N.B I wrote this post a while back, but it’s taken me a while to get it finished and published – hope you enjoy it!
Back in August last year (cant believe how quickly time flies!) Jen and I booked ourselves into a coffee course in London. For Jen it was a chance to find out all about coffee and what the fuss was about, and for me a chance to refresh my memory from the course I took 6 months earlier – and also to get some tips before starting work as a trainee Barista.
On doing some research I came across these guys called BARistaBARBAR. They looked like a pretty cool outfit, set in the east end of London home to some great coffee shops and best of all it was cheap (like the budgie). So booked in for a Saturday and off we went!
It was a pretty uninspiring start as we arrived at the the building, a bit of a run down looking place down a dodgy looking alley in Tower Hamlets. However on arriving in the room, we knew it was going to be great! It was a total mess, loads of different machines everywhere, books, papers and paraphernalia in every nook and cranny, it even had a roaster in the corner (as you do) – it was coffee Nirvana!
We were in a beginners class so the group was a real mix – a couple of guys who wanted to perfect their coffee at home, a couple who were setting up a restaurant in Leicester and us, only 6 of us in total which meant there was plenty of hands on practice with the machines.
The class was led by Dawn, an Aussie, who had trained in some of the best coffee shops in Melbourne (the home of great coffee). She was great, very personable, hugely knowledgeable and a great teacher.
We started right at the beginning discussing the beans, the roasting process and the impact on altitude (always go for coffee from high altitude for the best flavour), drying methods and of course the all important roast from dark to light. This is obviously right at the very heart of creating good coffee and it was great to learn how every stage of the production process is key to creating that delicious coffee we all (well most of us) love.
We touched on slow brew (so your cafetiere or Chemex) vs Espresso and the different types of coffee available and then it was on to the machines to start to work on creating the perfect cup.
For me, the most exciting thing about coffee is the science behind it all. The significant impact that each stage of the preparation has on the final taste of the cup. There are a number of stages as I am sure you are aware to creating a truly great cup of coffee and we covered each of these in detail.
First the grind. This is essential to a great coffee, in fact the grinder is as, if not more, important than the espresso machine itself.
If the coffee is ground too coarse then water flows through it too quickly and the coffee will be sour, if the grind is too fine then the coffee will be extracted too slowly and the coffee will have that unpleasant taste.
A good way to get to understand the 2 tastes on your palate, if you taste the coffee at the front of your tongue, then it is sour and at the back it is bitter and you will also have a horrible after-taste. Now if you are like me these are sensations I get quite often from high street coffee! Once you get this nailed, then you can start to move onto establishing other flavours, as shown in the taster wheel below.
Anyway back to the grind, so the aim is to adjust the grind in small amounts then pull the coffee through the machine, aiming for a shot of espresso to be extracted in 20-30 seconds. Too slow, too finely ground, too fast, too coarse- makes sense!
So step 1 is to get the grind right, no easy feat, but once done it’s on to the tamp. So you fill up your handle or portafilter with your perfectly ground coffee and now you have to flatten it. For this you use the tamper exerting exactly 30lbs of pressure dead flat to create a nicely packed filter ready for extraction.
Now again you need to be precise if the coffee is not pressed exactly flat then 1 side will pour quicker than the other, and unevenly extracted coffee will come out and will…. you guessed it come out sour or bitter.
The easy bit is next, we’ve all seen this done hundreds of times, put the portafilter into the espresso machine, press the button and watch that beautiful coffee flow out of the machine into your cup. After 20-30 seconds stop this and check you have a lovely crema (layer of foam) on top. Here’s a little piccie of Jen in action!
You now should have a cracking tasting espresso – simple as that! There are other things to consider as well, such as temperature in the room (humidity impacts the rate of extraction).
As you can see from above the tiniest adjustment at any stage will have an impact on the overall flavour dramatically, and the role of a great barista is to continuously check and adjust to ensure that every coffee is of a high quality and consistent. You should see them checking their coffee throughout the day and adjusting the grind ever so slightly if needed just to make sure that each cup is coffee perfection (they definitely DON’T do this in Starbucks!)
But what about the milk I hear you shout! Well this isn’t much easier to be honest, although there are less stages! A few things to note, firstly whole milk is the best, this will give you that nice rich creamy milk, and making sure it is cold helps with the frothing process as well.
In its basic terms you are doing 2 things to the milk, creating microfoam, and then steaming the milk up to 140 degrees (much after the milk starts to burn). By using the steam wand and placing this either at the very top of the milk (creating foam) or slightly further submerged.
Once you have heated the milk up you need to swirl it around so that the milk at the bottom and the foam at the top combine. You are aiming for something that is smooth and has the look of glossy paint – sounds simple – it’s not, but with a bit of practice it does start to become easier (ish!)
Once you have perfected these 2 techniques then you can make any of the coffee types that are available, by simply adjusting the frothing and also how you pour into the cup.
Then it’s on to the latte art, something I am slowly getting better at – here’s my attempt on my new machine:
I definitely need to book into the Latte Art Masterclass soon!!
So there you have it, a whistle-stop tour of making the perfect coffee. We have since purchased a home machine (which I will do a post on soon I promise) to help practice. It’s a crazy process, but loads of fun tweaking and playing around!