Boing Burn

Hello from Detroit, where I am drinking a somewhat bland imported Canadian beer, relaxing before my friends' impending nuptials and driving my husband crazy by talking absolutely incessantly about coffee, despite being on quote-unquote vacation.

You know who else is suddenly talking a lot about coffee? Boing Boing, which I love (oh my heavens do I love Boing Boing). Even better, they're talking to and about US Barista Champ Kyle Glanville, who of course notched another one in his belt today in Copenhagen, turning in a polished, relaxed and eloquent performance at the World competition. Great job, Kyle. Truly. And best of luck out there!

Anyway, back to Boing Boing.

So I'm sure you've seen the Coffee Blog Linkfest 2008 to the two latest Boing Boing videos, wherein BB visit Intelligentsia L.A. and learn about coffee. They are pretty fun, and it's incredibly validating to go to your RSS reader and see a bunch of stuff about the thing you do that everybody thinks is kind of weird and crazy, and imagine some of those people listening to a barista you admire talk about coffee in a way that makes it seem less weird and crazy and more artistic and exciting. Maybe someone will watch these videos and be inspired to drink better coffee, and wouldn't that be wonderful?


So the latest video in this series features Mark Frauenfelder and his own home espresso machine—a Silvia—in the Intelly West hq, learning about making espresso. Kyle, who really seems like such a patient, expressive and gifted trainer, walks Mark F. through the steps to craft the perfect espresso, except…

Boing Boing

…these are the ones that are repeated at the end of the clip, with any semblance of the espresso-coffee technique or nuance edited out—probably understandably, in a way, as our geeketry doesn't often make for the most captivating media studies.

But okay then, let's recap: To make the perfect espresso you need to

  • Scrub basket before use
  • Be aware of grind settings
  • Agitate coffee grinds before brewing ("You stupid coffee grinds!"—that is my favorite tip!)
  • Mind water temperature

It seems rather strange to me that these are the elements Team Boing Boing decide to focus on. And not just focus on because they're particularly interesting (because they're among probably the least-interesting things one can do when preparing espresso coffee), but to focus on them to the utter exclusion of any and all in-depth or explanatory details about the actual process of crafting coffee this way. I mean, in the video, reference or visuals of Kyle dosing or tamping the espresso are nicked down to the bare minimum. As a barista trainer—and specifically as a home-barista trainer—I would have to say that dosing, tamping and tasting are the three most important things to impart on a novice, not "agitate coffee grinds before brewing." And as a Boing Boing devotee, I would think that these sorts of superserious and intense details would be the ones they'd be drawn to.

But it's not about Boing Boing's failure to portray the craft of making espresso that is the issue here, really. Let me sort of explain.

I guess really what's happened is I've learned my lesson. I don't often delve deeply into my philosophies about coffee or the industry because there's enough of that floating around if you want it, and mine is not to judge or act superior, because I am certainly not superior in any way. I'm just a girl who loves coffee, when you get right down to it. But I will make an admission tonight, if you don't mind. Please excuse me.

Oh, you remember that piece in the Times about cupping? Yeah, well. A barista I respect and like very much (to whom I haven't spoken about this, because I can occasionally be a little reticent with my opinions, if you can believe it) seemed to take offense at how simplistic some of us have allowed public and nonprofessional cuppings to be—a perspective I can sympathize with. There is a point behind cupping, it has a certain ceremony to it that we do tend to bastardize for the "good" of the general public, and in making it so accessible as to open it up to first-timers or people who "have to use milk and sugar," we may be unintentionally doing the process and its importance a disservice.

That is one take on it, and it does make sense in its way, of course. Mine has always been a bit more populist a stance—about coffee in general, really—which might make me seem like less of a serious barista than I feel I can be in my heart, but that is an issue for another day.

By saying I am "populst" about coffee, I mean that I want people to know and approach it on their own terms. I want to say to them, "It's okay if you taste Pop-Tarts in this, because at least it means you're tasting something." I teach nonprofessionals about coffee, and often they are learning absolutely from scratch with me; it's what I do, and it's what I love to do. When I go into someone's house, I have to gauge where they're at, where their equipment is at, what level they are going to feel comfortable getting to. And I will tailor my lessons around that—I will never go into someone's kitchen and tell them that if they don't have this machine, setup, book or technique that they are wrong. I believe that if you like what you make when you taste it, then you are ahead of the game.

But still. This isn't just an arts-and-crafts project. This is an artisinal culinary skill. You are not paying me to come into your house and teach you how to make a pot of Folger's. You are paying me to teach you how to be a barista, how to speak to and understand your coffee—how to master and be mastered by it. I will always try to give my clients whatever knowledge I have about coffee, and when I do, I expect them to try to take it in and understand it, to put it to good use. When they are unable to do that, there's little else I can do but step back and hope their tongues are happy with whatever it is they can manage to eke out of their machine. You've got to push the bird out of the nest sometime, and you just hope it can fly.

So I saw this clip, and I got frustrated. I got frustrated because Kyle clearly spent some time explaining the art and nuance of espresso preparation and extraction, and he is at the very top of this game. I got frustrated because this is a skill and a craft and a set of instincts that is more than "agitating coffee grinds," and that Kyle is featured in this clip on account of precisely that—he is not in Copenhagen this weekend "agitating coffee grinds" (unless they agitate him first, I expect), but because he is an absolute master barista. And I got frustrated because I feel like a hypocrite for being so riled up about something being made so utterly "accessible" as to miss the point completely, and to actually impart almost literally no information about how to brew espresso, or why you would even really want to.

Is that what happens when you hear someone say they taste shoelaces, Cinnamon Toast Crunch or any other wackadoo thing during a cupping, even though you might be thrilled to see people getting excited about the whole idea? Then maybe I know a little better how you feel.