Wake Up and Smell the Espresso

Share

I live just off the corner of Queen Street and High, smack in the center of Chestertown’s historic district. On the surface, it’s a marvelous place to have a home. Brick sidewalks, lovely architecture, and great heaps of colonial charm. But then there’s Evergrain Bread Company, and the fact that my bedroom window lies about 20 feet from its ovens.

Life was good until Doug (the Baker) Rae came to town. I was content with my store-bought bread. Packed with preservatives, it could sit on the counter for weeks and never grow old. But then Doug showed up, and I discovered what real bread tastes like. I suddenly understood the meaning of quality, and the Pandora’s Box of my inner gourmet was forever opened.

Now Doug the Baker is at it again. Having ruined me forever on the baked goods front, he is waging a war on my pedestrian coffee tastes. The coup de grace of his current campaign: his new espresso bar, home to the gleaming, Italian-born La Marzocco. Easily mistaken for a work of art (or a spaceship of some sort) it is a state-of-the-art espresso machine, hand-made in Italy and lovingly crafted to serve the needs of the specialty coffee barista.

Doug does nothing halfway. He demands quality and breathes it. In choosing ingredients, crafting recipes, and selecting equipment, his only concern is for the finished product—that it be superior in every way.

To that end, Doug feeds the La Marzocco a steady diet of Cuvée espresso beans, carefully selected from premium growers throughout Central America, thoughtfully blended and delicately roasted to produce the perfect espresso shot.

Making espresso and the related drinks is an art—a balance of technique and timing, intuition and charisma. The barista not only creates a product, he is the product. Beyond crafting a beverage, he is curating an experience.

To ensure Evergrain’s espresso program would meet his high standards, Doug flew in Lorenzo Perkins, the nation’s fifth-ranked barista, for a 24-hour bootcamp immersion in the chemistry, production, and tradition of making espresso and the related drinks.

A walking encyclopedia of all things coffee, Lorenzo took us on a cross-disciplinary tour of the science, history, and culture of espresso. When it came to demonstrating technique, he operated the machinery with the clear-eyed confidence of a trained assassin and the precision of a heart surgeon.

Doug took it all in.

When he finished his demonstration, Lorenzo handed me a cappuccino, explaining that, unlike Starbucks, where coffee drinks are served ultra-hot, traditional espresso drinks are served ready to drink, on the spot.

I consider myself a simple guy with simple tastes. I enjoy a cup of coffee now and then, but I’ve never gone in for blended drinks. Still, to be polite, I took a sip of Lorenzo’s cappuccino, with admittedly low expectations.

The verdict?

It was good. It was so very, very good.

I must admit, I got a little emotional.

The next day, Lorenzo left town, and Doug got down to business, practicing his skills, honing his techniques, and perfecting each of the drinks on his menu.

A few days later, I went back to Evergrain to see how Doug was doing. He offered to make me a cappucino. I did not refuse.

Inspired by Lorenzo’s magnificent creation, I decided to take note of the steps involved. For something that seems so simple, the process is remarkably complex.

First, Doug placed the portafilter (literally “portable filter”) into the “swift grinder,” also made by La Marzocco.

The grinder “doses” (dispenses) exactly 18 grams of ground espresso and then tamps it down to exactly 30 pounds per square inch of pressure. Doug tells me that the degree of grind has already been determined based on a variety of factors that include the day’s temperature and humidity. No kidding.

Once the ground espresso had been dosed, Doug wiped down the portafilter to ensure a tight seal for the next step.

Next, Doug placed the portafilter in the “group head,” which is the individual brewing mechanism.

The La Marzocco has two boilers, one for brewing the espresso and another for steaming milk. The distinction is critical. Many lesser espresso machines have only one boiler, which means either the espresso or milk will be heated at the wrong temperature. Doug the Baker won’t tolerate such nonsense. Hence, the La Marzocco. Hence, your cappuccino tastes really good.

But I digress. The next step is to brew the espresso.

As soon as Doug flips the brew switch, a timer begins.

The machine is entirely manual, which means it is up to the barista to determine how long to brew a given shot. The general range is 20-30 seconds, but the exact timing depends on a variety of factors: aroma, color, and amount and substance of “crema,” the light brown foam that appears atop a shot as it is brewed.

The capable barista will consistently pull an espresso shot that weighs in at exactly 28 grams without being watery. The ultimate goal is absolute uniformity in shots. To achieve this, the barista pulls test shots and weighs them three times a day, making subtle adjustments to the grind and the timing of the brew.

Once the shot was pulled, Doug poured a quantity of milk into a stainless steel pitcher and placed it under the “steam wand,” resting the wand’s nozzle just below the surface of the milk to create foam.

