Before wine, it was coffee. My coffee career started in the early nineties when I took a barista job at a Starbucks in the Seattle area. This was before the company required you to actually mark down all those thousands of descriptors available with every beverage (half-caff, non-fat, no foam, etc), so I took great pleasure in the art of being able to mentally retain a long list of 30-40 drinks at a time. How did I do this? There was no real trick, it was sink or swim in those situations, and memory is a muscle that can be exercised like any other.
After dazzling drinkers for a few years with my barista tricks and savvy, I decided to go south to San Francisco and take a position at one of only two Starbucks in Northern California. Yes, this is so hard to fathom today; there were only two! So, I packed everything I owned into my olive-green 1978 Buick Skylark and moved to Berkeley. Moving up quickly to Corporate Trainer, I taught a lot of seminars, trained a lot of new baristas and– you know the story–helped open a lot of stores.
One of my favorite memories out of that period was being able to conduct blind French press tastings with Alfred Peet, the “grandfather of specialty coffee.” He was soft-spoken, focused and approachable. Despite his vast knowledge, he kept it real, rather than burying his listeners with lofty jargon. I learned all about intensity of aromas, identifying kinds of aromas, acidity, weight, balance all came into play. For example, Central American coffees tend to be lighter-bodied with fruity or nutty notes, whereas Indonesian coffees are wild, full-bodied and exotic. The French press is the perfect brewing method for such tastings because of its quick steeping time (4 minutes and plunge) and the fact that the essential oils and flavors don’t get filtered out through paper. Pure, undiluted coffee terroir.
I didn’t realize it at the time (nor did I know that twenty years later, it would be wine and spirits), but I adopted his approach and philosophy: Let the beverages do the talking!