I had the chance to meet-up with Brad Burness at his Water Street coffee shop “Coffee and Company” last Friday as he gladly agreed to an interview on working as a barista. It ran about 30 minutes long but I will only be including 10 minutes transcribed. The transcription does not include crutch words like, um, ah, etc.
One of my favorite lines (and sort of a preview):
The difference between espresso and drip coffee is drip coffee is brewed and waits for the customer where as with espresso it’s the customer waits for the espresso, and there is a huge difference.
This interview is essentially one coffee geek interviewing another. I do my absolute best not to lead questions, and let the owner of Coffee and Company Brad Burness do most of the speaking. We talk of the coffee shop culture, techniques, life behind the coffee bar as an employee, and all the ‘perks’. It runs around half an hour long and it includes some of the barista slang to fully disclose life behind the bar.
Interviewer: Matt Reynolds
Informant: Brad Burness
Date: February 26th, 2010
Time: 15:00 St. John’s Time
Run Time: 10 minutes
Time Transcribed: 1:15 until 11:15
Transcription Begins at 1:15
Matt Reynolds: What would you consider a barista and what would you say that they do?
Brad Burness: Well a real barista, is somebody who [clears throat] not just makes coffee but knows a lot about the beans themselves, where they’re from, how they’re roasted, how to properly extract the coffee, how to fix the machine-. In Italy basically a barista would be involved in serving liquor as well but we don’t do that here. So, basically just strictly espresso based beverages. But not all people who use an espresso machine would be classified as a barista. Although I’m sure they would like to be called that, ninety-nine percent aren’t.
MR: Alright cool. Okay, so do you think there’s a specific culture surrounding the café?
BB: Yup. Yeah, absolutely. And it’s been going on for as long as coffee has been around. And it’s because coffee is a stimulant, and it stimulates thought, it stimulates conversation, stimulates ideas and throughout history it’s been a huge stimulation of ideas. I don’t know how detailed you want to get into this, but ah-
MR: Okay. I want to actually get into- do you think that there is a particular culture surrounding behind the bar, and being a barista?
BB: Aah, [sigh] I guess there could be in a larger center yeah, absolutely. Some of the places like in Montreal, ah, Vancouver and whatnot, where people are really earning their living from that, then yeah. They’re perfecting drinks, they’re trying different ideas, they’re coming up with beverages, they’re doing different latte art things, they’re competing against each other- In the way like professional bartenders I guess would. It’s the same thing really but coffee related.
BB: Maybe not so much in St. John’s, just because we don’t have the population of it [a large city], and the tips aren’t as good as you would find maybe in a major city.
MR: Alright, for sure.
MR: So I guess that sort of leads into the question what’s it like behind the bar?
BB: Well if you are doing all espresso-based beverages it’s fantastic! You know every single one is just a new chance to make a, ah, a nice drink. If you are just doing espresso-based drinks and that sort of thing it’s wonderful. You know, because every new ah, [clears throat] every new drink is a canvas, you know. I know you have never made any drinks yourself sir, so I know you probably don’t know what I’m talking about.
BB: So there we have it.
MR: Alright, I see you’ve got an espresso that you are drinking sitting across from me now but if you were to get a cup of coffee, what would you say your favourite method would be? Would it be drip, or would it be a press-pot, or would it be espresso-
BB: Yeah. French-press is I think the best way to have coffee unless you have access to an espresso machine, a good espresso machine, and fresh espresso. But the the French press the best thing about it you get all the oils, you control every variable. You don’t have to rely on the machine to do something for you, because there is a lot of things that could happen to make a lousy cup of coffee.
MR: Okay great. I want to get into some of the techniques and stuff now. Could you walk me through pulling a shot of espresso?
BB: Yup. Pulling a shot starts off with fresh espresso beans, should be within ah- well not too fresh you want it basically, I think about 3 days after roasting is the best. Then lets say the next week to 2 weeks after that as long as they are kept in an airtight area they’re at their peak. Another thing is a good espresso machine with the ability to force the water down through. The coffee has to have a certain amount of bar pressures to do that. Next of course is good clean water, filtered water should go into it because what your tasting of course is not just the espresso but the water that it’s mixed with. Ah, following that you want to have a nice hot portafilter and that’s the thing that you put your espresso [ground espresso coffee] into. If it’s too cold then the hot water hits it and it cools down and it’s simply not hot enough to extract the oil from the coffee, which needs to be extracted at a temperature of around 200 degrees [Fahrenheit]. And following that you want to make sure that your grind is correct if it’s too short- er, if its too fine it takes too long for the coffee to come out, the water and the espresso is in contact for too long, and you end up with a bitter tasting coffee. And if it’s too coarse, the opposite is true; you simply don’t end up with any flavour at all. So it has to be in-between. So there is about 30 variables in total which go into making a decent cup of espresso. Most people concentrate on maybe one or two of those. Most important ones being probably the grind setting, and the temperature of the portafilter when you start your shot.
