... with apologies to Samuel Beckett.
This is a contest entry article from our spring Write Your Way to the SCAA competition. The article was edited by Jimmy Oneschuk.
No Nescafe for me, mother!
"Every journey starts with a single step." My first steps were taken at quite an early age of ten, or so. Being an airline brat, I had the opportunity to travel around a lot with my mother, visiting many European countries.
My mother was an Epicurean of food and wine. A sausage and mash budget did not slow her down. The kitchen was always stocked with gastronomic delights. Our wine rack was significant; not only for what it contained, but also, for the fact we actually had a wine rack! And most important, were the different varieties of coffee in the fridge.
We were the only people I knew who used true coffee instead of Nescafe or Maxwell House. As a child, I remember being fascinated by the percolator sitting atop the stove, loaded up with exotic-named coffees from far-away places, gurgling with promise. I remember a white porcelain filter holder brought back from some European jaunt, only usable when we stocked up with filters on subsequent trips.
On these European jaunts, my palate was educated. The culinary experience was part of the sightseeing. We were not your usual Brits, scouting fish and chips wherever we went. My first real exposure to espresso was, you guessed it, in Italy. We visited Rome numerous times, and although I did not partake, I became aware of this strange Italian drink a million miles removed from the coffee of home. I clearly remember sitting at a piazza café, watching the Vespas and listening to my mother ordering in Italian. Ah, La Dolce Vita, in true mid-sixties Italian style, witnessed by a perplexed twelve year-old, busy saying Ciao in that oh-so cool way. On one trip I bought my mother a stove top moka pot as a birthday present. Although I knew it made coffee, I had no idea how it worked. Yet, that was not the point. It was done in the spirit of culinary adventure I was brought up with.
The journey begins, again.
I left home around '72 and I brought with me a disdain for instant coffee. An Englishman can always fall back to a good cup of tea. Coffee was an occasional treat, prepared hand-drip into a cup and savored. People stopped offering me coffee:
"You do not drink coffee, do you?"
"Err, yes, but not instant."
And that's how it remained for a long time. As far as good coffee was concerned, these were the wasted years.
For many years, work brought me to New York for 1-2 week periods, 3-4 times a year. When my commuting transformed into a permanent job, I packed my stuff and moved. This is when the trouble began.
I needed to furnish an apartment and voltage differences meant my electrical goods had to be re-purchased. Appliance stores became regular haunts. Deciding I needed some form of coffee quality-control, I happily shopped for "high-end" coffee machines. I eventually became fascinated by the concept of making espresso at home. Sorry Mr. Coffee, you did not impress me. But for some reason, the Krups "Il Caffe Duomo" and a Capresso burr grinder did. I struggled with the steam toy, learning to grind fine and tamp hard. For the drip side of things, it was fair to say I was content with the Krups.
Due to dissatisfaction and frustration with the Krups, I began some serious investigation on the internet. I was enthralled by the wealth of knowledge available. The engineer in me was hooked on the technicalities and machinery involved. What started as an interest became a passionate thirst for knowledge. Lurking on alt.coffee gave me a good idea about how seriously people took their espresso. The discovery of both the CoffeeKid and CoffeeGeek sites tipped me over the edge into unrepentant geekdom! I'd taken to heart the futility of a good espresso machine without a suitable grinder. I had no problem deciding Silvia and Rocky were right for me. Everything I read indicated, in my price range, these were the standard against everything else was judged. From temperature surfing to PID control to tricks & tips to help shorten warm-up time, there was a wealth of knowledge out there.
Feeding the obsession. . . with cash.
In regards to hobbies and interests, I opt for the total-immersion approach: read, study, lurk and spend far too long agonizing and trying to justify the expenses. It was painful for others to watch. My partner stepped in: "Lets not bounce off the walls for two months while you try to justify everything. You work hard, you deserve it. Just do it!"
I love that woman.
