We’re home. Exhausted. Heads filled with more information than a mind can process, but at least, we’re home. For all that I like travel; I’m only one part wanderlust and two parts homebody. When I’m gone, I miss my donkey.
This week was grueling, in a fascinating sort of way. We learned about coffee from the grounds up (no pun intended) beginning with history and moving to various points of origin to discuss how altitude and environment differs the product. We toured a roasting house to see just how they take organic green coffee beans and roast them to different consistencies to bring out the different qualities of the bean. We learned how to “cup coffee” which is the official way buyers taste beans to determine their nuisances and quality as each crop is harvested.
Coffee tasting is not unlike wine tasting. Cupping is a blind sampling procedure that is traditionally done with four cups of each bean (to factor out the rare rancid bean that may skew results) a silver spoon and an odd slurping technique which filters air into your mouth with the coffee to bring out the unique properties. Sounds ridiculous when you’re witnessing the act, but the noise is supposed to make the flavors engage more readily on your palate. At a cupping, you first smell the bean and later, the coffee aroma by breaking the layer of fresh grounds after water has been seeped over them – one time only to get the base essence before the liquid is disturbed. Next you sip, savor, and spit. Not exactly a sexy thing to watch, but it sure is a remarkable way to taste coffee. As a non-smeller, I had to accept that I would be a very poor addition to any serious cupping event. Ah well. It was still fun to see this vital process of the coffee business, and it taught us enough so that we can put together a less stringent consumer version for coffee shop customers to help them learn how to judge coffee if we want to begin a monthly coffee club someday. Consumer education – now we’re in an area I can get excited about. Just thinking about the possibilities is fun.
We got our official barista certification, which means we can make every coffee drink known to the modern world. We can extract the perfect shot of espresso, steam milk to a thick, creamy texture (none of that dry foam gunk that poor coffee houses and big chains push on un-savvy customers) and we can even free pour a design (they call it latte art) on the surface of each cup. The outer ring showcases a dark creama, while the steamed milk folds in and surfaces in a heart or rosetta (leaf-like) design. Yes, we are coffee masters now. Got the certificate to prove it. It was awkward at first, and Mark and I both felt clumsy and old and out of our comfort zone– but being a barista is not unlike bartending, and once I made that connection, I soon rediscovered my old “it’s like riding a bike” rhythm. I can’t say we excelled beyond others in the class, but we old dogs finally learned the new tricks.
We worked on over a dozen espresso machines and as many grinders, sampled products, even learned to use a contraption called the Clover, an eleven thousand dollar coffee maker which makes each cup of coffee fresh with the perfect amount of fresh grounds, water temperature, and seep time. Yep, in some fancy restaurants they offer a full coffee menu featuring various coffees from different origins, then sell each cup dependant upon quality for seven to eleven dollars. Mark and I laughed imagining anyone in Blue Ridge looking at a menu with more than two kinds of coffee (regular and decaf) or seeing them going for over two bucks. Ha. But it was interesting to watch this machine in action and witness coffee taken to such an extreme level. I guess there are die-hards in every industry. It was a true luxury to sample different high end equipment before buying.
We learned the business of coffee house management. Eek. Gave me a headache. We can now figure out cost of goods, and learned all the nitty gritty formulas for budgeting and doing projections. Luckily, many of the elements we covered, like balance sheets or projections are transferable from our previous business. For those in the class who never owned a small business, it was very daunting. In fact, we’re told it’s not uncommon for people to attend this school, then decide that perhaps opening a coffee shop is not for them. Most people haven’t a clue how much work and detail is involved. Heck, neither did we. This school is a serious reality check. We went through a few days of feeling disturbed and depressed, but we came out of it stronger as the information sunk in. Always good to really understand the challenges you’re going to face. And we kept reminding ourselves that we are not opening a coffee shop – we are opening an Appalachian art gallery with a coffee bar in it. Big difference.
I learned about kitchens, professional cooking elements and food prep too. Cool.
