Confessions of a Barista: What’s life like for the person making your pourover?

Allie Schuh, Little Amps, 2013
Allie Schuh, Little Amps, 2013

Little Amps Coffee Roasters is humming smoothly as I push open the door. Two men are bent over a single laptop, each cradling a cup of French press. Another customer is digging through the collection of for-sale vinyls and occasionally sipping a cold jar—the shop’s famed shot of espresso poured over ice and shaken vigorously with brown sugar until frothy.

A brightly colored mural of a Mediterranean villa graces one exposed brick wall, and light from the wide windows pours over the polished tables and wooden floorboards at the Olde Uptown location on Green Street. The high, tinny grind of the espresso machine rises above the murmur of voices, and, from behind the bar, barista Allie Schuh waves at me and says, “I’ll be with you in just a second.”

A connoisseur of cozy spaces, I am familiar with this lifestyle, but Allie has promised to show me the side of the coffee trend that I don’t know about—that of the world behind the bar.

According to author Merry “Corky” White, American coffee culture has experienced three major waves: one post-World War II with the introduction of instant coffee, another with the rise of Starbucks and its emphasis on coffee origin and brewing technique and the third with the “refinement of coffee culture” that emphasizes detail and ceremony. With such a refinement, coffee has emerged into the American conscience as a beverage that is both private and public, cult and caffeine. But that is only the story from the front side of the bar.

Allie detaches herself from the espresso machine long enough to give me a hug. “Can I get you something to drink?” she asks, handing me a cup of today’s roast: a sweet, fruity Honduras E.V. Perez with flavors that remind me of blueberry and peach.

Allie’s smile is contagious, as is her expertise. Her personal interest in coffee began as a passion for meeting people in intimate spaces. It transformed into a profession when she graduated from college and found that many traditional businesses are currently unable to invest in young people, but coffee shops are.

She has been a barista for nearly two years, beginning in a small coffeehouse in San Francisco and then working at Midtown Scholar Bookstore when she moved to Harrisburg. She joined Little Amps in 2012. “A good barista is worth his weight in gold,” Allie says. “The profession of coffee is filling a niche for young people.”

Allie smiles at a client over my shoulder, and I’m reminded she’s still on the clock. “For you, Nevin?” she asks and drifts away.

I trail behind her and enter the space behind the bar, a chest-high hallway narrower than a church aisle. Tucked out of the sight of clients are plastic bins of freshly roasted coffee lined in neat rows, brown paper bags, an array of spices for specialty drinks, a digital scale and glassware. Mason jars are being chilled in the fridge for the cold jars. A red step stool is just behind the counter so that one can stand at the proper height to execute a pour-over—a style of coffee made from pouring a thin stream of water in a circular motion over a filter of precisely measured grounds. Everything is so organized that I’m afraid to touch anything.

Allie offers to show me how to pull an espresso, and I eagerly step forward. The act of standing before a massive machine and coaxing out a tiny cup of black liquid has always seemed so magical that I can’t decide if it will be harder or easier than it looks.

It’s both. Allie’s lesson comes with a list of warnings: tamp too hard and you’ll break the grounds, making it more difficult for water to seep through. Pull a shot too short, and it will be bland. Pull a shot too long, and it will be bitter, like over-steeped tea. Allie rinses the heavy port-a-filter with hot water and holds it out to me. “Ready?” she asks.

She shows me once, and then I try to imitate: grinding the espresso into the port-a-filter while rotating it to get an even fill; leveling the grounds with my finger and tapping the filter once to settle them. I gently nestle the tamp into the grounds to evenly distribute its weight; then I press down with my best guess of what 30 pounds of pressure should feel like. Finally, we lock the filter into the espresso machine.

“Go ahead and pull the lever,” Allie says, and I yank down with the same amount of upper body strength that I’d use for an exercise at the gym. The lever reluctantly gives way, and, for nearly half a minute, it releases as espresso pours in delicately colored streams into a waiting cup below: a dark body, a light crema.

I’m staring at the cup reverently when a wave of customers appears before us, and Allie sets my espresso aside. By the time I finish fudging my way through a French press, it’s been a few minutes, and Allie informs me that my espresso is too old to give a clear indication of my failure or my success.

*

Andrea Musselman, St. Thomas Coffee Roasters, 2013
Andrea Musselman, St. Thomas Coffee Roasters, 2013

Outside of Harrisburg, in Linglestown, the lunch rush is just beginning, and the line for coffee is nearly out the door at St. Thomas Roasters. Barista Andrea Musselman is standing at the front counter with her curly auburn hair held back with a bandanna and her fingers poised over the register keys as she takes a customer’s order.

