It's Wednesday night in Bel Air, and Pat Merritt is steaming.
Merritt, 53, stares intently as she works the espresso machine at Coffee Coffee in the Festival at Bel Air, part of a group braving the jitters of caffeine as they enter the world of latte and cappuccino.
When it comes to coffee, "I kind of know half and half," says Merritt, a billing technician at Stella Marris and one of the dozen coffee initiates enrolled in a noncredit Harford Community College class on coffee and coffee-making.
It's no secret that gourmet coffee and coffeeshops have grown in popularity over the past few years. But the intimidating variety of flavors, blends and sizes -- not to mention the challenge of working a $150, high-tech espresso machine -- is enough to send the average drinker fleeing for the Folgers.
So Mary Romeo, who owns Coffee Coffee, designed and teaches the community college class intended to take the mystery out of coffee and all its paraphernalia.
"It's not rocket science here," Romeo said about making espresso and other coffee delights. "It's all about what you like."
According to the Coffee Science Source, a Web site created by the National Coffee Association to collect data on coffee and its consumption, 49 percent of Americans drink coffee, with men swigging more per capita than women -- 1.7 cups per day vs. 1.5 cups.
Some of the dozen students attended Wednesday's class to learn how to use their languishing coffee machines. Others attended to learn a bit about the history of coffee and to enjoy the aroma of the shop.
They all came to taste.
They started with a crash course in where coffee comes from and how each type is named, based on the area where the bean originated, the kind of bean, blend, roast and flavor. The class crowded around Romeo as she held out different blends for them to sample and view.
Andrea Crabbe, 32, brought her mother, Heidi Zuchelkowski, from Aberdeen with hopes that the class would inspire Zuchelkowski to dust off her espresso machine.
"I bought the thing for her two years ago, and it's been sitting on the shelf," Crabbe said. "We need to learn how to use it."
Espresso means "fast coffee," and after a quick lesson in some of the variety of blends and their cost -- including the Mercedes-Benz of the coffee world, Jamaica Blue Mountain, which sells for about $56 a pound -- class members were ready to whip up their drinks.
With the help of Coffee Coffee employees Heather Russell, 17, and Danielle Willard, 17, each took their turn at the espresso machine. They steamed milk, mixed flavors and learned the difference between latte (espresso with steamed milk and a little froth) and cappuccino (espresso with a lot of froth and a little steamed milk.)
Slowly, each person pushed a small, silver pitcher of milk into the metal wand on the espresso machine that alternately whips up a foam and steams the milk.
But making froth is harder than it looks -- it takes a steady hand to get those creamy bubbles.
"Beautiful, beautiful," Willard said to Donald Hines, 44, as he spooned his froth into his cup. "Don't you just want to keep piling that on?"
"This is what it is supposed to look like," Hines said, turning to his wife, Wanda, after he produced a perfect cup of almond latte with a smattering of nutmeg on top. "I've never made froth before, but that was pretty good."
The coffee classes cost $12 a session and are held once a month, alternating with a class on teas.
The course is one of many the college offers to further explore residents' interests and hobbies.
Kaye Ramach, director of community services at the college, said the college also offers courses on swing dancing, bass fishing, and the "Anatomy of a Dinner Party," which teaches students how to throw a fabulous soiree.
"There was a lot of action there at the coffee shop, and it seemed to be a focus of the community," Ramach said. "We always have a full class."
After the class, Pat Merritt said she was ready to dig her espresso machine out of the closet after five years.
"I really thought it would be a lot harder, but it wasn't," Merritt said, sipping her raspberry mocha drink. "I think I'm ready now."
Harford Community College offers several noncredit courses throughout the year. Information: the college's Division of Community and Business Services at (410) 836-4376 or (410) 879-8920, Ext. 376.
Pub Date: 2/19/99