BARISTA SOCIETY? In this economy?BLOG
Why yes I did drop out of a university level English curriculum to live the barista life, why do you ask? In the process I served a lot of doppio espressi and earned my share of tips. Well now it's my turn with the tips. Mr. Wilkinson sir sit down!
As part of our ill-advised gambit to pivot every enterprise into literary production, we are pleased to present Barista Society? Today we tell the story of why tea. Why tea indeed.
You get another chance — and YOU get another chance — — — and YOU get another chance
What did tea mean to me then? It could have meant anything, but it wouldn’t have meant nearly a thing to me if I hadn’t come to it as I had — from coffee, from a life soaked in coffee, its brewing and service and love and devotion. A life lived too long in coffee, a love lived too long without requite. Have you ever given yourself to something for longer than you should before coming to know that it did not love you back? Coffee did not love me back. But I thought, if I loved it particularly enough, if I loved it in a way so deranged it could only be mine, through nights and days and continents and styles — I could fix it. I could fix a coffee for myself and perhaps for you as well, I thought.
That feels like so long ago now, those years of living thirstfully, fully soif in a desert of exhaustion, sleeplessness, giving and brewing with the hours of my bones. Sleepless night, wakeless mornings in coffee. And I loved them, such to never have enough, to race through them to the next of them, from cafe to cafe, roaster to roaster, cup to cup to cup. I could fix me a coffee, if a coffee could fix me first.
portrait of a fool traipsing the world trying to find another better coffee
The best part about coffee is that it’s really difficult to make it as good as it can be. Nothing against bad coffee of course! Bad coffee has a treasured place in the heart of the world, bad coffee is the perfect remedy against the unavoidable struggle of making and drinking coffee — it’s so hard to make it really and truly good, so what, if we, didn’t? So many people are happy to live that way, and cloud their imperfections in sugar and milk fat. I will say I don’t judge them, but my life in coffee was a life in judgment.
Judgment means doing what is necessary in service of the drink. Coffee if it is not to be bad asks everything of its maker, if not of its drinker. Coffee is an empirical torture chamber of tools and systems, coffee is nothing without a laboratory of infrastructure, investment, effort and time. Coffee exists as it does only as the output of this system, from cupping on down ~ an assembly line of assessment, discernment, disgust. That’s what it comes down to, gustation as the outcome of disgustation. The construction of a mind palace of flaws and failures, every way something sensory and alive can fail to live up to what it could be, affixed on a 100 point scale. When it’s really good, it’s probably an 89. A 92 if you’re lucky. And that’s before it’s even been brewed.
adrift in the coffee, awash in the coffee, Zagreb Croatia - great cafe though
Once the roasted seed subjected to this process has been honed and handled, it comes to you ready to be fucked up. Grist for the mill of your effort, how much will you choose to care today? When you get in line to be one of one hundred drinks made by one set of hands in one hour this morning, how much effort will they have to expend on you? I will say to you that they care the most they are able to care, and it will be pretty good. Often very good. Sometimes truly great. How did they get there I won’t even gesture towards, perhaps you know and perhaps you don’t. Perhaps you want to know and perhaps you don’t. It is as arcane as the metallurgy of the middle ages, and often if it is enormously effective. Coffee, from the users perspective, has never been better.
From the eye of the barista however, and I can speak only for myself, coffee was a constellation of flaws, failures, near misses and just about almost arrivals. Just as much as I was living one cup away from having had enough, each cup was shaded with the ways it could have been better. Whether it was freshness or maturity from roast date, grind setting and particle size, under or over extraction by the millilitre, whether it was just too hot to sip comfortably or too cooled to express itself just right. Every ounce of enjoyment came tempered with the weight of assessment, and the suffocation of insufficiency. If this sounds overwrought, yes also there was everything else wrong with the world and with myself as well. But the drink wasn’t making it any better.
a sign, a street, an invitation in Melbourne. not coffee?
That was where I came from when I found tea for real, one afternoon in Melbourne. Brunch sick and microfoamed, granularity in my mind as textured as the milk that was everywhere in the way of what I wished I was drinking. Penny-stretched with prices appropriate to the effort and labour involved in putting an ounce of extraction inside all of that hot milk. Sick with it all really, and so very thirsty. That was how tea found me for real. At first someone brewed it for me, patiently and effortlessly, in small doses stacked on themselves like the hours. Tea opened as patiently as its brewer, evolving aromatically from hint to pronouncement to evolution, reserving nothing as it went. Where previously discernment had meant partiality, the application of selective extraction to separate what was wanted from what was undesirable, the brewing of tea was impartial, open to everything, giving completely and accepting of all interpretation.
point of view you are at the bar at Kuura in Melbourne tea is being brewed you are drinking the tea the tea is not coffee the tea is being brewed and still being brewed you are drinking the tea
When I began brewing it myself this radical departure from what I knew was unflagging. With whatever paltry equipment, even with nothing but a cup. Without even a real kettle, just a second hand pot on an electric stove. However I came at it, it was exactly the same: amazing. Incredible. Of depth, of fullness, of a quenching satisfaction I’d never known. I could taste it a hundred times and never taste the same thing, and every expression felt right. More than right, it felt not wrong.
I’m still drinking on that leaf, I’m still approaching it with a feeling of newness every day, I’m still feeling hydrated and happy in it. If I could throw a life raft to myself so many years ago, it would be a 200 gram disc and it would read Drink Tea, Do Nothing.
Tea gave me the realest remedy for the travails of the barista. Tea gave me another chance to get it right, when it wasn’t wrong to begin with. Every steep is another extended hand offering itself to a dance, every steep is another opportunity to drink what comes of it and to come to it as you are. To do nothing, and drink what already is. Thanks tea, and the many hands that tend it. I really needed that.
the street the store a door is open and tea is inside