This week I decided to enrol in a barista training course. Which, it turns out, is a very zeitgeisty thing to do, being as it is national coffee week. I’ll need to warn my future barista guru though: the last time I wielded a steam wand it didn’t end too well. It was 1990 and I was an undergraduate at Melbourne University. In the afternoons I’d don my apricot-coloured waitress uniform and pedal to my campus cafeteria job. I might have been living in student houses in the Italian neighbourhood of Carlton, but what I knew about coffee could fit on a folded napkin.
During my shift friends and acquaintances came by for their afternoon fix, including one particular campus identity. Part Nick Cave, part Jean-Paul Sartre, he sauntered in during breaks between lectures or library sessions. I’d take his order for a cappuccino and set up the espresso shot. Then I’d try to build as much froth as I could coax from the hot milk before it ballooned over the side of the jug. After adding a little hot milk to his coffee I’d start spooning an Everest-sized mountain of froth over the top. I’d finish with what I thought was a nonchalant flourish, turning the chocolate shaker upside down and giving it a couple of good taps. (And yes of course, dear reader, the memory still makes me cringe).
While I was making plenty of coffees for my fellow students I didn’t yet drink the dark brew myself. Though my father’s grandmother was from an Italian family, she died a couple of years before he was born, and so was lost the chance of her passing on any coffee wisdom she may have brought to Australia. Growing up in a sleepy Victorian seaside town, and later in suburban Melbourne, I equated coffee with the screw-your-nose-up Nescafe drinks adults made from parish spreads of hot water urns, white cups and saucers and big bowls of white sugar.
A year or two after my campus canteen career ended (without any coffee lover shedding one tear) a painter friend, horrified that I might graduate without acquiring a coffee habit, decided to convert me. The child of bohemian artist parents, he brewed stovetop espresso coffee by packing a layer of sugar in between the coffee grounds. The spoonful of the sweet stuff did the trick, kick-starting my caffeine habit.
Soon after I moved in with an architect and a philosopher to a rental above a shopfront in Collingwood. Here I learnt to love the ritual of making a strong coffee with a stovetop espresso maker. (The stovetop coffee is a habit I’ve kept to this day, as much a part of my morning routine as brushing teeth: filling the filter funnel with fresh grounds, patting it down with a tamper, screwing the lid on, firing up the gas burner and then waiting to hear the bubble and hiss that signals the coffee is ready). I didn’t add sugar to coffee by then, but I did add a good dash of milk. Weekend breakfasts would consist of cups of freshly made coffee, along with freshly-baked baguettes that one of us would fetch from the Vietnamese bakery downstairs, and which we’d eat with generous amounts of butter and Vegemite.
Having by this time moved on from campus coffee maker to editor of the campus newspaper (much to the relief of a significant slice of the student population) I also added the plunger coffee to my repertoire – the only way to get through all-night layout sessions. A Greek friend (now an academic) gave me the useful life lesson of warming the jug first with hot water.
Almost ten years later I was living in Sydney and I had transformed from a coffee know-nothing into a premium grade coffee snob (probably about the only thing worse than a coffee know-nothing). “The coffee is so much better in Melbourne”, I would tell anyone. But I was co-ordinating a guide to Sydney cafes and restaurants, and my Melbourne loyalties were being tested by a growing caffeine culture that was starting to take its macchiatos and double shot espressos very seriously.
I wrote reviews in the morning and edited contributions in the afternoon, sometimes with a quick dash around a neighbourhood’s cafes in the middle of the day. I soon began to appreciate the many benefits of a simple short black, or espresso. Though I had learnt (like many a coffee drinker in the 90s) to love a latte, my evenings as a food reviewer now often involved eating three course meals. A large milky latte lining my stomach was the last thing I needed. But a shot of espresso kept me alert through the afternoon and into the evenings for another bout of chewing and critiquing.
Around this time I polished off my coffee education during a burst of overseas travel. I drank coffee standing up in Italian cafes. I tried sweet, frothy coffee made with egg in Hanoi. While reviewing cafes in London I was paid to sip strong coffee at the legendary Bar Italia in London’s Soho. In New York City I awkwardly drank a very ordinary, weak latte on my own at a Greenwich Village cafe – because I’d read that Allen Ginsberg and his beatnik buddies had been there half a century ago. What I was thinking? That I’d become the hipster I clearly wasn’t because I sat and sipped in a place where they’d smoked pot and talked literature half a century earlier?
For most of the next ten years my relationship with coffee had more to do with looking up the recommended caffeine intake for expectant mothers, followed soon after by many days of desperately trying to down a take-away strong flat white with one hand while juggling babycinos, sprinkles and marshmallows with the other.
My daily dependency on the black brew is such that I went into a mild panic when a recent yoga retreat I was about to attend advertised itself as caffeine-free. It turned out that the rule was as flexible as a yogi’s body. The teachers asked me to supply them with the contraband brew too.
Now the babycino stage is almost over I’m reviewing restaurants and cafes again. And I’ve looked up and noticed that coffee culture has become a full-blown religion, presided over by the demi-god baristas, the best of whom command faithful flocks that worship at their counters. Phrases such as “single origin” and “pour-over” and “cold-drip” are thrown around in the same way devotees of different yoga schools promoted their preferred variety a decade ago. Coffee aromas and flavours are now analysed and parsed in the way that wine once was, with coffees being potentially “cheeky” or even “moody”. Often a cup is “redolent of caramel”.
I’ve realised that if I want to judge a good cuppa again, I’ll have to go back to school. Figure out this piccolo latte thing that the cool foodie set keep banging on about. And experience the service side of the counter again. But I ask my future barista teacher to please be patient. I may have much to learn, but at least I now know that a mountain of froth is best left for a babycino.