If you’ve been paying attention at all the last few years, you likely know that I love the Wichita Mountains. I mean, really, that place is like nowhere else I’ve ever been, and I’ve been a lot of places. It’s a wildlife refuge, so I feel safe there. And that wildlife refuge wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for Teddy Roosevelt. Well… let me back up. This entire country was a bit of a wildlife refuge until European settlers decided to round up the natives and rid the continent of its furry, four-legged fauna. The Wichita Mountains were originally established as a forest reserve by President McKinley in 1901. Then Roosevelt designated it as a game preserve in 1905. And this is where things get interesting. (Again.)
Let me back up one more time. This continent was crawling with wildlife, even into the 1800s. If you’ve ever been to Africa and seen lions walking down the roads and giraffes craning their necks alongside tall trees, you get a vague idea of what the Americas might’ve been like back in the day. I read a couple books about the Corps of Discovery Expedition of Lewis and Clark (Undaunted Courage by Stephen Ambrose is a classic), and their boat ride out west from 1804 to ’06 was nothing if not a testament to the diversity and breadth of animals ranging across the continent. Current estimates guess that there were sixty million bison roaming North America at that time. By 1890, there were sixty million people living in the US and only 541 bison remained. Quite a trade-off.
I’ve been told that bison are not buffalo but I disagree. Sure, their scientific name is Bison bison bison, generally shortened to “bison.” But the Oklahoma state wildflower is the Indian Blanket, which bears the scientific name Gaillardia pulchella, and no one gets upset that we don’t call it gaillardia. I read a book by Stephen Rinella called American Buffalo and he makes the argument that the two names, bison and buffalo, are used interchangeably, and both properly. Historians believe the name buffalo came from the French, who were trapping and hunting all over this continent before colonization. Beef, Frenchified: Boeuf. In 2019, I had the rare pleasure of seeing the large-but-elusive “bison” in the Baba Budan Giri Hills of southwest India. The beast rose up onto its hind legs, a prodigious body on spindly limbs, leapt over a fence, and disappeared into the forest. But these aren’t bison at all; they’re gaur (Bos gaurus). My friend Jaime Abel usually drives me around whenever I’m in the Colombian countryside where he manages a few cattle ranches, one of which raises water buffalo (Bubalus bubalis) for milk (and mozzarella). But in Spanish, Jaime always reminds me to be careful milking a buffalo because it’s a lot different than milking a buffala. So let names be names. Buffalo in the U.S. are bison.
There were a few bison caged up in zoos at the end of the 1800s, which is pretty much the only place an American could see one by then. One very famous bison was called Black Diamond, a big bull buffalo housed at the Central Park Menagerie (now called the Central Park Zoo). This guy was rumored to be the model for the bison on the obverse of the 1901 ten-dollar bill with portraits of Meriwether Lewis and William Clark on either side. (This rumor has since been quashed, as the model for the engraving was apparently based on a stuffed bison on display at the Smithsonian in the late 19th century.)
Black Diamond was also rumored to be the model for the reverse of the buffalo nickel. In 1904 President Roosevelt expressed his dissatisfaction with the artistic state of the American coinage. Thus began a years-long effort to redesign a few things. And eventually, in 1913, the buffalo nickel went to mint. This was designed by James Earle Fraser, the guy who sculpted the “End of the Trail” statue that was in the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco. (Subsequently the statue was tossed into a mud pit along with other works of art from the exposition, then rescued and displayed in a park in Visalia California until it was deteriorated by weather and given over to the National Cowboy Hall of Fame in Oklahoma City in the 1960s, where you can see it today.) But Fraser never said Black Diamond was the model for the nickel, and further research points toward another bison that was kept at the New York Zoological Park (now called the Bronx Zoo) named Black Dog.
That reminds me of a story. I was in Panama a few years ago, hanging out on a coffee farm where Gesha trees grow as thick as the hairs on a bison’s tail. The top of the farm had an orange tree that turned out to be sour orange (an orange so shockingly sour that it’s almost an addiction) and the bottom of the farm had rows of giant drooping flowers that released an intoxicating perfume at sunset which apparently contains a bit of narcotic that helps stinky people sleep. There were children playing on the dirt roads and a black puppy trailed along with them. So I asked them in my most formal Spanish, “Como se llama tu perrito?” To which they replied (in their best English), “Blek Dog.”
So I don’t know why this Black Diamond was so popular and why he was stealing everyone else’s thunder, but these are the facts.
Back to Roosevelt. Not only was he pissed about how crappy our coins looked, he was also pissed that we’d decimated the bison population across the entire continent. So he, along with the American Bison Society, set out to establish a new herd in the newly minted Wichita Forest and Game Preserve. I recently found a publication from the American Bison Society from 1908 that details the political, logistical, and practical events that took place in order to move bison from New York to Oklahoma. In October of 1907, fifteen bison at the New York Zoological Park were herded into individual wooden crates built specially for the project and loaded onto a train, and seven days later arrived in Cache, Oklahoma where the crated animals were off-loaded onto wagons and carted twelve miles across the prairie to the new bison range. The big breeding bull in this new herd just so happened to be Black Dog himself.
Black Dog, the buffalo nickel model, seeded the herd, which grew to 67 head in 1916, by which time the bull had also grown to be the largest living buffalo, at 2,800 pounds. Today the herd in the Wichitas fluctuates between 600 and 850 head. Every year, the refuge rounds up a majority of the bison for measuring and testing, and then they auction off a number of animals to control the population. But they don’t auction off all of those; some they give away to Indian tribes that are seeding or growing their own herds.
Back in my formative years, long before the DoubleShot, I spent a considerable amount of time in the Wichita Mountains, mostly rock climbing the backside of Elk Mountain and exploring the trails around Dog Run Hollow and Charon’s Garden. So I took a friend on a hike and a climb that I thought would be a relatively simple scramble but turned into an all-day, lip-quivering expedition in which I thought I knew how to get back to the car without using the trail but actually did not. At one point we crested a grassy saddle between two boulder-covered hills and just over the ridge I spooked a big, black buffalo, which ran hither instead of thither, and that was only the beginning of our troubles that afternoon.
In 2016, the Osage Nation purchased the 43,000-acre Bluestem Ranch from mogul Ted Turner. Located in the Osage Hills near Pawhuska, the Osage planned to start their own herd of bison in an effort toward food security and independence. So in 2017 and again in 2021, the Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge gave twenty and fifty-one head of bison, respectively, to the Osage, whose herd now numbers around two hundred. Further, in 2022 the Bronx Zoo gave six (three male and three female) bison to the Osage Nation, the first bison given away by the zoo since those original fifteen head were shipped to Oklahoma in 1907.
A few weeks ago, Mark and I drove out to Hominy and beyond the town past the prison and their little casino to the Osage Nation’s Butcher House Meat Market. The Osage built the butcher house in 2021 because of the breakdown in our food systems during COVID. This thing is a big-ass red metal building built like a backward mullet, meat counter in front and the business end in the back. Bison are brought in through the rear door where they’re put down and processed, eventually making their way to the front as steaks and ground and jerky and snacksticks. I know, right? But we were on a mission. We sat down to shoot the bull (not literally, but if anywhere, this would be the place to do it) with a couple guys who’ve since left for greener pastures. And after a taste and a tour, we walked into the coldest room in the house and walked out with coolers full of meat.
We started selling bison during COVID for the same reason the Osage started slaughtering them. But now, we’re really excited to partner with the tribe to bring their bison to Tulsa. It’s been a long journey, if you look back on it. All the way back to the Bronx Zoo and Black Dog relocating to the Wichita Mountains in 1907, where these animals made a comeback and eventually were restored to the Osage Hills in 2017, where native people have been hunting and eating bison for millennia. And now we’ve got more than plastic white buffalos adorning our walls at the DoubleShot. You can secure a tenderloin filet and some ground bison to take home and cook. If you haven’t had it, you should. You can’t ask Lewis and Clark or Teddy Roosevelt about it, but you can trust me. I’ve been hanging out with Black Dog’s progeny for years.
Sometimes I pace around the office soliloquizing on the finer details of coffee or on grandiose generalizations about the state of our industry. Mark, usually eyeballs deep into his laptop, stops and watches me amble and ramble, wondering how deep the well of thought might extend, how it might end, and if there is hope interwoven into my usually-troublesome insights. And that’s why I was glad that Mark went with me to Portland last month to attend the annual conference of the Specialty Coffee Association.
The Specialty Coffee Association. That sounds … well it sounds big to me. But when we told the transit cop on the Portland train that we were in town for a coffee conference, he laughed and said he never imagined there would be an entire conference just for coffee. And he’s right, to some extent. There isn’t an entire conference just for coffee because this one seems to pretend to focus on coffee while its manifestations are everything but. The idea that people actually drink and enjoy coffee as a solitary beverage is one I was duped into believing way back in 2002 by the National Coffee Association’s statistics on coffee consumption in the U.S. But once I opened the DoubleShot in 2004, I realized almost no one drinks coffee. The majority of coffee is consumed in a way that masks the actual taste of the beverage. Which I could understand if we were talking about oatmeal. But we’re talking about coffee. Imagine if almost all the whisk(e)y in the world were consumed with Coke. Wait… Is it? (I digress.)
