Confessions of a Recovering Barista

November 26, 2010
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Espresso in Naples, Italy. Photo by Tui Cameron

Espresso in Naples, Italy. Photo by Tui Cameron

I often describe myself as a ‘recovering barista,’ because when you have brewed as many shots of espresso and steamed as many pitchers of milk as I have over the years, it alters you. Y’know how you can spot a former ballerina by her splayed feet? It’s kinda like that, except that the Zen-like discipline of making wonderful espresso leaves mental marks rather than anything physical.

As a result, when I enter a coffeehouse, I can’t help but eavesdrop on the baristas. By ‘eavesdrop’ I mean listening to what they do, not what they say. I can tell by sound whether they are creating tight, velvety foam, or big snorty bubbles. I can hear if they have scalded the milk.

I watch them, too, of course. I can tell if they need to adjust their grind by how quickly it flows out the portafilter, or if they are tamping with the right psi or not. Unless I’m with another coffee fanatic, however, I generally keep these assessments to myself. I don’t want to seem obnoxious!

Barista is an interesting word, with slightly different connotations in the states than in Italy. In Italian, slapping ista onto a word is a nifty way to explain someone’s occupation. For example, camion means truck in Italian. Add ista to camion, and you get the Italian word for trucker: camionista.

So, in Italy, to call yourself a barista merely means that you work in a bar. It doesn’t necessarily imply any great prowess with coffee. In the states, however, a barista is someone who makes espresso – and up in the Pacific Northwest, where I hail from, ‘barista’ implies that the person knows how to make a masterful cup of jo. There are even barista competitions!

Here in Azle, Texas there is no real espresso to be found – aside from what I make here at home with our tiny machine. I could go on, but we’re gearing up for a belated Thanksgiving feast here tomorrow and my to-do list is still mighty long despite a day of to-doing…

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