September 25, 2012

Espresso Anxiety

I would love to tell you that I love all of my drinks equally, if differently, but that would be a lie. The truth is that I have favorites, as do you. I make my favorites with a certain attentiveness that - again, if we're being honest - is not present for every drink. When I pull shots for a appreciative double-drinker, I care more about the quality of the crema than when I'm pulling for a large mocha.

Perhaps this shouldn't be the case. Perhaps it's a problem - and really, I am trying to address it. But I think, also, that it's inevitable. It is, in the words of many who have had nothing better to say, what it is.

And so I'm going back to the double, a drink I've been preparing with increasing frequency, much to my delight and also, sometimes, horror. Again, it's not that I don't care about every drink, just that I care a little more about those that seem somehow to be pure, like something I'd drink. And there is something fundamentally revealing about espresso, consumed as is. There is neither milk nor syrup to hide the bitter imperfections, should you error. And so I both love it and fear it, because it's an opportunity to either pass or fail the most basic of tests.

Espresso, after all, is the basis of almost everything else a barista makes at a coffee bar. If you can't do that well, then you can't do much more than count change. It's a bit like the omelet test, something I'm told many would-be cooks are subjected to. In it, the applicant is asked to make an omelet, and are appraised solely on that. They may get the job, or they yolk may be on them. (Very sorry for that. I couldn't help it.) It is simple, but not easy.

In my last post, I discussed perfect espresso a bit, but never really got around the most fundamental quality it must have: Good taste. We can quibble a bit over what that means, whether we want lemon (Schomer says no) or cherry or bourbon or cocoa. But we want it to taste good, or at least, not like burnt prune juice.

And so we pull, carefully attending to the dose, the leveling, tamping, polishing, etc. We pull, counting the seconds, watching the stream, fist dripping, then almost but not quite flowing, like maple syrup or amber or honey or, well, like good espresso. We serve and we hope. We watch for clues, the first sip, swirl, and then the face. A grimace? A smile? A twitch? What was that? Something? Nothing? We are anxiously looking without trying to look like we're looking, waiting for them to finish, and they do, say thanks, but did they mean it? Was it, like, thanks for the great espresso? Or was that a pity thanks, as in thanks for nothing, I'll never see you again?

We don't know  - and won't ever really be sure, no matter what is said, or how practiced we get - until the next day, when they come back, and we do it again.

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