When I first started roasting coffee, it was with a small fluid bed roaster, a bunch of regional coffees (save one: a single estate coffee called La Minita), and a book entitled “Home Coffee Roasting” by a guy named Ken Davids. I read that book and roasted the coffees and made lots of notes, and over time my skills at roasting and tasting began to develop. In 2006, in the midst of the Starbucks saga, I sent Ken Davids a pound of my Ambergris Espresso Blend, as he was reviewing what he probably called “boutique” espresso blends on his website, CoffeeReview.com. This was an exciting time for me, and I was thrilled when Ken rated my espresso 91 points (or was it 92?) and he emailed to tell me that he was glad my coffee turned out to be one of the good ones. Boy was I glad as well; an affirmation from the man whose book launched my roasting career that I was doing it right. And then I noticed on Ken’s website all the coffees that scored higher than mine had logos next to the review which clicked over to the roaster’s website, and all the coffees that scored lower than mine did not. So I emailed Ken and asked him to put my logo on the site. And that’s when I found out the whole thing was a sham. A pay-to-play scheme in which top-rated coffee reviews were bought with “sponsorship” dollars.
Mark and I went to see Ken speak in a lecture hall at the conference and, still affected 17 years later, I was salivating at the idea of standing up during the Q&A to ask Ken about his shady scoring practices, widely acknowledged throughout the industry but shrouded from unwary consumers. Ken is an affable but awkward old man, and as we watched him stammer around the podium, Mark whispered that this might be his swan song. He talked about a book on coffee he wrote in the ’70s that sold a quarter million copies over the years, the roasting book that got me started, an unheralded book on espresso, and a new book entitled “21st Century Coffee.” Scatterbrained and directionless, he rambled for 45 minutes while I sat sweating and cogitating, but in the end I simply couldn’t attack the poor guy in his last shining moment.
There used to be a waggish monthly I enjoyed, entitled Mountain Bike Magazine. I’ve never been a fan of sitting and looking at pictures or reading descriptions of people doing something I’d rather just be doing, but this magazine was witty and sarcastic and kept me up to date on the latest gear. And then they published an issue with a negative gear review of the latest suspension fork released by the major player in that space. The following issue was thin, and it began with a letter from the editor explaining that the shock company had pulled all its ads because of the low star review. And that was the end of that. So I sort of understand Ken’s dilemma; once you start, you can’t stop.
There once was a man named Andy. He owned a company in California that roasted coffee, and a local Tulsa shop was using it. A barista of that shop would bring by some beans now and then, and we’d brew and taste and talk about it. Then one day, he brought an Ethiopian natural that blew me away. I went to the website and read all about it. About how they’d bought it “farm direct” in Ethiopia, etc etc. Excited, I emailed Andy to find out how he pulled off the thing I’d been wanting so badly to do. I can’t quite remember what happened after that, but suffice it to say I realized Andy wasn’t being completely honest about that whole “farm direct” part. (Unless, that is, we were ALL buying coffee farm direct.)
Feeling slightly annoyed at the misinformation and deception sprawling throughout specialty coffee, I decided to record an episode of my podcast, AA Cafe, entitled “Liars in the Coffee Industry.” We talked about silly stuff and then got into the heart of the matter. I called out Ken Davids for taking money to give good reviews. (Or was he giving good reviews in order to get sponsorships? No, wait, that’s how “Best in the World” and “A-List” market reviews.) I also talked about Andy and his misleading rhetoric with the Ethiopian coffee and his loosey goosey definition of “farm direct.” And then I got ready for the backlash from dissing one of the most prominent authors in specialty coffee.
Back in 2005, one of my customers, Joe Holsten, told me I should start a podcast. I’m not sure why he thought this was a good idea, other than the possibility that all podcasts back then were just long-winded rants, which I was prone to brandishing behind the counter anyway. I didn’t even know what a podcast was, and when he explained it I told him no one listens to podcasts. A couple weeks later, Joe came in and told me Apple was about to add podcasts to the iTunes app, and with that AA Cafe was born. We were certainly one of the first coffee podcasts, along with another called portafilter.net, and today we remain the longest-running coffee podcast in existence. Portafilter was run by two specialty coffee pros named Nick and Jay. Nick turned out to be a loudmouth who got himself into trouble for not paying his bills. And Jay – he started out with a shaved-ice business that morphed into “Spro,” then expanded and contracted as Jay’s interests and acumen developed. Jay brought the fruit loops latte to the barista competition around 2007, and then my favorite, the Lobster Bisque Latte. He said it didn’t taste very good, but he was trying to make a point about the hazelnut lattes being presented during the US Barista Championships. And I told him then and there he should be the president of SCA. But they don’t elect people like Jay. He’s too progressive. Anyway, Jay posted about the AA Cafe episode, “Liars in the Coffee Industry” on a message board (remember those?) called coffeed.com. And the shit hit the fan.
But not the way I thought. I was lambasted for talking about one of my peers in the industry. And I even got poorly written emails from uneducated cafe owners. It seemed like the entire industry was dogpiling on me. People were pissed that I had the gall to publicly impugn Andy, a fellow specialty coffee roaster. And no one said a word about Ken Davids. I emailed the moderator of the site to see if they would give me access to post in my defense, but they declined. And that was probably for the best, because eventually Andy appeared in print, doing his best to defend himself and explain the way he bought this coffee “farm direct.” And then the message board fell silent. Someone asked him to please explain again, and it became blatantly obvious Andy had bought this coffee through a broker, no matter how hard he tried to tie himself to an Ethiopian farm he’d never been to. I waited for all the naysayers to send me apologies, but none ever came. (In retrospect, there were so many other things in that podcast episode people should’ve been mad at me for. So inappropriate.)
It was perfect timing, seeing Jay get out of a car and walk down the sidewalk toward the convention center entry. He was holding a camera on a selfie stick, interviewing a Mexican woman who I obviously should know. I posted up, arms crossed, directly in his path. And as soon as he spotted me, he turned the camera around to show this “old school” roaster, Brian Franklin from DoubleShot. We reconnected for a few moments as we strode into the conference hall, and I told him about the Ken Davids lecture. He laughed, as Jay always does, and told me he was enjoying the solitude of having no cafes and being able to roast in his underwear if he wants. And he said he’s trying to be a “YouTuber.” So I guess I’m on YouTube. We parted ways at the bottom of the escalator and Mark and I proceeded onto the trade show floor.
One of the strangest things about being at the annual expo for the Specialty Coffee Association (of America AND Europe) is the fact that it’s really hard to find a good cup of coffee. There were lots of tropical smoothies and a booth giving away bananas for some reason. We stopped by the Hario booth and saw the new colors of scales and a guy made us a pourover that tasted under-developed on a teal-colored one. I saw baristas behind an espresso machine and looked at their sign to find they were serving caramel pecan lattes or some such thing. We tasted oat milk eggnog (oatnog) and some guy made us try chai tea on nitro. Matcha and whipped cream and “milkadamia.” At meetings with importers, they would ask us, almost dismissively, if we wanted coffee. Longtime friends and brokers confessed to loving coffee with maple syrup, an Australian chai made with honey, coffees flavored with fruits and aged in wine barrels, anything but the taste of actual coffee. Thank god for the staid, sportcoat-clad traditionalists at the La Minita booth. A group that you might call “old school,” that you might’ve deemed sell-outs for being acquired by a Japanese tea company, and that you probably could ridicule for the percentage of coffee they trade in the commercial market. But they seem to be holding the line (and even pushing the envelope, though ever-so-slightly) when it comes to specialty coffee. So at their booth I had a tiny, tiny cup of coffee. Black.
I sauntered over to the coffee stand of one of my brokers, waiting to talk to him, knowing he probably wasn’t looking forward to our conversation. Coffee is hard. And good coffee is dependent on so many things going right. It requires a lot of people caring and doing an excellent job at every level. I’d previously questioned this broker about a coffee he sold me which turned out to have been poorly harvested from a farm not properly managed and then inappropriately milled. And when he finally acknowledged me, he looked as though I’d kicked his dog. “Worst coffee you’ve ever roasted?” Yeah, it’s not good. Whether or not he knows I’m right is still in question, but I’ve been doing this a long time and I know coffee. I probably wouldn’t know if your caramel pecan latte tasted like it should. And I might not know which chai is best. But I know coffee. And I know when people aren’t being honest about things in the coffee industry. Mark stood off to one side, observing the awkward, depressed conversation, and then I felt someone standing next to me. Too close, really. The broker shook this interposer’s hand and then turned back to me and said, “You know Andy, right?”
Yeah, I know Andy. And now Mark does too.
