Tuesday, March 04, 2008

VIVA BARISTA!


The first coffee job I ever had was at a kiosk in the Tabor Center, operating under the completely generic name “Espresso Cup”. Sort of an antiquated idea, the espresso cart, now that there’s any number of corporate chains conveniently ghettoed on every corner. It’s kind of like how the net café was made obsolete by the laptops on every table at those same coffee shops, or CDs being replaced by MP3 players, or cargo pants being edged out by those super-skinny girl jeans that all the hipsters wear. (I’m still bitter about that last one.)

Every day I came in at 7 am and - between reading books bought with the “tips” I got for giving away free drinks, and eating all the éclairs that our baker brought us – I made RIDICULOUSLY over-priced, absolute crap espresso drinks on a machine that was nothing more than a high-end home model. There are still folks in Denver who swear by their Folgers Crystals, due to the milk-scalded nastiness I had the audacity to serve under the auspices of “latte”. I was an angsty, directionless 19 year-old, too fat (what with all those éclairs) for it to even come off cool and disaffected.


Tired of dealing with all of the passive aggressive street people and other assorted loons who wandered in off the 16th street mall, I eventually displaced my anger onto the unfortunate Pacific Northwesterners who found themselves in our fair city, just looking for a serviceable cup of joe. I eventually went so far as to put a message on our menu board which read “The Espresso Cup Guarantee: Our Coffees Will Always Cost Less Than a Plane Ticket to Seattle.” Har-dee-har. What a prick.

A few of those folks braved my ire, pissing me off even more for the fact that it was obvious they wouldn’t get anything better, and were clearly just spoiling for a fight. And every single one of them, to a man, had one word on their lips, spoken with the reverence of Charles Foster Kane, longing for the innocence he lost along with his beloved sled, Rosebud:



“Starrrr…buuuucks.”

"Starbucks is coming”

“Starbucks will show Denver The Way”

“Starbucks will make you a ligit, world class city, and people from the coasts will never taunt you and your bumpkin ways again!!”


My point here is to illustrate the fact that there was a time, back before all the Safeway and Target locations, before Frappuccinos and breakfast sandwiches, that the little green label was viewed with respect and admiration by even the most discerning Javaheads. I saw an old post on William Gibson’s blog the other day, about how he can count on Starbucks for at least a decent cup of coffee, when he’s travelling through Podunk towns on a book tour. The guy certainly has a point; I remember on my honeymoon, it was the best cup I could find in Las Vegas, not exactly a bastion of coffee culture (or any other kind of culture, for that matter) and even in San Francisco last year, I found myself drinking more bad cappuccinos than good.

So last week, after my initial eye-rolling at the news about Starbucks closing every store in the country early in order to re-train their baristas, I have to admit I was intrigued. Aside from being a brazen (albeit brilliant) marketing meme that would naturally coast it’s way across the blogosphere, I couldn’t help but wonder: are the flat, too-hot drinks served from the Drive-up window in the last few years just the result of poorly trained employees, and not because of the much maligned, fully automatic espresso machines?

On the Wednesday morning after the training, I went to the Starbucks across the street from my work. I walked through the door, past the corporate approved sign reading “The Neighborhood’s Best Espresso” (gag). I must say, the employee I asked about the training at least gets points for attitude: she was sincerely excited about the push to become a respected brand again, and hopeful for the future. 30.2 seconds later (or however long the training manual deems appropriate) I was drinking my dopio from a porcelain demitasse.

The Verdict? It landed somewhere between ok (lower case) and good. Just short of the syrupy consistency of a great shot, and not quite strong enough - a shock, seeing as they roast the sweet bejeesus out of their beans. But it was at least the level of quality that Cayce Pollard would be happy to count on, after a transatlantic flight to Paris, or London, or Tokyo.

Contrast this, though, with the Mountain Regional Barista Competition last weekend. Bean Jockeys and Italian-Soda Jerks from all over Colorado, Utah, Wyoming, Montana and Idaho came together in Thornton (which heretofore shall be referred to as “Ground Zero in the Coming Javapocolips!”) to display and hone their skills.

After their slot was up, competitors manned an espresso machine off in the corner. I got a fantastic macchiato made by a barista from Salt Lake City, who informed me she was disqualified for taking too much time. I can’t speak directly to her experience, since I wasn’t at the event for very long (I was with my 7 year old son, who I’m sure viewed somebody making coffee for a panel of judges as being only slightly more exciting than the “Galactic Senate” sequences in The Phantom Menace) – but I was a little put off by that. In a world where the most recognizable coffee brand in the world is trying to make the best espresso they can from a machine whose primary function is maximum efficiency - I'm more than happy to wait a few extra minutes for something truly special. If there's any readers out there who participated in the event, I'd love to hear about your experiences.

