I Was a Barista for a Day, and It Changed the Way I Think About Coffee

There’s something eminently agreeable about a sleepy Saturday morning in Cincinnati, and while this is not the only time you will find the city’s Findlay Market in full swing, Saturdays are definitely when the historic quarter grasps at its full potential, drawing the largest number of people, not to mention vendors. Things reach their peak during the summer and harvest months, when a dazzling array of high-quality produce, alongside an abundance of photogenic flowers, complements the strong year-round offering both in and around the old covered market. If you have never been to Cincinnati before, I can’t think of a better place to start.

What I can do, however, is think of much better things besides getting out of bed at 5:15 in the morning, even if it is Saturday in Cincinnati, and even if this happens to be one of the longest Saturdays of the year. Things like sleeping, for a little while more at least, except that today is not for lolling around the market, followed up with a hearty, goetta-powered breakfast at the venerable Tucker’s. Today, I have a job to get myself to, a job in a coffee shop, and I need to be there in a little over an hour, in order to be trained properly by the time they open up shop at eight.

After spending years as an amateur fanatic—back in the late 1990s, I was that guy, the one who managed to acquire (second-hand!) one of those classic home-use Gaggia espresso machines, a compact piece of surprisingly heavy machinery—in brilliant, 1970s burnt orange, no less. This marked the beginning of a career spent convincing various travel and food editors that writing about coffee shops is a legitimate thing, leading up to the last two years, during which I have assigned myself the task of spearheading Food & Wine’s Best Coffee in Every State survey, a project I take quite seriously. After being so publicly critical of the nation’s espresso-making skills, I’d recently begun to wonder—had it been too long, since I’d spent time behind the bar? I put a great deal of energy toward assessing the coffee making talents of others—brushing up on my skills (and potentially subjecting myself to a touch of light humiliation) seemed like a fine idea, and I knew exactly the man to call.

I first met Austin Ferrari, 26, and his brother Tony, 32, out in San Francisco, where they were both living at the time, running the diminutive but essentially perfect Provender Coffee, just one of many reasons to make the trip up Potrero Hill. During our first meeting, on a sunny and warm February day, we mostly talked about Cincinnati, and their plans to go back and invest in their hometown, which lately had been on the upswing. This wasn’t even two years ago; at this writing, they have opened three businesses in the city, complimenting the two they still own, and co-own, in San Francisco.

There’s the old family barber shop, which has served downtown Cincinnati for generations, now gently updated for the 21st century. There’s a brand new upscale casual, very California (in a good way) restaurant and cafe, a terrific space on the ground level of the Zaha Hadid-designed Contemporary Arts Center, and there’s what I think might actually be one of the best new coffee shops in the country, deep in the heart of Camp Washington, a working-class section of Cincinnati known best for its vintage, 24/7 chili parlor.

The shop, sensitively, tastefully, carved out of the ground floor of one of those sturdy, and rather attractive Cincinnati homes that’s well over a century old, is called Mom 'n 'Em, a friendly nod not only to an old local-ism, but also to Theresa, Austin and Tony’s mother, a retired teacher you will often find behind the bar. (The restaurant at the CAC is named Fausto, in honor of their father, who you will, from time to time, observe mowing the lawn outside the cafe.)

Mornings at Mom 'n ‘Em, there’s coffee, and excellent pastry, and well-crafted breakfast sandwiches, too. As the day progresses, customers tend to begin eying the well-curated wine wall, and the selection of tinned fishes, along with other nibbles. The Ferrari brothers have created one of the very best all-day cafes I’ve seen, out of a sizable recent crop—unlike too many of the others, it doesn’t try to do everything, but what it does, it does exceptionally well. It also helps that both brothers are well-trained, enthusiastic sommeliers—when they’re not waxing rhapsodic about coffee, you can often find them speaking, very knowledgeably, about wine.

Brianna Long
Brianna Long

The whole premise for the cafe, the idea, it’s all quite charming, but what really matters is the execution—not only is the space one of the finest in the city, when it comes to coffee, the brothers Ferrari are comfortably among some of the most meticulous in this business. If they ever decide to pack it in, and quit running cafes and restaurants, they could charge a great deal of money for training. Luckily, for now, I have an in. I pull up to the cafe, shortly before Austin arrives, total power move, and we set straight to work.

“I have this theory that the machines need to wake up slowly in the morning, or maybe that’s just me,” says Ferrari, letting off a yawn before flipping on the sleek, monogrammed La Marzocco Strada, which appropriately has been given complete pride of place on the bar. He sets to dialing in the day’s blend, that all-important task that every good coffee shop will see as their first priority, before getting the doors open.

“Dialing in means that you take whatever you’ll be using that day, and try and get it to extract to the correct flavor profile,” Ferrari reminds me, pointing out how this is something that needs to be done each time you introduce a new roast—even if it’s in the middle of service.

There are other, all-important factors to consider as well; espresso is an exceptionally temperamental thing, and there are so many ways things can go wrong, beyond the basic laws of grinding (state of the art grinders only work when you know what grind you need) and tamping (it’s controversial) and timing (less tends to be more).

When, for example, was the coffee roasted? Each day it ages, you’ll need to adjust the amount you use. Where does the coffee come from? What are its best attributes? Today, the house blend, custom-roasted under the Ferrari Brothers label at Cincinnati’s Deeper Roots Coffee, is fifty percent Guatemalan washed and fifty percent Ethiopia Sidamo natural—nice and balanced, Ferrari says.

