I spent all of January getting everything in order to open a serious cocktail bar Downtown. Several weeks went into researching what the business’s official and exact position on ice, shaking, dilution, stirring, double straining, etc. should be. I spent another several days discussing this with our staff and figuring out specifically how to implement those wrought conclusions. Yet at home, on my kitchen counter stands an automatic coffee maker and a Krups grinder. In the face of my devotion to cocktails, my inattention to coffee was starting to haunt me.
One of my best bros has a tattoo of an Italian espresso pot on his arm and likes to point out how with cocktails and not coffee, I proverbially strain a gnat then swallow a camel. “You’ve got to get a burr grinder, dude.” Whatever, I thought. My unevenly ground automatic coffee adequately catapults me into a caffeinated state that quickly starts my day.
Feeling rather sheepish about how much I know about booze and how little I know about coffee, I called my old friend Nick Leichentritt, hoping to stage—work for free in exchange for a technique lesson—at his Downtown coffee shop Milli Joe. Leichentritt and I worked together at Escafé about seven years ago, during his UVA years. When he took an insurance job in Virginia Beach, I was certain our paths wouldn’t cross in a significant way in the future. Much to my surprise, a few years later he announced his plan to abandon his 9 to 5 and move back to C’ville to start a serious coffee shop.
When I mentioned the idea of staging at Milli Joe and writing an article about “All the things bartenders don’t know about coffee,” he looked at me and, without missing a beat, said no.
“That won’t work,” he said. “There are just too many things I’d want you to know before you ever touched someone’s coffee.”
In that moment, I realized why Leichentritt’s café, despite being surrounded by a host of bustling and successful coffee shops —Shenandoah Joe’s, Mudhouse, C’ville Coffee, Café Calvino, and Java Java, to name a few—was such a hit: Leichentritt is really flipping serious about every last detail of your cup of coffee. My disappointment about being denied the stage was mitigated slightly as I realized Leichentritt and I were kindred spirits in different fields. (Although I couldn’t help but think that he viewed me as the equivalent of a light beer drinker when it comes to coffee.) I sat down with Leichentritt to find out what everyone who aspires to drink coffee seriously ought to know, and what makes an undeniably delicious cup of coffee.
C-VILLE Weekly: I got denied a “stage” at Milli Joe. What kind of experience do the people handling your coffee have?
Nick Leichentritt: All of our current baristas came to Milli Joe with some coffee experience. Two of us have been formally trained at the American Barista Coffee School in Portland, Oregon, two were professional coffee roasters, and one was the head of the specialty foods department and a coffee buyer for a major grocery chain. Just about all of us have had previous barista experience. Learning coffee takes quite some time.
Is there a single most important aspect of making a good shot of espresso or cup of coffee?
Banning automation from Milli Joe. With every step you automate you pull the barista just a little farther away from their craft. Making a great shot is a highly nuanced art requiring the full attention of a professional eye. A skilled barista can make small changes to the dose (amount of ground coffee used), coarseness of grind, and shot time to coax the best flavors out of the coffee—something automatic machines that use time or water volumes to stop shots will always struggle to do consistently. You want your barista to be as connected to the coffee as possible. It’s more fun for us, and it will taste better to you.
What equipment/techniques would you recommend for the home barista trying to make a solid cup of coffee?
The most important tool is a quality grinder. I often see people go all out on expensive home espresso machines and expensive coffee, and skimp on grind using a cheap, Wal-
mart blade grinder. A good quality burr grinder will have the greatest impact on the quality of home brewed coffee; an even, controllable, and consistent grind is key. I always recommend one of the Baratza line grinders. They have professional quality precision scaled down for low volume home use. I have even seen some of them used by professionals who work with small volumes of coffee.
What are some of the more unusual or fun pieces of equipment you have at your shop? When and why do you employ them?
The halogen heat lamp siphon bar is quick to grab your attention, looking like some kind of “Breaking Bad” set up or science project. It is an old method designed in the 1860s by a French inventor. It is slow coffee, taking five minutes or so, but it’s well worth the wait. Once the water boils, a vacuum is created, which siphons water from the bottom chamber up to the top. We then add ground, single-origin coffees, and let it brew immersion-style (meaning the coffee sits in the hot water), creating a similar flavor profile to a French press, just without that muddy mouth feel. The big oily flavors are not only detectable on your palate, but also actually visible to the naked eye. Try a cup and you will see a coating of flavor packed coffee oils on the top of your cup.