a cup of holiday cheer, please.

GUESS WHAT IT’S CHRISTMAS TIME! I’m not much of a holiday enthusiast, but for those of you who are, I thought I’d give you a few gift ideas for your coffee obsessed loved ones (or the ones you don’t know so well, but who doesn’t like coffee). Perhaps you can quietly replace their bad choices with better ones, like when my family gives me clothes that didn’t come from a thrift store. Quietly we say, “Please, take this. Wear it so people won’t think you’re homeless.” In the same way we can replace our loved ones Flavor Sealed cans and Starbucks gift cards with what is better. That’s what the holidays are all about, after all. Love. It’s all love.

Does your beloved caffeine addict love home brewing, but lacks the appropriate equipment? If you really love them a lot and are looking to spend some cash, I suggest getting them a good grinder. A good, quality grinder is the key to a good home brew. Now, if they’re going to grind their Maxwell House, just get them a cheap blade grinder and they won’t know the difference. But if you want to get them something that will set them on the next level, here are a few cool burr grinders to consider:

Hand grinders are a great place to start. I found this Cuissential Manual Grinder on Amazon to give you an idea of what I’m talking about.

 hand grinder

The only downside to a manual grinder is the inconsistent grind size. If you’re moving between brew methods, it’s sometimes difficult to get it right. They’re less expensive than larger electric grinders and are usually much easier to clean. If you’re feeling extraordinarily generous this season, take a look at Baratza, Bodum, or Mazzer. Basically, be sure to do your homework before you spend $100 on a Mr. Coffee grinder when you could spend $150 on a Baratza Encore.

One of my favorite things in the whole world is a fresh Chemex. However, Chemexes are harder to make than I realized. You can’t just dump hot water into them like you can with a French Press. There is a technique that you can get wrong in front of a large group of people (and by you I mean me and it was embarrassing). That’s why I love the Clever Coffee Dripper. It’s got the clean finish of a Chemex and the controlled extraction of a French Press. They’re inexpensive and easy to use and just plain COOL.

You could always just pick up a bag of coffee from your favorite coffee shop, divide it up in little mason jars, write a cute note, and win the stocking stuffer award of the year. (If that’s not already on Pinterest, it should be.) Gift cards are also an excellent way to force your loved ones to spend money where you want them to. If you don’t mind adding a little note about not forgetting to tip the barista on the card, I will send you a personal thank you card.

Other ideas include warm socks, ridiculous coffee table books, decorative place settings, etc. I hear Kay Jewelers has some ideas, if none of these work out. Supposedly they guarantee to begin to spell “kiss” correctly every time. That’s quality.

 

what espresso is.

My original intention for this blog was to walk my readers through my own re-education as a barista. Instead I’ve written a bunch of tirades about things that get on my nerves. The truth of that model is that I will run out of material really soon. That’s because my job is awesome. People suck sometimes, but that’s not why I started this blog. I wanted to talk about what I love about coffee, not what I hate about my job. Next week I’ll write about why I’m not an electrician, but I’d like to use my last blog post for my social media class to serve my initial purpose- I’m going to teach you something about coffee.

I spent a lot of this week developing a training manual for our coffee program. It was really fun to review the basics that have become muscle memory for me. I had forgotten how truly complicated it is to pull a great shot of espresso. Baristas are scientists, artists, and magicians and they often don’t even know it.

At the end of my first week at Frothy, I served a woman the double shot of espresso that she had ordered. When she looked in the cup and saw they little pool of caramel liquid at the bottom, she furrowed her eyebrows and looked at me like I had dropped a turd in the bottom of her cup. What the hell is this? She said, assuming a hands on hips stance of consternation. Two shots of espresso. I answered, unsure what it was that I had done to offend her. Was there a message in the crema? Did she want it for here? As it turned out, she was upset that “two shots” equal two ounces- this information was conveyed to her as professionally and calmly as I could manage. I searched for ways to make her stop standing like she was getting ready to enter a cage match but ended up having to give her her money back.

The definition of a single espresso, according to the Specialty Coffee Association of America, is as follows:

“Espresso is a 25-35 ml beverage prepared from 7-9 grams of coffee through which clean water of 195-205 degrees has been forced at 8-10 atmospheres of pressure, and where the grind of the coffee is such that the brewing ‘flow’ time is approximately 20-30 seconds. While brewing, the flow of espresso will appear to have the viscosity of warm honey and the resulting beverage will exhibit a thick, dark golden cream foam (crema). Depending on the freshness and type of coffee, the quantity and color of the crema may vary somewhat. Espresso should be prepared specifically for, and immediately served to its intended customer.”

