Feb. 26, 2008 -- A nation that has become entitled to lattes-on-demand is in shock tonight.
Starbucks closed down its stores for 3.5 hours today — from 5:30 p.m. to 9 p.m. local time to train its baristas. The goal of the massive barista work stoppage, which was explained in a vaguely Soviet-sounding memo, entitled "Transformation Agenda Communication #8," is to "teach, educate and share our love for coffee."
Ann-Marie Kurtz, Starbucks' manager of global coffee and tea education, said the measure would give "baristas the chance to really slow down and have the chance to really celebrate the art of espresso."
Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz recently came out of retirement to revive the company, which he says has lost some of its "romance" and "soul" as it's become a global behemoth.
Sales are slipping as McDonald's and Dunkin' Donuts step up the competition.
In fact, to capitalize on today's Starbucks shutdown, Dunkin' Donuts offered 99-cent lattes and cappuccinos.
Meanwhile, today's news sends a real jolt through the thriving world of espresso purists.
Ken Nye, owner of Ninth Street Espresso in the East Village of New York, suggested that a few hours of training was not enough to cultivate a barista's palate.
"To say that 3.5 hours is a barista training is hard to swallow. Company training is another story," he said. "It probably makes sense when you have hundreds of thousands of employees. Probably makes sense that everybody learns about thirty rules of operation, but it's also probably got nothing to do with the art of making coffee."
At Ninth Street Espresso, new staff — regardless of prior experience — are trained for up to three months with the aid of a dedicated trainer.
Nye explained, "Our baristas have a knowledge of coffee — the entire process from seed to cup. We want our staff to understand coffee and have a refined and developed palate, and teach that to our customers."
Espresso consists of two ingredients: water and coffee. A small amount of temperature is pushed very quickly through a certain amount of ground coffee. There appears to be almost no margin for error, but every barista knows that there are dozens of steps required to make espresso, and executing even one step incorrectly will corrupt the final product.
Felice Aiello, a seasoned barista at Cafe Grumpy in New York, said that the staff at his cafe "don't even pull a shot of espresso in the first month or two."
"Espresso takes a long time to learn," Aiello said. "If you're not constantly tasting the coffee, you're not really going to know what to accomplish."
Aiello has been a barista for more than 10 years, and his ethnic ties to Italy have shaped his own preferences. He doesn't add milk to his own espresso or coffee, pointing out that Italians only add milk to their breakfast coffee.
"Milk in Italy is just a morning thing because it is associated with breakfast. I think people have their cappuccino and cornetto [a delicate pastry similar to a croissant], and that's their breakfast. Anytime after 11 a.m. or 12 p.m., everyone is ordering just espresso," he pointed out.
So, what should coffee consumers expect from the perfect cup of espresso?
Nye advises consumers to look for an oily, auburn appearance at the surface of the drink.
"You should see crema, that beautiful combination of gases and oils at the top. It looks very appetizing, and that's where all the aromatics and compounds are," he explained.
Seeing froth or any tarry black liquid is a sign of a poorly made shot of espresso, as is any shot of espresso that contains more than 2.5 ounces of liquid.
Cafe manager John Mitchell of Gimme Coffee in Brooklyn, N.Y., also pulls a mean shot of espresso, but had a much more cavalier manner about it.
"There are no hard and fast rules — it if tastes good to you, that's fine." he said. "Coffee culture is not a culture of snobs — there isn't one thing that is going to be the definitive standard for everyone."
With 44 million transactions a week, there are plenty of people who still love Starbucks and people who, for tonight, will have to go without.
Below are Nye's tips for brewing the perfect cup of coffee:
It All Starts with a Good Grinder: A good grinder is vital for good coffee. Nye recommends the Burr grinder, which has a blade that cuts, rather than crushes or pulverizes coffee.
Use High Quality Water: Using tap water is fine if you know it's of a good quality. Otherwise, you can also use bottled water.
Use a French Press: Baristas agree that the French press is the best way to brew coffee at home. "It's really the simplest, most basic way to interact with coffee," Nye said. "It's very forgiving."
STEPS FOR BREWING COFFEE IN A FRENCH PRESS
1. Boil water to 212 degrees and then let it cool to 200 degrees.
2. For every 16 ounces of water you will use, scoop one ounce of ground coffee into the French press. You can measure the coffee with either a scale or a scoop that may come with your French press.
3. Add just enough water to cover the coffee grinds. Let the coffee steep for one minute.
4. Add the remaining water and let steep for three minutes.
JUNG HWA SONG contributed to this report.