Wanted: a long-term, stable relationship. Consistency. Easy on the eyes wouldn’t hurt. And long walks on the moonlit beach.

An espresso machine should be (almost) all those things. Maybe lacking in the romantic gestures area. Choosing an espresso machine can feel as daunting as finding a good date. Or maybe like an arranged marriage, commitment-wise.

When you set out to choose an espresso machine, ask yourself a few questions: is this for home or commercial use? What’s important to you in a machine’s performance and design? What level of automation is appropriate for your use? (warning: I’ll use a bit of technical terminology here)

If you’re looking for a serious home machine, look past the department store brands and right to the lighter professional models. The problem with most home machines is boiler capability- they simply can’t get enough power to get the right pressure needed to brew espresso and steam milk. Some lighter single grouphead commercial machines can use regular household 110 electrical outlets and still maintain the correct pressure in the boiler.

(the “grouphead” is the brewing mechanism that delivers pressurized water to the coffee. One thing to consider is how many of these brewing heads you want/need. Home = 1. Most cafes = 2. Super-busy-crazy-lines-out-the-door-all-the-time = 3.)

Commercially, the options are seemingly endless. A good place to start is a machine’s level of automation. Do you prefer a more or a less manual approach to brewing, and how much do you want it to do for you?  Here’s a look at the major automation levels in espresso machines.

  • Manual/lever- these are the original. The barista engages the grouphead by pulling down on a levered piston that works the pressure through the coffee. This is where we get the term “pulling espresso”, and it’s a beautiful thing. You’d need one more grouphead than you think, as the group typically needs a break between shots. The barista needs to bounce between groups to make a line of drinks.
  • Semi-automatic- uses a button to work the pump. The barista pushes the button and the water starts to flow instantly. Push the button again and the water stops.
  • Automatic- these have programmable buttons that are set to dispense a specified volume of water through the grouphead. It stops after that volume is reached, and most have several buttons per group so you can program different sizes or profiles.
  • Superautomatic- these do it all- grind, dose, tamp, brew, and steam

The more manual end of the spectrum requires the barista to have knowledge of the science of extraction, what to look for, how to properly adjust the grinder, etc. Both semiautomatic, automatic, and manual espresso machines require skill and understanding, and if your people are well-trained and well-managed, can give very consistent results. There are pros and cons to all of these, and the items in that list would change position based on what’s important to you and what your setting is like, so I don’t want to get into that here. But you can contact us if you’d like to talk about it!

Other things to look for:

  • availability of parts for the brand you like: is there a local service technician that can get to you fast if you need it? Most machines are made in Europe in small production runs. Choosing a well-known brand will ensure you can get what you need quickly.
  • ergonomics- will baristas be comfortable using it for hours at a time? Your placement of the machine is a large factor in this, too.
  • control- if you want to program the temperature and pressure profile at each group, opt for a PID control at each one (PID controls are hard to quickly explain and are very math-y. Let’s just say they are a way to very specifically close the margin of error on a controlled process affected by outside forces. Like a thermostat controlling the temperature in your house with sensors that turn on and off your a/c and heating to reduce going over and under your desired temperature to a set margin of error)
  • environmental impact/operations cost- there are models that allow you to turn off individual groupheads and are ready for brewing again very quickly after you turn them back on, saving substantial energy (the Astoria Plus4You does all of these things, by the way: ergonomics, much lower carbon footprint, on-board water softener, and individually PID-controlled groupheads.)
she's pretty

she’s pretty


  • dough- how much do you want to put up? Espresso machines are expensive pieces of equipment- lots of moving parts, lots of durable metals, lots of engineering. If the price scares you, try leasing! Think of it like buying a car, and choose carefully so you get your money’s worth.

A good espresso machine, properly cared for and maintained, will last a long time (like a car, or a relationship). If you’re running a coffee bar, this is the main piece of equipment you need to produce your main product, so don’t skimp! This is definitely not the place to cut corners.

PS- does your espresso machine have a name, like you might name a guitar or car?

It's my favorite time of year- I love fall. I love the colors, textures, smells, tastes, activities, and holidays. The coziness, the crispness, the apple-and-pumpkin-ness. Coffeeshops are a great place to experience all that stuff, right? You can enjoy your pumpkin spice latte, curled up by the fireplace with a good friend or a good book, leaves blustering around outside. 

I think the reason we love fall, and the first snowfall, and the first warm breeze in spring, and that first juicy strawberry-is the anticipation- waiting through the end of a season you’ve maybe grown weary of to enjoy the beginning of something new. The seasonality of food is a beautiful thing- we can enjoy things a little more, in their moment, when we don’t have access to them all year (I used to help run a local food co-op here in Beaver Falls, PA, and am an advocate for our local farmers’ market, so this topic is near and dear to my heart).

Special is really only special if it’s unique, and strawberries for example, here in Western PA, are unique to May and June. If I eat them all year, they’re no longer special. (Although that one cheat-box of strawberries in February is special too!) If I save the enjoyment of strawberries for when they are in season, grown close by, I can take a simple, profound pleasure in them. And totally binge on strawberries. The beauty is that these seemingly mundane things- our food and drink- become special as we enjoy them in their appropriate context and prepare them with love, thoughtfulness, and intentionality.

