Their breakfasts range from ascetic oatmeal to shrimp ’n’ grits, but more than half of Americans have one ritual in common: getting buzzed on coffee. Whether they get it from a venti half-caf nonfat latte or a straight black shot, a whopping 152 million citizens partake daily.
Many of these addicts who favor fancy café probably share another trait, too. Even if they were invited behind the counter, few of them could whip up a potable version of their favorite drink without assistance. In fact, they probably can’t name the bits of equipment that change the roasted seeds of a tropical tree into a potent — and delicious — drug.
Until last week, I was similarly ignorant about how café staffers convert ground beans into the richly acidic and bitter brew we call espresso — the cornerstone of cappuccino and lots of other Italian-sounding drinks. I did know that it’s loud and involves tugging several times on a paddle, smashing the grounds with a weight and, when the requested drink requires steamed milk, making that scary-sounding pressure-cooker hiss. I just didn’t know how or why the impressive Sturm und Drang results in a perfect cup.
But I wanted to learn more. So I went to Elizabeth Manriquez, owner of Espresso Bueno in Barre. In addition to mixing up macchiatos and iced Americanos for her customers, she has twice competed in the Northeast Regional Barista Competition. She even grew up in Seattle. I figured if anybody in the area could take an espresso-making virgin and convert her into a moderately functional brewer in just eight hours, it would be this petite 33-year-old with green eyes and pixie-cut brunette hair.
Damp from the slushy parking lot and famished, I enter the spacious coffee shop, which envelops me with the comforting aromas of baked goods and freshly ground coffee. A chalkboard on the wall declares single-origin Rwandan the coffee of the day, and a line of glass jars on the counter displays cookies, biscotti and scones. Patrons are chatting with friends or staring fixedly at their laptops. By 9:15, the steady stream of caffeine-seeking workers has eased to a trickle.
Manriquez is hanging behind the counter with her staffers. All three sport black T-shirts. Why? It’s the best color for disguising both coffee and milk stains, Manriquez explains, offering me a freshly baked, savory scone. The pastry is buttery and delicious — full of cheesy bits and hunks of bacon.
Manriquez hooks me up with an apron, and I ask how she decided to move 3000 miles from her West Coast home. She was working a coffee-shop job in Charlottesville, Virginia, when she decided the Green Mountains were a better fit for her and her 3-year-old. “I liked Vermont politically, and there are no earthquakes here. That was really attractive to me,” she recalls. Her boyfriend and business partner, Patrick Clark, joined them later.
In Montpelier, Manriquez worked at both Capitol Grounds and the now-defunct Gesine’s. Both jobs taught her things about running a business, such as “payroll, taxes and calculating how many cups you should have on hand.” But she always believed her barista skills were good enough to merit her own shop. In 2007, she and Clark opened the doors of Espresso Bueno, in a spot on North Main Street that had gone unused for years. “We had this feeling that Barre was going to revolutionize and we were going to be part of it,” she muses. The couple live in the city, just a mile from their shop.
But aside from wanting to participate in the town’s revitalization, Manriquez had another motivation for stepping out on her own: “I couldn’t find coffee I liked on the East Coast,” she remarks. Back in Seattle she’d patronized the same high-quality coffee shop for nine years. “They did latte art; they definitely had good presentation.” Plus, the baristas really knew “the technicalities.”
Technicalities? This is coffee, not rocket science, right? Wrong.
When Manriquez trains a new employee, the first thing she does is introduce him or her to each piece of equipment using its proper name, kind of like a coffee lover’s version of sex ed. First in line is the burr grinder, named for its distinctive blade.
“It shaves the bean,” Manriquez explains. “It creates an even surface for the water to penetrate.” The “whip-it” blades used in home coffee grinders, she continues, “leave little balls. The outside gets overextracted and the inside is underextracted.” Translation: The resulting brew doesn’t taste right.
At Espresso Bueno, Manriquez fills the grinder’s hopper with an organic espresso blend from Vermont Artisan Coffee & Tea Company, and not just because it’s local. Manriquez dishes that VAC&T owner Mané Alves is a world-renowned coffee expert. Plus, the company date-stamps all of its beans. “Right after roasting, the beans are off-gassing,” she says. The sweet spot begins around day three, but “It starts to lose its oomph the closer you get to day 10.” Between Alves’ abilities and quality control, Manriquez says Artisan would be her pick anywhere in New England.
Manriquez detaches one of three portafilters — devices that hold the grounds during the brewing process — from her La Marzocco GB/5, an Italian-made espresso machine. It costs $12,000 new. Adjusting the grind to account for the current humidity and temperature, she turns on the motor. As the grounds tumble into the “dosing chamber,” she pulls on a paddle to release small amounts until a mound of fragrant coffee rests atop the portafilter. A sharp tap on the counter settles the contents. “Some people tap once, some twice. The important thing is that you’re consistent,” Manriquez says.
