Coffee is About to Dominate Our 2017

I remember the first time specialty coffee caught my eye.

I was a fresh-off-the-press culinary grad in need of a job, and I answered a Craigslist ad for a baker at a new coffee shop in town. Once hired, I understood right away that this shop wanted little to do with pastries and everything to do with coffee.

Coffee. 

The word was said with hefty weight and reverence, like it meant something. It wasn’t thrown around casually, used to describe cheap fuel to keep the town running. It was spoken of as though a delicacy, a valuable and important asset all its own.

One cappuccino and I was hooked. Silky, velvety, smooth, surprisingly cool. I felt as though I, the recipient of this drink, were consuming skill and knowledge with each greedy sip.

I was also very confused.

When did coffee get this way? I wondered. Has it always been this complex? What are these devices? Where did the science come from? 


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Two years have passed since then. I’ve learned the answers to plenty of these questions, led on by mentors that both encouraged me and dumped my struggling drinks down the drain.

Barista? I learned how to show up early, work hard, take my work seriously. I can make espresso all day and never tire. But stepping outside of the shop, I am looking to explore. My questions have no limits.

When I moved to Portland to further my coffee education, I only found myself feeling trapped and discouraged. Portland is bustling with coffee nerds, events, throwdowns, and cuppings. There are shops on every corner. I live two blocks from a Stumptown and I work for one of the most respected companies in the city.

But I am, truly, blown away at how few people really love what they do here. Coffee hype got the best of the people I met. I remember vividly training a new employee who, when I pressed her for questions about why she loved coffee, responded with, “It’s just so cool. I love everything about it.” And that was the most I ever got out of her.

Coffee is cool. But it has little to do with your hip, tattooed barista and that cool record he’s playing – it has everything to do with the cup in your hand, that finally, against all odds, made it deliciously into your possession.


 

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None of this was quite clear to me until I visited my first farm, in a country I immediately fell in love with – the Philippines. (It helps that I fell in love with a Filipino, too.) All of a sudden, I could see with my own two eyes, and hold in my hands the tiny parchmented seeds that were trying to make it out of the country.

These beans, mishandled, would end up roasted to a dark and oily sheen, blended and bagged and served cheaply.

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But the Philippines has good coffee. Incredible coffee, actually. The climate of these islands allows for even very rare coffee to grow.

Why hasn’t it been showcased? Where does its potential lie? This we aim to find out, and to foster.

2017 is upon us, a year that looks like it will be hard, rewarding, challenging and unexpected. This is the year we will go back to the Philippines and get our hands dirty, on our knees to plant spindly year-old arabica seedlings. We know practically nothing.

And yet somehow, as I sit at a desk lamp late into the evening, booking tickets for our return and reading articles until I can function no longer… this is when I feel the same tickle of curiosity that I felt at the very beginning. It’s the same curious fascination as my first silky cappuccino.

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No collection of articles can prepare me for what we’ll face this year. No online class can ready me for the unexpected turns we’re about to take. I feel like I’m back to square one – a student, embarking upon a quest to become a master, ready for the blows that will surely befall me. Even imagining holding a coffee plant (which will surely outlive me, and the ministry we are planting) makes my heart race.

Coffee is about to dominate my year, in a way that has everything to do with the land, the people, and our stewardship of it.

When I prayed to use my talents to reach people, to make a difference and to spread the gospel, I don’t think I realized how practical it would be. I love coffee. I love the culture. I love Jesus.

To use coffee — brewing, growing, roasting, processing — to reach people? To change lives? To make a difference? Ah. Now we’re talking.

 

The Coffee Part of Things

I’m typing, rather painfully, on a cement surface that is so rough and new it leaves little powdery stains on my jeans. Still, there’s no place I’d rather sit, and not just because I’m wearing traveling pants that are made for the glamour of getting adventurous. No, I’m sitting on the unfinished rooftop of a restaurant that will soon be in business in the Philippines, and the flat, unfurnished cement patch I’m calling my desk will one day, with luck, be our coffee shop.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

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Let me rewind to six months ago, when I announced to everyone (including my boss) that I would be taking a three-week trip to the Philippines. Everyone asked the same question: why? (Equally importantly, why are you missing three weeks of work to visit some beautiful islands?) And I guiltily had only the faintest whisp of an answer.

“My boyfriend’s family lives over there,” I would reply. “We’re visiting them. And we’re helping with the missions work they’re doing.”

