Category Archives: Coffee

What is a Barista? A True Story.

A coffee shop I often frequented, well before I became serious and educated about coffee, was owned by an entrepreneur. In this case, the definition of entrepreneur is a person with a type A personality who has enough money to buy a coffee shop. He was energetic and driven with no real knowledge about coffee. The previous owners trained him, and while I do not know about their background or education in the field, I have to assume that they either did not know much, did not pass on much, or the new owner was just not listening.

I mentioned that I was quite early on in my coffee ambitions, just starting to frequent coffee shops. It was just a few weeks after I learned that espresso did not have an “x” in its spelling. On one of my first visits to this shop I asked, “What is the thermometer in the milk for?” He was steaming a pitcher at the time.

He told me, “It is to make sure that the milk gets hot enough to kill the bacteria.” I am not knowledgeable in the field of bacteriology, but that is not why you use a thermometer. And experienced baristas never use a thermometer. A “real” barista will hold their hand on the pitcher. The basic instruction is to add air (the “whoosing” sound early in the process) until the outside of the metal pitcher feels the same temperature as the skin on your hand, then raise the pitcher to allow the steam to swirl the milk. Stop when the pitcher feels just a bit uncomfortably hot to the touch. From there the barista adjusts the timing and technique to the quality of the milk as they gain experience. So:

Thermometer = Amateur barista
Hand on pitcher = Professional barista

As the months went by, and then the years, things got worse at this shop. The espresso degraded as did the cappuccinos and lattes, and the owner/barista actually told a then-new customer who stated that the drink was bitter that he ordered the wrong beverage. The customer was right as we had noticed that all the drinks became bitter as the profits dropped and he was ordering lower grades of coffee beans.

The final straw for me as a customer was when one summer I ordered a mocha smoothie from their new smoothie bar. The female PBTC (person behind the counter – it would be grossly inaccurate to call her a barista) asked me, “What’s that?”

I replied, “What’s mocha? Its coffee and chocolate.”

“That’s not mocha,” I was told.

“Mocha is chocolate and coffee.”

“No it isn’t.”

“So, what is mocha?” I asked her.

“I don’t know, but it isn’t coffee and chocolate.”

I should have waked out right there, but I said, “OK then. Please make me a chocolate smoothie and put a double shot of espresso in it when you blend it.”

mocha smothie

“We will have to charge you extra for the espresso because that comes from that side [she points to the coffee bar] and the smoothie is from here [standing at the smoothie which was ten feet from the coffee bar].”

A couple of lessons here. When you become knowledgeable about your coffee beverages it becomes easier to spot someone who knows what they are doing, and hopefully, easier to find a quality coffee shop. The other lesson is that if you get into situations in a shop that make you feel uncomfortable or force you to give the recipe to the workers as to how to make a beverage, it is definitely time to move on.

There are good coffee shops out there that offer a friendly atmosphere as well as quality beverages. Look for them. They deserve your patronage.


The Americano

As the story goes, when the American fighting forces were in France in WWII, they complained that the coffee was too strong. The cafes added water to the espresso thus creating an Americano, made for the Americans who didn’t like that strong taste of straight espresso. Whether that is myth or not, it makes for an appealing story to add to the legends and myths of coffee history.


The Americano

Whether fact or fiction, at that time espresso had not made any strong inroads in America, and the young men fighting “over there” were accustomed to either stove-top percolator coffee at home (if they had started drinking coffee at all before being sent overseas) or the instant coffee packets in their rations. While the instant was fast, easy, supplied the much-needed caffeine boost, and was something hot to drink, compared to an espresso, it was quite weak.
But the Americano is not just for those who can’t handle strong coffee. It is also a great way to test your espresso. “Watering” it down a bit can allow you to get a better idea as to the quality of your espresso. It avoids having your palate overwhelmed by the strong flavors of a straight espresso. It is also a great way to enjoy a richer beverage than drip coffee can normally supply.


