So it was my birthday yesterday, and a bunch of people were crammed into my coffee shop to celebrate me being born. Not only were my good friends from the neighborhood there, but Rich was there, bearing belated gifts from the jam in Easton, PA, Brad and Drew from the Vault came down and gave me an Inkspots record (“The Incomparable Inkspots”, if you wanted to know), Luke and Alexis stopped by and gave me some of the finest coffee available in the country world, the folks from Beaver Falls C&T stopped in and would have brought me some triple roasted Kenya blend (!!!) if it weren’t for the now-notoriously finicky Anfim. People made some drinks, many records were played, including some of my alltime faves. And a bean-bag toss? And vegan mini-cupcakes with beer in the cake and coffee in the frosting? My friends are great.

People asked me to make a speech after they presented me with my half-eaten birthday cake, and I said something like “I’m really glad you’re all here; it’s great to imagine what we can all do and are doing, so thanks for coming to my birthday party.”

So everybody out there who came to my birthday and who wished me well-wishes on the telephone and internet, thanks a whole heap of a ton.

It’s good to know that when one is uncertain of one’s utility, direction, purpose, or any other thing associated with mid-twenties self-definition nonsense, one’s friends are around to emphasize the importance of one’s self. That sentence is terrible. All I want to say is a thank you to this community for thinking I’m pretty OK at doing stuff. It means a lot.

More posts later this week? If you’re lucky. But I promise pictures next time.

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B.L.U.E.

March 4, 2008

So for whatever reason, we have one of these at the roastery. Lavazza B.L.U.E. stands for “Best Lavazza Ultimate Espresso!” Or “Lavazza! Proudly lowering the bar!” You can have an espresso, a lemon tea, or a consomme (which I’m told is chicken stock. Who knew?). Tim says the tea tastes like Schneider’s (you know, the kind that comes in a big cardboard container), but the consomme tastes like Kazansky’s matzoh ball soup. Without the matzoh.

I made myself a nice little macchiato.

Well, by macchiato, I mean “steamed milk” with “espresso” And by “nice”, I mean the first sip was palatable, mostly because there was a bunch of hot milk in it. The second sip? Well…it went here.

So I’m just going to say a very little bit about convenience. The way this particular machine works is by putting a little capsule of ground or dehydrated coffee/related product into the machine, the top is punctured, and then you get espresso (or tea-drink, or chicken stock, as the case may be). Great for those who don’t have the time to be bothered with good things. The thing is, an espresso takes about a minute to make and serve. Maybe two minutes from ordering. A cappucino might take two and a half minutes, which is not very much time. So there’s all this money being made by selling people shit things they have no need for. This is not news. Since the decline of the American production economy, there has been a glut of unnecessary product dumped onto the market. Why? In order for capitalism to survive, the economy must always grow; this means that market expansion ventures into realms of created needs, which don’t do much of anything for anybody except make them feel like these supposed needs are finally met when they buy a product or service. I found this book helpful in formulating this particular opinion.

Why all the convenience? I think it’s a complex nexus of marketing, rampant economic speculation, the search for the easy dollar, the false security of money, the glorification of the self and probably a thousand other factors that I won’t really get into right now because I’m at work and not in school.

So I would like to encourage people, coffee professionals included, to take care with your craft and explain (emphasize?) why your beverage is not ready in twenty seconds and does not come from a capsule.

In defense of Sarah Allen

February 27, 2008

Yesterday, Barista Magazine‘s editor Sarah Allen wrote this editorial for the Guardian regarding her hopes for Starbucks’ company-wide staff retraining. In three hours, each and every button-pushing drink-maker employed by the Green Giant would become a barista. In three hours, each and every Starbucks employee would have at their disposal all knowledge necessary to create, by self-defined standards, the perfect espresso drink. In three hours. It’s that simple, folks. All it takes is three hours.

Allen goes on to reference the myriad independent-minded coffee shops that spend not hours but weeks, and even months on training new hires. As quoted in the article, Kevin Fuller of Portland’s Albina Press said “training goes on for ever and ever and ever.” My personal experience at The Vault Coffee & Tea Bar followed a similar pattern; it took a month before I could even touch the machine, followed by a few weeks of cleaning the machine, followed again by weeks of espresso preparation with the conclusion of steaming milk. It took awhile. But I learned an appreciation for the science and preparation necessary for a proper espresso drink. It takes time to really own something.

I had the time to look through the comments people had posted. Maybe it’s an across-the-pond disconnect, but I began to get frustrated. Some comments:

  • Coffee gobbledegook is silly.
  • I think this particular ‘discipline’ could use a little debunking, and I speak as a fan of coffee.
  • It’s just coffee.

It isn’t just coffee. Nothing should be “just anything.”

