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There’s more skill than you might expect required to make the perfect espresso

“They’re Italian, so they’re built like Ferraris,” says Harlan Thompson. “They’re made by Sanremo, the sports cars of the coffee world.” Thompson is the barista here at The Tipsy Muse Café in downtown Fredericton. He’s talking about the espresso machine and the coffee bean grinder he spends his days operating.

Thompson talks easily and with authority about a profession that is at times highly technical. Patience seems to come naturally to him, so he’s the perfect instructor for The Barista Experience, one of two workshops offered at The Tipsy Muse. The other is the less technical two-hour tasting experience called The Coffee Seminar. After Thompson introduces me to the machines, he speaks about the intricacies of coffee—from growing and roasting to preparing and serving—calling upon his knowledge in the fields of engineering, biology, chemistry and mathematics, all brought into the complex equation of what it takes to pull the perfect espresso shot. 

“An espresso is a small, strong coffee,” Thompson continues. “You can either drink it on its own or use it as a base to make another drink like an Americano or latte. You can even pour it over ice cream.” Laying out the agenda for the workshop, Thompson says we’ll be making and tasting espresso shots to determine their quality, then making adjustments to the process until we’re ready to steam the milk that will achieve today’s goal, a great cappuccino.

Thompson learned his skills on the road and on the job, starting in Montreal. When I ask him where on his travels he found the best coffee, his answer is a stunner.  “Oh, definitely Japan.” Tea and sake come to mind when I think of Japan. Not coffee. Thompson worked as a barista in Tokyo for four years. “I fell in love with the coffee culture there. It’s unparalleled to anything else in the world.”

Both science and art go into making the perfect espresso.

As with cocoa, many coffee growing regions of the world once lacked a local coffee culture, Thompson explains. Cocoa and coffee are cash crops, so it’s left to places like Italy, France, Turkey and even Japan to perfect the use of the raw material and develop national coffee cultures.

Krista Touesnard, co-owner of the Tipsy Muse, sits at the counter to talk about Fredericton’s coffee culture. She invites me to return this evening for live music. “Tonight is a Grateful Dead tribute,” she says. East Coast musicians also perform here, and The Muse hosts open mic nights and Celtic jam sessions. Touesnard is a Cape Bretoner who plays violin. Music is baked into the business because it’s so important to her and to her husband and partner, a radio DJ here in Fredericton. That explains all the vinyl records and the evenings dedicated to spinning them. Touesnard sees the Tipsy Muse as a cultural centre where conversation, ideas and music go hand in hand with a good coffee.

Back to the hands-on experience, Thompson takes me through the steps of pulling an espresso shot, discussing the seemingly endless factors he considers as he’s dialing in the shot. “The rabbit hole runs deep,” he says of the possibility of getting lost in the details. Keeping it simple, he explains, “Dose, yield, time—those are our three main control factors.” The dose is the amount of coffee the machine grinds into the filter basket to create the puck of coffee grounds. The yield is the amount of espresso that dribbles into the cup as the water is pushed through the dose. A standard ratio of dose to yield is 1 to 2.

“Whatever amount of coffee you’re putting in your basket, you want to pull double that weight in liquid yield,” Thompson says. “Typically, that’s about 20 grams of ground coffee to 40 grams of espresso.”

The time it takes for the water to pass through the basket also affects the flavour. Italians came up with the terms ristretto or short shot and lungo or long shot to describe the variations in time it takes to pull an espresso. Flavours vary with time, and of course the longer the shot, the weaker the coffee.

“Every day when I come in, I need to taste my coffee,” Thompson says. “I have to pull a shot once per hour to make sure the flavour is staying consistent throughout the day. It’s a labour-intensive job, but it becomes second nature. I take a taste and dump the rest. It’s like wine tasting. You’re not downing every glass. But I still drink a lot of coffee, so I stay caffeinated. Sometimes it’s difficult to sleep at night.”

We give it a try, Thompson guiding me through the steps—grinding the beans into the filter basket, spreading the grounds evenly with the distribution tool, tamping out the air and forming the puck, fixing the basket onto the group head, and pushing the button to send the water at high pressure through the filter basket full of grounds. Out the bottom of the basket pour two streams of espresso and its foam, called crema, into two shot glasses. We sip and savour, deciding they’re a bit on the acidic side. We adjust the weight of the grounds by tenths of a gram and try again. This time, the balance is just right.

Thompson steams some milk and pours it into the shot, magically painting a delicate, white flower of microfoam in the beige crema. It’s delicious, the sweetness of the milk balancing the acidity and roast of the coffee. I’m eager to learn the mysteries of steaming milk and creating latte art like his, but that’s a workshop and a story for another time. I’m happy to sit here and
sip perfection.


A few of the many great cafés across Atlantic Canada

New Brunswick

Epoch Chemistry,
St. George Street, Moncton

Honeybeans Coffee, Tea & Treats, Water St., Saint Andrews

Café Lotus Bleu, Canada Road, Edmunston

Buddha Bear Coffee Roaster,
Main St., Alma  

Rogue Coffee, Grannan St.,

         Saint John



Receiver Coffee Company,
two locations, Charlottetown

Samuel’s Coffee House,
Summerside and Cavendish

The Black & White Café and Bakery,
St. Peters

Leonhard’s Café and Restaurant,
Great George St., Charlottetown.

The Kettle Black, Queen Street, Charlottetown


The Old Store Café,
Main St., Norris Point

Brewed Awakening,
West St., Corner Brook

Georgetown Café and Bookshelf, Hayward Ave., St. John’s

The Battery Café,
Duckworth St., St. John’s

Crow’s Nest Café,
Crow Head and Twillingate 


Nova Scotia

Doktor Luke’s,
Prince St., Sydney

Wired Monk,
Morris St., Halifax

Two If By Sea,
Octerloney St., Dartmouth

Just Us! Coffee & Tea House,
Route 1, Grand-Pré

Sissiboo Coffee Roaster Café,
George St., Annapolis Royal


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