And now, pumpkins and apples and cranberries and soon peppermint and gingerbread are in context. Oh, joy!

You can make the most of enjoying these ingredients with seasonal drinks in your coffeeshop. You can use flavor syrups for traditional cafe standards, or you can develop some signature drinks using other ingredients. Try infusing milk with different things to create something new; get creative with garnishes. You can encourage your baristas to come up with their own signature drinks- maybe start a competition among them and your customers, iron chef-style. Give a list of seasonal ingredients, and let the come up with recipes. Winner gets their drink on the specials board!

Try this- in a sturdy saucepan, combine whole milk, pumpkin puree, brown sugar, a broken-up cinnamon stick, freshly-grated nutmeg, and whole cloves. Over medium-low heat, stirring frequently, bring to a simmer. Test for flavor and sweetness, adjusting as necessary. After 5 minutes at a very carefully controlled small-bubble simmer, turn off the heat. Let the milk cool to room temp, then refrigerate overnight. In the morning, strain out the solids and set aside for steaming. Follow the same process with heavy cream, raw or white sugar, and chopped candied ginger. After the heavy cream has been strained, add it to your cream whipper and charge it up.

To get REALLY fancy, follow my lovely friend and barista Meg’s lead and bake pie crust right into ceramic cappuccino cups.

Brew espresso into the crusts, texture your pumpkin and spice-infused milk with the steam wand, and pour in. Add a dollop of candied-ginger whipped cream, and you have the most-pumpkin-pie-est latte you could ever have! (Meg made shoofly pie lattes for the our region’s usbc several years ago that Kiva Han Coffee sponsored. She’s an incredibly talented and creative barista- I hope you all experience the joy of having people like her at your coffeeshops!)

Do you serve food in your cafe? Here’s a very autumnal chili recipe we just can’t get enough of here at my house or in my coffeeshop. It’s crazy-good for you, very simple, uses up leftover turkey, and tastes like what November might taste like in heaven!

Pumpkin Turkey Black Bean Chili (adapted from one of the More with Less cookbooks)

I don’t mess around with this- I just make a double batch. It freezes well and gets even better with age, as most chilis do.

olive oil

1 yellow or red bell pepper, diced

1 onion, diced

1lb ground or leftover shredded turkey

1 28oz can crushed tomatoes

1 28oz can diced tomatoes

3 cans black beans

1 large can pumpkin puree (not pie filling)

1 Tbsp chili powder (I like frontier’s chili powder- super flavorful but not overly spicy)

1 tsp cumin

1 tsp oregano (mexican if you have it)

salt and pepper

Note: you can either cook this completely in one pot on the stove or start it in a saute pan and do the rest of the cooking in the crockpot. The pumpkin gives this chili a great texture.

Heat the olive oil In a pan set over medium-low. Add the pepper and onion with a pinch of salt and pepper. Sweat the veggies until soft and translucent (not browned). Add the turkey and cook through, stirring often. (at this point, you can transfer to a crockpot or continue on the stove). Add the rest of the ingredients, stirring well to combine. Heat on high 3-4 hours or low 6-8 hours in the crockpot. If using the stove, bring the mixture to a boil, back it off to a simmer, and cook at least 25-30 minutes. Adjust seasonings and heat level to taste. Enjoy!

Do you have a signature fall seasonal drink? What’s your favorite?

The internet ate my entire blog post.

Yup. The whole thing just vanished into thin air. It is Halloween after all- it must have been the cyberspace poltergeist.

It was all about training staff and how they are the lifeblood of a cafe, and I think it was going to be cool.

But instead, this.


Last week we established what goes into the price of a latte. This week? The other thing that goes into a latte. You know, besides the ingredients: the LOVE.

Why does one get “into” coffee, professionally? Why pursue barista craftsmanship or own a cafe? There are as many reasons as there are coffee professionals. Here are a *few* of mine:

  • To impact a community

Cafes change the landscape and character of a neighborhood. We raise the quality of life without really raising the overall cost of living. We provide meaningful jobs and a place for all ages and types of people to interact on an informal level (another post about these so-called “third places” is on the docket- a favorite topic of mine!) We can often be a hub of neighborhood activity:  we see and sometimes even sponsor or host social, political, spiritual, and economical events. At any one point in time in a typical shop, you can find business people, gossip girls, artists, church ministers, first daters, writers, knitters, nurses, laptop campout-ers, students, next-door neighbors, politicians, entrepreneurs, construction workers, teachers. etc. Where else can you find such diverse culture and opportunity? Coffeeshops encourage conversation, interaction, and change- we can influence for the better!

Why yes, that IS a lego copy of my cafe that some elementary school-aged customers made with their political science professor-dad. Oh, the community!

Why yes, that IS a lego copy of my cafe and regulars that some elementary school-aged customers made with their political science professor-dad. Oh, the community!