Pull your espresso as always, either a single or a double, but pull the shot into a cup (coffee cup, cappuccino cup, etc.). Then top off with the desired amount of hot water. You can also do it the other way round- pour the espresso into the desired amount of water (aka: a Long Black). This will tend to retain just a bit more of the crema. The taste will be about the same overall, but the presentation may be more pleasing to the eye.

What you may very well find is that your espresso is not quite a good as you thought. A hot, straight espresso can be so dynamic on the palate that it can be difficult to discern the flavors. This makes the Americano an excellent tool for evaluating your espresso.
On the positive side, when done right, it gives you a beverage to be sipped and enjoyed, and it makes for a nice change of pace.
Give it a shot (or two)!

Coffee and Health

“Coffee will stunt your growth!” We have likely all heard that one. As kids I remember the house filling with the delicious aroma of coffee being boiled in a percolator and watching Dad savor his hot cup of coffee. The truth is that coffee would not have stunted our growth unless you consider that our increased hyperactivity would have caused Mom to beat the life out of us, thus ceasing any possibility of further growth.

Much of the misinformation about coffee being bad came from early studies that only looked at coffee consumption without considering preexisting high-risk factors such as diet, physical activity levels, stress, smoking, and alcohol consumption. Current research has negated
virtually all those early findings and has shown that the benefits of coffee are many.

We are all well aware of the beneficial effects of caffeine, particularly first thing in the morning. Starting the day with a small amount of caffeine can sharpen  focus and aid in concentration.

Caffeine also helps in the treatment of headaches. If you read the labels of many over-the-counter pain relievers you will find that caffeine is one of the active ingredients. It makes pain relievers more effective as well as speeding their delivery. But many people report that just a cup of coffee or two can help relieve a headache or other pain on its own.

But there is a lot of evidence through modern research that indicates that coffee has benefits including:

– The potential effect on type 2 diabetes risk. Type 2 diabetes makes heart disease and stroke more likely. Coffee may counter several risk factors for heart attack and stroke.
– High coffee consumption is associated with decreased risk of liver cirrhosis and liver cancer.
– Higher consumption of caffeinated coffee is associated with decreased risk of Parkinson’s. Coffee has also been linked to lower risk of dementia, including Alzheimer’s disease.
– Lower risks for heart rhythm disturbances (a risk factor of heart attack and stroke) in men and women.
– Studies have shown a benefit of coffee on the prevention of diabetes. Evidence indicates that  decaffeinated coffee may have this same benefit as regular coffee.
– Improve cognitive function and decrease the risk of depression.
Most studies find an association between coffee consumption and
decreased overall mortality.

Consuming multiple pots of coffee every day can lead to serious problems including digestive problems, and in the case of unfiltered coffee, higher cholesterol levels. If you are a heavy caffeinated-coffee drinker (and/or other caffeinated products), and you stop consuming coffee
suddenly, the withdrawal symptoms can include:
– Headache
– Fatigue, drowsiness, or loss of energy
– Irritability
– Anxiety or depression
– Nausea and/or vomiting
– Decreased ability to concentrate or perform mental tasks

Moderate coffee drinkers don’t have to worry about that. So as Mom told you, everything in moderation.

But one thing to keep in mind is to pay attention to what your body tells you. If coffee affects you in some negative way, seek advice from a medical professional.

The Bean Counters

beethoven coffeeThis is not about chartered accountancy or the standard bookkeeping practices employed therein. It is about coffee. In a “competing” blog entry entitled “Coffee!!!” By Mason Currey

(and also found all around the Internet in some 118,000 thousand other places according to Google),

Beethoven had a cup of coffee for his breakfast each morning. To make it he would count out 60 coffee beans. As a fellow musician, although not up to Ludwig’s standards of creativity, I decided to investigate. Yes, I counted out 60 coffee beans… twice. The first time was from a random scoop of beans. The second time I choose only “full size” beans (no peaberries). I found a mass of 7.2 and 8 grams respectively.

