Baristas strive to make the perfect espresso shot
Advertiser Staff and News Services
|As a barista, Quenelle Nilo of Mocha Java in Ward Centre knows the intricacies of espresso, including frothed milk.
Photos by Gregory Yamamoto The Honolulu Advertiser
The dark, thick, aromatic shot of pure coffee essence topped with a moussey head of crema espresso's khaki-colored layer of emulsified oils is said to taste and smell so heavenly it's as if the Almighty had pulled it himself.
Memorable yet elusive, the shot which might happen only a few times in every hundred pulls requires patience, precision and plenty of practice.
At Mocha Java in Ward Centre, the goals are smoothness and evenness, and that starts with the packing. "I start with a heaping scoop of ground coffee and pack it in nice and tight," explained barista Quenelle Nilo. "Then I tap it on the side to make sure it settles into all the spaces, and I pack it again."
Nilo doesn't keep track of her God Shot percentage, but she says as long as she gets at least a 20-second drip, her results are consistently good, if not God-like.
"If there's too much pressure, it'll come out really bitter," she said, scrunching her nose. "If that happens, I'll just throw it away and try again. But I usually get a really nice, even cup every few" pulls.
The search for caffeine divinity is a national obsession. At the Brew HaHa! espresso cafe in Wilmington, Del., students pay $30 for a two-hour class in Espresso 101, including the catechisms of cappuccino and caffe lattes and the crucial creeds of crema.
Alisa Morkides, who owns the 15-store Brew HaHa! chain, says she started Espresso 101 after realizing coffee culture and its quirky lingo can be overwhelming for novices. (Want a decaffeinated espresso and steamed skim milk to go? In shop speak, that's a "harmless latte with wings.")
"I was very intimidated when I first saw an espresso menu," says Morkides, who after falling in love with the beverage during a trip to a pensione in Fiesole, Italy, near Florence, opened her flagship café in 1993.
While espresso connoisseurs like to preach the gospel of blends, the rites and rituals of roasting methods, the orthodoxy of the grind and theology of proper temperature, Morkides says the communion of coffee doesn't have to be that complicated.
"You shouldn't have to have a Ph.D. in coffee to come in and order," she says.
Espresso is essentially hot water that's forced, under pressure, through finely ground, dark-roasted coffee in a very short time. It sounds simple, yet a fluid ounce of espresso can be as tricky to reproduce as a fragile cheese souffle.
The ideal shot should be very dark and rich, with a caramel-colored film of crema and not a hint of bitterness.
Precision is the key to the perfect shot, which starts with quality beans ground to a consistency that's somewhat softer than granulated sugar.
"The grind is the most critical variable you need to monitor," Morkides tells her students.
The grind, which can change depending upon weather and humidity, should never be too coarse. If it is, or the coffee is not packed or tamped tightly enough in the espresso handle, the water will fail to extract enough flavor. What remains in the cup is a watery, acidic brew.
But if the beans are ground too finely or tamped too firmly, the water won't properly filter through. The demitasse cup then gets filled with a burned, bitter-tasting brew.
Espresso is the base for lattes and cappuccinos, which are simply espresso drinks made with steamed and/or frothed milk.
The most common misconception about espresso, Morkides says, is that it has more caffeine than coffee. The opposite is true.
Espresso blends primarily use beans from the arabica species of coffee plant, which has less caffeine than those beans from the tobusta species. (Many commercially sold ground coffees use the cheaper robusta beans.) Drip coffee has about 100 milligrams of caffeine in a six-ounce cup, while a double shot of espresso has about half of that.
Stefanie Stratton, who along with Stenta taught Espresso 101, says you should never hear a high-pitched screeching sound when milk is steamed or foamed.
"If it's high, that means they're burning the milk," she says.
Morkides says proper frothing produces a low hiss.
During the class, Stenta also shows how baristas look for the perfect flow of espresso from the machine.
"When it pours out, it should look like a mouse tail," he says, pointing out a snaky stream of liquid that usually takes 29 to 32 seconds to pour.
As the liquid began puddling in the glass, Stenta frowned.
"These shots are pouring too fast, I'm going to do them again," he says before starting the procedure over.
With the second attempt more to his liking, Stenta pointed to the crema. Morkides nodded her approval.
"It almost looks like Guinness," she explains.
Stenta then demonstrated the proper technique to create a shot of ristretto, a slightly smaller and more concentrated shot of espresso. The stream flow from the machine should take between 23 and 28 seconds, Stenta says.
Who knows? The "God Shot" could be just one pull away.
|1. The grind: Experts say the perfect grind for espresso has a consistency somewhat softer than granulated sugar.|
|2. The Drip: The flow of espresso from the machine should resemble a mouse's tail, one expert reports.|
|3. The Froth: Frothing milk the proper way produc-es a low hiss rather than a loud squeak.|
Coffee talk can be intimidating. Just what the heck is a double tall skinny capp, anyway?
Let's break it down. Double means two shot glasses of espresso. Tall is the cup size. Skinny is just java jive for skim milk. And capp is short for cappuccino. Translation: A large cup of cappuccino with two shots of espresso.
Coffee bars have different names for sizes. In general, a short is a small cup; regular is a medium cup; tall is large cup; and grande is for those in need of major caffeine boosts.
When ordering, start by telling the barista how many shots of espresso you want. Most drinks come with one shot, but you can increase the number of shots in the drink by asking for a double, triple, etc. Then tell which size cup you want and give your drink preference.
You also can ask for a flavor shot for the drink, such as caramel, hazelnut or raspberry.
Other coffee expressions:
Espresso: A one-ounce serving of a dark, roasted coffee brewed by steam pressure.
Cappuccino: Espresso with frothed milk.
Latte: Espresso with steamed milk and a little froth.
Dry: Latte or cappuccino with more froth than steamed milk.
Half-caf: Espresso, latte or cappuccino made with equal parts of caffeinated and decaffeinated coffee.
Skinny: Steamed skim milk.
No fun: Decaffeinated.
Harmless: Skinny and no fun.
Wet: Extra steamed milk.
With wings: To go or take away.
Wilmington (Del.) News-Journal