  • To change the world

I know. CHEESEYFACE. But seriously, since coffee is such a giant economic force in the world, and employees so very many of the people on this earth, our coffee purchases actually do affect real people.  I get a little too excited about this, but I really believe that you can change the world, or at least the lives of a few coffee farmers, by purchasing sustainably. We here at Kiva Han are always on the lookout for direct relationships with farmers at origin, allowing us to buy coffee in a way that benefits everyone involved the most. (We also carry some Fair Trade Certified beans). That is, of course, another post entirely!

  • For personal fulfillment

Some of us have that entrepreneurial itch, or the desire to develop our skills to a higher level. Owning a cafe (mom and pop-style) certainly isn’t all peaches and roses- it’s darned hard work. It’s burning-the-candle-at-both-ends-sort of work. It’s shoveling snow at 5am and worrying about paying the bills and scrubbing the toilets and signing checks. But it’s also meeting new people, making them happy, knowing what you do is important to so many, and creating a beautiful product out of that hard work. It sometimes IS peaches and roses.

Shoveling in the early a.m.

Shoveling in the early a.m.

  • For the love of coffee

Pure and simple. Love the coffee, love the craft, love learning about it. This industry has such a broad base of knowledge, such an evolving technical field of practice, and just so much to know. We’ll never ever get to the end of it, and that’s exciting!

Your turn. Why are you in it?

We’ve all heard or offered up the comments and complaint. I’ve heard it many times: “It’s just coffee- why does it cost so much?”

Although many people think of those of us who run coffeeshops as highway robbers, making loads of cash charging an arm and a leg for a specialty beverage, or worse, are in the business of extorting innocent caffeine-hounds, I can tell you, $3.75 is nowhere near enough for “racket business” status.

If you’re a coffeeshop customer, it helps to understand what’s behind the cost (so as not to build undue resentment) and why we might fuss at you if you bring in outside food and drink (don’t be that guy).  As an owner or manager, it’s very important to manage those costs, know what you’re paying out for every drink and for your monthly expenses, and be sure you’re making a profit so you can keep your doors open.

Here are some of the things that go into the price of an unflavored latte at a retail coffeeshop:

  • the cost of the product:
    • the espresso (you’ve paid for the growing, processing, transporting, storing, roasting, more transporting, and brewing. The pricing of coffee itself is a whole other ball ‘o wax!)
    • the milk (the producer, delivery guy, and refrigeration all cost $$, besides the milk itself)
    • the cup, sleeve, and lid
    • other condiments the customer likes (sugar, cinnamon, etc)
  • the fixed costs: (everything that needs to be paid for in order to be physically open)
    • utilities (gas, water, electricity, internet)
    • rent
    • debt (there’s probably a small business loan to pay down every month)
    • insurances
    • regular labor
  • the variable costs: (costs that change based on business, besides cost of goods sold)
    • marketing
    • credit card processing fees
    • any extra or non-regular labor costs (to staff an event, for example)

The fixed and variable costs alone, not including labor, can represent an easy $5,000 each month, depending on your rent and debt situation.  Labor costs can vary dramatically, but let’s say you pay for about 400 hours of labor per month, and we’ll just average it out to a cost of $10/hour (which is around what you’ll pay for minimum-wage in PA, including worker’s comp, taxes, unemployment, etc), that’s about $4,000/month for labor, on the low end. So not including the cost of the product, we’ve got to sell enough to cover at least $9,000 of these other costs per month.

Ok, stay with me here! Divide your monthly costs by days per month you’re open. For example, my place is closed Sundays, so our month averages 26 days. If it costs $9,000 per month in labor and fixed costs to be open, it costs $346 per day to be open. (costs per month divided by days of business per month.)

So how much do you need to charge per drink to cover that? You’ve got to either project your sales if you’re just starting out, or evaluate your sales if you’re considering a price change- what can or do you reasonably sell in a day? Does your location see a high traffic volume? Or does your business ebb and flow, or trickle in? Do you serve 50 people a day or 300? I like to estimate lower on sales, and round up on costs, just to be realistic and safe. (And of course you’d have to spend more on marketing to get 300 than for 50.)

If I think I’ll sell 150 items a day, taking into account that $346 per day of operating costs, each item needs to start out with $2.31 built in to the cost. (cost to operate per day divided by projected number of units sold per day)

I know, right? Every item starts at $2.31.

Add in the cost of the product itself, and you can see how $3.75 is maybe enough for that latte. Then consider regular electric drip coffee.  Not many people are willing to pay much more than $2.00 or $2.50 for one of those.  (When customers say to me, “you must be making a killing selling us fifty cents-worth of coffee at $2.00”, I cringe!)

Say you want to pay your definitely skilled laborers more than minimum wage, or you’d like to increase your marketing budget, or pay yourself- increase those operating costs. Setting prices is complicated, and shouldn’t be done on a “comparison”-only basis. Check out your competition, sure- but don’t undercut at the expense of your business’s success. Do that busy work of figuring out what each product actually costs you (how much did that pump of syrup in the latte cost, etc): it’s absolutely worth it! I created a spreadsheet that I revisit every year that lays out the per-unit cost of everything we sell, figures in the labor, fixed costs, and everything, and helps me calculate pricing.  That works for me- what works for you?

