WARNING: Heavy Stuff Ahead

"Live in harmony with one another. Do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly. Never be wise in your own sight. Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all. If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” To the contrary, “if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good."

"Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer."

Romans 12:16-21, 13:1-4

I don’t post things like this often, I tend to just keep them inside and dwell on them. But tonight, I feel like I need to ask all of us to pray for the leaders of the world. Heavy decisions sit upon their weary shoulders and they need all the help they can get in making the just, honorable and righteous decision. Maybe you don’t beleive in God, or a god, or a universal spirit that binds us, all of us, together, but I just watched a video depicting the tragedy of August 21, 2013, and sometimes I just need to hope that things will be set right. That things like that shouldn’t happen and when they do the malevolent forces that cause them will face their own wicked fruits. That there is a sense of justice that will win out in the end, and this is my plea for hope. My prayer for justice.

The part that really gets me is that this happens everyday. Maybe not Sarin gas in Syria, but other tragedies brought on by the wickedness of men. Oppression of minorities so ingrained in our behavior that it isn’t even recognizable by most of its practitioners, starving children who live three miles away from you, dehumanization of women through violence by their husbands and fathers. When faced with these realities, no amount of scrolling through my Facebook page or Twitter feed can make it dissipate. Everything that I see holds no value, no significant message in seemingly endless cascade of inane posts and updates about your workout regimen or kitten videos or photos of your vacation or pictures of your dinner.

But then I see you laughing on the beach with friends, hugging your children, your parents, your neighbors. Posting pleas for donations to charities that give potable water to those who don’t have it, clothes to warm the poor, food to nourish the hungry. I see you supporting, encouraging, and more importantly, living a sustainable lifestyle through patronizing local businesses and belonging to community supported agriculture. Posting random deep thoughts and inside jokes and engaging the world in a humorous, meaningful way.

And maybe that is the message. That I live the life of the beloved, and so do my close friends and family, and in that I may find solace; comfort. It is my hope that if you are reading this, you realize that you are also living the life of the beloved, and that even in the face of unspeakable horror you hold out hope to shine on those like me who need it when the world feels so bleak and those for whom the world appears to be much, much bleaker.

Tags: Syria

A-Ha! Moments

The first time I tasted a coffee that tasted like something more than coffee, a coffee that tasted special, was a French press of an Ethiopia Sidamo. The lemon was so clear, the aroma so floral, but it was also so clearly coffee, and I had never experienced a beverage like that. I was 18, and I was now in love with coffee.

The first time I had an espresso that tasted like something more than espresso,an espresso that tasted special, was a blend that also had that Ethiopia Sidamo component. Again, the lemon, the aroma, and yet still so clearly coffee. I was 22, and now I was in love with espresso.

I’ve been chasing those two moments since then. Trying to find those coffees, that flavor, that experience, and relive it, if only for a moment. Now, nearly a decade since my first real espresso, or at least really good espresso, it is hard to say that I’ve been able to recapture that experience. I’ve become a more discriminating taster, a more focused professional, perhaps a bit pickier, and dare I say a touch more knowledgable.

With the access to equipment, coffees, and the community that I now have, I would have thought that finding that A-Ha! moment would be easier. Producers are becoming more focused and intentional, improvements in soil management, variety selection, husbandry techniques and processing equipment and methods have made great green coffee more widely available. Advances in roasting techniques, quality control and assurance programs, and education has made roasters the world over more consistently delicious. New breakthroughs in brewing technology, PID controllers, highly programmable batch brewers, refractometers, and dozens of other innovations has increased a baristas ability to coax the best flavors in an acceptable concentration out of the closed fist of the roasted bean.

Why then is it so difficult to find that great espresso? With so much in their favor, why do coffee shops consistently fail to meet expectations. Granted, these are my expectations and one could argue that they are still meeting consumer expectations, or even exceeding them, when you look at the growth trend of the specialty coffee market. Am I just too picky? Have I tasted that one god shot and any espresso that fails to meet those exacting standards is then deemed unworthy? Do I still enjoy coffee?

