Barista Beginnings


On a Tuesday night, as the clock ticked away at the last open hour, the barista on shift filled a last few cups with various tasty coffee combinations and started to close down the shop. Two tables had been pushed together, and at them sat me and three other students with Sue Harnly, voted Best Barista 2011 in Eugene Weekly’s Best of Eugene.

Not far from the intersection of 18th and Chambers, you can find the corner of coffee and community at the Eugene Coffee Company. The small local business has been under the ownership of Eugene resident, Sue Harnly for the past four years. As her business has continued to successfully blossom, Harnly has had the opportunity to expand her services to provide unique opportunities to the community and share her passion for delicious coffee.

Nearly every week Harnly offers a two three-hour-session Baristas Basics course, which takes place in her shop, with hands-on training occurring after the shop has closed. Three times over the course of summer, Harnly offers a more intensive 4-day Summer Barista Institutes for high schoolers.

Harnly says that these course offerings are a natural development that she didn’t directly plan on, but grew as part of her desire to share her knowledge and love of coffee with her community and provide valuable, practical job skills simultaneously.

As we practiced the age-old beautiful ritual of getting to know each other over coffee, Sue initiated conversations about each of our reasons for taking the course, what good coffee meant to us, and what we liked about specific coffee shops we had patronized. She explained her philosophy of coffee that backs the operations of her successful business including respectable points such as using local products (including locally roasted Café Mam Fair Trade Organic beans), diversity and acceptance to provide a welcoming environment to all, the sharing of knowledge, green practices and support of local art.

From there we broke into a discussion of the different beverages offered and what their specific components were. As a class we came to the conclusion that most drinks are composed of variations of two critical ingredients; espresso and steamed or foamed milk. The most important thing to take away from this class? Every detail matters when we’re talking coffee. Good coffee.

First, we tackled milk. Creamy, smooth, 2%, non-fat or soy, milk. It has to start cold, so we pull it straight from the fridge into a metal pitcher, filling it only half way, as milk can nearly double its volume as it is steamed. Sue demonstrates this for us before letting us try on our own.

She purges the steam wand with a fast hot burst from the espresso machine, wipes the tip and lifts and tilts the pitcher of milk until the wand touches the bottom. Holding the pitcher with her right hand, she turns the steam valve half of a turn and a rapid whirling and bubbling noise starts to escape as she moves her left hand to the bottom of the container, feeling its temperature rising.

Knowing that as the pitcher becomes too hot to touch; it has nearly reached its perfect temperature (140 F). As the temperature is rising, she slowly lowers the pitcher as the milk froths up, always keeping the nozzle just below the liquids surface. This detail is critical to creating dense foam. The milk swirls clockwise as the foam creeps up the sides. When the pitcher is too hot to touch, the nozzle is pressed back to the bottom of the pitcher for just a brief moment (which turns out to be enough to raise the temperature 10-20 F) and the steam valve is turned off. The temperature of the milk continues to rise after the steaming is completed.

Temperature and timing are key with steaming milk. A milk that has been steamed too long or improperly can end with scalded milk, big bubbles and loose foam among other first world coffee tragedies.

Thanks to Sue Harnly for the opportunity to learn from her and share our passion for coffee. Stop in and check out the Eugene Coffee Co. and enjoy the atmosphere or check them out online at Eugene Coffee Co.

Next up on Barista Basics: Pulling a Great Espresso Shot!

EDN's Community Editor and sometimes embedded reporter is a graduate of Lock Haven University of Pennsylvania with a degree in elementary education. She has instructed students from Lock Haven, to Elmira New York, to Incheon South Korea, to Springfield Oregon.

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