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May 26, 2006

For the children

Noted without comment:

LOWER BURRELL, Pa. -- A Lower Burrell school student is facing a three-day suspension for sharing gum with a classmate.

Jolt chewing gum has caffeine and ginseng.

The Lower Burrell school superintendent said consuming and passing out the gum violates the school's drug awareness policy. That's because caffeine is considered a stimulant.

Parents told Channel 11 they did not understand the suspension.

Resident Elizabeth Grombacher said, "I think it's stupid. Everything's getting too politically correct it's so wrong."

"It's probably just like Mountain Dew or something like that. If it's got a lot of caffeine in it and they probably sell the pop at school,” parent Nita Serene said.

Jolt chewing gum is sold over the counter at drug stores and vitamin distributors.

[Via Nobody's Business.]

May 25, 2006

Cigarettes drive French from cafes

Is French cafe culture in trouble? An article from Agence France-Presse says so:

The French have been deserting their country's trademark cafes in droves in the past decade, preferring more sophisticated bars or other smoke-free venues, a study showed.

Only 41 percent of French people said they regularly visited cafes -- compared to 81 percent in 1997 -- although a majority still said they saw them as an important part of French culture.

Asked why they had change habits, consumers cited high prices and a lack of real non-smoking areas, good music or entertainment, according to the study on consumption patterns, carried out for the drinks group France Boissons.

Fast-food outlets, restaurants and leisure centres all saw their customer base grow over the period, apparently benefiting from the behaviour change

Regular readers know that smoking bans are one of my hot button political issues. And while I normally keep political posts to my other weblog, every once in a while coffee and politics overlap.

In this case, the article cited above was sent to my friend Brooke Oberwetter. Brooke was a leader in the campaign against the DC smoking ban. Without a hint of irony, the article was sent out as a pro-ban message, even though it shows consumers voluntarily deserting smoke-filled businesses without legislation. Anti-smoking activists should instead take this as an encouraging sign: even against the ingrained cigarettes and coffee culture of France, the market is shifting people toward non-smoking social options. Activists don't need a ban to reach their ends. They just need a little patience.

For more on evolution of non-smoking cafes, see my post from March. For why I believe the transition to smokefree bars in the US is taking longer than some non-smokers would like, see that same post and also this one.

A brilliant inversion

When I said in the last post that the logic behind the name of the Starbucks Caramel Macchiato is "known only to a room full of lame marketers," I was wrong. My decidedly non-lame friend Wendy knows the truth and reveals it in the comments:

You can have a latte macchiatto, though, right? Where the milk is poured first, then marked with foam. Macchiatto doesn’t have to do with the amount of milk, but the marking. Most people get an espresso machiatto — an espresso marked with steamed milk. But there is such a thing (outside of the siren’s realm, even) as a latte machiatto. This is where the inspiration came from, because the Caramel Machiatto (insert registered trademark sign here) is steamed milk marked with both espresso AND caramel. It’s still misleading, yes, but not quite in the way you think.

Do you realize what a brilliant inversion this is? It's as if Starbucks was publicly admitting, "We're not a coffee company anymore, we're a milk and sugar company. But sometimes we'll mark our milk and sugar drinks with coffee so you can feel good about ordering them for breakfast." I love it! I will no longer mock the company for the silly name of this drink now that I'm aware of the genius behind it.

Wendy also reveals that Starbucks once required all its employees to wear tie dye shirts for its 25th anniversary celebration. Weird.

And lest I defame Wendy, Seattlite and coffee lover, by portraying her as an all-out Starbucks apologist, I'll link to her eclectic list of top five coffee experiences. None of them involve caramel, frappe powder, or the whir of a super automatic espresso machine.

[Cross-posted on Eternal Recurrence.]

May 23, 2006

A barista more bitter than his coffee

I recently wrote here about what makes being a barista such a great job. In contrast, The Roanoke Times ran an op-ed by a barista named Bruce Henry the other day entitled "10 things baristas hate about you." The author, trying to be funny, comes off as a bit of an ass, but he's right about some of it. Let's take it point by point.

10. Teenagers. Bruce says hanging out in a coffee shop will never be cool. I hung out in coffee shops when I was a teenager and I was... ok, well, some of the people there were cool. And some of the most interesting people I know I met while hanging out in coffee shops. Bars have their place, but drinking a cup of coffee with your friends offers its own perfections.

9. Anything decaffeinated. I used to agree with him on this one. Then, after working nearly six months in my current coffee shop, I tried our decaf espresso for the first time. Once I dialed in the correct grind it was surprisingly good. I'll stick to the regular stuff and still think the decaffeination process is basically molesting the bean, but I have a newfound respect for decaf.

8. Over three words to order. Sort of with him on this one. Simple is better. If you've got a good barista, trust him to make you a tasty drink.

7. Taking forever to order. I like answering questions because I like talking about coffee, especially if the customer is open to trying new things (i.e. being steered toward less sugar and less milk). But lollygagging at the counter while scanning the menu they should have been scanning when they first got in line? Yeah, that's annoying.