Next step was to research what the recommended ratio of coffee to water should be. I found the following recommendations:

30 grams : 16 ounces (63 grams:liter)

1.63 grams : 1 ounce (55grams:liter)

7 grams : 125ml (56 grams:liter)

30 grams : 420 grams of water (71 grams:liter)

65 grams : liter (self explanatory)

After going through a few pages like that I felt like searching for how many inches in an hour. But as you can see, there is a range that is generally agreed upon that if you are making coffee using one liter of water (which is approximately 33.81402 liquid ounces, if you care) you should use between 55 and 70 grams of coffee. That is scientific accuracy that an art major can appreciate because it decreases the science and increases the art. But the science gets more confusing.

Beethoven was not making a liter of coffee, he was making a cup of coffee. The volume of his cup was what? Students? Anyone? It’s a trick question because I don’t know the answer, and even if I had access to his actual cup as authenticated by the Franklin Mint, we don’t know how much water he used. He could have been using a six ounce cup which he filled to 80% of its capacity. Anyone? That would be approximately 0.1420 of a liter. ENOUGH ALREADY with this!

We could keep going, but it is becoming less humorous and more pointless as it continues on. There are a few useful coffee bean counting tips that can assist you in making a better cup of coffee, and they can be simplified:
Weighing your coffee is a better method than using a scoop. Weight is more consistent than volume. The roast level and the age of the coffee affect its density (pound of Styrofoam vs. a pound of lead). So weigh the beans before grinding (beans will likely be easier to handle than ground coffee).
Measure the water accurately using a good measuring cup. Even better, weigh the water. The metric system was created as a true system. 1cc = 1ml = 1gram of water.
How much coffee to how much water? Begin with a ratio of 6 grams of coffee : 100grams of water, or about 1:17 in weight (yes, I could have started this article with that statement, and no, I do not get paid by the word).

The art is that if the coffee is thin, or tasteless, or bland to you, use more coffee, or a finer grind, or both. If the coffee is overpowering and “in your face,” causing you to  hold onto the edge of the table like it’s a safety bar on a roller coaster,  use less coffee or grind a bit more coarse, or both. And once again, yes, I could also have started with that statement. The point is that coffee is food, and the food you like the best is the food you like the best. Whether you like a cup that looks like thin broth or coffee that pours like molasses, taste is subjective.

The science of this is that unless you control the variables as closely as is reasonably possible, when you get a great cup of coffee, how will you be able to reproduce it unless you know how much coffee and how much water you used?

So we can guess that Beethoven’s 60 beans to an 8 ounce cup of coffee, was a ratio of 1:26 (beans to water by mass). If it was 6 ounces of water, the ratio would be 1:22 Compared to the recommended ratio of 1:17, his coffee actually seems a little weak compared to today’s standards. Maybe he liked it that way. He was an artist, after all.

Coffee Education By The Cup

At one time or another, we have all likely spent time searching for a good, independent coffee shop which prides itself on serving a quality product. It can be difficult to find in some communities, but they are out there! But these shops very often offer more than just a clean cup, a drinkable beverage, and friendly service. They can be a good source of coffee education.
An independent coffee shop is very often operated by someone who is passionate about coffee. Some even roast their own coffee to be able to create a taste that is just their own. The passion is there and it shows in the product as well as in the employees. Time is spent training baristas in order to ensure that the product meets the shop’s standards. The employees areas educated and you can be as well.

coffee shops

When I go into a coffee shop I try to get there in the off-hours, avoiding the morning and lunch rushes. I always start by ordering a straight espresso. If a shop has put enough effort and training into making good espresso then the rest of their offerings will usually fall into line. Additionally, few people ever order an espresso straight and so it often make you stand out from the rank-and-file crowds.

If it is not busy I like to hang around the counter and watch my shot being pulled. While I am no master barista, I know enough about espresso to be able to examine the process as well as the product as it issues froth from the machine and be able to make a friendly comment or two; a conversation starter. A word or two usually is enough to know if the conversation should continue. Something as simple as, “That flow looks good,” or possibly, “It looks like the grind could benefit from being a little finer.” That might lead to commenting on the taste of the espresso. The response I receive dictates where I go from there.

