The Cleanest Line

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    Japan Rising

    by Mark Shimahara


    March 11, 2011. A most memorable birthday as a murderous tsunami took thousands of lives, left hundreds of thousands homeless, and demolished villages in Japan. Halfway around the world, as I mourned the loss, I contacted relatives in Tokyo, volunteered for a nationwide bakesale event and donated my annual bike race winnings to earthquake relief. I tried to take comfort in the faith that many had, that resilience, which has come to define Japanese character, would allow the country to emerge from the disaster an even stronger nation. [Artwork by Kim Diggs for the FCD Japan Relief T-shirt.]

    The wrenching headlines about the disaster eventually--and finally--calmed down. Yet half a year later, the news continues to produce stories about undisclosed radiation levels in the air and in food. Warranted or not, they perpetuate concern and fear.

    I had decided to skip visiting Japan this year. But then an irresistible opportunity arose. An international coffee competition was taking place in September: The World Siphonist Championships! Siphon is a brewing method popular in Japan that produces--arguably--the finest cup of coffee there is. A coffee geek, I was thrilled by the idea of competing with baristas from around the world. Though I have never served coffee to a customer, I have invested dozens of hours attending coffee brewing classes all over the country. I persuaded the Specialty Coffee Association of America to allow me to represent the US. They gave me their blessing. And I was off.

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    Cows Without Borders

    There’s alotta milk in a latte.


    Fact is, coffee bars in the U.S. serve more milk than they do coffee. So in my quest to understand what all goes into my coffee, I ended up taking in a fair amount about milk.

    If so much milk is going onto coffee, shouldn’t the quality of the milk matter?

    Intelligentsia thinks it does. My friend Matt referred me to Straus Family Creamery, the place where Intelligentsia’s LA coffee bars source their milk. I was familiar with Straus’ glass bottles from the dairy aisle of my grocer, but I never understood why it was more expensive than other brands. Until I hung out with their cows.


    [The dairy is located along the Northern California coast, at the juncture of winding roads dotted with cyclists, 30 miles west of Petaluma. The landscape is lush. All photos by Mark Shimahara]

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    From Seed to Shot

    Shimahara1 I never used to like coffee; it was too bitter. I could only drink it diluted (with milk) and sweetened (with sugar). But two years ago a couple of colleagues at Patagonia turned me into an aficionado. Betsy introduced me to the simple pleasures of the beverage. “Coffee should never be consumed with sugar,” she told me, insisting that it had a wonderful taste, alone.  Steve introduced me to the vast array of “specialty coffees”— premium coffees—which, like fine wines, naturally have hints of chocolate, fruit, nuts, and other botanical flavors.  One of his favorites was a blend from Intelligentsia, roasted in Los Angeles.  My interest in coffee was quickly percolating.  Before long, I enrolled in a home barista class at Intelligentsia and made space next to my rice cooker for an espresso machine.  I loved the challenge of pulling the perfect shot. I was an espresso devotee.  The more I practiced making it, the closer I got to perfecting the extraction of it, which, I learned is a kind of art.  Good espresso has a delicate sweetness and flavor worth savoring unadulterated.

    Editor's note: Patagonia's online advertising maestro, and Clif Bar cycling team member, Mark Shimahara shares some background on a beverage many of us rely on to kick-start dawn patrols and alpine starts. Our thanks go out to Intelligentsia for offering a discount code to Cleanest Line readers. Read on to get the code and get brewing yourself. 

    My interest in coffee and photography lead to shooting opportunities with Intelligentsia’s California locations. The assignments gave me an insider’s perspective of what it takes—from seed to shot—to serve up a cup of coffee worth writing home about.

    [Unroasted “green beans” arrive from origin and are roasted to match an exacting flavor profile. Some batches of beans are roasted longer than others. Generally speaking the darker they are roasted, the bitterer and less acidic the espresso. Photo: Mark Shimahara]

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    Blurring the Lines - Cycling Clif Style

    Clif_team1 Last November I was lucky enough to get a spot—the last spot—on Clif Bar's cycling team. It’s awesome to be among a squad of strong riders and have sponsorship from a company with social interests compatible to Patagonia’s. Plus, Clif makes the yummiest energy food around! Last weekend we went to our team training camp to get a leg up so-to-speak, on the upcoming season. Meeting in Northern Cal, we got gear, rode hours, and discussed the racing season. But our first order of business was to build houses.


    Day one: Habitat for Humanity, Alameda, CA
    Dylan, our team director, arranged for the team to work on building a home in Alameda, just outside Berkeley. So we hooked up with Habitat for Humanity East Bay (HEB), a non-profit that aims to revitalize neighborhoods by building homes, among other things, for the underprivileged. HEB is also a leader in building affordable homes with environmentally friendly materials. On the site we worked on, one of the homes had been selected to meet the strict eco-friendly standards of LEEDS certification. So for a day, a group of eight scrawny cyclists managed to install the sub floor and walls of the initial home on the eight-home work site.

    [Team Clif 2008. Photo: Paul McKenzie]

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    Inspiring Solutions Across the Pond

    Img_4594 Several years ago I ran across the howies site. I felt they had a similar vibe, a focus on the environment and sports but with a stronger focus on cycling than we did, so I got hooked. I wrote to see if I could place an overseas order and a nice guy named Ade helped me out. Turned out Ade does marketing and is a bike racer like me, so we hit it off.

    We've kept in touch, most recently after their Little Big Voices lectures. I was intrigued since LBV's purpose was to inspire activists to be heard, much like our own TOOLS conference. Since then, Ade and David, the co-founder of Howies, have been generous enough to share their learnings with us. And David was even gracious enough to write this letter:

    In 1995 myself and Clare started a company to see if there was another way to run a business, to see if a company could be set up to make people think as well as buy, and selfishly, if I could base it around my love of mountain biking, then I could ride more and pretend I was busy working. It was a naïve plan, like the all-best plans are.

    About 5 years of doing howies and still having the day job to contend with, a friend (Andy McLeod) said to me that I should check out a company called Patagonia because they did things in a similar way to us. I did. I went on the website and read it all. But they didn’t do things like us at all. They did things so much better than us. They had come up with some of the answers to the questions that we were struggling with. It was, as they say, a moment.

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