Archive for September, 2009

Indecent Espresso

Working Hard

Working Hard

A customer came in the other day demanding a latte. I was happy to make one yet his forcefulness and rapid mannerisms resembled those of a person in a hurry. He most certainly was, as he grabbed the finished product and ran out the door. I felt used, this customer came in wanting one thing, once he got it he ran away, only to be seen again when he wanted another hit.

 

Being in a rush is one thing, but jamming your demands down my throat as if I’m not fulfilling your request fast enough is another. I’m aware that I’m positioned in a give take relationship with customers, I take the money and they get a service, it’s how most businesses operate. But feeling used can sometimes manifest into a sleazy ordeal.

On that note, I came across an interesting little article the other day that reminded me of this experience, and the goods and services industry as a whole.

Basically, five baristas were charged with prostitution in the good ol’ state of Washington, US. They were apparently “charging up to $US80 ($A92) to strip down while fixing lattes and mochas.” This ‘grab-n-go’ business received numerous complaints throughout the year, yet the girls weren’t arrested, merely slapped on their latte-making wrists.

They were wearing bikinis and exchanged cash for short peep shows which on the upside boosted their male clientele. There wasn’t a brothel behind the bean, just an expensive flash, a mere give and take.

This isn’t the first controversial flesh display that has risen within the coffee community. In 2003, Playboy featured “Starbucks baristas” who “shed their aprons and everything else to make your fantasies a reality.” A business transaction at best, but I remember when this was going on, I happened to be working for Starbucks at the time, a few swarthy customers thought they were being clever asking for more service, puh-lease!

As classy as that all must sound, it seems like an exaggeration of my job along with others in hospitality. You order, we run around trying to accommodate your request in hopes that it’s satisfactory, then you leave and come back for the same service at your disposal. Yes, baristas and their service industry counterparts work hard for the money, some in less conventional ways, but it’s all the same, money in exchange for a pleasurable service, like…coffee. Just don’t expect to find the baristas in bikinis at Caffeine anytime soon, we’re a modest bunch.

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Hello and Thank You

Portafilter

I lay my hand out, palm up, waiting for you to figure out what combination of coins equal $2.70, waiting, waiting, success. You throw it on the counter, next to my outstretched appendage. Thanks.

It is absolutely mind boggling to me why customers are so rude, ungrateful and unaware of the chaos that surrounds them in our little establishment. Yes there is a line out the door behind you, yes they are waiting as you pull five cent by five cent out of your wallet and no my patience is not wearing thin.

We make your coffee, muffins, sushi, quesadillas and focaccias, is it really such a smart thing to ignore my ‘hello’ and treat me like dirt when I have full control over what you are about to consume? Probably not, if we served decaf, a lot more would be going out.

“Hi, how are you?” I admit my question is somewhat rehearsed, yet still constitutes an answer.

“Regular cap, extra froth.” The customer responds to my salutation.

“Uh-huh, no worries, that’ll be $2.70,” the pleasantries drop along with my smile, maybe you didn’t hear me, but I’m not a machine.

The money, once again,  gets thrown on the counter and I spend a few minutes trying to pry it off of the glass surface, eventually sliding it into my other hand, five minutes after ‘cap, extra froth’ left. At least this customer wasn’t on the phone.

What has happened to coffee culture? Coffee has been turned into a quick fix, where you no longer socialize; you squawk your order, pick it up and run out the door. Where is the indulgence part, the appreciation of creamy froth, earthy crema and the unrehearsed banter with your ambassador to caffeine?  Are we all so busy that we are spending our money through routine, downing a cuppa then moving on to the next part of the day? If so, what a bummer.

I know, lectures need to be attended and homework has to be finished, but take a break for once. Have a chat, escape from the complexities of university and say thank you, it goes a long way. Ignoring me, means I ignore the tiny details you have specified in your drink, if you are in that much of a rush, how could you possibly know I forgot the extra froth.

Sensationalizing the Bean

Robert Downey Jr

Robert Downey Jr

While on the bus the other day an old long-haired man jumped on. I caught his eye, searched his face and suddenly, ‘soy latte’ dropped into my head. I then debated on whether or not I should smile, I didn’t, as it is usually met with a blank face for my memory works in mysterious ways, I will never remember a customer’s name but I will always remember their drink.

 Most customers are completely surprised when I say their order before it is placed, they exchange a slightly embarrassed smile as if they’ve just realized that buying three coffees in one day is over the top.

 

 

“Hey there, skinny cappuccino?” I look at the customer, pen and cup in hand, with a Cheshire cat grin.

 “Well yes, how did you know?” The customer inquires once the shock wears off.

 “I have a good memory,” I announce proudly, as if it was actually my memory and not the fact that they frequent the shop four times a day.

“Oh, I must come in here too often,” a sheepish yet thoughtful reply.

 Back on the bus and after the customer sighting, I decided to recall the most interesting customers I’ve come across (I didn’t have a book and the guy next to me grabbed the MX, jerk). Here they are, in no particular order:

 Robert Downey Jr. – This was in California, not La Trobe University. He ordered a medium latte, was very nice, extremely quiet and undeniably gorgeous.

 Tim Flannery – The former Australian of the year was partaking in a conversation with Robert Manne. He ordered a Mint Mix T2, in a takeaway cup, guess he missed my ‘Green Ranter’ post.

 Bobby Morley – Former Home and Away star and current La Trobian, he orders a large skinny latte. I’m happy to accommodate this humanitarian because according to Wikipedia he “rescue[d] Minister Tim Holding when he was lost on Mount Feathertop in the Victorian Alps.”