While it will not always happen, in most of these shops with a dedicated staff you will find employees who are more than willing to share some of what they know. That is the whole point of starting the conversation. I go in assuming that I might learn something that can make my home espresso production better, or more efficient, or just different. I once befriended a commercial roaster who has since moved on, but I learned a lot about coffee roasting from him. Learning about coffee, like any other knowledge, is cumulative. A small tip here, an idea there, and eventually it comes together for you. I started out as a home enthusiasts and now work in the coffee industry. You just never know where the road may lead. But back to the coffee shop..
If the espresso is good the rest of the visit is easy, particularly if the opening conversation was friendly. I usually then order something to eat and a cappuccino. But what to do if the espresso is not good? What do you say? What do you do? A friend who worked as a professional waitress once told me never to upset your server (to put it politely). It is good advice to not be rude to people who are preparing food for you. If the espresso was close then I might go back again. Sometimes my comments, with some thinly veiled advice, are taken to heart and the barista will try again. But if not, if the conversation is curt or unfriendly, then next time in town I try a different shop.

There are small towns may only have two or three coffee shops so your choices are limited if you are avoiding the chains (which I generally do). If that happens, you can always fall back on your home barista knowledge and your ever-improving coffee making skills.

Making Coffee At Home Is Bad For You

First it was aluminum and Alzheimer’s, then it was too much fat, and then too much protein, and then mushrooms that could help you lose weight, and now coffee? But this is not a health article unless you consider attitude a health issue (my wife does).Making Coffee

Making good coffee comes from perseverance and practice. Apply the scientific method of controlling variables to the best of your ability and make use of the as much of the potential of your equipment, all in the hopes of coaxing from the bean all it has to offer. Days, months, and then years pass. If you keep at it, all your friends discover where the best coffee is in the neighborhood. Some may even ask why you don’t open a coffee shop.

So you have created a foundation of what good coffee should taste like. Your know the difference between a wet and a natural processed bean just by the smell. You can taste whether there really is any Yigcheffe in that blend. Well, maybe not, but you certainly have made enough coffee to know the difference between a drinkable delight and swill.

So you head into town with a friend and drop into a coffee shop. What is your brain telling you? What mass of thoughts haunt your imagination?

  • The aroma in here is more disinfectant than coffee
  • Do I really have to drink a cup of coffee here?
  • That tattoo on her face must have really hurt

Or is it more like

  • Should I get a cup of the house blend or a cappuccino?
  • If I find something I like I hope they sell the beans.
  • Are the “roasted on” dates posted?

Two very different attitudes. If you are serious at all about your coffee and have visited enough coffee shops you likely have had more mediocre and bad experiences than good. It has a lot to do with personal standards. If you have been using pre-ground, canned coffee in big red jugs from the supermarket and brewing in a $12, plastic drip brewer, then just about anything at any coffee shop will taste as good, and likely better. But if you have been using freshly-roasted beans, ground per use (and you should be), then your reticence to enter a coffee shop is understandable.

But my advice is overcome the fear and try to find a shop that is worth visiting. Like finding a life’s mate, it takes time. Ladies know, you have to kiss some frogs to find a prince. There are good shops around. The best bet is usually the independent shops. Competing against the national chains with their centralized roasting facilities and massive advertising and marketing budgets, the small-shop owner has to offer more to compete, and that means offering better coffee.

So my advice is grab the phone book, look up coffee shops, and try one you haven’t tried before. You just might find better a place making coffee and get an education as well.