I recently embarked on my fourth trip to Nicaragua, and returned safely, affected, besieged by feelings of underachievement, reminded of tougher times in life.
Thankful for political progress and the resumption of flights into Managua from U.S. airlines, I booked out of Tulsa and jetted through Houston to the lowland, lakefront property of MGA. It was all smooth sailing into the doldrums of passport control where lines of families and couples stretched to the walls and windows, bending impatiently around stanchions and pillars as each visitor waited with ten dollars cash in hand, the entry fee.
My new October friends, Samuel and Sergio and his wife Maria Cristina, found me wide-eyed, searching through a crowd of bystanders for familiar faces. After a few Spanish pleasantries, greetings and handshakes, we piled into Sergio’s new Toyota Hilux pickup for a long and winding drive across the nation, like driving across Georgia in the 1800s. The Easter holidays drifted down around us in traffic and hammocks, bathing-suited youth in dammed-up rivers, Semana Santa looked more like Semana Piscina to me.
Samuel (pronounced sam-WELL) sat beside me conversing in his best English, and I with my Spanish, trading native tongues for foreign utterances. On our way to the city of Ocotal, capital of the Nueva Segovia district, we stopped for a bite to eat. My first Nicaraguan meal of the trip was representative of all the rest: beans and rice, protein (pork with pineapple), plantains, plenty of carbs to pack on some LB’s. Five hours, or was it six? And the stretch of road finally led into Ocotal where we met up with my old friend Luis for dinner. Same same, this time thin, chewy steak.
Luis drove us home to the neighboring village of Mosonte where he lives in the late-model equivalent of traditional dwellings. A two-bedroom affair, if you count the coffee storage room where Luis slept as a bedroom. The side door led out into a fenced-in yard with hens and roosters, a coffee nursery and seedlings, mango and avocado trees, a good place to brush your teeth and make water before bed. Bed, not sleep. Dogs barking at all hours of the night just on the other side of an uninsulated, sheet-thin wall; something growling just outside my windowless room; the raking of tree limbs across the corrugated roof in the night wind; cats chasing each other just overhead; and the confused rooster crowing mid-night to mid-day. The constant gush of running water cascading from busted pipes tapered off after ten, when the city shuts off the water every night until four. I lay restlessly prostrate, because my own home is “too quiet,” Luis says. Morning coffee brought me to life and the bathroom situation aided in my awakening, with an outdoor-type washbasin sink and bucket, a modern toilet you manually fill, a barrel of water and a bowl for bathing. The cold water I poured overhead flowed down my back and took my breath away. Took me back to the early years of DoubleShot, when I lived without utilities but where water actually flowed from a showerhead, fifty degrees in summer and winter. Deep breath, exhale into the flow. And in those three nights I adjusted back to that simpler way of living and bathing, and tired enough on night three to sleep through most of the clatter in the chaos of darkness.
The following day, Juan Ramon, my third farmer friend from October’s hasty visit, hosted us at the cupping lab behind his house. The deep sadness in his eyes felt familiar. His family stood stoically along the wall, welcoming me into their home. And we cupped coffees. Coffees these young farmers agreed to produce upon my request, trial and trust, hoping in the future of relationship coffee, specialty coffee in the states, direct trade. After months of careful planning, picking and processing, the proof was in the pudding, so to speak. Nothing left to do but taste and see. Because this new endeavor comes with no guarantees. But that’s not why Juan Ramon was hurting.
I finished one round of cupping and took a walk outside to cool off and get away from the tension in the room. A walk across the sprawling concrete patio that lay bare after many weeks burdened with striated blankets of yellowing parchment coffee drying in the Nicaraguan sun. I found Juan Ramon standing under a shaded terrace furnished with raised drying beds covered in future lots of the very coffees I’d been cupping. His hands fondled the dry coffee cherries like sand on a beach, like dice on a casino table. He faced the mountains beyond the opaque cloth curtain billowing in the morning breeze. He gazed off into eternity, because Juan Ramon’s father died unexpectedly the day before I arrived in Nicaragua. We talked about it. I told him about my father dying, and how I had to scramble to pick up the pieces. How he’d been such a good friend and someone I relied on to help me because he seemed to know how to do everything. And how his death threw me into a place where I had no one to lean on. And that, after the shock wore off, I learned that my dad didn’t actually know how to do everything; he just knew how to figure out how to do everything. And that he’d passed that on to me, a gift that I wouldn’t fully receive until he wasn’t there any more, because all the things he would’ve figured out for me were left for me to figure out on my own. That’s the inheritance my father left me. So, in a sense, his passing made me a better, more capable man. Juan Ramon understood, his father being the same as mine, and we spent a few moments across burgeoning specialty coffee tables in solemn, raw humanity, as brothers.
Nueva Segovia is the original stronghold of General Sandino. Statues of the general stand along roadsides and in town squares. Nearly every power pole in Ocotal and beyond are painted with the red and black stripes of the Sandinista political party, reminders of who’s in charge. Sandino was a feisty proponent of Nicaraguan independence who rattled the U.S. Marines regularly in the 1920s and 30s with a civilian army carrying machetes and antique rifles. That spirit of independence and a scrappy ability to cobble together solutions is still evident throughout the mountains and villages of Nueva Segovia. As we ascended the road through Finca Volcancitos, I could see not only the beauty but the ingenuity displayed throughout the land. An area unlike other farms I’ve been to, these mountains are covered in pine trees. Tall, straight, fast-growing pines. As my friend Sergio dismounted from the cab of his Hilux, he cracked open cans of Nicaraguan cerveza and led me down a path between coffee trees into an amphitheater looking back onto the city named for these Ocote pines. Sergio talked about the 25-year-old tree anchoring the hillside, and how his father had started a lumber mill to harvest these pines, replanting each year for the next decade’s saw. How he started driving a lumber truck at age 13, asking not for money but for a piece of the action. He outlined his own foray into the trucking business two years later when he purchased his own trucks and hired his own drivers to move the wood. Sergio’s father bought a coffee farm and failed to make a profit, so the son took over management and won an award in his first harvest for the quality of his coffee. I’d already seen firsthand the coffee shop and auto repair shop Sergio and his wife Maria Cristina had built. As I stood beneath this monstrous pine about the same age as Sergio, I felt overshadowed by both. His quick wit and smile, straightforward decision making, charisma and intelligence have helped Sergio grow into an amazing businessman, a loving family man, and just an all around good guy. I’ll admit, it’s easy to stand in awe under the canopy of tropical mountains, but my mind raced to try and grasp where I’d gone wrong in my own life as I watched Sergio, humble but confident, walk back to the truck for another beer. Inspired, I vowed to dive back in and try to be more like my younger self, more like Sergio. To shit or get off the pot. To figure it out, like my dad taught me.
Deep breath, exhale into the flow.
Fresh out of Monmouth College with an accounting degree, I’d been to enough interviews to know that’s not what I wanted to do for a living, and then I received a letter in the mail. A letter inviting me to a pro football combine. And I immediately knew that’s what I would do. So I put my office career on the back burner and started studying fitness and sport psychology and strength training in a big way. I’d heard rumor that a physical therapist in my small hometown was training athletes and getting 2-4% strength increases per workout. I’d created my own workout program with spreadsheet algorithms that predicted what my next weight workout should be (the result of an accountant designing a fitness regimen), and I knew those numbers were extremely difficult to achieve. So I went looking for him. Finding someone in a small town isn’t that hard, so before long I was standing in the reception area of his office, a bundle of nerves and muscles. “Do you have an appointment?”
No, Mr. Willis wasn’t expecting me. But he agreed to see me. I walked into his office and told him what I’d heard about him and let him know that I wanted to play professional football and I needed help with my training. He seemed to take me seriously, even though I had to admit that I was completely broke and had no way of paying him, and he knew the odds of making the pros were next to nothing. So he told me to come back the next day and we would start training.
Upon my prompt return, he explained to me that we were going to be doing something called Isokinetic strength training. And he put me on a large contraption built for rehabbing someone’s knee after a torn ACL or something. He put me through my paces, squatting, pressing, curling and extending, all while watching my peak muscle contractions appear as a graph on a screen. I was a beast in those days, a primal, driven animal inside the skin of a human. On the field I was a bound-up ball of explosive energy, as punishing as I was controlled. And I assume Mr. Willis could see the determination and relentlessness inside me. Over time, training me for free, teaching me about the importance of both work and recovery, Phil Willis and I became friends.
And all my friends kept asking me what I was going to do if I didn’t make the pros. I was single-minded and I wouldn’t have it. To stray mentally from the goal was to doubt my ability and doubt might as well have meant giving up. I had no backup plan.
Phil took me mountain biking and let me roll down hills with wild abandon, smashing into ditches and uncontrollably sliding out in the dirt like I’d done so many, many times on the field. He taught me that you always steer toward where your eyes are focused, and if you focus where you don’t want to go, you’ll end up where you didn’t want to be. So it’s wise to only focus on the 5 inches of singletrack that you want your knobby tires to roll on. Focus. And control. You pick your line and execute. No second-guessing, but wholeheartedly committing to the path before you. And you can see why I took to mountain biking. (Phil remarked, “This will either be really good or really bad.”)
