Before moving to Philadelphia, I worked at a brand-new cafe and coffee shop in Scottsdale, an upper-middle class suburb of Phoenix, Arizona.
I worked the register right next to the baristas at the counter in the morning, but after they went home, only my manager, Cody, knew how to operate the machine. During one particularly slow afternoon, he went to take inventory only to come back and find me at the register trying to juggle a line out the door, a ringing phone and 10 orders for espresso drinks all at once.
After this, I convinced Cody to train me as a barista so I could work the counter independently, but the truth is that I simply found the right time to ask. Baristas manage to be hypnotizing even in the swirl of lunch rush as they pull espresso and steam milk, and I made the most of my opportunity to learn.
A bit about espresso. This isn’t your Lebow Starbucks. I would roll my eyes when my owner bragged to customers about our shiny red imported Italian espresso machine, but when I did my research, it turned out that our shiny red imported Italian espresso machine was actually the Lamborghini of espresso machines.
Unlike drip coffee, espresso requires packing the coffee grounds into a portafilter, which is that little filter with a handle that baristas jiggle out of the machine, and pulling a lever to force hot water through the filter. Each pull produces one or two shots depending on the machine.
After a brief introduction to pulling espresso and steaming milk by hand, Cody told me to make a latte. A standard small latte consists of steamed milk, a light cover of foam and two shots, which came out to one pull on the machine. The first latte I ever had was the first that I made, and though good, it wasn’t great.
For the next month, I made one small latte every single day — nothing more, nothing less. Cody would grade me on the preparation of ingredients, the taste, the foaminess, the presentation and the cleanup, and if it wasn’t up to par, I would wait until the next day. One of my coworkers would give me pointers along the way, as she was trained by the third-highest-ranked barista in the United States. She said he was a jerk.
One day, Cody sipped his daily latte and said I was ready for everything else. I was baffled: If it took a month to learn how to make one standard small latte, how long will it take to learn everything else?
He told me to make a cappuccino, telling me that it’s everything a latte is but “foamier.” I pulled the shots and suspiciously swirled the milk pitcher around the steamer for just a bit longer before asking him to taste it and tell me if it was a cappuccino. All he had to do was lift the cup to know: a cappuccino is one part espresso, one part steamed milk and one part milk foam, and mine wasn’t light enough.
The next day, my latte was light enough to qualify as a cappuccino, and by the end of my shift, I knew how to make every drink we had. Everything on a coffee menu, hot or iced, is simply a variation of ratio of espresso shots and other things. Shots can be served black as a single (solo) or double (doppio) shot or combined with some combination of a filler (milk for a latte or cappuccino, water for an Americano) and optional syrup or combination of syrups.
Iced drinks are virtually indistinguishable from hot drinks, though more shots may be required to avoid watering down the coffee as the espresso is pulled hot and immediately poured over ice. Ever noticed that there is no such thing as an iced cappuccino? This is because the only distinction between a latte and a cappuccino is the ratio of foam when served hot.
My barista certification test was an informal list of drink orders given by the owner. All I needed to know was the customer’s personal preferences in order to make it, but most customers underestimate the range of drink possibilities. Should you ask a barista what’s behind the counter, he will more than likely be thrilled that you asked, unless he happens to be the third-highest-ranked barista in the United States.
The intricacies of working in coffee shops are more detailed than described here, as innovative baristas create their own signature drinks using different roasts, coffee-to-milk ratios and syrup blends, but what makes the discipline of espresso so brilliant is the amount of skill that goes into accommodating the customer. Coffee is the people who drink it.
I intended for my job to be a gig bussing tables and picking up some cash, but every time I wrap my hands around a coffee mug, I am grateful that I recognized the opportunity to learn something new and seized it when I could. You may never know your shiny red imported Italian espresso machine until you find it.
Nohra Murad is a freshman biomedical engineering major at Drexel University. She can be contacted at [email protected].