"Coffee beans come in different densities," says Otter, "some are hard as a stone and some will just crumble in your fingers." It turns out that only knowing the character of the bean can determine how fine the grind should be for an espresso shot that pulls between the canonical 17-23 seconds.
At the Ugly Mug on Cross Street in "Hipsilanti" as my friend Nano used to call it, the baristas actually know about the coffee beans they're serving. As in any creative venture, consistency can be rough around the edges at this four year old hipster coffee shop and roastery (newly smoke-free and spiffed up), but watch the baristas and learn. You'll see the skill it takes to make the best espresso around, quite possibly the best coffee in Michigan.
Once the beans are correctly ground, a fragrant pile of them goes into the espresso machine's metal filter basket. The barista shapes the grounds, fingers sliding over the heaped coffee, pushing around the edge toward the middle, and finally sweeping the top flat. Then the heavy rounded tamper, pushing carefully, inexorably down, like a stamp, like a Chinese chop, the signature of the barista. Pushing hard but not too hard (forty pounds of pressure is recommended), a final finishing twist polishes the top of the packed grains of coffee. Grabbing the metal handle, the barista tips the filter basket upside down to allow any loose bits of coffee to fall away.
As she picks up a flat brush to sweep away the extra coffee from the machines, I see the barista accidentally knock the metal portafilter that she has just carefully prepared. The coffee grounds spill out and there's no piling them back in. They're already spent and she, body slumped, sweeps them into the trash to start over, sifting new grounds into the filter basket, sliding them into place again. It's a ballet, this dance with coffee. Timing is everything.
With the coffee packed into the portafilter again, she sockets it into the espresso machine. Water is heated to 228º - 16º above boiling - so that steam under pressure from the group head is forced through the grounds carrying the characteristic essential oils of each jagged little grain.
A dark double stream of espresso fills a tiny cup from the bottom up; through the glass I can see a thick layer of creamy brown on top and a thin sliver of solid black on the bottom. That creamy "tiger striping" in the layer of crema on top is the sweet holy grail of the espresso pull.
Frothed milk, when it's perfect is a flat-white liquid foam, pourable and barely thicker than cream. It's the result of the steaming wand's screaming into a hand-sized metal beaker filled 1/3 full of milk, atomizing milk molecules, and puffing them up, turning them into a liquid net of micro-bubbles.
Pouring a rosetta, the design on top of a cappuccino, involves dropping the foam under the espresso to the rounded bottom of a thick coffee cup and going on faith that it will climb the sides of the cup's bowl before diving back down like an upwelling of the ocean. A tiny side to side movement as the hand moves forward, so slight, like drawing a stick Christmas tree, forms the paisleyed leaf pattern of brown coffee on white foam. What does that steaming hot milk and perfectly pulled espresso taste like? It tastes like a Turkish bazaar, like your grandmother's house, like a creamy, roasty cup of comforting exotic warmth, with notes of chocolate and not a hint of bitterness.
Although this is the experience for which B. regularly makes the drive to Ypsillanti, I've signed us up for one of the Ugly Mug's first coffee "cuppings", sampling and comparing three of the coffees they've recently received from their fair trade, single origin supplier and roasted today.
Three of the Mug's young staff are helping out tonight: Otter - slender boy-girl, tight jeans with boots, thick horn-rim glasses, serious eyes, and cropped hair. Miro - also slender, thick black hair and a beard that manages to be both sparse and bushy, tattoos on his arms, he seems softer than she is, less guarded. Another helper (Josh?) - also has a beard and defers to the more emphatic opinions of Otter and the quiet assurance of Miro.
For each cup, Miro carefully measures out 10 grams of ground coffee with a tiny digital scale, spoons it into heavy glass tumblers. Then they start to explain using our senses to compare the coffees. We inspect each, sniffing the dry grounds, wet grounds, and finally tasting the brewed grounds in an effort to educate our coffee palates. They categorize the dimensions we're looking for in how the coffee tastes as its acidity or brightness, flavor, body, and finish.
Then they talk about the mountainous regions where each coffee is grown. Tonight's cupping includes Columbia, El Salvador, and Ethiopia. I learn something about Ethiopian geography - the famous Harrar region is in the east and the Yirgachaffe, which produces some of my favorite coffee, is in the western part of the country. Otter says "The altitude where it's grown matters. It has to be at least 1000 feet to be any good." She continues, "Coffee is seasonal. It's a crop. Since we get them from single plantations, most of our coffees we only get for a few months at a time." As they talk about the seasons for their favorites, I love the excitement that's palpable in their anticipation of new bean.
Miro and Otter, along with co-owner Zak, are the Ugly Mug's coffee roasters, roasting up to 50 pounds of coffee fresh each day. 20-30 pounds is what they'll use on a normal day in the shop. Each 3 kilogram batch takes about 20 minutes in the roaster. They say that roasting brings out the flavors that each coffee naturally has. Excessive heat destroys essential oils that carry the characteristic flavors of each variety and that's why, even though customers ask for it, they don't do the dark French roasts. That's just burnt coffee they say.
Into each 10 grams of fresh coffee grounds, Miro slowly pours just-boiled water. In each glass, a cap of grounds rises to the top forming a crust. After 3 minutes we're allowed to take a small spoon to gently push the coffee back, breaking the crust, to savor the smell and then take a small spoonful to sip. The Harrar "Wando Worko" varietal that we taste is the most distinctive of the three coffees - it's very strongly reminiscent of blueberry, bright and tangy. Although I can't tell much difference between the El Salvador and the Columbian, Miro says he gets floral notes from the El Salvador and Josh says "it's almost like drinking a flower." I think - I'm going to need a lot more palate education before I can taste the flowers in coffee.
Even with just a few sips we're buzzed on caffeine, but I've enjoyed my evening and B. has too. I'm impressed with these serious and generous young artisans and whatever spirit of evangelism that's motivating them to develop this expertise and spread the word of coffee's complexities. Of course coffee is also wrapped in world politics, and of course there are ethical questions they have to answer in running the business. But from what I know so far, I like what I see about how they source their beans, how they train in the art of making an excellent coffee, and how they've chosen to use the space that they've created at this once-gas station.
The Ugly Mug stands on a busy corner of Ypsilanti that is one of many unseen, unloved, forgotten corners in this part of the world. It's the kind of corner that was clearly pure potential, probably low rent, just waiting for someone to come and claim it, waiting for someone to care about what it could become. I'd say that the fact that The Mug regularly draws us out of the bubble that is Ann Arbor is proof that a) there's damn little coffee worth drinking in A2 and b) a place that cares about what it's making exerts a powerful pull if it can get us to run the hellish strip mall gauntlet that is Washtenaw Ave.