This season is best shared with surprise, generosity, and streetside tunes.
This season is best shared with surprise, generosity, and streetside tunes.
Known as the Princeton, this drink is the downtown cousin (only available on weekdays) to the Uptown Ginger Brown at Little Amps, Green Street.
It’s a cappuccino featuring a shot of espresso pulled into honey then graced with lemon zest and ginger. (The Uptown Ginger Brown swaps in brown sugar and orange zest).
On this December day, the bright citrus dances through the foamed milk and rich espresso, more reminiscent of ocean shores than snowdrifts on Second Street. Well worth a semester’s wait.
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.
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
133 State Street, Harrisburg
St. Thomas Roasters
5951 Linglestown Rd., Linglestown
The “Uptown Ginger Brown” ($4.25) — a not-too-sweet cappuccino from Little Amps in Uptown — is made with ginger, fresh orange zest, and brown sugar. The first two ingredients bring a subtle brightness to the rich coffee, a tartness hidden in the rich and foamy mouthfeel. As for the third, owner Aaron Carlson prefers brown sugar over white sugar because it’s not as “clawingly sweet”; the molasses in the brown sugar better complements the espresso.
This drink for me is the brightness of summer enrobed in the coziness of winter.
(Plus, it’s worth it just to hear Aaron announce, “Uuuuptown ginger brown!” as he pushes your drink across the bar.)
1826 Green Street
Harrisburg, PA 17102
It wasn’t long ago that I met up with Ibrahim, a tall, slender man born in Niger, at Cafe Fresco on Paxton Street. We’d met through a French meetup.com group, a Harrisburg-based social group, made up of everyone from former French teachers to disillusioned college graduates, who met one evening a month to converse in French. But one day over coffee and without the group, Ibrahim faced me with a request I did not respect. He hesitantly slipped a thick handful of handwritten notes, swirled in delicate French penmanship, from a folder and across the table. “Pouvez-vous traduire ça?” he asked — could you translate this?
Eventually, I would translate for Ibrahim one fable as well as two versions of a political screenplay, but it was nothing compared to what he shared with me.
His friendship first came in food: fish roasted whole with the heads still on and eye intact, delivered to my door with slivered tomatoes and onions in an aluminum foil pan; a platter of a dark, roasted meat that I did not recognize, handed to me along with a draft of our project. (When I asked him about the meat, c’est quelle type de viande, ça, his response was a beaming smile: “La coeur du mouton” — lamb heart.) Ibrahim slow-roasted chickens for my boyfriend and me which we ate with our hands and washed down with bitter north African tea; I handed him a tin of Christmas cookies. Around Thanksgiving, he bought me a turkey for the family, the largest in the supermarket — not believing that Grandma Grove had already purchased one, as she always does, weeks in advance — but he did allow me to freeze it until January when my boyfriend and I could cook it and invite friends over for a mid-winter holiday. When school let out in June, Ibrahim cooked me lamb dusted with an African spice, and with an overenthusiastic “mange, mange, Sylvia!” we gnawed at the bones until they were bare. But by that time, I had understood that the food was a pretense for conversation — that sharing meat and fat and tea opened the venue to talk about philosophy, politics, and culture in kind of a heart, trustworthy way; that two people sharing food meant that we could share life.
Once, when we met at the buzzing African joint called Mariam’s African and Jamaican Cuisine on 150 S. Cameron St. in Harrisburg, where Ibrahim knew everyone including the owner and cook, I forked into a platter of lamb with a ground peanut sauce served over white rice and asked him the same question I ask to anyone from airplane seatmates on international flights to French exchange students: what are the best and worst aspects of America. It’s a pointed question, one where I always try to anticipate the recipient’s reaction but never can. Over the past few years, answers I’ve heard for the positives include our general wealth (as compared to Africa), the structure of the medical systems (as compared to China’s), Duncan Donuts (from a teenage Frenchman), our friendliness (as compared to Montreal). Negatives include the lack of respect for authority, our inability to recognize our privileges, our lack of public transportation, our views on alcohol and gun possession, and our racial tension.
Ibrahim and I have talked at length about what he likes about the US — our educational system — so today I focus on the negatives. Ibrahim sips water and pauses, looking at the ceiling. The hum of African-accented French rises around us and falls. “I dislike that, here, you always have to have a Plan B,” he says finally.
