November 28, 2012

This is Not a Sale

Things are often rather simple; sometimes so simple that we never believed it could really be that easy. Occam's Razor works in scientific theory; but we want complexity, an answer hidden like a pot of gold at the end of our own private rainbow.

In coffee, we want a new brewing technique or apparatus that allows us to reach previously impossible heights of body, clarity, character, and flavor. And while ambition is not to be discouraged, I think we forget, too often and always to our detriment, that it's mostly about the bean. We shouldn't forget the level of minutia we indulge in when we ponder other things.

So remember that, this... Cyber week? Or whatever we're calling it. Buy some cool shit if you want, if you really want new gear. Support sites like Espresso Parts that do our industry a service by their existence and quality of stock - they deserve it. And of course, don't forget your local cafe, many of which provide supplies for the home barista - and awesome service as well, I'm sure.

You'll be supporting the economy or something, which is a thing I guess we're supposed to do, right?

But don't, please, buy stuff just to buy stuff. Don't burden your already cluttered counter with another gadget that you'll play with once, and subsequently condemn to a lifetime of ignominious dust gathering. You don't need more anything; and in any case, if you work in coffee, you probably can't afford anything either.

November 23, 2012


Black hands and red arms quivering, it ended, and I looked around at something that felt like a mess, but was really just empty space. I looked a block down, at what really was quite a mess, and saw all of that old shit, plenty more new things, none of it together in any meaningful way yet. I saw ends and beginnings, other people's sentiment, and felt mostly that this was just another day.

It's a funny thing, cutting hoses, carrying grinders, brewers, and espresso machines. It feels wrong, scandalous even, like you're breaking shit, maybe even stealing it. And so there is a tingling sort of sensation that goes along with doing something you aren't supposed to, although perhaps some of that is just the fact that a lot of those things are really quite heavy.

It's tiring work - not the sort of thing 145 lb runner/baristas are well equipped to handle - but I took it, because it was there, and better than nothing. The owner of my shop, you see, long ago started a different place, which is now closed. He's opening a new place nearby, and I, along with a much more morose (they were more attached than I, understandably) staff, substituted ourselves for actual movers.

Hipster Moving Company, I suggested, noting the apparent uniform of moccasins with skinny black jeans. Apparently, we all thought manual labor would be best undertaken wearing our flimsiest footwear and tightest pants. In the future, we should probably stay away from such work.

But although there is this great change, the shop I run will be relatively unaffected. Or at least it ought to be. The future in food service, perhaps more so than any other industry, fluctuates constantly. It takes nothing more than a few bad months to tank even successful, venerable operations. And even if money is no problem, it takes only the whims of one person to close an establishment.

So no, I don't have delusions about this. I'm good at my job, and run a business that makes money every month. But that can change. And even if it doesn't, profit is no lifetime guarantee. Businesses come and go, as do people, as does everything else. To believe otherwise is to engage in a high level of cognitive dissonance.

I'm not saying that attachment to people or things is bad, of course. Such feelings are really only worth having because of their fleeting nature. If I had eternity with my machine and my customers, I couldn't possibly enjoy them as much as I do now, knowing that someday, I'll be without all of that. Someday, I'll work somewhere else, maybe even do something else (though I can hardly imagine it), and see different people. And it will be satisfying, I hope, just as my present circumstances are.

All of this is to say, change is not a bad thing. People have been saying that things are getting worse forever, a pessimistic view that is, ironically, rather comforting. If pessimism has such ancient roots, and there is still so much to enjoy, how bad could things really be getting?

So yes, change. It's happening, always, eternally present, and thankfully so.
Are we to look at cherry blossoms only in full bloom, the moon only when it is cloudless? To long for the moon while looking on the rain, to lower the blinds and be unaware of the passing of the spring—these are even more deeply moving. Branches about to blossom or gardens strewn with faded flowers are worthier of our admiration.

Yoshida Kenko

November 20, 2012

Thanksgiving Coffee

So this may surprise you, given my general tone, but I'm not going to write anything overly long and professorial about Thanksgiving, our grand imperialist festival that is now, mostly, about being forced to watch the Detroit Lions play football.