We ended up hiring the consultants to do an ergonomic design for our kitchen and coffee bar so every appliance is set up in the most appropriate way for efficiency. This also gives us the electrical and plumbing specs for the health department and a list of exactly what we need to buy . That was one huge panic out of the way. Sigh. And as a student in the Barissimo academy, we get discounts on appliances etc…. Turns out the school paid for itself in about ten seconds as we discovered the benefits to come.
All in all, enrolling in this program was the smartest thing we ever did, and certainly worth every cent, even if it did mean sacrificing a trip to Europe once again (it’s always something). I think the awareness gained, the total enlightenment of what this business is all about, will allow us to make decisions which will hugely increase our odds of success. And if you’re going to do something, might as well do it well. If nothing else, it was good for our soul, settling those demons that kept whispering doubt in our ear. Running blind is a sure way for former graceful dancers to trip. Now, at least we see the path.
Portland is a beautiful city – not that we got to enjoy it. We never adjusted to the time difference, so I was up everyday at 3:30 and ready for bed at 7. Yep, I’m a party animal. We pretty much went to school, got saturated and exhausted (combination of thinking too hard and sampling caffeine by the gallon) then went to the hotel, had a glass of wine, and crashed. We did do a coffee house tour with the group, which was inspirational. Portland (along with Seattle) is the coffee capitol of the USA. They picked us up in a limo and drove us to the major coffee houses and roasters giving us a chance to see many of the theories we explored in class, practiced and in action. I was fascinated with the baked products on the shelves – seemed like they all had French pastry chefs locked in the back room. I think I gained ten pounds this week just from sampling croissants alone. Gee, it was a tough job, but when faced with those flaky crusts, serious research seem necessary.
I could go on and on about coffee and Portland – but in a nutshell, it was simply a very educational experience that left us fueled with new confidence, ready to charge ahead into a new endeavor with enthusiasm, rather than dread. And we met some wonderful new friends. One man was from Russia, wanting to begin the coffee craze there. One was a recently retired army man from Texas, hoping to open a kiosk. A couple is opening a drive through in Wyoming. A fellow from New York is opening a sit down coffee bar, as well as two girls from Portland. There was a girl whose family owned a cabin resort, and she is opening a coffee shop in an old farm house, only a few hours from here. We will be sure to attend her opening. But my favorite couple was the mother and son from Belgium who owned a huge bakery empire. They decided to change their lives and sold it all off to move to Canada, only to find themselves bored and feeling like they had lost an arm, so within two years they opened a new bakery which immediately got highly successful (It’s not just a bakery as you know them – they service all the area hotels and restaurants and have a staff of 50 working around the clock – for example, they make 1500 pie sized lemon tarts a day.) They came to the school because they decided it is time to add a gourmet coffee element to their sit down store and they want to do it right. I spent lots of time picking Marie’s brain to learn about the baking business. Pierre was young, full of humor and always willing to share his discoveries, so I tried to position myself on the same machine he was on whenever I could. As they talked about what motivated them to make changes in their lives,and how they learned that retirement is not all it’s cracked up to be, Mark leaned over to me and said, “Recognize this tale? Same story, different language.”
Coffee school was intense, but with good people going through the experience along with us, it felt as if we were not alone in our questions, concerns and fickle excitement. We were learning with friends.
We are turning our attentions to other factors now, such as art gallery management. And believe it or not, I came home and enrolled in some cooking classes at a culinary school in Atlanta for February. I want to study pastry and cake design and other elements that will allow me to feel professionally adept in the kitchen. Most coffee shop owners do the prepared restaurant scoop and bake thing, or purchase their baked items from bake shops at discount, but you know me. I’m a hands on sort of girl. Even if I wind up going an easier route in the end, I gotta dig deeper into the core at the start, just for the foundation a grounds up education offers. Besides which, I think it will be fun to learn the tricks of the cooking trade, and now I’ll have a super kitchen to play in, so why not? They say the way into a man’s heart is through his stomach. Well, considering I’m getting gray and I’m no hottie anymore, this gives me a fighting chance to earn a rare wink from a hungry man still. Desperate motivation for an occasional flirtatious grin, you may say, but there is an odd sort of romance about becoming a cooking heartthrob when all else is starting to wither and sag.
