Is it the weekend already?

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sit down, have a cup
Wow, how about a cup of coffee?  If we were having coffee, it might be time for me to tell you a little about my time as a barista.   It seems only fitting because, depending on where we were having coffee, the subject would come up sooner or later.

Throughout the nineties, I was an old-school barista at a gourmet food store in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.  I admit it, I was a coffee snob back then.  Ah, but we got a discount, plus … we ground beans fresh every day for the coffee bar, so whatever dabs of coffee were left for the day were free for the taking.  I drank high-quality beans every day for YEARS.

Okay, it’s our turn … you know what I’d order?   A coffee.
Internally I’ll smirk if you ordered anything else.  Although I don’t insist on pricey gourmet beans anymore at home, I’m still a little bit of a coffee snob out at a coffee bar.  Especially at that Ess-place.  Sure, if I’m dragging and need a cup of coffee and it’s the only place around I’ll pop in there but to me they’ve both popularized coffee and ruined coffee at the same time.

I worked in a simple, traditional coffee bar environment.  We had a full range of coffee drinks but nothing fanciful or made up.  We served drinks in real glasses and cups with real spoons.  It was thought that you’d sit down and enjoy your expertly made coffee drink so you could  appreciate the skill and care that went into it.

I’m going to tell you a secret that most of the current crop of baristas don’t know.  That latte that you pay $$ for in a paper cup?  You’ve just bought a shot of espresso and a lot of milk in a paper cup.
Here’s the secret:  a latte is a visual drink, meant to be served in a tall glass … meaning one actually made out of glass.    A cappuccino?  The same … It is also a visual drink, although it is a bit more subtle than a latte, it should be made in a large cup with a saucer.

The artistry in my lattes was in using the glass itself as a canvas, ending up with three distinct layers of milk, espresso, and froth, with the espresso just beginning to cascade down into the milk like an ever-changing sunset of subtle hues and swirls until the unwitting customer drops a glob of sugar into it and swirls it into oblivion.  Brownian motion, I guess.  A cappuccino has a slight dome of froth that is ringed with a halo of thick crema.  I would serve them and point out the beauty, proud of my work.
Sigh.  A traditional barista lives in such moments, each instant replaced by a stir and then you move on to the next order.   It reflects in the tip jar … I made a lot of tips, but not on to-go orders in paper cups.

What about all those fancy artistic flares places do these days, like drawing with the crema in the froth?   I’d never make it because as a visual artist I am a total flop.  I might be able to do a Bob Ross thing, you know, “maybe add a little log cabin over there,” but your drink would be stone cold by the time I finished. 

At our bar we didn’t make up new drinks like frapa-whatever (a pet peeve because people would come in and order those and since it is a proprietary item we’d have to pretend we didn’t know what it was) or reinvent a drink with a traditional name, like macchiato, forcing us to ask you if you know what that really was, a specific drink that is totally NOT like at that other place.

There isn’t much else to espresso drinks.  When you are training, you learn to froth, you learn to make shots.   Good froth and good shots.  There is a process to do it right.  The rest is really just recipes using those building blocks along with things like flavorings.  Don’t get me started on flavorings.  But those are really all the tools you need.

I always almost laugh out loud when I see a thermometer on the frothing pitcher.  Thermometer?  You hold a stainless steel pitcher in your hand … you froth by feel, by smell, and by sound.  If it gets too hot, it is too hot to hold.  Really.   You can smell it if it scalds.  It happens.  You throw it out.   A froth that sounds bad is like fingers on a blackboard to me.   Something is wrong.  Try again.   There is an artistry to it and it takes a while to master but like riding a bicycle, once you have it, you have it.

My advice to anyone who likes coffee drinks?  Get what you like, as long as you understand you are paying for a glass of milk.  Oh, and if there are several of you, count shots.  If the place has two double spout espresso heads and you’re ordering five or six shots remember that they can only make four shots at a time and the time between means several drinks are sitting getting cold.   There are four of you but only you are getting a double … everybody loses.  And keep an eye on that barista.  If they draw espresso first, then froth they are doing it wrong.  The milk will stay hot longer than the espresso, so they should froth first, then pull.

Ah, our coffee is done, time to get on with the day.   Thank heavens we didn’t have fajitas, Lord knows, I could go on and on about fajitas …

Writer Thomas Fenske is author of The Fever and A Curse That Bites Deep (due out in September) … read more about him at


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