There are always ways to decrease operating costs, but be sure to avoid decreasing quality of product or experience in the process, or you’ll see a subsequent decrease in sales, too! At my place we constantly re-evaluate how we can increase quality while decreasing cost. We’ve found ways to save on things like credit card processing, disposable goods costs, energy costs, waste reduction, etc. We upcycle too (jam jars make great cold drink vessels!) Since our walk-in volume is on the lower side of average (small town), we’ve got to be creative about cost control while still providing a quality place and product, and so do you!

Of course, the other way to reduce that big, per-unit operating cost number is to increase sales!

How do you control costs and still offer quality where you are? If you’re a cafe customer, what would you suggest? I’m sure you have ideas!

I love drinkers of decaf! Here’s why: they aren’t just drinking it for the jolt. We can assume they are either looking for a special treat for themselves, or they’re interested in the camaraderie of drinking coffee with friends, or they just really like coffee but can’t do caffeine for whatever reason. These people are going out of their way to come to us for a totally different reason than many regular customers who come to feed an addiction (I’m ok with that by the way): They like coffee. Which means we’d better exceed expectations for flavor and preparation. We’d better do it right, because we’ve got to make up for the lack of after-effects with superior experience in every other way.

As a cafe, here’s how we have developed our decaf program:

First, we’ve got to understand the decaf concept. Coffee naturally contains caffeine, but can go through various processes to reduce it, even though it can never be removed 100%. There is an initiative right now in Brazil to develop a coffee varietal that is actually caffeine-free, called “Decafitto”, but it’s still in development. It’s very difficult to remove the caffeine without damaging the incredibly complex flavor compounds and oils in the beans, and once it’s done, decaf beans are typically harder to roast. This leads to a general “decaf tastes bad” impression. That’s what we have to beat!

Second, choose beans. For decaf, we’ve got to consider not only the flavor profile and body of the finished beverage, but the method of decaffeination. There are three main methods used.

  • first, and oldest, there’s the “direct” or “solvent” method. This involves steaming the unroasted coffee beans, then soaking them in an organic solvent (usually methylene chloride these days), which bonds to the caffeine molecule. The beans are steamed again, and the bonded molecules separate from the bean. The caffeine is then sold off to other companies to impart it to things like soda, energy drinks, etc. This method has been decried in recent years due to the scariness of certain chemicals, but research and practice suggests that most of these have little to no environmental impact in production and can’t survive the roasting process, so they aren’t ever ingested. This method is relatively good at preserving the flavor compounds, and is usually the least expensive.
  • next there’s the “water process” method, which is an “indirect” method. There are a couple processing plants around the world that do this, and it’s proprietary, so only they can use certain names, like Swiss Water Process and Mountain Water Process. This time, the beans are soaked in almost-boiling water which leads to saturating the water with the flavor compounds from the beans. The beans are removed, and the water is filtered and stirred up, removing the caffeine (which can again be sold off) but leaving the flavor compounds. The beans are then re-introduced to the water, where they re-absorb all the flavors and oils. This method is desirable due to the lack of chemicals used, but greatly disturbs the character and quality of the bean. It is capable of removing more caffeine from the beans, but the coffee tends to cup a little flat, or even contrary to its nature, possibly due to leftover flavor compounds from the last batch.
  • lastly, the newer CO2 process. This involves dumping the beans into pure water, and saturating them to the point where their pores open up and the caffeine molecules become available. Carbon dioxide is added to the water at a very high pressure and those molecules adhere to it. It’s very selective, and doesn’t adhere to the carbohydrates or proteins of the bean, which contain the flavor compounds. Then the carbon dioxide is removed, and the caffeine with it. By-products are 100% natural, and the flavor is supposedly left intact. It should be said that this is a newer process, and is used on a very large scale, so smaller batch, higher-quality beans haven’t had a lot of play with this method. The jury is still out on this method, but it’s promising, and could be the future of decaffeination. It’s also pretty expensive so far.

There are pros and cons to weigh when choosing the beans: price, possible environmental or health concerns, and most importantly, flavor. Be sure to cup your roaster’s decaf options when choosing your cafe’s selections. Find one you like that has good flavor and works well as a drip coffee, and an espresso, and possibly with whatever manual methods you serve.

Third, baristas should be able to make informed suggestions to people wanting decaf or caffeine-free options.

  • recognize that there’s a difference between “decaffeinated” and “caffeine-free”. The latter means the product never had caffeine- it’s naturally occurring without that molecule, like vegetables in your garden, or certain herbal teas. Things that are “decaffeinated” will always have a little bit still in there. Be sure to understand the difference, as you will have customers who, for health or religious reasons, can’t have caffeine at all. Decaf doesn’t cut it in those situations.