Maybe you’re just working at an insurance company. Maybe you’re just building a family. Maybe you’re just doing whatever it is you do.

Please stop.

Please.

Everything is important. Everything deserves to be done well, and if it’s not being done well, it’s not being fully respected. I’m guilty of this disrespect, too, but I would dearly love to see people, myself included, in any environment doing for that very environment what people are trying to do with coffee. Trying to remember who got these beans to my roaster and trying to do justice to the work that’s already been put into this coffee by the people who grew it and carried it and shipped it and bought and sold it. They deserve my best.

I believe that this “just ______” attitude is symptomatic of the decrease in ownership (in both senses of the word) and stewardship of good things as well as the abdication of personal responsibility. I, for one, would like to see people take a little more care in our day-to-day lives and think a bit more about where our actions fall along supply lines. I’ve said before, I think coffee is uniquely situated to bring up these questions, and the response to Sarah Allen’s editorial shows that coffee is a good place for these questions to come up. Help me figure out how to keep asking these questions in a way people are open to hearing.

Thursday of the Living Dead

December 20, 2007

Peoples is wanting to hang out because everyone’s leaving for the holidays or coming home for the holidays. I haven’t been home before 11p in what seems like ages. I has gots to get more sleep. Observe:

Flattering self-portraits are one of my many secret gifts.

But it was nice to run into Rich and Jon and Ryan at the Sharp Edge; I’m already brainstorming about the next Jam and how many machines we could get running at our space in the showroom here at La Prima. Hey Pittsburgh! Let’s do more coffee stuff! Coffee is pretty fun! Don’t you like fun! Coffee things! With coffee! Let’s think about how coffee has the potential to engage people in dialogue about larger issues. Christmas resolution(?): I will not be a grumpy bastard when I am dealing with walk-ins at the roastery.

Also, where is my Harrar? Is it still in Jersey? Is it on the turnpike? Is the driver eating lunch?

Also, what do you do when you buy a warped record? Do you take it back or just live with it? Anybody?

A deliciously paced Friday

December 14, 2007

It certainly is.

You know what happens when you do something for somebody? Sometimes they will send you something nice in return. Like this:

One pound of Harrar and a nice note turns into one pound of Costa Rica, Cup of Excellence style. Amazing how the postal system works. Thanks Colleen! You’re the best! So far I’ve only tried it as espresso, but it’s pleasantly clean, just only so tangy at the end. Delish. So I’ve just got a couple more things to do today, maybe 400 pounds to roast, and I’m on my merry way. Tonight is a birthday party, with karaoke bowling. I plan on conning my friends into buying me beers so I can sing a very special song.

Also, if anyone has seen this album lying around, be sure to let me know. I miss it.

One or two thingers.

December 3, 2007

Hey kids! Did you ever feel crazy? Me too. If anybody has some suggestions on positive ways to utilize their very own madness, please contact me at this here blog.

IN OTHER NEWS: Aldo Coffee hosted Pittsburgh’s first ever Barista Jam (“Merry Baristmas”) and it turned out to be, in my opinion, a smashing good time. People from all over the city and from neighboring counties made it to Mt. Lebanon for many kinds of espresso, several different machines, a drink-making/pressure-inducing gauntlet, the ubiquitous latte art smackdown, silent auction, beers, wines, smokables, and many other things that escape me. This bodes well for specialty coffee in Pittsburgh. I met some new people, saw some old friends. Good time. Highlights? All the yelling, and some delicious beers that I don’t remember what they were.

Thanks Aldo; you throw a hell of a party.

I was talking to Lucas today at 21st Street about the Panama Esmeralda they were going to get from Intelligentsia and I was able to say the thing that I’ve been thinking and saying for the last couple of months:

The more consumers drink directly traded coffee, the more the market for directly traded coffee will grow; the direct trade model will then have the power to bring more farms or cooperatives under its umbrella, which is better for everybody. So more of that.

Lucas, however, brought up an interesting point regarding the fairness of award-winning coffee farms, farms with money and tools: they are almost bound to have better quality coffee because they have the tools to continue to make better quality coffee. This is not necessarily bad, as long as more farmers are given tools to sustain an excellent product from year to year.

More as time warrants.

September 12, 2007

And it is not 1:37 in the morning.

Let’s all stop talking about ideas and feelings and attitudes and start talking about practical solutions. Let’s all do some things. Let’s all be more engaging with more people.

Let’s be coffee evangelists.

