A becoming barista, or how I wrote my fifth novel

Dry July where you don’t drink makes more sense to me than Nan-O-Wri-Mo where you write a novel in November. I have to finish a novel by the end of the year and that’s daunting enough, but I think dry July may have saved me. I did dry June as well, and while at first I longed for sloshed September and drunk December, my body likes me more when I don’t drink. I sleep better. I think better.

I figured while I wasn’t drinking, I could learn to make coffee, real coffee with steamed milk, and flood my remaining brain cells with caffeine. I know it's another drug; anyone who disagrees should wait outside Merlo up the street at 6am and see us lining up, the tradespeople and healthcare workers and writers waiting for our fix. One morning when the barista told us the machine wasn’t working, we stood there in the carpark for a few moments, a little funeral in that winter dawn, as if our combined disappointment might be enough to bring the dead back to life, to make the machine start working again.

Coffee may be an addiction but it makes you feel like a million dollars and has no lifelong harms we know of. And by the way, when we do know the harms, I don’t want to be told. So over coffee with friends at the end of dry June, I revealed my plan to become a barista. Don’t, they said. They’d all bought espresso machines over the years, some more than one, and the poor machines had wound up in the back of a cupboard or with Lifeline. And why would you bother? they said. It’s true I live in a neighbourhood that has more coffee shops than people. But I had a problem. I was at the stage of writing where I needed either to fly non-stop for a long time or get up at 4 every morning – there’s something about being above the world or between the worlds of night and day that brings a certain kind of writing. Flying wasn’t an option, and while getting up at 4am wasn’t easy, I figured thoughts of a perfect piccolo might raise me from my snuggly bed. 

The coffee machine. I couldn’t simply buy one with a button you press and voila, you have a cappuccino. I grew up in a family where idiosyncratic was the default, our cars a Simca and a Renault. So I bought the Otto, the most bespoke machine imaginable, designed in Australia and the only stovetop that steams milk. What won me was its shiny plump little body and its lovely curved neck and head. Oh, I love it so much.

I had three lessons with Miranda and Ngaire at the local. They made it look easy. Hah! I offered coffee to a friend, and because he mostly drinks instant, he said not to worry, mine would have to be better. I cranked up the Otto and when the coffee started to drip, I switched to the steaming wand. It screamed, loudly enough to send the dog into a fit of apoplectic barking and wake the neighbour’s baby, and it kept screaming until the enormous bubbles of lukewarm milk overflowed the jug. My friend was kindly. “Imagine if I’d paid for this,” he said.

Making coffee is more art than science, I’ve learned, a little like writing a novel. You can measure in conventional terms like weight or mass, and you should, but that won’t be enough. What is passed among baristas on those deep dark mornings is arcane knowledge. What you seek is crema, that wily and elusive flavour-filled froth. And the process of steaming milk – milk being  a whole other variable – wants a delicate vortex, a low whistle or buzz not a scream. 

I’ve made a hundred coffees now, and while I’m getting better, it’s been so stressful I may need a drink. I haven’t done as much writing as I’d have liked. But at 4 oclock every morning I show up and drink my little coffee, and sometimes, just sometimes, I am given grace.