This last question is one that burns in my mind and keeps me awake at night. Have I lost my ability to be amazed, my sense of wonder, the opportunity to revel in the good that is most assuredly in most espressos that I drink? Am I just tasting coffee and not drinking it? I understand that taste is subjective, and within all of us exists our preferences, our most desired flavor experiences, and the ability to remove oneself from that is a lofty if not truly impossible goal. Perhaps in the dozen or so years since I’ve been making coffee it has simply evolved into a popular iteration that I don’t find pleasant and the way that I like to drink coffee is no longer en vogue and that is why it’s hard to find.

But I’m only 30. Is it possible to so quickly develop oneself into the mono cultural mindset of “No, this is what espresso should taste like.”? Have I been reading too much from the likes of Kevin Knox, David Schomer, and other highly experienced coffee professionals who are dead set in their particular roasting/brewing paradigm that it has warped my view into some sort of bizarre schism that will no longer allow me to be satisfied with what the new kids are brewing?

Or is there really just that much bad coffee still out there, even at the shops that are lauded by other coffee professionals as some of the best today?

I’m sorry for posting so many questions and providing no answers. I suppose I’m hoping that there are indeed others out there like myself who are dissatisfied with the coffee experiences they are having. I’m hoping I’m not alone. I’m hoping this doesn’t sound whiney. I’m hoping I’m not a snob. I just want to drink great coffee, all the time.

blackcigar90 said: do you have experience as a barista communicating constructive criticism to a roaster? How can one do this in a way that cultivates quality and not defensiveness?

It can always be difficult to talk to someone about what you believe they are doing incorrectly. One great way to approach this topic is to think about it from their point of view. How would you want someone to tell you constructive criticism? I think it is also very important to ensure that you have the relationship with your roaster established well beforehand, and that the relationship would allow for an honest and open dialogue about what you are experiencing and tasting with the coffee.

In my experiences, I have always made sure to try everything that I can as a barista first. I want to eliminate every other variable, such as time, temperature, improper operation of equipment, etc. And then I will approach the roaster with a problem, “I can’t seem to make x taste like y”. Often, I have found that it is simply the matter of a different approach or technique that I haven’t yet explored, but that the roaster who is more familiar (hopefully) than me with their coffee will have right off the top of their head. In short, remember that as a barista, you don’t know everything about roasting and usually the roaster will respond in kind.

I hope this helps!

Some very interesting words…

I was listing to Marketplace on NPR yesterday and the CEO of Unilever, one of the largest companies in the world, was on. He was talking about the need for sustainable business models, a need to get away from “mindless consumption”. At first, I though this was just another CEO using buzzwords to talk about how great his company is. Another attempt of Big Industry to co-opt phrases and ideas from smaller, more innovative people in an effort to keep their hegemony.

But then he said this,

"What we’ve created here is an enormous force to lift people out of poverty," Polman points out. "But at the same time, we haven’t figured out how to do that without incurring these enormous levels of government or private debt; overconsumption; and frankly, leaving too many people behind. You cannot say that the system properly works if there are over a billion people going to bed hungry.


And i thought…huh, maybe he’s not just another suit. In any event, it’s an event worth thinking about. If only for a moment.

I love Texas, and so should you.

A friend posted this on his Facebook earlier today, and I thought it warranted redistribution. He grew up in Texas, got his undergraduate at Trinity in San Antonio, went to Harvard for a graduate degree and now teaches in Boston.

*warning, it’s a little long.

______________________

Let not the sins the of the few lead you astray about the character of the many. Indeed, Texas has some of the most horrifying legislators and frightening legislation in the nation, but this is a product of party politics at its very worst… blatantly racist district lines, bait-and-switch legislation at every turn (almost always backed by corporate interest), egregious astroturfing, riders upon riders upon riders, and lobbying groups whose annual budgets exceed the entire state spending on education. It is a sad example that with enough money, you really can do anything, including cloud the rest of the nation’s opinion of a state where:

1) Almost everyone is extremely nice, and cares genuinely about your welfare and well being, regardless of whether you’re family or stranger, and regardless of political, religious, or ethnic status.

2) Almost all of the food, beverages, and service is outstanding, at the smallest tacquería or Mom & Pop greasy spoon in the hill country, at the top-tier James Beard Award-winning chef-owned restaurants, and even at suburban chain restaurant.

3) The natural landscape is drop-dead amazing, and you can have nearly anything you like, form surfable beaches to marshy wetlands to piney woods to scrubby hill country to arid desert, from plains to mountains, from absurdly hot and dry to frigid and snowy.

