I love coffee. More specifically, I love espresso. Even more specifically, I love making espresso. I loved pulling shots and making drinks before I liked coffee at all. In fact, I may never have acquired a taste for coffee if I hadn’t found my love for making beautiful, well-crafted espresso drinks. I started in the early 90’s in San Francisco at a small kiosk in the Federal Building and it was a world all unto its own: guards and metal detectors at the door, DEA agents strolling in carrying motorcycle helmets and machismo, Dilbert-esque office workers lined up at break time. I worked with some of my best friends and it was the most fun I think I’ve ever had at a job. I can still see two of the most genial guards laughing at myself and a friend as we wheeled each other across the marble tile floor of the lobby in office chairs we had commandeered, waging war with cans of whipped cream. We always had fun, but we also cared about the coffee . . . we cared that we made great drinks and that we did a good job.
My second coffee job in San Francisco was with a local roaster who had five or six of their own cafes. On my first day in management training, I participated in a cupping (picture me – a mouthy, nervous twenty year old trying to look serious and managerial). This was all new to me: the swirling, spooning, dousing, smelling, slurping and spitting. I believed my trainer when she whispered in my ear that it would be OK if I didn’t want to spit into the brass spittoon. I watched the owner of the company stiffen, suddenly taller and leaner, when I swallowed my mouthful of whatever seasonal varietal I tried first. He cleared his throat and told us all that while some of us may think we can handle all of this caffeine, that we would be best off to spit it out and not force ourselves into caffeine overload. His miniature tirade dragged on longer than that as I shrank more and more into myself. I learned, quickly and well, in that moment that ritual was of the utmost importance. After contemplating whacking my trainer upside the head, I decided to proceed as everyone else was doing and I learned to aerate my palate, savor the distinct flavors of each coffee and then spit.
That job was a lot of things, both good and bad. Top of the good column – it was definitely my coffee education and cuppings were done several times a week. As newbies, those of us in training would show up to weekly management meetings with unmarked cups of coffee in the center of the table and we were asked to name the country of origin on the spot. I simultaneously loved and hated this — I hated getting it wrong, as sometimes we all did, but I loved tasting the woodiness of the Indonesian coffees and the bright floral notes in the Kenya. I did have, despite having been raised clueless about its existence, a palate. It needed more training than most, but it was there. Through this process I developed what no extra hazelnut mocha with one shot of espresso could give me: not just a taste for coffee, but a love for all of its complexity and wondrous simplicity.
I came back to coffee four years ago, after ten years working in other fields, when I opened up my own neighborhood cafe in Portland and even though it closed at the end of last year, I still feel connected to coffee as though it is as much a part of who I am as my love for reading or sewing or laughing. I find a moment of what someone else might call zen in gently coaxing perfectly steamed milk out of the pitcher and allowing the espresso and milk to swirl and merge and form unique patterns – a joy not unlike making those happenstance splatter paintings at your elementary school carnival. I love the repetitious movements of dosing and leveling and tamping and locking on the portafilter – the exact motions that lead to the most inexact of products – espresso that is glorious in its unpredictability. I genuinely mourn the fact that I closed my cafe just as the naked portafilter was making its way into cafes everywhere – and yes, I do find a naked portafilter as sexy as its name implies even though most people just won’t get it.
Working in coffee in Portland gave me access to some of the best coffee in the world and it afforded me time with people at Stumptown who really know their shit. I mean, they know their shit. There is a rock star passion over there and in other places around town (and really, all over the country now) that makes you feel like you are justified in caring so much about that measly 3/4 ounce of frothy, caramel colored goodness that lasts only seconds before turning on you. Those tiny shots are much like all of your best love affairs – edgy and volatile and rewarding. I was able to meet other people who understand why you throw shots out or might fire someone because they refuse to stop serving bad shots – who really get why you care so much about every little step, every single time. To so many of us, it matters. It matters locally and it matters globally. It is more than the skinny jeans and ironic tees and hipster bicycles. Some of us are just not that cool. It has everything to do with hand-crafting, with imbuing the end results with your intentions, with knowing your neighborhood and your food. We all come together in this awesome and lively community of people who see a little bit of magic in the way shots will fall from a portafilter, who get just as animated talking about naked portafilters and who ogle espresso machines like they are classic cars.
I could go on and on . . . and stretch even the limits of being long-winded . . . here. But this entry is about to find its end, I promise. Still, I will go on and on and on, thankfully, because my life as a cafe owner and barista has given me the opportunity to stay connected. Through a random connection made between a customer and myself, I am officially working on a tentative book – awash in the ways of non-binding agreements and the tender nature of an embryonic idea – and am about to venture out into a world of writing that is all new. I feel a little like a teenage girl about to go on a first date – excited and anxious and sure that I will trip and fall at some point. I also know that this is one of those opportunities that can change your life . . . whether by redirecting you or just adding another layer to who you thought you were and who you imagined you would grow up to be.
At first, I was scared of writing about something that wasn’t fiction, that wasn’t literary . . . but then I got over myself and started writing here. With the coffee project, I’ve been afraid that I won’t know how to write it. Genres are genres are genres and they all have their own stripes. But writing is writing is writing and I have a passion for two things that are begging to hang out, pleading to hold hands . . . so I will let them. I will watch them out on the porch swing and I will do my best not to lean out the door and startle them before their lips can lock. I will keep my ear to the door but I will leave the porch light off. I will carry these passions around with me and I will do my best to stay out of the way . . . that is the best any writer can do.