A Kobo Parable

I love coffee. Always have, as far back as I can remember actually knowing what coffee tastes like. So when I was looking for a job during a break from school, it was only natural that I should apply at Starbucks. I did and was hired. Actually, I worked at Starbucks several times, as well as a few other coffee shops, but this story takes place at the Starbucks store at the Perimeter Pointe shopping center in North Atlanta.

The last time I did a stint at Starbucks was the second half of 2001, and the manager of our store was a woman named Sherri. She was nice-ish, but the two of us had problems getting along. Though we both had good intentions, we seemed to go about everything in totally different ways. Of course, my way was infinitely superior…

At least my drinks were better, and this I know because regular customers and other staffers often told me so. The thing was, nobody seemed to understand why. I would often ask them how they could tell the difference. We both used the exact same recipe for every drink on the menu. Even my coworkers were hard-pressed to put their fingers on exactly what is was about Sherri’s drinks that didn’t taste right. The answer was obvious, once you thought about it.

Sherri and I were the two fastest drink makers in the store, and we both worked mornings – the busiest shift. When you have a line that stretches to the sidewalk, you always want the fastest person possible to be making the drinks, because that’s the most labor-and-time-intensive part of giving each “guest” the “Starbucks experience” (you have to use this kind of terminology when you work for a corporate chain). To be even more precise, the thing that takes the most time is steaming the milk for things like cappuccinos and lattes.

This is a fairly innocuous step in the making of an espresso-based beverage. All of the Starbucks literature goes on and on about the careful roasting and special packaging of the coffee beans. The cups describe the “perfect” shot of espresso – a twenty-second pour of one ounce of 192-degree water through I forget how much ground espresso beans and what pressure. Nobody ever really says much about the milk because milk is milk, and you can’t screw that up, right?

The process is actually very simple. Cold milk is poured into a stainless steel pitcher. Then the pitcher is brought up under the steam wand. The tip of the wand goes a little under the surface of the milk, and the “barista” opens the valve to allow hot water vapor to pass through the milk. The air froths the surface of the milk up a bit, and then the wand is pushed down into the bottom of the pitcher to heat the milk evenly from the bottom. Once it reaches about 140-150 degrees, it’s considered done, but it’s still good up to 170-something degrees, at which point it burns.

Now there are two ways to go about this. First, I’ll tell you how Sherri did it. When things were busy, Sherri didn’t want to have to wait for milk to heat up before putting it in drinks. So she decided that the most efficient way to do things was to fill the pitcher with as much milk as possible and steam it until it was as hot as possible. That way, she would have plenty for several drinks, and it would stay above 140 degrees for longer.

On the other hand, I would only steam small amounts of milk at a time, and only to the bottom end of the temperature spectrum. It would seem that this would require more steps when making a lot of drinks, but it actually requires much less time to steam a small amount of milk than it does to steam a whole pitcher, especially to a lower temperature. Instead of putting the pitcher on the rack at full steam blast, I would actually stand there and hold the pitcher while I kept the steam at a low level to heat the milk gradually. This made all the difference.

With the Sherri-method, you end up with milk that is unevenly heated. Some parts of it are nearly-scalded, and some of it is nearly-raw. This mixes together and gives a sour flavor to the drink. You can’t detect this right away, but the more you cook milk, the faster it goes stale as it cools. So what often happens is that you buy a drink at a place like Starbucks and, by the time you get to the bottom half, it doesn’t taste good anymore.

However, if the milk is steamed gradually and evenly, and doesn’t ever get anywhere near it’s scalding temperature, it retains its fresh flavor for much, much longer.

So what, if anything, does all this have to do with kobo? Well if you’re practicing kobo correctly, it’s a lot like gradually heating and frothing milk. If you practice the way most people do, you’re trying to build algorithms for jissen, and those algorithms can never be adequate practice for something so dynamic. What about the scalding milk? That’s what happens when you try to learn jissen without a rational progression through proper use of kobo methods.

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