by Leah Sottile

I think I'm a marked woman. Or I've got a scarlet letter on my back. Maybe it's when the green aprons at Starbucks run my debit card, they whisper, "it's her" to their fellow baristas, and they burn my espresso shots. Whatever it is, I feel like I'm a magnet for getting bad coffee -- and I'm talking bad coffee in every sense of the word: nasty looks from baristas, scalding hot (instead of foamed) milk and half of the time my lid does that weird burping thing and I end up with Americano on my shirt. Or it just comes off altogether.

You'd think I'd just throw in the towel, save my money and brew Kirkland Signature at home or drink the office swill -- but the thing is, I love coffee. I love how a freshly poured latte looks in a ceramic cup, as the nutty browns and taupes rise to the surface of a layer of perfect foam. I love the aroma, the taste, the flavor and the culture of coffee. And I know I'm not alone here.

So I went on a search -- a quest, you might say -- to find that coffee I love. The coffee that tastes great, smells perfect and doesn't get spilled in your lap by some bad-tempered barista. And what I discovered was that there is good coffee in the Inland Northwest, but that we're just used to supporting the bad stuff in order to get our fix. Good beans roasted nicely are just the beginning. So, setting aside all flavors, pretty logos and cafe atmospherics, here's what you should really be looking for.

The "God" Shot

Used to describe the most perfect shot you have ever achieved. A shot that is so good, it must have been blessed by God (from

A good cup of espresso -- no matter if you're drinking a latte, a cappuccino or a breve -- starts with a shot. Aside from froofy flavors, it's the first thing that hits the bottom of your cup. If it's a bad shot, your drink is ruined from the beginning.

We went to some experts around town and had them tell us what goes into pulling a good shot and transforming it into a great drink.

After more than 10 years obsessing over the ins and outs of espresso, the consistency of a shot and roasting of the beans he uses, you might call Kurt Haan an expert.

"Anybody can pull a good shot of espresso," says Haan, a barista at Lindaman's espresso bar. "Even blind squirrels can find nuts occasionally. But to actually know what's going on -- well, you have to have a passion for it."

As he works behind the platinum espresso machine, he explains that there's a lot more to a shot than just filtering water through tightly packed grounds. He says that the first step, aside from having good beans, is to have a level shot. In other words, after coffee is loaded into a porta-filter (that's the metal or plastic thingy that goes up into the machine, and through which water runs), a barista must tightly pack that coffee down with a tamper (a metal tool that, when pushed into the coffee, produces a tight puck of espresso).

Once loaded into the machine, a smooth consistent shot should be pulled through. A shot should be a rich brown, with a thick layer of caramel-colored liquid on top (called "crema").

The baristas at the cafe-style drive-through Grinders are so meticulous about their shots that they use an actual timer to make sure each shot is the same. It's that attention to details that makes the large East Trent espresso hut a destination for many Spokane-area coffee aficionados.

"A good shot is always going to be extracted between 20 and 30 seconds," says Breanne Eirls, co-owner of Grinders. "The color should be a creamy brown, and they should taste strong and smooth with no bitterness."

With all of those elements kept in mind, the most important thing to watch for is consistency. Your coffee should always taste the same.

"If it smells burnt, don't drink it," Jed Dima, a barista at the Rockwood Bakery says, as he watches a shot glass fills with the brown liquid. "The most important thing is consistency. Consistency is key."

Velvet Foam

The dense substance that is produced when air is properly introduced into milk.

There's a science behind a good shot, and the same goes for correctly steaming milk. Haan warns that people must watch out for baristas who vigorously move their pitcher of milk up and down on a steam wand -- they are not creating that "velvet foam" that good baristas strive for.

That perfect foam is created when air is precisely folded into the milk, causing it to expand and create the "micro-bubbles" that are key to a good latte or cappuccino.

"You get these micro-bubbles that look like meringue," he says, showing the microscopic bubbles that make up the surface of the once-smooth milk.

That thick foam is solely meant to enhance the sensory experience of your espresso drink. When air is incorporated in, it sweetens the milk's taste -- and cuts down on the harshness of strong espresso.

Haan and Eirls both mention that foam has been slightly overused by many mainstream coffee companies, and the true meaning of some valued espresso drinks have been lost. A macchiato, for example, is not a drink that is loaded down with caramel and served in tumbler-sized cup. It's simply a shot of espresso topped with a dollop of velvet foam. The same simple focus on foam and espresso, but this time with steamed milk, is the key behind a cappuccino.

"A cappuccino is a very small drink. Someone who orders a 16-ounce cappuccino -- well, they're already missing the boat."

Foam can often be so perfect and malleable, that good baristas should be able to precisely pour shapes and designs into the surface of your drink. With one hand, The Rockwood Bakery's Dima neatly poured a perfect fern-leaf into my latte.

"That's awesome," I said as he poured the milk with ease.

"Yeah," he replied, "I hate to say it, but it is, isn't it?"

The Barista

Someone who has been professionally trained in the art of espresso preparation. The term is often used to describe someone who excels at espresso-making, regardless of their training. (from

All milk and joe aside, part of the experience of tracking down a good drink starts with baristas. They're the ones making your coffee fresh, and any flaw in their methodology could ruin a drink.

Haan says the first thing he watches for is how they treat their equipment.

"I look at how they treat their tamper," he says. "I go into a lot of shops in town, and they use the tamper like a hammer. It's like taking a hammer to the pistons in your car." He demonstrates the way that many coffee shop workers whack the metal tamper against the porta-filter.

Haan also watches to see how much attention is being given to details, such as how long the shots run and how the barista creates that winning velvet foam.

"There are so many things, that if you're consistent, they go right," Haan notes, adding that a good barista should want to ensure your coffee is exactly how you like it -- and that espresso stands should be treated in the same way as gourmet restaurants. "If you got a restaurant and you order crepes and they bring you pancakes, wouldn't you send it back?"

At Grinders, the baristas' personalized service is what keeps customers coming back. They tend to remember everyone's name and how hot they like their vanilla lattes.

"Any one of us can make or break someone's day, so we put on that smile," says Sara Kellard, a Grinders barista. "I think [good coffee] is about the barista behind the counter."

Eirls agrees: "I can train you to make coffee. I can train you to clean. But I can't train you to like people."

But having that same passion for coffee is something that Eirls wants to ensure that all of her baristas share. "Not only should you drink it, you should love it," she says.

As with wine or classical music, there's an art behind the total experience of coffee that can make or break it. There is good coffee in the Inland Northwest, dear readers. You just have to know what to look for and then demand the best. Viva la coffee revolution!

Publication date: 10/14/04

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About The Author

Leah Sottile

Leah Sottile is a Spokane-based freelance writer who formerly served as music editor, culture editor and a staff writer at the Inlander. She has written about everything from nuns and Elvis impersonators, to jailhouse murders and mental health...