Light in the Tunnel
So yeah… I had a job at a fairly substandard café. Let’s call it Matt’s Café.
If I’m perfectly honest… I didn’t hate it. In fact, I quite liked it. It was us versus the customer. It’s not good business, sure, but it did feel good. I liked the people I worked with, and I liked that it wasn’t a giant multinational corporation. I could even relish how relaxing it was, as we didn’t have much for higher aspirations.
The downside is that easy things are rarely fulfilling. Two blocks away, after work, I would often go to my dream coffee shop and complain to them about my ever growing ennui.
I guess what I was missing was the serious pursuit of a craft. It’s hard, I think, for many people to acknowledge coffee as a real craft. The amount of work that goes into your espresso is, frankly, ridiculous.
We need a farmer, who has expertise and works hard just to grow the plant that coffee comes from. It’s a sensitive thing, it likes shade and hates fungus and likes to grow in difficult places. The only comfort from the sweltering heat is the fact that we’re growing things hundreds of meters above sea level. Possibly on a volcano. The farmer needs to keep a keen eye out for leaf-rust or beetles as she waits seven years for the plant to fruit and mature. Each and every one of the cherries needs to be scrupulously hand-picked. Now we have cherries, and we throw away all the over and under-ripe ones. We need to get that cherry flesh off the the seed somehow. We must take care, because the way we separate the seeds from the fruit has an enormous effect on flavor; so we use giant tanks to slough it off with water, or we painstaking dry the the fruit in the sun, turning them often so they don’t rot and then we can peel the seed away. We then dry the green, cherry-less seeds to a particular moisture level, so they are ready to ship. They are packed and shipped thousands of miles. They get to a roaster, whose job is to walk the razor’s edge between ashy over-roasting and grassy underdevelopment. Each type of coffee will need a particular roast profile, which must be pinpointed and replicated for every customer. It’s immediately packed and sent to a café, as it’s a ticking bomb now. After a month all of the work and flavor will start to fade away… as coffee is a volatile substance. Try to make espresso too soon, and you’ll get an unpredictable, gassy nightmare. Too late and you’ve missed out on all the flavor that took a staggering effort to produce. You have just three weeks of ideal espresso with any bag of coffee. For all that effort so far, you haven’t made a drink yet, you haven’t even started. For espresso, you need about eighteen grams of uniform, freshly ground coffee. This is harder than it sounds… to get a uniform, controllable grind; you need a specialized burr grinder. And yes, coffee is sensitive enough that it makes a difference. Each particle of coffee has flavor to give up. If you don’t extract enough of that flavor, the espresso is sharply acidic. If you take too much, it’s bitter and thin. You need the particles to be the same size, to yield just the right flavors from the coffee. Then you need to get two ounces of fluid to go through that coffee. So you need yet another specialized machine to force temperature controlled water through your coffee at nine times the pressure of earth’s atmosphere. For all that effort, you’ll get 60 milliliters of beverage.
So… all that work has gone into just getting you the materials for a shot of espresso. It is a linked chain of events, and if one of the steps is substandard, the whole thing is for naught. Actually brewing that espresso is as precise and important as every step before it… pulling that shot consistently, finding an ideal brew ratio and grind size and pouring time for each roast of each bean type, recalibrating as your equipment heats or cools and as the coffee ages… These are minimums, and necessary to express the tremendous journey that the coffee has made just to reach your café. Yet, at “Matt’s Café” we just pulled shots like we were a vending machine. The most frustrating thing of all was that I didn’t really have a clue how to do the coffee any justice. I still thought there was an easy secret… a special bean, a perfect method, an expensive machine. I was like a mason who didn’t understand his stone, doomed to failure.
In a silent scream to the universe, I cried out for guidance…
… and something answered.
After only a month at Matt’s Café, I was offered a position at Colonna and Smalls.
Next time: Not in Kansas Any More…