Not All Art Hangs On a Wall

Perfect cup of cappuccino

This last Saturday Sean signed me up for a Level One Barista Course at the International Barista and Coffee Academy.

It was going to be an all day crash course in the history of coffee and how to make and pour a perfect cappuccino. With our restaurant slowly becoming reality we knew it was time to jump into action. We wanted to take our food seriously, and as much as coffee is not the focus of our restaurant, we still wanted to take it seriously; to appeal to a crowd of coffee drinkers that like coffee for coffee. No fancy latte talk here, just a warm drink appreciated for its bitter qualities with people who know what they are talking about when it comes to a good cup of coffee.

I was very excited because I love having the opportunity to learn anything and everything I can about food, but I was also a little nervous because it would be my first full day away from the baby. Will was still protesting the bottle, sometimes liked the sippy cup and just recently took a liking to drinking like a cat from a regular cup. All Mom anxiety aside, I knew he and Dad would have some good bonding time and there was a small part of me that just needed a break after four and half months of being inseparable.

I arrived on Saturday morning at Espresso Italia, an old historical building located next door to Four Peaks Brewing Company. On the inside was a warehouse divided in two. One side was packed with coffee machines and equipment for purchase, coffee beans and a giant roasting machine. On the other an office and classroom with gleaming operational coffee machines, a television and six small red desks. There were supposed to be three of us that day, but one no-showed and the other cancelled, leaving me the only student of the day (which I think was to my advantage in the end because I got more practice time and time with the instructor).

Patrick O’Malley was the man running the show and he was a man who took his coffee seriously. It was immediately apparent he had spent his life immersed in his passion.

He traveled the world teaching and learning everything about coffee. He shared with me how he had just come back from teaching in Turkey and about the cultural ceremonies and traditions of bad tasting Turkish Coffee. He taught himself everything he knew just by learning and doing. Something I valued, for seeing his success and involvement in the world of coffee gave me confidence that Sean and I were starting off on the right foot in our own grand life adventure.

He made me a cappuccino with a foamy soy heart floating on top. It was my first cup of coffee in over a year and a half. I nursed it, enjoying every sip like it was the last cup of coffee on earth and a great tasting one at that. He started off talking about the history of coffee and coffee machines and then moved into my favorite part of the lesson about the coffee plant. You think you know your food and then you learn. The coffee plant is actually part of the fruit family and it grows in green berries on a tree, ripening to a bright red or yellow color. Its flowers smell and look like white star jasmine flowers. It produces for six months and then blossoms and starts all over again. It only grows along the equator of the earth, which makes coffee grown in the U.S. impossible with the exception of a small portion of Hawaii. This fact prompted me to ask about Organic and Local coffee options for our restaurant. It was important because that was where we wanted our focus to be but as I quickly learned, coffee could never be a local commodity. It can be locally roasted which is what people mean by “local coffee” and good quality, organic beans are out there but hard to come by because of a disease that attacks coffee plants. Still he was in every way willing to search out a good Organic coffee bean to offer in our restaurant if that is what our hearts desired.

We moved from coffee growing to coffee processing, roasting, and packaging and then finally into coffee making. Now it was time for some hands-on practice. We left the desk and stepped a few short steps to face the glistening silver handcrafted, Italian espresso machine.

Next to it was the ever intimidating Conical coffee grinder. He ground coffee beans in it for me three times and laid them in mounds on the counter having me feel the texture of each of the grounds. One was rough and gritty, one like fine brown powder and other an in-between perfectly consistent ground. Then he made a cup of coffee with each of the different grounds and showed me how the water came out at different rates and what that meant for the palate. The perfect look was “a rats tail,” a skinny, steady stream of dark espresso running into the cup. I was amazed at how simply grinding the bean made such a difference to the senses. Fine grounds or “over-extracted” grounds left you with burnt, bitter tasting coffee with a black eye appearing at the center of the cup and under-extracted grounds left you with a tasteless, watered-down espresso with a light brown, bubbly foam. The perfect grounds produced a hazelnut brown color and the caramel, creamy taste of comfort.

Now my first task was at hand. He screwed up the settings on the grinder and left me to figure out how to make perfect grounds all over again. He cranked up the music on his way out to pick up lunch and left me to the sounds of Latin guitars bouncing off the warehouse walls. I felt my intimidation towards the pretty machine slowly melt away as I worked methodically in my head, rubbing grounds between my fingers, weighing them in paper cups and lining up my finished espresso in a row so I could see the color.

We took a quick break to eat some Thai food and then I got a special behind the scenes tour of the new facility that they were going to be opening next door later in the year. It was all a naked shell of two-by-fours but he pointed out where the new classroom would be, the coffee roasting machines and a nice lounge area where customers could enjoy a Panini and perfect cappuccino with a foamy white heart at its center. I couldn’t wait to be one of the first customers.

The next task at hand was steaming and pouring milk. Usually when I order a cup of coffee the last thing I think about is how the milk makes the coffee look. Perhaps it’s the fault of the white plastic lid with the annoying little hole the coffee always seems to escape from.

This was not sugar-flavored milk with caffeine, this was the marriage of the perfect paring of flavors. Everything to do with the way you poured that silky milk mimicking the texture of white paint into that pure brown liquid was forcing you to look at your six ounce cup of coffee. To enjoy it with your eyes, to feel its warmth between the palms of your hands and to enjoy every sip for the flavors no other drink can offer you. It was art and not all art hangs on a wall.

My first attempts left me feeling nervous. Not only was I steaming milk, I was learning how to work my way around the machine. Multitasking (at least for my first time trying to make a cappuccino) was out of the question. Lately at home with the Baby my brain seemed to only be able to hand one task at a time. I learned to position my wrist just right, hold the cup at an angle, keep my elbow at my side and as I brought the cup and the steady stream of white milk together, give it a little wiggle and dump in the foam. After a few times of dumping too fast and overfilling the cups and giving the floor a little taste of caffeine I was finally able to get it down. On my very last attempt with soymilk, my circle was almost perfect and I came close to making a tulip in the last one without even trying.

Patrick congratulated and complimented me giving me high fives along the way and although I returned them rather weakly, I was enthusiastic and determined. We finished out the course with a “cleaning how-to” and I got some much-needed advice about hiring baristas for our restaurant.

At the end of the day I felt like I was hugging a family member goodbye.

There are not many people in life that you meet and feel that way; people who encourage you and give you pats on the back for what seems like the easiest thing to do – pour a cup of coffee. Sometimes I feel like the simplest gestures of kindness are lost on our world and then I find it here in the company of a man who knows a good cup of coffee. It wasn’t just a how to be a Barista class, it was a class about coffee. Coffee appreciated like a good piece of art, a best friend or just good wholesome food.

coffee barista training

coffee brewing equipment

cappuccino machine

learning how to make the perfect cappuccino

foamy cappuccino


the art of cappuccino

the proud new barista!

One Comment

  1. This is a great article about the art of making the perfect cup of coffee. I have a whole new appreciation for my favorite drink!

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