Doug steamed the milk to 100 degrees Fahrenheit—not using a thermometer, mind you; part of the barista’s gift is to be able to do these things by feel (since the body temperature is 98.6, the barista knows the milk has reached 100 degrees when he can no longer distinguish between the temperature of his hand and the pitcher).

In order to ensure small and uniform bubbles, the foam must be created in the 5-10 second window before the milk reaches 100 degrees. Beyond that point, the barista submerges the wand and foam production ceases. The point at this stage is to heat the milk to no more than 155 degrees, which, to the barista, is the point at which the pitcher gets too hot to hold. If the milk overheats, its natural sweetness will be lost.

The milk in question is courtesy of the grass fed cows of Trickling Springs Dairy in Chambersburg, PA.

The grass adds an inherent sweetness to the milk that makes it so you don’t even have to add sugar. In case you are wondering, Evergrain sells this liquid gold by the half gallon.

After steaming the milk, Doug tapped the pitcher two or three times against the counter.

This “shocking” of the milk ruptures any larger (and unwelcome) bubbles that my have developed during the steaming process. He then swirled the liquid in the pitcher, mixing the layer of foam with the milk underneath to create a uniform consistency similar to the “soft peak” stage of meringue production.

Doug then tipped the espresso mug and began “the pour,” during which he laid a base of milk in the center of the espresso shot, pushing the crema to the outer edge of the cup.

This differentiation creates a first sip that offers a sample of the drink’s various components —the fruit-forward earthiness of the crema followed by the cool sweetness of the steamed milk.

To finish, he “pushed” the remaining foam into the drink to create a top layer. With careful, subtle motions, he blended of the two components (crema and milk) into a beautiful design.

Once more, the line was blurred between craft and art, between beverage and object of beauty.

Finally, Doug wiped down the steam wand (to keep residue from this drink from impacting the flavor of the next).

Then he washed his pitcher in the special rinser built into his countertop.

Constant cleanup is part of the barista’s ritual.But once it was done, we took a moment to enjoy the fruits of Doug’s labors.

I was curious to see how Doug’s cappuccino would match up to Lorenzo’s.

If it was awful, I thought to myself, might I have to fake enthusiasm for the sake of Doug’s feelings?

I needn’t have worried.

Once again, my gustatory bliss gave way to pure affection.

He’s a quick study, Doug the Baker.

Lorenzo will be returning in three weeks to check in on Doug and the state of the espresso program.

Between now and then, I intend to stop by Evergrain every few hours or so and give my favorite baker/barista plenty of opportunities to hone his skills.

I suggest you do the same.

Letters to Editor

  1. Carla Massoni says

    Lovely! Matthew you are a superb storyteller!! Doug – you are the MAN!!!

  2. Stokes Tomlin says

    A great story thanks I’m looking forward to trying it myself!

  3. Shari Keen says

    This is a great post……both the narrative and pictures. Just another reason to make me happy I live around the corner from Evergrain……if only I can resist the sunbuns.

  4. Ed Plaisance says

    Have been waiting for this day since I first tried Doug’s croissants…it was the only thing missing!

  5. I had no idea it was such an art! Brilliant presentation, I’ll be there soon!

  6. Patricia Pfeiffer says

    Had my first, ever, Nutella Latte last night …need I say more? MAGNIFIQUE, Doug !

  7. Hi Matthew,

    I am so pleased with how well you crafted this story. Concise, poetic, beautiful! I just came back to Evergrain this week to follow up with Doug and I was so pleased with everything. He is crafting drinks of the highest caliber, consistency, and service. So often after a training session like we held, the information overload overwhelms the student. Not Doug, he took it all in, digested it, and embodies it. I am proud to have our bags of coffee in his grinder. Now, everyone go have an amazing cappuccino from a dedicated craftsman!

    Lorenzo

  8. I had my first latte today at Evergrain. For a moment I thought I was in Europe. So authentic, amazing! Many thanks for investing in this incredible machine, Doug. I will spread the word. Laura Wade

Trackbacks

  1. […] Not only are we wildly excited about hosting the type-in and letter writing social, but it’s going to be a First Friday event, which means there will be lots of people meandering downtown looking for interesting things to do.  They might not yet know that they are letter writers or typewriter aficionados, but we’re going to give them a chance to discover it.   Added bonus: we’re staging Type-In Type-Out at Evergrain Bread Company, which fully deserves the Best Bread on the Eastern Shore award it recently won and is home to a brand-new shiny espresso machine. […]

Write a Letter to the Editor on this Article

We encourage readers to offer their point of view on this article by submitting the following form. Editing is sometimes necessary and is done at the discretion of the editorial staff.
×
We're glad you're enjoying The Chestertown Spy.

Sign up for the the free email blast to see what's new in the Spy. It's delivered right to your inbox at 3PM sharp.

Sign up here.
×