In assisting, as in love, it's often the little things that count. And no one will ever ask you for just a coffee with a little sugar on set. Learn the seductive art of coffee making from this Resource Magazine article.
This article has been contributed from the Spring 2009 issue of Resource Magazine, courtesy of the publisher. To subscribe to the magazine and explore Resource’s online features, visit the Resource Magazine website.
Photographs by Blake Sinclair.
Additional information by Blake Sinclair and Marla Lacherza.
We’ve all stood there listening to a photographer berating an utterly defeated production assistant over the mishandling of their idiotically complex coffee order, which always includes terms like latte, mocha, frappé, grande, and other nonsense that has perfectly suitable English equivalents. Apparently you’re not a mysterious recluse of an artist if you use words like milk. Oh well.
Generally, you pull for the little guy in this situation. The underdog. You want to see assistants leap viciously toward their tormentors and bleed them like starving vampires, but it never happens. They turn like dogs, nervous and unsure, questioning every choice they’ve ever made in life as they silently repeat the order over and over as if it’s actually important.
So, if you’re lucky enough to find yourself amongst the nonessential peasantry, making coffee runs or steaming your face off with intricate German machinery, we’ve come to save your life. Let’s begin with the basic, a.k.a. drip coffee.
- Grind the coffee beans. Pulverize them. Destroy them. Decimate them. Drip coffee really requires a fine grind.
- Depending on the darkness of the roast, put 1 tbsp grounds per 2 cups. If you’re making 8 cups, put 4 tbsp of grounds in the filter.
- Put the grounds in the machine, pour the water into the back, close the lid, and turn the machine on.
- Get excited as you smell the coffee begin to brew, listen to the exotic ticks and grunts of the Chinese-made coffee maker. Imagine the possibilities. Pour and enjoy.
Now that you’re a black belt in brewing a pot of coffee, forget everything you just learned. You’re never going to be that lucky. No one will ever ask you for a coffee with a little sugar. They’re going to throw Latin and Spanish and Portuguese at you, and laugh to themselves as you saunter off like a beagle. Always remember, revenge is a marathon, not a sprint. Bide your time. Your day will come. For now, let’s look at espresso and cappuccino.
Espresso and Cappuccino
- The grind is key to a good espresso. It’s all about finding the perfect setting for that day, and only you know what kind of day you want to have. Each day the beans age, your grind will need to be tighter, so you will have to set the grinder accordingly. A good espresso grinder will have stepless adjustments, for infinite grind settings. Never use a blade grinder.
- Warm up the machine and portafilter by running water through to the cup. This should take roughly 10-15 seconds, but possibly as many as 25. Stay focused. Put the hot water in the cup to keep it warm until you’re ready to pull your shot.
- Take the portafilter out of the machine and dry that little sucker with a clean towel. This is supremely important. If the portafilter is wet when you put the grinds in, it will cause uneven brewing and bitterness, and no one will like you.
- Fill the portafilter basket with the finely ground grounds.
- Swipe the top of the basket with your finger, or a fingerlike tool, to evenly disperse the grounds. Some do a clockwise circle swipe. Some go north, south, west, finishing with east. Go to the town hardware store for a compass. The important thing is to have an even, clean swipe so the grounds aren't chunky. Avoiding chunky grounds is job number two.
- You want the tamp to be as even as possible, so it’s good form to start with your wrist straight, and your forearm at a perfect 90 degree angle, perpendicular to the tabletop. In one steady motion, apply about 5 pounds of pressure (about the same amount of pressure necessary to knock over a small child), then knock the side of the portafilter with the back of the tamper to loosen up any stray grounds. Next, apply 30 pounds of pressure. Then polish off any stray grounds on the handle, basket rim, and locking notches. Step 6 is a notoriously tricky step involving math, angles, and human anatomy. Don’t worry if you are completely confused right now, or looking around to see if anyone is watching you. Keep reading.
- Insert the portafilter into the machine, dump the water out of the cup, and place it under the portafilter. Are you ready? If so, start your shot.