4) The drivers are, relative to many other places I’ve been, mostly courteous and sensible, obeying nearly all traffic regulations (speed limits notwithstanding), yielding properly, understanding that when joining traffic on the highway, one must speed up to match the flow, rather than stop and wait to accelerate into 70-mile an hour traffic form a standstill (as is the New England custom).

5) The wildlife is extremely varied and diverse, with natural ares only a few minutes outside most major metropolitan areas having beautiful and rare species, with new diversity discovered every day.

6) The cultural scene is among the top in the nation (fun fact: largest hub for the arts next to New York and LA? Houston, Texas.), with massive music festivals that attract the very best artists and the very newest and most revolutionary alike, a huge number of both small art galleries and large art museums, including some of the best collections in the world (the Menil collection, the Chinati Foundation, the Kimbell Museum, and the McNay collection to name just a few from across the state), an extremely rich theatre, dance, and orchestral music scene in each of the major cities, to say nothing of very healthy community theaters and small performance groups across the state, and more more more more.

7) For sports fans, both college and professional teams that are, by and large, consistently quite good, and always entertaining, if nothing else, at lovely facilities with ample parking. All of which have their own unique character within their respective leagues.

Did I mention that almost everyone is extremely nice and genuinely caring? Because that’s a pretty big deal.

So please, don’t tell me that’s not really Texas. Don’t tell me that a few dozen oligarchs and name-making politicians are the real Texas. Don’t tell me that the real Texas is what “the rest of the nation,” who by and large, have never taken the time to reach past their own prejudice and give Texas a chance, thinks about Texas.

Meet me in Texas, and we’ll have some hill country barbecue and a Shiner Bock. We’ll breathe in the smoky, woody air, and revel in the beauty of live oaks and buildings made from hand-cut limestone and weathered ash juniper posts. We’ll lick our fingers knowing that not only does anyone care that we’ve got barbecue sauce all over our shirts, they’re downright PLEASED that we do. We’ll scream “I’m a liberal! I believe in equal marriage rights, regardless of sexual orientation! Tax me and give my money to the poor! Reduce military spending! Wooooo socialism!” and notice that while we may get a few eye-rolls (and a near equal number of hoots, amens, and hell yeahs), what we’ll mostly get is acceptance, or at the very most a stern request to keep our politics to ourselves and enjoy the fine beer at this here establishment. And mostly we’ll enjoy the feeling that, even as outsiders, even as non-natives, even as tourists even, we’ll still be treated as a part of the community.

That’s the real Texas, Gordon.

#TexasForever

Very few things feel as awesome as fresh kicks. (Taken with Instagram)

Very few things feel as awesome as fresh kicks. (Taken with Instagram)

Flavor Relations

There is no questions the massive subjectivity that lies in our ability to taste. This is something that has always fascinated me, as I believe it shows an inherent flaw in our language. Not just in the language we use to describe flavors, but language in general. Some postulate that the difficulties we encounter when attempting to communicate anything, even the simplest things, arise purely because our language itself is subjective, created around the notion of shared experiences, but still differing for each individual because we all have our own unique paths to walk. For example, imagine a tree in your mind. Start with the root structure, build a trunk, grow the branches and look at the leaves. Now, what kind of tree is it? Pine, Oak, Maple? And of those, which of the 1000’s of cultivars? We are now talking about two completely different trees. Is it now a failure of communication if you have a Japanese Maple in your mind when I have a Red Oak?

In order to make that judgement call, we have to understand the initial motivation and desire behind the communication. Was it simply attempting to convey broad notions of trees, bark, leaves, birds singing…or something more specific. Am I trying to make you feel something or am I trying to make you understand what I feel? As a coffee professional, it is my hope that the former is what most of us are after. The consumer needn’t be concerned with my emotions or feelings towards a particular good, but as the one who provides that good I should be concerned with how they feel about it. I should be adjusting my language to that end.

Accuracy and Appropriateness. These are the first two things that I concern myself with when attempting to describe flavors that I am perceiving to someone else. The first is rather obvious, we should be spot on when describing how a coffee tastes. If we say blueberries, then it should be blueberries, and if we say chocolate, it should be chocolate. In the consumer goods world there exists a very basic principle:

Expectation + Perception = Satisfaction

An accurate description will hit that mark, but if you say apples when what’s really there are blueberries…well, there is no satisfaction. The second notion is a little trickier, as it requires not our ability to taste and make great coffee, but our ability to read consumers and know people. It is not about how attentive we are when interacting with coffee, but more about how comfortable and attentive we are when interacting with people.

