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The Quest for a Perfect Espresso

A few tips

At this point in time Seattle is definitely the espresso capital of the United States and probably the latte capital of the world, although the entire Pacific Coast is quickly catching up. In Seattle there is an espresso stand or cart on every corner, and if you're not near a corner you can get an espresso at any decent grocery store, hairdressing salon, or auto parts dealer. There are several drive-through espresso stands around town, and most movie theaters have espresso counters.

Why Seattle has been the espresso center of the universe for the past few years is debatable. It could be related to the fact that there seems to be one Italian restaurant for every two persons. An acquaintance of ours who's lived here for a long time believes that Seattleites are unanimously addicted to caffeine because the sky is gray for much of the year, and this causes their metabolisms to slow down. Therefore, drinking lots of espresso is the only way they can keep their blood pressures and adrenaline levels up to normal. Getting a good espresso, cappuccino, or latte can be difficult when you are looking for something specific. These drinks take a bit of time and love to make. When one thinks about how many people drink coffee, one can begin to understand why there are so many espresso carts, shops, and bars in Seattle. The challenge is finding the best place to go.

The big question in my mind is not why Seattleites drink so much espresso. It's why they drink so many lattes. A latte can be a pleasant espresso experience, consisting of a properly-tamped shot of espresso mixed with a conservative amount of steamed milk and capped with a half inch of soft milk foam, but often it can be a glass-of-warm-milk-with-a-slight-beige-tinge fiasco. (This is fine if you're in the mood for a glass of warm milk, of course, but it's just not what I'd consider to be an espresso drink.) Sometimes I think the typical latte has the same purpose as white wine or light beer: it's for people who don't really like espresso.

Before I go any further I should explain some of the drinks one can order at an espresso bar. A regular unadorned espresso is always available and, of course, always the cheapest and quickest way to get a midday lift. I often order an espresso macchiato which, depending on where you get it, is either a miniature latte or cappuccino or else an espresso with a tiny dollop of milk foam riding on top through which you can sip your espresso. It's actually quite a sensible espresso drink, in my opinion. I also enjoy a latte puné, which is a mini-latte with a full shot of espresso: very civilized. (Unfortunately there's only one place in town, Uptown Espresso, that serves these.) Then there's your latte, previously described. And then there's the mocha, ordered by people who like sweet drinks and who can't stay away from chocolate. My personal favorite is a cappuccino, but it's a real challenge to find a decent cappuccino in Seattle. Some places will make their cappuccinos way too wet, or exactly like a latte -- or, if it's exactly like a badlatte, then it's your basic cup of warm milk. Other places will make their cappuccinos very dry, but then they'll serve them in a tall mug or paper cup with a mile of impenetrable milk foam on top, and you can never find a spoon or machete when you need one.

All of the aforementioned espresso drinks can be ordered single or double (with two shots of espresso). In some of the sleepier parts of town you can get a triple or even a quadruple. Be sure to read the menus, because many places serve double shots as the default. These are usually ristretto shots which are shorter and more concentrated. If you get any espresso drink with milk you can order it short, tall, or grande which, if you've ever ordered a cocktail in a bar before, you'll know refers to the amount of filler or, in this case, milk added. A third variable to confuse things is the type of milk you'd like. The default cappuccino or latte is made with whole milk, but most places offer you a choice of whole or 2%. And a latte made with nonfat milk, which another friend claims creates a thicker head, is called a skinny latte. You may also order any of your espresso drinks decaffeinated if you're so inclined, although at that point I'd suggest you step back and let the real coffee drinkers through. At one espresso place Max actually heard a gentleman order a "double tall 2% half-decaf". Think about that for a minute...

Before I expound any further on life, the universe, and espresso, I'd like to mention some of the points that Dr. Ernesto Illy, the 70-year-old "Dottore Espresso" of Italy, has made on the subject. Illy, a multilingual scientist, scholar, and inventor, is from a family which has been in the Italian coffee business for three generations. In other words, this guy knows his stuff. First of all he says that the grind is extremely important: if the coffee is ground too coarse it will produce a weak, bitter cup, and if it's ground too fine, not enough flavor will be extracted. He also stresses that tamping is critical, that thirty seconds is the proper draw time for one shot, and that "hard" water makes the best coffee. The recipe for a cappuccino is one shot coffee, one shot milk, and one shot foam, with the temperature of the milk and foam being very important. And the method used to steam milk is very important, too. Dr. Illy complains that the local baristas don't understand about bringing air in with the steam so they don't scald the milk.