I'm not going to do that, both because others can do a much better job, and the reason is sort of besides the point now anyway. You hang out with family - blood relatives and otherwise. But most of all, hopefully, you reflect on how lucky you are, and think on all the wonderful people and things in your life.

No, that's not sarcasm.

My generation is known for it's lack of genuine sentiment, its indulgence in cynicism and sarcasm at the expense of genuine feeling. We're called - among many other things, of course - the "lost generation", considered to be wandering aimlessly, driven by either our fantastical whims or dystopic paranoia. We are a collection of twenty somethings that, taken on the whole, seems more motivated by who we are than what we do.

Well, whatever.

I don't know. I'm not - as if there could really be such a thing - a voice of this generation, or for anyone but myself. But so long as I am speaking for myself, I can disagree with that characterization, if only by displaying absolutely genuine sentiment.

So, that said, I'm genuinely thankful for quite a lot. To show my thanks, I'm going to give away my perfect Thanksgiving recipe!

Step one: Make awesome coffee.

Step two: Drink it black.

Step three: Feel superior to everyone else drinking artificially flavored pumpkin crap.

What was that about cynicism and sarcasm?

November 18, 2012

Bad Shots

I will not name the place, both because doing so would be unkind, and you're unlikely to visit Lawrence anytime soon, regardless. But it was a Lawrence coffee bar, which I entered, having already consumed two cups of coffee and two shots of espresso earlier in the day. The sun was setting and it was getting cold, though not there yet, and I wanted something to work from the inside, as my coat is only so thick, and I am myself quite lithe.

The espresso machine looked dirty - superficial concerns, but I noticed. There were grounds strewn about, a rag draped over the steamwand. To the side, there were ceramic pour over cones, each filled with old sediment. I noticed that too much was clumped high up the filter, a sign that the pourer had not allowed a full bloom.

These things did not encourage me, but I ordered a double espresso, having already been dissuaded from trying the pour over. The barista had thick rimmed glasses and full sleeves of tatoos - at least looking the part of hipster coffee savant. He did not demonstrate such capacity, however, clicking on the grinder, and walking away, to do nothing at all, so far as I could tell.

After a too long grind, he dispensed, tamped, and pulled. I heard a buzz as the machines stirred to life, and then the espresso poured forth, too rapidly, too light. Ten seconds and it was done.

"Two fifty," he said.

I paid with three ones, tipped fifty cents, and damned ever so slightly that my courtesy had cost me earned tip money.

I took the shots and left, walking with my paper cup, which yes, I know, is not the way to enjoy espresso properly. But I enjoy walking, and the promise of a cold night had not yet been fulfilled; it was yet pleasantly crisp, the aesthetic quite nice, and so I wanted to enjoy a walk while enjoying my espresso.

The walk was nice; the espresso was thin, bittersweet, with an aggressive pungency. I puckered like the cup had been full of grapefruit juice; which, oh by the way, I hate grapefruit juice. I pounded the shots and kept walking, grimaced, and then walked some more, until the taste of autumnal air had whisked away the film of truly awful espresso.

November 14, 2012

Dosing by Volume

Depending on your degree of involvement in the whole specialty coffee thing, you may or may not be familiar with weighing coffee. Traditionally, it's been dosed in terms of volume - which any baker can tell you is less accurate. The solution here is, of course, to use a digital scale, which is neither expensive nor difficult to use.

But not everyone is ready to invest in more gadgetry, which is fine, since the difference in accuracy between the two methods needn't be large - provided you measure accurately. Or perhaps it would be better to say that you need to dose, rather than measure, accurately, since many coffee bags suggest an improper dose: 1 tablespoon per 6 ounces of water.

Now, those who measure by weight and indulge in a greater deal of specificity will notice inherently that there are problems with this method. But for my sake - and most others' - it does a good enough job - or it would, rather, were the dose not half of what it ought to be.

Of course, these same bags do say that you can adjust for taste - which, of course you can. Still, though, we're most people will not simply jump to a dose twice as high as the one suggested, and may not make their way there at all. They want to make their coffee "right", so they follow the directions, more or less.

