More than a morning pick-me-up, coffee has become an artful indulgenceConfessions of a Java JunkieThe Details Definitely Do Matter When Brewing the Perfect Cup at Home

By Beth Dees

I would agree with most Americans that coffee is synonymous with morning – but I want more than a mere morning. I want foam – substantial foam – on my coffee. Then, and only then, is it a good morning.

As a child, getting to drink coffee was a rare Saturday morning treat allowed when I visited my grandmother in Mobile, Ala. She made my coffee like hers – with lots of milk and sugar and served in a delicate, rose-patterned cup and saucer. For reasons unknown, Mamaw, who always overflowed the milk in her own cup, would lift the saucer genteelly to her lips, then sip it, never spilling a drop. I was fascinated – but smart enough not to attempt it myself.

Coffee during my college days consisted of heating water in a plug-in pot in the dorm room and mixing in a tablespoon of instant stuff in a mug. My get-up-and-go juice was cheap, fast and horrid.

Then, when I married, among the presents was the inevitable Mr. Coffee coffeemaker, the symbol for social success for Middle America. Casseroles may have been a challenge, but I quickly mastered measuring water and coffee grounds and flipping the switch on. At 24, I thought I knew everything there was to know about making a good cup of coffee … and love and life, for that matter.

Twenty-three years, two marriages and God only knows how many coffeemakers later, I still consider myself a novice on love and life – but I fancy myself something of an expert on what it takes to make an excellent latte or cappuccino. It’s an art, requiring more than the coffeemaker, water, cup, coffee grounds, etc. It’s about knowledge … experience … and knowing the right people.

The Machine Matters
Pump-driven espresso machines are superior to – and more expensive than – steam-driven machines because they can create and hold the correct high pressure to push the water through the fine grounds for the best flavor. They’re what coffeehouses use.

Santa Claus brought me an Australian-made Breville Café Roma, which he picked up at Bed, Bath and Beyond for a little beyond a couple of hundred bucks. My husband and I  love the simple industrial design and the stainless steel encasement. Consumersearch.com, which claims to “review the reviewers,” ranks the Café Roma in its Top 10 as “best value” along with the Pasquinia Livia 90 Automatic, which runs about $1,380 for the semi-professional model.

When you consider that a medium latte runs $3.20 at Cafe Borders, it is easy to see how frequent drinkers can recoup their investment in a matter of months. A big benefit of the high-quality pump-drivens is the “crema” – which isn’t about the milk but is the name for the reddish-brown substance on the top when you “pull the shot” (which means making the espresso).

It’s a Grind (But Worth It)
Anyone worth their coffee beans knows you want to grind them yourself before brewing to get full, fresh flavor. Use an electric grinder if you must, but at our house we use a Grinder Spong & Co. Ltd. from England, a heavy-duty black and white hand-crank antique screwed to the kitchen counter. It also serves as an alarm clock that probably wakes the entire neighborhood. I have to change hands at least twice to grind the beans for a full pot, so it also provides an excellent upper-body workout.

The Skinny on Milk
If you are serious about your steamed milk and foam, ignore the issue of calories and go for the real stuff. Whether fat or nonfat milk makes the best foam can foment a serious discussion among some baristas – that’s Italian for bartenders at coffeehouses – but every one of the half-dozen I spoke with locally voted for the loaded milk. Caroline, who works at Black Dog Café at Lake Ella, said her five years as a barista have proven that whole milk makes the “foamiest foam.” Kristen, assistant manager of the SouthWood Starbucks, agreed.

(As an aside, when I took my first shot at writing this story several months ago, there were five of the ubiquitous Starbucks coffee shops in Tallahassee. Now there are 10.)

Be very, very patient when you are trying to make foam. It’s like learning a foreign language – and it could take years to get fluff that doesn’t disappear once you turn off the steam wand. From people whose daily bread depends on making froth dense enough to sculpt, I heard repeatedly, “Avoid the big bubbles.” This means keeping the wand tip just below the surface of the milk, but not so close to the top that it kills what you’re trying to create.

Some will tell you to chill the container the milk goes in, others to chill the milk too. One coffee shop owner insists that the shape of the milk container makes a difference. Every barista appeared to have a different technique as to how he or she held the container while making foam. To me, the tilt of my cup better fluffs the froth, as well as how I hold my right eyebrow. Seriously, it seems I do best when I’m daydreaming and not trying so hard.

It is best not to multitask as you froth because, should you look away, as in conversation with another person, the tiny steam wand can spew hot milk across a wide range.

If you’re of a musical bent, you might enjoy the mini-marching-band beat of pump-driven machines while waiting the 45 seconds or so for the milk to steam. If you’re more of an exercise nut, you can get in a dozen or more knee bends. If you have ears, you will be offended momentarily by the eventual screech of the steam in the milk. In the beginning, my cat and dog would vacate the kitchen; now they stay and endure the aural pain – out of loyalty, I suppose.

I’m not a neatnik, but I highly recommend keeping a wet paper towel nearby for when you finish foaming. At that point the milk just wipes right off the wand. Wait five minutes and the remaining milk on the metal hardens into concrete. Wait until the end of the day and you might have to send the whole thing back to the manufacturer for repair.

And if you think it takes too much work to grind beans, tamp the grounds, wait for the water to heat, hold the demitasse under the spout so it doesn’t vibrate away, pour the milk into the stainless steel container, froth the milk well … you just need to stop and smell the coffee. To me, it’s the difference between the rain and a rainbow – the difference between a mere morning and a great morning. 

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