"Espresso! My Espresso!"
An Ongoing Internet Novelette
by Randy Glass - Copyright 2008 - All rights reserved
E-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org
A Visit to "Great Infusions"
I have mentioned, too many times, that I live in a rural area. There are two cities nearby— well, more like a town and a large college town, but neither has any sort of store that feature espresso machines more advanced than Cuisinart and steam-powered toys other than the offerings at Starbucks. I can find steam pitchers here and there, and I can get a grouphead gasket brush at a kitchen supply store, but that is about it. Need a quality burr grinder or want to shop for a good espresso machine? it's a drive of at least 90 miles, or maybe more to Sacramento or the San Francisco Bay area.
It has been a while since I took a road trip to see some close friends that live on the coast, and after what felt like years of planning, things finally fell into place in early March of 2006. My friends, Ben and Sarah, live in Seaside and it has been so long since we were able to see them that they have a five year old daughter I have never met! Way too long, to be sure. Tank filled? Check. New timing belt? Check. Oil change? Check. New tires? Check. MP3 player filled? Check. Grab the harmonica stage case and hit the road!
I arrived Friday afternoon, and Saturday we had a road trip planned from Seaside, forty miles north to Santa Cruz. Three stops were planned, two personal and one to Great Infusions. You have probably seen their banner ads on some of the various coffee websites such as Home Barrista and Coffee Geek.
With Ben's assistance (he use to live in the area) we drove right to the shop. I had contacted David Lewis, an acquaintance from alt.coffee and various SCAA conference get-togethers, weeks earlier and we had arranged to meet there, and he was already there when we arrived.
Walking into Great Infusions you are immediately greeted with a display of coffee gear:
As one of my motivations was to get a set of "real" cappuccino cups, seeing that display made me feel like a little kid in a toy store!
I introduced myself to Sebastian Little, the owner and proprietor of Great Infusions. I then walked over to where the espresso was being brewed and met Scott Guglielmino of Barefoot Coffee Roasters.
There was activity all over the little shop. The aroma of roasting coffee and brewing espresso immediately greeted me s I entered the shop. Out back they were experimenting with roasting some Kona in a Behmor Coffee Roaster. Sebastian showed us a sample that looked a bit dark, and I tasted a few beans and it certainly was too dark. A later batch was too light and I decided not to taste those.
On the counter running along Portrero Street are two display counters where espresso machines and grinders are displayed. Among the brands Sebastian features are Brasilia, Mazzer, la Spaziale, Quick Mill, Macap, and many more.
Scott was working on one counter pulling shots. We talked about stretching milk and latte art, and Scott was more than eager to show us some technique. David went out to get some fresh milk, and Scott went to work as soon as David returned.
Scott's first attempts were quite impressive, and I tried my best to watch his technique when stretching and pouring. I have never been able to get decent latte art— well, to be honest, I have never gotten even close. For the home barrista, taste is the priority, and while making the coffee look decorated is a low priority, it is the little challenges that keep the hobby interesting. The instruction from Scott and what I learned watching him were quite valuable. Here are a few tips I picked up from listening and watching:
- I have been steaming to a too-high temperature. Scott was not using a thermometer and just going by experience and the feel of the pitcher. I felt the pitcher when he finished stretching one batch and from the feel of the pitcher I estimate that he was not getting the milk over 120 degrees— maybe even a bit less when he stopped. It was so much cooler than what I have been doing that I will need to check the accuracy of my thermometer. For now I am just steaming to feel. I would say that if the pitcher feels hot or becomes uncomfortable you have gone about 15 or 20 degrees too far.
- A proper shape cup is critical (one of the reasons I originally wanted to go to Great Infusions was to get some cups). If the shape of the cup forces you to hold the pitcher too high, the milk is forced to the bottom of the espresso, under the crema, and will leave no artwork on the surface. Short and wide is better than tall and narrow. A taper at the bottom gives sufficient depth to the espresso as well. There's obviously more to the cup's shape than one might think.
- Scott showed us that swirling the pitcher before pouring will give you a good indication as to the consistency of the milk. He showed us what he described as a "cap" on the milk- sort of like looking down on a mushroom when the pitcher is swirled after stretching. This cap settles when the swirling is stopped which evidently shows that there is no stiff foam from over-stretching or adding too much air.
- Scott did not force the injection of air from what I could see or hear. He merely allowed the force of the steam and the heat to do the work.
- Holding the pitcher properly is important for control. As you see here, Scott demonstrated that having the thumb on one side of the handle and fingers on the other, grasping the pitcher's body and not just the handle, allows the barrista to manipulate the entire pitcher without having the pitcher swing as a pendulum which happens when just grasping only the handle. If you hands are too small to grasp the pitcher in that way, bend the handle outward enough to get your hand between the handle and the pitcher.
- The motion of the pitcher is also important. If you draw an imaginary line across the pitcher, perpendicular to a line from the handle to the spout, that line should stay parallel to the cup. Move the entire pitcher from side to side. Do not swing the pitcher from the handle. You do not want the milk to be sloshing in the pitcher.
After everyone got a chance to sample a cappuccino, Scott, David, Ben and myself took a break and crossed the street for lunch at a delightful little sidewalk cafe. After lunch, Scott pulled out his gear and brewed a pot of coffee in a Kona vac pot and we enjoyed sipping delicious demis of rich coffee. Even there I learned something. He would allow the water to boil and go north, and then he added the coffee to the water, thus limiting the amount of time the coffee was exposed to the water. So much to learn...
I picked up a set of four, white, ACF "Classic Cappuccino" 6 ounce cups in white. These cups deserve their excellent reputation. They are dense porcelain and hold heat well, and the glazed finish is smooth and dense for easy cleaning. At $25 for a set of four with saucers they are also a good deal. For the reasons mentioned above they are the perfect shape for your latte art, and my first attempts after returning home and putting them to work were the best I have been able to produce. Nothing good enough to share yet, but things are already improving.
I could have spent hours there talking to Sebastian and Scott... Well... days, really. There were other eggs to hatch and my stay in Seaside was limited so we had to leave, but the information I gathered was certainly worth the time I spent. If you are in the area drop by Great Infusions. Santa Cruz is a great combination of an old town, a college town, and a seaside resort town. For many of us it is rare to be able to use espresso equipment before purchase and Great Infusions is a great place to do just that.