Recently there was an espresso showdown at the Hotel Albany, as part of the Albany Chefs Food & Wine Festival. Several baristas from across the region came to compete head-to-head in order to see who was the best of the bunch. (It should be noted that Caffe Vero decided to sit this one out.)
The competitors each had five minutes of preparation time and then 17 minutes to prepare four drinks for three tasting judges, while a fourth technical judge evaluated the barista's performance. Scores were based on the barista's espresso, then either a cappuccino or a latte, a signature drink, and a fourth drink that combined coffee with booze.
The winner was David Schulman of the Hudson River Coffee House in Albany. So how did someone who six months ago knew little about coffee go on to take the title of best barista in the area? And what set him apart from the other contenders? The only way to find out was to sit down with him and have a little coffee talk.
How long have you been a barista?
[Hudson River Coffee House owner] Anton [Pasquill] and I have been friends for the last year and a half or so, because I'm actually a musician first and foremost and I used to come play the starving artist thing over here and Anton would feed me. You know, I would play for an hour and he would give me a sandwich and a coffee for the night. I would do that during the summer and do school during the year.
I ended up coming here about five months ago and now I'm a great barista [laughs].
There seem to be a lot of musicians who are drawn to coffee...
You know it's weird, I didn't drink coffee five, six months ago. Obviously, I had drank it before in my life. But it was usually like, okay it's three in the morning and we're at a rest stop in Pennsylvania driving here or there, I'm going to to grab some coffee. And it wasn't necessarily good coffee. It was just coffee at the rest stop. And it was just a means to caffeinate myself.
Now, I'm suddenly like a coffee nerd. I have all this information in my brain about what type of bean it is, and where it came from, and how it was harvested, and how it was roasted, and how it was flavored. And maybe it's a robusta rather than an arabica. Maybe it's an espresso rather than just coffee. Things like that.
Coffee is actually quite the interesting world. There's a whole subculture around it. And it's really pretty awesome once you really get to know it.
How did you learn all of this?
My first week here I spent most of the time making sandwiches. Because the espresso machine was so foreign to me. It took me probably two weeks to really get a feel for how to use the machine in general. And then I would say it took me a few months to really actually become good at making a latte.
I spent a lot of time practicing. Especially a month and half span when I knew I was going to be in this competition. And that was after three months of being here. And at first I was sort of thrown off. "Wait, you want me to compete?" It was sort of like a shock at first. But when it came down to it, this is my new job. And if this is a part of my job, then I'm going to do it. Because, that's my job. I took the whole thing rather seriously.
I would spend at least two to three hours extra every day after my shift. And I would spend that time practicing using the machine and making lattes. Or I would just be reading a book about coffee. Doing some self-education about the chemistry of coffee, the brewing period, the harvesting procedure.
Before I knew it, it became sort of meditative. You might think, oh it's kind of annoying, you have to stare at the portafilter and get exactly a certain amount of grounds in there. And then you have to push it in there a certain way. And then you have to put it on the machine. And then you want to get the cup right under the spout. And then you got to froth the milk a certain way.
At first it seems sort of like, "What is all this stuff. Why am I doing all these things?"
But then when you realize that if you do it all perfectly the way it should be done You get this wonderful chemical reaction within the drink. If you froth the milk perfectly and pull the espresso perfectly, the water temperature is right, the amount of time you let the water drip over it is right, you get this balanced beautiful tasting drink. And then you also get a really appreciative customer.
Can you tell me a little about your process for pulling a shot of espresso?
The most important part comes as the espresso is coming out of the machine. You have to watch it pour out. If it is coming out really fast, like gushing out, it means you didn't put in enough grounds or didn't tamp it properly; there's something wrong. If it's dripping out like raindrops or like a drain that you didn't turn off all the way, it's also wrong, because it shouldn't be like that either. You want it to come out like a dribble. A consistent dribble. It almost looks like a mouse's tail. Just that one little line of espresso that keeps going, but it's very slow. And you can see the color of the espresso.
When it comes in the cup the one thing you really want to look for is the crema. It's that orange layer that almost looks like foam sometimes. It sits on top of the espresso. Even if you were to shake it around and move around the espresso in a circular motion, the crema would move around, it would stick to the sides of the cup, but then it would come right back down to the top.
The most clear sign of a good shot of espresso that was pulled correctly is that you want to have a nice layer of crema on top. And that crema will also give you the aroma you want.
What are your feelings on milk?
I actually brought my own gallon of milk with me. Because milk varies with how its pasteurized, how much sugar, what sort of process they use, how fresh it is. Battenkill is what we get here at the store, it's farm fresh from Salem, New York. We get a fresh delivery every Tuesday. Their milk is superb. You drop a little bit of milk in your coffee from them, and the color changes instantly. It's very potent, but in a delicious way.
There are times when we don't order enough for the week, and by Sunday we run out of whole milk and we have to settle and buy a gallon of Price Chopper whole milk. Maybe for your milk in your cereal it tastes fine, but frothing Price Chopper milk or any different types of milk... those things have different chemicals that burn faster or slower when you are frothing it, so it creates different texture, different type of microfoam, different amount of time or different temperature you would need to froth it the right way.
So it was very important for me to bring Battenkill milk just because I'm used to using it, frothing with it, and also because in my mind it has a superior taste and a superior texture than a cheaper milk you can buy at the supermarket.
What else set you apart from your competition?
I was very particular about how things would look for presentation. My brothers are both in the food industry. One of them is a bartender and a waiter, and the other one is a chef. They tell me all the time half the battle is presentation, and it's absolutely true. It really is.
This interview was conducted in person and lightly edited.
At the conclusion of our conversation, David made an espresso, a latte (with an apple etched in foam), and his signature orange cream espresso con panna. And they delivered on the promise of crema, microfoam, and a balanced combination of inventive flavors.
It's fantastic to know there are more passionate coffee lovers in the Capital Region who are making espresso drinks with the care and attention they deserve. Congratulations to David and the Hudson River Coffee House on their well deserved victory.
Daniel B. is the proprietor of the FUSSYlittleBLOG.
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