 Meg Ryan – What a treat, she actually didn’t order a coffee she got a zucchini-walnut muffin. Meg was wearing sunglasses, I nearly missed the sighting but thankfully I recognized her lips (California).

 Jason Biggs – The American Pie star ordered a medium cappuccino, very friendly, but the movie was fresh in my mind and all I could think about was the pie scene, it was an awkward encounter (California).

 Ok, the above customers are either splashed all over the tabloids or a prominent figure in science, it was a little easier to remember their names and drinks. As for the regulars, I see you every day, make the same coffee for you every day, it shouldn’t be too surprising that I can recall your order, it is after all my job.

Art on the Clock

Obama Latte

Obama Latte

The longest part of my day is waiting for the espresso to extract through the portafilter, milk steamed and ready to complete the drink.

Our little café uses about eleven bags of coffee a day. This high volume commands a quick result as there can sometimes be lines out the door. When I make coffee all of the art that appears once I’ve finished pouring, is purely accidental.

Coffee art has never been a huge factor in the quality of my coffee. When I venture to cafes on the weekend, I admire the creaminess of the froth and the rich earthy colours of the crema. The art has a tendency to make me feel guilty when I stick a spoon in to mix my sugar.

Nevertheless, people always thank me for the odd leaf and slanted heart, as if I have individualized the coffee instead of handing over something taken off the production line.

Over the years coffee art has become a culture in itself. 2007 World Latte Art champion Jack Hanna explained that “it used to affect [him] a lot to see [his] hard work just ‘destroyed’.” How easily the spoon can swirl away Hanna’s perfect rosettas and a quick sip can erase the coffee formerly known as art. Any hard work going to waste would be challenging to see.

Yet he has adopted a new attitude, “taken more of a big picture approach now.” Hanna would rather see his customers “enjoy their experience” than dance around the art, impeding the enjoyment of the actual coffee.

World Barista Judge, Justin Metcalf commented in The Age that the creativity on top of lattes does not “constitute whether it’s a good coffee or not.” Metcalf went on to slam Melbourne’s coffee adding that “people [in Melbourne] are still far more interested in the texture of the milk and whether it’s got a pattern on top.”

The art is in place as a reminder to customers that effort is mandatory in order to make an enjoyable beverage. In order to produce the art, the crema needs to be the right colour and the milk needs to be frothed in a way that houses the creativity. If a barista has taken the time to learn to draw on a beverage then they have also taken the time to see how the crema will react. Bad tasting crema and poorly steamed milk does not react well and the art will not look tasty.

My customers love a random heart, even Jackson Pollock style designs, I always get a compliment. As a barista, it is nice to be appreciated not only for the art, but for the effort as a whole. As a customer it is nice to know that a white heart on top of my latte has been made especially for me, even if I do turn it into a blob once I add the sugars.

Yes my ‘art’ is completely coincidental, but it does make customers aware of the long hours baristas spend on their feet producing something that helps you get through the day.

Homebrewin’

Customers love asking for tips on how to make coffee at home. It is a hard question to answer, especially when milk is involved.

First, I inquire on the type of equipment they use. After the umming and ahhing, I find out a microwave has become the best way overall to realize a latte. I look them straight in the eye, to see if they’re taking the piss, then give some half-hearted generic explanation on the importance of steaming milk.

The customer leaves, head down, perhaps sad that they have to go home to their international roast and milk, two days past the use by date.

The average student cannot afford a top of the line espresso machine and I dare say neither can the average lecturer. They are astronomically priced and frankly, all the ones I have used are useless, barely commanding enough pressure to properly aerate milk.

Based on that I decided to conduct an experiment, using products you would find in an average kitchen. I always thought it was possible to make creamy milk without a steam wand, it just took a little time, patience, and a trip to supermarket.

The Tools

I used a Moka Pot to make the coffee, as it is my at home caffeinating tool. If you want some tips on making espresso, check out Tim Hayward’s In Pursuit of the God Shot, otherwise I will be focussing on frothing.

Experiment #1

I tried using a whisk first, I couldn’t move my arm fast enough to make anything other than huge milk bubbles. I used ‘the trying to make fire’ technique, don’t even bother.

Experiment #2

Experiment #2

Bubbly Froth

I thought a hand mixer would do the trick. I filled a saucepan half full of milk and placed it on the stove until it warmed up, letting my finger decide the right temperature. Do not touch the saucepan, put your finger in the milk, oh and wash your hands.

Once the milk was warm, not hot, I stuck the mixer in at the lowest speed. It was a failure and my ego was hurting. I produced crappy, bubbly milk, I felt a little humiliated, which only made me more persistent.

Experiment#3

Experiment #3

Thick and Glossy

I went to the supermarket. I needed tools, something that resembled the cylindrical glory of a steam wand and simultaneously moved the milk, creating foam.

The market had a nice little saucepan equipped with a spout. I also picked up a hand blender. It cost $25, a little pricey, but it seemed as though it would help me make sense out of all the milk I splattered on the wall.

I filled and heated the milk exactly as I had for experiment #1. First I stuck the blender down towards the bottom of the saucepan, the milk rose quickly indicating that this wasn’t the best method. So I brought the blender up towards the surface of the milk. It moved splendidly, resembling the creamy froth I get from a proper espresso machine, success, ego reinstated.

There you have it, a tip to becoming a kitchen barista. The milk wasn’t perfect, but it was as close to the thickness and glossiness that I produce on the machine used in our café. Give it a go, and ditch the microwave theory, it’s just sad.


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