Probably the best gift I could ever have asked for as an erstwhile full-time barista coming back into the fold after a six-month hiatus is the chance I've had to reopen my mind about coffee.

If you work nonstop, you inevitably settle into techniques and create muscle memories that nudge you into a groove. Eight months, a year, six years after being trained in specialty coffee and working 30+ hours behind the bar, could you almost pull a shot with your eyes closed? Well, maybe not a great one, but something more or less resembling an espresso? Probably.

And what happens when that's gone?

Stepping behind that counter for the first three shifts was strange and unnerving; the portafilter seemed heavier than I remembered it, the grinder seemed more persnickety, my movements were stilted and choppy. It wasn't the dance I thought I knew at all; my arms bumped, my fingers shook and my timing was all wrong, like a toddler in a ballet class.

What the pitcher sees

But that awkwardness was a blessing in a disguise, and continues to be. Now every time I go to make a movement, to turn a machine on or off, to do this or that to my coffee grounds, I'm forced to think: Why?

Why am I doing this particular thing right now, and is it the method that will produce the best effect? If I pull the demitasse out from under the espresso stream while it's pouring rather than turning off the group head, how does that change the product? If I knock my portafilter baskets empty rather than leaving the spent puck in the group, what difference will it make to the next shot, the next three shots, the next 20? What will a circular distribution accomplish, and how does that compare with the Chicago chop?

Half a year ago, these were givens. The answers were built into my routine, for better or worse, and I was making coffee in a way that was successful, but was it the best it could have been? Is our coffee ever the best it could be? There's always that next "Why?" out there, there's always a new explanation, a new experiment. There are always things to read, people to confer with and baristas to watch. There's always something to learn. Now that I'm not so busy being the one with the overhead projector and podium, I'm ecstatic to be in the front row, taking notes (and maybe doodling a little—just a little!).

I might take a little longer than I used to to build a drink, but at least now I can really tell you why.

Derek style