Recently I’ve taken on the role of espresso queen. I must say that I’m failing at all of my imaginary duties including managing to make the aforementioned coffee with even nominal success. But true to my nature, I refuse to let up, give in, raise the white flag or quite plainly to revert back to dear old poisonous Nescafé.
My coffee snobbishness set in on a cool Saturday morning when we visited two of our friends for brunch. I’ve been on a no-milk-whatsoever diet for the better part of this year, so at the absence of a milk substitute, I opted for a water diluted espresso, what I later discovered in my utter naivety is called a luongo. I was worried that drinking it would be a true struggle, mostly in my attempt to hide its underlying bitterness.
I knew as much from an early college mishap that happened to me days into my arrival on campus in a middle-of-nowhere town, PA. This was long before Starbucks was a language we spoke fluently on the island, so naturally all of the hot beverages sounded excitingly foreign to my tongue; so much so, that I made a pact to try each drink individually before deciding on my personal favorite (a thorough experiment, I’m sure you’d agree). Propped behing a long, patient line of caffeine-starved students, I eyed caramel macchiatos, chai lattes, cappuccinos — unable to name them at the time, of course. As I neared the register, I still hadn’t made up my mind on what to order, so under pressure to play my one-act role as customer I stated that I’d like an espresso. I kept hearing this word everywhere. I waited for a good five minutes and watched as my peers walked off with deliciously decadent calorific drinks before my own drink was called up. To my complete surprise (but surely, not to your own dear urbane readers) I was handed a tiny cup of scalding espresso. So great was my shock and embarrassment — mostly to myself, because I had higher, taller, expectations for my drink — that I sipped a bit to prove that this is what I had wanted all along. Naturally, no one was paying me much mind. The bitterness hit me like a brick to the head, and I proceeded to dispensing buckets of sugar in the tiny container, going through the motions of a person who knows what she’s doing with her coffee. As I carried my espresso steadily in my hand, I walked out of the building, found the nearest waste basket and trashed it. There was no way I would ever drink that shit ever again. Promptly after that experience, I settled on the Chai Latte as my staple.
But on that Saturday morning, when I asked if it would be too strong, my friend M— decried the myth that espresso is bitter. “Good espresso should never be bitter,” he said in a matter-of-fact tone. Yeah right, I thought. As I was served my coffee, I hesitantly took a first sip, only to realize, to my complete astonishment that it was quite certainly the best coffee I had ever drunk. So rich, so smooth, so easy to down in a gulp, were it not for its hot temperature. I was a changed person.
Soon after, on my birthday to be precise, I went to a local shop to buy filter coffee and on a whim decided to buy an espresso kettle. Completely clueless on how one decides on a good kettle, I went by my aesthetic instinct: a blue that matched my kitchen. As I pulled out my wallet to pay, the man behind the counter offered to treat me to an espresso. Feeling like quite the connoisseur, I indulged, though memories of the earlier incident burned fresh on my palate. Still, I summoned the courage to drink it in almost a shot, completely on the go, Italian-style, before I got my paper bag and left. It was bitter; thank God I had spearmint gum.
The very next morning I decided to try out my skills at espresso making. How difficult is it, you ask. It’s a lot more than I had anticipated. For starters, the first hiccup to my coffee was the very fact that I had bought a much larger kettle than necessary. This resulted in a total of six cups of espresso, even when I was the only one drinking. At first, I didn’t think much of it, but after the whole packet of coffee I bought ran out in a week, I started being thrifty with the measurements. And here appears the next problem: I could never get the water quantity and the coffee quantity just right: it was either too weak or too bitter, and the amount of coffee I made was always at least for three or four cups. My boyfriend started drinking shots of espresso, convincing himself that it’s good coffee after all; I started putting two or three shots in my morning Americano. At some point weeks after this frantic, nonsensical denial, he turned to me and said, “This tastes like shit.” I could only concur.
About two weeks ago, I managed to get a smaller kettle and you’d think that my espresso worries have been assuaged. Far from it I’m now faced with a new daunting challenge: half the times I make my espresso, it tastes strongly of soap. No matter how much I rinse it, the taste won’t easily go away. The first time it happened, appalled, I rinsed it down the drain and brewed another coffee in the six-cup kettle. The second time it happened, I drank about a fifth of it before quitting. The third time it happened, I downed half my latte. Naturally, there’s a part of me (the more rational me) wondering: Is this the price I have to pay to convince myself that I’m drinking good coffee? Isn’t it about time I whip out the old Nescafé and enjoy a frappé like a decent human being in need of a caffeine fix?