This is not at all what I’m expecting. “A Plan B,” I say. “Yes, of course.” I love Plan B’s. My daily planner is full of them. If a friend is late for coffee at Little Amps in Harrisburg, I will have essays to grade. If I get stranded on a standby flight from Miami to Santiago, Chile, I will have a couchsurfer lined up. I like to know the destination of my attempts to stretch myself, a safety net in case I fail.
Ibrahim continues, “In America — if you take someone out to lunch, like this — ” he gestured to my plate — “you must have at least $40 in your pocket: $20 for today’s meal, $20 for tomorrow.”
I nod, wondering if I’m missing the point. “That’s called being responsible.”
“No,” Ibrahim says, and now I feel mildly insulted.
“Well, what do you call it?”
Ibrahim continues. “In my country, if you take someone out to lunch, you only need to have $20 in your pocket, because you know that tomorrow, if you are lacking, someone else will pay for your meal.”
I’m writing this blog post because this conversation happened a year ago, and I still cannot get the philosophy out of my mind. If a stranger pays for your meal, do you eventually have to pay them back? What if you can’t? Do they get angry if you find you cannot reciprocate? Or is there just a greater brotherhood among people who understand that money comes and goes, for they know that eventually it will be they who must survive by relying on the kindness of strangers? I can barely imagine this.
I was taught very pointedly that I was not meant to be a burden on anyone, overstay my welcome in another person’s home, to replay what I borrowed and to return what was due, but this is type of foresight and responsibility is, for better or for worse, the problem of a developed country, one where we have the luxury of borrowing and returning, hoarding what we feel we have earned. Rather than distinguishing the merited, Ibrahim sees this philosophy has separating our similarities.
Most of us cannot live fully without a Plan B in modern American society, for our system rewards the self-sufficient. Many Americans tire quickly of supporting those who have less — think of the wide-spread criticism on welfare, for example.
But when I traveled to Alaska this summer and spent an unexpected overnight in Phoenix with a friend I’d never met, his response was, “I figured you’d do the same someday.” And when a friend was stranded in Harrisburg from Montreal en route to Tennessee, I was cheerful when he stayed an extra two days. And I think of Ibrahim as I prepare to go to grad school this fall and try to construct myself an escape route in case all goes wrong — I could still change my profession, I could always transfer — and I wonder, maybe I can figure this out tomorrow. Maybe, for once, I can just be.
‘Tis the season of clear plastic cups of iced coffee sipped with green straws. However, this season, treat yourself to a coffee that is more than just cold.
Evoking the chilly haze of a rustic icebox, Little Amps’ “Cold Jar” ($3.75) is made in the tradition of an Italian caffe shakerato, an iced espresso that is often mixed with cream in a martini shaker. Here, it’s a shot of roasted-on-the-premises espresso poured over ice, sprinkled with brown sugar, flooded with cream, and shaken vigorously in a pint Ball mason jar until thick and frothy — and served in the same jar.
So rich it’s nearly chocolatey, Little Amps’ “Cold Jar” shakerato is Italian elegance blended with those summer afternoons of canning cherries on my family’s farm. Enjoy with one of Little Amps’ featured apple tarts, quiches, biscotti, or macroons by Short and Sweet Bakery, Lemoyne.
1826 Green Street
Harrisburg, PA 17102
It’s likely that we Americans get the coffee-and-pastry breakfast from France, where baguette slices are spread with Nutella and dipped into bowls of morning Joe, and fresh croissants are eaten with hot chocolate by afternoon. However, mass-produced Starbucks pound cake or stale Panera stick buns (with a dark roast in a travel mug) shouldn’t cut it for you. Return to the pastries of your grandmother with a rustic apple tart made by Short & Sweet Bakery, Lemoyne, and served at Little Amps Coffee Roasters, Harrisburg. It’s fresh apples folded into a flaky crust about then sprinkled with sugar for just a touch of sweetness — perfectly paired with the richness of one of Little Amp’s house-roasted coffee or espresso drinks. Also available for breakfast (and equally delicious) are biscotti, cookies, granola, macaroons, and quiches.
Little Amps Coffee Roasters
1836 Green Street
Harrisburg, PA 17102