Becoming a Coffee Jedi Master
Matt Richtel goes to Coffee Dagobah, and reports back on what he has learned:
The essence of good espresso, of good coffee in general, revolves around three numbers: the amount of quality dry coffee used, the amount of time water flows through it and the amount of coffee that comes out the other end. When the ratio is right, the process extracts the best flavor. If it is wrong, the good flavor never surfaces or is watered down. A mistake in seconds or grams, I am coming to learn, is the difference between something wonderful and awful.
Mr. Baca explains that you have to experiment to find just the right balance of these three elements for each coffee machine and coffee grind, and then replicate them. He has tested the machinery at Sightglass and determined that we want to use 17 grams of high-end coffee and run water for 25 seconds to yield about 30 grams of coffee.
Again, this seems simple, given that the grinder is preset to deliver the grams I want, and I can verify using the scale. All I have to do is press buttons. My first shot tastes foul. But Mr. Baca calls my second “bright and snappy.”
He shows me how to paint with steamed milk: hold the decanter six inches from the cup, pour a medium-sized stream at a constant rate and when the cup is half filled, lower the decanter close to the cup. When the cup is nearly full, wriggle your hand quickly to create a shape that will make the foam blossom out. Finish with a flourish by drawing a bit of milk through the middle of the design. After a few tries, I’m able to make something that looks like a pine tree, though I was aiming for a heart.
Great, I am improving. But this is impractical. I buy my coffee preground. I don’t own a scale.
“A $10 scale is the best investment you can make for your coffee game,” Mr. Baca says. And because coffee density and brewing time are so significant, he says, a grinder is not far behind. Some experts say grinding your beans fresh is the most important priority.
Reality check: I’m trying to make it through chaotic mornings at home with a clamoring family. Mr. O’Donovan is amused. Why, he asks, would I make espresso in the morning, let alone latte?
“I make drip coffee,” Mr. O’Donovan explains. Mr. Baca does, too. That’s because making a good espresso requires preparation and cleanup. Even when it all goes right, it takes time. Like making a good meal.
“Coffee isn’t just coffee,” Mr. O’Donovan says.
It’s “just like anything else,” Mr. Baca chimes in.
I instantly take his meaning: Coffee — what I assumed was just a simple, necessary thing to start my day — is something more than that. It may not require certification but it does require more attention than I realized.