Thursday, February 28, 2008

post meeting

there's been a lot of talk lately about the moves starbucks has been making since the re-succession to the throne of mr howard schultz. my friend-in-coffee sarah wrote a nice piece the other day about starbucks move to close its stores this week for three hours in order to retrain its employees ("partners") about the importance of good espresso beverage making technique.

after reading tonight over on the texas coffee people site a letter from "the inside" about the general contents of the meeting i got excited and began craving one of my favorite beverages from the siren while i was still working there: the double short cappuccino.

cast your mind. it's 9pm and your humble bloggerspondent finishes reading mr schultz's part about how the company has lost its focus by focusing too much on money, how the espresso is all-important and the three things every barista was going to promise to do to right the ship. customer is always right. check. espresso recalibrated to 19 seconds. okay, a definite move in the right direction. check. milk steamed to exacting standards to produce perfect microfoam every time, for each and every drink. check. i grabbed my keys and told my beautiful wife i'd be back. it was time for a little field experiment. what better time to try to get as good a drink as possible than in the immediate days after every north american starbucks store completely closed for three hours to focus on one thing and one thing only--the quality of their espresso beverages?

off to my nearest starbucks i went. as i approached the door and surveyed the static cling signage greeting my eyes i immediately felt the pangs of possible regret: on both doors was a cling displaying the words, "the neighborhood's best espresso." okay, maybe it was more eye-rollage than regret; but at any rate i figured that's what i was there to determine for myself, so in i went.

now, i have long been an advocate of the not-so-well-known-anymore cup size at starbucks known as "short." time was that the sizes went, "short," "tall" and "grande." along came "venti" (tm), and off went "short" from the menu. you could still get 'em if you asked. only you had to ask, and no one asks any questions at starbucks--probably out of fear that it might slow down the mile long line at 7:34am. still, those blessed eight ounces were often the exact size of liquid i was craving, especially when i was craving a morning cappuccino. since starbucks espresso is not really known for being interesting or even assertive aside from having a very bitey characteristic to it, i would most often buttress my short cappuccino to a double short to help at least bring the espresso to milk to foam ratio a little more into balance.

being the perfectionist that i was/am, when i was at the helm of my own starbucks store i trained and retrained my staff on the perfect way to create velvety microfoam; on the importance of steaming milk only to order; on how to free pour the perfect cappuccino, latte or mocha to within two one-hundredths of a pound by the scale every time; on the necessity of tasting the shots at least once per shift and recalibrating the espresso machine as needed to get a full 19 seconds from first visual out of each shot. (back then i had no idea about rich, sweet and intense espresso--i only knew the starbucks way, which was 13-17 seconds...which we promptly ignored to get a touch more umph out of our shots.)

my point with that last two paragraphs was to establish my own credworthiness on knowing what a starbucks double short cappuccino should look, smell and taste like.

so how did i fare on my trip down the street? in three words: not super well. i walked in, was greeted by two baristas laughing with each other about whatever inside joke they were both in on, waited about thirty seconds for them to stop joking and acknowledge my existence on this earth as a paying customer, and greeted the barista with my order: one double short cappuccino with milk steamed to 150F, please.

after another 10 seconds of laughing--i'm not sure whether at me or still toward this inside joke i came in on the fumes of--the barista rang up my beverage, still snickering, and handed my cup to the barista at the espresso machine.

this is where things really went south, for not only must this cappuccino probably now hold some sort of land speed record for quickest prep time, it was all-wrong on a number of levels. level one: the shots must've pulled about as long as it took barack obama to endorse president bush's doctrine of preemption in his debate the other day in ohio. level two: there was no steaming of milk. it had already happened. my guess is that when i asked for milk at 150F the barista on bar simply read the thermometer in the milk leftover from the previous drink and thought, "voila! this one will be easy. no work involved." no work, that is, if you exclude the work of actually scooping a heaping helping of milk foam with her spoon into my cup and handing it to me. level three: the look of the milk was just so wroooong. fish eyeballs. atlaspheres. whatever you want to call 'em, they were there in abundance on the top of my drink. huge bubbles that can only come from aerating milk to within an inch of its life. level four: the smell of the milk. argh! resteamed milk has its own unique smell. maybe it's reconstituted scaldation, but the burnt pudding aroma is not to be desired upon your worst enemy. and yet here i was, $3.24 (plus a $1 tip, i might add) lighter, having to endure this pain, this unbearable pain. and that was before i actually even took the first sip.

about that sip. i cannot here in the interest of keeping this a family-friendly blog describe the sensory experience that passed over my personhood as i got into my vehicle, removed the lid and took my first taste of this "cappuccino." even the thought of the thought is nigh unto unbearable. suffice it to say that the starbucks espresso profile has a mighty grip on what it means to be "deep roasted."