Well, don't. Two tablespoons of whole bean coffee per six ounces of water (some people say eight, to account for water loss, but we'll not worry about that now) is, so far as I'm concerned, the standard volumetric dose for high quality coffee. Ignore any bag that says otherwise - unless, of course, you enjoy hot water, flavored with a faint hint of coffee.

This blog, for the most part, does not indulge in "how to's", since there are no shortage of them already, and in any case, I don't pretend you ought to listen to me. But I'm making an exception in this case, both because I think this problem (such as it is) is fairly common, and the solution uncommonly simple.

November 12, 2012

The Human Experience

It is 1:30 in the morning on a Sunday night, and I am in bed, so to speak, although not quite attempting sleep yet. I am thinking about running and life and the trajectory of both, already worrying about a 50K that is months away. I am still wearing my running tights, somewhat due to their warmth, but also because I simply like the association. If I do enough runner-y things, then perhaps that rubs off, and I get as good as I want to be. Maybe.

Tomorrow is Monday, of course, which means work, and also that I really should be asleep. But I am doing this instead, and not only because of the running trepidation.

I've been thinking about people, our nature, and work. I am neither a biologist nor an anthropologist, but I do read quite a bit on both, albeit recreationally, and feel somewhat that this statement is well informed and safe.

Humans are, for all of our dissociation from nature, still a product of it, still somewhat captive to our ancestry and biology. We are unique in some regards, but not unique in being unique. We are animals with features that other animals don't have, in precisely the same way that other animals are distinct.

We can then surmise, quite easily, that we, being animals still, might be driven by similar primary motivators. And furthermore, that in our current environment, we have a severely skewed perception and interaction with said motivators. We are, to borrow a somewhat trendy and oft-used phrase, zoo humans. This does not refer exclusively to a lack of exposure to dirt and rocks (though it does refer to that, certainly, and I do love those things), but to a lack of less tangible things, and an excess of others.

This is not a call to abandon modern society and all of its trappings, or even to damn it. I've just finished two magazines and a book, and am using a laptop computer to compose this. Tomorrow, I will use an espresso machine to make coffee drinks. I am not looking to give any of these things up.

Not merely because I'm an indulgent hypocrite (though, you know, perhaps), but because all of those things, I would argue, have the power to satisfy some of the base desires of the human animal. We are often referred to as social creatures, and that's true. We need people, but not merely a swarm of then surrounding us - we need to interact with them. We need to read about their experiences and their adventures, share in the beauty of their lives through the beauty of their language. And we need a gathering place, somewhere to retreat from our numbing tasks and engage with one another, face to face, to share our days, every day, crafting a collective narrative.

I would argue that, ultimately, that is the coffee bar's calling. It is to be a watering hole of sorts, a place to meet, exhale, tell stories, and simply build familiarity. It is a fluid and fractal tribe, but about the best we can do these days. That, to me, is what work is. It's a chance to stand on my feet and use my hands, to make drinks that I love and sip on delicious coffee from an adorable little demitasse throughout the day. But mostly it's a chance to be a part of a community, to be a person amongst people, a human amongst humans, doing what is is that makes us happy, since the beginning of this infinite present.

November 9, 2012

Like a Virgin

They say you never forget your first time, which is not strictly true in every case, but still does a decent job of emphasizing the power of novelty. Still, in my case, I don't remember. I don't recall my fist tamp, steam, or pour. It's all one homogenous blur, evenly textured like the microfoam itself.

So, failing that, it's nice to experience novelty from the other side. I'm still doing a fair bit of training, and I'm still loving it. Mostly, because of that novelty. You get to see, first hand, the feeling of holyshitthisissocoolandI'mtotallydoingit develop, and then take hold. You see the seeds of the addiction that's so wholly ensnared you take root. And what's more, you're sowing those seeds. This is their triumph, mostly, but yours too, because you're making it happen.

Since it is new to them, it can't help but feel a little new to you as well. It reintroduces a sense of novelty in to your routine - in my case, about 5 years old. And it's great. Always. It simply refuses to get old, because their fresh enthusiasm becomes yours.

