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Column: Finding the Secret to A Great Cup of Coffee

Price, taste, calories...what Madison's baristas have over your typical home brewer.

Living in Madison means never having to settle for an ordinary cup of joe.

It all started with a trip to Toyota of Morristown to get the old minivan an oil change. (We have a sweet deal that gets us free oil changes for life. And I don't really even miss my first-born...joke!) Since we're doing a camp-free, babysitter-free summer, the kids came along.

The dealer had a free self-service coffee bar. Even though we have a very similar Keurig coffee brewer at home, something about all those K-cups and stirrers and the Lipton teabags was very compelling. So much so, the very next morning I had an eight-year-old barista at my beck and call.

It only took a few minutes to school my son in the specifics of our Keurig, for which you can buy a variety of K-Cups at (it's $8.49 for a 12-pack or about 71 cents for one). Just put the K-Cup in, press the button and voila, you're on to milk and sugar to your preference and you still have change of a dollar. Of course, the taste is at minimum a half-step down from what you'd get at any number of bagel shops or convenience stores in town. And your barista may not have changed out of his jammies.

For the coffee drinker with a more refined palette, there are a few good options in town. While many people make an excellent espresso drink at home, I prefer to leave that to the professionals. There are several at , where careful ordering (ask for simple syrup instead of vanilla in your latte — $2.94 including tax for a tall — and save 50 cents) will keep the cost down. Shift Supervisor Eddy Racine took a moment to show my kids and me how a cappuccino is made.

Everything at Starbucks is calibrated and premeasured. There's no espresso jazz here, unless it's something piped over the sound system. When you order a cappuccino, they press a button and something happens they won't really explain in detail, either because they don't know or believe that this mom with four children ages 10 and under are a band of corporate spies. I'm going to guess it's grinding the right amount of coffee beans for a shot of espresso.  Meanwhile, the milk is being foamed which Racine says is aerating the milk and takes eight seconds.

The number eight is important in coffee making. According to Racine, if you don't get the milk into the espresso or drink it within eight seconds, it gets bitter. So, if you order just an espresso from Starbucks, you better belly up to the pick-up counter and get ready to drink.

Racine pours the milk until it gets to the top line of the checkbox labeled "milk" on the outside of all Starbucks cups, but he would have stopped at the shots checkmark if this were a latte. So a latte has more milk, not just more foam, really. Hence, more calories if you're counting. A tall cappuccino is about 80 calories to a latte's 130. Espresso drinks are the bulk of Starbucks' afternoon and evening business, and of the 10 flavorings they offer, the go through more bottles of vanilla than any other. The least is either raspberry or toffee nut, a jovial exchange between four green apron-clad Starbucks employees reveals.

Now, if you really appreciate coffee, and if you care about local businesses and you don't want everyone to glare at you and your loud children over their laptops, you go to . Owner Rupert Jones' dedication to coffee verges on the fanatical. You can see a sign in his Main Street shop proclaiming the freshness of the roast of his bean (no more than seven days from roast to grinder.) He'll gladly share all of his secrets to making an excellent cappuccino or latte or whatever espresso drink you want. (Did you know that a macchiato is half espresso—half milk?) It all starts, of course, with the coffee beans, fresh, yes, and very high quality, provided by Gimme Coffee.

At Drip, there are two grinders, one for regular, one for decaf, and never the twain shall meet. It is calibrated to grind just enough for one espresso shot ($2) at a time. Don't mistake calibration for automation, though. This is precision, not button-pressing. The process leaves it to the barista to flick, bang and compress the coffee grounds into just the right tightly-packed portafino filter's worth of espresso-to-be. The filter is then clicked into the espresso maker and there is a pause as the 21 grams of espresso coffee grounds is pre-infused with water and then starts to, well, drip. Then Jones adjusts the pressure lever and presto, a shot of espresso.

Those 21 grams of coffee are important, since it compares to the industry standard of 7 grams. That's why they won't let me get three shots of espresso in my latte here. That's also a big part of why Drip coffee tastes good. Jones guessed that about half his coffee sales are for espresso drinks, the other for regular drip coffee, which is really just a button-pressing exercise no matter where you go.  

Madison Station August 25, 2011 at 03:48 AM
" Jones guessed that about half his coffee sales are for espresso drinks, the other for regular drip coffee, which is really just a button-pressing exercise no matter where you go" I find that a regular drip coffee is harder to get right than a latte. Its a balance of using the proper (but economical) grinds, brewing at the correct temperature, using filtered water, a clean coffee brewer and how long the shop lets the coffee sit before a new pot is made. It is much more difficult to find a consistent cup of quality regular joe than a pre-measured and much fussed over latte. Even Starbucks, with all its star power, can't seem to get the consistency together. It's like drinking wine. Every bottle/cup is unique.

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