This weekend I was invited to think back to my high school stint as barista in one of my favorite coffee shops – Boulevard Coffee. My best friend in Kindergarten was Amber, and her parents owned the coffee shop. Cliff roasted the beans, Karen ran the shop. It was always a fun treat to go in there and help my mom pick up beans. The smells, the feel, it all seemed special.
I started drinking coffee pretty young. I remember the joy of cafe au lait, mostly milk, as my first introduction to coffee. When I was an adolescent I was allowed to drink it black, which is how I take it now. This is no doubt in part to the fact that my mom drinks it black. My dad used to use “canned cow”, or evaporated milk. That can would sit in the fridge with a weird skin on the lip. He takes milk and cream now, but that just made me more resolute for black coffee.
When I finally needed to get a job in high school working for Boulevard just made sense. They needed people, I needed a job, and it was bikeable from school and home. Working there made sense. I liked my coworkers and I loved the work. Learning about coffee from people who really cared about the beans, the roasting, the grind, the brewing was trasnformative. All of my obsessions and rituals about coffee were codified then. My parents enjoyed that I came home smelling like beans, but the discount was also good. I loved that I got to try new roasts beyond the French Roast and Seattle Starlight my parents would always buy. Tanzanian Peaberry, Aged Sumatra, Celebes… all good in their own way. Drinking different coffees and really studying them helped me appreciate the variances in roasting, the acidity of the beans. To this day, I still hold Boulevard’s beans up as a standard in good roasting. Not burnt like Peets, not overly light like Blue Bottle. There’s an actual difference between a dark roast and a light roast.
Then there was the world of espresso drinks. I was a pretty good barista and could pull really nice shots with rich crema. I could get microfoam with no trouble. (Man, I wish soy milk was better at foaming…) It was here I learned to appreciate a proper cappuccino or macchiato. People would come in, asking for one of the bastardized espresso drinks from Starbucks and we’d shrug and tell them the fanciest they’d get from us was an iced mocha. There was no blender, no ice cream, no caramel syrup.
I recognize this sounds all very parochial. I admit that I have fairly traditional views about coffee. I don’t drink fancy beer or wine, I drink good coffee. This summer we ditched the Mr. Coffee for a Chemex. Expobar espresso machine. and a Mazzer mini. Life’s too short for bad coffee. (Yes, that is the most bourgeois thing I have ever said.) Though I will do stupid things for free coffee…
So tomorrow morning when when brew up a pot of “So Good” from Philz, it is in some ways a continuation of what I learned at Boulevard, and what I saw my parents do when I was a child. It’s more than caffeine and bitterness. (Hmm… that should be my new motto.) This corner of coffee culture is very similar to collecting vinyl… which probably speaks to another character flaw of mine, but we’ll tackle that later.