Got Silk?

by Ron Porter

The Northwest is a place of rain, trees, mountains, and incredible coffee. This I remember as I sit in Jacksonville, Florida, sipping on a burnt-tasting latte. As far as I can see, there is only a flat, treeless landscape covered in asphalt -- a landscape where people drive everywhere, even to get coffee, unlike Seattle, where walking was part of the pleasure. I feel a bit stupid when I drive across town here, herded along by prowl cars, school buses, and SUV's, just to sit in a coffee shop.

Having returned to work in the south after my two year stint in Seattle, I have found it difficult to continue my love of an espresso. Coffee in Seattle was a lifestyle. My wife and I spent an average of five dollars a day on coffee -- to spend less than two hundred a month for espressos was unusual. Now I buy whole coffee beans and grind it myself, serving it up with my inexpensive Proctor Silex coffee maker. But I long for a double short rosetta latte, with the texture like silk against my tongue, and its temperature no more than 150 degrees, well below the boiling point of pure water -- this makes it suitable to taste, unlike the burnt-milk latte I am now sipping.

I stood at the counter earlier and asked for a double short. The young lady behind the counter said, "You mean you want it in this little cup?" I said, "Yes," and I watched as she filled her porta-filter from an already very full coffee hopper. (I literally cringed at the thought that my coffee was not ground per order!) Behind me, someone ordered a mocha. I walked around the corner, expecting my drink, but I saw no sign of it. She had pulled the shot. I saw her tamp the coffee, but now she was pouring syrup into a cup and packing a new porta-filter. Then I heard that ruinous sound of milk being shorn of texture, and I thought of the horror she was enacting by ignoring what she was doing. She looked around like a distraught woman out of touch with reality. She shouldn't have been back there making espresso beverages for corporate America -- instead, she needed to employ her time with a smaller operation, where perhaps someone would school her in the finer art of pulling a halfway decent espresso. Sliding the latte across the counter, she said: "Shall I double cup it?" (She wouldn't have to were it under 150 degrees!)

I spent my first year in Seattle totally in the dark as to what a good latte should taste like. But everything changed in my second year, when I became general manager for a small cafe that roasted its own coffee on the premises. My first week at The Bean was troubling, because I was the manager, yet I could not even begin to approach making a latte that rose above the cup and held the imprint of a leaf.

I was forced to admit that what I had made in the past was not a latte at all (over-frothed milk turned bubbly does not constitute a latte!). My initiation into the art of espresso began when I stepped behind the counter and was asked to make a latte. "Sure," I said to the customer, as I fumbled at pouring the milk. I must have looked the fool, because the barista manager took over: "Here, here's how you do it," she explained. "Begin with the grind. A coffee bean that is ground into tens of thousands of pieces has multiplied its exposed surface area. Thus the need to keep the bean intact. Once it has been ground, the exposed pieces come in contact with air, oxidizing the shards like a bag of left-open chips. Stale is a taste that can be avoided."

She continued in this matter of fact way. "This is the way. Listen carefully. You begin with freshness. Coffee must be fresh. That's why we roast it here. The oils are intact, sealed in by fire. Literally sealed by fire. Roasted and blended by the master roaster. We are looking for a twenty-five second extraction time. My grind is important, because atmospheric pressures can alter the elapsed time of extraction. So one has to adjust the grind accordingly. But, also, I have to be mindful of my tamping pressure. It must be uniformly firm. If unevenly packed, a runoff can occur where the shot streams out. Overly packed and it drips out. To discern the right degree of applied pressure requires pulling thousands of shots. You work on the line any given morning, you'll learn. You just have to feel your work."

I found it difficult to trust myself under the strict scrutiny of the ever-watchful customer. Diffident and confused, I tried again. This time I made it up to the point where my milk canister was literally foaming over the top.

"No. No. No," the barista manager said. "Begin with the milk. Fold it in. You'll learn. Just be patient with yourself. There are a lot of steps to put into your body memory. There must be a proper pace and order. Did you say double short?" she asked the customer. "Good, I'll demonstrate. You flip the grind switch while you pour the milk. Then you dose, tamp and lock the porta-filter in place. Simultaneous actions. You start the beginning of that first elongated drip of espresso with the steamer wand at the top of the milk. A few moments to stretch the milk, then you allow the milk to whorl until you feel the tin warming. Immediately you shut off the steam."

One would be hard-pressed to find a coffee house in the Southeast with a barista who can pour a rosetta latte like she could. Good espresso is related to cuisine, because it involves texture as well as complexity of flavors. An espresso beverage has as much leverage as a glass of wine or a finely wrought meal. We must demand that when we order a latte, it is discernible from a cappuccino. I have witnessed people in corporate coffee shops scalding milk from a large canister and pouring the twice-used milk into my espresso, while holding back the foam with a spoon and then dolloping a bit of foam across the top. In some circles this is a latte. Terms do differ -- if a distinction is made, it could be that there are two discernible types of lattes. The first being the sort that is served most often, wherein milk is frothed up like for a cappuccino and then poured over espresso. The other is intrinsic to Seattle, wherein milk is carefully handled, and the steamer wand transforms the milk into a thick chiffon that feels like silk on the tongue.

