La Mancha de Cafe

Quixotic: exceedingly idealistic; unrealistic and impractical

especially : marked by rash lofty romantic ideas or extravagantly chivalrous action.


I’m what they call passionate. I rarely refer to myself in that regard, but probably ever since I refused to serve some irritating drink or kicked someone out of the DoubleShot for being an asshole, they’ve said I’m passionate. My mom probably has a different perspective on the whole thing. She says I had qualities as a kid that turned out to be good qualities as an adult. Well, that probably depends on who you ask. When people inquire what I was like as a child, she says, “Smaller.” So I’ve probably always been this way. But the common reprimand in my adult life has been, “I love that you’re so passionate, but…”

But… soft. What light through yonder window breaks? What light? Perhaps it’s the light at the end of the tunnel. When I first started running marathons, people talked about hitting the wall and then when I started running ultramarathons I realized the wall was actually a tunnel, and if you run far enough you’ll come out the other end. (As long as you do the right things.) The marathon just isn’t long enough to see the light on the other side, so they assume it’s a wall. But I’m not a marathoner. I’ve run in mountains all over the planet, mostly between rows of my beloved coffee trees. But running a business is an endeavor that has no end. It’s running toward some constantly moving goal, hoping there’s no finish line or disqualification for moving too slowly and sucking at your job. Hoping the latest tunnel isn’t a wall after all. I’ve DNF’d the Leadville 100 something like seven times, but twenty years into the DoubleShot, amid countless failures and missteps, we’re still hauling ass. So I want to unravel some of that, because our apparent success isn’t so straightforward. It’s quixotic, to say the least.

Jason Collington wrote an expansive piece about me in the Tulsa World in 2005, back when people did that sort of thing, digging into what made DoubleShot unique and how I became known as the Coffee Nazi. He didn’t call me quixotic in the story, but when he interviewed me for a follow-up in 2023 (now as the paper’s executive editor), he seemed amazed and dismayed at what the DoubleShot has grown to become for this community. He said, “You weren’t supposed to succeed. You should’ve failed.” Should I have?

I sat in the back of a taxi, rolling down the road from the airport in a town called Rionegro high up on the ridgeline above Medellin, the city lights dominating the valley and dotting the surrounding mountainsides. I sat and thought about the road trips I’d taken all across the Rockies and adjacent deserts over the past several years. Trips I’d often taken in silence, driving and thinking, working out the path of my life and how I’d gotten to where I was. What I’d done right and wrong, what I wanted, what I didn’t have yet. My successes and failures. In the cab I sat and listened to the Bachata music playing on the radio, Prince Royce maybe, and I drifted off into the theater of my mind where a pretty girl in a spicy red jumper danced flawlessly and elegantly across the bowstrings of my heart. It’s the give-and-take that makes life interesting for me. I had it all in my late twenties, except I didn’t have anything. I was building experiences through a physical strength and ability I’d honed for that very purpose. I longed for a more meaningful career and an income stream that would bolster my ability to finally land my ultimate objectives. Not absolute freedom, as it turns out; rather, earning my shot at something more fulfilling even than that.

I’d shown up in Colombia the first time with the idea that I could meet a coffee producer and buy coffee from her and roast it to serve my customers at DoubleShot. This was an extremely naive (and exceedingly idealistic) way of doing business. I Googled “coffee farm Colombia” or something asinine like that and eventually stumbled across some info for a woman named Cristina who had been trained by Willem Boot and was a certified “Q grader” (coffee taster). She appeared to own a coffee farm in Antioquia, so I sent her an email. She told me to let her know when I was in Medellin and she’d take me to the farms. Farm(s). It turned out her father was the largest coffee producer in Colombia, which at the time was the second-largest producing country in the world. I was in way over my head.

