By ALBERT SWORD
I am known for liking coffee, a good cup of Java; someone who roasts his own beans even. Eccentric? Maybe, but a true aficionado of espresso. But rather than talk about beans, Arabica versus robusta, Kenyan versus Guatemalan, roasters first cracks and second cracks, how much crema is the perfect amount, how many mils extracted into what shaped cup at what temperature; what I want to write about, scream about at the top of my voice for as long and as loud as can be, is: "What about the world standard for making coffee!?"
There, I've said it. Shouted it. Screamed it. IT — the world standard for making coffee is extant, so why do so many makers of coffee, so-called baristas, completely ignore it? Because they are NOT baristas, that's why. They are not even coffee makers third class. They are people who stand behind beautiful shiny, capable machines, twiddle knobs, produce steam, often to great effect with milky creations, but otherwise produce only bitter brown coloured water. That's right, they don't actually make coffee. As one earnest young chappie said to me, apologising for spilling the brown stuff in my saucer; "Sorry, mate (MATE!), I'll get you a serviette." I asked why he had filled the brimming cup so full ... "Well, you want to get good value, don't you?" He didn't get that good value may be not filling the cup up with over-extracted brown water, maybe instead providing hot water on the side so the discerning punter can adjust the coffee to suit personal taste.
A gas station chain with a large coffee and food to go restaurant attached.
"A long black, please."
"Gosh, that's expensive." (This was a while ago.)
"Nice and strong please."
"You want a double shot?"
"All long blacks are made with a double shot, aren't they?"
"No, double shot's an extra 50 cents."
"Four bucks-fifty for a long black?"
"Do you want it or not?"
I capitulate, money changes hands — I should have known better — and after several minutes an enormous cardboard mug is thrust across the counter. It is lidded with plastic. I take off the lid. Inside, as expected but not wished for, the mug is filled to the brim with light brown, over-extracted, weak, brackish water. I taste it, although taste in this context is oxy-moronic. Now outside, I tip it into the drain provided. A sigh from deep within escapes my lips as I trudge, head bowed, back to my car.
By now I have learned the ropes of these petrol stop — coffee stop arrangements. I have learned the language. Another stop, another restaurant, a similar conversation with a much happier woman. I explain how I like my coffee; strong, in the smallest cup, only half full; dare I mention crema? No, don't push your luck. We settle on a double shot, but I have to talk her into it.
"Are you sure you don't want me to fill it up? You get better value?"
Already the meniscus is higher than I indicated.
"Stop there, that's enough."
She won't stop.
"Ooh, it will taste foul, it'll be too strong!"
No, I think, but it will taste! If only ... And then, to take my mind off what is happening over the other side of the counter;
"How do you like your coffee?" I ask.
"Ooh, I can't stand the taste of coffee, makes me want to puke!"
Saying so, she gives the cardboard mug a sustained blast of boiling hot water which I know will eradicate whatever crema may have accumulated, carefully clips on a plastic lid, and smilingly hands over the ceremonial liquid.
"Have a nice day!"
She smiles at me as I go outside, lift the lid and taste check before using the drain provided. Here I would like to rest my case for an International Standard for Coffee Making. No, not quite yet ...
Somewhere in the depths of the South Island, a lovely country pub advertises its ability to make eXpresso coffee. Blood excitedly rushes to my head. The spelling is wrong, they use an 'X' instead of an 'S' but that means nothing, surely? The young man behind the the beautiful, shiny, hissing machine is slow, but he seems to produce excellent milky, frothy concoctions for my travel companions. I am the last in the queue and ask for my usual. "Long black, strong please, and not too much water in the cup ..." I would have added: a double shot, but he cuts me off with his: "Hey, mate (MATE!) you're talking to the best barista in the South Island, don't tell me how to make coffee!"
I hang my head in shame,
"Sorry, just thought you'd want to know how I like my coffee. Sorry ..." I wonder if I should tell him of my secret; roasting my own beans? But shame prevents me.
He ignores me, even refrains from commenting on the thinning patch of hair easily visible now my head is downcast. That's a plus. I await his ministrations, hardly daring to breathe. The milk-shake sized cup is slammed on to the counter; he turns on his heel, leaves the shining machine and walks with a sigh from his station out to the back of the pub for a break; A fag? A coke? A cup of tea?
My travel companions await outside our vehicle with their various milk-frothy concoctions, their anticipation of my pleasure/non-pleasure is evident on their faces. They want me to be happy!
"Well, how is it?"
I flick off the plastic lid and look inside the enormous cardboard receptacle. Light brown, over-extracted, brackish water filled almost to the top. There is no crema, obviously, from the way South Island's best barista blasted the liquid with scalding water. I can't get my lips anywhere near the rim of the mug but I can smell that what I have is not coffee. I lift downcast eyes towards my friends, note their supportive glances, then tip the offending liquid into the gutter provided.
"Oh, well, they say, "better luck next stop."
Albert Sword is a local raconteur, photographer, thespian and coffee connoisseur.