June 06, 2023   8:29am

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It’s finally out there — coffee really is a drug. Acknowledging that, can we also accept that coffee users are on their way to becoming as discriminating as wine drinkers?xxx

A couple of weeks ago a young man I respect from Los Angeles mentioned to me that these coffee bars were springing up all over LA (yes, way beyond Starbucks) where enthusiasts were taking themselves as seriously as a sommelier. I made a snide comment about west coast pretension, and, then, picked up The New York Times to see an article (“Do I Detect a Hint of … Joe?”)* that described the coffee “whimsy” that seems to be infiltrating New York City and how “a group crowded around a barista, as if they were graduate students and she were a professor.”

As I paused to think about it, this did make sense — particularly to an avid coffee drinker like me > dare we use the word “addiction” (yes, of course, June 9, New York Magazine “How to Maximize Your Caffeine High**). I do sniff those beans to be sure they’re fresh; search for perfection via mail order in out-of-the-city places; travel with a Melitta one-cup accompanied by my own coffee (just in case theirs is bad); get miffed when my coffee’s not up to what I expected, and … well …

So, when my part-time assistant told me that she’s now working as a barista, I leapt on that pretty quickly. She’s learning all the tricks of the trade … she could share that with me … and … with you. Here’s her “inside dope”:

The Coffee
I’m now in week three of working at Sweet Leaf, the newest third-wave coffee shop addition to New York City. We’re using Williamsburg’s Gimme! coffee for espresso and brew (and are also serving a plethora of imported loose leaf teas — a whole other story). Before the store opened we spent a few weeks training (i.e. 15-20 page readings on the trajectory from bean to cup PLUS hours of practice grinding, tamping, weighing, pouring, tasting, cleaning, and beginning again). Here are just some of the things you should know:

  • The grinder ought to be at least 2/3 full of beans otherwise your shot will taste acidic.
  • The espresso beans are ground just seconds before the shot is pulled, as pre-ground coffee loses its life and spirit and ultimately 100% of its quality and taste. Therefore, the grinds released for each shot must be completely emptied before going to make another or the shot will taste bitter.
  • The tamped shot pre-pour must weigh an exact amount — I spent hours weighing my shots in order to learn the feel and look of 21 grams of ground espresso.
  • No shot should run faster than 28 seconds or longer that 35. If it does, you have to adjust the machine to a finer or coarser grind setting.
  • Water pressure and temperature must be exact in order to create the perfect shot. Additionally, the portafilter (what the grinds fall into and the water pours through) must be kept in the machine at all times when not being used to maintain a high temperature.
  • Beans should be locked in air-tight containers overnight and thrown out if not used within 10 days.

Next week, I’ll go into The Milk, The Pour and The Barista — important for that “perfect” cappuccino and irresistible latte.

Is Coffee the New Wine?
If I thought my new job would provide a singular, do-it-in-your-sleep way to earn money, I was wrong. Baristas must be alert, conscious of various factors, and above all passionate about every detail in order to be successful. I could go on forever, but instead I will quote our menu on two occasions: “Espresso is to coffee what wine is to grapes.” We also make a promise to help you “Discover coffee at its fullest expression thoughtfully cared for from seed to cup.” I can only hope that in addition to fulfilling that promise, everyone everywhere has an opportunity to make this discovery.

Is coffee the new wine? You should read all the links referenced in this article, look out for Part 2 of our “The Ultimate Coffee Fix” and, then, you decide.

And, snoety readers, now you know what to watch for the next time you order that elusive cup of “perfect” coffee … (and at least some of the reasons to get upset when it isn’t) …


The New York Times, “Do I Detect a Hint of … Joe?“by Hannah Wallace, Thursday, May 29, 2008, pg G6

New York Magazine, “The Coffee Junkie’s Guide to Caffeine Addiction” by Mark Adams, June 9, 2008, pg 46


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