As the taxi descended into taller trees, I looked at my watch and realized I wasn’t getting any younger and hadn’t eaten in far too long. I had a half-Cuban in my back pocket, and my mind turned to the mouth-watering idea of going down on that the first chance I had. Hunger is an interesting facet of emotion and desire. I’ve always had a hunger for knowledge and self-reflection. I’ve long had a hunger for coffee perfection. I used to imagine what my ideal of the perfect cup would be like. It set into motion this quest to be good enough to recognize it when I tasted it, to know how to roast it properly, to understand the brewing variables well enough to dial it in for proper extraction. Not unlike the life I’d built outside coffee. Learning, training, experiencing, always searching. But now I don’t idealize “perfection” as something necessarily immaculate; rather, I keep my awareness open enough to recognize something unique when it comes my way. And, as I dig deeper, having the ability to discern when I’m in the presence of the incomparable. But I use my nose to smell out when something isn’t what it appears to be. I use my mouth to flesh out what it could be. I search for its quirks, the soft spots, even the things that people might call “flaws,” and I find pleasure on the edges.

Once I drove a similarly descending route from Flagstaff to Sedona, not into the city of eternal springtime, but out onto the high desert full of yogis and eccentrics. I can admit to being a bit eccentric myself, so I’m not a hundred percent out on that scene. But with no coffee trees in sight, I decided to give a local roaster the chance to show me their stuff. I walked up to the counter and ordered an americano: “Leave room for Jesus.” I don’t like my coffee or my relationships watered down by trivialities or practicalities. Of course the coffee was disastrous. Because it takes a lot to make that relationship right between producer and roaster, terroir and climate, variety and process, fermentation and drying, time and temperature and pressure. A proper coffee is hard to come by. That’s why I always say when you have that moment, the moment of elation, take it all in. Stop and relish what’s happening and how rare it is that the stars aligned.

Two of the fairest stars… having some business, do entreat her eyes to twinkle in their spheres ’til they return. The eyes are the windows to the soul, they say. One can impart an awful lot of information through the eyes. One look can be worth a thousand words. It’s a connection I found with Juan Ramon Diaz in Nicaragua. I suspected that he and I were brothers of some sort, but when I saw the look of devastation and courage as he held back the tears of his father’s mourning, I knew his soul. I thought about what I was even doing in Nicaragua, trusting a friend of a friend and on down the line to help me stay out of harm’s way and be honest with me and parse out what it means to produce excellent coffee, to earn proper wages, and to be in a relationship. On a wing and a prayer, I took my shot. I introduced myself as genuinely as I knew how, stayed out of the trivialities that sometimes plague relationships, and promised complete transparency and brutal honesty. That’s what you want, right? Brutal honesty. No, probably not. Not unless you’re the rare one whose straightforward demeanor demands nothing less. And that’s how I operate. No one ever accused me of being “too nice.” So I commit, mostly out of unrealistic and impractical ideations of commerce and friendship coalescing into a bountiful outcome for all. And then I find out one of these coffee farmers is out swiping on coffee Tinder looking for a date to the prom. I’m not interested in a date. I’ve trained my entire life for this moment and I want a commitment to work together at the highest level, to inspire one another to be better, to admit our failures and maybe even to admire the flaws. The “imperfections” are what make it. And I can see it in your eyes.

I witnessed the birth of Maduro throughout my early days in Antioquia. That relationship with Cristina blossomed into a full-blown friendship in which her husband, Ariel, agreed to do some experiments with coffee from his farm, and then more experiments until we created Colombia’s first natural. I may be quixotic, but greatness is rarely found by the staid.

I walked through the coffee trees on the side of a mountain in Guatemala, where I’d disappeared into a sea of chicken buses and Mayan villages and earthquake ruins. I popped a cherry into my mouth and tasted the soft, sweet, stimulating flesh that I’d purloined from the limbs of another’s rightful harvest. A harvest neglected through a years-long relationship in which fallow fields yearned to be cared for in a way that’s generally impossible without a transfer of ownership. I birthed two coffee seeds from the pulp in my mouth, twins I quickly adopted as my own, with the intention of raising them into the best two trees I could in a foreign climate, something I know very little about. But you surely know by now that ignorance is not an excuse that keeps me from full-on commitment.

