While no one was looking and under the cover of darkness, the magnificent Italian hand-built La Marzocca machines were replaced, one by one, with fully automatic computerized press-a-button versions. This took place in thousands of Starbucks across the land. This is the day when the romance and theater of Starbucks died.
This disturbing trend is taking place on many levels of society. Many argue that removing the human (error) factor makes for a more consistent product and increased customer satisfaction. Really though, truth be told, it is because of training costs, speed of service, and efficiency. These are not bad things in themselves from an overly worked barista’s point of view. The solution for a busy store is to have two to four machines and double the staff, like they do in Buenos Aires. Really, they do. However, they are ignoring the romantic factor. Where is the romance and theater of pushing a button? Where is the skill and passion of the barista?
For a quick lesson in romance, look to the humble Volturno. One of the things the Italians brought with them to Argentina was the little stove stop espresso maker (made internationally famous by Bialleti). While not true espresso, and I am not comparing it to espresso, it deserves a place in every coffee lover’s arsenal. We brought ours back from Buenos Aires, a national brand called Volturno. Although it mostly gets used when we travel, there is still many a day when we opt for the intense room-filling aroma and the seductive whisper it makes when it’s ready.
Where Bialetti has compromised to appease the North-American hordes by making a stainless version, the humble Volturno still uses the time honored and tested traditional aluminum, which gets better with age. Simply follow a few simple rules handed down from the old Italian bubbas.
First, you need to condition the pot before use by brewing a pot with just water, then a second time with coffee that you leave sitting overnight. The second rule is to never wash the inside with soap; just rinse with hot water and air-dry. This way you do not disturb the coating left by the oils in the coffee.
Lastly, you want to pile the slightly coarser-than-espresso grind coffee in a mound with the peak passing the top of the filter basket. This way the coffee will be compressed to just the right amount for optimum extraction.
While these basic rules seem to defy normal coffee logic, in the Volturno they are unexplainable work. Enter the romance factor. While producing good coffee is based on scientific principals, fully automatic press-a-button espresso machines can never compute nor replicate the romance (human) factor.
Those old Italian bubbas know best. Please leave button pushing to accountants and Starbucks baristas. Stay original – it's only human.