All of these things were true, Isaac’s family does live here, and we’re helping with the restaurant they’re building. But mostly we were going to scout out our own missions field, to reclaim the land that once belonged to Isaac’s ancestors and turn it into a full-fledged missions base that not only benefits the people here, but the land and lives of everyone involved. Oh, and we want to do it sustainably, economically and in a way that provides everyone involved with quality income. No more begging for missions funds to go overseas!

But all of these things sounded far-fetched. And to my largely secular group of friends, just saying, “I feel called” simply would not do. So I squeaked out an answer about helping Isaac’s parents do missions work and I prayed on my own that God would light the path for the reason we were here. Up until the very moment I got on the plane, all I could do was trust that God was going to bring to fruition whatever He wanted us here for.

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Which brings me to today. Our month in the Philippines is almost up, and now that I have seen the land and met the people firsthand, I am excited to know the path is foggy no further. The land is ripe an available and currently unused for nothing other than my dearest love — coffee. For anyone that knows me, I am a coffee fiend. The love I find in a warm, welcoming coffee shop is what I live for. The deeper I got into coffee, particularly specialty third-wave coffee, the more I became aware of how important the process is and how many lives are affected each time you serve a single cup.

As a barista, I am painfully aware of how ignorant the consumer can be when it comes to their drink. I have to fight daily the stereotype of being a snobby barista that turns up her nose at the uneducated customer and re-center my life and worldview of coffee once again around Jesus. Instead of demanding that a customer listen to my speech about our natural-processed Yigracheffe, I have begun to realize that coffee is just like any other commodity. It came from somewhere and has to be handled responsibly to be good. It is the customers job, should they choose to be aware, to know what it is they’re consuming.

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coffee drying on one of the local farms

Because even though I am really, really excited about fruit-forward espresso that came from a three hectare farm in Costa Rica, me standing around preaching the coffee gospel does nothing for anyone. It only adds, in fact, to my own prejudice. I serve quality coffee and I care where it comes from, I think to myself. I love coffee and the people behind it. I’ll pay $12 for a delicious, well-sourced drink made with care. But truly, how much good does it do to preach at people, or pay someone else for their direct-trade beans? It does nothing. It spreads awareness. I myself am doing nothing more than standing on a pedestal behind a gleaming espresso machine, begging people to understand that their drink matters.

No. I can’t do that anymore. Coffee is my life and I want to use it to change other people’s lives, too.

So today we followed up with one of our newfound connections here in the Philippines and will hopefully have our farm up and running within the next year. It has happened so unbelievably fast! Of course, we are growing a particular varietal of Arabica and will have room to process and roast here, as well as eventually serve. The dream goes as far as to extend to a shop in the United States, serving our own coffee. I kept running into the question, but is it good? Is the coffee good? Do only the best people have their hands in our process? The answer to this question is yes, although it has taken some good old-fashioned, nose-the-ground detective work to find what we need.

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With the ability to oversee the full-circle process of coffee production and handle in a way that is not only niche coffee (specialty coffee) but in a way that provides jobs for others (hopefully rescued women looking for work after freedom from human trafficking). This is all just a big dream, but one with connections and tangible possibilities.

As I sit on this rooftop, typing, the local kids are pulling out their matchboxes and releasing the spiders they keep inside for fights. They laugh and shout in a language I don’t understand, and they try to sneak up behind me to dangle the spiders in my face.

The quality of life here is different. The coffee farmers here may never even know that their beans are being inhaled deeply in a specialty shop hundreds of miles away, then served with a graceful swan on top to a customer who paid for a $6 latte. But hopefully, with some prayer and good old-fashioned digging, we can make a difference with coffee here that has nothing to do with us and everything to do with being stewards of our God-given talents. Hopefully these kids can be well fed and educated.

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But, all that said, Isaac and I will need prayer to get this dream off the ground. We have the land, the people, the seedlings — we just need to get started! The dream goes beyond just opening a coffee shop, it extends into the lives of those that farm, process and roast this coffee. Our goal is to provide them good wages, a place to live and education and discipleship.

There are other facets to this dream, like the restaurant, a skateshop, leather goods and other needs that need to be met here in the Philippines and in the US. Lord willing, we’re able to do what we were called to do simply by using our trades. So, if you get a moment to pray, we’d be super stoked. And this mindlessly rambling blog post is simply the tip of the iceberg when it comes to logistics, planning and ideas, so feel free to ask away if you’re interested in learning more or wondering if you can help. It’s going to be so rad.
(Also, if you were wondering, the kids did manage to get a spider on my head during this blog post. I did freak out.)
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Morning Coffee Thoughts

Mornings around here are quiet. It’s getting light later in the morning, so my drive to work is silent and drowsy.

