Is coffee better before, during, or after?

Cycling Japan: from Kamakura to Hakone Lake along the 旧東海道

When it comes to cycling, I found this: Coffee works best before the ride; It’s almost a guaranteed shortcut to bonking mid-ride; And with mixed results post-ride: Sometimes elating and invigorating, and other times the caffeine brought on muscle cramping. I also found the same with beer post-ride.

What I found is patterns emerged after I rode my 10,000 km. And became more noticeable after about riding 15,000 km during 4 years in Japan. I’m only one person and my findings are based on my routine composed of weekday commutes (avg 50 km/day) and weekend-warrior rides (avg 200km-350km/weekend). Along the way, coffee became a big part of my routine.

Cycling is a gateway to religious espresso consumption. I was a habitual drinker of your everyday Starbucks Americano and in summer the Starbucks Espresso Doppio. I would bike from home to work 21 km and get a coffee after changing in the bathroom and before going into the office. It’s a great way to both start and end the workday. No more crowded commuter trains. I made the decision to the use the train only as a reward for having biked my fullest each week. On trains in Tokyo, it is normal for your clothes to get wrinkled during the rush hours, and your body works up a sweat crushed against other straphangers. No excuses. Weather conditions be damned. I was determined to bike to work.

I know I do, but does my coffee have legs? During the 4 years of that routine, I became strong on the bike but no better at judging a cup of coffee. So I decided to sing up for a professional barista course. I took it in Japanese no less. Picture the only gaijin in the class trying to learn the Italian tradition of making espresso — in Tokyo, with Japanese as the language of instruction, in 2011 It seemed like trying to use a camera with about five neutral density filters with the lens set at f2. Through a glass darkly.

Turns out that I could learn a lot. The Speciality Coffee Association of Japan (SCAJ) did a thorough job of explaining coffee. When it came to discussing styles of coffee, I could tell the instructor was trying to be objective — almost diplomatic — but for various reasons I could never have imagined was a lot harder to do. He explained the advent of Seattle-style coffee, and that it was important for us to understand that SCAJ promulgates a classic Italian approach to barista technique.

The key difference is hiding the magic versus full-frontal coffee. Seattle-style hides the barista’s activity behind the espresso machine, and Italian style makes sure the beautiful espresso machine faces the customer and the barista’s job relies on an economy of motion. After those days in the intensive where we practiced coffee tasting, espresso making, milk frothing, and learning a variety of things about the coffee industry, I realized how much I detest frothing a pitcher of milk. All I wanted was black coffee.

The cortado. A sweet balance of espresso with some milk.

All I wanted was black coffee. I found myself on the path to trying a lot of single origins.

And where can I find coffee as satisfying as the tea I found so easily in Japan? I asked the instructor where I could get fresh roasted coffee. He suggested Yanaka, a micro-roaster near my home. And this became a point of departure — being able to see the coffee in its green state and having a say in the roasting process. Finally I had found the antithesis of Starbucks. And it wasn’t a local diner with a low bowl BUNN brewer serving free refills. A coffee roaster where you could sift through the green, read the farmer’s story, and get it roasted while you wait. Nothing was hidden. My education in coffee had begun.

I still bought a lot of cups of coffee from Starbucks, but I became someone who understands the Starbucks coffee as a designed product not meant to impress or satisfy a discerning palate. Nor it is meant for pushing your limits, endurance sports, or anyone burning in excess of 9000 calories in a single ride. The body needs clean coffee.

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