My employment agency sometimes sends me to a pub in the south of Edinburgh which is called The Buns. It was a proud, never-say-die “old man’s pub” until very recently. It had the most faded front in the street, unpeeling in a kind of colourless blue. The drip trays for the beer were still given to a Labrador at the end of the night – the same Labrador whose grandsires had drunk from them in the high days when the pits were still open. There were still lock-ins, though the manager felt more relaxed when they were called “afterparties” and held off the premises. The décor of the toilets was so putrefied with age that visitors would always feel strangely honoured to urinate there.
The Buns had to modernise though. Not for any financial reason – its customers were as true as the stars and they generally had at least five years of drinking ahead of them. Rather, it was irksome for the staff when one-off customers would ask why there wasn’t any Wi-Fi or why there was no food menu. The explaining had only increased over the years and, at last, the management had decided that the explaining was taking up too much of the staff’s time. So incrementally, they were modernising.
With Melissa’s arrival, the pub was shunted forward several decades at once. She was a trained barista and she could cook up the most extraordinary coffees. She had graduated four months ago but she was one of those people who is always graduating in something new. It was as if degrees were her jigsaw pieces that she would one day assemble to reveal a fulfilled identity. For now, she was provisionally a barista.
After her invasion, I spent most of my time away from the bar buffing the brass fittings – it was one of those pubs where a lot of the exoskeleton is brass. Melissa had annexed the bar as her own personal theatre; indeed, this was her favourite metaphor. “The bar is your theatre and you have to perform, Biggy” she would urge. From her bossiness and the intensity of her routine, the performance often appeared to be Lady Macbeth.
I was soon recruited as her understudy. One morning, I was called to work an hour before the pub opened and she led me to the coffee machine. This was the same machine that they have everywhere, in chrome and black plastic, with an appendage that looks like a dentist’s drill projecting from the side to steam the milk.
“To begin we have to tamp the distributives. Never hurry the tamping. The customer will be happy to wait if they know that their coffee will be that extra bit special.”
“Never hurry the tamping,” I repeated. I was already bewildered and I doubted that the tamping would stand out later in my mind.
“Don’t worry about remembering – we’ll go over it several times.” Melissa had silver-blonde hair and hypnotic breasts that I always found myself compelled to peer down into, as though I was lingering around the edge of a quarry. I had never actually seen her face. “So you’re going to learn how to produce the signature cappuccino of Joe Motti.”
We waited in silence. She would obviously not be content until I had begged to have Joe Motti explained to me.
She resumed pleasantly. “Joe Motti is one of THE baristas! He is… I don’t know… the Albert Einstein of coffee. The perfect cappuccino, as he formulates it, requires 35ml of espresso that should pour in two rats’ tails and deposit a walnut crema.”
“Will they be cooperative?”
“I mean, the rats. I know their intelligence is phenomenal but…”
Her furious glare crashed headlong into my expectant grin and then my grin was suddenly foolish and I had shrunk horribly. Melissa swept me aside as if I was worthless. “Being a barista isn’t just a skill, Biggy. You have to believe that your coffee is going to make the customer’s day better. You have to want to do this.”
Like General Custer, dismayed by the swarming Injuns, I was going to make a last stand for common sense even if I was obliterated in the process. “But these coffees taste exactly the same as when everybody drank Nescafé. It’s all suggestiveness and snobbery. A barista isn’t “a skilled artisan” – making a cup of coffee is something that the stupidest person in our society can do. At least when workers were down the mines…”
“Biggy, please stop before you make even more of a fool of yourself. I am going to considerable trouble to train you. Now watch and listen carefully…”
Whereas once philosophers had strived to transmute lead into gold, I had to now take base milk and weave it into a kind of heavenly satin called microfoam. On my first dozen attempts, the microfoam was too fleecy. Discarded jugs of cooling milk soon stood around me everywhere.
“And now the pour,” Melissa announced. Selecting an acceptable jug, she squiggled her wrists and loosened her fingers elaborately. A grainy image was steadily materialising across the surface of the coffee.
“A horse?” I ventured. I felt bitter and guilty – I could see immediately that it was Barack Obama.
It was that iconic Audacity of Hope meme. The poor man’s oblivious face was now floating in this cup of coffee like a huge crust of mould.
“This is very basic,” Melissa told me. “There’s a video on YouTube of a barista in Montreal reproducing Bosch’s “The Garden of Earthly Delights” on a latte. It’s incredible. But you have to remember that many customers have moved beyond figurative art into abstract expressionism or even conceptualism. I have to worry about this at the moment because I’m about to attend a barista contest in Glasgow.”
I smiled with pleasure for her. If Melissa was going on holiday, all of her cappuccinos and lattes would be going too. We still had a jar of Nescafé in the staff smoking area.
Maj, our morning cleaner, entered the bar area with Henry. “I make good job lady?” he demanded.
Melissa looked at him askance. “You’re pulling Henry by the nose again! A bad habit!”
Henry continued to grin inanely.
I spun Melissa back to the coffee machine. “What’s the point of this contest?”
