Friday, December 01, 2006

The Day I Became A Barista

The other night, whizzing along I-95 at nearly the same speed, Lindsay posed the question on when I considered myself a "barista." At first I was stumped. I don't know, maybe three weeks ago? I wasn't sure what she meant. After a bit more probing, it turned out the consensus was that there was some sort of challenging event that took place that really solidified your ability to perform and grind out professional-level drinks. For both Lindsay and Matt, they had been working baristas for quite some time before that day came around.

Part of what brought this up was the fact that there seems to be a number of "baristas" out there who lay claim to the title with very little knowledge or understanding about their craft or what they are doing. These are the same chaps who posit that they are "the best" in their "town", "shop" or "city" and that they know more than their employers and those around them. While this may very well be true, how difficult is it for one to become "the best" when they're working in a vacuum?

Even though I've toiled on the hind end of the coffee business, I've been lucky to have met mentors and friends willing to share their thoughts, ideas and expertise with me. Unlike some of my friends who enjoy daily interaction with their experts, I only have brief moments, conversations and trips with mine, resulting in a mad rush to memorize the theories and lessons to implement when I get home and try to execute faithfully. The difficult part of this approach is that you never know truly how you are advancing - or if you are advancing at all. Perhaps you've plateau'd and remain stagnant but you just don't know it, while thinking that you're "the best." A scary thought indeed.

My day of reckoning came without notice in April 2005. It was during the La Marzocco party at Hines Public Market Coffee during the Seattle SCAA Conference. The La Marzocco party featured rare antique espresso machines, free alcohol, free food, free coffee and the illuminati of the coffee industry. When it came to the coffee biz, everyone and their mother was there.

True to form, I arrived late. The place was jam packed so I sought refuge by the five group Linea espresso machine being manned by Bronwen Serna, who was increasingly late for another event she had to attend. Finally, she decided that she had to go, leaving me to defend the fort behind the five group with Andy Newbom (of Barefoot Coffee Roasters). Um, I think we should get someone else that's better than me to do this, I told Bronwen. Nah, you'll be fine. You do it, and she was out the door.

Left with no other choice, I stepped behind the machine and prepared to get hammered. And hammered we did. The orders for drinks came at a dizzying rate. Double espresso, macchiato, single espresso, cappuccino, honey macchiato, mocha - an endless cacophony of drinks yelled out from a blizzard of the industry's finest. These were the true experts of the industry. Those who had written books, articles, publications, papers, done studies and trained the best of the best - all drinking the drinks I churned out from behind the Linea. It would have been an appropriate time for a mental breakdown.

But there wasn't time for that. There wasn't much time to think about the different variables that affect the espresso. Dose, distribution, level, grind, tamp - that espresso might end up in the hands of Piero Bambi. Merde. National champions, world champions, usually it's impressive to have just one of them in your shop. There were a gaggle of them. A thirsty gaggle of them. Did I really get enough coffee in that basket? Whoa, that chica looks muy caliente, wish she'd come over for a hazelnut latte. Fuck it, I'm pulling that shot anyway.

It was a rush. A crushing rush. Chances are that I'll never experience pulling shots for such a notable group ever again. Thank God. Nothing is more nerve wracking than making drinks for the industry elite whom you know is critiquing each and every drink you prepare for them. If I sucked that suckiness would have been amplified ten fold and I would be labeled a poseur, or worse. Doom. But there wasn't time to think about that, just keep your head down, pump out the drinks and avoid falling in the weeds in front of your friends.

I wasn't sure if that was the right answer when I told Lindsay but now that I think about it that was the day I cut my teeth and made my bones. After that night I felt good about the work I did but it wasn't until several months later, while Googling myself, did I find this quote from Doug Cadmus' blog who had been there that night at Hines:

Best Espresso: Tied between Jay Caragay's espresso macchiato at Hines' and Jennifer Prince's version in the BGA Booth.

Not a bad way to start your day.