Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Frothing Holes and Carriage Returns


It has come to my attention that the problem seems to be that my Barista machine lacks a frothing hole. I know. I thought the same thing when I first heard that term. Frothing hole. Sounds dirty, like ‘glory hole’, or some other pseudo-sexual reference. Actually, like anyone who truly relishes a good cup of espresso, having just the right consistency of dense, creamy foam is tantamount to a junkie’s fresh needle.

Let us backtrack. It is the 1980s, and I have purchased a little electric espresso machine, along with a set of little black espresso cups and saucers. They look like the kind little girls would use in their playhouse tea party. I didn’t know it then – for years, really, – that espresso machines weren’t supposed to blast hot steam through the cup of finely ground coffee, just hot water. That must explain why my coffee tasted burnt. And forget frothed milk. Let us just say that we made do with black, burnt espresso with lots of sugar.

Fast forward to just a few years ago, when I broke down and decided to spend the money on a ‘real’ espresso machine, a Starbucks Barista. I know, I know. Corporate coffee. I’ve heard it all before. The famous brand with the mermaid logo isn’t my favorite coffee shop; I have several local shops that fill that description nicely, thank you. I am reminded of a nine-month business assignment I spent in the Portland, Oregon area, and heard the moniker ‘corporate coffee’ espoused repeatedly in reference to Starbucks. What’s funny is these same critics, when challenged with ‘okay, what’s your favorite coffee shop,’ would indicate Seattle’s Best. Or Pete’s. Um, they’re corporations, too, right? In fact, it could be argued that anyone who claims a corporate chain coffee shop to be his or her favorite has never taken the time to discover the magic of a locally owned espresso house. It would be like taking out-of-town company to Denny’s for dinner. Oh, wait, that sounds like my family. Never mind.

But I still didn’t get the hang of frothing mild on the new Barista machine; I would just microwave milk, dump it into the espresso and claim ‘I don’t like lots of foam anyway.’ Then, about a month ago, we made a Sunday morning visit to a community arts outreach program called ‘The Filling Station,’ a former gas station on the original alignment of old Route 66, in Albuquerque’s Hispanic south valley, where there is found a Sunday morning music and poetry concert called ‘The Church of Beethoven.’ It was there that I tasted a really genuine cup of espresso, technically a machiatto, with a dollop of frothed milk mixed with espresso. The closest thing I had tasted was in Rome, Italy, back in the late 1990s. So, armed with a fresh reminder of my Roman coffee experience, I decided that I needed to master the art of frothing milk. Naturally, I looked at that most useful of information resources, the Internet, where I found a helpful tutorial on frothing milk.

The key, I found out, was not the fat content of the milk. I had been repeatedly told that low fat milk makes a better froth, but now I’ve found out that, although low fat milk froths easier, it doesn’t taste better. The hearty froth of whole milk foam is decidedly more satisfying. No, the secret I’ve learned is that the milk, and frothing pitcher, must be cold. The colder the better. That, plus you’ve got to work at it. It’s an art form, a skill that’s developed through practice.

As I sit down to type up this note (yes, you read correctly: type, as in Royal Mercury manual portable typewriter; there’s also my Underwood Universal manual, but I digress.) As I write this, I am drinking a delicious cup of espresso with rich, dense, finely frothed foam, the kind I would expect to find at The Church of Beethoven, served by The Espresso Artists. And I made this myself, frothed milk and all. As this pitcher of rich, dense foam – the kind that pours right out of the pitcher, not like a wimpy layer of suds floating on thin milk, that needs to be spooned out – rested in my left hand, ready to be poured into my china espresso cup, I realized that it’s only a short step along the learning curve to being able to pour out the frothed milk in decorative, artistic patterns – leafs, hearts, swirls – like a ‘real’ Barista.

I know. This is not revolutionary news, the fact that another person has discovered how to froth foam on a Barista machine. I must be, oh, the ten millionth, maybe twenty millionth, person this year. But it’s a personal victory of sorts. I know. Pathetic.

Back to the frothing hole. You see, all the ‘real’ espresso machines are supposed to have one on the end of the steaming wand. Its purpose is to induct air into the milk, along with the hot steam, the action of which helps to create the foaming action. The problem is that my Barista machine’s wand had no frothing hole. So I figured out the correct combination of wand depth and steam volume, through trial and error and many flat cups of warm milk, and viola, great foam. Well, at least this time. It remains to be seen if I can replicate today’s success on a consistent basis.

And if I do succeed in learning the art of the Barista, I will report back here. Probably using the Underwood Universal, instead.

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~Joe

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