Stop and Smell the Coffee

Stop and Smell the Coffee
Coffee should be more than the morning drug or to gulp as you run out the door, briefcase in one hand and travel mug in the other. From its very beginnings as a beverage, coffee brought people together in the coffee houses in Vienna, Paris, London, and other great cities of the world. Friends, acquaintances, and conspirators alike gathered over cups of coffee to share, joke, enjoy each others company, and conspire. Here are a few tips that might help you enjoy your coffee more, some social and some not:

• A few quiet minutes in the morning can improve your attitude for the rest of the day. Sit and relax, even if just for a five minutes before you rush off into your hectic schedule. If you don’t have those few minutes, maybe it’s time to examine your morning schedule. To paraphrase Benjamin Franklin, “Ten minutes earlier to bed, and ten minutes earlier rise time,” may be all that you need.

• Talk for a few minutes with your loved ones over a cup. Allow the coffee to cool just a bit. Why? A cooler cup of coffee should taste better than when it comes right out of the brewing device. Your taking the time to sit, talk, and enjoy will make your coffee taste better by allowing it to cool. If the taste doesn’t improve it is time to investigate your brewing methods or even the coffee you are using.

• Some calming music, playing softly in the background will help. Subdued lighting as well. We are not trying to put you to sleep, but a calming environment will allow you to concentrate on your coffee and think about the flavor.

• Learning to taste coffee is a skill worth developing. To begin, try concentrating on what it tastes like when it first enters your mouth, as it passes over and around the tongue, as you are swallowing, and the first ten or fifteen seconds after you swallow. Good coffee goes through a whole set of flavor changes through this process.

• Chew your food. One of the tips I give friends when they come to sample my coffee is to eat it- not just drink it. Take a small sip and chew it a bit. This forces you to move the coffee around in your mouth and also extends the time the coffee is on your taste buds.

• Don’t brush your teeth before coffee time. Toothpaste will change they way your palate senses the coffee. Brushing after coffee may also may help prevent dental staining as well as help fight coffee breath when you head out of the door.

• Don’t use a travel mug. As with all foods, aroma is a huge part of the enjoyment and taste of food. Use a coffee cup with a large enough top circumference that allows you to get you nose closer to the coffee and take a “whiff” of the beverage before drinking. Scotch and wine sampling glasses are designed to do much the same thing and for exactly the same reasons.
It is stressful being part of the ever-increasing pace of today’s hectic Western society. Faster internet speeds, faster cars and transport systems, constant calls and test messages on a smart phone, the traffic of the morning commute, and more distractions than ever before all seem designed to raise ones blood pressure. It becomes more and more important to take the time to stop and smell the flowers.. and the coffee.

“Simon says, Hands on Coffee!”

Hands on Coffee

Hands on Coffee

I have been out in my workshop for the last couple of hours. Lately I haven’t had much time for fun projects what with my job, this blog, my wife, and something we refer to as “life in general.” Start with twenty-four hours, subtract sleep and then the rest of what I just mentioned, and that doesn’t leave much for leisure-time projects.

While I was finishing up my latest handicraft project and putting my tools away, I thought to myself, sure, I could go out and buy the piece of furniture I was building, a simple set of display shelves, but modifying an old, small bookshelf that was my grandparents and re-purposing it for placement where I will now see it every day led me to coffee. Not as non sequitur as it sounds.

The rewards of a hands-on woodworking project like that is very much like making coffee at home. Something you make yourself offers rewards that cannot be given a monetary value. A small bookshelf costs $49.95 in town. A latte costs $4.49 at a chain coffee shop. But what is the value of a bookshelf I made with my own hands from wood which is over 50 years old? What value can you put on a food product that you produce at home, from scratch, with your own hands? Would you rather have a fast-food hamburger or one you grill yourself in the backyard? A latte in a paper, take-away cup or one you have made, exactly as you like, in the comfort of your own kitchen?

My workshop is a set of tools I have accumulated over more than fifty years. Sure the table saw was a big investment, but when I bought it I did not know there was a remodeled kitchen in the box! Sure, there is an initial investment in quality coffee-making equipment, but over time there is the value in the satisfaction you get from making yourself a delicious espresso beverage, or even better, handing a friend a cappuccino and saying, “I made this just for you.” There is monetary savings in making coffee at home which we will go into at a later date, but this is not about the bottom line. This is about quality of life and the rewards of not only something you make yourself, but of the value of taking the time to slow down, stop, and reap the intrinsic value of making something special with your own hands. The bonus is being able to also sip a fresh, hot, coffee beverage.

