The barista and his lady

May 18, 2011

Every morning when I wake up, I’m a complete mess. I never officially reach person status until I’ve had a nice warm shower, changed into clean clothes and had my first caffeine dose of the day. I suppose you could say that I’m a coffee enthusiast: I have an Espresso coffee maker at home, and I always buy whole beans and grind them myself right before brewing the coffee. To me this is the only way to prepare a truly great cup of coffee. It takes a few minutes to set everything properly, but it is oh-so-worth it.

Now, I may be a coffee enthusiast but I am not rich. Unfortunately, high-quality espresso brewing equipment is quite expensive, easily reaching or even surpassing the $1,000 - $2,000 price range. As of today I cannot reasonably justify spending that much money on a coffee maker, so my machine is a modest consumer model well below those figures. However, the beauty of espresso is that every little detail affects the final quality of the shot. What this means is that, while the machine is certainly important, it is not the only thing that matters, and you can make up for the lack of a high-end brewer by adjusting the rest of the variables down to the millimeter. In trying to produce an outstanding shot of espresso, like in many other things in life, practice leads to perfection. It can take months to fine-tune every aspect of the extraction for your particular machine, but once you get there you will be able to consistently brew shots that can rival the best coffeehouses in town. I will take an experienced barista with a modest machine over a newbie operating a $2,000 monster every single time.

Espresso brewing is like a love relationship between you and your machine. First, you have to get to know her. Figure out what she likes, what makes her happy… Then, you need to learn to listen to her. If you pay attention you’ll hear how she talks to you, ever so softly. You’ll learn to identify every little sound that comes out of her, and if you’re patient enough, one day you’ll be able to make her sing for you. The ritual itself is critical: grind the beans too coarse and your coffee will taste watery and insipid; grind them too fine and you’ll end up with a bitter piece of Hell in your mouth. You need to get it just right. The same thing applies to the temperature of the water, the quality of the beans, etc. Everything has its proper procedure and no detail is too small. My relationship with my machine is over 4 years long, during which I have tested and fine-tuned the heck out of it. It’s taken me a high number of mediocre shots, with a couple of utterly undrinkable ones here and there, but eventually I found the exact formula for success and now each morning I perform the same routine with surgical precision: every action is timed to the second and the process is as efficient as it can possibly be.

Elektra Micro Casa a Leva

The Elektra Micro Casa a Leva, one of the finest espresso machines available.

Disclaimer: Even though I may have mastered my own coffee maker, I still lust after a high-end machine like the Elektra Micro Casa a Leva that is pictured above. Just look at her, she is a thing of beauty. Notice that it’s a manual machine (it doesn’t have an electric pressure pump), which means that it relies purely on your skill to produce the finest shots that you’ll ever taste. This is not a machine for the faint of heart, and it will demand a great deal of effort and respect for the art of espresso before satisfying its lucky owner. Some day, hopefully not too far in the future, I intend to purchase one of these pieces of art. They not only look great, but they will brew amazing shots if you take the time to figure them out. Besides, they’re built with first class materials and they’re known to last decades, which helps make up for the high cost in the long run. The best review for this particular machine that I’ve seen on the Web sums it up rather perfectly:

Reminds me of an Italian girlfriend - almost perfect and one hell of an experience.

Being able to brew and drink a great shot of espresso every morning right at home has many benefits: by the time I leave the house for work my brain is already functioning at full-speed, and I can handle anything the world may throw at me with confidence. That, and I’m also the ultimate breakfast host. Seriously. However, the downside is that I have now come to expect the same level of quality every time I order coffee, no matter where I am. Here in Europe we have a strong espresso tradition and I tend to be safe, so I typically order my cup of coffee without giving it much thought. Most bars own top-of-the-line machines and they know their way around them, which usually translates into excellent shots almost everywhere. Unfortunately large coffee corporations like Starbucks are no longer an option for me, except when I go there for the company instead of the beverages. But it’s a price I’ll gladly pay in exchange for my morning dose of liquid gold.

Last night, while I was reading Marco’s blog, I stumbled upon this excellent piece about how Starbucks targets small independent coffeehouses when opening their new stores, using their powerful corporate presence in an attempt to drive them out of business. Interestingly enough, that’s not what’s been happening so far: it appears that Starbucks' presence near these small coffeehouses is actually helping them thrive like never before. The entire article is worth reading:

But Hyman didn't misspeak—and neither did the dozens of other coffeehouse owners I've interviewed. Strange as it sounds, the best way to boost sales at your independently owned coffeehouse may just be to have Starbucks move in next-door.

Personally, I don’t find it all that surprising. I’ve always felt that Starbucks is in the business of selling a consumer experience, and not in the coffee business itself. The exquisitely designed stores, the relaxing music, the comfy couches… everything from the moment you enter a Starbucks store talks to you in the same familiar voice. And people love it of course, myself included. I frequently spend hours inside a Starbucks when I need a fresh perspective to work, write, or simply get through a couple hours of reading. What’s funny about that is that I hardly ever order coffee. Usually I will order an iced tea, or a fruit smoothie, and maybe occasionally a medium latte, if my caffeine needs are extreme. Starbucks has nailed the relaxing, cool atmosphere in their stores. As for the coffee, not so much.

And so here in Europe, whenever I want to drink a superb cup of coffee, Starbucks is the last place I think of. Any tiny place with low lights, small round tables and a poor selection of sweet treats will in exchange serve you a shot of espresso that will knock your socks off. And they will typically charge you a fraction of the cost of a medium-latte-with-vanilla-flavor-to-go. Talk about a win-win situation.

It comes as no surprise for us then that if a good coffeehouse prides itself on brewing the best espresso in town, it shouldn’t really feel threatened by having Starbucks open a store next door. They’re just an entirely different thing, playing a whole different game. And we get that. The good news is, it’s not just here, the same thing applies in America as well: a few months ago I spent 9 days on vacation in New York City. Our hotel was in Manhattan, one block away from the Empire State Building, and every morning we had breakfast in the neighborhood in order to gather enough strength to tackle the rest of the day. Obviously coffee was a critical part of the plan, and fortunately there was no shortage of great coffeehouses around. There was a Starbucks right across the street, but after trying it and comparing it with a small coffehouse nearby, it was a no-brainer. What sold me on it was that it was owned by an old man, and it had an espresso machine that looked incredibly ancient due to extreme use each and every day over the years. That is always a sure sign of something special, so we gave it a try. Surely enough, my instincts were right, and every morning I got to enjoy a shot of that deliciously familiar espresso that kicks me into high gear and gets me ready for the day.

I love espresso. I know just how difficult it is to produce a great shot, and the effort and patience it takes to be able to do it consistently. For many people, it’s just not worth it, and they will be better off with a super-automatic machine that will serve them at the touch of a button. But if, like me, you really love coffee, and you appreciate its tradition, its symbolism, and the romance of learning how to be an authentic barista, you owe it to yourself to give it a try. You’ll soon realize that it is the only way, and you’ll never look back.

Happy brewing.