Basically, what he's saying is that Seattle is full of enthusiastic but ignorant espresso vendors and baristas. There are a lot of ignorant espresso drinkers, too, who don't realize they could be drinking a much finer drink than they've grown accustomed to. Max and I are still quite ignorant ourselves, but we strive constantly to further our espresso education. When we first moved to Seattle in 1990, not only did we consider Starbucks to be the best place in Seattle to get an espresso, but we would always get a latte like everybody else. Ah, but I was young and green back then, just like a coffee bean on the vine. Since then I have become a true espresso snob and have learned a few enigmatic secrets about getting the perfect espresso drink that you require if you're picky about your espresso like me. (If you're not too fussy and you're getting bored, then you can take this link back to the Double Shot Buzz page. Otherwise, listen carefully!)

First of all, if you want to get a decent latte or cappuccino, avoid places that operate like Starbucks and SBC. The problem with these places is that it's next to impossible to order a customized drink, because you give your order to a cashier who then gives it to the barista. Phrased like "with LOTS AND LOTS of room" will undoubtedly get translated to "with room", "fairly dry" will be translated to "dry as a bone", and words like "foamy" or "half full" will undoubtedly become lost in the translation. It's a good feeling to be able to talk directly to your barista. And, if she or he is a decent barista, she or he will happily customize your order to your specifications. When hundreds of downtown zombie workers invade the local espresso stand every morning and order single tall mochas without foam, it becomes very helpful if you can be explicit about the drink you're ordering. Also, every barista is different, and if you have enough time in Seattle to get to know any of them, you can trust that you'll get the drink you want every time. When I used to drink single lattes -- before I went hardcore and became dependent on my daily double dry cappuccino fix -- my own specifications would vary, depending on the barista, from "a single short latte with lots of room" through "a single short foamy half full." As a rule, however, I found that "single short foamy" works pretty good most of the time. Basically, if you like your latte with foamed milk instead of just hot milk, you can ask for it foamy or with foam; if you like your cappuccino with a thick head of foam and no steamed milk, you can ask for it dry; and if you don't want your cup filled up to the brim, you can simply say with room.

Even if you get the perfect amount and ratio of steamed milk, foamed milk, and espresso in your latte or cappuccino, there is one other factor that can ruin the drink: tamping. If the espresso isn't tamped firmly enough into the filter, you're going to get a wimpy watery shot; on the other hand, if it is tamped firmly enough, you're more likely to get a wonderfully heady shot with that kick of aroma that can knock your socks off like a fine red wine or French perfume. I hate to discriminate against small wimpy baristas, but if they aren't putting at least some energy into tamping your shot, expect to be disappointed. I'm always excited when I try a new barista who looks as if she or he has a lot of muscle power in her or his arms. Like I said, I hate to be discriminatory and sound like some sort of espresso fascist, but if you can't tamp your shots hard enough, you simply shouldn't be in the business. That's all there is to it.

It may sound strange, but you can end up with an espresso which is actually too hot to drink. This doesn't happen very often in popular coffeehouses within the city of Seattle; but whenever I find myself in the hinterlands and order a cappuccino in desperation from a questionable espresso cart, it seems like half the time I end up with a drink which is impossible to drink. Sure, you want your coffee hot; that's why they call it hot coffee instead of iced coffee. But if it's as hot as the inside of Mount Rainier you're going to get a nasty burn with your first sip. And even if you wait for it to cool off, chances are the flavor will be sacrificed. You can actually kill a cup of espresso by brewing it too hot, and that's a mighty cruel thing.

There's one other factor to weigh in your quest for the perfect espresso. If your desire is to lounge a bit in a coffeehouse and drink your cappuccino or latte out of something other than a cardboard cup with a plastic lid on it, I've got one simple but valuable piece of advice: notice first what kind of cups they use. If they seem to be serving everything in tall mugs or in pint glasses, turn around and walk out discreetly. If, on the other hand, they appear to be well supplied with nice china cups and saucers, then this is the place to sit down and enjoy your espresso. Ideally they'll have several different sizes of cups, the largest being for lattes and the smallest being for straight shots. If you see a particular cup size you like, don't be afraid to ask for your drink in that cup. After all, drinking espresso is a pleasurable and mildly expensive vice, so you want to do it right.