i'm not a complainer. i have never been able to get comfortable around the prospect of myself actually walking a drink back in, telling the barista the why's and werefore's of what's wrong with my drink and demanding another in its stead. i've always simply prefered to suck it up, upper lip stiffened, accepting the outcome whatever it may be as a learning experience. disappointed within myself, i thought i should at least give starbucks a second chance. ironically enough, i knew from experience that this company that has made its name on consistency would almost surely provide me with a diametrically different cappuccino experience in a store not but a few short miles away.

i was right. as i walked into the second store on my evening jaunt i was greeted not with exclusionary inside jeers but with a genuine smile and a courteous greeting. having been to both these stores on several occasions i knew that this second store, while being a little more friendly, was often inferior in production quality. and since every problem is a management problem, i chalked it up to the district manager's decision to stock this second store with a less-experienced, less customer service savvy manager, someone who could fill the post in a sort of starter role as he/she gained experience before being moved into a higher volume, higher profile store, such as the first store i visited. well, somebody forgot to inform me that the managers at these two stores must have either a) switched places, or b) switched skill levels; because the second store had hustling baristas who took my order speedily and took care to obviously follow the standards outlined in the meeting they had just had.

as an aside, i thought it a nice touch that the second store had chosen for its coffee of the day board design to write in bold letters, "OUR PROMISE: TO MAKE YOUR DRINK PERFECTLY OR TO REMAKE IT UNTIL YOU TELL US IT'S RIGHT." the board was then signed by the dozen or so baristas that worked there. bravo.

so i ordered my drink, a double tall cappuccino with milk steamed to 150F. the barista kindly acknowledged my drink and attempted to finish quickly the last bit of espresso machine maintenance he was absorbed with when i approached the counter before getting on with my drink. no problem. he was already in the middle of it, i thought. seconds later he asked me, "you said double tall, right?" no, i politely corrected: double short. no problem quoth he and went to wash out the milk pitcher. again he stopped to ask me a question, "milk to 150, right?" yup, i nodded, and off he went. carefully he steamed the milk, creating the appealing whisper of milk as it is first aerated, then submerged to finish steaming. with a careful eye on his milk thermometer, he turned off the steam wand at precisely the right temperature, perfect for immediate consumption. next was time for shots. 13 seconds from first visual. not so great. had he not been paying attention to that part of the meeting? no, in actuality, he had, for no sooner did the shots finish than he dumped those shots, rinsed the shot glasses and tried again. this time, 17 seconds. still not as long as i would've liked but survivable, especially considering all else thus far in this second store had been most pleasant. i even noticed the conspicuous absence of the "neighborhood's best espresso" stickers on the doors. surely they must've just not arrived yet at this store. after all, this is standardizationstarbucks.

the verdict on the second drink? much, much better. a world of improvement in visuals, olfactoryness and in the overall atmosphere of the store. and then came the clincher. when it came time to pay the barista actually just shook his head slightly, waved his hand in a sort of half-stop manner and said, "don't worry about it. i asked you way too many questions about your drink. i should've been paying better attention to you as a customer." what?!? what was this? i was taken aback. the look on my face must've surely been one of shock and awe. i was...genuinely surprised and delighted by the actions of this barista. my only recourse was to dump the money i was going to use to pay for the drink directly into the tip jar. and even THEN i was pleasantly surprised as he said, "hey man, that's not really necessary. i appreciate it a lot. thanks." whoah.

at this point i had to say something. while i felt ridiculous about revealing details of my evening's field experiment i knew some sort of compliment was in order if for no other reason than to solidly accept and reinforce the good vibe i was getting from what so many now call the cold call of the sterile siren. i took one sip of my velvety foam and said to the barista, "i just have to say thank you. this is the best double short cappuccino i have received at a starbucks in a long time." he acknowledged the compliment, thanked me once more and bade me farewell for the evening. as i began to turn for the door the only other thing i could muster in praise went something like, "looks like the little meeting worked, eh" and immediately upon the sound leaving my vocal cords i had almost wished it hadn't been uttered for fear of sounding condescending. yet to my surprise my hirsute compliment was met with a gracious and genuine smile and a, "you bet. thanks again for coming in. have a great night, sir." wow. surprise and delight is back in business at big green.

back in the vehicle i now had my two cappuccinos side by side to compare and, well, let's just say that once i got a really good drink of my second cappuccino, not even the amazing vibe and perfect milk foam was enough to overcome the vampire bite of such dark roasted espresso, leading me back to the maxim that a house is only as sturdy as its foundation. as both drinks cooled to about the same level on my drive back home, i could scarcely tell the difference between the first and second, save for the lingering remnants of the first drink's scalded milk peeking out from the shriekingly bitter double shots of espresso i called for. alas, this was starbucks after all, i reminded myself. and while i did catch a glimpse of the former days of the old gray mare's now faded coffee and customer service glory, it was as fleeting as, well, probably as fleeting as was the espresso's crema itself.