As with flour and measuring cups, it’s important to get approximately the same amount of coffee in the filter every time. (Manriquez occasionally busts out a digital scale to make sure she’s on target.) But instead of leveling the scoop with a butter knife, baristas use their fingers. Manriquez has her own complicated-looking routine for getting the grounds even. “Different people use different methods,” she says.
Sticking your fingers in coffee may be fun, but the techniques have names that sound like unpleasant medical procedures: “Schomer’s finger compression,” “Stockfleth’s move” and the “Chicago chop,” to name a few.
The next step is tamping. Using a bathroom scale for demonstration, Manriquez flattens the grounds with 10 pounds of pressure. She applies 30 pounds to make a “puck” in the portafilter (tamping more than twice is bad form). The goal is to create a firm mass that forces the pressurized water to flow evenly through the grounds, extracting just the right amount of flavor compounds. A good double espresso shot should brew in 25 to 30 seconds, and the “crema,” or foam, on top should be tan, not pale white — a sign of overextraction.
Attaching the portafilter to one of three “group heads” on the machine, Manriquez pushes a button to send hot water coursing through the grounds into a demitasse cup below.
In 28 seconds, the one-and-a-half-ounce double “ristretto” shot is ready. “We only brew ristretto, or restricted, shots,” she says. When you let the water flow long enough to pull a full two ounces, “excess bitter flavors come out. We just keep it down to the sweetest part of the shot.”
Sweet might not be the descriptor an espresso neophyte would use. At first sip, the thick liquid is powerfully sour. After a moment, the acidity gives way to complex bitterness.
Then it’s my turn. I make a mess on the counter by letting too many grounds out of the dosing chamber, fumble the finger sweep, and tamp the grounds unevenly so they slope like a sledding hill. Apparently I am not using 30 pounds of pressure, either. Only 20 seconds into the brew, the syrupy liquid nearly fills a shot glass. “Just throw that one away,” Manriquez suggests. Her trainees spend whole afternoons pulling shots before they’re allowed to serve customers.
Over the course of the next two hours, under Manriquez’s watchful eye, my technique improves significantly. By the end I can consistently apply the right amount of pressure when I tamp, and, while my finger-sweep technique lacks a serious-sounding name, my shots are properly colored and flowing out of the machine at just the right speed.
By four o’clock, I’ve learned to foam milk for lattes and cappuccinos, and not to fear the hiss of the steam wand. Or, at least, to control the urge to run in the opposite direction. At one point, after burning my finger, I instinctively lean away from the machine, which makes the wand rise out of the milk. Manriquez reaches in and turns off the jet before the dangerously hot steam explodes in my face.
Properly treated milk, poured quickly into a tall glass holding a shot of espresso, should cause a glug of pure white foam to rise to the top, allowing a barista to make shapes. A Flickr search on the term “latte art” returned 17,203 variations — frogs, flowers, ferns and everything else imaginable. On the first try, I’m actually able to shape a heart atop a cup of cappuccino. Sweet.
Hardcore baristas make an art out of painting with foam. At barista competitions such as the ones in which Manriquez has participated, it’s those little touches that count. The brewer must make drinks while a pair of “technical” judges records his or her every move. “You have to serve the four ‘sensory’ judges simultaneously,” Manriquez explains. “Points are taken off for how much coffee you waste when you’re actually dosing . . . Whether or not your tablecloth is wrinkled . . . You don’t have a timer, so they time your shots to see if they’re in the 25- to-30-second range.”
While pulling their shots — competitors must serve four espressos, four cappuccinos and four specialty drinks of their own design — baristas are expected to entertain the judges with a stream of patter about the beans they use, the origins of their milk and how they invented their drink of choice. With two kids and her own shop to tend, Manriquez wasn’t able to compete this year, but the value she places on technical brewing excellence is clear from her thorough training regimen.
To demonstrate what a specialty drink should taste like, Manriquez makes me a “dirty Mexican” — a small cappuccino mixed with chocolate ganache, a dollop of whipped cream and cayenne pepper. The drink is rich and warm, and the spicy glow in my mouth lasts for nearly half an hour after I take the last sip.
The lessons of the day stay with me, too. Now, standing in line at coffee shops, I fight the urge to hop in and take over. I know it’s a bad idea to knock on the portafilter with the tamp after pressing down the grounds — it can result in fissures that will ruin the espresso — and that tamping the grounds more than twice does no good, especially if you don’t press hard enough.
On one occasion, I see a blond barista with a nose ring tamp her grounds four times as she prepares to coax a shot from a gleaming, industrial machine. I glance around to see if the other folks in line have noticed the transgression. The businessman a few steps back is staring vacantly into space. The woman who has ordered the damaged drink is examining her fingernails. A crime against cappuccino has been committed right in front of us, and I am the only witness.
Cooking is a craft, whatever you’re waiting on. Chefs need to understand why eggs get tough when they’re boiled instead of simmered, and whether a cut of meat is better roasted or braised. Shouldn’t we expect the same level of dedication from the folks who fuel America one drip at a time?