I’ve never tasted a persimmon. Not by choice, I haven’t avoided them for any particular reason, but I just haven’t had the opportunity. If you tell me that something will taste like a persimmon, that description is completely meaningless to me. If you tell someone it tastes like a Fuji apple, or a Mission Fig, and they haven’t experienced that flavor then again, there is no satisfaction. If they’ve never had a fruit forward coffee, as their only exposure has been to darker mid 1990’s style Seattle roasts, then again, there is no satisfaction. That person has never tasted Fuji Apple in a coffee before, or maybe never been exposed to the idea of that flavor existing in coffee.

Crafting flavor descriptors for coffee, and I’m sure wine, beer, and everything else, is an extraordinarily difficult task. Taste is subjective, but printed words on a bag cannot be retooled for every consumer. Often, we use similes, it tastes LIKE blueberries, or metaphors such as smooth, rich, and bold, to describe our perception of flavors. James Hoffman had an interesting post where he looked at flavor descriptors of Starbucks and specialty coffee. What I noticed from that is our tendency to use similes, and their tendency to use metaphors. Why is a question that’s been bugging me for a while. And it’s for a great reason, metaphors are amorphous and can be reshaped to mean something completely different to every person who reads that label while still conveying meaning. Blue Bottle takes this to an extreme by crafting William Carlos Williams style flavor descriptors. “This coffee tastes like a red wheelbarrow in the rain.”

Now, I’m not advocating for that type of language or completely dismissing it, as I’m sure an equal amount of people feel it to be very useful and very annoying. I tend to use colors when describing coffees, red, yellow, purple, but I do have a touch of synesthesia. I do think it important to begin contemplating how we are using our language to help consumers understand their perception of flavors. There is a constant call for a “more educated” consumer, like the craft beer and wine world enjoy, and I honestly believe that this is the place to make it happen.

$h!t That Annoys Me About Latte Art

We all love latte art, and anyone who says they don’t has absolutely no aesthetic sensibility. Of course, the drinks should taste great, but it’s undeniable that a great drink is made even better when it looks as good as it tastes. That being said, there is a lot of $h!t That Annoys Me About Latte Art, or more specifically, what baristas do with it. Below is a list of what I consider to be all too common latte art sins.

1.Etching.Stop poking my drink, and serve it to me. Please. It’s 7 am, I just want my coffee.

2. Holding the Cup by the Bottom. Ceramic cups, most of them at least, have this glorious little device that we refer to in English as “the Handle”, because that is where you hand goes! Stop manhandling my cups, stop rubbing your grubby barista fingers all over what should have been beautifully clean ceramic. Also, it is inefficient. If you grab the cup by the bottom, you have to switch hands to set it down, but if you only hold it by the handle, then it is easy to put it straight down with no switch-a-roo needed.

3.Design Off Center.Latte art is plating in the cup. Ideally, my handle should be served to my right, spoon placed on the left, and the latte art design facing me. Stop serving me designs that are upside down and not at right angles to the handle.

4. Severe Lack of Foam. Sure, the thicker the foam the tougher it is to pour a sweet rosetta. I get that. But when i order a cappuccino, i want more than a wisp of froth on top. I’m looking for a specific TEXTURE when I drink a cappuccino, and that is why we foam the milk in the first place - to enhance the texture. Stop serving me wet caps with intricate designs and start serving me tasty drinks. Stop sacrificing taste for visual appearance. Please.

5. Lack of Customer Attention. Yes, you do need to focus to pour latte art, but not to the detriment of the person who is drinking it. Stop spending three minutes focused on the the pour, with your face two inches from the cup, and look at the one who paid for it. Maybe, you could even engage them in a conversation beyond, “Latte to go”, that is, if they are up for it. You are a craftsmen, and we do recognize that, but it doesn’t mean you only focus on your craft. Check the ego and make some eye contact, maybe even with a thank you.

