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.

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.

 

 

Book Review: Coffee Nerd – How To Have Your Coffee and Drink It, Too

 

Coffee Nerd: How To Have Your Coffee and Drink It Too

Ruth Brown, Adams Media 2015

Third wave coffee is sweeping the nation, cultivated by baristas in work-chic aprons with long beards and thick-rimmed glasses. If you didn’t care about single-origin espresso until now (and you want to know more) this book is for you!

Written in a witty and cheeky tone that both pays homage to coffee culture and mocks it, Ruth Brown covers everything from coffee history to drink prep in brief, informational blurbs. By no means is this in-depth coffee knowledge, but it is enough to turn a black-coffee regular into someone who knows their traditional macchiato from the Starbucks version.

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As a barista working amongst particularly witty, hip co-baristas I found the tone conversational, friendly and a little bit patronizing–just as though one of our well-educated staff were walking me through coffee culture. The phrases could have come straight out of our lead barista’s mouth.

There are enough useful facts in this book to get you through Third Wave Coffee Jeopardy and then some. After devouring this read (preferably over a cuppa joe–not Starbucks) you will be able to ask for a v60 without fear, possibly even voicing your opinion over whether or not you’d prefer Konga Yirgacheffe to an El Salvador.

For 200 pages of lighthearted education, what more do you need?

Throwdown!

It was the metallic clanging of a spoon against a milk pitcher that quieted the dull roar of a loud, crowded coffee shop.

“Thank you, everyone, for coming!” the pitcher-clanging gentleman shouted. The room fell into the respectful, sophisticated silence of competitors trying to out-manner each other. “I know you’re all rockstars at what you do. Whether you win or lose today, you’re all awesome, and we’re here for a great cause.”

The room filled with respectful applause. The receivers of this stereotypical pre-game pep talk shifted in their consciously crafted leather boots and Toms and folded their arms across their black t-shirts, or re-rolled the cuffs of their flannel button-downs.

“Are we ready to see some great latte art?”

The silent bubble burst into hoots and applause. It was a loud crowd, although neither rowdy nor disrespectful. After all, it was a room brimming with coffee geeks, the kind of meticulous people who put care, respect and pride into their every drink and therefore their every action in the sacred coffee space.

I took in the scene from my perch over by the window, where I stood on top of the smooth wooden chairs, overlooking everyone’s coiffed, hard-parted hair. Men outnumbered the women at least three times over.

How did I end up here? I found myself wondering, looking down at my thrifted navy-striped peasant shirt, clutching a notebook and Polaroid in one hand and adjusting the square frames on the bridge of my nose with the other. What happened to me? Am I… hipster?

All the signs affirmed what I thought to be true—I had been enveloped in the hipster lifestyle. I was taking photographs to blog about a latte art competition. Help.

Despite the fact I had found myself stuck swirling in a lifestyle eddy just off the mainstream, I was thrilled to be there, supporting our lead barista in his first coffee competition.

“This is going to be great,” I commented to my roommate/barista/fellow supporter as I snapped photographs. “One day when he’s slayin’ it at the World Barista Championships, we’re going to look back on this as history.”

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The three of us – fabulous barista darling Claudia and our fearless leader/manager Trey and myself – had driven three hours away from our secluded mountain shop to join fellow coffee nerds at Harbinger Coffee in Fort Collins, Colorado. Our mission was to take on a latte art competition for a cause and represent our shop, a hidden third-wave jewel tucked into the Yampa Valley.

Surprisingly Harbinger was filled to capacity with those participating the competition. I found myself grinning at the particular type of people who filled the space—unusual, quirky, dedicated people wearing cuffed pants and black shirts or pastel button downs. There was no shortage of thick black glasses and certainly no lack of hair product as far as the men were concerned. (Girls seemed to take the opposite approach, letting their hair fly wild and untamed.) The room hummed with conversations I tuned in and out of.

“We’ve got a Malkonig, too,” I heard as I listened to one conversation. Another passing group discussed naked portafilters with a passion. “We don’t split shots,” one barista was saying with conviction.