While that definition is a mouthful, it’s the most succinct way to explain what all goes in to the process of espresso. The flavor of espresso, as with any coffee, is a combination of several qualities: Aroma and fragrance (how it smells), body (how it feels in your mouth), acidity (the little bite you feel on the sides of your tongue), sweetness (sugary sweetness you’ll feel on the tip of your tongue), flavor (what you actually taste- chocolate, caramel, nutty, etc), and finish (did it stick the landing or did it fall and lose the olympics? If it’s sour or makes you want to scrape your tongue with an icepick, then something probably went wrong).

This is also a great time to hang around and talk to your barista about what you’re tasting. If it’s not good, you are completely within your rights to have your shot re-pulled. The barista will also be less likely to give you a dirty look if you can describe what it was that wasn’t right about one of the six sensory qualities I explained. For example, if you say the body is grainy and the finish is weak, I would know that the shot was under-extracted. I could adjust the grind and have a better shot for you in under two minutes. Easy.

Maybe you checked out halfway through the definition, but I hope you learned something. And I hope somewhere out there, that horrible woman who made me very scared reads this and understands. So next time you find yourself in a conversation with someone who calls it expresso, just know that not only can you correctly pronounce the word, you can tell them what espresso is.

spacial awareness.

I have learned to extend a certain amount of grace for my customers. About 99% of the people I see in a day are hungry and under-caffeinated- a condition whose symptoms include confusion, social dysfunction, and irritability. I remind myself that it wasn’t him that spilled his latte, or changed his order a dozen times, or insulted my intelligence- it was the hunger. The most irritating of these under-caffeinated behaviors, however, is a person’s complete lack of spacial awareness. I answer the questions do you have a menu? can I have a lid? where is the sugar? and my personal favorite do you have a restroom? I get that you’re tired, but there are signs. Let me help you look for them.

I discussed menus in an earlier post, but let me give a quick summary: there is a menu. Always. If there isn’t, I’m very sorry that I mislead you and that the shop you are in is a little pretentious. Just take a second to slow down and look. Once you’ve exhausted all the common locations (large wall mounted board, small menu box, other customers), then you should ask the barista.

All cafes will have menus; likewise, all cafes will have a condiment bar. It confuses customers that the condiment bar is not exactly where they receive their drink. There is a reason for this. If we set up sugars, milks, lids and straws where we expo all of the drinks, it would be a nightmare. We move customers away from our bar so that it is free of clutter and empty Splenda packets. Condiment bars are fairly conspicuously set up. Somewhere there will be a table or a bar. On this bar will be baskets/boxes of sugar packets and large metal containers labeled Half & Half (sometimes abbreviated H&H) and Skim (sometimes NonFat or NF). Somewhere near this area, there may be trash cans. In my shop, there are two. One is labeled Trash, the other Recycle. These signs are never regarded, thus both containers are filled with food, liquid, and all manner of garbage.

Every time someone asks me if we have restrooms, I want to laugh. What kind of cruel joke would that be. Here’s your coffee, sir! Now, remember to take it slow. That’s gonna run right through you, but we don’t have a restroom. Sorry about that. That would be one way to avoid the all day campers, I guess. There is a simple solution to this commonly asked question and you can find it in nearly every public place. On a door may be an image of a person. This person may be wearing a skirt. It will have a simple word denoting the designated gender for that particular room.

Other signs people never see include “Employees Only,” “Private,” or “Closed.” There are many unposted signs that people ignore like, “please don’t let your dog walk on the patio tables,” “please don’t give that bran muffin to your 3 year old, it will just end up on the floor,” or “you purchased hot tea so maybe give it a few minutes or you will burn your mouth, yes like that.”

we’re in public, people.

My normal speaking volume is just below a yell. I’ve been that girl who accidentally announces too much information in a public place more times than I can even bare to estimate. During my years in the service industry, I have overheard some seriously strange things. I’ve also noticed that for some reason, when you put a counter between two people, one of them will very likely confide personal information with the other.  I know that people will never stop having loud personal conversations in public, and I know that my voice carries more than I can even believe. This discussion is all about conduct and awareness. We’re in public, people.

I want to first make it clear that I love being in a profession where people are comfortable talking to me about their feelings. However, I have to add that I am a barista not a therapist. Empty stools at a bar are not an open invitation to pour your heart out to your barista, though you’re always welcome to use them as such. Remember that you’re talking to a stranger who genuinely cares, but whose list of skills include pulling shots and pouring milk.

