The Caffé Critic

When it comes to espresso, Richard Reynolds is the man who knew too much. Pity he doesn't own a cafe.

Richard Reynolds has given up on finding a good cup of espresso. He makes such a scene when he gets a bad cup that his friends beg him not to order it. “I’m terrible,” he sighs. “I make my own and I don’t even order it out anymore.”

Get him on the subject, and something happens to this mild-mannered communications director for Mother Jones magazine: His eyes light up like a kid’s in a toy store. Espresso is Reynolds’ true love. He has even written about it for coffee trade journal Fresh Cup and Saveur magazine. “Coffee is very controversial,” he says. “There are a million opinions about the details in how it’s prepared. I just have my own way.”

So, on a sweltering afternoon, Food Fetish takes a coffee break with Reynolds at his attractive Berkeley home. Around here, he laments, you’ve gotta get lucky to find espresso done right. He wistfully mentions a defunct cafe — its name long-forgotten — that once served a good cup. “People think of espresso as strong coffee, or they think of it as burned coffee or dark beans with a lot of oil on them,” he explains. “But espresso is not just strong coffee. It’s a completely unique style of coffee that’s fundamentally different from [drip] coffee because you’re forcing hot water through tightly compacted ground beans. You’re extracting the oils –you’re emulsifying the oils in the coffee, and if it’s done correctly you get what’s called ‘crema,’ which is a layer on top of the coffee that should be thick enough that you can put a spoonful of sugar on it. The sugar should take several seconds to fall through to the bottom of the cup.”

To Reynolds’ chagrin, we Americans like our beverages big, coffee included. “Espresso,” he says, “is a little thing. It’s an ounce, an ounce and a half of very concentrated coffee, and it’s intended to be drunk that way.

“What’s happened,” he continues, “is that Starbucks has essentially brought espresso to the US by serving coffee-flavored steamed milk. And they keep getting bigger; at first you had your eight-ounce lattes, then you have your twelve-ounce lattes. Now everybody’s gotta do a twenty-ounce latte. … Americans have learned to drink these — these milk drinks.”

Even when preparing espresso neat, US baristas make a lot of mistakes. They put too much water through the grind, too fast. “If you make it that way,” Reynolds says, “it’s gonna suck.” Probably the most common mistake, he says, is in the grind. It has to be consistent. “You have to find that perfect grind where it will take 25 seconds for one ounce of coffee to go through a single basket,” he warns, and “you’ve gotta grind it yourself.”

Nor can you leave ground coffee sitting around; and it’s very important to tamp the coffee when it’s in the machine’s espresso basket. “There’s a million debates on the subject,” Reynolds says. “Most people say it should be about 35 pounds of tamp pressure.”

So many rules.

Finally, Reynolds puts all this talk into action. “It should be like Guinness and slowly drip out,” he says as he grinds the beans and tamps the result into the basket, which he then attaches to his $1,400 Italian ECM Giotto machine — his wife Fran jokingly calls it “Richard’s sports car.”

The coffee — the beans come from a Seattle company called Caffé D’arte — takes its sweet time, and Reynolds claims the first espresso is never that good, so he insists on making a second. The first one looks plenty good, though — a tiny little pull of terra-cotta liquid in a pretty Lilly cup. It has a thick head of the much-desired crema.

But Reynolds was right: The second cup is even thicker. The coffee works hard to force its way out of the sports car’s spigots. Reynolds frets that it came out a tad too fast, but finally relents and hands it over.

Wow. It is the best espresso ever — and this isn’t just the usual Food Fetish hyperbole. From now on, all coffee will suck, suck, suck by comparison. The pure, rich, bronze crema makes up about two-thirds of the concoction, and it easily passes the sugar test. The crystals stay on top for several seconds before finally melting into the cup. The tiny drink brings no jittery caffeine rush, only a peaceful feeling of well-being.