in conclusion i would have to say that although mr schultz is to be highly commended for his demonstrative retaking of the reigns into a radically public and different direction than his company has been earning its recent reputation for, starbucks will have to be equally singular about pursuing quality roasting profiles to go along with the other changes. simply lengthening the shot times is not going to cut it, although cut through my mouth with their bitterness they did--right to the gums. barring a radical change in actual espresso taste, no amount of training or retraining is going to get me back into the doors of a starbucks again, no matter how nice the barista is. and it's certainly no enticement back through the doors for the three minute, lingering inside joke sneers i would almost certainly have at least a 50/50 chance of enduring at any starbucks within driving distance.

field experiment now complete, i walked in the door, climbed the stairs and glided into the room where my wife was to have her opportunity for drink inspection. the differences in drinks were obvious upon the first eyeballing: the first drink was still visibly marred with globe bubbles while the second still had remnants of what was once glorious microfoam. [see drinks pics above, in order of appearance.] she nodded her approval of the second's foam. and then...the sip. it was like reading the directions on a shampoo bottle. view. smell. sip. find disappointment in the espresso. repeat.



and repeat a million times tomorrow and every day hereafter for big green.

i guess somehow despite all the store closings and promises made to make changes for the better, the more things change, the more they stay the same.

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Monday, February 25, 2008

Memorial Fund for Carlos and Edwin Martin

In the wake of the tragic loss of life of Carlos and his son Edwin (see post below), this blog would ask you to consider making a secure online donation via PayPal over at Edwin Martinez' blog site. Or simply click here.

I would sincerely ask you to consider making a stretch and donating something maybe beyond what you might normally give. If for you that was $5, please consider donating $10. If it was $20, please think of giving $35. Even though some of the Martin children are grown, Carlos' widow Juana still has a lot of mouths to feed and clothe.

Anyway, please consider giving out of the abundance of your heart to help in this time of loss and grief and need.


Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Sleep. Sleep Tonight.

if you've ever been to my friend edwin's family's coffee farm, you will surely remember the farm's patriarch of a manager, carlos. a wizened and wily veteran of years spent managing a coffee farm, he was as humble a presence at the dinner table as any man could be who had forgotten way more than everyone else around him would ever know about coffee.

father of twelve, he now leaves his wife a widow mother of eleven, for he (age 47) and his second oldest child (age 16) were killed a few days ago by roadside bandits. the two were traveling back up the valley from the city to the coffee farm with supplies for an upcoming church mission trip the farm would be hosting. they also had payroll with them, which in that part of remote guatemala during harvest season means cash and lots of it. a wise manager will stagger pay days randomly during the harvest to help protect the just-paid workers from coordinated attacks by bandits. it is logical to assume that this strategy was being employed by carlos as well, which makes the seeming randomness of the event all the more maddening. in those remote valleys, on those empty, rugged switchback roads the crime of opportunity simply must have been too good to pass up: the two lives that stood in the way but bumps in the road to whatever vices lay ahead for the perpetrators.

and so the lives of these two gentle souls were taken for the passing and corrupting thrill of the love of money, the root of all evil. we are all the poorer for it.

Rest in peace, brothers. Though most reading this may never have met you, and others--myself included--only briefly knew you, your lives connected with ours and we are the worse for your loss. Sleep. Sleep tonight. And may your dreams be realized.


Monday, February 11, 2008

similar similarities

i'm struck by how similar the three phenomena of maillard, strecker and caramelization are. read the wikis and it is clear that the whole thing is, well, not really all that clear, especially as it pertains to something like coffee.

the long and short of it for me are to try to take advantage of maillard--the chemical reaction between proteins (amino acids) and reducing sugars--while not falling prey to caramelization. doing some controlled experiments with strecker would be not only fun but groundbreaking; and i suspect there are a few roasters who already intrinsically understand the implications of strecker. but i've yet to see anyone publish anything useful for peer-review. maybe jaime will chime in here...

because i keep a pretty light hand at the roaster there is rarely a scenario where the oxidation of sugars is an issue. but at least it's good enough to have read the material as a talisman against placing myself in such a dire scenario.

i mention these things because jacinto is finalized: a (somewhat prototypical) espresso that is snappy, sweet and clean--and that teases the perceptions of caramelites everywhere. i guess macchiatto espressos are nothing new. but this one was meant for not much more than macchiatto milk in order to see it at its best. straight shots of it are even better, insofar as "better" can mean "challenging" and even "bedeviling" if it's not done right. jacinto is not really--maybe--even a commercial or commercial type espresso, meaning, it may never be offered to the general public. it wasn't really even created for mass production. as i think about it, i think i created it mostly to change my own opinions of espresso--even though i say aloud that it is meant to "change people's opinions of espresso," a statement that, while pointing the finger at others, realizes there are three pointing back at myself.

i sent some to a friend and he enjoyed it. maybe you'll get that chance one day, too.

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