I also find fault with the whole idea of serving something mediocre in an environment more suited to a Kafkaesque world inhabited by bureaucrats. In order for coffee to work, people have to be on the go, in combination with people who want to linger. It's considered a normal routine, in Italy, to order an espresso. In Seattle, under overcast skies, feeling that bite of affliction that Kurt Cobain immortalized, I choose instead a jolt of java.

Coffee terms can be compared with wine terms. When we speak of wine varietals, we refer to the grape, like chardonnay or cabernet sauvignon. Coffee varietals refer to where the bean is from, like Columbian or Sumatran. Coffee, like wine, is often a blend. One must play with this newfound love, and take note of regional differences that make for the complexity of two contrasting flavors that meld into a nod of satisfaction. With wine, the blended flavor is often fruit balanced by a dry aftertaste -- with coffee, it is often bitterness softened by a sweet aftertaste.

When making a rosetta latte, the milk must be poured per order and the coffee beans must be ground per order. It's important to set down prescribed steps and follow them. While the coffee is grinding, pour a predetermined amount of milk into the canister. With the milk tin at hand, dose the proper amount of coffee and tamp it tightly and evenly to insure a uniform surface. Then lock the porta-filter in place and push the on button while watching for that initial thick drip. Before the extraction begins in earnest, start the complex process of texturing the milk, by placing the steamer tip near the top of the milk for stretching. Then, the steamer tip is lowered to cause the milk to whirlpool. At this point, become perfectly still. When the milk reaches 150 degrees or so, stop. Pound the milk canister on the counter to remove any undesirable bubbles. Pour the silken milk into the cup, then begin to shake the canister. At the cup's edge, reverse the direction of the canister and pour through the center for what will become a leaf pattern.

A rosetta latte is a sculptured rendering of a leaf pattern, radiating symmetrically from the center. It is the property of a solid yielding steadily before a constant stress. It is a melding of like properties, two textures merging as one, a complexity only equaled by the complexity of tasting something bittersweet. There is no separation between the coffee and the milk, the milk having been folded gently unto itself by an exacting hand. A slight dome rises above the cup. A leaf pattern is superimposed.

What I get in Jacksonville is technically a cappuccino -- milk frothed at high temperatures by baristas not trained in the subtle art of espresso-making. I ask for a latte. I ask for a cappuccino. I beg of them to show me the difference. The barista will pipe up about levels of milk, but if they are not pulling rosettes, they are merely making money for corporate America.

David C. Schomer, an espresso roasting and preparation specialist, and also the owner of Seattle's coffee house Vivace, says in his book, Espresso Coffee Professional Techniques, "Pouring a beautiful heart or rosetta pattern on your caffe latte or cappuccino is the mark of the gourmet in espresso preparation. Why do I say this? It is because its mastery is only achieved for the personal pleasure of the coffee maker. If you thrill to the beauty of the espresso, the patterns will be yours with time. It is even more true of the espresso. If the passion is not present in your heart for things you eat and drink, you will never master gourmet espresso. It is just too tricky of a cuisine. If you are going into this business because it is the 'hot trend' right now, you go to your own slaughter. And, you deserve your fate. The motivation of getting rich quick, or aggressive national expansion dreams, will always lead you away from the essence of coffee, which is beauty."

One requires minimal skills, the other a fine hand trained towards coffee art. A good cappuccino is foam. A good latte is silk. The frothed milk for a cappuccino sits atop the espresso. The silken milk for a latte is at one with the espresso. Both require milk, the difference is in the handling of the milk by the barista. When you are in downtown Seattle, walk into The Bean, across the street from the Sorrento Hotel, and say, "Double short latte." A shield passes across the face of Shawn Hardison, the barista between the hours of 6 a.m. and 11 a.m.. He will turn his back on you, like Miles Davis playing his trumpet, and don't hazard to give him lip -- he will only mouth off at you and tell you flat-out that he doesn't need you. It's all in the cup. It's what you come for. You will wait, and you will follow the whirling milk being poured from the canister through the flower petals, while a rosette is born.

Even in Seattle, a city with well over five-hundred cafes and coffee carts, one is still hard-pressed to find many baristas trained in the fine art of creating a smooth-tasting latte. Some companies have pushed for national attention by claiming that their espresso is expressive of Seattle. But a McCup of java is geared mostly toward generating revenues for shareholders.

In these uncertain times, in this era of have and have-not, our values have been challenged. It is better that we slow down and find perfection in small things, like bread, coffee, and organic vegetables, and not just be on fire to make a buck, but rather find solace in our work. Is it so hard to uphold a standard? Would it, perhaps, require paying people more money? I believe I could teach anyone to pull a good espresso, though it would require time. Perfection is not the end, but the beginning.

©2001 by Ron Porter

Ron Porter lives in Florida and swims in the ocean most days. He works at his life-ambition, to ply his trade as a carpenter, and is passionate about Henry Miller, classical music, and his three children. He traveled across Europe for two years, and has crossed the U.S at least six times. His fiction has been published in Slow Trains Issue 1.

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