And the shelves? They will be for displaying some of the beautiful coffee cups I have collected over the last decade. Each cup a memory of a place, a person, or an event upon which to meditate as I sip a cup of coffee which I made myself.

Coffee and Johnny Yank Coffee Kept the Union On the March

Gun with Coffee GrinderThe 19th century was a tumultuous time for the United States of America,

and no time was more so than 1861 to 1865 when we were engaged in a

great Civil War. From New York to Texas, and beyond, the The Union Army

marched, and feeding the troops was a difficult task. In a time before

refrigeration was in use, foods had to either be fresh or be preserved.

Cattle “on the hoof” kept fresh and the men surely appreciated food that

transported itself. But this blog is all about coffee, and the same for

this article.


Coffee was a staple cherished by the northern troops. It was fairly

plentiful to the North where the soldiers received regular rations of

staple foods that included coffee. A quick pick-me-up was afforded by a

hot cup of coffee even when time was short. When out of camp and on the

march, when a rest period was called, the men would immediately gather

some twigs and sticks, light small fires, and begin boiling water for



The preparation method was quite simple and readied ahead of time.

Ground coffee was mixed with their sugar ration, and once the water was

hot, a measure of this prepared coffee mixture was scooped into the

water. This practice was so ubiquitous that the Confederate soldiers

often referred to the Union soldiers as “the Coffee Boilers.” There was

a bit of jealousy in that since the South had very little coffee

available to them, particularly once the naval blockade of the South was



But as with all things, necessity gives way to solutions.When there was

a sustained break in the fighting, Union and Confederate soldiers would

communicate across the lines in remote areas. The young men set up

personal cease-fire zones and traded goods across the lines. Two items

regularly crossed the lines. The South, being predominantly agrarian

meant that the Confederate soldiers had regular rations of tobacco and

this was happily traded to the Union soldiers for coffee.


But coffee wasn’t always coffee. There were times when the Union

soldiers received their coffee ration pre-ground and this was not

preferred. There was a lot of underhanded dealing in the supply chain

and pre-ground coffee could be adulterated with filler such as cheaper,

easily-sourced, roasted grains. This increased profits to the suppliers

and lessened the caffeine level in the coffee. Carrying a coffee grinder

was pretty much out of the question to individual soldiers so they

improvised. A rifle butt against a flat rock was often found to work

just fine.


Whenever the subject off coffee and the Civil War comes up, the

Sharps Carbine Model 1859 Coffee Mill is often mentioned. This firearm had a hand mill built into the stock. These came into use late in the war and were not widely distributed.

Likely, less than one hundred of these were made and only about a dozen

are known to still exist. It is said by some that they were for coffee,

and some experts who have tested them with grains and coffee have stated

it seems they were intended for grain. Both are likely correct. The

coarse burrs in these grinders are reminiscent of bulk grinders today.

Many hand grain mills on farms well into the 20th century were used for

grain as well as coffee.


Thankfully, things haven’t changed much in the most important way

concerning coffee (this is a coffee blog, after all). Those who look for

the very best from their coffee would never consider pre-ground as a

substitute for whole bean. Roasted coffee beans, if stored properly,

will keep for as long as two to three weeks. Commercially packaged in

nitrogen under pressure can be good for a bit longer until opened. And

much like those soldiers of over one hundred fifty years ago, you pretty

much know what you are getting. So next time you measure out your

“morning ration” of coffee beans and are running them through your

grinder in preparation for the day’s march to the office, remember the

boys back in the 1860’s who did much the same.

Only Irish Coffee Provides In A Single Glass All Four Essential Food Groups: Alcohol, Caffeine, Sugar, and Fat!


On Wednesday March 17th, 1st In Coffee would like to wish all our Irish (and non-Irish) friends a Happy Saint Patrick’s Day.

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