Once upon a time, Alison Novak was a nuclear-engineering student at MIT. Her academic focus was reactor design, although she considered studying power-plant culture someday. Most of all, the 28-year-old Millis native wanted to be able to translate the complexity of atom splitting into layman’s terms. “A lot of people fear nuclear power because they don’t understand how it works,” she said. “I wanted to be able to explain it to other people.”
But Novak left MIT during her senior year (“long, sordid story”), and her career path changed dramatically: she became a full-time barista. “Aspiring nuclear-reactor designer drops out to make espresso at the local café” — sounds like a Douglas Coupland anecdote or a Singles subplot left on Cameron Crowe’s cutting-room floor.
“I decided to make coffee because it makes me happier,” Novak said quite confidently last Thursday at Central Square’s 1369 Coffeehouse, the Mass Ave café where she has manned bean-grinding machines for the past eight years. Later that afternoon, she’d be flying to Charlotte, North Carolina, for the United States Barista Championships (USBC), an annual competition of 50 or so professional espresso preparers vying to represent America in the World Barista Championships, to be held this May inBerne, Switzerland. “I went to bed last night and dreamed about making cappuccinos,” said Novak, explaining that she’d been up practicing the night before until 4 am. “I’d wake up, and I’m like, ‘Hey, I’m not competing right now!’ And then I’d go back to sleep and dream about making cappuccinos some more.”
Novak, who also edits books for a small science-fiction/fantasy publisher in Holliston, makes a mean espresso. Earlier, she had served me a foamy latte with a fern-like “rosetta” shape formed in the steamed-milk froth.(She can also pour a heart.) That’s “latte art.”“It took me longer to learn how to do this than it did to learn how to design a nuclear reactor,” she admitted, pulling argyle leg-warmer-type sleeves down over her hands. “I like to think of coffee in terms of fluid dynamics,” she added, delving into milk-density theories and explaining how thermodynamics help her understand why a long-pulled espresso shot can make you run for the toilet. “Other baristas know these things too, obviously,” she said. “It’s not like I have some secret knowledge.”
While most of her co-workers are artists and musicians taking advantage of the barista’s flexible schedule, espresso making is Novak’s primary vocation. She has joined the Barista Guild of America, attended at least one trade show, and posed tastefully nude alongside the 1369 staff for the 2004 Cambridge Uncovered academic calendar (coffee cups cover unmentionables), and this past weekend she and a 1369 co-worker entered the USBC.
In the national competition, each contender has 15 minutes to make and serve 12 drinks to four different judges:four espressos, four cappuccinos, and four “specialty drinks.”(Novak’s is a “spicy” chipotle mocha: shavings of L.A. Burdick’s dark chocolate; a pinch of smoked, ground chipotle grown by 1369 owner Gerry Wolfe; and an espresso shot with steamed milk delicately poured on top.)Plus, each contestant has to set the judges’ table. “I got down to 11 minutes last night,” Novak said on Thursday. “I’m clumsy, so I’m really afraid that I’m going to spill coffee all over someone.”