And that's that. You'd think there would be something about frustration with slow learners, or jealousy directed at those who pick it up a little too quickly. Maybe something about introducing what might be future competition, further saturating an already crowded barista market. Maybe something about how, with only one exception, all of these trainees are post-grad, like me, and oh no!, shouldn't they be getting a real job, what about our economy?

But no, there is none of that. Novelty, being what it is, leaves little room for cynicism, and so I have none. What I have instead, and refreshed repeatedly, is a sense of enthusiasm. Making a coffee drink is really pretty cool, and being good at it is especially so. So thanks, fellow doomed Millennials. Thanks for forever renewing my sense that doing cool shit - satisfying, fulfilling shit - is right on.

November 4, 2012

On Not Being a Dick

So I have confession, and I hope you'll indulge me: I like some things that you do not. And even the things we both like, I may like differently, or slightly different variations thereof. I like things that are wrong to like, things that would earn me derisive looks and perhaps sneers from the elite of whatever particular subculture we're talking about.

An example:

I like sub-sub-sub-genres of metal that you would expect a skinny kid with longish bangs to like, bands that you might even call emo, but absolutely are not, I swear, mostly because there is screaming and melodic guitar riffs stolen from Swedish death metal bands and breakdowns borrowed from the 90's hardcore scene. A real fan of metal would, of course, call me all sorts of awful things from behind their Gothenburg beard, some of which would probably even be true. The hardcore crowd wouldn't have mean things to say, because they would be too busy kicking my ass.

So yes, I like some shitty things, if we're being honest. You do too, I imagine, and it's ok to say that, because we're being honest here, remember?

Of course, for me, coffee is not one of those things. I like exceptional coffee, prepared exceptionally well. I like coffee that people who like coffee are supposed to like. Judging by the fact that you're reading this, you probably do too. Either that, or you're related to me, in which case thanks for reading.

Anyway, high five! We like good coffee. What's more, we like the right kind of coffee. We win! Let's all get together and make fun of people who put sugar in their coffee and like mochas.

Or we could, you know, not. People like what they like, even if what they like sucks, according to the tastemakers. Just remember that you like shitty things too, probably, so don't be a dick about it.

November 1, 2012

Be Better than Cold Coffee

There are a lot of things worse than bad coffee, of course. That nearly goes without saying, but I feel like putting it out in front regardless, lest I venture in to #firstworldproblems territory. So yes, bad coffee is not so bad as, say, child soldiers in Africa. It is not even so bad as my $700 car troubles. But it is bad enough to note, and so I will.

My story: I bought a cup of drip, and it was cold.

Not my most artistically worded tale, nor my most dramatic telling, but I think it gets the facts right. It also conveys the simplicity of both the problem and the solution.

Cold coffee is bad. In order to avoid this mistake, brew appropriate amounts at appropriate intervals. Don't let large pots sit for hours.

Simple. And yet, despite that, this is not the first time I've had this problem. Nor is it the first time I've had this problem at this specific place. Though they have fabulous beans, I'm rarely willing to pay for their product, and this is why. Cold coffee, not matter how well treated at every preceding step, tastes like shit.

Now you know this already, I'm sure. You're a good barista, or a conscious consumer. You know that hot coffee is best consumed hot, because you're not stupid. So this is not about this specific instance, or how to avoid it. This is about having shitty coffee, whatever the reason, and learning from that experience, learning from the mistakes of others.

Don't leave your coffee out all day. Don't pull ten second shots. Don't scald your milk. Don't leave grounds and milk splattered everywhere.

All of this is obvious, and yet I keep seeing it. So, it stands to reason that you keep seeing it too. Internalize all of the idiocy, realize why you won't spend money at those places, and then be better than them in every way. Set a higher standard, and then live up to it. Be the kind of shop you'd happily spend your money at, so you're not screwing people out of theirs. Be fair to your customers, the farmers, and the roasters. Show respect to everyone that worked to provide you with the equipment you need to succeed by succeeding.

Simple? Yes. So let's do it.