One Great Cup

Think about your favorite drink—be it tea, wine, beer, hot chocolate, or coffee. What was it about that first sip (or third or seventh) that made you love it, that changed the way you thought about that drink from then on?

Taste is preference, and every preference is extremely personal. Hard as you may try, coaxing certain flavor notes out of someone isn’t gonna happen. If they don’t like drinking it, they aren’t going to, and no amount of discussing or educating is going to help.

For a personal example, my favorite beer is Bear Republic’s Racer 5. Well balanced and hoppy, it’s not too hard to get into—it’s just solid beer. However, before I had a Racer 5, my favorite beer was good ol’ P.B.R. Imagine what that first sip did to me, moving from such a light and sugary beer to hop heaven! I hated it! Until sip four or five. I got so into it that I thought, “I’ll never drink anything else!” But, one does need water, so I did have to stop, eventually. I thought about it constantly, though. All the time. Because it changed the way I thought about and drank beer! Thinking about that moment, I get so excited for me! I want to watch that happen to people all over the world. I want to push this beer on everyone and everything, and it could work. It also probably won’t work about 80% of the time, though, because everyone likes different things and different beers, coffee, clothes, music, etc. Everyone tastes differently and has different tastes.

But this excitement, this always gets the best of you, whoever you are and whatever you love, and that’s a super-great thing. What’s life without these preferences? Miller High Life and oatmeal? Blah! (Sidebar: I love oatmeal, I find High Life disgusting, and I love cheap beer, so you know I find this hard to admit.) However, as a barista or a purveyor of any specialty drinks, this is where we run into some trouble with customer service.

Let’s say you have a man. This man, we’ll call him Terrance. Terrance orders an espresso. You, a barista, expected to be as familiar with your coffee as you are with your left hand, carefully pull Terrance a shot. He picks it up, shoots it back, and runs away with a happy and cheerful, newly caffeinated, “Thanks, kid!” (Terrance is 80). You’re left without a hint of how Terrance felt about your espresso except for that he’s a polite man who has some more energy—thanks to you! I say, be happy; you did your job to its acceptable minimum.

Take two: let’s take this idea of baristas being educators and get Terrance back in here for that shot. You’re the host, the waiter, and you have all the answers to the questions he may have. So, you’ve got his ear and he’s the only one at the bar—how to broach it?

First, I’d start with,

Hi, how are you today?! Is this your espresso?

To which he will reply yes. Then you might say,

Awesome to hear! I’m really excited about the espresso today. I’d love to hear your thoughts on how it tastes! Will ya taste with me, T?

Yadda, yadda. Then you ask Terrance about that special tomato taste goin’ on at the finish. T says,

Why, no! I taste savory beets/plums/corn!

No matter what T says, that’s what his palette has picked up on, and that’s so beautiful! You’ll probably say,

Oh f&*$, T! I totally got that corn flavor too! Ya blowin’ my mind!

(You’re 12.)

Both perceptions of these shots have changed. The education happens on both sides of the counter, and something even greater occurs: communication without pretense!

You and T have created a beautiful array of tasting notes, and T has done something different—he talked about his preferences. This is T’s one great cup. This is his first Racer 5 or Baroida or Gen Mai Cha or Caramel Macchiato (whatever, T likes it—so, it’s great!). From now on, when he tastes espresso, he won’t just taste the bitterness of the crema or the acidity—he’ll compare it to that corn flavor and remember why he liked that one (or didn’t; that’s good too!) and be able to distinguish the reasons why. And the only real reason why Terrance does or doesn’t like something is because he just either does or doesn’t—that’s the amazing thing about taste.

Approachability is an issue that comes up a lot in specialty industries, especially coffee. Speciality coffee shops are popping up all over the place, and more and more people are turning to these shops more than chains! So cool, right?! But, your ideal interaction with Terrance doesn’t always happen in high-volume shops; there just isn’t enough time. When these do happen, though—that’s when both the barista and the customer learn.

As baristas, we all have opportunities to impact someone’s day—or give them that one great cup they need to get started on the flavor ride of a lifetime! Now, they don’t even need you for this—they can do it all on their own—but it’s always great to watch people enjoy something. Why else do people procreate but to watch children laugh? (Or, whatever.) The most important parts, though, are that we never stop communicating with each other  about our preferences in drinks and that we never stop getting excited about what we serve. If we do, we may miss that chance to change Terrance’s life with that one great cup.

Texture: What French Fries Can Teach Us about the Bevs We Love

Imagine a plate of really awesome french fries; now imagine a plate of really terrible french fries. What makes the one different from the other?

This is a prompt I’ve started to use when training new baristas to steam milk (and, incidentally, I stole it from James Hoffman). I’ll ask you, too, dear reader: good fries, bad fries—what’s the diff?

Here is a pretty typical answer: “Good french fries are kind of crunchy on the outside, but soft on the inside. Bad fries are mushy or soggy.”

You may notice the presence of words describing texture in this answer. Pretty much every answer to this question will involve descriptions of texture. You may also notice the lack of words describing taste or aroma or anything else about the plate of fries. Many—perhaps most—answers will use only descriptions of texture.

