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It's not entirely true, but the best stories don't have to be. But… - John [entries|archive|friends|userinfo]

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[Mar. 1st, 2009|11:59 am]
It's not entirely true, but the best stories don't have to be. But as the story goes, I knew I'd found my home when I moved to Washington, because I could walk into a coffee shop and say "I need some coffee strong enough to wrestle George Foreman for the last porkchop" and they knew what I wanted.

The true part is, they did - generally, a shot in the dark (espresso added to drip coffee), or just the strong house blend of drip coffee, which has more caffeine than a couple shots of espresso. But they reacted like most people would in most parts of the country when confronted by a strange fellow who came in and said something silly to them... they laughed.

But coffee played a role in my decision that I'd found "home" in the Pacific Northwest. It was an icon - a symbol that I could reflect upon that represented something greater.

Even better, my beloved (a name I use for kightp - she remembers why :-) ) found an excellent espresso machine to give me as a gift for my first "real" Christmas up here. I wanted to become a master of espresso, so I studied, and studied, and never really learned.

See, if you surf the web, you'll hear that there's a "golden rule" for espresso. 2-2.5 ounces, in 20-25 seconds, is considered 'just right'. Any less time, there's no full extraction of flavor. Any more, and you'll leach out some of the bitterness that most folks don't want.

Well, there's one thing they won't tell you, because it's too obvious to mention. That can only apply when you have good, freshly roasted coffee. If you don't have really good coffee, then you can't count on any of that applying.

There's more that you need. Try chopping really good coffee up in a blade grinder, and you probably won't get good espresso. You need a good, consistent grind, which requires a burr grinder.

Eventually, I bought a decent grinder (The Baratza Virtuoso, considered by many to be the best $200 grinder you can get), and started getting back into the study of espresso. And that was when it happened.

I took some decent store-bought coffee - Tully's - and ground it too fine, and tamped it a bit too hard. I ran my Gaggia Carezza for 25 seconds, and I had about a half-ounce of this thick, oily, somewhat whipped-looking fluid. I was going to toss it, adjust the grind a bit coarser, and start again, but I decided just to find out what it was like.

And once a tiny dribble hit my tongue, I froze.

And my thought processes went like this.

"Okay, John, you have a choice here. You can pour it out, no harm, no foul. It was just a crazy fluke, it didn't really taste like that. Or... you can drink the rest and you'll be stuck having to chase this down and understand it."

Alas, I drank the rest of it. And yes, I was hooked.

How can i explain it? I think most folks, drinking it, would say "hmm... this is really good. Is it a kind of candy base? It's so intense it seems like it could be... not that it's sugary, or anything. And oh, that flavor... it's like coffee, almost."

Suddenly, people waxing rhapsodical about coffee made sense. It wasn't just the occasionally-bad-tasting fluid that wakes a person up. It was the collection of magical particles that could make this really amazingly wonderful fluid known as "good espresso". (Technically, what I drew would be known as a ristretto shot. Just in case you're ever curious and have an espresso machine and operator able to demonstrate what it is that changed my hobby around.)

And I became obsessed with getting a new, better espresso machine. And soon, I realized that I had to contemplate the Rancilio Silvia. Pretty much everyone agrees that there are better machines than the Silvia, but, none are at, or near, it's price point.

And so, after fending off some teasing from a friend by getting twice the price of a Silvia handed off to the Mid Ohio Food Bank (half my funds, half Microsoft's match of employee donations), I took the plunge and bought one.

And *OH MY GOD* does this make amazing espresso.

I learned the hard way that fresh coffee is much, much better than old coffee, but the only decaf I had was old, and I *had* to play with the Sylvia when I got it home, and I got it home at night. It was "use decaf, or risk not sleeping for the rest of the week." And "the" week might be "next" week, given that this happened on Thursday!

I'm now learning the wonders of steaming milk, and it's going well. I can now make foam for cappuccino that stands up to the 2-3 minutes I have to wait to make the espresso.

(See, once you steam the milk, you have to cool the machine down by drawing water out of it, and then you have to make the espresso. But if you make the espresso first, it takes about three minutes to get the boiler up to steaming temperature. And, if you know your espresso, you don't want to let espresso sit for 3+ minutes before using it in a drink.)

So I'm doing pretty good, but there's stories about something called "microfoam", where the foam and the milk are melded together, and pour together, and you can even make poured art with the brown of the crema and the white of the foam. Now that I'm playing around, I have to figure out how to do that, sooner or later. Probably later... much later :-). ("Much later" being a comment on my clumsiness on physical arts.)

But it also brings up something that I wouldn't have expected... a realization that I really need a bigger local community.

What good is it to have this amazing discovery when you can't call up a half-dozen friends and say "you've *got* to come over for espresso!" :-)

[User Picture]From: wolfette
2009-03-01 06:15 pm (UTC)
if I ever get back to your neck of the woods, you can demonstrate for me :-)
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[User Picture]From: johnpalmer
2009-03-02 04:33 pm (UTC)
I'll be glad to; here's hoping the opportunity arises!
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[User Picture]From: glinda_w
2009-03-01 07:32 pm (UTC)

Bainbridge is just not near enough! :)
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[User Picture]From: johnpalmer
2009-03-02 04:34 pm (UTC)
Not for any-old-day, but maybe someday when you have to cross over anyway... let me know if/when :-).
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(Deleted comment)
[User Picture]From: johnpalmer
2009-03-02 04:35 pm (UTC)
Chuckle. Fair enough; I'll be waiting.
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