Sunday, July 29, 2018

What it means to love and serve coffee

I don't have much reason to post on this blog anymore, and blogs themselves have arguably become the eight track cassettes of the internet in our age of Twitter-attenuated attention spans, but I didn't want this remarkable (for being 30 years overdue!) tribute to an old friend and mentor to go unacknowledged. If it ends up being the last post on this rancorous blog I'll be very happy.

This article in today's Washington Post captures a little of the visionary approach to coffee of my old friend and mentor Kent Bakke, but it honestly only scratches the surface. What I love about the piece is that it does capture in its own modest way the pure bhakti (to use the Hindu yoga term) energy of Kent's relationship with coffee. That he has had success in the business almost seems like a happy accident given the palpably obvious fact that for him coffee is a devotional practice, a form of service and a source of joy.

When I rejoined Starbucks in 1987, having previously worked there in the pre-Howard Schultz era (1984-1985),  one of my responsibilities as the company's Coffee Specialist was to choose commercial brewing equipment for our impending rapid growth. I'd seen Mr. Bakke here and there at the old wooden aircraft hangars of the original Starbucks roastery at 2010 Airport Way South where I myself roasted coffee but never had the pleasure of spending extended time with him.

All of that changed in 1989 when Kent was my guide during my first trip to Italy, during which I visited not just the La Marzocco factory but the far larger one of arch-rival Rancilio as I did a deep dive into espresso technology, culture and lore. These were the heady early days of espresso being offered in the 12 extant Starbucks stores, and I vividly remember taking a prototype 16 oz, paper cup with me to reluctantly show to La Marzocco founder Pierro Bambi in order to explain to him that we needed not only unprecedented (by Italian standards) milk-steaming capability but also to be able to fit one of these obscenely gigantic paper cups under the espresso machine's portafilter. To my amazement instead of having me thrown into an Italian jail Mr. Bambi only asked me to promise that we would use at least 5 shots of espresso in that gigantic cup so that customers could still taste the coffee.

Far more important than the education in coffee Kent and Mr. Bambi provided was the education in its cultural context, and here the memorable lessons are beyond counting. Among those that come to mind: a "typical" two hour business lunch in the hills of Tuscany at a restaurant that used to be Leonardo da Vinci's grandmother's house. Tasting homemade prosciutto, olive oil made within sight of us and Brunello de Montalcino made with zero regard for the tastes of international critics - a crash course in terroir that would inform everything I did in coffee.  Visiting the craft roaster Piansa in Florence, hearing how they buy and blend and realizing we Seattle upstarts still had everything to learn about Italian coffee. I could write a book about this, but Kent is the one who ought to. 

During those heady early days of the Starbucks expansion Kent and La Marzocco not only moved heaven and earth in order to accommodate our growth but also served, increasingly, as a reality check for and sorely-needed reminder of the prototypically Italian values and passions that had made most of us fall in love with coffee in the first place. 

I knew several people at Starbucks in the late 80's and early 90's who went literally years without a day off in order to get stores built. 90 hour weeks were not uncommon. "We exist to provide a retail experience for our customers which is the exact opposite of the lives we ourselves lead in order to make it possible" became an in-house middle-management ironic lament. 

My frequent visits to see Kent, John Blackwell, Brenna Worthen, Pat Loraas and other members of La Marzocco's astonishingly talented crew provided me with healing (and indeed probably life-saving) reconnection with the values I had learned from Kent on our first trip to Italy together. What became clear then was that greatness in coffee comes from taking the time to relish it with one's senses fully engaged - that the world of the coffee roaster and barista are not far removed at all from those of the great chefs, painters and sculptors whose creativity is so emblematic of Italy. A great espresso, like one's first taste of real Genovese pesto in its native context in Genoa, or first spoonful of hazelnut gelato at Vivoli in Florence, should simply stop discursive mind in its tracks and leave one awash in gratitude for just that moment of being alive. Kent Bakke has provided me (and so many others) with more such moments than I ever believed possible. 

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