The microwave sounded its three long beeps and snapped me out of my trance. I’m that weirdo who nukes an Arby’s roast beef sandwich for breakfast at 4 a.m. on race day. I thought about the hours that lay ahead of me, the miles upon miles of trails I’d tread. The anticipation of quiet but for the sounds of breezes through trees and waters flowing, the bird’s call, my breath and footfall. As each mile passed, the societal norms set upon me would melt away and I would transform from person to sapien, and then ascend into the state that resides prominently within me: the lion. Unleashing that quiet confidence where there is no future or past, and my immediate awareness sharpens to a razor’s edge. And what does that have to do with coffee or business? It’s the thing I hide away when I smile and nod; that mysterious thing you sense when you look into my eyes and feel nervous. That primal state which drives our core values and disallows anything less than absolute respect and conviction. In a general sense, Collington was right. This is no way to run a business. But I play the long game. I methodically and unwaveringly stand my ground, first earning your respect before earning your allegiance and indulgence. You wonder if the lion will speak. One lion may when many asses do.

En boca cerrada no entran moscas. That’s a proverb I learned at Galesburg High School in a class that taught me root meanings of words, suffixes, prefixes, and the like. Turns out this was one of a jumble of proverbs spat out by Sancho in Don Quixote, novel by the great Cervantes: “It’s a sin to belie the devil: but misunderstanding brings lies to town, and there’s no padlocking of peoples’ mouths, for a closed mouth catches no flies.” I tend to tilt at windmills. The mayor, other coffee roasters, Starbucks, sometimes even the customer. But my windmills are idealistic imperatives that get usurped on occasion by politics, greed, misinformation, or ignorance. The black-and-white of wrong and right can sometimes be perspectives that change over time, situations that I can hyperbolize in a momentary overconfidence. But sometimes being exceedingly idealistic is what’s needed in a society seized by mob-mentality in which groupthink forgets about our lack of egalitarianism. Am I right or am I wrong? And is someone with money just trying to exert their financial superiority into societal subjugation? That’s what gets my hackles up. So I fight for an impractical leveling of the playing field. It’s quixotic, sure, but I’d rather have a mouth full of flies than be a mealy-mouth.

I walked through Maracay, the farm in Colombia where we get our Pink Bourbon and washed Caturra, among other things, and I observed that some trees had bronze leaf tips while others had green. This is normal, but not usually in a lot of trees that are supposed to be the same variety. It’s like inspecting the troops and finding them all wearing different colored hats. I was asking the farm manager about this and then I stumbled on the most remarkable thing I could imagine: a coffee tree dressed entirely in red. Red cherries, sure. But this one had red leaves, which I’d NEVER seen before. A true anomaly, something so remarkable growing in what can only be described as the bosom of the woods of some royal forest. A Kimberly. Pristine. I stood and looked in awe. If I profane with my unworthiest hand this holy shrine, the gentle sin is this: my lips, two blushing pilgrims ready stand to smooth that rough touch with a tender kiss. I touched it and felt the texture of its leaves, the structure of its limbs, its strength and suppleness. The forbidden fruit I haven’t tasted. But I intend to just as soon as it’s ready.

I saw two robins out on the lawn, one plump and round and the other lean and mean. The smaller of the two hopped irregular circles around the larger, a dance of daring and determination. The female avoided the advances of the male, at times dashing for him as he retreated and then resumed his pursuit. Once in too close, the two leapt into the air, colliding twenty feet above the earth, abreast, dive-bombing back to the grass and the ritual continued. She lets him in and then retreats, methinks. He hops around the perimeter, waiting for another chance as she preens her wings and puffs her mighty breast. Dancing has never been my forte. It was against church rules when I was growing up, so I developed two left feet. In college I was required to take a dancing class called Rhythmic… something, and not even my then-girlfriend wanted to be my partner. All that said, I understand the dance that exists between two souls when they meet amid an innocent gaze. I know the dance of the barista, juggling portafilters and steaming pitchers, navigating drinks and folks between the refrigerator and sink. I know the dance of the roaster more intimately than anything. That’s a sacred dance.

