I worked in one of the first coffee houses in Mount Lawley in the early to mid 90′s. It was one of those dark wood, marble and brass styled cafes with counter service only that would soon be popping up everywhere toward the end of the decade.
The shifts were impossibly long and everything I owned reeked of coffee grinds including my house and car. I was also expected to work a 65 hour week for a $330 salary after tax. Despite this I pretty much loved every second of it because of the fast pace and the brilliant people who worked there.
Having never gone through the official training to become a certified barista I don’t feel qualified to wax lyrical about the beauty of the Kenyan versus the Guatemalan roasted bean or write a four thousand word essay extolling the virtues of letting the first dark stream of coffee turn golden before placing the cup under the filter basket. Instead, let me tell you about the best damn cup of coffee I ever made.
Not Hot Enough
There were 20 staff in our coffee house and there wasn’t one of us who didn’t sigh when we saw this woman walk in.
The correct temperature to heat milk to for the coffee has been the source of furious debate in Western Australia for decades. In the nineties we didn’t use the temperature gauge you sometimes see your barista placing in the milk (we also wore onions on our belts) instead we went on sound, touch and feel of the metal jug.
It was important to pay attention or you risked one of the two deadly coffee sins – giving the customer lukewarm or burnt milk. Having been trained by a qualified barista who had just returned from a summer making coffee in Europe, our staff were known to make some of the best coffee in the area and we constantly received praise from our clientele.
With the notable exception of one person who, astonishingly, visited daily.
Not Hot Enough was American, loud, rude and had no concept of queuing. She would walk to the front of the line and interrupt any transaction that was in progress. If you asked her to wait she’d phone the owner that afternoon to complain about your rudeness.
“Flat white, HOT – if you could possibly manage it this time.”
Then she’d throw – never hand it to you or place – the exact change on the counter and proceed to stare at the person making the coffee with her arms folded. You’d start the coffee pour and then lift the jug of fresh milk to the steam wand.
“Hurry up. The coffee will be cold before you heat the milk.”
We’d heat the milk to boiling, past the point any other customer would deem acceptable (this action would make our trainer’s head explode) while simultaneously risking the skin on our hand as the milk began to bubble up and over the rim of the metal jug.
We’d pour the milk and place the cup on a saucer.
Not Hot Enough wouldn’t touch it or even look at it. She’d smirk and stare you right in the eye.
“Make it again. You do know how to make coffee, I assume? It’s supposed to be hot.”
Because the owner of the had trained us to never refute anything a customer said about their coffee we’d start again, making it in exactly the same manner.
Only then would she deem it acceptable. She didn’t care about the temperature, she just loved the power trip.
She developed a pathological hatred of one of the staff and forced the poor guy to remake the same coffee five times before he quit on the spot, storming off and leaving us one person down for the rest of the shift.
When she deemed your offering acceptable she’d take the cup and sit at a small table directly opposite the coffee machine, drinking it while staring at you, tutting and shaking her head while she pointed at the cup if you looked at her.
One day I’d had enough and made plans for the next morning.
Knowing that she would be in just after ten, I placed a cup in the oven at half past nine with a teaspoon in it and set it to 200 degrees. Then we removed all napkins from the counter and placed them on a shelf underneath.
She came in and threw the change at the counter. Someone brought the now almost molten cup and spoon up to me as I was re-making the coffee after she had refused my first attempt. I boiled the hell out of the milk, used a napkin to place the cup and spoon on the cold saucer behind the machine and handed it to her.
She sat down and my coworker and I continued taking orders from the other customers in the line.
The sound of a teaspoon being dropped on the floor.
Not Hot Enough suddenly appeared in front of the coffee machine.
“Get me a napkin!”
“I’m so terribly sorry, Madam.”
My coworker Jane, the university lecturer’s daughter with the world’s most stunningly condescending nasal tone worked her magic. “This lovely client needs our last napkin for her delicious cake. We don’t have any more.” Jane cocked her head and smiled “Have you made a mess?”
Not Hot Enough looked like she was going to implode.
“The cup is too hot to pick up”
“Would that not be as Madam requested it? Heating the milk to make the hottest possible coffee will cause a process known as conduction to occur, when the hot liquid heats it’s receptacle. My supervisor will be more than happy to make a coffee at a cooler temperature though, unless this kind lady would like to give you her napkin?”
Not Hot Enough had, minutes before, pushed in front of This Kind Lady. This Kind Lady picked up her piece of choc-cardamom cheesecake and walked off without saying a word. I could have kissed her.
Not Hot Enough was far too arrogant to admit defeat so she sat back down at her table and waited the ten minutes it took for her cup to cool before drinking the coffee and walking out. There followed a tense 48 hours as we waited for a call from the owner saying she had complained about us but there was nothing.
I didn’t see Not Hot Enough until years later in a gourmet deli where she was loudly berating a counter hand over the amount of olives in a small tub that had been handed to her. Some people never change.
I wonder if she still likes her coffee hot?