Lots and lots of butts in people’s lattes today.
Day 6 of barista training; Day 1 of latte art…ing.
The steam wand is a hot and dangerous little thing, let me tell you. In a well-crafted cappuccino, the texture of the milk is what gives your first sip that feeling of lying in the warm, soft arms of a teddy bear—that gentle creaminess that trickles through your veins and lungs and clears your sinuses and gives you back your 20/20 vision.
But the journey to get that perfect consistency is a treacherous and screechy one.
The goal is to “stretch” the milk (I have been told this just means to create foam. I don’t know why we don’t just say “hey, let’s create foam,” but the rationale for our barista argot is one I have yet to figure out for myself). At first, the milk makes this aggressive hissing sound that gets me all nervous, like I’m hurting it or something. A perfect stretch will reveal itself in a steady vortex at the center of the pitcher. You can tell it’s not so perfect if it looks more like white water rapids—the term my trainer used to critique my stretching. Tough love.
This whole process starts and ends in a matter of seconds, but the end result of your stretch-sesh plays a huge part in how the drink comes out. Milk has to carry a lot of the weight because espresso shots are teeny tiny; 75 percent of a latte or a mocha is just milk that has been tended with love and care and highly pressurized molecule breakdown.
In other words, the drink’s taste, texture, and temperature all rely on milk.
But there’s one more aspect of your customer’s coffee experience that depends heavily on the milk, and that’s presentation. If you’ve ever been served a drink with a pretty design, you understand: something about that charming little rosetta (the one that looks like a fern with little heart-shaped leaves) perched delicately atop your mug just makes you feel so tenderly loved down to the core, as though the barista who drew it is sending you a secret sign that you are worthy and you are special. Latte art is a form of human communication.
So what did I communicate to my customers today, on my first day of attempting latte art? Well, I was aiming for gratitude. Just a nice, simple heart to let them know that I appreciate them for supporting my blossoming barista career. After all, we were sharing a deeply personal experience together, with me, working hard to create the steam of dreams, and them, waiting and watching the clock, wanting to get on with the rest of their day, wondering why their latte is taking longer than usual to come out.
But most of what I sent out today were not hearts.
Instead, my customers got butts on their drinks—just two floppy cheeks floating on the surface of their lattes. I didn’t realize how thin the line was between a full round heart and a big old booty, but rest assured, these were definitely butts. And I had to deliver each of these butts—hand them off by hand, looking right into the eyes of the recipient. Out loud, I would use my I-know-what-I’m-doing voice to call out the drink and the customer’s name. But my eyes would say something entirely different, something more along the lines of I know what you’re thinking and I’m sorry I failed you, please just drink the foam off quickly for both of our sakes.
. . . So latte art has made its way onto my long and growing list of things I need to work on. But I did have some glimpses of hope today. On very rare occasions, maybe for four drinks during that entire shift, I actually made a heart. And that was a good feeling.
I am signing off from this entry with a very high quality photo of one of my successful hearts, taken by my trainer’s Apple watch. Let us celebrate the small victories in life.
It tastes like blueberries.
Reminds me of gin.
Can you taste the tomato?
I nod along, swirling it around in my mouth. The swirl feels like a frantic fumble inside a washing machine—not quite the way I thought this elaborate, finely tuned process of coffee tasting would go for me. I imagine my taste buds are desperately clinging on to the bean’s molecules right now, trying to get a read on the flavor, feeling rushed to relay the taste of something—anything—to my brain. Just a simple comparison to some random tropical fruit or baking spice or fancy dessert, so that I could contribute to this conversation and show these baristas that I know what I’m talking about.
But as it turns out, this is kind of hard to do, since I don’t know what I’m talking about, at all. After a murky thirty seconds of swish-n-swirl, I can only come to one definitive conclusion:
This sorta reminds me of burnt tires.
They all sort of remind me of burnt tires, actually, whether it’s from Costa Rica or Kenya. But I can’t say that. Not around these experienced baristas who all just seem to love this particular bean. So I sit in silence, defeated that I’m not able to appreciate it, yet again. It’s single-origin. It’s direct trade. It’s wet-processed. All these terms I’ve come to know over the past few months, all the time and effort that has gone into getting this cup to me from the other side of the world . . . And yet, burnt tires is all I can get from it.
I’ve considered the possibility that maybe it’s just not meant to be, good old joe and me. We all have our likes and dislikes, right? I like piña coladas, but not coffee—is that a crime?
. . . But I work at a coffee shop, where we, you know, serve coffee. And espresso is preeeetty important for a barista—oh excuse me, a barista in training (not officially certified under California law).
And learning about coffee is fun, that’s the biggest thing. So fun, that I had to create this espresso log to keep track of all the stuff I learn. The only obstacle is, uh, tasting the coffee. But I know I’m missing out here, and I am tired of that. I want, so badly, to fall in love with coffee.
But the age-old question hits hard: can you ever learn to fall in love?
An Almost-Barista’s Espresso Log: A series to log my brewing love affair with coffee.
A Grain of Nice © 2018