Editor’s note: Travels of a Barista Dirt Bag is an ongoing series of dispatches from barista/ guest blogger Zach Hester. The search for a delicious cup of coffee is taking Zach from his native Kentucky bluegrass, down the Mississippi Delta, across the Southwest to the shining Pacific Ocean. In Part III Zach reflects on what it means to be a barista while getting in touch with nature. Get caught up on his previous travels here: Part I and Part II.
The Two Rules of Coffee
There are two rules with coffee— or, at least, two rules that have stuck with me, rules that I try to be mindful of on each shift, each time walking into work. Rules that were embedded into my conscious through various teachers and rules that, apparently, translate beyond coffee’s ideal extraction, as I came to realize one morning in west Texas. In fact, rules that, those who have worked with me, particularly my friend and fellow Sunday morning cohort, Richard Blackwell—soon to be married— hear me mutter often:
- Stacking functions
- Mise en place
We woke up earlier than we rose. The air was still cool in Palo Duro, Texas. In these days it settles somewhere around eighty, and at night, right above freezing. On our particular night in October, it hovered coolly at 45. The evening before we had pulled into the canyon late, the sun already down and with the shade of cliff rock and dried ravine, we were well covered in the sky and cooling twilight of Milky Way. In the fall crisp everything was remarkably clear, the landscape had burned away any clouds and the atmosphere was as translucent as contact lens.
When we finally came to, it was with the gift of pure, unadulterated US-Grade American air and the rising sun breaking bliss overtop red, mountainous clay. There were only two real goals that we had conceived of for the day— aside from hiking and being appreciative and all that other jazz that comes easy when one is engulfed in natural wonder.
- Hard boil a dozen eggs.
- Unpack and then repack the car.
We took to the morning with a laughable ease. Some stretches, a little five minute meditation, laid back conversation and a rather lax attitude towards planning for the next week or so. Eventually, we had decided it was time for food, and thus, time to bring our kettle to a boil. Piling into the car we drove around the bend a bit and headed towards the massive RVs and the community campgrounds. It was a good place to set up shop for our breakfast. The morning’s menu: warm oatmeal, blueberries, a few bananas, and Sunergos’ Ethiopian Ardi via AeroPress—coffee, I should mention, which had very generously been given to us by Sunergos for this trip.
Once the kettle was cleared of its coffee and oatmeal responsibilities, and ready to use again, we delicately placed half a dozen eggs into the electric kettle with our fingers crossed (we are currently out of propane for our camp stove, unbeknownst to us until the night before). Flipping the kettle on, we continued our conversation. While the gentle boil began to grow, Ian took to telling me of how in Costa Rica they would eat half a dozen eggs a day. Great batches of sixty or so scrambled each morning so that the small community of workers on the farm could start their days off right. Ian’s anecdote reminded me instantly of the first conversation I had had with him upon his arrival back into the states— I should mention, along with two other close friends, we were the ones who picked this long haired jungle man up from the Louisville International Airport. I am blessed with a group of close and longtime friends.
Upon Ian’s reentry into the States, that first night back in Kentucky, around a table of friends and my family, when asked by my grandfather what the overwhelming lesson he had learned while in Costa Rica was, he responded very eloquently with “stacking functions.” Now, I have a very rudimentary understanding of permaculture, but this notion of “stacking functions” is a principle in that field of sustainable agriculture that has stuck with me. It is the idea of utilizing elements within your environment of which you can gather many yields from. In short, it is one carrying out many purposes.
For our morning, it was proving to be the twelve dollar electric kettle that had aided in our coffee, oatmeal, and most excitedly, a dozen hard boiled eggs. In a coffee shop working behind bar, it has always been for me the notion of eliminating as many tasks in one action or one movement as possible, while still maintaining quality. Essentially, it is efficiency in motion. It is a trait that I practiced while at Coffea in Lexington, KY and one that I remember every Friday while working with friend and teacher, Devin Thulier of Sunergos. If I had one bit of advice for beginners in the barista game, it is this: aspire, at the very least, to the remarkable functionality of an electric kettle. Easier said than done.
A few hard boiled eggs later we were ready for the task that really had us excited for the morning— reorganizing the car. After four nights in New Orleans and the presence of our friend and rock star, Nate Kremer, the thing was a wreck. This did not sit well with Ian or me. So, we methodically began removing everything from the car. My stuff on one side of the Hyundai Tucson, Ian’s on the other. Food around back, coffee had its own little designated parking lot space, banjo and ukulele were elsewhere, and so on and so forth until the seats were dropped and the car was perfectly void of anything, save the two mugs in the middle console. Maybe it was the AeroPress from earlier or the excitement of recognizing the stacking of functions, but once the car was unloaded, my second rule of barista-ing reared its head: mise en place.
Mise en Place
Mise en place translates literally to “putting in place” and is a term often used in the culinary world. My first interaction with the phrase came while out in Boulder, CO. After a few months of stumbling through shifts working for Boxcar Coffee Roasters, I asked owner Vajra Rich for advice on how to make myself a better employer for him and his wife (and co-owner) Cara’s company. His response, in the way only Vaj can deliver it, “Mise en place.” He didn’t elaborate, in fact, I think he may have scrambled away to some other task he was currently undertaking, but that night I went home and looked it up. It clicked instantly, many people who know me will vouch for this—I lack a certain meticulousness that a particular place like Boxcar demands. It is true though sure enough, when I practiced and then finally acquired this trait, it carried over into other avenues of my life, it made me better at what I was doing. A place for everything and everything in its place: fast forward to this morning and it never seems more prevalent than right now, knowing I’m traveling cross country in a car with my life and various belongings (currently anyways) packed away neatly in a Hyundai.
The point within a shop being, you should never have to search for your tools, those are your livelihood, and it doesn’t matter if you’re a barista holding a portafilter or a mechanic looking for a particular gear wrench. Tools should be at the ready and they should be familiar. Your environment should not be foreign; there are enough tasks throughout a day without having to constantly orient yourself to your surroundings. Mise en place and stacking functions, two rules I try to have in mind each time I walk into a coffee shop, the two most important rules I have delineated for myself while working in the coffee industry, and rules that are paying dividends here and now, on this trip. I have friends and teachers Ian Herrick and Vajra Rich to thank for these lessons in professionalism.
A full belly and an organized car later, we’re heading out on the trails of the serene Palo Duro canyon. It’s nearing noon and the sun is up. We’re in search of a lighthouse somewhere in the canyon, a hoodoo of un-eroded minerals in a landscape of quickly disintegrating mountain clay. I think it’s a six mile hike? On your next trek through the Longhorn State, make a detour and head towards Amarillo. The park is pristine, and aside from the Grand one, it’s the biggest canyon we got, and one absolutely worth witnessing.
The next stop once we depart from this beauty, tentatively, Santé Fe, New Mexico.