At 6 a.m. any weekday, Aldwyn McCuistion will be wide awake, grinding coffee beans and spinning a dial that makes the milk-foaming wand on his espresso machine scream.
"I can tell by the sound within about 5 degrees whether the milk is the right temperature," McCuistion said on a recent morning as he "pulled a shot" of espresso. He was wearing his customary plaid golf cap adorned with a red "panic" button, and bobbing to a Weird Al Yankovic song. "You want it at about 150 degrees for latte, 170 degrees for mocha."
You pick up more than a few little tricks of the coffee trade if you have been in the business as long as McCuistion. He's been serving up coffee for Heritage Coffee Co. for 11 of the 37 years he has been alive. The last four years he's worked out of a little shop near the Capitol. Most of his customers, from gubernatorial staff to maintenance workers, know him by name. And he knows them by what they drink.
"I used to see people on the street, someone would go, 'Who's that?' and I'd go, 'There goes a latte," he said, laughing.
McCuistion normally has a drink going the minute a regular steps in the door. Many don't say anything at all except "Thanks, Aldwyn" as they slide some cash on the counter.
"It's convenient, it's always friendly, and he always knows your drink. It is sort of like 'Cheers,' " said Jerry Luckhaupt, a legislative office worker who has been getting a grande mocha every workday for four years.
Another customer, Brenda MacKinnon, comes every Thursday to get mochas for her office at the Alaska State Hospital and Nursing Home Association. The women in her office are connoisseurs of the mocha. McCuistion's are the best in town and possibly in the world, she said.
"He told me it's because he takes the time to do it right," MacKinnon said.
McCuistion shrugs off the praise, saying he doesn't consider himself a "barista," or a coffee-making expert. The term implies he is a coffee snob, someone who always is perfecting technique, or making little shapes in chocolate sauce on the foam of a cappuccino.
"I just make coffee," he said. "I have the best job in town, I get paid really well, I have no real stress, and I have the best customers."
For example, if the coffee decanter runs out, a customer will save him the trip around the counter and hand him the empty container. If something spills, a customer will wipe it up. He gets cards for Christmas and his birthday.
"If I get sick and don't come in, I get several calls at home to see if I am OK," McCuistion.
A customer once brought him a roast. Superior Court Judge Patricia Collins brought him cookies at Christmas.
"That was probably one of the best presents I ever got," he said.
McCuistion's espresso-making routine goes like this: grind beans, fill porta-filter with coffee, tamp coffee down into the porta-filter with a quick twist of the wrist, screw the porta-filter into the espresso machine, watch a creamy brown shot come pouring out. While making the shot, he also keeps an eye on a silver pitcher of milk as it heats with the help of a steam wand. His boss has been threatening to get him an automatic machine, but he prefers this one, which requires a little skill.
"It is quicker for me because I am used to it," he said.
McCuistion grew up in southern Oregon and northern California. His last job before this was working with a circus-style big-cat show on a cross-country tour.
"You know, tigers, lions," he said. "My job was to take care of the cubs. As much as I like this job, I have to say that was the best job I've had, staying in a hotel room with all those cubs."
McCuistion doesn't drink coffee much. When he does, he likes a cup of classic drip coffee, and he takes it black.
Over the years he has become somewhat of a coffee anthropologist, noticing, for example, that people from the same office building will order the same drink. A few years back all the secretaries at Dimond Courthouse were getting small lattes. Then one day someone got a shot of vanilla syrup, and soon the vanilla latte was all the rage.
Also, coffee prices have gone up, almost prohibitively, McCuistion said. That is why more people are switching from espresso drinks to regular coffee. Heritage recently dropped its prices a bit, which McCuistion thought was a good idea.
The most troubling trend, according to McCuistion, is that coffee drink sizes have gotten much larger, with the addition of the "mega" or "venti" 20-ounce size. Three 20-ouncers will wipe out a decanter of drip coffee in a matter of minutes, he said. Though he isn't a snobby barista, selling coffee in artless gas-station sizes is where he puts his foot down.
"I told my boss, if we start selling 'bucket-o-coffee,' I'll quit," he said.