyone else does either.

This is neither fatalism or nihilism, however. I'm not saying that life and its pleasures don't matter to us - indeed, they are everything. So when I buy apples and sweet potatoes from local farmers, or Yirgacheffe from a local roaster, I'm not grasping at some imagined hipster ideal. I'm buying things that I like, from people I like, because it makes my life better, and there's too.

And, as much as anything ultimately can, that matters. I'm here, now, living the one life I know for sure I've got. It would be a shame to waste it drinking shitty coffee.