With his gift for espresso making, why doesn’t Reynolds open up a cafe? As he ponders the question, Fran interjects: “He wouldn’t make any soy lattes, or nonfat lattes.” She laughs, and her husband looks pained at the very thought.

Maybe, just maybe, there’s a cafe around that can measure up to Reynolds’ rigorous standards. There are three within a two-block radius on Oakland’s Piedmont Avenue, and so we set out to see if anyone can make a decent espresso.

First up is Gaylord’s Caffe Espresso, né Old Uncle Gaylord’s, which used to be primarily an ice cream parlor but now concentrates on being the boho epicenter of this upscale commercial district. Sure enough, the place is filled with the usual local artists and gadflies. Reynolds says we should get two espressos. Here, unfortunately, you can’t watch the baristas make your coffee. He is worried they’re using a transfer cup, which is necessary for lattes — you have to pour the espresso into a larger cup of milk. You don’t need a transfer cup for espresso, but some places use them anyway, leaving much of the precious crema behind.

A young barista glares as Reynolds snoops a bit. “Can I help you?” she asked loudly. He assures her he’s just interested in the espresso machine, but she shoots us a snotty look.

While it’s nice to see a neighborhood cafe thriving, the espresso at Gaylord’s is nothing to write home about. The crema layer is meager, and Reynolds pronounces the Panache brand coffee as “charred and over-roasted.” It tastes burnt and goes straight to the stomach. “It’s not terrible, though,” he says. “I can drink it.”

Gotta try the Starbucks across the way. Some folks have hated the chain for so long, they’ve forgotten why they hate it. The fact that Starbucks deliberately moved in directly across the street from Gaylord’s a few years ago, despite neighbors’ petitions, is reason enough for some. But the low-grade espresso comes out a strong second.

Reynolds seems embarrassed to be here, but approaches the counter courageously. “I’d like a single-pull espresso,” he says. The teenage cashier tucks a lock of dyed black hair behind one ear, looking baffled. “What?” she asks, searching for a button on the cash register that might help decipher this puzzling order.

Reynolds gives up and orders in the official Starbucks parlance. She nods with relief and conveys the order to a gangly adolescent male toiling at the sparkling Italian espresso machine. He sullenly grabs two transfer cups and jostles them under the spigots. “He’s making the espressos in a dirty shot glass that hasn’t been cleaned,” Reynolds whispers. “Also, there’s no tamping.”

The light-brown liquid gushes out quickly, and the barista unceremoniously splashes it into a paper cup. Reynolds looks displeased. “Paper isn’t good,” he murmurs. The espresso itself appears thin, with little crema to speak of. Reynolds takes a sip and grimaces. “We call Starbucks ‘Charbucks,'” he chuckled. “You can have the greatest espresso mix ever made,” he explains as he peruses the Starbucks merchandise. “Put the coffee in the hands of someone who doesn’t know what they’re doing and they’ll produce a lousy, lousy coffee.”

On to Peet’s, our own local version of Starbucks, which sits just a block down the street. Reynolds places the same order, which the counter girl has no problem deciphering. After the Starbucks debacle, Food Fetish jumps the gun and asks that it be made in real cups. The barista seems insulted. “Unless you specify, we always make espresso in real cups,” he says. Fortunately, the espresso machine is in plain sight. “Good, he’s tamping the coffee,” Reynolds whispers. He does, however, use a transfer cup.

The Peet’s espresso has a layer of crema — much thinner than Reynolds’, but thicker than those of the other cafes. The sugar takes its time sinking into the body of the coffee — another good sign. And the stuff isn’t bad. Unlike the others, it doesn’t taste burned. “The barista was well-trained,” Reynolds concludes. “He did a good job. There’s a hint of complexity in the coffee.” Still, the espresso is slightly bitter, and doesn’t have the richness of Reynolds’ homemade stuff.

So, dear readers, if you happen to know Richard Reynolds, please beg him to open up a cafe. Just swear to God you’ll never order a tall, soy, nonfat latte.

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