My friend Christine’s birthday snuck up on me, I’ll admit it. It comes around every March, like birthdays tend to do, but it’s early enough in the month that it could have easily gone off my radar if I hadn’t been paying careful attention.
Christine is one of the hardest working people I know and she doesn’t take much time out for herself, so celebrating her birthday in a grand sort of way was a top priority. I approached my co-conspirator, Robin. “Let’s do something special for Christine’s birthday!” I was determined to give her an experience we could bond over rather than buying her a random gift. “I have some ideas brewing”, I told Robin, “Let me pursue some of them and I’ll get back to you.” Little did I know that “brewing” would literally be the heart and soul of the celebration.
How about a private tea party at one of my favorites, the Brickhouse Cafe in Brewerton? She doesn’t drink tea – she drinks coffee, Robin reminded me. Right, I should know that. I’ve rarely ever seen Christine on the soccer field without a cup of coffee in her hand. Side-by-side pedicures? Even this spa-loving writer tires of the “same old” sometimes. Lunch at her favorite restaurant? So been-there, done-that.
I don’t remember how or why I stumbled across Cafe Kubal’s website. Truthfully, I don’t even drink coffee. Well, that’s not entirely true. Over the last year, I’ve started to drink highly sweetened and flavored iced coffee beverages a few times a week. I’m not exactly a coffee purist and I rarely drink hot coffee. But when I saw that the cafe was just a few miles from my doctor’s office, I had to take a slight detour on my way back from a recent appointment to grab an iced chai latte. As luck would have it, owner Matt Godard was on the premises that day and I asked him about the coffee classes I had read about on the website.
Espresso 101, Milk Steaming 102 and Latte Art 201 are the standard offerings taught in the La Rosteria, a multi-purpose event space within the same building as the Eastwood Cafe. Classes are normally 1 1/2 hours long and are taught to individuals or small groups. I asked Matt if he could teach a private class to celebrate a special occasion. He took the ball and ran with it, customizing an offering that blended the basics of espresso making, milk steaming and latte art into a single class with a mighty purpose: to learn the art of coffee preparation from a purist while having fun and lots of laughs with friends!
We weren’t sure what to expect from the experience, but we were up for whatever Matt had in store for us. After arriving at the cafe, the friendly staff escorted us over to the production area a few doors down. A casual brunch of vegetable Quiche and fresh squeezed orange juice was waiting for us, which we savored while chatting with Matt as he worked behind the coffee bar setting up for our class and preparing us hot espresso drinks to order. As if on queue, Kirsten arrived from the cafe bearing a tray of fresh-made scones and breads for us to sample.
After breakfast, the action moved behind the bar and centered around a rather intimidating pump-driven commercial espresso machine with a bevy of buttons, nozzles and levers. I would soon learn that the coffee beans are ground only moments before each shot of espresso is “pulled”. But first, I had to learn what espresso really is: a small shot of pressure-brewed coffee that takes about 20 to 30 seconds to brew. A longer brewing time means the shot will be too strong and less brewing time will cause the shot to be too weak. Properly brewed, high quality espresso has a layer of caramelized-looking “crema” on the surface. We each took a turn crafting a practice shot: grinding the beans, tamping them down, brewing them in the machine with just the right temperature and pressure.
Under Matt’s expert tutelage and infinite patience, we sailed right through the steamed milk module and were headed straight towards latte art. Before we knew it, we were making our own lattes, cappuccinos and cafe americanas, creating patterns and designs on the surface. The designs were barely recognizable as real life objects – but we had fun deciding what we think they resembled.
Thanks to Matt and the expert bakers and baristas at Cafe Kubal, Christine had a special birthday celebration that was a fun and educational experience, richly steeped in coffee culture. We knew that Cafe Kubal had exceeded our expectations the moment we hopped back in the car: “That was an awesome experience!”, Christine said. Robin and I exchanged a not-so-secret high-five for a plan well-executed.