One Night As An Espresso Rockstar. Sort of.

“Want to learn to make coffee like a pro? Pull the perfect shot? Steam milk to glassy perfection? Pour latte art? Purchase this perk and you and a friend will get a 3 hour one-on-one session with one of our expert baristas.”

Uh, yeah?

I saw that a few months ago when I was checking out what was up with one of my favorite cafes, Awaken Cafe. Previously just a small coffee shop on 14th street in between Franklin and Broadway in Oakland, Awaken had closed its doors with plans to open a bigger and better cafe in Downtown Oakland. After being closed for a while, they temporarily had a coffee cart open as they were working on the cafe. Back in December, they offered “perks” to people who donated specific amounts of money in order to get just a little bit more to help them open their doors.

When I started working in Uptown Oakland a few years ago, there wasn’t too much around in terms of actual cafes. But then my little sister, who worked in Downtown Oakland a few blocks from my location, told me about this coffee shop. So one day, I got off of BART at the 12th street exit instead of 19th and got myself a mocha.

This ended up being a regular thing with me, stopping off here once a week or every two weeks to get something to drink and then walking over to work. I never once had a mocha that was “off”. I loved this place and couldn’t wait for the new cafe to open and so I purchased the perk for purely, um, selfless reasons.

Awaken Cafe officially opened its cafe doors in February and this past Monday, my coffee partner-in-crime* and I showed up at 7pm to partake in the training session we scheduled.

It totally surpassed my expectations.

After an intro to learning about the intricacies of coffee, we found ourselves on a La Marzocco espresso machine, trying our hand at pulling shots, steaming milk, and attempting to make latte art. I made a blob! On my very first try.

There are so many things one had to think about when making an espresso drink. On some level I knew that but I still had no idea. Every little thing can change how espresso turns out so much so that the first shots of espresso I produced tasted much different than the ones I made not two minutes later.

My very first shots of espresso on the La Marzocco!

At any good coffee shop, they will grind the beans only when they are going to make the coffee or espresso. The amount of air that the grounds are exposed to will directly affect the taste so it’s up to the barista to grind the beans directly in the portafilter, smooth out the grounds evenly, tamp down the coffee, and get it onto the machine to produce espresso as fast as possible while making sure nothing was compromised.

And even then you are not safe.

When one starts up the machine to generate the espresso, the part where the water goes through the coffee to create the espresso, the process called “extracting”, should take 25-30 seconds to generate the proper amount of espresso. Any time water spends running through the espresso beyond that would be over-extracting. Less than that, under-extracting. Even if you did happen to turn everything off at the right time, you could still end up with either too little or too much espresso, which means you messed up even before you attached the portafilter to the machine!

And when you bring the process of steaming milk into the mix, which has its own process, things get slightly more complicated as you time the steaming with the extracting.

Towards the end of the night, as I drank my self-made mocha with the espresso I accidentally over-extracted while steaming the milk I ended up making too hot (what can I say, I’m a natural), I really appreciated everyone who puts thought and energy into making good espresso. Anyone can become well-versed at pulling a great shot of espresso but you would have to want to get good at it, if that makes sense. I would love somehow to still work on the methods that I learned to get better at it.

I felt really good as my friend and I left Awaken that night. I got an even deeper look into the world of coffee, acquired some really great knowledge, and got to make espresso on a La Marzocco at one of my favorite cafes in Oakland. I was feeling giddy… a feeling which may have been enhanced by the four or so shots of espresso I consumed that evening.

Good times, good times.

By the way, Awaken Cafe was recently featured in an article in the San Francisco Chronicle about the resurgence of Downtown Oakland – Oakland’s Occupy flash point now thriving

*I used to go off on my own all the time to get coffee, if I hadn’t already gotten it before I even started working. Somehow though I started getting coffee with my coworker/friend Emily. When I first IM’d her the description of the perk, she asked if she could be the “friend” who got to take part in the training, which I thought was funny since it was only natural she got to take part in this too. Fun fact- Not only is Emily my coffee buddy, but she also taught me how to drive a stick shift.

On taking pictures – I was thinking about bringing my SLR to the training so I could fully document the entire night but instead I just brought my point and shoot. Only a few pictures really came out since it was pretty dark indoors and I don’t like using the flash on that camera. For a second I did lament the fact that I didn’t bring my SLR but I realized that the point here was for me to really take part in this training and learn something. When I really start taking pictures, I don’t pay attention to much else and I could only imagine how everyone would be annoyed at me as I tried to make sure all my pictures turned out well. Not only that, but I doubt I would have gotten as much out of the training had I tried to take pictures every step of the way. I think I made the right call here because although I don’t have a ton of pics from the night, I was really able to fully absorb all that was going on and be an active participant in the moment rather than just a spectator.

5 thoughts

  1. Way to invest in the community. That is so awesome. Your mad coffee skillz will come with practice. I use to be able to pour the perfect cappuccino without using a spoon to hold back the foam. I probably still could. Being a barista is a lot of fun. Maybe they can let you guest barista sometime. Thanks for sharing.

  2. Ahh wow, coffee truly is art. I had an expresso for the first time a couple of weeks ago. It was way too bitter for me. Any suggestions or is it something I just have to work myself up to?

    1. The taste of espresso varies so much that I would say to try another coffee shop! I’m sure espresso can turn out bitter but it can also turn out to have so many different types of tastes that I think you should try it at other places to see what you think about it. I think I’m going to start ordering just espresso now and then just to see how it turns out in all the different places I go to. Trying to learn how to consume bitter espresso just doesn’t seem like a good thing!

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