I love coffee. I chose to love coffee a long time ago, and to me that kind of love means getting to know it more and more all the time, even through its seemingly endless changes. It means holding it close, even closer in challenging times. But something else happened in the early days. I fell in love with coffee the way one falls in love with their soul mate. I remember how it lit me up the first time I had a meaningful experience with coffee, and how it still lights me up thirty years later. It’s that combination that makes it work for me over the long-haul. A daily decision and a deep affection.

Joe Holsten was probably the first person to actually grasp what I was doing with coffee. He sat down sheepishly on a stool as I commanded the bar and slung commentary and coffees with equal bravado. Joe. A fitting name, for coffee’s sobriquet. He probably ordered a doppio and I probably looked at him side-eyed. I pulled something spectacular out of the grouphead and felt that it was too good to give away, so I drank it myself. Then I pulled another equally godlike shot and told him he was lucky that the weather was just right for espresso and the shots were running toward eternity. I went back to my romantic discourse until someone whispered, “Joe is crying.” I looked over and Joe was sitting on the floor against the crema-colored wall, cradling the demitasse in his hands with tears rolling down his cheeks. “What’s wrong, Joe? No good?” He didn’t have the words at the time and I probably didn’t grasp the certainty with which he affirmed my mission. But today I hear whispers of intensity and desperation echoing in my head; whispers from the ages, like winds flowing up out of a cave where the soul resides. Pure, passionate, primal words that affirm my life’s mission and steel my dedication with even more fortitude and forbearance. I know what I want. It came to me in whispers.

I fell asleep while I was eating dinner Friday night. I woke up staring into a plate smeared with the residue of mashed potato with half a New York strip and a handful of Brussels sprouts. I used to fall asleep in the cafe, sometimes on the rubber mat in front of the three-compartment sink. I’d be washing dishes at some ungodly hour and decide to just lie down on the floor for a minute and then I’d wake up and realize it was time to open again and I hadn’t finished the dishes from yesterday. I know what it means to work a lot. People used to brag to me about how many hours they worked and how few they slept, but I knew that was a fool’s errand and I was on that very path to destruction. My friend Fred used to say he was burning the candle at both ends. He died young. But I understand his urgency to get as much done as humanly possible. This life is too short and I have too many ideas and aspirations. I acknowledge here and now that it’s impossible to achieve everything I set out to do in one lifetime. And so I hope I get another go. I hope I fulfill some of the gritty stuff and get a restart with some of those things already in the bag. Of course I don’t believe in that kind of thing, so I’ll consider Nietzsche’s “eternal return” and stay the course. I’ve trained for the past twenty-nine years for one dream I’ve yet to realize. So I decided it’s time to tie that knot.

We are on a precipice. The changes that are about to take place in my life and the life of DoubleShot are monumental. I predict that this time next year we will look back in awe at how different everything is. This is the end of an era, my friends. For all the good and bad, all the pain and hardship and victories and defeats, now is the time to step forward and grasp at the chance to fulfill the ultimate purposes for which I set out as a mere child. My methods have been quixotic, to say the least. But always forward. I count my losses as lessons and the lost as honored ancestors, and I do not dwell on my victories. Is this about absolute freedom? Certainly not. It never has been.

Don Quixote, imagining he were disdained by a beautiful queen and his love unrequited, decides to go out into the wilderness and do penance in order to prove his madness for the queen despite not being rejected, so that she might understand the lengths that he might go should she actually reject him. He asks Sancho to stay and watch him for three days so that he can go and report Don Quixote’s insanity to the queen. Sancho asks Don Quixote, “What more have I to see besides what I have seen?” To which Don Quixote replies:

“Thou hast seen nothing yet.”