“You have to showcase your own signature drink. It’s almost impossible because you have to follow all of the existing rules whilst inventing something brand new. It’s so scary because Joe Motti – THE Joe Motti – will be judging.”
“Wow.” My voice was so extinct of life that I briefly did not recognise it as my own. “And where are you meant to find inspiration?”
“There are baristas all around the world who can mentor you.” Her eyes flashed and I knew that she was up to something. She wore the same bright look as whenever she persuades our boss that I will have to sweep up the vomit in the car park because she is suddenly too busy sterilising the steam wand. “I’m going to Chad – I’m going next Wednesday. There’s this legendary barista who is sometimes mentioned on online forums, but she is too inaccessible for anybody to have investigated before. She lives in a hut in the mountains and you have to ride across the floodplains on a hippo to visit her. She brews coffee according to an ancient and long-lost recipe, handed down from exiled Bedouins. Apparently, they once had this technique where you grind the coffee using just your bare toes. It’s going to turn everything we once knew upside-down.”
A happy idea struck me. “Look, I don’t want to be selfish with my training. You won’t want me hogging the machine…”
“No Biggy, I’m training you for when I’m away. In this pub, we have to serve coffees to exactly the same standard. If not, the customers will show a preference for one barista and the whole service will become unbalanced.”
Exactly the same?, I wanted to snarl. How many billions of coffees do I need to make before I am as demented as you? I looked down at my unsuspecting hands and shuddered at all that they would have to go through.
So Melissa flew off to Chad and all her fancy coffees went with her. The few customers who asked for a cappuccino were told that the machine was broken and, if they persisted, the Nescafé was called up like an ancient Kraken from the depths.
One morning the phone rang. It was usually the police. “Hello, this is The Buns pub,” I answered. “Zbigniew speaking.”
Down the phone, there was screeching and the steady pounding of gunfire. Somebody yelled, “get under the table!”
“Biggy!” Melissa hissed. “I’m in Chad. Listen to me, I don’t have much time…”
There was the thump of a rocket-propelled grenade and semi-automatic weapons spluttered in response. I tried to think of something to say and dismissed “Are you having a nice holiday?” as a possibility.
“Biggy, I’m not going to be able to make it back in time. No petrol is being delivered to the country – there are sanctions. You will have to go to Glasgow.”
“The invitation is in the office. There won’t be another Global Lodge until next year. We must have Joe Motti’s accreditation. Go and make him a coffee – go and make him the best one you can – you have all of my training and so just relax and have fun, okay?”
I sighed. “Goodbye Melissa, I hope you get your petrol.” There was more gunfire. “It sounds like everyone has had too much coffee,” I added acidly, before hanging up.
How to make a revolutionary coffee and one that paradoxically followed all of their hundreds of intricate rules? The only thing that I had to go on was this surrealism about grinding coffee with your toes. I attempted this myself but I did not have the heft. I theorised that a fat man might be able to crush the beans under his heels if they were calloused enough.
I would need somebody in Arab costume since foot-ground coffee beans were supposed to be a long-lost Bedouin tradition. Well, I advertised on Gumtree and I was soon connected with an individual who met many of my requirements. His name was Bertie and he was grossly obese. I decked him out in a fez and a thobe and he managed to pulverise some coffee beans on the floorboards of my living-room.
Bertie was a nervous man in most circumstances and in Glasgow he would be thoroughly at home. After leaving the bus station, we wended our way towards the SEC Centre, like pennies rotating inexorably down a supermarket vortex into the black hole. Bertie seemed to feel the panic cool against his bare skin. “Don’t worry,” I told him genially. Then a thought struck me. “Imagine that you are performing in a theatre – the coffee machine is our stage.”
“What the hell is that meant to mean?” he complained. “You want me to get stage fright?”
We were even jitterier once we had infiltrated the SEC Centre. Bertie was slippery with sweat in his sheikh fancy dress.
At first, it sounded as though a great river was rattling through the exhibition centre, until we realised that this churning was actually issuing from innumerable coffee grinders.
All of the baristas looked very solemn, the devout adherents to a priestcraft. There were so many black polo necks that the effect was of a sea of disembodied heads. All of their faces were dusted with stubble rather as their cappuccinos were with chocolate sprinkles.
I suppose that there must have been a few women mixed in amongst them, but the lifestyle of the barista jet set is ultimately, I believe, male and sore with loneliness. These remote men with no homes or families who are beamed from one hotel room to the next, from the coolest gig going to a cooler one in the next city. All of their high talk has shaped the most splendid castles and here they mingle like a philosophical aristocracy, talking beautifully about aromas and fermentation, until they eventually awake and look around stupefied. A dullness is stealing over the gleaming towers. The reality is creeping ever closer that the barista is simply making coffees over and over again. They look down at the cobbles beneath their feet and realise that their castle is made of clouds and that the vapour is frittering away…
We were taken to be photographed with Joe Motti. He was an old man with long hairy arms that twitched restlessly wherever he draped them. He took all of me in with a single outraged glare. He was about to say something but then didn’t. It was evident that he thought I didn’t belong in his barista championship.
