Sunday, January 14, 2007
So I’ve finally had a little time lately to catch up on some online coffee dorkdom, and I have some fun to share.
First off is the portafilter podcast, which has been really good lately. In particular, episode 55 from back in November not only cracked me up but finally gave me an illuminating, nuts-and-bolts answer to why there has traditionally been a dearth of quality espresso in New York City, which is something I’ve always wondered about.
And then I stumbled across this blog: espresso porn. It’s all just photos of shots pouring out of a naked portafilter. I simultaneously think this is ridiculous and oddly beautiful. Naked portafilters – just in case you were wondering - have had the spout sawed off. My understanding is that this is done so that the coffee will come into minimal contact with metal and will therefore not pick up any of the off tastes that metal can give. I’ve also heard that it’s a good way for baristas to train because when they watch shots pour out of a naked portafilter, they’re better able to analyze whether they’ve dosed and tamped evenly. (Of course, what do I know? I have no first-hand experience with this.)
But in any case, the photos cracked me up. And they reminded me of something I find very interesting – the visual fetishizing of espresso drinks. I mean, this espresso porn guy is not alone. About five years ago when I first started to realize that there is an online community of people who are serious about espresso, I would be on some web forum (probably it was coffee geek, but I don’t remember) and somebody would post a photo of a shot of espresso and say something like, look at this beautiful shot that I pulled this morning! Check out that crema! And I would kind of inwardly roll my eyes and think, sure, buddy, your dick is huge. HUGE. Congratulations.
Which is to say that I found it kind of silly. And then, well, I started making a movie about the cappuccino. And of course it is impossible to do that without reflecting on the visual component of espresso preparation and consumption. For starters, espresso itself is quite simply beautiful. I mean, think about it. Have you ever stared mesmerized at the stream of coffee dripping through a paper filter into a pyrex pot? I haven’t. But after four years of shooting video in coffee shops I can tell you that those 25 seconds (or so) of espresso pouring out of the portafilter are endlessly visually compelling. And the same can be said for the fascinating variety of ways milk can pour into espresso. It’s just pretty. And if you look back at the history of espresso machine design and espresso bar layout, the truth is that espresso has always had a visually spectacular element to it, and visual pleasure has been central to defining what espresso is.
Check out some of the photos of the machines in Enrico Maltoni’s collection. They’re gorgeous; they’re works of art. And they were given pride of place in Italian espresso bars, in some cases valued as much for their form as their function. Prior to the invention of espresso, coffee was typically brewed and sitting around, waiting for a customer to enter and drink it. But look at this photo from a Milan trade fair in 1906. It's a little hard to see in the tiny picture, but the espresso machines are on the counter, high enough that the average person would have to look up at them. Preparation had changed from something that happened back behind the counter to something that happened ON the counter, right in front of you. Unlike the coffee that came before it, espresso was made right there, on the spot, expressly for you. And according to cultural historian Jeffrey Schnapp, the earliest machine designers understood this as a major selling point. They understood that espresso appealed to people partly because it was a superior extraction method and partly because its preparation was a compelling visual spectacle. Espresso was modern; it was fast; it was associated with other technological advances of the time, especially train travel. Espresso was sexy.
And it still is. The world-famous Emily is fond of saying that the pleasure of eating starts with your eyes. If something is pleasurable to look at, it whets your appetite and heightens your senses. So why NOT appreciate the beauty of a perfectly-extracted shot of espresso or a beautifully-poured cappuccino? Why NOT admire a gorgeous espresso machine while you’re standing around waiting for your cappuccino? Visual pleasure has been an essential part of the pleasure of espresso since its very inception.
It’s funny, because Starbucks gets a lot of credit (well, mostly from itself) for having “transformed” coffee from a commodity into a total experience. But they were not the first ones to hook into the idea that a trip to the coffee shop should excite more than your palate. And, if anything, in recent years they’ve completely lost touch with the visually spectacular nature of espresso preparation. Their machines have gotten uglier and more functional, and they’ve lost their pride of place in a lot of Starbucks stores. They mostly look like big plastic boxes, not art pieces, and the baristas are mostly just back there pushing buttons. Which is too, too bad. Starbucks is really missing out on an opportunity there.
So I guess the random guys who post pretty pictures of their morning shots of espresso are just keeping the tradition alive (albeit in a thoroughly 21st century manner). It’s hard, though. One thing I’ve noticed since I started this blog is that when I get a really good cappuccino, I never want to stop what I’m doing for long enough to take a picture of it.