Friday, July 22, 2005

I'm not a virgin anymore


Recently, I found myself in Washington DC, and it was there that finally, after a plump 27 years on this mortal coil, I lost my virginity. I was deflowered, as it were, in a coffee shop, called Murky Coffee, located near DC's precious little Eastern Market. There, I became an man, not with the assistance from a member of the opposite sex, or even the same sex, but from an unbelievably good cup of coffee.

My decadent mistress on that fateful afternoon was a decaf mocha latte. On first appearance, she was something other-worldly and unlike any drink I had ever seen. She was topped with a sexy bit of "latte art," resulting from skillful mixing of the espresso oils with the steamed milk. She was not just sexy; She was luxurious and smooth, thick and heady, and tasted of an amazing decaf Peruvian espresso blend. The texture of the milk, and the quality of the espresso shot was unspeakably decadent. I have never tasted anything that approached such a pure, unadulterated essence of pleasure.

Sadly, all chain coffee shops, like Starbucks, and even most independent coffee shops are designed never to produce beverages like this one. There are two reasons why. First, the milk has to be frothed and steamed quite precisely, producing, in the lingua-franca of espresso freaks, a "micro-foam." The micro-foam is characterized by its thick texture, similar to that of a light whipped cream, the result of infintesimal bubbles of air embedded in milk proteins. Interestingly, I have gotten this type of milk in my mochas 3 or 4 times at various Starbucks, apparently due to an accidental fluke. When I explicitly ask for it, the baristas never know how to reproduce it.

The second reason regular coffee shops fail to produce these lovely drinks, they pour a cup of steamed milk and then dump the espresso shot(s) into the cup in one, uncaring stroke. To get the beautiful rosetta (and other lovely patterns), the milk apparently must be poured in layers into a cup containing the espresso. The alternating light/dark effects are the result of the slow and controlled mixing of espresso oils (the "crema") floating on the surface of the shot with the milk. Surely, since Starbucks and friends are driven primarily to reduce customer wait times, they will never purposely produce such a beverage.

Anyone who has, until now, suffered with only Starbucks-caliber drinks must seek out and experience one of these amazing drinks. Unfortunately, as best as I can tell, there are, only a few hundred coffee shops, and at most, several hundred coffee shops in the United States that can make beverages like these. I fear that unless you are in a large city, you will never find such a coffee shop. Even worse, several large cities, such as Philadelphia, seem to have no such shops. Your best bet is to google for "latte art *your city*," and hope to find a reference to a local coffee shop. While latte art is just a decoration on a mighty fine, high quality coffee, most places that really care seem to add the finishing touch.

Since that fateful day in DC, I have moved to California. There, in San Francisco, I have found two coffee shops that serve these high-caliber coffee drinks. The first is Ritual Coffee Roasters, and the second is Cafe Organica, which has been voted (by somebody) the best coffee shop in San Fran. Of the two, I must recommend Ritual Coffee Roasters over Organica, primarily because the latter is much more expensive, and the former has a much more interesting communistic atmosphere, more central location, and better pastries. As far as I can tell, if you're in the area, you would be a fool to get coffee at any other place in the city. In comparison to Murky Coffee, these San Fran offerings produce better foamed milk, although I am disappointed that their espresso does not touch my heart as Murky's Peruvian decaf has.

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