6. Banging the Pitcher. Yes, gently tapping the pitcher will pop some larger bubbles, but if they don’t pop in two or three taps, guess what, your milk sucks. You have probably incorporated air into the milk when the milk temperature was in excess of 100 F. Those bubbles aren’t going away, so stop knocking the pitcher on the counter. It’s loud, distracting, and completely unnecessary if you had steamed your milk correctly in the first place.

7.Poorly Executed Latte Art.I have seen too many milk drinks with what looks more like an agave plant or an old feather that has been trampled on than a rosetta. Cut it out. Latte art is plating in a cup, the idea is to create a drink that is as visually stimulating as it is in gustation. If the latte art fails to achieve that simple task…well then, it has failed. Start pouring latte art by working on the simpler designs and perfecting your basic techniques, the Monk’s Head and the Heart. These designs will give you a solid foundation upon which you can build and begin to pour more intricate designs. In the meantime, stop pouring shitty rosettas.

8.Apologizing.I often receive a drink from a barista accompanied by an explanation of why it didn’t happen the way it was supposed to. Please stop drawing attention to the defects that I may or may not notice and just let me drink. It creates an uncomfortable environment wherein I am am now supposed to make you feel better about something you didn’t execute perfectly. Don’t put the customer in that position.

9.Short Cups.I’m pretty sure this one is so annoying, Randy Newman even wrote a song about it. I ordered a six ounce cappuccino, and I expect you to be able to execute your recipe to exacting standards in the appropriate cup. If you want to serve a 8, 10, or 12 oz drink, then have the correct cup and fill it up. What would you do if you received a pint of beer with 2 inches missing from it?

10.Blaming the Milk.Nonfat and Soy milks are more difficult to steam and pour beautiful designs due to the changes in fats and proteins, but guess what? If you do a great job steaming and texturing, you can still make a pretty drink. Don’t blame the milk when it’s really your fault.

As an industry, let’s agree that we can do better, and stop doing these. As customers, let’s agree that we should expect better.

benleventhal:

We spend a lot of time judging coffee shops by their roasts and pulls and machinery. I’d like to suggest another, equally as important criteria: morning service.

Other than live-in family and, in some cases, overnight guests, those who do not brew coffee at home on the regular also communicate…

Ben, thank you for your thoughts on coffee shops and the interactions therein. I’d like to take a moment to respond, as a professional barista and as an Executive Council Member of the Barista Guild of America. It is always tough for professionals to hear criticism, especially those dedicated and passionate baristas who work at the shops that it seems you frequent. Of course, everyone should put aside their ego from time to time and listen to someone else’s experience and preferences. Thank you for giving us that opportunity.

Hopping around from shop to shop definitely provides a lot of variance in expected behaviors, both from the customer and from the barista, and you have highlighted several points that we both agree on, such as the barista having the ability to “read” a customer insofar as to how much interaction they desire. Just like with all criticism, and praise, everything you have written needs to be taken with a grain of salt. Hopefully, the barista community will, like us, take what you have said to heart and craft it into a larger continuing dialogue about excellence in customer service and experience, as we are in full agreement on the point that service is equally as important as quality.

Thank you for patronizing SCAA member stores, like Joe on Waverly, and supporting the craft coffee movement through your website Eater.com’s interaction with specialty coffee roasters and retailers. Hopefully, we as an industry of professional baristas will continue to improve and excel not only in quality of coffee served, but in quality of service given.

(Source: benleventhal)

Sustainability & Gabriel Garcia Marquez

I was fortunate enough to attend the Barista Guild of America’s first ever East Coast Camp Pull-a-Shot. So many wonderful instructors, students, and all around amazing people were there sharing everything they possibly could with each other. The conversations focused mainly around coffee (go figure), but as all too often we forget, we are more than just coffee people. We are whole people, we have passions and thoughts and desires and interests that lie far outside the realms of espresso and milk. (but this is for another post)

Deputy Executive Director of the SCAA, Tracy Ging, reminded me of just that. She was at camp to help educate, and like so many others there, she made it amazing. Unfortunately, and fortunately, I was in the Manual Brewing room helping baristas with new brewing devices and answering questions to the best of my ability while Tracy was leading a round table discussion on sustainability. From what I’ve heard, it was a very lively discussion. However, I did have the opportunity to corner Tracy and pick her brain along with a few baristas from Nashville, Oklahoma, and one from Florida. Kind of a “Son of the Sustainability Round Table” (only click through if you are willing to read for a bit…this one is a little long)

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