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Barista in the Wild, Part 4: A Relationship With Espresso

Note: Serious Eats contributor Allison Hemler is a NYC-based barista who recently traveled to Seattle to check out the internal coffee college at Starbucks HQ. This week, she'll be educating us on tidbits she picked up in class, with today's focus on the espresso.

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A latte poured by a barista at Stumptown Coffee in Portland, Oregon.

Any seasoned barista will tell you what the time before being cleared on an espresso machine is like. You're stuck at the cash register, acting as the interpreter between the customer and the artist behind the La Marzocco who pulls shots, steams milk, and applies a delicate touch to a porcelain cup as it makes its way to a caffeine-starved owner. The barista does a dance with his or her calloused and brown-stained fingers to create the fine art of the handcrafted espresso drink. I remember when it was my time. My trainer, Erin, told me I was fully capable. She watched me pull that perfect 25 second shot and pour my skim cappuccino into a huge heart, the texture reminiscent of Marshmallow Fluff.

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Espresso shots from the Mastrena

Espresso is not all art and perfection. It can be hellish and frustrating when shots change speed at the drop of the hat, causing that delicious dark crema to turn to watery dirt with no warning. It's all part of the relationship with the manual espresso machine. Starbucks either is very smart or taking the easy way out by using all automatic espresso machines. I suppose when you have over 150,000 employees working in stores with such a high turnover rate, the time, effort and maintenance required for a manual machine isn't worth it. Pushing buttons cuts down on hours in training time, leaving employees to study recipes and milk steaming methods.

Starbucks has a fully customizable drink menu which makes the barista not even wince at the venti-caramel-skim-no-foam-macchiatos-with-whip. The newest espresso machine at Starbucks, the Mastrena, will make its way to 75 percent of company-operated stores by the end of 2010. Not only is it better for talking to customers since it's at a lower height--there's no dosing or tamping, and shots are pulled by pressing the "single" or "double" button, and automatically stop between 18 to 23 seconds. The steam wand automatically stops around 150 degrees. To me, it takes the fun out of espresso. To Starbucks, it's just a wise business plan for such a massive company, built on being cost-effective and efficient.

Starbucks espresso doesn't have much of a crema--simply because they don't use robusta beans in their espresso blend. Robusta is a lower-grade coffee bean which some experts refer to as "filler." All the quality shots I've had in the past have used robusta, and I think it gives the espresso character and life. When I saw the shots run through a Mastrena at the Starbucks headquarters in Seattle, my heart sunk.

I wanted the espresso to be amazing, to come back home to my friends and rave about it, that I've been deceived all these years. Starbucks is not so well-known for creating a mouth-watering espresso drink--they made the act of drinking espresso mainstream, and I appreciate them for doing so. We'll just never have that same relationship that I have with a cortado made with Counter Culture beans and Organic Valley milk.

Barista's tip: I've heard plenty of coffee industry people say "the more you know about espresso, the smaller your drink." While I'm not a pro, I can't handle a straight shot, or even a macchiato. The smallest I'll go is a six-ounce americano with room for milk, but the thought of drinking--or even serving--a venti (20 ounce) latte makes me uncomfortable. Next time you go into your favorite espresso bar, get an americano misto. About one-third steamed milk on top of an americano (espresso and hot water). It's pure heaven.

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