If you’ve never served or bussed tables for a living, you have missed out on the strangest and most wonderful opportunity for observation. Whether you’re on a first date, a last date, at a Bible study, or a business meeting, just know that people can see and hear you. I don’t care how good your date is going, please don’t move to the same side of the booth. Nuzzling in public is absolutely unacceptable. It is nauseating for everyone, especially the unfortunate person sitting in the booth across from you trying unsuccessfully to focus on her computer screen.

Bible studies and business meetings are just two examples of groups who love using their public setting as a platform to spread their message/product/service. I’ve learned a lot about Jesus from bussing tables. I’ve also heard of new bands, job openings, industry trends, and other information I didn’t ask for and didn’t particularly care to know. I’m not saying it’s wrong to do business or discuss religion in public. But be aware that not everyone wants to be subjected to your opinions while they’re trying to enjoy their meal.

Did you know that a woman can give birth at age 65? I do. And you know why? A doctor told me. When I asked if he was finished with his oatmeal, I was looking for a simple yes or no. 

I love you I’m sorry we’re closed.

Closing a restaurant is a time consuming and arduous task. Before we can go home, the entire store has to be cleaned and set up for the next day. But before most of that process can begin, customers have to leave. It amazes me that no matter what I do, someone still insists on remaining exactly where they are until I have to tell them to get out. I would rather carry a thousand heavy trash bags through a rainstorm than ask a customer to leave. They always look at me with the same expression of shocked annoyance that I would have the nerve to want to clean up after them. I try very hard to believe people when they say Oh! I had no idea you were closing! Why would they lie to me, after all? So to dissipate the confusion, here’s a few signs that we’re closing you love to ignore:

Scenario 1- 

So let’s say its 8:30 and you need a caffeine fix, but you don’t know if your neighborhood cafe is still open. The first step I would suggest is to run a Google search. These are very simple and often produce very helpful results (i.e. address, hours of operation, phone number). Please be sure to look carefully at the results before you call the store. I get a thousand calls a week regarding our hours of operation.

IMG_1763

 

Maybe you’re already parking when you realize that it’s late. So here you are in a nearly empty parking lot. Maybe the emptiness of the parking lot is inviting, so you get out of your car and walk up to the door. Here’s where I ask you to be aware of your environment. Your first clue will be whatever medium the shop has chosen to display either their hours of operation or their open status. At my shop, this is a giant glowing sign which displays all the information you need: open. If the sign is bright, glowing, and inviting you may enter. If the sign is not alight, please don’t come in. I love customers, but after 9 pm, everyone that walks in the door is the enemy. I wish I could pretend that I care about how badly someone wants coffee after close, but I just don’t. I’m very sorry, but we’re closed.

Scenario 2 –

Let’s say you’re in a coffee shop and it’s getting late. Maybe you’ve been here for a while working diligently on homework or “freelancing” and time just flew by. Maybe you’ve met a special someone for coffee and are too busy staring deeply into each other’s eyes to care about the passing of time. Either way, I still want to go home. Whatever reason you have for lingering in a cafe in the evening, there will come a time when your baristas will begin trying to run you out. I have a few things that I love doing in order to “encourage” customers to go home.

Sometimes I turn the music up to a volume over which no one can communicate. This is my favorite, but it doesn’t always work. Mostly it’s just fun for me to throw my own dance party in the shop after hours. When that doesn’t work, I turn the music off so everyone can hear every word you say. I typically do this when I can tell there are some intense conversations happening. If you’re sitting in a shop and one of these two things happens, the best thing to do is to continue your conversation in the parking lot, out of the way of your barista’s cleaning frenzy.

If you notice that your barista has begun stacking chairs on the tables around you, it is time to get out. I don’t do this often because I know some day a chair is going to fall off a table and onto a customer. If this is happening, it’s best that you leave. For your own safety. 

There are many ways your barista will try to communicate nonverbally that the shop is closing. Sweeping floors, wiping tables, and cleaning bathrooms are subtle indicators. Blaring dance music, stacking chairs, and flipping the open sign are less subtle. Please pay attention and whatever happens, don’t make us tell you. 

how to be a regular (or how not to be a creep)

I love regulars. People who love the place where I work enough to come multiple times a week make me extraordinarily happy. To put it into perspective, I spend 60% of my time at work 30% of my time at school and more than 9% of my time with friends and less than 1% of my time in my bed. That means that the people who spend their time in my cafe are the most consistent parts of my life.  Some of them I love in a special way- like the guy who sleeps in the corner or the lady who wears glitter and floral jumpers every day of the week. Most of them remind me how amazing people can be. But some of them can be weird. They can be very weird. So, as a regular and a person who has regulars, let me tell you a few do’s and certain don’ts.

do. 