Beside her, owner Geof Smith is singing “one is the loneliest number” and greeting every customer by name. Laughter mingles with the sound of grinding espresso. Past the serve counter is St. Thomas’ Diedrich roaster, surrounded by canvas bags of coffee and white buckets of freshly roasted beans. Nearly 20 loose-leaf teas and 20 in-house roasted coffees are available for bulk purchase, and the aroma of the coffee lingers everywhere: in the coffeehouse’s dark green walls, the well-loved sofa next to the back entrance and local artwork that adds to the room’s intimacy.

By the time the crowd dies down, Andrea has already served me two house blend espressos: one straight and another poured over ice then strained back out so that I can taste the difference that the temperature makes. She is knowledgeable and moves fast—stepping purposefully to keep up with the speed of the orders.

Her life’s first coffee was a Sheetz cappuccino that her father allowed her to sip. “It was the most delicious thing I’ve ever tasted,” she says. “I drank it all, but I don’t think I was supposed to.” After college, she took a job at Panera Bread that helped her realize that her interest did not just lie in drinking coffee but also in preparing it.

From her standpoint, the modern hype over coffee is not just a fad—it’s valid.

“There are 130 flavor components in coffee,” Andrea explains. “So much of a flavor depends on the complexity of the soil the coffee was grown in, how the coffee was processed, if there was a bug on a bean that fermented or how the coffee has been roasted. The product itself is really exciting and always changing.”

She is drying glasses as she speaks and deftly moves to stir flavor syrups into buckets of fresh beans: hazelnut, vanilla, cinnamon sticky bun. Behind her, Geof has begun the day’s roast, and the bitter aroma breaks into the air with the popping sound of cooling coffee.

Being a barista seems to be equal parts science, art, people and sheer physical labor, but at least, according to Andrea, all the days are different. “It’s paninis today,” she notes, then she laughs. “I sometimes try to predict a busy day. If it’s sunny out, you’d think everyone would be out getting coffee, but that sometimes means everyone’s doing something else.”

Andrea records the date of flavored beans on a clipboard in neat little figures then turns back to me. “Have you ever made a latte?”

I want to impress Andrea with my espresso skills, but this machine is different, and I do not know which buttons to push. Instead, she grinds an espresso and tamps it with a crisp tamp, tap, tamp, tap—and pulls the espresso into a cream-colored mug with green stripes. “To steam milk,” she says, handing a cupful of 2 percent to me, “you have to hold the cup a bit to the side with the steam wand inside, like this, so the milk will swirl.”

With the sound of a long, tight slurp, my milk spins in a vortex and rapidly jumps to 160 degrees: too high. “Now drop the cup down to get some foam,” Andrea instructs. I follow, but I drop too far, and the milk coughs out. I quickly take it off the heat.

To make latte art, Andrea tells me to pour the steamed milk slowly into the espresso, beginning high above the cup then dropping closer while swinging the stream gently from side to side. This technique results in a mug that looks like it’s been topped with a white, coffee-rimmed blob.

I’m staring at it, thinking mud puddle, when Andrea’s co-worker Jessica Janze walks by and cheerfully congratulates me on making a sun.

I’m further behind on my coffee career than I thought.

*

For both Allie and Andrea, both sides of the bar—that of the barista and that of the customer—have their merits.

“The best part of [my job] is really getting to talk about coffee and connect with people,” Andrea says. “When someone comes back in and says, ‘the coffee you recommended was perfect,’ that’s really satisfying.”

Allie would agree. “As a barista, you really get to know the customers you serve. Even though you’re interacting with people just minutes every day, there’s still time to invest in relationships.”

But the other side of the bar is equally satisfying. “In a coffee shop, you get to know your community, meet your significant other here, make friendships,” Allie says. “I’m a barista, and I still enjoy going to a coffee shop after work. This is where it all happens.”

She chuckles. “And on that side of the bar, my feet don’t hurt as much.”

Little Amps Coffee Roasters
1836 Green St., Harrisburg
(717) 695-4882
133 State Street, Harrisburg
(717) 635-9870
littleampscoffee.com

St. Thomas Roasters
5951 Linglestown Rd., Linglestown
(717) 526-4171
stthomasroaster.com

A version of this article first appeared in theburgnews.com on October 29, 2013, and in print in TheBurg, November 2013.

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2 thoughts on “Confessions of a Barista: What’s life like for the person making your pourover?

  1. RogueAnthropologist November 3, 2013 — 2:00 pm

    Sylvia! I listened to a podcast interview with Merry White last month and have meaning to recommend “coffee life in Japan” to you ever since! This post reads so much like an ethnographer’s field notes and I love it.

  2. Yeah! She seems amazing! Although do tell — what are the field notes of an ethnographer like?

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