This morning I started the morning off right with an iced latte from Starbucks. That was the plan anyway.
I pulled up to the store front simultaneously with three other cars. It was almost as if we were all part of a synchronized driving team, the Blue Angels of the coffee crowd. I mentally prepared for the race to the door in order to get ahead of my fellow coffee fiends.
Upon arrival, I was met with a locked door and an employee jogging a large set of keys to open the dead-bolt lock. Immediately I knew something was not right.
“We’re not open yet, there was a mix up in the schedule and so we are just now preparing to open.”
“Oh, uh, okay.”
“But if you wait, we’ll give you your drink for free. It will just take five minutes.”
Not wanting to upset the hard working people inside, I decided to stay and reward their haste with my order of a Ventè Iced Latte because today the shareholders were picking up the tab.
Now, a lot of people don’t realize what it takes to run a coffee shop. It’s never as simple as flipping on the lights and putting on an apron. There are two very important pieces of equipment that can make or break the perfect preparation of an espresso drink. They are the coffee grinder and the espresso machine itself. And both require a lot of care and prep-time.
First off, to make a great espresso drink requires that the setting on the grinder is perfectly tuned for the atmosphere around the bar area. Many factors can throw a grind off resulting in a bad shot of espresso. The goal of a barista is to pull a shot within a 18-21 second time frame. If the grind is too coarse then the shot will extract within 5-16 seconds making for a very thin and bitter tasting shot. If the grind is too long–anything over 22 seconds–the shot will taste burnt followed by an acidic impression on the back of the tongue.
Grinders are very, very delicate devices that require a lot of love and attention. You can have the perfect grind set when suddenly ten people walk near the bar, raising the room temperature around the grinder, thus making it necessary to adjust the grind. Humidity also affects the settings of a grinder. If it starts to rain outside, five minutes later you can bet the barista is going to make adjustments.
Once the perfect grind has been set you should have an espresso shot that is dark leather brown topped with a caramel-butter brown crema.
Now the grind can be perfect but if the espresso machine doesn’t have enough pressure you’ll end up with damp coffee grounds in the portafiler (the thingy they use to pack the coffee in) and nothing into the shot glass. Espresso machines are essentially a set of huge steam tanks that use enormous amounts of pressure to force filtered water through firmly packed coffee. It’s kind of like trying to water grass seeds through an old dirt road.
The first thing an employee does in the morning is to walk over to the espresso machine (which should be a La Marzocco, the machine of champions and used throughout the Starbucks empire) and turn it on because it takes 25-35 minutes for enough pressure to build up.
So no matter how late you are to work, and no matter how bad you want to just open the store, serve your customers, and get on with an already bad morning, you can’t. Just as the earths rotation can’t be sped up, nor can an espresso machine. The finer things in life take time.
I thought about all of this as I watched busy Californians rush to the door only to be kindly turned away with the promise of a free drink. It was easy to read their faces as they just don’t get that Starbucks is not Mr. Coffee and needs more than 5 minutes to brew coffee.
And as much as I wanted to be on time this morning, who can pass up a free iced latte? Certainly not me.