Ask your barista questions.

Stick to questions that pertain to things you obviously have in common- i.e. coffee, hair texture, sleep deprivation. Make connections. Give your barista a chance to get know you without telling her your whole life story in a few brief interactions at the counter. Short conversations are the key. If your barista doesn’t feel like she has to remember what your childhood dog’s name was, she’ll be more likely to remember your name or order. 

don’t.

Ask your barista mega personal questions.

It isn’t outrageous to ask your barista personal questions 100% of the time. However, you wouldn’t approach a stranger sitting at a table and ask them what his mother’s name is and where she went to high school. In the same way, you should not walk up to the counter and ask your barista personal questions out of the blue. Questions like “where do you go to school” are only appropriate if your barista has mentioned something that would obviously imply that they are seeking further education. If you saw your barista at a concert last week, it’s okay to let them know, but don’t ask the names and relationships of the people you saw her with. Its creepy.

do.

Be friendly with your barista.

It’s my job to be friendly. The people who consistently make that easy for me to do are my favorites. I can remember peoples’ names and drinks when they help me out. If you don’t already know, hospitality is tough. Odds are that by the time you walk in to a coffee shop, your barista has already been talked down to, disrespected, or had to sell the last chocolate chip cookie when they really really wanted it. So when he smiles and asks you how you are, answer him. Then ask him how he’s doing and wait until he answers to begin ordering. Be courteous and patient because I promise we’re trying. It is important, however, not to take this tip too far.

don’t.

Be too friendly with you barista.

Like I said: it’s our job to be friendly. But sadly, being friendly doesn’t automatically mean that you are best friends with your barista. You’ve got to be patient. We see 1000 people a day. Don’t be heartbroken if you see your barista in Trader Joe’s and she obviously doesn’t remember your name. It doesn’t mean you aren’t valued, but you must know where you stand. Avoid Facebook friend requests until your barista is aware that you do, in fact, know her first and last name. Also understand that the personal information that you volunteer to your barista, especially when that information wasn’t asked for, doesn’t have to be reciprocated. I don’t need to know how much your dog’s medication costs, and you don’t need to know how much I owe in student debt. There is a such thing as knowing too much… 

It is important that you feel comfortable in your favorite cafe. Most of that comfort is directly related to the way you interact with the person at the counter. Don’t be discouraged if you haven’t gotten a Christmas card from your barista yet. Maybe we haven’t exchanged phone numbers yet, but I promise, you make my day. And I hope it makes your day when I write your name on your cup before you remind me. 

the pumpkin spice latte

My sister asked me this week about my thoughts on the pumpkin spice latte. I will begin my answer with a fact and then explain why I feel this way.

The fact is, I don’t hate pumpkin lattes. *gasp* Their very existence does, however, drive me absolutely insane.

I get it. It’s fall. The wind is crisp; the leaves are changing; the mosquitos are dying- the season is magical. I like to celebrate this beautiful time of year by eating an embarrassing amount of soup and roasting marshmallows over a fire in my back yard. Others need to fill their bellies with pumpkin flavored beverages with obsessive enthusiasm. I respect that.

At the core of my pumpkin latte frustration is that it fuels the same sugar obsession I discussed a few weeks ago. If you can be honest with yourself and admit that you are craving the pumpkin flavored syrup, not the coffee it is masking, I’ll be proud of you. In a similar way, I often announce that I’m craving Chickfila sauce. Not because I don’t also love those nuggets, but if I’m being honest with myself, I crave that smoky honey mustard flavor.

Admittedly, I do hate pumpkin lattes a little bit. Mostly because approximately 1000 people ask for one in the shop I work at every day. When I break the news to them that we are not, in fact, Starbucks and we do not carry a pumpkin spice latte, I watch the blood rise to their cheeks, their eyes well with tears, and their teeth clench in anger. For this reason, I hate that the pumpkin latte exists. If you are not at a Starbucks location, take caution when approaching the counter. Go ahead and accept that there is a distinct possibility that what you crave may not be available and open your mind to alternatives. I recommend getting a latte with honey, vanilla and cinnamon sprinkled on top. It may not taste like your grandmother’s pumpkin pie has been melted down and poured into your latte, but its still a tasty fall treat.