The first round of midterms are in full swing, which means studying at all hours of the night and consuming cookies, pizza and Chinese food delivered to Helen C. White just to keep going. Since performance enhancement isn’t nearly as monitored and scandalized in academia as it is in the MLB, I’ve decided to write a column about study consumption habits. Many people will sip on coffee during classes to pay attention to those 8:50 power lectures, but I am going to take a look at a commonly enjoyed beverage of the studious elite.
Caff? Espresso is a concentrate of coffee that utilizes special, greasier beans, a finer grind, and a lot of hot water pressure. We’ll get into all of that a little later, but first, let’s get a little more personal and a little closer to home. I’ve been a barista since I was 16 (give or take a few bad jobs), so this topic is close to my heart. Also, before writing this column, I talked with several baristas along state street (Espresso Royale, Steep and Brew, the owners of Fair Trade Coffeehouse, Michelangelo’s and Bradbury’s) to co-opt their knowledge in the pursuit of truth and wakefulness.
Espresso has greater caffeine content relative to its volume than an average cup of coffee. To some, that can mean increased focus while studying or a jolt of alertness in the late hours. For others, that can also mean a hyped-up, nervous sensation followed by a bout of quaking anxiety. These are two ends of the spectrum that only lead to three words of wisdom every college student (except freshmen) should know already: Know your limits.
Espresso is the coffee base for a bevy of different drinks that can appeal to an equal variety of tastes. The caff? latte is a coffee shop standard that can be made easily with any espresso machine. Espresso is poured at the bottom with steamed milk and frothed milk on top. The level of froth varies, but usually there is about half an inch to an inch on top. Chocolate and espresso work well together, and many thick, syrupy liquids can improve the body of a drink while toning down the heavier notes of the shot. Honey and condensed milk mixed with espresso make a miel and a Spanish latte, respectively.
The concentrated concoction comes in one to two shots that are poured or “pulled” from an espresso machine. The shots are pulled from a tamper that is filled with grounds and hooked up to a group head on the machine that pours high-pressure water through the grounds and infuses it, which is then forced through the nozzle of the tamper’s portafilter and into a glass. The high pressure of water and a unique roasting technique extracts large amounts of caffeine into the espresso. The beans are roasted to secrete more caffeine-rich oils than a regular cup of coffee, and if a regular cup of coffee was brewed from espresso beans, it would be darker and bolder than Lil Wayne and Bruce Wayne combined.
A good espresso shot should take about 22 to 30 seconds to be pulled. Long pulls are from 28 to 35 seconds, and shorter pulls are 22 to 25 seconds. The timing is important because of the small volume of the shots. A short pull can lead to espresso with more body and flavor, but with less volume. A longer pull can result in a higher volume shot with more balance in flavor. Most coffee shops in Madison will go for a longer pull (at most 30 seconds), with a few exceptions.
The best shot I experienced on State Street was from Steep ‘n’ Brew, which the barista informed me had a long pull of 28 seconds with a large amount of grounds tamped into a single shot. Distinct from other shops, Steep ‘n’ Brew’s devotion to quality includes a full pour whereas many caf?s split them out into two servings. Essentially this means that there are more grounds used for the same amount of espresso.
Bradbury’s should get special mention for their one-of-a-kind espresso machine, which is the only one in Madison and pulls an amazing, double or triple “ristretto” shot that is full-bodied and wonderfully flavorful.
If you ever have the pleasure of seeing a shot pulled, look for a couple of things. The pour should initially be a bit dark, but not black. The money zone for espresso as it is pulled is a reddish-brown color that doesn’t look too much like coffee at all. This coloration and texture is called the “crema” of the espresso. The crema should remain at the top of the shot for at least 30 seconds after it has been completely pulled. This is also the step where good and bad espresso diverges.
If everything is good, there should be a layer of crema that tastes distinctly different from the espresso brew. It should taste smoky and offer hints of the blend it is brewed from, but slightly sweet, if just a little bit is placed on the palette. A good gauge of quality is to skim the top of the crema and taste it without sipping the actually shot. Remember when I said that espresso beans are greasier than a normal coffee blend? This extra greasiness results in the foamy crema, which is comprised of oils and proteins and quickly dissipates when exposed to oxygen.
Speaking of crunch time, you may be wondering how espresso lives up to study standards compared to coffee and the massive number of energy drinks on the market. Each espresso shot has a comparable amount of caffeine to an 8 to 12 oz. cup of coffee, but with double and triple shots, the disparity between volume and caffeine content becomes greater. It’s easy to drink a large iced latte, which contains about three normal servings of coffee.
However, espresso should be used sparingly and drank slowly. It can be the way to go when test performance is dire, but it is more useful for a quick jolt than a long study session, as the heavy concentration leads to a crash of higher magnitude than a standard cup of medium roast. Any period of focus longer than two hours is not ideal for espresso, but if that little window is needed for some high-impact studying, a shot of espresso might just do the trick.
Alex Truong is a junior majoring in economics and a fervent advocate of chocolate sauce. If you have questions or love that special jolt from espresso, e-mail him at [email protected]