Monday, August 11, 2014

Espresso at 35,000 Feet

Unless you’re a working crew member, I don’t know why you’d want to get caffeinated on a flight. Maybe before landing to get ready for a meeting or something important, but the flight attendants are much too busy then to mess with the time-consuming task of making an individual espresso.

Nespresso Hi-Fly

Anyway, since I’m a pilot and espresso lover*, I’m thankful that my airline’s new Boeing 777-300ER’s come equipped with a dual station espresso machine. Sorry, but they're in 1st Class only.

The machine is a Nespresso Hi-Fly HFE9520 Series, model HFE2005-01, if you care to know. It’s a pod machine and the airline uses Illy E.S.E. espresso pods. Oh yeah, they have decaffeinated, too.

Apparently, the flight attendants received no training on how to use the machines and the only FA’s making espresso are the ones curious enough to have figured out on their own how to use it. So, on a recent international flight, the espresso machine sat turned off, cold and neglected, until I came around after a mid-flight crew break in the upstairs bunk above 1st Class.

The reaction from the FA’s when I said I’d like an espresso was, “we don’t know how to use that.” I told them I’d do it since pilots are taught this in training. The plane knows how to fly itself and we needed to learn something. They seriously pondered that for a moment.

I had a small group gathered around me as I went through the technical process of pressing the On button and waiting for the machine’s green Ready light to come on. Once on, I placed the pod in the holder and moved the locking lever down.

Then it occurred to me, why don’t I steam the milk first and have that ready for my fresh espresso shot? I poured several ounces of ultra-pasteruzed (UHT) milk from a small box into a pitcher and began the sputtering and weak steaming process. It was unbelievably slow up until the very end, when out from the steaming nozzle came a burst which sprayed milk everywhere, but barely missing me.

The crowd of FA onlookers were beginning to doubt my prowess at making cappuccino or whether I’d actually been trained at all. Comments were made.

Then, I pressed the brewing button. There are 2 different measurements for the draw of espresso which are denoted on the machine by a large and small cup. Since the coffee pod itself only contains 7 grams of ground coffee beans, I opted for the more concentrated smaller serving size. This is the recommended procedure to avoid over-extraction.

Before adding milk
A stream of espresso poured into the cup, forming a paper-thin layer of crema on top. A thick head of crema is the hallmark of good aribica espresso, which this is not.

I added about an ounce of steamed milk and a dollop of foam and set about returning to work in the cockpit. But not before some degree of positive recognition by the FA’s, who began making espressos for themselves with their newly learned skills.

Flight Attendant admiring my work
The cappuccino was weak and bitter, but where else could you get espresso at 35,000 feet? I wondered if those on the international space station above were doing any better.

* Espresso lover, snob, home roaster, owner of several high-end espresso machines, and grower of a coffee tree in my backyard.