It may or may not come as a secret to you, but I hate home espresso machines. And I don't necessarily hate them for what they are; it's more about what they create: a lopsided coffee experience.
Now please don't get me wrong: there is a place for the home machine, especially considering the good quality that is available to the consumers out there, and the prosumer lineup of machines available today? Woah nelly - downright impressive hardware.
Mark Prince held an "Iron Barista" competition the other month; it was a contest between him and Dismas Smith (who won the 2002 N. American Barista Championship). The high noon-style stare down and trash talking with a one-off La Marzocco vs. a Francis!Francis! X3 is enough of a conversation starter on its own.
That Smith beat Mark like a drum, the machine notwithstanding, is downright fascinating. (ed note: more like a tie on the second round, with the judges forced to pick a winner - they picked Dismas' drink off the FF!! machine by a hair).
There's so many questions that could be asked by this "shootout". How much does the machine matter? Are the differences between machines nullified or quite small if a skilled Barista and decent grinder get thrown into the mix? What about good vs. bad beans? If you use particularly bad beans on both machines, are all things more equalized? How would the contest have gone if very fresh, high quality Arabica blends used?
Is it the shoes? Hmmmm?
But I digress: I've never really been a fan of the home espresso machine. In the past I used to gripe about the quality of construction, the heft of the portafilter and the lack of pure pleasure that comes from using a real tool vs. a Fisher Price toy. Of course there is also the noise of the vibe pump and the frequently lackluster shots produced, topped off by the often glacially slow milk steaming capabilities.
But these days, almost all of those reasons start to get a little thin when you start to see some of the hardware that is currently out there, available to any CoffeeGeek who's got $500, $1,000, or more to spend. But (yes, that's another but), even with some of the chichi stuff you still end up flapping around the kitchen trying to prepare coffee to the World Barista technical standards or at the very least something good enough for your wife. Yes, even with that kick ass home setup it can still be tough.
And it's slow! Most serious home users may not mind it, but this Trainer and Barista sure does - I literally get turned inside out and frustrated beyond belief when trying (expecting, hoping, praying) that I can manage to get things done with the speed and quality turnout of a professional sized machine... when using a home brewer. I hate it. I just don't have the patience.
This is why I like to visit Mark's house (visit being the operative word). Mark has the patience of a nun for this stuff and is at the ready to pull shot after shot after shot on whatever the latest whirly gig pressurized toy is that he's been sent, or the current one competing for his prized kitchen counter space. Eventually if the planets are aligned and he had temperature surfed like a rockstar he pulls something he deems appropriately drinkable.
(By the way if you do visit Mark, get him to drink the first shot that he wants to serve you. He usually gives it to me before proceeding to pull a much nicer shot for himself. Don't get caught.)
The part that worries me the most about this current state of home machine affairs is that it can be extremely easy to remove what I deem to be fifty percent of the pleasure of coffee.
Wait, did he say fifty friggin' percent? Whoa! What is it?
Sure, coffee in and of itself is a very pleasurable experience. It is something to be enjoyed, pondered and lingered over in the comfort of your own home. The perfect companion to a good book, some introspective thought or just while you pound out a story for the CoffeeGeek website on your iMac.
But you're missing out, CoffeeGeek!
Here's where the missing half comes in: for me there is nothing better to accompany a great shot of espresso than some really good company (especially some good cute company) and conversation. It's not to say this can't happen in your home or wherever your coffee set-up is but it's just not the same as going out for coffee.
I like to think of coffee and particularly espresso as a form of street food that is best enjoyed out on the town. In other words, the Cafe Culture Concept is the thing that makes coffee so fine, enjoyable and memorable.
Already much of our existence here in Canada and the USA is this very isolationist experience. There is no need to leave the home. We have our own everything. This of course can include an astonishingly complete full coffee bar setup in the kitchen. Anything less is considered rather lowbrow.
The other CoffeeGeeks will talk!
Here's some CoffeeGeek gossip: "Yeah, can you believe Aaron? Do you know what he's using these days? I mean he's a nice guy but he's still driving one of those Gaggia Classics. Geez, nice ride but it's a little last week if you know what I mean."
And there's more typical CoffeeGeek 'dissing' that I've been reading (and hearing) much too often these days:
"Go out for coffee? Are you kidding!?? I have a better setup and fresher beans in my kitchen. Why would I? No one in my town (city, village, estate, county, island) can make better coffee than I can, so why bother going out?"
Umm, for the unique sights, sounds and smells of the city (town, country, estate, habitat, leased land, preserve, urban subcore)? How about for the intangible mental health benefits of getting out of your house, neighborhood, or whatever little vacuum like existence we can all get stuck in.
How about a little thing called Human Social Intercourse? (the safe kind; get your mind out of the gutter).
Ah, for the old days
One of my fondest memories along my ongoing journey with coffee is heading over to pick up my buddy Dan for a coffee. We'd saunter up the street to Commercial Drive for a shot of espresso.
"Espresso me!" as Dan would like to say.
I wasn't too discerning in those days and was quite content to drink whatever the Italians were serving. Of course the best part was not the coffee, it was the company. Talking about everything and nothing. Watching people go by or just going for a walk. Either way the pleasant aromatics of the espresso continued to levitate off my tongue and tickle my senses.
