Words from my heart
Here’s an assignment from my Fall 2013 journalism class . . . enjoy.
A latte is a latte is a latte, right? And all baristas follow the same process, right? They fill a small silver pitcher with milk, steam it, and then pour the frothed milk into a cup of espresso. Easy, right?
Wrong. SO wrong. I never knew milk could be so finicky. I never knew there were so many variables when steaming milk, like time and temperature and placement of the steam wand. When the variables coincide, you have richer, sweeter milk. But it takes a barista who cares about their craft to make a latte truly sweet.
I now know that lattes created with loving kindness are heaven-sent creations (oh, goodness—I’m choking up). My sentimental understanding came only after I demanded to know why, WHY did I keep getting so much foam in my lattes when I ordered “no foam, no room”? Last week’s Venti felt suspiciously light as I lifted it from the counter, so I decided to do a little experiment. How much foam could I scoop? Two inches! I scooped two inches of foam from my 20 ounce cup, leaving 12 ounces of liquid—the size of a Tall, Starbucks’ smallest option. Oh, except for the 8 ounce Short, but who orders that? Nobody I know.
What was up with the foam? Deep in my gut I knew—something scientific was possessing the milk during the steaming process, even though my husband’s theory had something to do with God and Murphy conspiring to teach me a lesson about my unreasonably high customer-service standards. To debunk my husband’s theory and put the blame on science, I threw on my lab coat and safety goggles, and drove madly to a latte laboratory in Old Town Clovis.
The minute I entered Kuppa Joy Coffee House, the lovely aroma of coffee wafted toward my olfactory bulb (remember, we’re talking science). My nerves took a big deep breath . . . then slowly exhaled . . . ahhhhhh. I bet the University of California would have loved to use me in their study on the calming effects of caffeine.
There, at Kuppa Joy, I met with Barista Nick. The bespectacled, beanie-topped young man had graciously agreed to demystify the art of latte making for me. He first explained that the bean is most important, and that the process of espresso extraction is temperamental. Then came the topic of milk. “Milk is its own creature—there’s a science to steaming,” Nick said. “AHA! I KNEW IT,” I said. Nick smiled kindly and continued the lesson.
In simple terms, milk + steam (gently introduced to milk by a caring barista) = microfoam, a velvety liquid that looks like wet paint when the variables coincide. And to my surprise, nonfat milk makes more foam than whole milk. Wouldn’t you know it? I had been sabotaging my lattes all this time by requesting nonfat milk. Lesson humbly learned.
I also learned a sad truth. As one online source put it, “Not everybody is good at foaming milk. There are a lot of lazy baristas who simply do not follow the rules and frankly don’t care about what they are serving their guests.” That truth delves into the science of people, and may explain a few of my over-foamed lattes. But Nick cares, and our time together ended with Nick creating a beautiful rosetta leaf by “free pouring” microfoam into an espresso cup. “It’s all in the wrist,” he said.
And Barista Kim from Charlotte’s Corner cares. “I know that people’s coffee is important. For most people it begins their morning and if they have a bad coffee, they have a bad morning.” Kim wants to do her best to make sure that doesn’t happen when she’s behind the counter, “especially when stressed-out students and professors visit every day . . . I love my job.” OK, Kim, don’t make me cry (clearly, I have developed a soft spot for baristas).
When I chatted with Monica, another thoughtful Charlotte’s Corner barista, she simply asked, “What is it that you don’t like about foam?” Excellent question Monica, excellent question.
Please hand me my lab coat and goggles.