I cook, and have done so on a restaurant line, but I've never been a true chef. In that same way, I've turned espresso machine knobs before as a server at a fine-dining spot, steaming milk and extracting espresso and delivering serviceable cappuccinos and the like, but I've never been a real barista.
So for continued education and further research for this week's cover story (starting here), I turned for help to the staff of Stir in the Old North End, who graciously allowed me to get underfoot and even create my own special drink for last weekend's menu. (Betcha never had a coconut cream DeRegular Nut Crappuccino before ... I thought not.)
After returning from reporting at G&B and Go Get Em Tiger in Los Angeles, I found myself obsessing about minutia as I studied both my pours and finish flavors. I sought validation after applying just the right pressure when packing my grinds, sans scale, to pull an ideal 29-second shot with consistency. (My latte art, however, desperately needs work.)
In this bit of role-playing, I relished my deeper connection to the coffee craft and could start to understand how a guy like Charles Babinski — a Colorado Springs native turned U.S. barista champion — would want to devote his life and livelihood to brewed beans. There's so much magical madness to the method, and so much satisfaction available from that purest articulation of inherent flavors and aromas.
Short of being a chef or barista, this week I'm grateful just to be a consumer.