When I unlock the market doors and let in the prep cooks waiting outside, I feel the tiniest sense of satisfaction. I always wanted to be a girl that worked in a marketplace, and here I am, propping open the doors with responsibility. The cooks greet me and offer a trade — breakfast for coffee. I always accept.

 
I have a purposeful routine to open. I turn on lights and select music, I heat equipment and run the grinder. The smell of the coffee grounds destined for drip is what kickstarts my brain activity. Like a true addict, my mind knows it’s about to get its fix of washed Ethiopian espresso, which motivates me to keep going.

 
This job is strange. Despite being in the heart and center of America’s coffee Mecca, people still are puzzled by specialty coffee.

“I’m sure it’s fine,” an exasperated prep cook says as I stare into space and inhale excessively into my espresso cup.

In nine million years would he smell this demitasse and think spicy melon? Peppercorn? Cantaloupe? Juicy? 

Probably not. Nor do I expect him to.

There are other factors involved in this job. My coworkers, for instance, who look at me slightly puzzled all the time. Sometimes they ask me questions about Jesus, and we spend our entire shift debating theology. Sometimes we talk about relationships, and I am met with statements like, “You wouldn’t live together before you get married? Sounds dangerous.”

If Portland had a thermometer for the post-Christian climate, it would sit in the center of my workplace and register the pulse of the city, the way it warms and cools to ideas that were once radical and now are the norm.

I love every single person I work with. I have struggled with and finally embraced the atmosphere in which I spend the majority of my time.

Before now, I never had to explain my faith, or explain what I got out of going to church. Portland has stared my lifestyle straight in the eye and asked boldly: why? More importantly: are you sure? 

The only thing in the city that has kept me grounded and guarded is Christ. And to proclaim that with boldness when someone asks me at 7:00 am before I’ve had my first espresso, “do I deserve to go to hell?” is a feat I didn’t know I could respond to.

Don’t mistake me. Portland is not a city of persecution for followers of Jesus. But it does lull them into conformity by soft discrimination and the pressure to just let go and live life based purely off of feelings and instant gratification. This is the city of everything. Amazon Now will deliver your orders to the door. Rare food markets carry obscure ingredients you can’t find anywhere else. Pockets of culture peer from every corner, subcultures unknown to the rest of the states thrive here.

It’s a beautiful city. I’m living in a charming house and working the finest buildout coffee has ever known. God has been good to me, he has shifted my perspective from one of overwhelmed panic (how do I survive here?) to confidence rooted solely in Him. Now I can thrive here, because he is fighting my battles and teaching me to love those that need Him. Even if they laugh at my old fashioned ideas or make my mornings a challenge.

As I sip (somewhat obnoxiously) my first pull of espresso for taste and quality, I get a caffeinated rush of gratitude. Garden City has not always felt like home, it has never carried the sense of being ‘my city.’ But, by the grace of God, it’s His. And He’s going to use me here.

Coffee Tours: Slate Coffee Roasters, Seattle, WA

Slate Coffee Roasters is every barista’s dream.

“Open 7 – Close.” reads the sign propped in front of its tiny, 6th Ave location. The space inside is small, minimalist, appropriately slate grey.

The heart, soul and center of the shop is gleaming Slayer espresso machine, sparkling like a new Christmas toy.

“Hello!” the friendly barista for the afternoon with her perfectly rimmed glasses, crisp white button-up tucked into black high-waisted shorts, smiles with confident professionalism. She knows where she is and what she is serving. She is the master of her profession. “Drinking here?”

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Following immediately are glasses of water and menus, as table-service coffee materializes. The menu, although plain and simple, black and white, needs explaining. Familiar terms like ‘latte’ and ‘cappuccino’ are nowhere to be found.

“Everyone has a different idea of what a latte is,” she explains without prompting. “Here, we keep it simple and refer to it as what it is. Espresso plus milk. We offer four ounces, six ounces or eight ounces of milk with each double shot.”

Skimming the menu further, she continues, “We do not have any drip coffee at this particular location, but will happily do a pourover for you should you prefer.”

After placing an order, returning the menu and waiting momentarily, the coffee appears. It is as it should be: an artistic centerpiece.

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Were I to have any detrimental coffee comment to add to this experience, it would be the mound of foam atop the final macchiato. I was disappointed that there was no creamy microfoam to do the milk justice (but will attribute it to the fact our barista probably milk-shared to make two orders and I assume I received the tail-end of the pour.)