MR: Okay great. For this sort of stuff um, before we get into terminology it doesn’t really matter if you’re using terms like portafilter or tamp or anything, we will sort of get into that later.
BB: Okay, okay. Yeah I forgot to mention the tamp of course is important as well.
BB: There’s a bunch of steps, but it’s all to do with the length of time which the coffee and hot water are in contact for. Like I said if it’s too long you end up with a possibly a rather bitter tasting drink; basically too much flavour. Or if it’s not long enough then you end up with a, you know a weak unpalatable beverage. It has to be exactly [composed].
MR: You are already getting ahead and answering some of the questions that I’ve got here. So would you be tasting this throughout the day to check or do you know by the-
BB: Yeah well you can tell a lot if you are familiar with the beans and familiar with the machine you can actually just watch the colour of the espresso when it comes out. And I usually try to stop my shots after about- between ¾’s of an ounce to an ounce of final product. After an ounce it starts to what’s called ‘blonde’, which means that you’re are no longer extracting flavour you are just basically, ah, extracting volume. So generally shut it off at around ¾’s of an ounce. Another good indication is the crema, which is sort of a dark foam that you get on the top of the espresso. It doesn’t necessarily indicate it that it’s a good tasting espresso, cause you can have lousy beans making good-looking crema. But it’s a pretty good litmus test to show that you’ve pulled a good shot in terms of grind setting; whether it’s too fine or too coarse.
MR: Okay great. So how many people would order a straight espresso, it’s, I mean it’s-
BB: You know-
MR: As a North American-
BB: Yeah, it’s not, it’s not many. I would say about 90 percent of the drinks we serve are espresso mixed with something else. Espresso mixed with regular brewed coffee is a real wake-up; it’s called a ‘red-eye’ or a ‘depth-charge’. Or with milk as in a latte, a cappuccino. The most popular drinks seem to be flavoured lattes or café mochas. Um, but straight espresso shots, very few. But when they are ordered, there is definitely a ritual to serving them. There needs to be a nice hot espresso cup to go with it. They should offer a glass of stilled water on the side, no ice, not even ice cold. And you should only pull it to about ¾’s of an ounce.
MR: Okay cool. So when you are pulling a straight espresso, does it go into any old cup, or is there a certain style of cup?
BB: Well you want it to go into an espresso cup. Ah, or basically whatever vessel it’s going to end up going into you don’t want to pour it from one cup to the final cup because you would lose all the crema on the inside of it. So if you’re serving straight espresso in a porcelain cup for the customer it has to go into that porcelain cup. This espresso to go, ah, I kind of get annoyed when people order espresso to go because it’s meant to be consumed on the spot not 10 minutes later. In fact the difference between espresso and drip coffee is drip coffee is brewed and waits for the customer where as with espresso it’s the customer waits for the espresso, and there is a huge difference.
MR: Okay, and I guess you could keep going with that a little bit. Why would it [be this way]? Is it volatile-
BB: Yeah, that’s exactly it, it’s volatile. It’s releasing gasses as well, ah, carbon dioxide as soon as it’s ground. In fact, as soon as it’s roasted it start to release carbon dioxide or 2/3’s its volume is released in carbon dioxide and it’s a good indicator of how fresh the beans are. But once espresso is ‘pulled’, let’s say, that’s the proper expression, or turned into liquid form, it should be consumed immediately. This is such a short amount of time because after that it simply loses its- well it just, it loses its flavour. Once you even start to smell the coffee, then you have lost the flavour because that smell is now airborne, where it should be actually in the cup. But, you go into a lot of coffee houses and they smell- “Oh this smells terrific” but they are not actually making that many shots of espresso. And you wonder well, how are they storing the beans? What am I smelling here? Am I smelling the espresso shots, or am I smelling what should actually be in the form of the cup?
END OF TRANSCRIPTION