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.

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.

sleep is what you should

November 1, 2007

Jeepers, kids, it’s been a while.

October has been a busy month for us here at La Prima. Without getting into the gritty details, let’s just say it has involved quite a bit of overtime for this guy right here. I expect more of the same in the coming months, but we did hire BRUCE, who is pretty fantastic. I haven’t had much time to think about coffee and its larger purpose or destiny, but I have been learning about purchasing green coffee, contracts thereof, and a couple lessons about knowing my limits.

I’m just catching up with autumn now, which makes me feel very good. I’m worried that it’ll rush on by and head straight into winter. But we’ve still got some green leaves on some trees, so there’s at least two more weeks left. Now if I could only get a day off of work…

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.

Waiting, musing, nonsense

September 6, 2007

For the weather to break. Years ago I told myself to stop waiting to do things I really wanted to do, but I’m not sure it really took. Hopefully this will be the last week of 80+ degree weather. One, I miss wearing jeans and jackets and hats and long-sleeved shirts. Two, I’m anxious to see if I can find my right mind again, anxious to see if I can think straight after having my noodle baked for four months in the summer heat. Maybe I’ll be able to see a little more clearly come fall. But probably not. I mean, I’m not sure I’ve ever really “thought straight” before. Makes me think of a Wendell Berry poem (“Breaking”).

Did I believe I had a clear mind?
It was like the water of a river
flowing shallow over the ice. And now
that the rising water has broken
the ice, I see that what I thought
was the light is part of the dark.

Just another reason to consistently second-guess yourself. People have been telling me to do any number of things (farming, moving, opening my own business) and none of them seem like just the right thing to do. All the more reason to eagerly await the arrival of autumn, hoping that I’ll be able to sit comfortably with a friend or myself, sort out some thoughts, maybe, with a beer and some popcorn at the Park House, or maybe on the roof. Quiet and cool. To give my mind some space.

Does it boggle your mind how many people are involved in anything? And each person has a vast mind, preoccupied with each of their own issues, some of which overlap and intersect, some of which may be purely internal. And wouldn’t it be nice to have a business model where these issues and minds and souls are able to interact, or at least be acknowledged? Ray Oldenburg promotes it with his work and calls this model a Great Good Place, or a third space.

That and more. All that and more is what we need. A more transparent economic model, maybe to get more people aware of all the issues involved in the thing that they’re doing, seeing the barista as an individual person and not just as coffee’s delivery person, seeing coffee as more than a drink or a drug.

Seeing everything for everything.

He asked me to write it. This is a good thing.

Three things that make me go weak in the knees.shortofbreath:
1) Honey balls from the Greek Food Festival down the street.
2) Austin, Texas’ Stars of the Lid. Latter era.
3) A Softer World. Because he says things like this:

“But I love writing notes to strangers: ‘You have the best laugh I have ever heard. The only thing I know about you is that you work with maps and you always take the second straw from the dispenser – I do that too!'”

That kind of talk makes me wonder why I’m so cold to strangers sometimes. “I never imagined myself this way,” everyone says, but here we are, all being cold to one another more often than not. Knowingly leaving each other outside, and nobody’s knocking because being rejected is worse than standing by yourself, hoping someone will open the door. Two people came into work today, two! And I wasn’t very friendly, and I didn’t ask them how they liked the coffee and I didn’t ask how they were, what they really, really deep down wanted to do. Or what they wanted to do most of all while drinking this coffee. Did they want to be in a cabin, with their cat on their knees? Did they want to be making coffee for their grandmother? It’s like during the day I forget how to dream beyond my social role. Seems like night time, when I’m alone, listening to records, that’s when I remember I’m supposed to bring that magic insanity into the day.

Moving on.

Was e-dialoguing with an industry compatriot (compatriot? we met through this modern wonder called “intar-webs”) about several things, and he mentioned something that I’ve been sort of obsessed with lately: making sure you’re doing all you can where you are. Because it’s so easy to just assume that people aren’t helping you be full or pushing you to fullness, but in reality, we all know 73.6% of the problem is that we are not doing enough for God knows why. Not to say that leaving where you are is not a viable option, even if only for a time, but let’s all be sure to give our lives and what we are doing more than the old college try, eh? Isn’t life’s viscera about odd coincidences and things that are juxtaposed and pushing yourself and pushing your friends and being a little crazy? I once wrote something in which I declared myself in opposition to the world’s sanity, because that sanity seemed false and hollow. When I find it, I will post it.

How to remind ourselves to live even just a little bit more fully? How to embrace paradoxes without losing our minds? Is losing one’s mind really all that bad?

Thinking about life changes and being 25 and not being married or owning a home. Thinking about Portland and Minnesota, coffee and farming, guitar loops and drums and nap parties where I will be DJ Lullaby. Thinking about work and flexibility, commitment and freedom. These are things I need help with.

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.

Moving toward best.

August 3, 2007

The other day I was over at 21st Street Coffee and Tea;, congratulating them on their relocation and their new machines. Lucas invited me to bring over some coffee sometime to try out in their new Clover, so yesterday I took over some of our Tanzanian PB Southern Highlands. It’s one of our lightest roasts, coming out a few seconds before the second crack starts, see, so I expected something a bit more aromatic than what came out of the clover. To be fair to my coffee, there hadn’t been any clover parameters set for this particular coffee, so maybe it would do better with a slightly lower temperature (lighter roast means a more delicate coffee?) or with a slightly coarser grind (to ease up on the mild bitterness I had on the back of my tongue). In any case, this was the same coffee that reduced me to blubbering coffee evangelism when I used it as an SO espresso. It was like somebody had punched me inside the mouth with a raspberry lemonade concentrate. And that’s what I was looking for again from the clover.

All that to say I’ve been thinking about whether or not I wish I had the time to really do my best at coffee. If I was doing my best, I’d be working late hours, charting more roasts, cupping daily, and generally keeping better records while at the same time developing an exhaustive concordance of the coffee knowledge in my brain for the next person who takes my job and has to learn everything from scratch like I did. I compare myself to the most recent World Barista Champion, or to any number of others who seem to be “doing things in coffee,” and I tell myself I’m really not entirely unique in the world of coffee, let alone the world itself. I’m not pushing any envelope because I’m hardly in the envelope to begin with.

Before you think I’m just beating myself up here, let me go a bit further. I’m not sure many people at all do their best at anything. Doing your best means knowing your limits and then conscientiously stretching yourself to those very limits. At least I think it does. What’s more, doing your best requires an environment in which such efforts are rewarded or appreciated. It seems like people thrive and push towards their bestwhen goals exist in a supportive atmosphere. Like it’s easier to do your best when those things are around you.

I’m not making excuses, understand. I’m simply attempting to discover how I can be better at the work I do and the things I’m passionate about. Because I think that being alive is worth more than drifting along. Don’t get me wrong, I firmly believe that my best includes sitting on stoops and drinking beers in the summer. But that shouldn’t be everything.

You’re also lucky my train of thought escaped me; I was about to ramble on about something sociological and there would have been absolutely no stopping that.