In my new book (still on a boat – annoyingly, the 3000 copies left Hong Kong a week late) I’m pictured wearing an apron saying ‘grumpy old man’. So in my official grumpy capacity I’ll say this: It really annoys me when people complain about trends in the economy ‘which lead to a world of frothy coffee jobs’. The implication is that making and serving coffee is a menial task of little value requiring little or no skill and leading nowhere.
As in many areas of life the cultural values of Europe are a step ahead of us. In Italy the role of barista is valued and respected. It makes my day to come across somewhere making really good coffee. At my cafés it’s something we never stop working on. Just recently we’ve introduced a new coffee called a ‘Bicerin’ (pronounced ‘bee-chair-een’) which Dean, the manager at All Saints, came across on holiday at a famous café of the same name in Turin. We make it with Green and Black’s chocolate, a double shot of espresso, chocolate sprinkles and a small amount of richly textured milk. As you can see from the picture at the top it looks lovely – and it tastes even better.
But making consistently rich and delicious coffee is not primarily about the recipe.
Firstly it’s about the choice of coffee beans. We use, and have used for many years, Illy espresso. As you’ll know if you’ve ever bought Illy in a supermarket it’s one of the most expensive coffees available. We pay at least 60% more for our beans that the main coffee chains and most of that difference is to do with the quality of the coffee rather than the superior buying power of the chains. The businessman in me is always looking for a fantastic little local company roasting and blending perfect espresso at lower prices. But it seems that you get what you pay for. We’ve done many blind tastings over the years and Illy always comes out top.
Secondly and most simply it’s about the espresso machine. You have to use a good quality machine that is properly maintained and cleaned so that it’s using the correct quantity, temperature and pressure of water for every cup. Equally the steam wand for heating/texturing milk must be constantly (i.e. every time you use it) kept clean and clear.
Thirdly – and most challengingly – it’s about the skill and consistency of the barista (person making Italian-style espresso coffee). So what does a barista have to do to ensure you get a perfect coffee every time? Here’s my (not exhaustive) list of the top ten things your barista needs to do to make sure you get a consistently excellent cappuccino or flat white:
- Always use a hot cup and make sure that the portafilter (the bit you put the freshly ground coffee in) is always hot. Espresso is brewed using water a few degrees below boiling (and milk quite a bit cooler than that) so everything possible has to be done to ensure that the drink gets to the customer sufficiently hot without scalding the coffee or over-cooking the milk.
- Make sure that the coffee is ground to the correct fine-ness. The grinding mechanism of a coffee grinder is being constantly worn away by the very process of grinding so the machine needs regular adjustment to ensure that a consistent and correct fine-ness of ground coffee is achieved.
- Make sure that the coffee is ‘tamped’ (pressed down with a ‘tamper’) sufficiently firmly – but not too firmly. If points 2 and 3 are correctly followed then the espresso will pour from the spout into the cup in a shape that is known as a ‘rat’s tail’. If it comes out too quickly the grind is too coarse or the coffee insufficiently tamped. If it drips out too slowly then the grind is too fine and/or the coffee has been excessively tamped.
A well made espresso will always have a fine nutty-brown froth on top known as the crema. In our in-house barista training manual we have a saying: ‘No crema, no serva.’ If there’s no crema on the espresso it’s almost always a sign that there’s something wrong with the way it was made. Confusingly the reverse is not the case. You can have very nasty espresso that has a beautiful crema. It’s much easier to get a good crema from cheap and relatively flavourless Robusta beans than from the finer Arabica beans. Needless to say Illy coffee is 100% Arabica.
- Use full fat milk. Of course if customers want us to use other milks (skimmed, semi, soya etc) we’re happy to do that. But in my view the finest milky coffees are made with full-fat milk. Something to do the fat in the milk complementing the acidity of the coffee.
- Always start texturing the milk using cold fresh milk, as opposed to constantly re-heating old milk.
- Heat with the wand at the correct angle and height in the jug thus creating a whirlpool within the jug that will encourage the creation of fine bubbles incorporating the right amount of air. You’re looking for a dense creamy foam at about 65C.
- Tap the jug firmly and then ‘polish’ the milk using a vigorous swirling motion. You will see the milk become shiny as you do this.
- For cappuccino and macchiato pour rapidly from the top of the jug – imagine that it’s a jug of water with ice in and you’re trying to pour out the ice.
- For latte, flat white, cortado and our new Bicerin, pour slowly from the bottom of the jug getting an even denser more ‘liquid’ bit of the milk.There you have it – couldn’t be simpler! And that’s without starting on latte art. I’ve been doing it for twenty years and I still struggle to make perfect coffees every time – and that’s why I’m always delighted to be served a great coffee, especially when it’s in one of my own cafes!
If you’re interested in making espresso at home I was sent a link to a thorough-looking (US-based) review of espresso machines https://www.reviews.com/espresso-machine/ I’ve never used domestic-style espresso machine and I don’t think I’ve ever had a really well-made coffee with textured milk made on a domestic espresso machine but I’d be delighted to be shown the error or my limited experience!