"Espresso! My Espresso!"
An Ongoing Internet Novelette
by Randy Glass - Copyright 2002 - All rights reserved
E-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org
Espresso or Express'o?
Where are we Going?
[warning- I am on my soapbox once again]
A very interesting thread on Usenet got me to thinking a little deeper about espresso. It seems that there is a trend in the making of espresso that is very different from how it started life, and these changes threaten to change it into something very different from what I feel it should be. If you have been to a coffee shop and had an espresso, or an espresso-based beverage that was bitter, acidic, or possessing not much more than a strong coffee flavor, than you might have been tasting proof that espresso is becoming something less than it could and should be.
As you have undoubtedly learned during your read of all this (you did start at the beginning, I hope?), there is more to espresso than a cup of brown liquid. The process depends on (here he goes again!) using fresh beans that have been freshly ground and within minutes or even seconds of being ground are placed in a portafilter handle, packed to the proper compression and then having water heated to the proper temperature pushed through this "puck" of coffee at the proper and consistent force for about twenty to thirty seconds or so. There is also the skill of the operator- the barrista. The ability to sense what grind is needed and to be able to adjust it through the day to match the changing conditions. The touch on the tamper. The ability to choose roasts and blends of beans to create the perfect espresso, and more. To be able to watch the pull as it comes froth from the portafilter and know immediately if all is well. The resulting liquid is then served nearly immediately to preserve the wonderful crema that was created and it accompanying aroma which is such a critical part of the taste. If not consumed almost immediately it begins to cool and 'age,' has lost a great part of what makes espresso special. Partly magic, partly an art, partly a technical craft.
Blah blah blah, etc., etc. OK, so you already knew that.. Well, it is important to reestablish those facts to place them in juxtaposition to what seems to be happening to espresso is parts of our American society. We are a society on the move. Anything that can either be done faster or "more efficiently" seems to find a niche. We complain about microwave ovens that seemingly take forever when heating our sandwich for lunch, and we complain when making a cellular call from our car, because we have to punch in so many numbers. It seems to be an interminable wait at the fast food store when we order our burgers and the clerk has to walk all the way to the heating table to retrieve our already-made food items. We can even clap our hands once to turn the lights on and twice to turn them off.
This is where our lives come into conflict with what espresso is supposed to be. Coffee has always been a social drink in much of the world. Indeed, in Europe, food in general is a social event- a part of life that was meant to be sipped and not gulped; nibbled and not gorged. The local café in the village is a place to sit down, shake the hand of the person behind the counter (because you know him personally from the last few dozen visits), and enjoy not only a meal with a beer, but the company of the proprietors. It was one of the parts of European culture that I enjoyed the most. Coffee is part of that culture.
Espresso came from that. It is a personal drink. David Bogie asked, in a recent thread on Usenet, "Can 'espresso' degrade from the noble 'I made this just this instant, just for you,' into the ever-so-now 'I think this is what you ordered, now get outa here!'?" The unfortunate answer to that question is that yes, it can if we allow it to do so.
There is a chain of coffee shops that seems to embody this philosphy of speed and efficiency that has become amazingly popular in the United States. There are lines that form at many of these stamped-out stores as folks line up to get their morning caffeine fix, and be off to work. Think about that- these folks are in such a hurry that they end up waiting in line at a "fast food" coffee shop for their mediocre coffee drinks.
To aid in the relief of these lines of customers some of these shops are even removing their traditional-type espresso machines and installing Superautomatics where the "barrista" (technician?) merely pushes a button and out comes an espresso. There are a lot of reasons for that. We are in a supply and demand society and there are workman's comp issues to deal with. It is not the cause that worries me- the fact that there is a threat that espresso is becoming a fast food is enough to cause my concern.
To a great extent, we, as Americans, don't see food as luxury to enjoy- we treat it as a necessity. We rate much of our food by how convenient and fast it is, not by quality or taste or nutrition. We do the same thing with meal time in general. "Sorry. I just have time to pour my coffee into my travel mug, grab a toaster pastry, and run. Late- gotta go. Bye bye!" and give a quick wave with a briefcase-filled hand with a toaster pastry gripped between our teeth as we head out the door.
Why? Our lives are filled with labor saving devices and time saving tools. We can make phone calls from our vehicles and there is a new wireless phone system that promises to be functional virtually everywhere on the planet. We do business on the way to work, at work, and on the way home from work, We have computers that allow us to work at home, and mobile computing solutions that plug into our cell phones so we can access the company's database from just about anywhere. The one thing in common with all these labor saving devices is that it has increased the amount of labor we can do, so, in the long run, we are laboring more and enjoying life less.
It's time. Right now- today, at this very moment (well, at least when you finish reading this) to slow down, sit down, and take some time to enjoy something. How about an espresso? Not a coffee-ish beverage that comes in a screw-top jar from the supermarket, not one that comes in a little cardboard tin with a pop-off metal top labeled "instant," and not one in a take-away styrofoam cup, but an honest to goodness, made-by- hand, just-for-you, sit-down-and-enjoy-it espresso. An espresso from beans roasted not more then a day or two ago and ground just a minute or two ago, and ground just for you because you asked. Pour it in a pre-heated cup- yes, actually take the time to be sure that the cup is hot beforehand. Take a sip then lick the crema off your upper lip and take the time to sense the flavors dancing around on your tongue. Take the time to actually enjoy it with no thoughts in your mind other than what your tongue is telling you.
David Bogie went on to ask in his Usenet post, "Is it possible that the espresso culture can be adulterated by convenience and innovation?" Unfortunately, the answer is yes. For a part of this society things will never happen fast enough or efficiently enough to suit them. If someone comes up with little microwaveable, two ounce containers of espresso with little foil packets of 'crema' that you add after cooking at thirty seconds on "high," then there will be plenty of folks to buy them in little "carry-along" six packs.
On the other hand, you are here and I am here. We can vote with our dollars and purchase decent machines that can actually make a fairly consistent espresso at home. We can choose to not purchase little plastic toys that end up sitting on a top shelf in a pantry or hall closet gathering dust. We can make the choice when we are away from home to only purchase an espresso where they are made properly. When we receive a bad espresso we have to say something to the barrista. Be kind, but say something. Accepting a poor espresso helps no one. The standards of espresso are set by what we accept as consumable.
We can educate our friends and fellow coffee drinkers (and to some extent, some barristas) as to what espresso is supposed to be and what espresso is supposed to taste like. Find that barrista that knows the difference between a decent pull and tincture of coffee and take your friends there and treat them to real espresso so they will know the difference. Take them home and make them espresso so they will see it can be done at home. SIT THEM DOWN, and make them sip it slowly. Teach them to 'chew' their espresso to get the full taste experience. Make them nibble their biscotti.
Slow down and enjoy something in your life at a speed so slow you don't know you're moving. Make the world stop and wait for you for ten minutes a day at least. Turn off the television and put on some classical music. Turn down the lights, turn off the phone, and take the time to just sit and enjoy something. Enjoy an espresso.