Saturday, July 22, 2006

the "any theory" as reality and guide

there's been a question floating around these corners of the ether these days about a philosophy of baristadom which could be coined the "any theory." its major proponent is one mister mark prince of coffeegeek, whose opinions i respect and who cares very much about the state of coffee and the barista community. (btw, mark, check your coffee kid email...maybe you'll come on here and discuss in an interview.) mark's general thesis is that a good, no, strike excellent barista should be able to walk up to any espresso machine and grinder with any coffee in it and within a few minutes should be able to reproduce the parameters of superior espresso.

mark seemed to ruffle not a few feathers with that flag he planted. there were many responses--some of them bordering on angry and even viscious--to the any theory, and some of them were voiced by leading figures within our community, though none come readily to mind.

most of the dissenters, though, seemed to want to pull out one or two minor aspects of the theory in an attempt to blow up the whole sha-bang. some of the most common refrains were along the lines of quality of water; freshness of coffee; quality of coffee; how well the machines were maintained, and so forth.

while this blogger definitely can incorporate those caveats into his mental processes (such as they are) as valid points, i tend to run back into the theory as an answer, believing that those caveats only underscore the importance of the statement originally made. the whole point, as i view it, is that the only truly sterile environment in which to produce 'formula one racing type espresso' (where no cost is spared in pursuit of performance) is the competition format, which even still is not a bubble. the huge most of us who work the espresso bar deal with other little chaos-injecting factors such as customers, other baristas on shift, humidity, tiredness on shifts, machines freaking out, and so on. baristas who can consistently reproduce greatness in the cup in quick order under such stressors are the ones who earn my votes as the best baristas around. i surmise that often that includes competition baristas...though i've never met one personally. just as often, however, i would hazard that some competition baristas are just that--able to shine in such laboratory situations, but who fall apart when the cracks start showing up due to the constant drip and pressure of a crushing line out the door for long stretches on end. what's your mettle? can you hit a baseball out of the park every time in batting practice only or how do you stand up when the ninth inning of game seven is here and you're up to bat with a two run deficit?

i remember an electric company's commercial back when i lived in california. it showed all these natural disasters occuring and what their people did during and after to help keep the juice flowing. the tagline said something like, "in a state where things break, we keep right on rolling." that's an apt parallel here. things break. life at the bar is untidy and often unpredictable. are you barista enough to roll with the punches and produce superior shots come what may?

granted, mark's theory is more hypothetical than everyday. most baristas aren't stepping up to foreign machines regularly and asked to be espresso superperson. but i should like to take that foundation of the any theory and apply it to a more common occurance i face much more regularly and i'm sure many of my industry colleagues do as well: how about any type of coffee maker as well? let's face it: you're an expert. you 'know everything' there is to know about coffee and likely espresso. you can geek out with the best of them. so...cast your mind with me if you will.

you're visiting your grandmother's home for a little visit, when, after dinner, grandma breaks out the phrase that you dread..."does anyone want coffee?" you know what's coming--a river of light brown swill that more resembles tea than anything you would touch. and because you can't bear that potential agony--both of having to drink the stuff and then of having to fake that it's palatable and then on top of that to have to lie about it to grandma--you jump up and shout, "i'll make it!"

so now you're faced with a real life quandry because you don't have access to anything that resembles specialty coffee (the stuff in that can has been around since God was a child), you're staring down a drip coffee machine that looks as though it hasn't had a bath in a coon's age, and for water you have the city's finest that comes right outta the tap. now what? where's your theory go now? you're expected to produce results.

now granted, the people over at grandma's probably aren't going to notice or complain if the stuff you give them doesn't hold a candle to what you're used to dealing with. but your own standards scarcely will allow you to live with yourself if you can pick up the glass carafe and see your shoes through the coffee you just brewed into it. you have to produce something good...for your own sanity's sake. any coffee? any machine?

i know that's a somewhat silly and aloof point to want to expound upon. but it's much more realistic than having a la marzocco GB-5 over at grandma's for you to toy with. and if you spurn the opportunity to make what amounts to much, much better coffee for everyone on that day because the conditions aren't just so or that you might not produce excellence, you are not a true coffee lover in my book. in that one very real sense, mark's any theory can be both reinforced and expanded. and the very best among us had best do our best to create the best we can with the less than best conditions we're faced with at grandma's...and on the job behind the bar. that's the true essence of the any theory and for those reasons i agree wholeheartedly with the any theory. life is imperfect. adjust and prosper.



At Saturday, 22 July, 2006, Anonymous Mark said...

oh my....

The whole "any coffee, any grinder, any machine" definitely needs more definition and clarification. I am glad to see the theory showing up on blogs like yours, and on Hoffmann's blog (jimseven), and other places. At the very least, I hope it provides a food for thought element for star baristas to chew over while they're fine tuning their triple basket ristretto shots (LOL! dig! dig!!).

I'm certainly open to positive and constructive intepretations of the theory and creed. Already, I've been refining it based on some comments I've gotten from people, both online and in person.


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