Phil watched me fail. On the bike and at the combine. But not for lack of commitment, hard work, or desire. And then one day I decided to open a coffee shop.
It’s been almost nineteen years now since we opened and so much has changed that only a small fraction of our customers know the struggles I endured figuring out how to finance a coffee shop, how to run a coffee business, how to do customer service the right way, and how to manage staff. Many times in the couple of years preceding March 5, 2004, I gave myself an ultimatum that if I didn’t get any traction I had to go apply for a job at McDonald’s. I signed contracts with myself and then broke them. Because I left my first career as a personal trainer to embark on a career in coffee, and I didn’t have a backup plan. My friends, family, and eventually my customers watched me struggle. Struggle to learn and to survive. A lot of the original DoubleShot Folk were on the journey with me, as we were all growing up and trying to figure out how to do life.
Years passed and Phil came to visit in 2021. I walked down the stairs from my office and found him standing by the pourover bar, looking around in awe. And this old friend who taught me so much, who introduced me to a new sport that became a major part of my life, who gave freely of his time and energy and money and knowledge, had tears in his eyes. He said some things that embarrassed me because I didn’t feel like I deserved his accolades. But I know he was emotional because he watched a guy who had nothing and who had failed so much turn a fledgling, barely existent coffeeshop into a real, thriving business. There were years I had my head down and lost contact with everyone, lost in the daily grind, so the emergence of The Rookery had to have been a shock. Tear-inducing.
Tears are real. I know because I cry a lot. I cry because I’m sad, and because I’m in awe, and because someone else is sad, and because I just can’t bear the immensity of the life I’m building. I’ve even cried over a cup of coffee a few times. Joe Holsten cried at the bar at the DoubleShot in the original 1730B location on Boston. It was his first time and he sat near the wall, which I can remember painting with a color I thought resembled the color of crema on a delicious double espresso. He watched me work and I cajoled him a little, making drink after drink for a line of customers, until finally he ordered. A “doppio” probably. To which I probably reminded him that this is the DoubleShot, and English would suffice. Or maybe I asked him if he wanted a ristretto or lungo, or perhaps a cafe creme, though it didn’t really matter what he wanted because I only make espresso one way, and that’s in a demitasse, consumed quickly. Dose. Tamp. Tamp the hell out of it. Maybe I’ll take a photograph of it as it’s coursing out of the portafilter spouts. I served Joe and went back to my business. He was no stranger to espresso, but his choices prior to the DoubleShot were not ideal. And when I went back to check on him, he was sitting on the floor, leaned up against that crema-colored wall, crying. I guess he liked it.
I jokingly say, “There’s no crying at the DoubleShot.” Because there seems to be a lot of crying at the DoubleShot. It’s a place where people come for comfort in times of distress, and a place where a lot of important decisions are made, life-changing work is done, monumental events are celebrated and commemorated. The DoubleShot was built on foundations stained with tears.
The sad and lonely crying hurts but if you’re like me, so does the crying in awe. Because I know I’m experiencing something I’ll likely never see again with the same eyes or taste again with the same palate or love again with the same heart. To me, tears come with pain. And that’s ok, because if you didn’t care you wouldn’t cry. If you didn’t try you wouldn’t cry. It’s about letting things soak in. Way way in, to your soul.
I almost quit my first 100-mile foot race when I struggled into the aid station at mile sixty. My friend Tammy (I call her Tamu because she swims like a killer whale) was crewing at the aid station for another friend of mine, and she jumped my shit. She’s not the gentle type. Tammy forced me to eat a slice of meatloaf, which sounded like a terrible idea. But it wasn’t, and I grabbed a second ketchup-encrusted meat slice and headed back out on the trail. My legs felt refreshed for a time, and I struggled through another twenty miles. An older man passed me and he asked how I was doing. I told him I was hurting, to which he replied, “We are all hurting. There is not one who is not hurting.” That pain takes a long time to accumulate, and when I’m in the midst of suffering, sometimes it’s hard to see that the pain is essential to the subsequent joy. And with twenty miles left in the race, I plodded forward one step at a time until I passed mile marker ninety-nine and I knew I was going to make it. At that moment, the emotion began to well up inside me and tears streamed down my cheeks. I choked back my emotions and doubled-down in that last mile. And then I sat down and let the feeling wash over me.
You want to participate in things that make you cry. Whether it be at the beginning, in the middle, or at the end. Crying out of relief or enjoyment or despair or awe. They’re all related to something aspirational, inspirational, and it means you care. Sometimes I look out at all the people sitting in The Rookery enjoying the DoubleShot, and I wonder how many tears will fall when this place is gone. And that’s all the more reason to intentionally enjoy each and every cup, every coffee, every experience. Let the coffee make you cry. But remember, "There's no crying at the DoubleShot."
“I want to start a business.”
Oh that’s cool. Living the American Dream...
I was at Home Depot a couple days ago and a woman at the self-checkout was telling the employee, in that prideful, abasing sort of way, that she was opening a business - tomorrow. She said it in a way that struck a chord in me because I could tell that she felt she was doing something for the ages, which most people couldn’t do and that this monumental task was even at the threshold of her super-human capability. And yes, I know that getting to the start line is hard. One of the hardest. But once you’re there, the real fight begins.
I remember going to the DoubleShot (before it was the DoubleShot) on what must’ve been a Sunday, and I had to get the ceiling installed over the roaster to appease the Health Department. I needed help to hoist the massive wood-and-vinyl panel I’d built so I could strap it to the ceiling joists, but there I was, all alone. And I can tell you, I felt perturbed. But with a series of ropes and ladders, I slowly lifted the ceiling up inch-by-inch until all I had to do was brace it long enough to get the bolts fastened through the backside. That probably sounds easy. Had I gone to Home Depot in the midst of that battle, I probably wouldn’t have said anything but the look on my face would’ve told everyone that thing I recognized in the poor woman about to open a business, tomorrow. When you’re all alone with the weight of the ceiling on your shoulders, it’s easy to feel like Atlas.
I watched a group of would-be restaurant managers sit in the DoubleShot every day for months, talking about menus and operations and which glassware is right, generating social media likes and posting job openings online, stopping for a refill of coffee now and then. Sitting and talking about business is fun and exciting. I know, I’ve done it. But those guys went out of business a long time ago.
I’m guilty as charged. I ran the same naive playbook, thinking my idea was so good and so novel that, 1) it couldn’t possibly fail, and 2) people would therefore want to give me money to get started, and 3) even more people would want to give me lots of money for my superb product. I spent two years putting together what felt like at the time, one of the largest collections known to mankind of information about coffee, coffee history, coffee making, selling coffee, and the blueprint for running a successful coffee business. Knowledge is power, I thought, and once I’d accumulated enough information… the rest was gravy. What’s that saying? Proper Planning and Preparation Prevents Piss Poor Performance? Bullshit. Preparation is important, but performance requires a whole other level of commitment. Mike Tyson had it right: “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.”
It’s not necessarily what you put into it as much as what you give up for it. As a good church-going young man, our pastor began plying the congregation for funds to build some unnecessary adjunct to the church compound, likely a gym or some such entertainment complex. Not being a man of means, I thought mightily and asked a lot of questions before deciding to put in my pittance toward the capital campaign. I noticed that the pastor was inviting some of the wealthier couples over to his parsonage for dinner, and I asked him about this as it relates to the Biblical story of the widow’s mite. So he took me to Salad Alley and I had a free grilled chicken salad with honey mustard dressing. So good.
I felt like I’d already given everything I had. The dreams of operating a successful coffee business eradicated the dreams I had of living a life of luxury, living life on the hoof, of making my parents proud, of settling down with the girl of my dreams. And then began the slow decline and occasional rapid loss of the fitness, strength, and athletic abilities I’d honed in my teens and twenties. And that’s a hard thing to see happening. But so be it. If that’s what it takes, that’s what I was willing to give. Everything. I couldn’t hold anything back. Not relationships, my health, family, poverty, it was all for sale to turn DoubleShot into what I hoped it could be.
I needed a place to store our inventory and supplies, and I wasn’t exactly keen on having another landlord. So every weekend I would ride my bike all over town, checking out warehouses I found listed for sale online and just keeping my eyes peeled for anything that looked like it might be for sale. From Sand Springs to North and East Tulsa, I scoured the industrial areas trying to find just the right thing. It had to be big enough that we wouldn’t outgrow it anytime soon, and I wanted it to be cool and historic so that it was something I would be proud of, and perhaps open another cafe there one day. And eventually I found the perfect spot. Well, when I say perfect, I mean the roof was completely caved in, it was full of junk, and located on a transient path in a depressed part of town. My kind of perfect. The owner, John Cowen, agreed to sell it to me, and we began a conversation about just how much the place was worth. I presented data from my cycling excursions, and pitched him a number, and he accepted. The problem was, the bank said it was worth about twenty five percent less than what I offered. And that’s when John told me something that changed everything for me. In a nutshell, he said when he constructs a building, he has to invest twenty percent of the cost of construction (the bank loans the other eighty percent), but when it’s finished and generating revenues, he will have the property re-appraised and borrow eighty percent of the new value in order to get his money back. Wait. Who is getting whose money back and from whom? And then it hit me. The original investment was needed to get the project off the ground, but once the place is up and running, you can get your original investment back because the whole going concern is worth more than it cost to build. So i got my money back and bought the warehouse.