Given the age of the coffee, just a few days, 18 grams was the goal, but when he measures the output from the Mahlkonig K30 Air, it’s closer to 18.5—higher than he wanted, but he doesn’t want to mess with it.

“The more you disturb the coffee the harder it is to get the perfect stream flowing—if that doesn’t happen, that means you had blind spots,” he says.

Next Ferrari uses what he calls the Blue Bottle method, a nod to where he first trained in his late teens, brushing his finger over the top lightly, in a circular motion. He then reaches for the tamper, which he says is one of the most important tools on the bar. (His came from Japan, for about $50.) One tamp on the mat, one firm downward push and now it’s time for the machine to do its work.

In order to get an accurate reading on the results, he takes a cortado glass (which he calls, betraying his Bay Area training, a Gibraltar glass), weighs it on the scale, and we’re a go for a double shot, ristretto.

“I’ve never pulled a single,” he says. “It’s too light, too watered down. Our shots, I like to pull them like molasses. I like them rich and dense. I like it to look creamier, almost like maple syrup, rather than water.”

And then, shortly before 7:00, we taste. The first attempt comes out loose, inoffensive, unrealized—I know from experience that Ferrari is just getting warmed up, along with the machines. For the second round, he changes the grind setting—this time, we’ll do it a little finer, and instead of brushing over the top, he employs the shake method—ever so lightly, back and forth—before one tap, and one tamp.

The end result—brighter, but overwrought—was 34 grams. He’d been hoping for 24. This is too much liquid, he says. And so we go, again. The third shot is thick, rich, with beautiful caramelization, the fourth begins hinting at a beautiful, balanced acidity, and at this point, you wouldn’t even believe they’d all come from the same coffee, if you hadn’t been standing there, watching it all go down.

Finally, on the fifth round, we’re there. This one knocks it out of the park, delivering a sucker punch of that juicy acidity, the kind good baristas chase around like it were the holy grail. The espresso hits your tongue like a bouncing ball, then ricochets around your mouth; the citrus notes a perfect compliment to a summer morning where the humidity is already off the charts, the way it often is down here, along the Ohio River.

“Juicy makes you salivate,” says Ferrari, kicking into full sommelier mode. “Bitter turns you off. You always want to balance the acid, so you feel refreshed, so you—and the customer—want more.”

Brianna Long
Brianna Long

After an hour and change back on the job, I’ve already been reminded of so much—and we haven’t even gotten to the milk. Luckily, that’s the easy bit—source some good-tasting, quality whole milk, train yourself to steam it correctly (never too long), and do this as you’re pulling your shot, so neither the milk nor the espresso have a chance to deteriorate. Okay, maybe it’s not that simple.

Ferrari pours, effortlessly creating some of the best latte art I’ve seen in weeks, all the while telling me how latte art is one of the least important parts of a great cup of coffee. And with that, we’ve now completed our very first cappuccino of the morning. Team effort, certainly, but as I successfully deliver the very full cup out onto the cafe floor, to Ferrari’s girlfriend Mekenna, who has only just moved to Cincinnati from San Francisco, I can’t help but feel somewhat accomplished.

Paying customers are now coming through the door, and there are orders to fill. Luckily, Austin’s mother, Theresa, and the capable young lady on breakfast sandwich duty have arrived; they’re doing the heavy lifting as we continue to play around on the machines. Shortly after eight, the order comes in for the first espresso drinks—two cappuccinos. Thanks to Ferrari’s thorough teaching style, I am once again confident in my espresso skills, but not quite so confident that I’d want to subject the public to my work. Not just yet. So, Ferrari gets behind the machine, talking more about milk.

“You can tear milk up just like that,” he says, snapping his fingers, suggesting that I hold the actual pitcher in my hand, with all fingers touching. “If you can’t touch it, you’ve scalded the milk, you’ve burned the sugars. If your hands are burning, imagine the customer’s mouth.”

That terrible noise you hear at too many coffee shops, he says, that sounds something like ripping paper? That’s the milk being ruined. Six or seven seconds, he says, is all you need. And whole milk—he can’t stress that enough. “The less fat you have in the milk, first, you’re living a boring life, but also, it’s like steaming water.”

After the initial rush, there’s time for me to take over the reins entirely—I make my first cappuccino, start to finish, in far too long, remembering my training as best I can, after too little sleep the night before, though all that sampling and sipping has me feeling energetic, if not terribly focused.

Grind. Weigh. Tap. Tamp. Pull. Steam. Pour. I’ve done it. After a feeble attempt at latte art, it’s time for Ferrari to sample my work. My multitasking skills definitely let me down, I already knew as much. The ratio of espresso to milk is excellent, says Ferrari, but the espresso has been over-extracted; I’d left it running a full six seconds too long, mostly because I was so concerned about burning my hand on the milk pitcher. (The milk, he says, could have been a little bit hotter, as well. Note to self: Toughen up.)

But would he drink the thing? I’d already tasted my work—to me, it felt like an amateur’s best effort, but I didn’t hate it, and I’d certainly drink it. Thanks to Ferrari’s knack for dialing in, and thanks to the very good product, everything tasted good. Yes, he admitted. He’d most likely drink this. Followed up by, of course, a great deal more training, including an urgently-needed lesson on latte art.

That, however, would have to wait for another day—the cafe is in full swing, friends and family and neighbors and first-timers, pouring in through the doors, all in need of coffee—good coffee. Enough screwing around. Time to get to work.