Making the Perfect Espresso
Hello my name is Dwayne, and I"m a coffee addict. (Hi, Dwayne!). I've been drinking coffee since before I started shaving. During my undergrad at McMaster, I even worked at a cafe for a while, where I learned to make cappuccino's and espressos before there was Starbucks in Canada.
I am also the owner of an embarrassing number of stove-top espresso machines that I've picked up at garage sales. And since I very generously bought my wife, Tricia, an electric espresso machine for her birthday two years ago, our morning latte's have been an integral part of wake-up routines.
Since returning to Ottawa in 2002, I have also become a loyal customer of Bridgehead Coffee Houses, a locally-owned purveyor of fair-trade, organic and shade-grown coffee. On a recent visit there, I saw an ad for a "Become a Barista Seminar," that Bridgehead was holding at a local cooking school called the Urban Element. "Hmm...," I thought, "might be good to know what I'm doing," so I signed up for tonight's class.
Urban Element has a great TV-show-like kitchen for cooking classes, including a gleaming, 4-foot-wide Synesso Cyncra espresso machine that costs more than most of my friends' cars -- and likely has more horsepower too. We were about 12 participants, including two women who said that their husbands had sent them. (Say, there's an idea....), and two Bridgehead staff with an encyclopedic knowledge of all things coffee led us through a hands-on bootcamp on how to make espressos and lattes.
It seems that being a barista is akin to being a wine steward, but only more complicated since it involves much more than operating a corkscrew and pouring. For example, to make the Perfect, Platonic Form of Espresso, one should:
- choose the correct blend of coffee -- Brazilian, Ethiopian Sidamo, and Peruvian were mentioned as having the right mix of notes due to the types of coffee grown and their lower altitude; you don't have to buy the "Espresso" blend, although that is fine too.
- choose higher-quality varieties grown for artisanal markets that are:
- organic (grown without pesticides and fertilizers),
- shade grown (under other trees which ensures the right amount of sunlight and preserves habitat for other creatures), and
- fair-trade(grown by growers' cooperatives and sold at higher than market, guaranteed rates)
- select the right roast of coffee -- traditionally people use darker roasts for espresso, but you can select other types according to your preference. (By the way, darker roasts actually have slightly less caffeine per unit of mass than light roasts, but because darker roasts are lighter, you need to use more grounds per shot -- so it pretty much comes out the same);
- grind your beans just before you make your espresso; if you wait too long, it oxidizes and doesn't taste right;
- grind your beans using a "burr" grinder to get the right consistency and shape to the coffee grounds -- the old Braun grinder just crushes the beans inconsistently;
- clean and dry your portafilter (the receptacle that holds the grinds on the machine when the water pours through);
- "dose" the grounds into the "portafilter" evenly so that there is the same depth of coffee throughout -- if they are uneven, the water will flow at uneven rates throughout the grounds;
- "tamp" or press the grounds into the portafilter so that the grounds are packed evenly and are level -- again to ensure consistent rates of flow;
- use a non-automatic machine that heats the water to between 198 and 203 degree Fahrenheit -- better machines -- i.e. ones costing several thousand dollars -- apparently let you adjust this temperature since as in the Olympics, even a few tenths of a degree can make a difference;
- turn the machine on the non-pressure setting for 4 seconds to saturate the grinds in the porta-filter;
- turn the machine on full pressure to "pull" the espresso for a further 20 seconds -- any shorter makes it too sour, any longer, too bitter -- in order to draw exactly 1.25 ounces of espresso; you can tell by the quality of the foam or crema on top whether you got it right.
NB: For a 12-ounce, medium latte, you'd draw a double shot, and then add 10-ounces of micro-foamed milk (a whole other process!), preferably in a pattern that produces tulip, a dove, or the Virgin Mary in the surface of the foam.
Given that it was an evening session, I didn't actually drink much of the coffee that we made. But I left buzzing from the complexity of the process and impressed by the knowledge and skill of the Bridgehead staff. I now see why they charge $4 for a medium latte: they need to pay for their Master's degrees in Java-ology.
But I was also amazed at how any field of knowledge, even something so every-day like making coffee, has been refined to such a high degree of what Jacques Ellul called "technique". Having seen the right way to do it, I only hope that my morning joe can live up to my new expectations.
Of course, it might be easier if I had a new Synesso machine to work with...."Trish...!"