But what about those other things I invested? There’s certainly a difference between investments and sacrifices, as well as sheer expenditures. And some of those things are gone, forever. Some of them depreciated naturally with age. Money is one thing. It rides on the tides of inflation and foreign currency exchange and interest rates. But when I invested assets like labor and friendships and time I could’ve spent reading or writing or exercising, not to mention the quashed desire for a palatial abode, and its queen, I’m forced to come to grips with what I want out of this life. So what do I want?
What do I want? Interesting question. One I ask myself regularly. And maybe more importantly, why don’t I have it yet?
Last week, on a whim (more on a riptide of frustration), I booked a trip for the next morning to the Rocky Mountains. I wanted to climb a 14er, but I went in with an open mind because these things can’t just be summoned. And after strolling around the dirty little lakeside town of Georgetown, I sat down in a promising-looking restaurant that filled to the gills by six o’clock. The server/bartender was an adorable Native girl with a trail of tattoos flowing out of her clothes at every opening. She hustled and tended bar, serving staff and customers, but there was something crass about the way she flouted her busy-ness. Though in an industry where people would rather work at dispensaries or stay home on unemployment, in a town where there aren’t many jobs and aren’t many residents, this girl was like a diamond in the rough. Training, I thought. She just needs training.
Training, yes. I was a personal trainer for a few years, bending people’s bodies this way and that to anneal them into toughened instruments of adventure. I believe in the benefits of training so much that when I started running ultramarathons, I began saying, “Anyone can train and run a hundred miles, but show me the guy who can do it without training and I’ll show you a tough motherf***er.” That goes right along with, “It’s all mental. And physical.” Because honestly, I’ve competed a lot over the years without training but I couldn’t have done it without the first 20 years of hard work I put in. And that waning workload weakened my body over time. But in Colorado, I stepped out of my car into the crisp mountain air of morning, and lit up the trail underfoot. Up past the penstemon and mountain goats, my lungs were clear and strong, legs carrying me without pain or hesitation, and after crushing a little ice and rock, I stood on top of Gray’s Peak (14,278’). And then Torrey’s Peak (14,267’). And the next day, Mount Bierstadt (14,065’). Three 14ers in two days. Now granted, I summited three of the easiest ones there are. But I also came directly from 740 feet of elevation. The real transgression is that I cheated: I trained. I’ve spent the past few months running and cycling (a little), lifting weights, and running stadium stairs. And I came away feeling like I was as strong and fast as I was at twenty-nine, before I cashed it all in on the DoubleShot. I’ll take this ROI, and I’m clawing back at some of the other things I stopped pursuing the moment I embarked on this journey. What I thought might take five years ended up taking over eighteen (and counting), and I’ve just begun to reap a tiny bit of what I sowed.
So you want to start a business, huh? Well I don’t recommend it, but you do you. Though here’s my advice:
Plan thoroughly, train hard, chasten yourself, and pray to god you have the fortitude to keep going when you get punched in the mouth.
Borrow judiciously, invest what you think you can get back, spend enough to keep yourself going, and sacrifice everything else.
That’s how you live the American Dream.
1. I’m not an entrepreneur. Entrepreneurs focus on profits.
2. People used to always asked me if I “skimmed” the cash drawer. Haha. They thought we made enough money that I could actually skim the cash drawer! Looks can be deceiving.
3. Most people don’t like coffee. And most coffee tastes terrible, so I can’t say I blame them. But even people who drink “good” coffee often “doctor it up” with things that dampen the actual taste of coffee. I think that’s a mistake.
4. When a car goes through your window and the landlord fixes it and then someone throws a brick through the other window, and the landlord refuses to fix it, the prior is called “setting a precedent,” and the latter is called “breaching the lease agreement.”
5. Eighty-five percent of decaf coffee drinkers are only convenience decaf drinkers. If you tell them you don’t have any decaf, they’ll usually go with regular, caffeinated coffee. Furthermore, if your doctor tells you to limit your caffeine intake to one cup of coffee per day, instead of drinking a “half-caf” latte, drink half of a normal latte. Also, find a new doctor; that’s ridiculous.
6. You don’t have to be Catholic to be friends with a priest; you just have to be a critical thinker, live according to a set of ideals, and admit to your shortcomings. And drink whisky.
7. A beautiful environment positively influences your culinary experience, but a beautiful empty building is empty in more than one way. When we finally finished The Rookery, we moved from 18th & Boston overnight, all night. And with only a couple hours to go before we opened for the day on March 5, 2019, all my staff left and I found myself alone, looking around at what I’d spent the past two-and-a-half years of my life building. And it felt like a huge mistake. This big, empty, soul-less building. And it wasn’t until all of our customers showed up that the place felt alive and I knew everything would be OK.
8. You have to stand up for what you think is right. I said it at the end of The Perfect Cappuccino. But sometimes you win and sometimes you lose, regardless of whether you’re right or not. And losing can cost you tens of thousands of dollars. And then you have to figure out how to make a lot of money really fast. Just so you know that from the outset.
9. It’s hard to make good coffee in micro-gravity. But the DoubleShot Space Program is working on it.
10. When someone acts inappropriately, there’s no reason to get emotional or lose your temper. It’s much more effective to be matter-of-fact and let them know that they can’t act like that. It also helps to do what you would do when encountering a black bear: make yourself look as big as possible, stay calm, never turn your back. If the bear comes toward you, yell and throw things at it.
11. If you want something done right, you have to do it yourself. If you want to do more than a couple things a day and not work all by yourself every day for months on end and fall asleep on the rubber mat on the floor beside the triple sink because you just needed to rest for a second, and then you wake up and realize it’s time to open again, you have to be OK with having a minimum standard and hoping your staff takes it as seriously as you do.
12. My grandpa was right: Camping is fun for a little while, but not if you have to live like that all the time. Sleeping in your car makes sense when you don’t want to pay more for sleeping than eating, but there’s something magical about a luxury hotel room where they line up all the shampoo bottles with the logo facing you, and the shower mat is folded into a swan, and when you ask the girl at the front desk if you can take a cocktail from the lounge back to your room and she says, “You can do ALMOST anything you want.” Now that’s living.
13. No one knows how many jelly beans are in that jar where people pay to write down their guess and then someone wins a prize because they guessed the exact right number of jelly beans. Give me a break.
14. The Rules are only useful when it requires people to stop what they’re doing and focus on coffee. As soon as The Rules become the focus, The Rules gotta go. I blame it on Portlandia.
15. Those little round stickers that cover the drinking hole on your lid so your coffee doesn’t slosh all over your console have really sticky glue on the back, so it’s a good thing they have our logo on them.
16. There’s no crying at the DoubleShot. (There actually seems to be a lot of crying at the DoubleShot for some reason, but I like to walk around proclaiming that there’s no crying at the DoubleShot.)
17. When you have an idea, people always say, “You can’t do that,” or “That will never work,” but if you don’t believe them and find solutions, they’ll start saying, “I was going to do this same thing…”
18. A LOT of stuff can happen over the course of a career. Mark Brown and I recapped some of the highlights in what seemed like a really long podcast episode, but actually it’s only three-and-a-half minutes per year. Listen in at aacafe.org.
Thanks for the memories, y’all. To share some of yours, go to DoubleShotCoffee.com/memories.
Endurance: 1 the ability to withstand hardship or adversity
especially: the ability to sustain a prolonged stressful effort or activity
2 the act or instance of enduring or suffering
Endurance has many connotations. Endurance athletes take on great challenges in races that require training to build up stamina through long, repetitive workouts. It’s the ability to endure mental hardships through disease and injury, poverty and distress. Resilience in the face of adversity. Strength in the midst of suffering. I think of the adventurers and explorers of centuries past who developed physical endurance through a life of toil and honed their mental fortitude as they pressed on into the unknown. Some are born with the genetics to endure. Others are bred for it. And some just make a decision to keep going despite the circumstances.
I started camping and hiking when I was in college. One weekend I was preparing to go out in the woods with a friend, gathering my old hand-me-down canvas tent and Coleman sleeping bag, my kerosene lantern and cooking gear. My grandpa was at the house and he was puzzled as to what I was doing. He even seemed a little irritated. And I remember him telling me, “You wouldn’t like it so much if you had to live like that all the time.” And in my youthful ignorance, I shrugged off his comment as irrelevant and obvious.