6. The macchiato. Completely agree. The word "macchiato" is derived from the Italian for "marked," as in espresso marked with a touch of milk. How this became Starbucks' 20 oz caramel drink is known only to a room full of lame marketers. However it happened, it confuses every customer who wants to duplicate the Starbucks caramel macchiato at their local cafe. My favorite story is the customer I served who, even after having it explained to him that a macchiato is a tiny drink and he probably wanted a caramel latte, insisted on getting a caramel macchiato. When I gave him a demitasse of caramel, espresso, and milk, his friends were shocked he wanted such a small beverage. "Yeah," he said defensively, "at Starbucks you get a much better value." For him, macchiato was a mysterious essence that made his drink delicious, not a term describing the amount of milk involved.

5. Live music. I've never worked at a place with live music. I don't think it would bother me, but it could disappoint me as a customer if I was expecting a chill place to talk with friends and instead found a loud concert going on. Even worse? Walking in to your favorite shop to find it's been taken over by a politician's campaign event.

4. Anything from a blender.
Indeed. There's something degrading about making blended drinks, taking great shots of espresso and tossing them into a container full of frappe powder. As a fellow barista once said, "If I wanted to work at Smoothie King, I'm sure I could."

3. Being in a hurry. Super automatic espresso machines and milk steamed by the bucketfull makes for drinks served quickly. They also make for bitterness and poor texture. If you want the former, go to one of the big chains with my blessing.

2. Tipping. I think tipping is a good practice for reasons I'll probably write about here later. But I don't think it should be taken for granted if the barista doesn't earn it with skill and a pleasant personality.

1. Starbucks. I've written lots about the company before. I can live with the lingo if it gets people drinking espresso. I see Starbucks customers as conversion opportunities less than as annoyances.

Things that would have made my own list? Ordering soy milk (most of it doesn't texture well). Drinks that are so big I can't extract the shots directly into the cup. Chai that's sweet instead of spiced.

[Cross-posted on Eternal Recurrence.]

May 21, 2006

Lovely espresso quote

Perusing the food and drink archives of my other weblog tonight, I came across this passage about espresso that I'd forgotten about. It's from Andrea Illy's book Espresso Coffee: The Science of Quality (yes, that Illy). Here's what he says about the experience of espresso:

Espresso consumption is an aesthetic experience, like tasting a vintage wine or admiring a painting. It is a search for beauty and goodness and improving the quality of our life. As it offers such subjectively ineffable ‘goodness’, devoid of defects, the only adequate reaction to it is astonishment — astonishment that can give birth to enthusiasm, and therefore intellectual and spiritual enrichment.

Astonishment is an accurate description of the feeling I get when I taste a great shot. That the seed of the coffee bush, painstakingly grown and picked, transported over oceans, baked to a dark brown, ground to tiny pieces, and finally hit with high-pressure hot water could yield a brew so thick and sweet and lasting just a few moments is really quite amazing when you think about it.

May 17, 2006

Murky and me in NoVa Magazine

I'm quoted a couple of times in an article by Christine O'Connor about good coffee and free wi-fi in the May issue of Northern Virginia Magazine. The first time is about why people hang out in coffee shops:

"The coffee house fulfills our need to not be alone," says former Murky Coffee barista and aspiring coffee shop owner Jacob Grier of Arlington. "Even if we never say a word to anyone, we feel connected to our community."

The second is about why guys like me continue to work as baristas:

"To be a barista in a quality local shop is to create countless moments of evanescent beauty," says Grier. "The ideally extracted espresso, the well-poured latte, the repetitive rhythm in making a rush of drinks. All that makes the job wonderfully satisfying."

So I went a little over the top (OK, a lot over the top), but what can I say? I really like my job. No matter how many times I do it, I never get tired of watching those first drops of espresso coalesce at the bottom of a cup or making a nice rosetta magically flow to the surface of a drink. And the word "evanescent" doesn't see print nearly enough.

Other Murky regulars pop into the text and photos; note Ryan's Michael Jordanesque tongue appearance as he concentrates on his latte art.

The article is not available online. Locally the magazine can be found in Barnes & Noble and Borders and has a cover story on forty NoVa places to go for a "frugal feast."

[Cross-posted on Eternal Recurrence.]

May 12, 2006

Llama blood lattes

Don't be put off by the fact that the antibodies are derived from llama blood. If you're trying to avoid caffeine, this new invention could be a great way to test your drinks for its presence. (Or if you're like me, to make sure the barista didn't sneak you the decaf.):

Chemists at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis are developing a quick, "dipstick" test that they say could represent the first home testing kit to detect the common stimulant...

"We envisioned that a simple method to measure caffeine, even in hot beverages, such as coffee, would be of value to individuals and institutions wanting to verify the absence of caffeine," said study leader Jack Ladenson, a chemist at the university. "This will greatly assist individuals who wish to avoid caffeine."

Ladenson said he is developing test strips treated with a specific antibody that react by changing colour in the presence of caffeine.

This seems like a simple idea, but coming up with an antibody that would remain stable even under high temperatures was apperently a difficult feat.

[Via Slashfood.]


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