Not Your Average Cuppa Joe

Today I spent 4 hours at the Intelligentsia coffee roasting works and training lab with five of my co-workers from the restaurant where I work. We were probably not your average group of barista trainees. We were more like a bunch of hung-over, sleep deprived, hungry, and uncharacteristically rowdy restaurant kids for that hour of the morning being 10 AM. However, our National award winning barista trainer Charles, managed to keep his cool with us, and even seem to enjoy himself from time to time. Mission: to pull the perfect espresso...not too bitter...not too sour...just right!

This past week at the restaurant, as our tables approached desert hour, we have all been making what we thought resembled cappuccinos, lattes, and other espresso drinks. We have been fiddling with buttons, various grinds, foaming techniques, and whatever knowledge we have retained from our past experience with home espresso machines and barista jobs. Not to our surprise, we have been doing a substandard job.

Charles, our instructor, is a barista at the Millennium park Intelligentsia location. He is in his mid 20's, tall, quiet, yet patient and thorough. He fields our questions and talks us through the process of making espresso, while also admitting that he wouldn't try this at home, as we probably don't have a machine expensive enough to make it worth our while. The cheapest being in the $1800.00 range. Instead he recommends sticking to coffee, preferably using the chemex method, similar to using a melitta cone, that consists of pouring hot water through a special cone filter which drips into a nonporous carafe. This method produces a glossy coffee without sediment and was easy to make and elegant in texture and flavor.

After 4 hours with Charles, a tour of the roasting facilities, 2 gallons of milk, and 3 lbs of coffee beans later, we left learning a little something more about coffee. We practiced detecting the preferred grind (per order); correct dosage, and the proper "N.S.E.W. sweep" to level out the portafilter basket prior to brewing. We learned the correct way to hold our wrists while tamping the pull and Alex taught us to bypass our machine's buttons by self-timing the desired pull, which is 23-28 seconds for a honey colored crema and full flavored espresso. We foamed all kinds of milk, perfecting our micro bubbles, silky textures, and accurate temperatures, a.k.a., not to scald the milk! Finally, we learned the importance of cleaning the espresso machine because who wants a drink that is contaminated with yesterdays stale espresso! All in all, we left holding our heads up high, confident that although we all need a little practice on our latte art, hearts and rosettes, we can at least pull a decent shot of espresso.

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