When I decided to start the DoubleShot, I let go of the comfort and cash that came with my gig as a personal trainer. I left the town that had provided for me because I was restless, bored of the routine, sick of the safety of everyday life. I was enamored with what I knew coffee could be, even though I’d only tasted the tip of the iceberg and would only know the true depth of this industry a decade later. Enamored with coffee and Colorado, I packed my things and began a journey to combine my infatuations. Before long, I was living in my car, sleeping in a tent or on the side of the road somewhere, in a church parking lot, a truck stop alongside eighteen wheelers, someone’s sofa, wherever the sunset chased me down. And that sort of lifestyle set in until it was uncomfortable. All my savings dwindled and work was hard to come by. I remember going to the grocery store, counting the money in my wallet and deciding how many dollars I would save for gas in my car and how much I could spend on fuel for my body. (Ramen noodles, a loaf of white bread, peanut butter and jelly, a couple minutes staring at the meat section, and a quick sniff at the pastry counter, and my $5.00 bill was spent.)
My grandpa lived a hard life, scrambling, clawing, doing what it took to survive. He passed on that lifestyle to my dad, who agreed wholeheartedly that unnecessary discomfort is a luxury. They moved from renthouse to shanty, attempting to farm until the grains that fed the chickens dried up and the monotony of eggs ceased with a chicken dinner. They lived in a partially-finished garage with sheets hung across wires for makeshift rooms separating parents, three girls and two boys. For drinking water they dug a well with shovels, and they put up an outhouse in the back yard. Holes in the roof of the garage allowed my dad, at 10 years old, to star-gaze at night and dream of the endless possibilities outside that life of pauperdom.
Fidel Castro took power in Cuba, the first U.S. astronauts were hired by NASA, Alaska and Hawaii were admitted as our 49th and 50th states, and my dad’s family moved into a house with indoor plumbing for the first time as he began his junior year in high school. It was a pivotal time for the world and for the family. As I would find out over the course of my upbringing, my dad hated hunting and fishing because growing up that’s what he had to do to eat. (Interestingly, my grandpa still enjoyed hunting and fishing; he just didn’t like little kids along for the sport, so I never acquired the skills.)
My dad started his own business when I was 10. He spent his 20s perfecting his trade, adding knowledge and skills to his repertoire, and observing the business behind the office doors. And then he made his big break, taking his career into his own hands. Throughout my upbringing, whether we were broke or not, he never wanted us to go without, to suffer the depredations of poverty, or to appear that we had less than anyone else. He worked his life away making sure he could provide.These were the formative years of my youth.
Fate and foundations found me back in Tulsa at the end of a couple years hardscrabble life on the road. Trial and failure repeated again and again. As you might know, starting a business from nothing is nearly impossible. And then the struggle really begins. I knew at that point I had gone all-in. I had cashed in my chips, dedicated my life, and like the explorers of old, my only option was to carry on. There was no giving up, no going back. I moved into an apartment without gas or electricity, malnourished and tired, just recovered from a near-death experience from carbon monoxide poisoning. Alternatively taking cold showers in winter and sleeping under a blanket of summertime humidity, I persisted for three-and-a-half years like this. Because I knew there must be a way out. Because I knew suffering was a part of it. Because my grandpa and my dad did it before me. This was my heritage.
I started racing when I was just out of college. I was sort of fast and moderately successful. But over time, it became apparent that the longer the race lasted, the better I would do. And so I started doing 24-hour mountain bike races and 36-hour adventure races. And eventually my runs went from 5K to 10K to 26.2 miles and onto 50K, 50 miles, and ultimately 100 miles. Am I a talented runner? No, not by any means. Am I a fast ultra-endurance athlete? Absolutely not. But you see, I quit competing with the field several years ago when I realized the fight was inside me. Today I live in a house with running water, comfortable furniture, and all the normal utilities (I even have WiFi!). I eat meat every day. I’m wealthy by the standards of most people. That daily physical and emotional struggle to survive is gone. And I’m back to some extreme version of my college days; of self-inflicted discomfort.
Four days ago, I completed Ironman Tulsa. And I finished without training for it. It has been my M.O. for the past few years to compete in races without properly training for them. When I was in my 20s, I established goals for my life that hinged around the idea of ultimate freedom: 1) To be in good enough physical condition that I could do anything at the drop of a hat without needing to train, and 2) To be wealthy enough that I could do anything I wanted without regard for cost. I basically accomplished the former in my youth, but had to sacrifice that in order to strive whole-heartedly for the latter. But to me, it’s still important to prove to myself that I can endure. I still want that physical freedom, and though that doesn’t come from a high level of fitness any more, I have built the mental fortitude to carry on, to suffer willingly.
So as not to drown, I started swimming two weeks before the race, and put in 6 solid efforts. I’m a decent cyclist. And I know how to run. So, once I got over the panic that set in for the first five minutes or so in what felt like icy cold water, I felt confident that I would complete the swim. And I did, in a decent time even. Rain pelted us for a lot of the cycling course, but those Osage Hills are my home and I loved every climb. Cramps began to set in toward the end of the bike (calf cramps also set in during the swim, but they went away after I got out of the water and regained my vertical equilibrium). By the time I got off my bike, I couldn’t even pedal in the saddle any more because the muscles in my legs would seize up. This was from poor hydration and lack of training. But with only 26.2 miles to go on foot, I was basically home free. Then my stomach started to hurt, again from poor hydration. I got into my ultra-shuffle and jogged one mile at a time, stopping at every aid station for Gatorade and water. But I wasn’t there yet.
There comes a time during these hard efforts when you’ve gone as hard as you can for as long as you could. And that’s when it gets juicy. It’s hard to get to that point; it takes a long time, and once you get there, you would normally call it a day. So it’s a really remarkable time when you get to commune with suffering and carry on. When you find it in yourself to keep moving despite the road ahead. For me, it could’ve been 8 more miles or 20 more miles because I found that place in my soul where pain and difficulty are signals that I am succeeding. And I wallowed in it, moving forward step by step, forcing my mind to control my body and not vice versa.
A woman on the course said to me, “I just want this to be over,” and my first instinct was to tell her NO, this is why you are here. We worked all day to get to a place where discomfort and exhaustion would make most people quit. This is a special occasion when you are pressing toward a goal and you come to this place not many people know and fewer people go beyond, and you just keep going.
And I get it; I’m pretending to suffer the depredations of exploration and poverty. But you want to know why the DoubleShot is successful? In part, it’s because we’re still going. Never giving up. No matter what.
Today is my 48th birthday. More than twenty years older than when I set off toward this goal. I want to know that my lifestyle today still supports the ability to do what I want physically whenever I please. And I guess that’s why I didn’t train. I just wanted to see if I could.
But as my grandpa said, I wouldn’t like it so much if I had to live like that all the time. And thank God I don’t.
I lay on the mattress with arms outstretched and feet apart, completely naked, like Michelangelo’s Vitruvian Man. As the 55˚ water from my shower evaporated from my body, sweat began to replace it, and the mattress was soaked, swimming in the dewy Oklahoma summer heat. My apartment, unfurnished, but for the 20-or-so brown cardboard boxes stuck to the worn-wood living room floor, served only as the roof under which I slept and showered. An old brick apartment facing the Arkansas River owned by one of Tulsa’s many slumlords, the window by my bed was painted open and the door was ajar, for outside and inside were the same. No money, no utilities, always with 55˚ water. Three and a half years of ramen noodles and work. So many hours at work that sometimes I would fall asleep on the rubber mat in front of the stainless triple sink. Just rest a minute, and then I’ll finish the dishes and I can get ready to go home. And then waking suddenly, realizing it was time to open again. Life plunked along like a phantom, a waking dream. Like the nightmares I had as a kid, where I was semi-lucid and walking, searching for a way out, a way to wake up and end the drama. Friends buoyed me. Friends I made at the DoubleShot, who pitied me or admired my dedication, or fell in love with the person they hoped I was beneath the filth of exhaustion and primitive living.
Three-quarters of the packet is all you need if you add 3 sausage links from the freezer, stolen from tomorrow’s toad-in-the-hole. And then add water to my collapsible backpacking pot, one I borrowed ten years before from my adventure-mate, Brad; the water should be hot when you put the ramen brick in and replace the lid. Not too much water, just enough to cover, and never boil it. I prefer to strain because I don’t like broth that much.
And I distracted myself for several years. Some people knew how I lived, and they asked me questions, and I lied. I lied to them and to myself about wanting to live like that. And I thought some people pitied me, but maybe they liked me like that.
Because over time, things change. Here I sit, undeservedly some would say, in an $83,000 house with a $14,000 HVAC that senses the temperature and adjusts based on the time of day and season of the year, keeping me comfortable and weak. It’s now dark outside, but light inside as the fixture hanging over my dining table, a round antique table my dad lovingly restored, casts soft yellowish light on my paper and across the seamless, popcorn ceiling. I ate meat three times today - pork sausage, smoked turkey slices, and ground beef. Three times in one day, just like the three times I ate “meat” in the five or six years of struggles in The Beginning. But change happens slowly.