  • have a good attitude towards people who order decaf, or who do the “can I switch that to decaf” thing.  No shoulder-slumping or eye-rolling! Instead, be gracious, even if you have to restart the drink, and be proud of your decaf, as it’s hopefully been selected with as much care as any other bean in your shop. A little patter (within your personality, of course) goes a long way in making the person who probably feels awkward or bad for doing that to you anyway, feel at ease

  • just like with the rest of your beans, know what brewing methods best showcase it, and get good at extracting the best flavor and body that you can. If it works really well as an espresso and drip but not in a french press, consider not offering it that way. Decaf will always, by its nature, brew a little differently than regular beans, and will usually lack a “bottom” in its flavor profile, but do the best you can in these regards. You don’t need to brew large pots of it if you’re not a very high-volume shop. Brewing by the cup is a great way to reduce waste and craft a fresh, special drink for these extra-dedicated coffee drinkers.

  • Here’s a side note on a customer demographic that you will daily encounter: pregnant ladies. Just because they’re drinking for two doesn’t mean they all of the sudden don’t like coffee and don’t care what they get when they pay for it. (I just just just had a baby, so this is on my brain. I’m the same person I was before pregnancy, but perhaps a little more tired and hormonally emotional, so be nice!)

Here are things pregnant ladies can and can’t consume at coffee shops, and you can help guide them. Just don’t argue with them. You can’t win it.

Regular coffee- doctors recommend a max daily allowance of 200 milligrams of caffeine a day during pregnancy, which is kind of a lot. That’s around 24 ounces of coffee a day, so she shouldn’t feel guilty for having some even every day (and she wants to, so reassure her. pregnant ladies and young parents are subjected to unceasing judgement, both real and imagined, so help a sister out) If she’s concerned, suggest a single-shot espresso-based drink- that’s closer to 68 milligrams of caffeine (assuming she didn’t NEED it to be a mocha).

You can also offer decaffeinated or caffeine-free teas, but it gets trickier here because the scary blogs and websites and lists seem to outlaw EVERYTHING. Here’s my list, based on what you might carry in your shop, and based on what’s really bad and what’s just rumored by blogs:

Most herbs are on the actual scary list, so teas should generally not be blended or flavored (you can’t have lavender, lemongrass, raspberry leaf or chamomile because they can induce pre-term labor). Many rooibos teas are blended with lemongrass, but rooibos by itself is perfect for pregos. Peppermint is fine and straight ginger or white ginger with no added herbs is highly beneficial. Pretty much any unblended, non-herbal tea, in moderation, will be fine. Yerba Mate is out during pregnancy and nursing, unfortunately, due to a certain chemical that’s great for adults but bad for babies. Obviously, decaf coffee is a great option for us. That decaf americano is my night-time go-to. So don’t skimp on my decaf!

You don’t have to read “What to Expect When You’re Expecting”, but having a basic knowledge will go a long way in serving a very large chunk of your clientele: moms.

So what’s to be taken away from this? Decaf matters to a large portion of our clientele, so we need to give it more than an afterthought. Choose your beans wisely, ensure that they are carefully roasted, prepare them with the same care as your regular coffee and treat decaf drinkers with the same respect you give regular drinkers: they are dedicated coffee-lovers!


Imagine, if you will, about 15 years ago, an energetic teenager, out on the town with her friends. They were branching out from their original Starbucks hangout to various independent places (this time, City Dock Cafe in Annapolis, MD- still there!). Said sprightly teenager confidently approached the bar and ordered “a tall caramel macchiato, please”. This occurred at least two more times with the same barista in subsequent weeks, and finally, she cracked. The next time the order was placed, the fed-up barista said,  “No. You can’t have that. I’m making you a real espresso macchiato, and you’re going to try it. If you don’t like it, I’ll make you a caramel latte”. Well, I loved it.  And that was the moment my real interest in coffee started, eventually leading to my career in the industry (Thanks, City Dock, and the barista whose name I can’t remember!).

Maybe you’re a cafe owner (or an aspiring one), or you work in one, or maybe you are a coffee-lover in general. No matter who you are, you’re interacting with THE LINGO.

Intimidating to beginners, oft-misused and misunderstood, the usually non-English words can confuse a bar order, cause “bar-fright”, and even prevent new customers from even coming in (no one wants to look dumb in that high-pressure, “order now” situation).

Behold, a list. (I love lists to a scary degree). There are more terms, to be sure, but here are some common pitfalls, usually the combo-fault of mass-chain-coffee and the Italians (it’s ok, I am one, so I’m allowed).

Tall/Short– it took me a while in my youth to figure out why “tall” one place meant “small” everywhere else. And sometimes people mean big when they say tall, because that does make logical sense. In the coffee world, tall refers to a 12oz drink, which is technically “tall”, compared to the traditional “short”, 6-8 oz cup, but is usually the smallest size offered. I like to avoid that confusion altogether and sell based on volume, but I do encourage people to order a “short capp”, because that’s where it’s at, and we love to make them.

Macchiato– it means “marked” in Italian. It’s traditionally espresso “marked” with a dollop of drily textured milk- it should be no more than than 3 oz total. This is my favorite, and how I, as a coffee snob, judge a cafe’s understanding and skill (#notsorry).

Cortado– think of this as between a macchiato and a short cap- around 4-5 oz of espresso and textured milk.  A really great proportion.