The competition was broadcast throughout the room via Periscope, a live-streaming app using footage filmed from a phone wired onto the decorative ceiling slats. Three judges sat at the bar, one the owner of Harbinger, another from Starry Night (a local Fort Collins coffee shop) and a representative from Sweet Bloom Coffee Roasters out of Denver.

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The room buzzed with excitement. Baristas clutched beers in plastic cups, socializing with their fellow coffee geeks, discussing pour-throughs as though it were a matter of life and death.

Trey, who we came to support, had shaken off most of his nerves by the second round. He won the first round easily. This was no surprise to Claudia and I—his latte art was constantly on pointe, and he was always practicing at the shop. (We probably have more faith that he’ll one day run the coffee world than anyone.)

In fact, a loose stream of comments escaped him as we stood watching others compete. He spoke out of a combination of comfortability, excitement and nerves. All in all, we realized it was an unusual cocktail that, when combined with his extensive vocabulary and verbal eloquence, would probably never manifest itself again.

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I took the liberty of writing down many of his comments simply for the novelty. (I am certain they will someday come in handy when looking back on the first competition of his lengthy coffee career.) For example, “I hope the final round is pouring each other’s phone numbers. Or tattoos.” Followed by, “When are we going to break out the almond milk?” and “Is handle orientation even a factor here?” Or, my personal favorite, “[The judge] said there are going to be a few curveballs, so I’m fully expecting to pour into a tablespoon or a boot in there somewhere.” (Although I am also fond of his comment regarding a competitor who looked like “a charming Harry Potter character” –“Do you think he drinks out of… the House Cup?”)

All in all, the evening was fun, buzzing with beer and caffeine and great competitor camaraderie. In its own way, it was a reminder of what coffee culture really comes down to: building connections and community over a nice hot cuppa joe.

A really, really elegantly defined and perfectly poured cuppa joe.

 

Appreciation from a Barista Grommet

I am a barista grommet.

By that I mean I am the setup, cleanup, smile-and-nod apprentice to our talented baristas at the local shop. The term ‘barista’ here refers to the dedicated coffee geek, the borderline-obsessed manic coffee drinkers and scientists that live off of the brew. You don’t just drink coffee here… You literally breathe it, eat it and sleep on it. It’s not uncommon to see one of our crew burying their faces deep into a bag, inhaling as though they can’t get enough oxygen, emerging with wide smiles and exclamations of, “Black pepper….and QUESO!”
Nor is it an unusual sight to see furrowed brows, deeply etched lines emerging from worried foreheads and hear long, drawn-out groans of disappointment as latte art goes astray.

“It was that pour-through,” the barista will say dejectedly, washing impeccably steamed milk and high quality ‘spro down the drain in the search of perfection.
How many people, I wonder frequently, know nothing about coffee…and drink it every day of their lives? The idea seems unfathomable, although it can be likened to the amount of people (like myself) who drive around in automobiles and are clueless as to how they run.
It feels like it should be ingrained in our nature to care about something that holds society together. How many times in my life have I met with a friend over coffee? How many mornings have been vastly improved by a sip of joe? How many meaningful moments have I spent with a warm mug in my hand, oblivious to the tiny link that helps humanity cultivate community?
It is with that in mind that I watch people day in and day out put lids over perfect rosettas, wondering if they took that split second to appreciate the design, the definition of microfoam against crema.

I am happy to play supporting cast to my barista pros, grinning more than either the barista or customer as one will say to the other, “This is just too lovely to drink!”
It’s okay if a customer gives it a passing nod. It’s okay if the barista responds with a frustrated, “Thats awful, I could have done better.” Even if it drives me crazy.

The important thing to know is this: baristas everywhere, I have enough appreciation to span the world. I admire your stretched milk talents from afar and I promise I would not put a lid on any latte you serve me. I may be just a barista grommet, cleaning spills and scrubbing dishes clean… But I am watching with mad appreciation from the register, and you can guarantee I’ll be grinning.