Moab was my home in 2002. I didn’t “live there” per se, but I was a “local” for all intents and purposes.
I once met a girl at the Moab Brewery. She was sporty and blonde and flirty. And I was reading or writing, more immersed in my books than the TVs or the patrons near by. And people find that interesting for some reason. “What are you reading?” As if it must be the book of the century to keep me rapt, because no one reads, right? Yeah, I’ve read Desert Solitaire. Three times. It’s not about Moab, it’s about whores in San Francisco, I think. I’m not sure what it’s about, but I like it. And this cute girl took an interest in me. She asked me if I’d come back later and hang out with her after the restaurant closed. But I was on my bike. I was a cyclist. A mountain biker, really. My bike had a name that evoked Muhammad Ali, floating like a butterfly, stinging like a bee. My bike and I were inseparable. We just knew each other. I was the kind of rider who could and would ride the two hours uphill to the trailhead to meet my friends for a 5-hour ride. They called me “the adventure racer” because I lacked the patience of my compatriots who would try to ride a technical section over and over again until they succeeded. “Three tries and I’m out” was my motto. But I was fearless and talented and strong. When everyone switched over to full suspension bikes, I stayed solid on my hardtail, and almost no one rode what I could ride on a hardtail.
I wanted to meet the girl, but it was a 30-minute ride back to my camp along the Colorado River between towering red rock walls. And then the return trip to town in the dark, and I was tired, already thinking about the epic day of riding tomorrow. So I came up with an alternate plan. She worked at a plant nursery during the day, which was an hour ride from my camp, but happened to be at the trail tail of the Moab Rim Trail. So I’d meet her at her other job the next day and we could visit some more. But when I got back to camp that night I realized that I owned a car. I’d been so immersed in the lifestyle I enjoyed in Moab that I’d forgotten how I got to Moab. Needless to say, this didn’t impress the girl. “Why didn’t you ask me if I had a car?”
The first time I went to Moab I expected to see sand dunes, like the way I envision the Sahara Desert. And I wondered how it could be the Mecca for mountain biking with a desert full of sand. And there is sand. But not like I thought. I happened to meet a guy named Malcolm - “Rider Mel” - who was one of the only mountain bikers in Moab on August 1st and he took me under his wing.
We rode together twice a day, morning and evening, and sometimes I would go for a hike or run midday in extreme heat while Malcolm rested in his swamp-cooled apartment, drawing maps of the trails we rode that morning. He taught me the ways and encouraged me as I crashed repeatedly in this new terrain. “You have really good control of your handle bars.” And soon I was off on my own. Deftly riding the hardest trails without fear, skirting close calls, reveling in the excitement of empowerment and independence.
I could ride almost anything, mastering new skills each time I rode, confidence gathering like a storm. I found peace and communion amongst the ancient rocks of Moab, where perhaps my ancestors roamed, watching now as I pleased them with skill and boldness. Or maybe it was the rock that liked me, that knew me. Its life force in rhythm with mine, allowing me to do as I pleased.
Moab felt like home. It made me happy, if happy is a feeling I allow myself to feel. In fact, I promised myself that if I ever actually decided to kill myself, I was only allowed to do it by riding my bike off a cliff in Moab. A fitting death, but I knew I would never do it because all my cares were gone in Moab.
I was there at an unusual time, during the rains, during the jeeps. Riding to reconnect. And I decided to ride a trail I’d never ridden. One known to be wearisome in summer because of the deep, dry sand. But I was good at riding through deep sand, and up for a challenge. Poison Spider Mesa, just above the dinosaur footprints, was a typical Moab ride starting out, though I wasn’t used to being with so many jeeps. Rock crawlers, modified to look like spiders climbing over seemingly-insurmountable obstacles, leaving black burn-out marks on the grippy sandstone. Like a rollercoaster, I rode over and down the slopey rock. I knew my bike and I knew my tires intimately. I knew when they would grip and I knew when they would release. And I used both to jump and drop - it’s bad form to skid and leave a mark when mountain biking (only jeeps and amateurs do this).
I stopped to wait for a line of jeeps to come up out of a puddle and spin out climbing a very steep 12-foot climb, opposing my path. I scouted the drop and decided I could roll off, and pull very hard on my bars a few feet from the bottom and land hard on both wheels in a 6-inch water bowl. But as I descended, the tires I had such a close relationship with failed me. The water on the rock created a slippery surface like nothing I’d ever experienced in Moab, and at once I knew why it is called “slickrock.” The bike I knew so well went completely out of my (and its) control. We careened down this near-vertical rock face, free-falling, panicking, with no chance to correct or right the bike, and we landed fast on the front wheel, handlebar wrenched sideways, nuts on aluminum, face-down in dirty water. It was only a 12-foot drop and I was uninjured. Just scraped up. But that moment was the first time I lost control. True, hard-core mountain biking is done at the edge of control. (Really out of control, but where you know you can reel it back in quickly as needed.) But this was fast, unexpected loss of everything. And in a different circumstance, it would’ve been my demise.
I got up and wiped the mud from my face, restored my blurry vision, set my bars straight, and tried to soldier on. But it was over. I lost my confidence in one moment. And my years of riding Moab ended instantly. It happened so suddenly, the trauma, that I never recovered, and I lost my happy place. I’d probably even be too afraid to ride my bike off a cliff to kill myself. But change happens suddenly.
You die. Or you grow old. You move or you migrate. You climb the economic ladder or you win the lottery. Change happens slowly, or suddenly.
Climate scientists have been telling us for a decade that if we don’t change our behavior there will be dire consequences for mankind, for species of animal, insect and plant. It will happen in 100 years or in 500 years or in some amount of time that equates to touching a hot pan and feeling the burn two weeks later. They beg us to alter our consumption and our travel, our use and our waste. To be conservative and conservation-minded. To act sustainably.
And now, here we find ourselves in the midst of a pandemic, and the response has been one determined to sustain human life, though not as we know it. It’s an environmentalist’s nirvana. Air travel has virtually come to a halt. Spring break might as well have been cancelled. National parks are empty. Events drawing hundreds or thousands of people are no more. We have become stagnant and our economy will feel this crushing decline.
It’s the difference between consequences now and later. We’ll all die in 500 years if we don’t limit air travel? So what. You might die if you fly. Now, that’s a big deal.
So environmentally, one might applaud this pandemic as a wake-up call, and the first step toward true positive climate impact. But when it all blows over and our stockpile of toilet paper begins to dwindle, the landscape will be different. In the midst of the panic, let’s not forget to practice real environmental change, and begin to support more local business. More local resources. Think about the supply chain for the products you consume on a regular basis. How can you change your buying habits to support local products? Because for these people, change normally happens slowly. But in these days of societal reaction, change can happen suddenly, and your choices will be different (and worse) in the aftermath. Buy local. Be smart.
The winds have shifted from south to north and the temperature has gone from unbearably hot to unpredictably mild. The leaves on my October Glory maple got stuck in that half-red, half-green phase that is so brief, streaked with the colors of Christmas I remember from my childhood, remarkable in its natural vividness. In Spanish-speaking coffee lands, this is called “pintón,” when the coffee cherries are ripening on the thin, resilient limbs of their mother tree, reddening from the woody attachment but still green at the tip; coffee that tastes less sweet than the fully ripe, “maduro” coffee we’ve grown to love, the coffee that has completed its chrysalis.
Life is always in flux, and fragile. Our best laid plans shift slowly, and suddenly. Ideas become stubborn and then break like a green stick, or they evolve as our cells rearrange and turn our hair an elderly grey. I think back about the big changes in my life, and none of them happened like I thought they would. The idea that my dad would die and my cat would die seemed as unrealistic as the idea that I could die. I think about my temptation to change the name of the DoubleShot, when the pervasive lawyers for Starbucks threatened, compromised with the demand that I put a space between Double(and)Shot, and I resisted. I refused. And in that case it’s the space that doesn’t exist that indicates that the DoubleShot name inherently stands for justice and right and standing up for what we believe in. But we change. It has always been our mission to source and serve the best coffee that we know how, to as many people as we can. And that means amending our methods, altering the product, shifting our mindset about what excellent coffee means (but not deviating from our purpose). After all, it’s change that takes coffee from a seed planted in the tropical mountain soil, transformed through the flames of my roaster, and extracted by the worlds wealthiest solvent.
