Frustration (or Perhaps a reminder of where true Joy is to be found)
I am the one who is known in my community as THE coffee lover. I think this teaches us more about the community than it does about myself, since I am quite an inexperienced coffee drinker. I am enough of a coffee snob that I have imbibed less than a half dozen cups of instant coffee in the past few years. Instead of instant, I grind my own quality beans every day and brew with either a French Press or a Bialetti Brikka system Kaliffa Moka Pot.
This brew is sometimes called Stovetop Espresso. But identifying Moka Pot coffee with espresso makes many a coffee snob quiver with uneasiness. I have not had enough real espresso experience to have found the cup that I could appreciate as a real elixir. This makes me a picky coffee drinker who tinkers at home with something that is not quite what coffee can be? Brikka Moka!
Stovetop ESPRESSO?? No such thing! As you can learn from any number of Coffee links, true espresso is defined as coffee brewed under fairly high pressure and not over the fire. Boiling water is one of the enemies of true espresso. Using high pressure is the only way that flavor and oils will be extracted while eliminating the threat of burning the coffee.
This definition is a bit problematic, as early espresso machines were incapable of achieving these conditions. But then, perhaps as the technology of the early 20th century advanced it makes sense that the definition undergo modification.So, there is no way, they say, that a Moka pot can produce REAL espresso. But it is widely accepted that many REAL espresso machines rarely put out good (real??) espresso since the outcome is dependant on more than having an appropriate machine. Here is where my frustration lies.
As one roams the streets and shopping centers of Jerusalem one comes across numerous places selling espresso pulled from freshly ground Lavazza, Seagfredo or Bristot beans. Besides these well known Italian brands there are a number of excellent local roasters that provide quality blends. In Israel Coffee Culture abounds!
Empty Coffee Cup
While the local franchise of Second Cup closed down and Starbucks has put off opening its Jerusalem branch (limiting itself for the time being to the Tel Aviv area), small chains and independent coffee houses are growing. (Sadly if you do a search in the Google News search for Israel and Coffee you are more likely to read about the tragic events that have disrupted life here these past two years.) With so much to choose from I would hope to find the cup of espresso that would prove to me how far real espresso is ahead of the brew I extract from my Bialetti Kaliffa.
I am a coffee drinker, but not a frequenter of coffee bars and cafes. (An important marketing strength of the Moka Pot, invented in the 1930′s by A. Bialetti was the fact that it could provide Coffee at home that was just like coffee you could get at the bar. See the interesting article by Jeffrey Schnapp, “The Romance of Caffeine and Aluminum” in the journal Critical Inquiry Autumn 2001, U. of Chicago.)
At a visit to a health clinic I saw a Seagfredo wagon and thought I would give him a try. “A” try was enough to realize that this streetside vendor type of arrangement does not hold much hope. But, what can you make of it when coffee shops (even the place where I buy my quality beans) also give you a version of espresso whose crema is about a half millimeter deep? I have tried telling them to go light on the water, but still get long (or even very long) espresso that is incapable of leaving a filmy stain on the cup when I’m done drinking. Many of these coffee shops are manned by 16-year-old kids. The sandwich they sell is at least as important to them as the espresso they make.
When I saw the huge espresso machine stand in waiting during a recent wedding reception, my heart started pounding. This Kibbutz hotel, one that caters professionally and respects style and taste in order to create that special atmosphere, could be the venue of the near ultimate experience.
My hopes got up as I remembered the story of my friend Larry who poured beer and drew espressos at a Kibbutz Guest house in the Galilee. He hadn’t seemed to learn the theory — but this American born poet-turned kibbutz bartender apparently had the feel. He claimed that he did “OK” pulling espressos, as he carefully watched the pressure, etc. I asked him how he knew it was good. “What were your criteria?” “When a group of Italians makes it a point to drop by the guest house while touring the area to drink your espresso, you know that you must be doing something right. What more can you ask for than to have an Italian give you an A-OK in sign language?” Hopefully this Kibbutz Hotel and Caterer will have its Larry come out later to get the espresso machine working.
During the meal I constantly glanced in the direction of the machine. It remained unmanned as the hot water machines and packets of instant coffee were being used by the guests. This IS promising. If they wait until the end of the meal, maybe this will be the espresso that will be my desert and whose taste will linger on my palate all the way home.
Empty Espresso Cup
I got up and strolled towards the machine. Cups and saucers were neatly stacked around it. They caused me disconcertment since they were too large. On top of the machine a number of smaller cups were lined up. They looked big enough for double espressos. There weren’t many of these. I guess they were meant for those few of us who are not looking for an 8 oz or more American coffee to gulp down with our cake.
The reception continued and I waited patiently. The barista manned (better womanned) her station and began pulling espressos (oops! Coffees), for the guests. The line was long and as each guest approached asking for “a coffee”, the grinder churned out a dose. The big cups were filled one after the other. Some guest said, “The line may be long but at least we are waiting for the ‘real thing’.” One, apparently perceptive young lady was asked by a companion, “What kind of coffee is she serving”. She replied, “Here in Israel you serve whatever you are capable of pushing on the customer.”
I needed two coffees, one for myself and on for my mother who appreciates the advances of Tasters Choice over the instant coffee of yesteryear. I was embarrassed to ask the barista what she offers and didn’t want to sound obnoxious or snobby. I just told her to go light on the water. She handed me the first fairly large cup, almost full. (This was going “light on the water”?) My Mom would probably enjoy it. I asked for my second cup with half the amount of water (although 25% or less would have been better). “Sorry,” she says, “this is what the machine puts out.” I couldn’t drink past the first sip of this tasteless “brew”. (Perhaps the grounds were too coarse, not enough pressure and the heat was too low. She did manage to color the water brown though.)
I got home pretty late and pulled out the ol’ Zass. I carefully prepared my Bialetti Kaliffa, a small and simple contraption. Within a few minutes it was perched on the small fire in the middle of the stove and it did its thing. After sipping my final sips of this Non-espresso, home-made brew, I felt the tingle in my throat and on my palate. I looked into the cup and appreciated the oily film adhering to it walls. Frustration from my attempts to find the espresso experience — but joy in the impressive brew I extracted with my Bialetti.
The Story of the Bialetti Moka Express – History of the Bialetti.
Bialetti Brikka 4-Cup Stovetop Percolator – Amazon product page.
Stovetop Espresso Brewing Tutorial – A guide to brewing stovetop espresso with the Bialetti.
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