Catastrophe and the Cure

August 27, 2007

OK, not quite catastrophe, but still. You remember Toby. Well, he had a few problems, some of which we’ve taken care of. We’ll start with the actual problem. There’s a pressure sensor in the roaster that gauges the air flow, sort of like your nerves on your GI tract telling you something has to go. And if something is wrong

then the pilot light shuts off. Thank God for Sherman, otherwise I might not have any eyebrows. That thing up there is the lid for our chimney, and all those little holes are not supposed to be filled with chaff. Since the air couldn’t really get out, the pilot light shut off, thereby preventing me from roasting on two roasters (which turned into an eleven hour day, which was awesome). The object lesson being, KEEP A MAINTENANCE LOG AND HAVE ROUTINE MAINTENANCE OR YOUR THINGS WILL NO LONGER FUNCTION PROPERLY.

But. Having Toby’s guts out let me see something up close and personal that I had only suspected before. Rumor had it that our old roaster-in-charge type person had become frustrated by Toby’s relative “slowness” and had decided to take some decisive action by increasing the size of the holes in the burners where the fire comes out. Which means this now happens:

Which is bad. See all those big orange flames? Well, they don’t play nice. They make certain parts of the drum get hotter, which leads to uneven roasts and beans that have burn spots. Which is bad.

We have burners on order.

Aaaaaaaand, one last gratuitous self-portrait from the ride back to Pittsburgh from Detroit on Sunday, where I had some very bad espresso in Royal Oak. Why do I keep ordering espresso when I’m almost sure it’s going to be really, really bad? Do I just have to make sure? Does anybody else just want to walk behind espresso bars and grab the portafilter and just demonstrate how to make espresso? Is that so wrong? Sure, maybe it violates health code or employee safety or breaks any number of social mores, but mightn’t it be better for everyone? Let me know, because I’m more and more tempted to do it.

I picked this picture because the way my tongue sticks out is very becoming. And proper. Here you go.

Coffee Abuse

August 15, 2007

Again, I headed over to 21st Street Coffee & Teafor a mid-day boost (sandwich, Nicaraguan coffee). Part of my motivation was, I must admit, an attempt to alleviate an oncoming headache. And I thought to myself: “Self, are you abusing this experience, this story, this coffee and all it entails just so you can experience the pleasant side effects of headache alleviation? Have you lowered yourself and this beverage to the lowest common denominator of caffeine?”

And in retrospect, I don’t think I did. I could have gone any number of other places in the Strip to feed my caffeine necessity, but I chose a coffee that had care behind it, from seed to cup, so to speak. It’s interesting to me, this appreciation for coffee apart from its requisite chemical composition. Sure, it’s endlessly fascinating and limitlessly rewarding, but can I really divorce that appreciation for coffee from its raw chemical power?

I suppose the question I’m really asking is this: to what end do we use things? Are we to appreciate a thing beyond its immediate utility? Wendell Berry once wrote that the value of tools is not in their novelty but in their utility. Regarding farm implements (plow, yoke, cart, hoe), the answer is pretty simple. Sure, you can do things faster with new technology, but can it be done better? In most things, I would agree with him: have computers made our lives more convenient? Has the automobile made our lives easier? Has the global marketplace done most of the world much good? My answer to these questions is, generally, no. Call me a Luddite. I’ve done as much myself.

But I hesitate to include coffee in this list. Perhaps it’s because I’ve invested a certain amount of energy in coffee, but I’m willing to say coffee is uniquely situated in the world to reach a vast amount of people and do a vast amount of good by using technology and by looking at it as more than a vehicle for caffeine. I talk to a good number of coffee drinkers here in Pittsburgh who, when asked about their preference of coffee, reply “whatever has the most caffeine.” I’ve begun conversations about the nuance of a Mexican coffee and its fascinating story (indigenous Chiapans who don’t recognize the sovereignty of the Mexican government! Isn’t that cool!) to be rebuffed by “does it have a lot of caffeine?” This reaction, I think, is the real abuse. Not that people are utilizing coffee for its caffeination, but that they have declined or neglected to see beyond the drug to its story and the work people have put into their coffee. It’s a lot like customers at a supermarket, buying a bag of potato chips without ever thinking about where those chips came from or what processes they’ve gone through to end up in the grocery store, in their hand.

I think the chief aim of coffee professionals should be to somehow enter into this disconnect between end product and holistic appreciation for said product. To bring people to an appreciation and an understanding for coffee where they would otherwise ignore the nuance and story altogether. If this happens, consumers of caffeine would then be consumers of coffee and patrons of stories. Then imagine how consumers might then rethink all of their buying decisions. Imagine direct trade style models for all kinds of food and office supplies and pillows. Sure, maybe somebody in China might be able to make a pillow cheaper than my friend down the street, but which is better for the world? Shouldn’t Chinese pillow-makers be making pillows for their Chinese neighbors? This begins to get into complicated matters of international trade, so I’ll stop here. Otherwise, I’d probably go on and on in vague, nebulous terms about the global economy and local economies. But think about it.

I suspect this whole argument is actually specious, because coffee isn’t actually a tool, so my comparison is a bit off. It’s still something I’d like to explore.