In the end, watching these folks do their thing and seeing them root for their peers was truly exciting – it made me remember why I started this blog in the first place (hint: it wasn’t to talk about Starbucks). I have to admit that I felt pangs of jealously for the outright camaraderie these professionals showed for one another, and the passion they had for their craft. And while I was a little disappointed to see that nobody from Denver slid into any of the top three spots (two of which went to Heidi Bickelhaudt from Trident and Nolan Dutton from Conscious Coffee - both Boulder shops) I think it's awesome that the guy who took first place is kickin' out wicked shots and stickin' it to the man from the back of a conversion truck.

Hm. Maybe the coffee cart isn't such an obsolete idea after all.

14 comments:

Big Daddy said...

Ack.

Yep, I remember when Starbucks was considered 'cool'.

I was a barista for over two years and got my start at an upscale Italian eatery in Bonnie Brae.

We were taught by some Italian company the actual art of making the various espresso drinks, including foam art.

Besides stinking to high heaven of stale milk and getting all greasy from the steamer, being a barista was kind of fun.

Ah simpler times.

Were you at the coffee cart inside the Westin?

Ted said...

No, it was in the actual Tabor Center, in the food court.

Nuthin' classier than sitting and sipping your coffee next to Falafel King.

Where'd you work in Bonnie Brae?

totalvo said...

I miss the simple cafe days

Big Daddy said...

Cucina Leone - it was across the street from Bonni Brae Tavern and a few doors down from The Saucy Noodle [are those still there?].

MrDanger said...

Fucking great post man, fucking great!

Get Off My Lawn! said...

The best espresso I've had in north america was from one of those metal, round trailers that used to park for the summer season at the marina in Comox BC. It looked dank and dirty but what a cup. I asked the guy what the secret was, he said, "quality machine". He showed us the one he had and said it cost him $10,000. I was grateful for the quality but I don't think he sold a lot of espresso to the fishermen. I wonder how he paid for that damned thing?

The Divine Ms. Jimmi said...

Unfortunately, coffee makes me sick for some reason. My stomach can't tolerate it even though I love the taste.

I still favor the local coffee house over Starbuck$. The evil green empire.

Thanks for visiting my blog! :-(|)

merf said...

I remember your coffee cart job. I still have letters you wrote to me whilst :) sitting there

Gary Jugert said...

I remember Denver's coffee scene from 1981 ... one place on 29th Street where it turns into 15th Street at I-25 served giant pitchers of "Chocolaccino" and had a fire-trap upstairs "library." My first straight espresso shot came from that place and gave me a stomach ache for two days. This was WAY before the Mercury Cafe moved into town. I fell in love with espresso back then when people really wore berets, smoked clove cigarettes, and discussed Nietzche and William Carlos Williams at coffee houses. I'm not positive, but I think that may have been the ONLY location to get espresso in Denver back in those days. I spent a long time feeling like the only person alive who knew espresso existed.

When I finally visited my first Starbucks (in San Francisco I think??), I was saddened by its corporate design, but rejoiced over the hope it offered espresso lovers. Thankfully Starbucks has thrived and become the symbol worldwide for good coffee (and the symbol among coffee "know-it-alls" for bad coffee). I even work for them now and live with the good and not-so-good all wrapped up in a high-speed corporate environment.

The beauty of the barista championships over the weekend was the passion for that bean we roast, grind, extract, and serve with a loving reverence "normal" people probably don't need to understand. Yeah, it's a competition and much of what we celebrate in the espresso community gets twisted a bit by time limits, judging criteria, and anxiety, but it also brings together people who are passionate about making coffee better than ever, and bringing people together with our without clove cigarettes.

Even though I might have been the only Starbucks employee to watch the competition, and I watched both full days, I went back to my store reinvigorated to do a magnificent job with the tools I have. Most everyone at my location wanted to know what happened at the competition and how they could better share their passion for coffee. Someday I hope life will slow down for everyone and nobody will need to use a a drive-through to pick up a cup of Joe, but until then, I'm glad we have chain stores offering pretty-darn-good coffee and small independent shops doing an even better job.

Ted said...

Hey, Gary - seriously - thanks for taking the time to comment. It's nice to know that there are some Starbucks folks out there who are passionate enough about what they do to support an event like the barista championship - the fact of the matter is, there are plenty of "indie" coffee folk out there who don't.

Izzat Muddy's you're talking about? Sure as hell sounds like it could be, but I'm not sure if it was around all the way back in 81... not in the location I'm thinking of anyway. I'd love to know...

Big Daddy said...

It's Paris On The Platte.

I used to love their chickory coffee.

Big Daddy said...

Muddy's had great nachos though.

Gary Jugert said...

Yeah, it was Muddy's. They had a bookstore, a tiny little theatre, and that coffee shop up on 29th. They moved down near Five Points in the middle-80s (I think?) and their original building is a condominium now with a wine shop and a Tiki Lounge across the street (progress--sigh). The second location closed in the late 90s and the building sat vacant for a long time. I kinda wish I could get access to both of those buildings and try to find some archeological evidence of the first espresso in Denver.

Ted said...

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