7a. The first shot is typically a test. 90% of the time it’s perfectly drinkable, but if you want to perfect your craft, learn from that first shot and alter the next. The espresso extraction should take about 20-25 seconds, and produce a 2 oz. shot. If the espresso flows too fast and runny, your grind is too coarse. If the espresso barely flows at all, and is more like a drippy black oil slag-like sludge, then your grind is too fine. The espresso should be black with a redish hint and a golden "crema" on top.
7b. Another good way to analyze how your shot went is to look at the spent grounds in the portafilter basket. They should be relatively dry, with no holes or cracks. If you see holes, that means your swipe/tamp technique needs work. The holes are called "channeling" and they cause uneven extraction and bitterness.
- Steam the milk. Bleed the steam wand by turning it on and getting all the water out. You want hot, dry steam. Insert the wand in the milk (or soy milk if the party concerned has womanish intestines that cannot digest lactose), and find the sweet spot. If the wand is too high, you'll get large bubbles. If it’s too deep, you will only get hot milk. The goal is to achieve a micro-foam, which is silky frothed milk with tiny bubbles. To get this, you'll want to "stretch" the milk by creating foam until it reaches 100 degrees. Next, bring the wand deeper and let the milk blend the bottom milk, with the top foam, creating a uniform micro-foam throughout the pitcher.
- Knock the pitcher against the table top to pop any large bubbles. Don’t be afraid to really give it a good whack. Next, go nuts and swirl the pitcher around to really mix the content up. Start your pour at the front, and work your way around the back, then bring the pitcher spout toward the front with a back and forth sweeping motion. Pouring a cappuccino is an art in itself, so get creative.
- Clean up. Coffee leaves behind oils that will build up in the group head and portafilter. It’s important to clean that goo out, so you must run the machine and wipe it up good. The steam wand will also create a build-up of milk froth, which is gross, so wipe that up as well.
That was great. And healthy. Now take a deep breathe, hold it, release. We’re almost home.
Imagine the depth of winter. It’s freezing, snowing, and people are dying in the street. This is the day everyone decides they need Starbucks. You may feel like a loser writing everything down, but you must. You have to. It’s less about getting the order right and more about you having to do less work. No mistakes means you’re not going back outside, and if life on Earth is about anything, it’s about doing the least amount of work possible. That’s the secret, and now you know it. Come up with a secret coffee shorthand language if necessary, but write down everything. It’s the only way to turn the tables on these freaks.
Starbucks and the Basics
Sizes in real-people terms
Tall: a small 12-oz. cup.
Grande: a medium 16-oz. cup.
Venti: (which means “twenty” in Italian) a large 20-oz. cup.
How to order a regular drip coffee:
You need to keep in mind that when people say “regular coffee,” there is always some sort of specification. Find out if they want a bold or mild brew, and if they take milk or cream. There is an assortment of milks that vary from half-and-half and non-fat to whole and soy. If the bossman says “light,” you know to add a lot of milk. Ask what kind of sugar they take: raw sugar (brown non-granulated sugar), white granulated sugar, Splenda, Equal, or Sweet & Low. Be sure to ask how much they would like in their drink, then grab extra packets so they can add more.
A latte means “milk.” When ordering it hot, the drink is composed of steamed milk, espresso, and a dollop of light foam on top. When iced, it combines milk, espresso, and ice.
A cappuccino is similar to a latte because it has the same ingredients. However, the main difference is that there is much less steamed milk and much more foam. A cappuccino makes for a stronger espresso drink because the foam doesn’t absorb the shots so the caffeine is not diluted.
A macchiato really means “espresso stain” or “marked with milk.” In layman’s terms, it means the espresso shots rest on top of steamed milk and foam as opposed to a latte and cappuccino where the espresso shots are poured in first. If you really want to piss the barista off, ask for an espresso with milk. Just do it. Do it every time.
A café Americano only combines espresso shots and water.
Other popular Starbucks nonsensical coffee terms include misto, which is half coffee and half steamed milk; solo, which is one shot of espresso; doppio, two shots of espresso; triple, three shots; and quad, four shots. No one will ever ask you for just a coffee with a little sugar.
Featured photographer: Blake SinclairBack to list