Wednesday, March 5, 2008

My Own Coffee Journey

At work, we do this exercise we nicknamed "Steps," wherein we walk up the staircase for 25 floors. We do this two or three times a week for our health, and we all agree it's a good idea but difficult to implement individually. Alone, we'd probably never undertake it, but with a group the shared motivation propels us along. Further, a lively conversation can make the trip seem like nothing.

I managed to strike a conversation with a coworker who knows an inordinate amount about coffee: preparation, equipment, quality of beans, etc. I asked him to name a favorite coffee café, and he said that, actually, he was going to start roasting his own beans. Hard core! He talked about how grinding the beans can affect the coffee's "brightness" adversely; my own hasty research suggested that a flat burr grinder works at a higher speed, creating heat from friction that may cook the beans at this process, where a conical burr grinder can grind successfully at lower speeds. I bring this up just to illustrate how deep the caffeinated rabbit hole goes.

The best espresso I'd ever had was at Caffé Classico in Louisville, KY. Rebecca and I found this Austrian-modeled cafe by accident, and she assured me this was how good espresso was supposed to taste. Usually I get a tiny cup of something burnt, bitter, and spiteful; this espresso, by contrast, was so smooth it suggested sweetness, and the scales had truly fallen from my eyes.

Using this experience as my standard, I decided to discover where, in Minneapolis, the best espresso may be had. My premise is: nowhere. Nowhere in the Twin Cities may one find an authentically, skillfully crafted demitasse of espresso; I hope to be proven wrong.

Starting arbitrarily anywhere, I went to Dunn Bros. and Starbucks to order a ristretto espresso. Ha, I didn't actually say ristretto to them, they wouldn't have known that! That would've been too much to expect. I asked for a "short pull."

They didn't know what that was, either.

The clerk (I do not entitle barista lightly) at Dunn Bros. didn't know how to alter the automated machine that created the espresso, and so couldn't provide a short pull once I described it to her. Since all their shots are double (by house rules), their ristretto is merely a single shot. Their espresso was a little acrid, lacking the creamy smoothness I hold as the gold standard, and similarly bereaved of the crema.

The clerk at Starbucks did have some gist of what I was asking for (the cashier absolutely did not, and tried to explain that I wanted the grounds to steep even longer), and was able to modify the automated machine that brews their espresso. Starbucks' espresso was a furious little cup of earwax, sans crema.

I wanted to check out Caribou this morning but my coffee companion needed to go to Dunn Bros., so I thought I'd give them another chance at this. This time, a different clerk knew what I wanted and was able to describe how to force their machine to behave, but the girl in charge of brewing actually got angry at me and started slamming her equipment around. I didn't come during the rush: there were two people behind me and one of them was my friend. I've been going to that outlet for a year and a half, and I tip a dollar every time I go, which can be 25-50% of my purchase. I'm polite, friendly, occasionally chatty - I'm a good customer. I've worked food service, I know what makes a good customer, and I try to be it.

She blew up because I requested a style of espresso which could be had anywhere else in the world, easily, and in many American cities. I required that she know too much about her job. They won't feel the loss of my income, I know, but they've lost me as a customer.

Anyway, there are other places to go for espresso.

Links for research:
Coffee Research Coffee Geek Home Barista

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