Would I have traded that for going over to Dan's kitchen for coffee just because it would've been a better shot? No, something would be missing.
It's what worries me about the whole home machine revolution. Why go out for coffee when I could unleash the Silvia/Rocky one two combo spiced up with a little home roast?
What makes cafes great is that they serve coffee along with an atmosphere. What makes coffee great is that I get to go to a cafe (with the atmosphere) to enjoy it. We need cafes and great coffee on the street. We need a reason to get out of the house for a great cup of coffee. The cafe is a place to meet, a place to discuss, that other place beyond work and the home. The role of the coffee is that of a fabulous facilitator. We can't forget that going for coffee is more than just about the coffee, if that makes any sense.
Beating the dead horse
Whenever you want to really kill the soul of something it's best to start with the scientific process. That is what I fear happens too often in the alt.coffee and CoffeeGeek communities.
Going for coffee or having a coffee is so much more than just consuming espresso perfection. Sure it's easier to isolate and perfect the one variable (coffee) and see that as a great thing (and it is) rather than the more holistic approach of the fact that the coffee is just one component. In isolation it is unbalanced without the supporting cast of the rest of the cafe culture. The people-watching, the intense discussion, the distraction from the rest of your life etc. Coffee offers a round peg, round hole fit as a fabulous facilitator for all those things.
In isolation you create not just any kind of CoffeeGeek but the worst kind. Hyper-caffeinated, low on Vitamin D with asocial graces. This artificial yet classic CoffeeGeek home environment has created a monster.
If this reminds you of anyone in particular write me. First correct answer wins a dream date with me. Round trip airfare to Italy, we pick up Monica Bellucci and drive something fast into Rome for an espresso. Then it's off to Tuscany for a "slow food" dining experience. Before dinner we stroll through the olive groves in the fading light of dusk. Gently swirling and sipping on something handsome, something red. There may also be some playful wrestling with Monica.
Ok wait, you can't come on that date…
Hopefully you have not fallen prey to the above trap; Hopefully there is always a reason at some point or another for you to kick off the bunny slippers, slide off the track pants, get changed and head out the door. Maybe for a dish session with your girlfriend or perhaps the Barista at your local cafe is just so damn engaging and undeniably cool that even a brief interaction with them is worth getting out of the house for.
(btw, remember, it's pants first, then shoes... you'll thank me later)
And now for something completely different... My favourite Barista
What do I look for in a Barista when I dare to dream?
First let me go on record that to be a Barista and to do the job well is difficult. It is a rare and beautiful thing when the combination of social graces and technical know-how get wrapped with a bow and served with a smile.
I'd cross-town for someone that could execute espresso perfection, belying their less than platonic relationship with the coffee, grinder and espresso machine in addition to entertaining me. Make me smile, make me laugh, make me feel like I'm the only person in their little world for at least as long as it takes to pull a shot of espresso.
Suddenly going for coffee becomes a small yet oh so significant event. There is pomp and circumstance to the occasion. It is special. Someone notices me, engages me and might even feign interest in my sense of humour.
Ok that might be asking a bit much but…
Enter Julie, stage left
One such person that used to be that for me in my early days was a woman known only as Julie. She was remarkable not only for her refreshingly effervescent nature and irrepressibly buoyant personality but also that she made great coffee. I attribute this to the fact that she drank espresso (rarer than you think for baristi to do this) and in turn attended to the coffee such that she easily pulled the sweetest shot on the Drive.
More to the point, if she wasn't working, I wasn't buying coffee. It was consistent, it was smooth and it was sweet. I'm talking about the coffee, not the service. Remember, shot of espresso. Nowhere to run, nowhere to hide. It's either rock and roll, shake and bake, cut and paste or "God, I should've waited until Julie is working."
What is Julie doing different?
Well in addition to all the little things that you can do to assemble a great shot, she does one thing that was unique - call it her own signature move. And does this signature move make a better shot? That point is debatable for sure, but definitely worthy of some discussion. And what is her signature move called? I don't know the official name, but let's call it the Stall to Waterfall.
In brief the move involves bypassing the first few dribbles of espresso that stain the cup. Let'em go, set'em free. Do the mark of the true Barista. Catch the pour when it ramps up to a steady state, the long, firm and thin pair of dangling legs of espresso.
Now this kind of pour is for people who dabble with danger and flirt with disaster. We're talking the cutting edge, on the cusp of a stall type pour. Done right there is the pre-infusion, pressure building to hesitation, drip-drip, wait for it, drip-drip-drip and then the band strikes up a tune as the pour begins to free flow into a steady state stream. That is the point where the cup is introduced to the flow, catching the coffee. Initial dribble be gone.
Try it, taste it and see what you think.
Taste those initial drips, those initial brush strokes of the espresso on the white porcelain of the cup. They'll slap you in the butt, guaranteed. Now some of you reading might actually like this, but others... not so much.
Do you want those drops in the cup? Does it really matter? Is that little move the difference to what made Julie's espresso better than the rest of the staff's? I can only guess. At the very least it was a rare insight by a Barista who obviously tasted what she made.
And that's my time until, oh, fifteen or so days from now. Thanks for tuning in. We'll see you again soon. Same bat channel, same bat time. May your burrs be conical, your espresso divine and your company for coffee cute. Peace out.