Now to the point: good texture is an integral sensory component not only of enjoyable fries or other solid foods, but of enjoyable beverages, as well. I use the french fry question in barista training because properly textured milk is the most important ingredient in any hot milk beverage a barista can make. It will make or break the drink. This may be obvious if you’ve ever had a cappuccino or latte.

Texture in beverages can be as apparent as the silkiness of steamed milk, or the viscosity of a cocktail made with egg, or the presence of carbonation in beer or wine or soda. It can be as subtle as slight variations in levels of undissolved liquids and solids in wine or beer or brewed coffee. All of these sorts of sensations of texture in the mouth are what we refer to as “mouthfeel.”

I found the word intimidating at first. Mouthfeel. Maybe because I associate it with lists of pricey wines whose flavor profiles are described in terms of fruits I’ve never heard of. But mouthfeel is just this: the feeling in your mouth of something that you are consuming. Is it creamy or heavy or round or watery or oily or chalky? Is it crunchy on the outside and soft on the inside or total mushy bullshit french fries? Whether you are aware of it or not, texture plays a major part in the way you perceive your your beer, wine, coffee, tea, whatevercetera; you may find it worthwhile to give it just a moment of thought on your next sip.

Drinking versus Tasting

We consume a lot of stuff in America—from coffee to computers to cars. We may not be in the era of the moonwalk anymore, but I don’t think that this consumptive, materialistic mentality has left us yet. France produces more wine than any other country in the world, and has the second-largest vineyard area (Spain beats it there). In Germany, beer has its own festival (the well-known Oktoberfest). In China, tea is considered one of the seven necessities to life (the others being firewood, rice, oil, salt, soy sauce, and vinegar). I suppose if we worship any drink here in America, it’s coffee. We consume it in such volume that there are, literally, places in the country where a Starbucks is situated across the street from a Starbucks. (Just ask Lewis Black.) But that’s just what it is—consumption. According to the International Coffee Organization, in 2009, Americans consumed just over 9 pounds of coffee per capita. We might not have anything on Scandinavia, but that’s still a lot of coffee. Yet, most of us still think that a dark roast has more caffeine than a medium roast. Many worship Dunkin’ Donuts and Starbucks as if they were gods, while ignoring the local cafés that bring us truly great drinks, for just a little added expense.

Luckily, the independent cafés are doing well enough to stick around, and even to open new ones—and I, for one, am grateful. As my bio on this site mentions, I wasn’t always a coffee drinker. It all started one Christmas day, when my uncle wanted me to play Texas Hold ‘Em and I wanted to go to bed. So, I had a cup of Maxwell House—and, for the first time in my life, I didn’t hate it. It took a while from there until I got away from the Folger’s/Dunkin’ Donuts stuff myself and graduated onto grinding my own beans from Trader Joe’s.

What I didn’t realize at first, or even appreciate fully when I first started grinding fresh beans, was the true complexity of flavors available in coffee. If you read the labels on bags of Counter Culture or Stumptown beans, it quickly becomes apparent that people who are serious about their coffee talk about it very similarly to how wine aficionados talk about their favorite merlot or shiraz. You start seeing mentions of floral aromatics, chocolate and butterscotch, cherry jam and toasted nuts. Who knew you could find all of that in a cup o’ Joe?

I’m not a great taster—in fact, I’m terrible at it. On a good day, I’ll be able to pick out something obvious in a wine, like blackberry or nuttiness, but most of the time the best I can do is say, “Hey, I really like this one!” I will never be a sommelier. But I also refuse to believe that tasting is an innate talent, not an acquirable skill. We do a lot of drinking in this country, but not necessarily a lot of tasting. So, this holiday season, take a step back, take a deep breath (literally—so much of tasting is in the nose), and take a sip—of coffee, or wine, or beer, or tea. Don’t just drink it; try to figure out what’s in there. You might be surprised by what you find. And even if you can’t discern any particular flavor, you may at least begin to recognize the complexity of the tastes in your mouth. You may never look at your morning coffee the same way again.

Let’s Throw a Tea Party

In the past few years, the Tea Party has taken on a divisive meaning, one that obscures its origins and applies a proud bit of history to a hot-button issue. If you’re looking for Sarah Palin’s Tea Party, you’ve come to the wrong place.

This Tea Party is one that celebrates Boston’s revolutionary history in a cup. It’s been over 200 years since those standing up to the crown steeped some fine tea in the Boston Harbor, and we people of New England still brew our own. We make our own beer. We roast our own coffee. We grow our own tea. We crush our own grapes. And by God, it’s delicious.

We do not claim to be experts. Sometimes, we will be just as inexperienced and untried as any other. But what we hope to accomplish with this blog is to show people that you do not need some otherworldly talents or education to appreciate distinctions among seemingly mysterious drinks.

Join me and my friends as we explore all that our mugs and glasses have to offer. We’ll share the latest news, our own recipes, and history lessons as we see fit. While some of what you find here may be Boston-centric, I assure you that most of it can be appreciated in any part of the world.

So drink up. We’ve got work to do.