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The art of coffee

Making an espresso takes more than a machine. When a company found that buyers of its machines often didn't know how to use them, it opened a training institute.

Published April 5, 2005

[Times photo: Keri Wiginton]
Sienna Agan of Santa Rosa, Calif., learns how to properly make an espresso during a one-day class at the Barista Training Institute.

SEFFNER - The baristas-in-training eye the silver frothing pitcher. They think they know how to use it. There is only one way to find out.

Ray Canell steps up to the espresso machine with a resolute expression, entirely too somber for a 50-year-old dressed in jeans and an untucked T-shirt on a weekday afternoon. This is the cappuccino test.

Canell splashes cold milk into the frothing pitcher. He will need speed at Jammin Java, a drive-through coffee joint that he's opening in South Tampa.

He fiddles with the nozzle that controls the steam. It gurgles loudly. He lowers the chilled pitcher around the steam wand.

The milk heats up. And explodes in every direction.

"Ewww," Canell grimaces. "That was a mess."

It's better to screw up a cappuccino at the Barista Training Institute than before a paying customer, everyone agrees. On this day, the Seffner coffee school has a dozen students. It draws them from all over the country with the promise of hands-on training and this philosophy: "Coffee should be an art form."

"Don't be embarrassed," instructor Harry Weeks tells the class, giving them tips for the frothing process. "This is a learned art form."

MMSI's Barista Training Institute sits in a brick strip mall. In its past life, the building held a tanning salon. Now, heavy power outlets run espresso machines.

Classes meet on the last Friday of the month. The school waives the $179 fee per student for anyone who buys a machine at the adjacent espresso showroom, where they sell from $350 to $11,000.

An official Barista Training Manual can go home with students in a white three-ring binder.

Taking notes is optional. Tad and Yulia Taylor scribble feverishly.

For six years, Tad searched the nation for a class on developing specialty coffee drinks. The Taylor family business is carnival concessions, and they want to create a gourmet coffee and dessert stand to take to fairs.

"There's nobody else out there," Tad said. "They want to sell you coffee, but not the brains behind it."

He heard about the Seffner school through a supplier. Barista training is available in most major cities, but only a handful of stand-alone coffee schools exist nationally, according to the Specialty Coffee Association of America.

Seffner's institute has drawn students from Atlanta, Chicago and New York. One came from Anchorage, Alaska.

The secret is out locally. Some of the servers at Bern's Steak House and SideBern's in South Tampa and Massimo's in Palm Harbor trained in Seffner. Barnie's Coffee & Tea Co. sends regional managers, as do scores of Italian restaurants.

"I've given a lot of restaurants our card," says Weeks, a Brandon resident who leads the classes behind a coffee bar.

A broad-shouldered Italian, Weeks drinks eight to 10 espresso shots daily. The 57-year-old considers bad coffee an insult. Five years ago, Weeks started the barista school as an offshoot of his espresso machine sales and service company, MMSI.

"People didn't know how to use the machines," Weeks recalls. "It was hard to bill somebody when you go out there and they say, "We don't know how to froth milk."'

* * *

Class starts at square one: the espresso shot.

In Italy, people are enamored of espresso. Americans rarely order shots straight. We spoon in milk, sugar and flavored syrups.

(We know so little about coffee that many Americans believe espresso contains more caffeine than a regular cup of joe. In fact, 1 ounce of espresso has less caffeine than an 8-ounce Styrofoam cup from a gas station. The espresso just tastes stronger.)

The Barista Training Institute dispels stereotypes. But before student baristas can build specialty drinks, they must learn to use the equipment.

"Without this," says Weeks, pointing to his coffee bean grinder, then turning to a shiny espresso machine, "this basically produces garbage."

Espresso powder should feel slightly gritty, like fine sugar. If the grind is too thick, the shot will come out watery. Too fine, and it won't come out at all.

Espresso's formula starts with 7 to 8 grams of ground coffee, packed into the cup of an espresso handle, which will funnel through 145 pounds of water pressure.

In no more than 28 seconds, no less than 21, the barista should have a shot of dark amber espresso with a honey-hued crema.

"If it doesn't hit the 21- to 28-second mark, then basically what we have is coffee," Weeks warns.

To test the final product, Weeks tells students to sprinkle a pinch of sugar. A perfect espresso will hold the sugar grains on top of thick crema, before they slowly fall through.

"You can do it," he says, turning the machine over to students. "You're ready."

The training baristas line up. All come from mom-and-pop outfits. Large coffee chains can afford espresso machines automated at each step.

"I don't know how you can afford not to train," said Angi Heath, 39, who owns Rosemary Cottage, a South Tampa teahouse expanding into coffee.

She brought her mother, brother and a couple of employees to barista training.

"If your first cup is not 100 percent wonderful," she said, "They're never going to come back ever."

* * *

After mastering espresso, the class can move onto drinks more popular with American coffee lovers.

Basic recipes are outlined in green and gold print on a plastic sign hanging behind the coffee bar: Classic Latte, Caffe Americano, Mocha.

Baristas-in-training learn to build drinks using 40 flavored syrups behind the coffee bar.

Weeks' class includes business ideas that he has learned from customers. He suggests coffeehouses add gourmet tea to their menus. Fruit-based smoothies are all the rage today. They bring in bucks with minimal time and expense.

His tips are designed for small shops facing corporate competition.

"Call it Susy's Almond Surprise," Weeks suggests for a drink modeled after an Almond Joy bar. "You can't go to Starbucks to get Susy's Almond Surprise. You have to go to Susy's."

Yet Starbucks isn't a dirty word here. Weeks credits the big guys for introducing java to the United States. Now Americans have developed a taste for it.

And Weeks believes they want more.

"Coffee doesn't have to be bland. It doesn't have to be boring," he said. "Don't give me the American version."

--Letitia Stein can be reached at 813 661-2443 or

[Last modified April 5, 2005, 10:57:54]

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