The biggest change for the DoubleShot that happened over the course of the last few years culminated with the completion of The Rookery. We moved overnight in March from our strip on Boston, leaving the cold cinder block walls that were only warmed by the people within. The intimacy and life felt over our evolutionary first fifteen years was not contained in that concrete space, the big glass windows that crashed so quickly one day, the black stenciled animal heads spray painted on white, nor the old brick of the original strip where so many memories were made and lost. Our home changed dramatically one day, this Hite barn rebuilt between city towers, redesigned with clean lines and warm wood that reflects our commitment to structure, strictness, and hospitality. Any move is risky, and this project is no exception. With the calculation ingrained in my accounting-filled brain, we risked moving a couple blocks west from Boston to Boulder, from 18th to 17th, from strip mall to this iconic stand-alone structure designed practically and purposefully to enhance your coffee and community.
I had whisky with my friend, a priest in the Catholic Church, and we talked about the transubstantiation that he believes occurs in the wine and the wafer upon being blessed in the cathedral. In my skepticism we debated what that substantive transformation really is, and he explained to me that they believe the spirit of God becomes entwined within the molecular structure of the blessed sacrament, in essence making the communion a consumption of the Holy Ghost. And I believe the same has occurred at The Rookery; the spirit of so many souls have blessed this structure, transforming it from the barn that once held dairy cows and lofts of hay into The DoubleShot, a loving, loved, foundational home for our community. I know this because the night before we opened, on March 4, after a couple years of construction, of cranes and welds, of hammering and sawing, painting, and installation, I stood in this building and looked around, all alone, and my heart sank. My heart sank because all I saw was an empty building as cold as the one we’d just left. A church without a congregation. A wafer without the Spirit. And it wasn’t until the morning of March 5, on the DoubleShot’s fifteenth birthday, when people filled The Rookery and the structure was baptized with the ethos that sprouted from a coffee seed and grew into the tribe of outstanding individuals who really are the DNA of the DoubleShot. And my soul was renewed.
So at this time of Thanksgiving, I want to send this special sentiment of gratitude to you. Thank you for embracing the change. Thank you for trusting us to make healthy, quality decisions that we believe will improve our product, your experience, and the lives of so many people. The changes of the past several months have been huge, but we continue to find new ways to do better, and we will always steer in that direction. Thank you for supporting us as we all take this amazing journey through life together.
Have a safe and enjoyable Thanksgiving.
I’ve been a lot of places, seen a lot of things, lived a lot of life. My stories are so numerous that I’ve forgotten most of them, only remembered in the 21 journals that line my bookshelf. Stories of the past 21 years of my adult life. (I read an issue of Outside Magazine and on the last page was a photo of one of Peter Beard’s journals, which they said were filled with clippings and photos, blood, hair and writings from his travels in Africa, and worth $10,000.) So I wrote every day. Or during travels. In the midst of momentous events. My life on paper. I could read it and remember. But mostly my thoughts are resurrected through scent. It’s one of the most powerful of our five senses at jogging our memories.
Riding my bike just the other day through the Osage Hills, a particular invisible wood smoke filled the air and I left this place, transported to a fuzzy recollection of Latin America. It felt like Nicaragua. And slowly the vision became clear: the rudimentary houses where the coffee growers live and cook their beans and rice over the flaming end of a long branch protruding from an earthen stove, their room smoky and my eyes burning with the log.
Scents bring to life memories that are so vivid and moving. It’s the tea rose perfume my mom wore and my dad adored, which I smell at every funeral of family and friend. The waxy smell of my niece’s crayolas on coarse coloring pages that take me to my brother’s room, lying on the floor Christmas Eve, trying to occupy the hours coloring inside the lines so that we could stay up all night and listen for Santa bringing us presents. The sterile paper smell of books, wandering down rows and rows of very tall public library shelves, knowing I was supposed to be in the children’s section but aware of the millions of adventures and biographies and complicated affairs that must be printed between the hard covers of volumes over my head, just out of reach. And the sterile oppressive smell of doctor’s offices. Like the one my mom worked at when the very kind and monotone physician diagnosed me with a stomach ulcer in the 6th grade, doomed to eat a foul, bitter pill, much too large for me to swallow - and thus my disdain for the Andes mints my mom gave me to chew up with each daily dose: chalk and chocolate and mint. The pollen blowing off the cornfield across the brick road of my childhood home, which I find in any bourbon with a high percent of corn mash: the moonshine fragrance of East Fremont Street. Just down the road from the distinctly aromatic pig farm where I sat in the child seat on the back of my mom’s bike as we rode past the armory to see the baby piglets and circled around the parking lot of the Mormon church, just shy of the equally smelly cattle sale barn. Petrichor - that dirt-and-mineral scent as a rainstorm approaches, thinking I could out-ride the weather, but finding myself stranded on my mountain bike at 11,000 feet without a rain jacket, temperature plummeting, taking shelter in a small stand of pines, scaring off the cattle who had the same idea. Deep knee bends, fighting hypothermia until the storm subsided.
One of my earliest memories involves falling asleep in the car. We arrived home and my dad (big, strong, and hard working) lifted me out of the back seat of our Pontiac sedan. He carried me to the house, his stubbly whiskers scratching my face and the scent of his coffee breath filling my nostrils. Perhaps that is why I fell in love with coffee.
I dance through the woods among a cacophony of smells, an olfactory forest, my feet moving along the singletrack trail in rhythm, back-and-forth like the silky strong movement of a bow across the strings of a violin, and pine takes me to Colorado. Leaving a voicemail for my friend Brad, 800 miles away, telling him I was planning to bushwhack up the side of Mount Massive through pine and aspen over three false summits (the third over 14,000 feet) before topping the Rockies’ second tallest peak, high above the trees at 14,429 feet. If he didn’t hear from me in 3 days, something was wrong. The earthy, musty smell of rotting wood brings me to 1983, kicking around the cow ponds and dry creek beds of rural Oklahoma. Plunging unexpectedly into the hollow trunk of a fallen tree where hundreds of yellow jackets swarmed around my body and over 100 stung my 10-year old flesh. The fatty, pungent smell of bacon cooking reminds me of the nights my cousin and I spent in the woods near his house. Bacon we stealthily burgled from his mom’s refrigerator after spending a night listening to coyotes (that’s pronounced ky-oats out here) howl, fire keeping them at bay in the near woods. Our contraband bacon broiled over the coyote fire, draped over a long stick, ends burnt, middle raw, good nonetheless.
I remember the unmistakable smell of the football locker room: musty, mildew and grass-stained pants and the sweaty ferment of pads in an oppressive, un- air conditioned concrete block building. (Thank god that’s not something you ever have to smell in regular life.) That locker room where Coach Stiles earnestly pleaded with each and every player to “do the right thing,” and told each of us through tears at half time, after not playing up to our ability, “You’re a great athlete. You’re a great athlete. You’re a great athlete…” I’m a great athlete? I am a great athlete. And when we walked out of that locker room beneath the rows of stadium seats full of fans, benches we’d run up and down many times throughout the week before, the scent of cigarette smoke hung on the air. The same smoke that sometimes filled the high school restrooms at lunch time. Where the unintelligent school bully and his even-less-intelligent bully sidekick cornered me and threatened to beat me up. (I offered to meet him behind Walmart after school to have it out, but he didn’t show and I walked the two-and-a-half miles home across town, relieved and angry.)
Tobacco smoke is evocative and nuanced, like coffee. There is cigarette smoke, in the breeze or in the bar, one thought-provoking, the other oppressive. And the smoke of a cigar. I used to smoke cigars when I was younger. The taste, strong and pungent, excellent with sweet Italian sausage and port wine. Now it’s smoke draws me into those early years of the DoubleShot, waiting for the coffee roaster to cool, a dozen people without heavy responsibility drinking whiskey, laughing and chatting at midnight, whatever the weather: friends, staunch supporters. Pipe smoke is more sophisticated. Akin to leather. It’s scent is royal. It evokes fireplaces and furs and British ancestry, Jason Westenburg reading The Economist. It’s the nuance of tobacco smoke that probably most parallels the aromatics in coffee. From the diner to the DoubleShot, coffee can run the gamut of smelly to sensual.
Why is the Gesha coffee so special?
It’s the clarity of fragrances (the smell of the ground coffee beans) and aromatics (the smell of the brewed coffee). The sophistication of complementary aromatics intermingling and changing throughout the brewing and drinking experience. It’s the citrus of a mountaintop in Panama where I picked the most succulent orange that turned out to have a very lemony sourness which drove me to eat more and more as my mouth watered and chills ran down my spine. It’s the honeysuckle growing on the fence in the back yard, where my mom taught me to pull the style out by the calyx and drip the sweet nectar onto my tongue. That honeysuckle, growing beside a patch of resident strawberries that we didn’t plant, but we did eat - their tart-ness quelled with a generous dunk into the sugar bowl. It’s the rooibos tea, red tea from Africa, my dear friend Marcus brewed for me one adventurous day after I’d accidentally scaled one of Boulder’s flatirons in running shoes, hot rooibos to cool and calm me down, butternut squash soup to nourish my soul and our friendship. It’s all these memories emanating from one delicious cup, woven so skillfully like the tales of life.
You must smell to remember. Scent is such a driving force, an evocative friend. Close your eyes. And let your nose remind you of the juiciness of life.