The next steps are familiar for most espresso aficionado. I selected a vendor offering a good price, and more importantly, had the support of the internet coffee community. The order was placed and after a short, infuriating wait, the goods were delivered. Knee-deep in discarded cardboard packaging, plastic bags and bits of static-charged styrofoam, my wife gave me a quizzical look:
"They're not going to sit out in the middle of the counter like that all the time, are they?"
"Do you think you could maybe live with it like this for a week while I play?"
The journey became an adventure. I've often noticed newcomers to espresso will take delivery of their new machine, and not have proper supplies to supplement their machine. I was not immune to this condition. I tried the sachet of ground coffee that came with the machine. I tried the Columbian Arabica beans I had for drip. And then I dashed to the supermarket to see what they had.
These first attempts at getting drinkable shots were somewhat hampered by this undersight. Those first days were part of the learning experience; I have no doubt my appreciation of grind and tamp benefited from the time I spent preparing "sink-shots" while experimenting with, and getting to know my new Italian house guests. Confession time: I even bought some Starbucks beans. Yes, a little over-roasted, but superior to the supermarket's offerings.
A well-trodden path.
I'm no different from those before me, and no different from those, no doubt, who will follow after. This journey need not be a solitary one. CoffeeGeek provided me with a sense of camaraderie and support, allowing me to grow. You start by asking questions, and one day you find you are offering answers and sharing ideas. You are not the newbie anymore.
You grow, and it becomes existential talking about getting in tune with the hardware you at hand. You experiment: different routines, different techniques, different temperature surfing methods, different baskets and different blends. Your chosen devices become extensions of your desire, rather than mere hardware. There comes a day when you control the machine, and not vice-versa. I find it easier to think of myself as an artist with brushes, canvas, palette and paint rather than a man with a machine.
Onward and upward.
After a year with Silvia and Rocky, I became intertwined with a small, but significant, group with the same feelings. It was time to grow, time to experience the next level, time to graduate from a single boiler machine and move up to a heat exchanger coupled with that icon of espresso nirvana: the E61 group.
Time to feed the obsession, time to spend money! Yes, I was afflicted with upgrade fever. My peers sought the cure by dipping into their wallets and forfeiting their cash. Nobody suffered side-effects of disappointment after their machine transplants. Epiphanies were documented and a string of "Wow!" posts were sent out to the community. These messages empowered others to follow suit. It was painful sitting on the fence. More justification. More painful agonizing. More "which machine?" dialogue. More bouncing off walls. And once more, I was told to "just do it!" Did I mention I love that woman?
"ECM Giotto Premium and Mazzer Mini oust Silvia & Rocky. Pictures at eleven!"
Does the pattern sound familiar? This leg of my journey was not embarking from the same point, yet any new relationship needs time to develop and grow. There are aspects of the new pairing which elevate my journey to the next level. Everything seems intuitive with my new equipment. It may be the machines are just technically superior, or it may be the simple fact I smile every time I see chrome and steel glimmer on the countertop. As Bogie said:
"This could be the start of a beautiful friendship..."
Journey of discovery:
I found it difficult to decide on a title for this piece, one to set the tone and capture its feeling. The working title originally was going to be Fear & Loathing on the Road to Espresso (with apologies to Hunter S. Thompson). I love a good literary pun. On reflection however, there has been no fear and there has been no loathing on the road to espresso. Instead, espresso has been a wonderful journey of discovery.
I would offer any of my CoffeeGeek peers one of my double ristrettos. I would welcome the critique. I'd even take notes. My skill will continue to be refined. No Nescafe for me, mother; my journey will continue.
After all, I'm still waiting for God shot...
Peter Bishop is an ex-pat Brit settled in New York who has travelled a great deal in his life. His hobbies include music, photography, kites, computers and of course... coffee. This article was one of the eight submissions CoffeeGeek received in our Write Your Way to the SCAA competition. The article was edited by Jimmy Oneschuk.