Barista! For the connoisseurs of coffee, it’s all about pulling the perfect shot

June 26, 2009

Jan Swoope - jswoope@cdispatch.com

 

Somewhere between the plain ole cuppa joe and java of old, America''s coffee drinkers became adventurous. What began in the early 1970s with start-up for Seattle''s Best and Starbucks turned into a caffeine-laced evolution that gradually spread from one coast to the other. Our love affair with the intense Italian nectar espresso -- and the delectable concoctions it inspired -- was on. 

 

Today, terms like "latte" and "cappuccino," once bandied about in sophisticated circles, are even popping up on fast food menus. But like the world of difference between grape juice and fine vintage wine, not all espressos are created equal, as any Golden Triangle barista worth his or her title will testify.  

 

Local baristas (or baristi, plural for the Italian term widely meaning "bartender") take pride in their training and skills. The best will tell you it''s a science and an art form. Magazines are devoted to it. Pricey schools exist to teach it. There''s even a World Barista Championship to aim for.  

 

For our own local connoisseurs, as for those the globe over, the ultimate quest, the common denominator, always comes back to "pulling the perfect shot" of espresso. 

 

 

 

What is espresso anyway? 

 

Espresso is a concentrated coffee brewed by forcing hot pressurized water through very finely ground coffee. The first machine was patented by an Italian visionary in 1901. Although there are numerous variations, espresso''s caffeine content is generally two to three times that of drip-brewed coffee. One "shot" equals one ounce of the potent beverage, the base for lattes, cappuccino, macchiato and mochas. 

 

"Pulling the perfect shot means making that perfect shot of espresso," Andrew Murphy, of Kudoz, patiently explains. The 22-year-old from Caledonia was trained to exacting standards by the roaster who originally supplied the coffee and smoothie bar owned by Beth Jeffers and located on 18th Avenue North. "They were so particular about how everything was to be done, they sent a trainer." 

 

Patting a sleek, gleaming machine like an old friend, he smiles, "It all starts with the espresso machine; that''s where the action is ... that''s what it''s all about." 

 

Andrew measures finely-ground coffee into a portafilter (think scoop). Then, like a chemist preparing a powder, he carefully aligns the portafilter above a scale and presses the grounds with a pestle-like tool called a tamper to an exact pressure of 30 pounds. 

 

"Some places use a program for this, but we do it manually; we like to maintain control," he says, applying pressure. 

 

Then locking the portafilter into place in the machine, he continues the ritual of brewing a double shot of espresso. The aromatic elixir trickles into shot glasses and boasts a rich, dark golden brown crema on the surface, a sign of a quality shot.  

 

 

 

Much to learn  

 

Barista Kit Swindle, of Brooksville, works in downtown Columbus at Front Door/Back Door, owned by Chef Sarah Labensky. Kit was initially trained by the Joe Muggs Corporation while in another job. Not everyone working in a coffee shop is classified as a barista; it''s a title that should be earned. 

 

"Training for this can be pretty intense," she says. "There''s so much to learn; there are different temperatures and different types of milk. (Fatter milks have to be heated to lower temperatures or they will burn.) And once you get the temperatures down, you have to learn the ratios between cappuccinos and lattes; then there''s adding flavor shots. You can really get creative with flavors and toppings." 

 

At Beans & Cream in Brickerton, on Military Road, Melissa Duncan, of Columbus, and Rachel Ross, of Columbus Air Force Base, help keep cards on regulars who know exactly how they like their drinks made. The popular summer item at the shop owned by Mary Nell Smith and Bill Walker seems to be the frozen white chocolate mocha, with a double shot of espresso. The dreamy drink is topped with mounds of homemade whipped cream and drizzled with caramel -- coffee and dessert in one sinful serving. 

 

At Strange Brew, in Starkville, Mississippi State University junior Rasheed Mitchell, of West Point, makes plenty of frappés for the heavily college-age crowd. "Those are sort of like a milkshake with a hint of coffee," he offers. MSU students particularly flock in near exams, in search of a quiet place to sip and study.  

 

The general public is becoming increasingly savvy about what they''re ordering, the baristas feel. But they''re happy to explain the mixology for anyone experimenting.  

 

"And if a customer knows what they like and you happen to make it wrong," laughs Rasheed, "they''ll sure let you know." 

 

There''s a stream of more knowledge to absorb.  

 

"Like wine, there''s always more to learn about coffee," Kit says. She talks of new sweeteners, like calorie-free Xylitol, and Truvia, from the estevia plant -- ways "the coffee industry is becoming more diabetic-friendly and more health-conscious." 

 

They all enjoy their role in the area''s expanding coffee scene 

 

"This is one of the most fun things I''ve ever done," Melissa smiles-. "It really is like an art to me; kind of a gift, when you pull the perfect shot and you give the customer a great drink. It''s a good feeling." 

 

So, the next time you visit a coffee bar -- like these and the several others the Golden Triangle can boast of -- take time to appreciate a good barista. Those at the top of their craft are out to give you the ultimate coffee experience -- pulling a perfect shot that''s good to the last drop.

Jan Swoope is the Lifestyles Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.