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The most popular item at Slate Coffee is a deconstructed milk drink. Served in small flutes, a single shot of espresso and a scant few ounces of steamed milk sit separately, side-by-side. The last flute holds the two together in what would technically be referred to as a macchiato.

The hope is to show the drinker the importance of each component before enjoying them together in a tiny symphony of thick, vanilla-cream milk and rich espresso.

The milk, of course, is local and non-homogenized. Buttery, rich and fatty, it results in creamy texture that has the natural viscosity of a melted vanilla shake. This milk is pure and sweet and heavenly. Matt Perger would beam with pride.

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I will warn you that if you’re looking for an in-and-out coffee experience, Slate is not for you. Slate is for savoring and appreciating coffee as culture, not for slugging 16-oz lattes as fuel. Any other shop in the world will offer that experience; Slate politely declines.

(They will, however, happily explain their menu in detail. Please ask them questions, they live for it.)

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My personal experience featured the Chelbasa Ethiopian espresso, a natural processed coffee from the Gideo region of Ethiopia. It tasted like bakers chocolate and cherry cordial with a lingering aftertaste reminiscent of licking the bowl after making chocolate covered strawberries. In short, it was one of the best espressos I have ever encountered. It had me re-evaluating my life choices to better center them around better coffee stewardship.

Of course, in a shop with a shiny gold EK43 and a Slayer at the helm, anything less would be underwhelming. It is certainly good to know, however, that some barista in Washington State is living my dream.

The myths are true: coffee here is nothing short of perfection.


Check them out HERE or give them a visit!

5413 6th Ave NW, Seattle, WA

1309 NE 45th St, Seattle, WA

602 2nd Ave, Seattle, WA


Side note: Seattle is awesome. See adventures below.

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A Coffee Love Story

Part One

I have tried endlessly to blog about my favorite place in the world. Usually I start rambling, deleting, drafting, trashing and starting over.

I’ve decided to save my story and bottle it up until there is need for my memoir. Then you can read in detail about my experiences and I will have the ample space to spin my stories.

In the meanwhile, here’s the teaser. The real deal, the Erin Memoir Spectacular, is probably another decade in the making, so enjoy these lovely photographs and savor them in small doses.


I will give you some brief headliners.

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For instance. When I was 19, I started working at a coffee shop in Steamboat Springs, Colorado. A recent culinary grad, I was hired to bake all in-house treats, from biscotti to scones.

(My goal was to avoid at all costs those massive chocolate chip cookies found in cheap cafes. Making everything from scratch with unusual ingredients was my jam. Strawberry rosemary shortbread? Basil cheddar scones? Yes, please.)

I may have also extended my grocery privileges to cover very expensive grass-fed organic Irish butter, which is why the scones tasted so good.

Side Note: I still use that scone recipe for everything, including my last post. Sub Kerrygold butter for regular butter and prepare to melt. (Pun intended.)

As much as I enjoyed baking, it turns out I fell in love with coffee instead. I bugged the baristas for a few months until they let me behind the bar. I was able to play with the buttons of our La Marzoco Linea and crank the steam wands to full throttle.

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Of course, once I was bit with the coffee bug I started doing all kinds of off-the-clock research. I spent hours perched at the coffee bar, watching, asking questions, getting assignments.

“Read this,” our lead barista told me, pushing The World Coffee Atlas across the bar. He also sent me home with some good old fashioned Scott Rao books and proceeded to quiz me on their contents.

Coincidentally the more time I spent at the bar studying coffee, the more I noticed someone else sitting at the bar with increasing frequency. Only he wasn’t really there for the coffee. That was this guy, and he won  my heart around the same time I fell in love with coffee culture. The two go hand in hand, and within the span of our relationship we have consumed so much coffee that we could probably sail from Portland to Colorado and back in a coffee mug. But I digress.

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Suddenly I was actively listening and participating in heated conversations over pourover tasting notes. Was it grassy? Swampy? Earthy and vegetal?

Coffee had taken over my thoughts. I struggled to pour rosettas and hearts. I discovered a love of Ethiopian coffees, which continue to be my favorite. I drank a global assortment of wonderful brews, surrounded by people who wanted to represent it well.

Coffee culture. Precise, creative, beautiful, global, addictive.

When I moved away from Colorado to live in Portland, there was a mourning period. I was away from the mad coffee lab that birthed crazy coffee science. Despite the fact Portland is hands down one of the most coffee-saturated third-wave cities to live in, I had left my crazy coffee crew behind.

I found a job in the coffee industry, but longed for someone to lean over my shoulder, shake their head and tell me to do better.

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Recently, I took a trip back to Steamboat for a visit. I walked into the old shop and everything came rushing back as though I had never left, espresso starting to course through my veins.

