March 14

The Last Mile

The Last Mile Monthly Column

I’ve seen coffee’s future.  It’s right here in Manhattan, and it’s so bright, you might want to grab those Ray-Bans.

I found coffee’s new horizon not in a Brooklyn third-wave bar, or snug West Village café. Rather, it lives in two charismatic and curious brothers: Upper West Siders named Lucas and Maxwell, high school and college students, respectively.  Spend just five minutes with them, and you’ll remember just why you got involved with coffee.  Get to know them a little better, as I’ve been lucky to do, and you will be amazed by all that they know and by all of the possibilities they represent.

Our tale starts one warm June morning last year at the start of the two-day illy University of Coffee class that I teach at the International Culinary Center in Soho.  Among the hotel executives and coffee entrepreneurs enrolled were two young guys sporting the title “Coffee Enthusiast” on their nametags.  “My brother and I had a couple of weeks to kill between school and camp, so instead of watching non-stop Netflix, we went looking for a coffee class,” recalls Maxwell, speaking on behalf of older brother Lucas, currently away at college.  After breaking the ice with (what else) a warm espresso, the stories started flowing of the well-equipped barista stations each brother maintains at home; of preferred preparation methods – for Maxwell, make that espresso and French press; and of the friendly competitions these barista brothers regularly wage and use to hone their skills.

Maxwell isn’t some teen coffee mercenary looking for stay-awake help during first period.  He claims near immunity to the stimulating effects of an espresso here and a mug there. He’s in it for craft and taste, period.  And the love affair goes way back.  While his toddling contemporaries were all a-drool over teething biscuits, a one-year-old Maxwell was known to snatch mom’s coffee from her very hands, tethered to her front by Baby Bjorn.

Fast forward about 10 years, to when the boys’ grandfather let Lucas toy with a rusty, old La Pavoni machine, given as a gift and rarely used.  “We got it to work well-ish,” says Maxwell.  “That was tough because it was a pump machine that took lots of work getting the right pressure.”  I told Maxwell that his grandfather gave them an even bigger gift than they knew, by having them learn on a (wonderfully) complicated, manual machine that left everything up to the barista to get right.  Master a vintage La Pavoni, and you can write your coffee future – as these brothers did, and are.

Lucas received a special going-away-to college gift: a shiny new La Pavoni from his grandfather, prompting Maxwell to lobby for a machine of his own.  Six months later, he marched into Bed Bath & Beyond and plunked down $300 (his own) for a Cuisinart machine he’d pined after.  And that’s when the frequent brotherly “espresso offs,” as Maxwell calls them, started filling their apartment with ever-improving aromas, each budding barista learning how to exploit the strengths and compensate for the weaknesses of their respective, metal-clad weaponry.  “Mine made better crema, and his steamed milk better.  I got too many macro-bubbles,” Maxwell says.  “So we learned and adjusted.  Lucas found he couldn’t get the right texture from his burr grinder, so he got hold of a hand crank, and things got better.”  At University of Coffee, Maxwell would learn how keeping the pitcher angled precisely, and how the fine art of counter tapping held the keys to steaming and frothing.

Maxwell says that the University of Coffee opened his eyes to coffee’s bigger picture; its rich history and farm-to-cup journey, and to two colors he never knew were part of its palate: red (cherries) and green (unroasted beans).  He came to see and appreciate the global community that coffee inhabits and influences, not least the local growers who beat at its heart.  As for the pleasure of consumption, “I discovered tasting notes I couldn’t believe existed in coffee,” Maxwell said.  “And I know my palate isn’t fully developed, so I’m bound to discover more.”

During hands-on training, Maxwell learned that establishing an orderly routine behind the bar is critical to getting consistently good results, and why double tamping is absolutely, positively forbidden.  “And I know to be afraid of the dark.  Very afraid,” he warned.  You see, that’s one of my central tenets: overly roasted coffee can either ruin great beans, or mask deficiencies in others.

Like I said, these guys – and coffee – have some great future!

Giorgio Milos is illy’s award-winning Master Barista and illy’s North American Barista in Residence who regularly ventures beyond the cup to study the biology and chemistry of the coffee bean, continually striving to master the beverage that is his passion and profession.

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