Wednesday, October 04, 2006


Goodbye Los Angeles, Hello San Francisco

This week finds me back home in San Francisco, my latest foray into reality television finally over. (Ahhhhhh!) The thing that I’ve been reflecting on these past couple weeks is what a difference the barista makes. This may sound obvious to some of you. And others of you are probably scratching your heads, wondering what a barista is. (The barista is the person who makes your espresso drinks. Yes, it’s a word that we borrowed from Italian. But they borrowed “bar” from English in the first place, so… it’s an international hybrid!)

So for starters, a couple weeks ago, I trekked out to San Dimas, California – along with the still-curious Aldo Velasco – to visit a place called the Coffee Klatch. For those of you unfamiliar with Southern California, San Dimas is inland from L.A. It’s hot as hell. It’s got a great view of the mountains. It was the setting of Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure. (The 14 year-old in me kept looking for a Circle K, but I didn’t see one.) And Coffee Klatch has a GREAT reputation. Earlier this year, esteemed coffee reviewer Ken Davids gave one of their espresso blends his highest rating ever. So Aldo and I made the trip out there partly just to taste the coffee but also because I was preparing to shoot an interview there - with former US barista champion Heather Perry - and I needed to do a little location scout.

In any case, we arrived with great expectations and well… we were pretty disappointed. The flavor of our cappuccinos was excellent, but in all other ways, they were forgettable. Mine was scalding hot – literally boiling – and the foam had that stiff, big-bubble texture that just makes me think that maybe life IS suffering after all. And they accidentally gave it to me in a paper cup. To soothe our disappointment, Aldo and I trooped across the parking lot to Target and stocked up on underwear.

OK, now cut to four days later. I return to Coffee Klatch to conduct an interview with Heather Perry. I have seen Heather compete at a couple barista competitions in the past year, and I know she is serious. I mean, VERY SERIOUS. In spite of her sweet smile and twinkly blue eyes, this girl gets her game face on when it’s time to compete. (I’m not gonna lie to you. She can be a little intimidating.) So Heather proceeds to make one of the best cappuccinos I have ever tasted. And she makes it over and over and over again. Perfectly. (In hindsight, I can’t figure out why I only took one sip. I guess I was there more as a filmmaker than as a blogger. I get so scattered when I’m filming, and I inevitably do stupid shit. On the other hand, I got to taste their straight espresso a number of times, in a couple different ways. Wow. Incredible.) We also had a great interview – about coffee, about cappuccino foam, about the nature of being American – and I was pleased to note that Heather and the entire SCAA/barista-competition-establishment frown on stiff peaks. Music to my ears.

So all of this made me think a lot about the fact that over the course of a few days, I’d had a pretty forgettable cappuccino and an incredible cappuccino prepared with the same raw materials on the same equipment in the same spot. The only difference was the human hand that made them. I’m inclined to hope that the bad cappuccino was a fluke, because Heather is the trainer of all Coffee Klatch’s baristas, and in the few hours I spent barraging her with silly questions, I could see that she’s a very knowledgeable and engaging instructor. So I’m having a hard time believing that the boiling cappuccino I got would be the norm. And honestly, if I were still in southern California, the compulsive part of my personality would force me to make semi-regular trips out to San Dimas just to gather more data before ruling one way or the other on Coffee Klatch’s cappuccino.

But, like I mentioned, I’m no longer in SoCal. I’m back home in San Francisco, sitting in my kitchen/office, sifting through hours and hours of footage of people like Heather talking about the coffee business. But I’ve continued to reflect on the whole barista thing. I live right off of Chestnut Street, in the Marina (no, I’ve never been in a sorority), and there are five coffee shops within a two block radius of my apartment – three independents, a Starbucks, and a Peet’s. And more often than not, I wind up going to Peet’s. Partly, this is because I’m a fan of the atmosphere there. But it’s also because the baristas at this particular Peet’s really get it about the milk. Peet’s is not my favorite coffee in the world, but they really do an amazing job with the milk – dense, creamy, velvety, you know the drill. So I add some sugar, chit-chat with some strangers, and I’m pretty happy. But one day I was in there, and the woman at the bar did a particularly good job, so I went and thanked her and told her how much I liked it. And her reply to me was, “It’s not me. It’s the recipe.” Which is total malarkey. If it were the recipe, then I could get this amazing crema del latte at every Peet’s everywhere. I can’t. Peet’s might have good trainers. They might do a better-than-average job at inspiring their baristas and offering them a work environment that is attractive enough that they stay on the job long enough to get really good at it. I suspect this is particularly true in the bay area, where, from what I can tell, there are a few Peet’s baristas who are lifers. Career baristas. Almost unheard of in America. The likelihood of getting a good cappuccino at Peet’s might be higher than getting one at a number of other places. But it’s not a certainty.

I think this question of certainty is at the heart of why I am interested in the cappuccino at all. It’s like, when you’re trying to train a dog, they tell you that the best way to do it is to use intermittent positive reinforcement. When the dog fetches the ball, you give her a treat. But if you want the best overall ball-fetching results, you don’t give her a treat EVERY SINGLE TIME. That way, the dog stays interested. Am I gonna get a treat? Or am I not gonna get a treat? Guess I better fetch the ball and find out. From what I understand, this system of unpredictable rewards works well in dating, at least if you subscribe to The Rules. It’s also a favored method of sadistic prison guards. So… I guess I’m kind of the dog in this scenario, kept endlessly curious because of the system’s inherent unpredictability. (And wooed into throwing away my hard-earned money one three-dollar cappuccino at a time…)

Of course, this brings up the BIG S. The company that has tried (and is still trying) to standardize something that is more-or-less inherently un-standardizable. But that’s a discussion for another time. Or you can watch my movie when I’m done with it. Meanwhile, it feels good to be home.


Hey Amy. I find that it is better to put the flavoring syrup in the milk before I steam it. It seems to blend together with everything better and does a superior job of masking the taste of the espresso, sweetening the cappuccino enough to make it drinkable.

What is your favorite flavor of cappuccino?
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