Affogato– espresso over vanilla ice cream

Breve– anytime an espresso drink contains milk, and the dairy is switched out for half and half, it’s a breve. Great for those on high-protein diets, or who love a rich drink, but not great for those on any other kind of diet!

Americano– often mispronounced as “americanah”, this is espresso diluted with water to the same strength of a “regular” cup of coffee

See Cappuccino and Latte here

The main factor in my “conversion” to quality, independently brewed coffee was the interaction with my barista, her commitment to authenticity and quality, and willingness to educate her customers (even if she was a bit snarky, but I was a precocious teenager, so it was warranted).  As pros, we’ve got to ease the way for customers, helping them understand without making them feel silly. If we recommend something new to a guest, it should come with a quick explanation, so they don’t feel pressured to agree to something without knowing what they’re getting into.

For example: customer asks for iced coffee, and barista says, we’re out of cold brew but I can make an iced Americano.” Um, ok? They’re going to get something really good, but they may not know how to respond because two of those terms were unfamiliar. A sensitive barista combined with something like a well-placed explanatory chalkboard infographic can be the education. How do you do it? Or as a coffee-lover, how did you learn?

Happy Thursday, coffee-lovers!

Today I thought we’d discuss what I think is not only a huge determiner of quality and flavor in coffee, but a beautiful concept: terroir. Plus it’s a nice, pretentious, hard-to-pronounce French word. (So, pronounce about half of the letters, and you’re probably close.)

This, by the way, won’t by any means cover this rich topic in as much detail as it deserves- we’re just going to scratch the surface!

“Terroir” can be defined thusly: the conditions in which a food is grown or produced and that give the food its unique characteristics. It has it’s roots in the French “terre”, which means earth or ground.

It’s kind of like when this thing happens in that movie:


that one tastes like the cow got into the onion patch

If you remember the scene, he judges the defects and quality of the milk based on the environmental factors on its production- like the cow’s habits and the bottling process. Many people would also compare coffee’s terroir to the same concept in wine. The wine tastes like the specific grapes, and those grapes are affected by the rainfall, soil, angle of sunlight and hours of sunlight per day, etc. All these things contribute to the end result of the wine, no matter what’s involved in the process after the grapes are harvested.

This is the case with every agricultural product, from celery to bananas to hops, and it is especially true for coffee, whose complex and sensitive internal chemistry is so easily affected by environmental factors. Those elements are among the first within the production story of coffee to heavily define the character of the finished product. There are many other contributing factors, like at-origin processing methods (another episode!), storage, roasting, etc.

Coffee is grown in the varied dirt of three main regions of the world: The Americas (South and Central), The South Pacific (Indonesia, India, Southeast Asia), and Africa. The differences in elevation, rainfall, soil composition, water sources, pests, birds and animals, other vegetation, etc. define the character enough that many coffee professionals can judge which of the three regions a coffee might come from based on one taste. And within those very generalized flavor profiles, every hillside of every microlot on every coffee farm in every region of every country will have variations of (or even total deviations from) those profiles.

Consider a typical farm, high up in a mountain range, with volcanic soil and natural springs. Its highest-planted south-facing hillside may face the sun’s rays for more hours per day than the little valley 500 feet below. The valley gets more of the natural spring runoff, but the hill catches more rain during the six-month-long rainy season. The higher hill has fewer insects but the trees need less pruning as it’s physically harder to grow up out of the hillside than in the vale.

The varied conditions within the same 500 feet- in the valley and on the hill- will manifest most recognizably as different levels of acidity in the beans, which is basically code for sweetness (here, acidity doesn’t mean heartburn-inducing tomato-sauciness as a feeling, but brightness and sweetness in flavor).  A higher-acidity coffee might “cup” with lighter fruits and nuts (maybe “clementine and toasted almonds with a hint of Tartarian cherry”) and a lower-acidity coffee might read with “baker’s chocolate and walnut”. We’re getting more pretentious by the minute, eh? But really, appreciation and understanding of these widely-ranging flavor profiles is quite widespread and common, especially among craftsperson-roasters, intentional baristas, and discerning customers. These distinctions, and the increasing practice of developing these distinctions at the farming level has lead to higher quality specialty coffee on a global scale.

This is why, for the most part, I don’t see in-depth cupping notes (think of a coffee cupping as like a wine tasting) as “pretentious” at all (unless the cupper is making it up as they go along, then yes, pretension). The more developed our palates, the more we can experience and appreciate from our coffee and its growers. And the more biologically diverse coffee farming is now, the longer into the future we will be able to harvest fruits that bear so many different aspects. This certainly doesn’t mean we have to be able to discern 8 varieties of citrus fruits in a cup of coffee to enjoy it at all. But that sure is fun.

This industry is so big, and ever-changing, and we can never know everything about it. I find that to be a beautiful, mysterious, exciting aspect of my work as a coffee professional. We can never stop learning more and developing our craft!

Many others have written extensively on the terroir concept. Here’s my favorite resource. It’s sciencey and very, very thorough. I make my staff read it while they are in training.  And don’t worry, I touched on a few things that we can CoffeeTalk more about later, like growing methods, processing methods, and how a country’s natural resources define its coffee processing and therefore huge aspects of its coffee’s flavor.