I don’t know why Sprudge hasn’t done a piece on this lovely shop, cranking out the highest quality coffee in the Rockies. Heaven knows I’ve sent them enough emails.

(I’m telling you, Sprudge, if you need someone to write a piece on The Ristretto Coffee Lounge, I’m your girl.)

Are these my best friends? Yes. Is this like a second home? Yes.

Is it still insane coffee, all bias aside? Absolutely.

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I wouldn’t be here without the lessons I learned and the people I met in Steamboat.

I will now proceed to brag about them with photographs.

IMG_0426IMG_0394 IMG_0381IMG_0420 IMG_0455Of course, this story is far from over. And trust me, that’s the briefest run-through I can manage. But there are stories within stories, more tales than can be told over just one latte.

I intend to share them. But we’re going to need a few more coffees.

To be continued.

 

 

Coffee Tours: Either/Or Coffee, Sellwood

The winter drizzle is ceaseless.

It would seem to be perfect coffee drinking, book reading, curl up with a cup of tea kind of weather, and it is. Yet there are only so many perfect cappuccinos that can be downed before the caffeine has kicked in, awakening the urge to do something.

The product of too many cappuccinos? Adventures.

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It was during a coffee crawl that I finally stumbled into Sellwood. I’d been itching to check out Either/Or for a while.

I’m a sucker for tiny, intimate, less-than-ten-seat kind of places. This particular location, however, felt a little too far to travel and had been pushed down on my list for ‘a rainy day.’

That rainy day had arrived! 

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Either/Or didn’t disappoint. It feels a little as though an untouched corner of your grandma’s attic somehow acquired a La Marzoco Strada MP and opened to the public.

I was charmed.

With a little vintage refrigerator to house the milk and a tiny sink skirted with a dusty curtain to cover the no doubt rusting pipes underneath, Either/Or was comfortable and small, welcoming and warm.

Pleasantly, they also rotate their espresso selections and offer an espresso flight, in case you’re ready try them all.

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Its retro charm suits the Sellwood area well. This tiny little neighborhood in Southeast Portland is brimming with antique stores and strange holes in the wall. A particularly scenic view graces the river over a steep drop-off.

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The streets are sleepy and quiet. There’s a vague, small-town air of mystery here aided by the gloomy skies and endless antique shops.

Shops with bright, twinkling lights catch the eye. The rest fade into the grey.

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My only takeaway for this post is this: regardless of the weather or location, strange and wonderful things are waiting to be discovered.

Make your Thursday an adventurous one!


 

Portlanders! Check out Either/Or here or pay them a visit at 8235 SE 13th Ave. 

Coffee Tours: Ristretto Roasters, Portland, OR

Stepping through the doors of Ristretto Roasters on Nicolai Street is like watching my inner hopes and dreams materialize. In an old, historic building of brick, factory windows and warm gloom, it is as though every old novel I read in elementary school came to life.

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Portland, well known for that sticky, cement-grey, foggy gloom, hides this bright little gem in the industrial district. Edison bulbs of bare perfection illuminate all the windows, luring in those who are ready to get out of the damp drizzle and enjoy a great cup of coffee.

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Nestled in the front of the Schoolhouse Electric building, the vast stretch of blond wood flooring is taken up mainly by vintage-style, 40’s-inspired industrial home décor for sale. Wall hangings, classic couches and pretty knickknacks harken back to an era that only exists in the imagination. Cafe seats are built upon colorful library drawers — remember the Dewey Decimal System? Everything is bright and cozy and illuminated by more old-school lightbulbs than can possibly be counted.

For those poking around the building (raise your hand if you’re a snoop like me!) train tracks run directly behind the building, the heavy rumble adding to the surreal industrial atmosphere.

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Part library, part home, part factory, part schoolhouse, this lovely space couldn’t be more conducive to productivity. It’s like settling into the living room of a nice librarian.

The music is upbeat and eclectic, playing plenty of Johnny Cash and Ella Fitzgerald. And the coffee is ridiculously good. Ristretto Roasters is known for having several shops, but this particular atmosphere can’t be beat.

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All in all? This is proving to quickly be one of my favorite hangouts. It was the second coffee shop I visited in Portland when I visited back in September, and I can recall settling into the warm space, watching affirmation after affirmation pile up after meeting our first encouraging local.

Now, two months later, the space has stayed the same and I have changed. This time I can walk back to a tiny apartment nearby and come and go as I please.

For anyone looking for good coffee and friendly ambience, I can’t recommend it enough.