The next time that I encountered him was during our allocated time-slot. In the interim, Bertie and I had wandered beneath the aircraft-hanger ceiling of the hall, through a higgledy-piggledy plastic bazaar of coffee presentations and showcased skills. We had been given a ticket stub and we had to wait until our number flashed on the overhead screens. This was the signal to approach the main stage.
Motti was not exactly seated on a throne but he was sprawled in such a way as to convey that he considered his chair to be one. I judged that the only way to prevail was to become haughtier than he was.
I marched up to the coffee machine in front of his chair, ignoring the attendants who were trying to welcome me. Motti tutted and looked away rudely. I froze and gave him a stare so baleful that he was forced, in a matter of heartbeats, to turn back and acknowledge me.
So far I was winning.
I ripped open a bag of coffee beans straight down the middle so that they all poured and chattered on the floor. I might have screamed blue murder from the reaction that I got. An appalled crowd of mute statues now surrounded me. I glanced at Motti and saw that he was sitting up and looking somehow guilty.
Bertie flounced past me into action. Performing his stirring and probably impromptu Bedouin recital, he pounded the floor, with coffee beans snapping beneath his heels. Finally, he had trampled together enough powder to make a thin coffee and he scraped this up, presenting me with his cupped hands. It could have been a scene from the classical romance of the desert. I bowed solemnly and he bowed solemnly back.
With a concluding Arabic flourish, Bertie twirled away and I was left alone with the coffee. I briskly tamped it and made an espresso. I instantly swallowed the espresso and gargled it noisily whilst steaming the milk. I dumped the microfoam into a cup, spat the coffee violently into it, and then dashed sprinkles across it with a single contemptuous flick of my wrist. My creation was flung in front of Motti so forcefully that half of it slopped out.
Motti trembled as though he could feel the air issuing from his grave. He shrank into himself until he resembled a badgered, bullied schoolchild. He glanced at me and looked away hurriedly. Then his fingers had found the cup and they curled stiffly around it.
He drank. He paused to taste.
He dipped forward quickly and drank again. He paused, looked up with wondering eyes and then dropped from his seat, dead.
All of the staring statues slowly unfroze and came back to life. There were exclamations. One of the attendants slapped Motti’s face and then whisked away her hand and did not move it again.
A message was being currently chanted over the tannoy system. “Is there a doctor in the house? Any doctor to the main stage.”
“It is over,” I said simply. “He knew that that was the best coffee he would ever taste.”
I had kicked the cup far into the darkness under Motti’s chair so that nobody could retrieve it.
My lead opponent, a wiry man who looked more like Steve Jobs than Steve Jobs himself, was on the button with his protest. Motti had awarded him a score of 228 (by contrast, Melissa’s highest ever score had been 43). “He has tasted a coffee so bad that it has killed him!”
“With one sip of my coffee he went straight to heaven and he is there now.”
“This isn’t helpful,” an attendant interrupted urgently. “With CPR, he could still make it.”
Normally, I would have said something like, “this old fool has drunk enough coffee to lose a submarine in. CPR would be futile.” Yet I was still immersed in my haughty virtuoso-barista act. “His work on this planet is done. Why bring him back to the chill of old age. Let him go out on a high.”
My opponent was on his knees, rolling up his sleeves. “Let us bring him back to ask him just how good your coffee really is,” he suggested fiercely.
The promptness of my reply took even me by surprise. “Okay, lets. With Joe Motti’s endorsement, every barista across the country – from every Starbucks to every elite £22-per-espresso den – will be making coffee my way. Only baristas with fat feet will be eligible to make coffee.”
My opponent jumped as what I was saying sank in. Next, he had stood up and he was herding away an arriving doctor. “No, he’s definitely dead. His heart’s clean gone.”
The baristas were heartbroken as well. With the extermination of this impudent gnome, their chieftain was dead. Most of the delegates were openly crying; there was a tearful mass singalong of “Candle in the Wind.”
I also did not enjoy the rest of this conference. I got into an argument with a spiteful woman who had accused Bertie of “culturally appropriating” Bedouin coffee-making. She was completely hysterical and her mouth became clogged up with the most incoherent jargon. “You are reinforcing and legitimising the cultural rape of marginalised lived experience,” she raged. It looked as if she wanted to take this outside to the car park. Bertie and I turned our backs and ran for it whilst we still could.
We inspected a cumbersome hydraulic device that could make a single cappuccino for an entire shareholders’ meeting. It took seven men to steam the milk and the consequent drink was the size of a garden pond. They were ladling it out and I received a slice of microfoam on a paper plate.
In a lonelier region of the conference bazaar, we joined a Swiss businessman who was standing by himself at a small stall. He introduced himself timidly as the trade ambassador for Nescafé, and he was astonished to learn that I was a great admirer of his work. Once the rest of the conference had noticed me and the Nescafé man chortling away together, my status as persona non grata could never be repealed.
I had soon slipped out with my new friend and Bertie to find a beer. Of course, there would be a bottle of Tyskie waiting for me at home later, as faithfully as a loving wife.