Interested in your thoughts!

So what’s brewing today? How about the difference between a latte and a cappuccino? Sore subject? That’s ok, maybe we can smooth things over together…

Turns out that part of the traditional definition, as Americans know it, is getting more nebulous and shifting, especially among quality cafes. Personally, I like where it’s going!

The Specialty Coffee Association of America (SCAA) defines cappuccino as “A classic blend of coffee and steamed milk named after the
brown robes of the Capuchin monks.” Doesn’t tell us too much, does it? Traditionally, capps were “it”. If you wanted warm milk with your coffee (and you weren’t French), you’d be getting somewhere between a dollop and a thick head of warm foamy milk on top of your espresso. Enter the Americans- we tend to like bigger, sweeter drinks, and the latte was born of that sensibility. From there we had to have a distinction between the two, and most traditional cafes would call it this:

Cappuccino: all about proportions. 1/3 espresso, 1/3 steamed milk, 1/3 foamed milk, never flavored, except with perhaps “the faintest whisper of cinnamon”, as defined by Dr. Niles Crane (typically starts at 6oz)

Latte: one or two ounces of espresso, steamed milk, a small, thin head of foaminess, possibly sweetened and flavored (typically starts at 12oz)

In the US, some have further changed the traditional capp to keep up with those sensibilities, making them larger, but much drier, and sometimes adding flavors. The public demands a french vanilla cappuccino, so we might as well give it, right?

I’m here to say: no! We can have our cake and eat it too, with some good distinctions on your menu and training for yourself and/or your staff. Here’s where cappuccino-things are changing for the better in the US- we are shifting from the dense, dry, tasteless chunk of foam on top of the drink and moving toward a more incorporated, less dry “textured milk”. The milk is not steamed and foamed, it is textured (that’s another episode) as one process, creating silky, sweet, smooth, deliciousness that is enjoyed simultaneously with the espresso. It’s poured into the espresso in such a way that allows the consumer to enjoy both the complexity of the coffee and the sweet milk at the same time. (Need help with that? bethany@kivahan.com)

The preservation here is in the proportions- keeping the ratio of coffee to milk higher than a latte keeps with tradition and satisfies discerning customers. The bigger latte, with less coffee to milk ratio, gets the same treatment of milk, textured a little less dry, but still smooth and creamy.


correct capp2

No-Cappuccino (brand shown unintentional- that’s what came up in a search for “incorrect cappuccino”)

dry capp 2

So then, you’ve tried this and are convinced- you like the creamy, well proportioned cappuccino and the sweeter, larger latte. How do you handle this inevitable order at the bar? “I’d like a french vanilla cappuccino, 20oz, no foam”. Well, we certainly don’t want them to feel stupid, because that bar order is probably society’s fault, right? We’ll tell that to Officer Krupke.

I have a couple solutions, but I’m interested to hear yours too!

  • If the customer seems willing to have the conversation, we blame “tradition” rather than our policies or their understanding and experience (that way no one is the bad guy here).”We make traditional Italian-style cappuccinos that are stronger on the coffee with a drier texture, are 6oz and not flavored. Or, we can make you a latte- it’s a larger, less dry (not foamy) and sweeter drink. We can flavor that any way you want!” They can make an informed decision that way, and they feel comfortable/not stupid doing it. Bingo- good customer education and interaction. That one’s coming back, and maybe down the road the barista they just grew to trust can get them to branch out.
  • If they seem totally uninterested in the conversation, we’ll just make them a less dry vanilla latte, and say, “here’s your ‘drink’, sir- enjoy!” We know what they really want, and we want to exceed their expectations without a fight and without anyone feeling silly.

How would/do you handle that in a non- bitter barista way? (warning- although hilarious and usually but not always right, he is seriously bitter. Oh, and pardon his french.)

See you next Thursday!

And…we’re back!

This week’s CoffeeTalk is a bit of a continuation of last week’s discussion of Specialty Coffee- another aspect of it, if you will.

“Third Wave” is a term that gets thrown around in reference to retail coffee shops, and most of us would consider ourselves part of that movement, but can we define it? And if we decide we identify with the movement, how does that change anything?

Again, we’re dealing with some pretty nebulous terminology, and you might not like this answer, but here we go.

“Third Wave coffeeshop”: you know it when you see and experience it.

staff photo

This is how the retail side of the coffee industry responds to what “Specialty Coffee” started in the growing, trading and roasting links of the chain. Third Wave shops will be very intentional in how they source their beans, how they store, prepare, and probably market them too. The coffee will come from a roaster committed to quality. Below are some other indicators: these aren’t all necessary, but if you find a shop with some of these qualities, it’s probably waving at you for the third time:

understands its coffee

has a personality (either intrinsically or barista- and customer-driven)

doesn’t have to involve hipster baristas, but totally can (skinny jeans and huge-rimmed glasses not required)

pronounces espresso with no “x” (unless ironically)

is community-oriented

brews manual methods (because they want to bring out the best potential of each origin or roast they have, and realize that one method doesn’t work for all of them)

does not pre-grind beans

well-trained in the espresso craft

menu items serve to support, not hide the main product (it’s coffee)

What are some other things that might get a cafe labelled “Third Wave”? Let me know your ideas in the comments. There are lots more!

third wave sighting: huge-rimmed glasses and manual methods!

third wave sighting: huge-rimmed glasses and manual methods! I’ll bet he ground that coffee less than 30 seconds before brewing too.

