April 6, 2011


Coffee is good, I think you'll agree. Given that basic assumption, the preparation of it becomes remarkably simple. 

That's what I've tried to keep in mind, as I've learned myself, and as I've attempted to pass on some of that knowledge. Coffee doesn't need me to make it taste good; neither does espresso, milk, or whatever else I might serve. My goal is not to make it better, but to simply get out of the way, and let it be good. 

This is a difficult concept for me to grasp sometimes, and more often, a difficult concept for me to embrace. Part of what drew me to coffee bar work in the first place was the apparent difficulty of the task, the seemingly esoteric nature of the barista ritual. 

Part of me wants to think that, four years later, I've begun to master some form of ancient Chinese kung fu. But I know better. The more time I spend behind a coffee bar, the more I come to realize how sublimely simple the job can - and should - be. 

On it's face, this might be a disappointing revelation. If the craft of espresso is simple, then what exactly have I been doing these years? And what of those who have been doing it longer, and better? Have we all been wasting our time, toiling to master some skill, the important aspects of which can be learned in a half hour?

Simply, no. To a degree, experience is necessary to realize the simplicity. Without it, you're bound to be intimidated be the whirs, clicks, hisses, roars, and general chaos. It's a cacophony that only sounds like a symphony once you've played it enough. 

Newness also lends itself to misplaced ambition, a need to do more instead of do better. Newness looks for the optimal drop rate and angle to ensure perfect milk; newness looks for the right combination of tamping, tapping, and twisting to pull the perfect shot. 

Experience realizes that there is no perfect way to do those things, and that there needn't be. The ingredients are already as they should be, and perfect in that sense. The barista's job, then, is to do as little as needed to combine everything. Basically, the barista needs only to not screw things up. 

What that means differs by barista, and differs by drink, which is the biggest reason experience is vital. Only with that can you learn what milk should sound like, what a puck should feel like. 

So that's been my goal, both with myself and the people I'm instructing. Complication is not a virtue; do as little as you can, as well as you can.

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