Thursday, February 28, 2013

Learning the Arcane Arts of the Barista

*Photo and story courtesy of The Spec
Want to know what it takes to become a barista?  Read journalist Jeff Mahoney's adventure into learning the art of being a barista:
"In case you haven’t noticed, Hamilton is changing. It’s time to wake up, stylishly late, and smell the Americano. I did, or at least started to this past weekend, courtesy of the people at Detour Cafe.
Yes, we’ve always had a coffee “thing” here. After all, Hamilton is home to Store No. 1.
But no longer can we think of ourselves as a city that judges its joe by how warm it keeps your hands in an arena. Low-grade stuff with no subtlety, brewed from beans that might’ve been roasted in the blast furnaces you see from the Skyway, just won’t cut it anymore.
These days is about the “good stuff.” Coffee is now an objet de marquee. A headline act, menu topper. Boutique-y, “artisanal,” complex, maybe even a little fetishistic. It has its own nomenclature.
Just look at the stores that have emerged in recent years. Homegrown Hamilton, which roasts its own; My Dog Joe; The Cannon (Ottawa and Cannon); Baltimore House; The Mulberry Street Coffee House on James North, Johnny’s on Locke Street. Many others.
Fifty shades of café.
The Detour Café on King Street, Dundas, exemplifies the conceptual evolution of coffee in this city.
They invited me this past Sunday evening, along with four other “coffee curious” media types, for a barista barnstorming, bud-popping, nose-rainbow showcase slash how-to. Believe me, this was better than the Oscars.
First, Detour owner Kaelin McCowan and Crystal Archer and baristas Geoff Woodley, Will Thorburn and Momiji Kishi line up seven kinds of coffee, including two Detour blends.
This is what is called the “cupping.” First, you bring your nose up very close to the contents of each cup and try to capture the aroma and identify accents.
“You can tell baristas,” jokes Geoff. “We have burns on the tips of our noses.”
Kaelin, who is, like, a coffee bodhisattva, breaks it down. “You try to aspirate the scents for the big overarching themes, then identify flavour profiles. Try to pick out the sugars — is the sweetness like caramel? There might be floral notes or the coffee might remind you of colas, olives or chocolate. When you have them side by side, it’s easier to tell differences.”
At Geoff’s prompting, I take a spoon and push back the “crust” (the flecking on the surface of the coffee) and dip into the liquid, from the edge of the cup. This is called “the break.” You hold the full spoon over a paper cup, then aggressively slurp it into your mouth and try to swish it around to further develop the tastes.
There are coffees here from Brazil, Kenya, Bolivia, to name a few sources. Kaelin travels to farms in places like Central America, scouting out coffees.
Kaelin, a Toronto transplant, and Crystal Archer, originally from New Zealand, started Detour as a coffee-roasting operation in Dundas about five years ago. Two years ago, they moved the roasting to Burlington and opened up the café/restaurant.
The barista workshop is something Detour is doing more of as patrons and even passersby inquire after the mysterious subtleties of the coffee arts (did you know that coffee “beans” are the pit of a purplish fruit sometimes called the coffee cherry?).
Detour’s baristas are highly qualified to open the code for us. Geoff is the reigning Central Canadian barista champion — there are competitions culminating in the nationals. Momiji held the title a few years before him. And Will is an accomplished latte artist, as well as barista and roaster.
There’s an encyclopedic breadth to their and Kaelin’s knowledge of coffee and its precise demands. Chemistry, acidity, the taxonomy of drinks (flatwhite, latte, etc.). Even the choice of cups is important.
After the cupping and some “pulling shots,” Kaelin and Crystal sit us down to a magnificent meal from Detour’s ever-evolving menu (kudos to chef Chris Beltrano).
Then it’s on to espresso (130 pounds of pressure per square inch) and some hands-on latte art. Will describes how the milk must be rolled over the steam injection in just such a measure to create the right consistency of micro-foam. He does a “free pour” onto the coffee and a beautiful rosette appears on the surface. He also does a tulip and a heart.
Then it’s our turn. I come up with something shapeless and bleary. I think of a Carly Simon lyric, “clouds in my coffee.”
The evening, one of sensual delights (the coffee’s amazing), goes longer than scheduled but seems to fly by. I leave the café, it’s dark out and suddenly the city seems different, younger somehow. You’re not at the drive-thru anymore, Dorothy.
It’s a brave, new barista world."

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