Better than Brian

I am knocking out some really good espresso drinks and it is mildly disturbing to me.

Brian and I were both espresso fanatics, though we took different roads to arrive at the obsession.

I was a standard consumer until I landed the responsibility of designing and launching a coffee bar in Los Angeles. I was a quick study, working with a local roaster to train myself and my new hires on all of the ins and outs of espresso drinks. I created an establishment very close to an Italian coffeehouse. I became a part of the 3-6% of the US population that are true coffee snobs, those who relish fresh organic vanity coffees.

Brian grew up in the Seattle area where, as he was fond to say, you can get a great espresso drink at a truck stop. He had always been just a consumer, but as with all things Brian, he was a fanatical one. I recall once we got really bad drinks from a Starbucks and he threw his cup across the parking lot in a rage. He wanted good products - it was he temperament.

So, when we met and started seeing each other, there was a lot of coffee consumption. And he was intrigued by my coffee bar background.

When - I guess - our third anniversary was approaching, Brian suggested that we buy a prosumer espresso machine and grinder as our gift to one another. I knew the kind of commitment this was and I was very hesitant, as true espresso machines can take over a kitchen. The cost to get a good system and the time investment on a daily basis to knock out great drinks is no small decision. Coffee grounds tend to permeate the entire space, try as you might to be a neat-nick. You have to care about water and beans and storage and maintenance. You just have to be a fanatic.

Brian was a fanatic by temperament.

So, I said yes, that we would procure an excellent machine and I would train him to barista - on one condition. That we would never roast beans.

He agreed to my terms with a twinkle in his eye. And I knew he was lying.

So, I trained Brian to barista. He was a quick study, learned the basics. At that point I was banished from the coffee station in the kitchen and I was not allowed to touch the machine again. It was his dominion. I was, even when he was out of town, not to touch "his" machine. I loved that he cared about it and he was expressing a nurturant part of his personality by presenting me with a latte every morning.

After about 6 months he was roasting beans. What did I say?

His drinks - while they were not offensive - were volatile. The taste was all over the map... even with exquisite professionally roasted beans. You never knew what you were going to get. Even after achieving a good drink, the quality seemed to slip away from him after a day or so. He struggled as a barista and was often frustrated. When I would offer that we could retire the machine he would refuse. He would say that this was his hobby and that he could have a lot worse hobbies - and so I would let him struggle and drink his beverages every morning. I loved that he was bringing me a latte. Often, if it did not taste good, I would say nothing. I did not know if the machine and the grinder were indeed adequate to knock out a great drink. I worried that because they were not professional grade machines that Brian was being set up for frustration. But I could never watch him or get on the machine to find out. He would not allow it.

Our roles were so defined that I could not go into the kitchen and observe what he was doing and help him improve. It was his espresso machine. And the drinks, some days, were worse than the one that he had thrown across the parking lot. For over five years of his being a barista, he never got consistently good drinks out of the machine.

One day when he was slammed with demands at work I offered to help him clean up. He accepted and I started to clean the grinder. He watched me for 30 seconds and asked me to leave. He said I scratched the machine.

... Life Without Brian

When Brian died the espresso machine and grinder went into storage for almost 1 1/2 years. I became a nomad, a gypsy wanderer. I was running, to be honest. While running from my pain I drank espresso drinks all over the United States. Some were pretty heinous. Some were luscious. I hated drinking them alone. I would have conversations with Brian in my head when I discovered a wonderful espresso bar as I traveled.

About 2 weeks ago, the espresso machine and grinder were unpacked and for the first since I trained Brian to barista, I was on the machine. It brought up a lot of feelings, as you might imagine. The sounds and smells and process to set it up was intense for me. I wept with anger, longing for a life that did not exist anymore.

And I have discovered that I am a better barista than he was.

This, at once, pleases me and makes me feel like shit. I am pleased that I do not struggle for a great drink. Relieved, actually, because anything that is a struggle is still hard on me. I have little endurance for any kind of frustration these days. The production of home espresso can be a lot of time and money and effort, and when you produce a terrible drink... it can be really too much.

But, I find myself thinking that I do not want to be better than Brian at this. I want him to be the wonderful barista that he longed to be. That he never fully got to be.

Since I have been working the machines I think I have discovered one major factor that may have been Brian's downfall in executing consistent drinks. It is both sad and frustrating that I was never able to see the way that the espresso grinder behaves and tell him about it. I do not know if I would have noticed the foible of the grinder and figured out the work-around back then or not. I suspect that I would have.

But then, as I execute a really good drink and I feel him around me. In some cosmic disposition of energy, he is present as I pull my extraction, see the luscious crema, counting off the seconds. It may sound crazy. I do not care. It is as if he is free now to be curious, enjoy my process, revel in the machine finally producing a consistent drink that "sings".

Writing this has made me tired. My grief often does that - makes me want to sleep, because the pain is unmanageable. I may come back here and say more. In the meantime... I cherish my flawed man who was a fanatic and am grateful for the experience. For all of it, even five years of some really bad lattes.

Thanks for reading...