We spent the week with the biggest coffee geeks imaginable. I don’t mean this in a derogatory way – just that you never met people with such passion for a beverage. They were all deeply seeped into the coffee world, winners of national and international barista competitions, consultants and serious teachers. And I loved hearing them talk coffee, imparting so much knowledge it made our head spin as they tried to turn us all into coffee aficionados – purists at heart. Reminded me of Mark and I when teaching dance instructors about youth dance education. We cared so much about the product – we were determined to send qualified people into the world with a deep appreciation for the art. These coffee geeks are the same, wanting us to truly understand quality, and I admired them for their devotion to perfection. I confess, I can’t get nearly as excited about coffee as I used to get about dance, but nevertheless, it is always heartwarming to be in the presence of people who love their work. And they did indeed leave me with a deep appreciation for coffee and gratitude and respect for the many people involved in the industry. (For the record, I’ll never order a cup of coffee from Starbucks ever again – but that is the price of understanding a concept deeply.)
I’m now all hot to go on a trip to a place of origin someday– to meet the indigenous people of Ethiopia or brazil and meet the individuals that grow the fruit (coffee begins as a cherry, and the bean is the pit of the fruit). I want to see people dry the beans, and carry them to market in baskets balanced on their head…. That will be later, when I can write off the trip and write an article or two about it. I’ll use in house promotion as my excuse. See – every step you take in life leads you to the next – especially if you are creative and think beyond the box.
Anyway, that is the cliff note version of our coffee trip. I won’t get into the emotions (good and bad) about the experience, or talk about the culture shock we always feel when thrust into the city again. We had our testy moments, moments we wanted to shuck the idea and just go home. A few “almost” fights. We had our moments of excitement too. One highlight for me was an evening spent in the biggest used book store I’ve ever seen – it encompassed a full city block with multi levels. You had to walk from color coded room to room, often using an elevator and a map to see all the different subject matter. It was crazy. Mark had to call me on my phone to find me after an hour of wandering. Wish I had a store like that near me. Of course, I came home with a suitcase filled with books.
Now, I’m not going to blog about our plans for our new business anymore, because some things are best left under wraps, and business is definitely one of them. But you can see the new direction we are going…. When we are deep in the throws of building and it seems things are taking shape, I’ll unveil the project in all it’s glory – even if i’ts only limping along. Till then, I’m going to let this subject matter go for awhile. Use your imagination.
I spent the twelve hour flight (time change and changing planes made it a grueling trip) reading books on teaching and preparing writing seminars. I am very excited about this facet of my life too, and I have every intention of becoming a kick butt writing teacher now. This is something I really do feel excited deeply committed to accomplishing. I want to help others discover the great soul lifting experience of self discovery through writing. Coffee is great and all, but in the end, I look at our new business as a home base for housing many other interests– the things that rock our soul. Coffee is just the beverage served in the background. For Mark that involves building, design and wood crafting. For me, it’s going to mean building a home to gather people who love the written word, a place for teaching classes, hosting readings, creating book clubs, food enthusiasts groups, and creating mind tweaking evenings about other interests too… artist lectures, performers, etc….
So, the pie of my heart and mind is dividing yet again, allowing me to serve many slivers to the world– and this new business is only one slice. Writing, cooking, wine, fiber art, literacy advocacy, and of course, my donkey, each take up a slice too. And dance. . . I must confess, the diverse new interests I’ve leapt towards do not replace my former love – they only add to the rich diversity of my life as it unfolds. I am still a dancer, only I am now an aging dancer with a donkey who can make a fine pino grigio and an orgasmic espresso. I’m a dancer who can write a romance novel that makes your toes curl, and I can even crochet you a hand spun scarf while you turn the pages.
Life is a savory meal – but you have to acknowledge your hunger and be willing to take a bite to truly taste the full flavor of everything on your plate. Some offerings will be bitter and some sweet, but either way, remember – a person’s gotta eat!