Here’s another thought: some would say that some shops in the world have moved beyond the Third Wave and into another classification entirely. I’m not sure they even know what to call themselves, but it’s more barista-driven and bean-focused than your typical neighborhood shop. They are the trend-setters, the competition baristas, and the drivers behind the very minute changes of technique and philosophy that sometimes make their way to the community places.

What we strive for in our cafe is a balance between the ever-technique-improving and the community-serving. We’ll try new things out and maybe even develop new techniques, but if they don’t work in our neighborhood context, or don’t really improve anything, it’s not a change worth making.

For example: tamping technique. We started one way, but did lots of research, trial and error, and tasting. We settled into a technique that is generally accepted as “it”, along with our own variables, that we teach all our baristas and use consistently. As new intricacies come down the industry pipeline or as our own ideas, we’ll try them: if they improve our espresso, we’ll incorporate the change. If not, at least now we know a little more about how espresso works.

distributing those grounds like a champ

distributing those grounds like a champ

This brings me to one of the most important aspects of any third wave coffee bar: craftsmanship. Your coffee shop cannot fit into the above context without an understanding and appreciation of craftsmanship.

(now it’s getting serious!)

There are so many aspects to this conversation: how we as a culture view work, the value we place on different kinds of work (and how we treat people based on the value we assign to their jobs), how we view education as it relates to the person and their actual work, etc. (my husband is a college professor and coffee roaster and I manage our cafe which right now staffs highly educated people- we think about this a LOT). We’re not going to get into all of that, as important as it is to our underlying management philosophy. What we will get into is that we can recognize in ourselves and those we see around us that we perform better at work (and want to) when we feel a sense of ownership and pride in the product leaving our care.

There’s a lot to know as a barista (this goes for roasters too).


here’s me when I was just learning the craft

Besides all the store policies, customer’s regular orders, how to work that POS system, where the extra syrup pumps are kept, etc, they need to be a craftsperson. Coffee is a craft- it uses manual processes done with concrete, raw products that result in a beautiful thing that can be greater than the sum of its parts. The only aspect involved in the process that can add more greatness to the already amazing parts: that human barista. The hands, ears, nose and personality that make each drink. Your coffee can’t improve after it’s picked, a farmer once told me. So it’s up to everyone else along the line to preserve the quality the farmer worked so hard to bring out of the ground, and the barista is the last line of defense between the story you want to tell and the story the customer actually hears.  Despite all the other things to know and remember as a barista- the drink we hand to the customer, in the end, must be good. And baristas who understand that they are valuable craftspeople are more likely to create good drinks.

This means we as owners and managers need to equip our roasters and baristas and develop them into craftspeople. Respect them as people and their work as valuable (they’ll respond in kind). Allow them to develop farther than your training went, young grasshopper (perhaps within a framework you’ve set).

There are other benefits here besides better quality: like better employee retention, good attitudes, better care of your equipment and space, and less waste. We here at Kiva Han Coffee are further developing the training we offer to you and your baristas- an intensive program that can help start off or develop your baristas in many areas of their work. More on that later, but for now, consider your own shop’s story, and how your coffee and baristas work together to tell that story. Need to rethink your beans to start off? Start here. (remember- I own an independent cafe and also work here at the Kiva Han roastery- I just can’t get enough!)

In order to pull off a successful operation, we need vision and direction from the owners. As an owner, I can set the “story”. I can give my baristas the tools and training and resources to tell that story. I can set up a place that looks and feels like third wave. But it’s up to them, when I’m not around especially, to want to tell the story I told them, and make it their story too. Then it will not only look and feel, but smell and taste third wave and beyond.

my cafe's annual "our story" brainstorming session from a couple years ago. We think about who we are, who we can or should be, and how to get there, as a group of owners and baristas.

my cafe’s annual “our story” brainstorming session from a couple years ago. We think about who we are, who we can or should be, and how to get there, as a group of owners and baristas.

I’ll leave you with a quote from a book we recommend to craftspeople, and the people that employ them. See you next week!

“The satisfactions of manifesting oneself concretely in the world through manual competence have been known to make a man quiet and easy. They seem to relieve him of the felt need to offer chattering interpretations of himself to vindicate his worth. He can simply point: the building stands, the car now runs, the lights are on. Boasting is what a boy does, because he has no real effect in the world. But the tradesman must reckon with the infallible judgment of reality, where one’s failures or shortcomings cannot be interpreted away. His well-founded pride is far from the gratuitous “self-esteem” that educators would impart to students, as though by magic.”
― Matthew B. CrawfordShop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry Into the Value of Work