Last night in Melbourne I avoided a Flat White and got intimate with a Long Black. The memory lives on!
We were at the Wine Club of Melbourne for a coffee tasting evening. For some in the party, this was definitely second or fourth best, but all agreed that the evening turned out brilliantly, and luckily it wasn’t all coffee:
Barista Rita Zhang of Home Barista Institute showed us how to make good and bad coffee (some of us already knew how to make bad coffee), allowed participants to play with her coffee machines, and gave us tips on how to make sure that we get a good coffee next time we pay for one.
She first gave us a fun quiz to show us how little we know about coffee.
Scoring categories out of 12 were
1 – 3: you need to do a Home Barista coffee making course.
4 -6: you still need to do a Home Barista coffee making course.
7-9: you know a lot about coffee! You can improve by doing a Home Barista course.
10 – 12: you will have a job at Home Barista Institute running the course.
Robusta coffee has more caffeine in it than arabica, while being less palatable. It’s used almost exclusively by the instant coffee market, that figures, and in the cheaper brands of ground coffee. To check whether a coffee has robusta in it, check the packet – like GM ingredients and non-organics, if it’s not specified, it’s there. Pure arabica, pure organics and non-GM foods all proclaim themselves proudly 🙂
I was thrilled to win a bag of coffee beans for knowing that coffee originated in the region of Ethiopia. Luckily the only other person to shout out an answer guessed “Brazil”, which made me look even better. However there were many opportunities for others to win a bag of coffee – the first couple who were brave enough to come and make coffee on the machines, or those who were quick enough in answering other questions.
Rita showed us first how to make a good cappuccino and a caffe latte, since those drinks are 95% of what the Australians buy. She told us that her first memorable coffee experience on coming to Australia was buying a takeaway coffee from a well known Melbourne coffee shop. She opened the lid on a whim to find that the barista had taken the trouble to form a heart pattern on top, though 99.9% of his customers would never even look, and when coffee art was not common. As well as the coffee tasting superb, the temperature was perfect – coffee must be immediately drinkable, especially as the “crema” will start to deteriorate in 1 – 2 minutes. Over-heated Mackers coffee – Not Good.
The coffee crema – oh, how I’ve been misled all these years (but what would one expect from the likes of n*stlé). I learnt last night that coffee crema is not some white flammable powder some people add to whiten coffee, but the wonderful golden froth on top of a well-made shot of coffee. I have to commend the Little Pygmy from New Zealand: it has started off with a a very long crema.
Where do the best coffee beans come from? The answer to that is another question: where is the best wine made? Mostly it’s a matter of taste; however the more popular coffees are usually from South America and East Africa. A premium blend would probably include beans from Colombia, Brazil, Ethiopia and Kenya, though others might include different varieties as well, maybe even a little robusta for kick.
Rita reckons that a good coffee relies 20% on the bean, 20% on the machine and 60% on the barista. She said she can make a very decent cup of coffee from poor beans, and can also show us how to make a disastrous cup of coffee from great beans. We didn’t get to that part of the lesson.
What seems to be the secret? Obviously fresh beans, freshly ground to the right consistency will be a great start. Rita talked often about the “1 to 2 Rule” – beans will last 1 – 2 weeks in a sealed container and even ground coffee will last well enough if well sealed (but not in the freezer). Beans in the coffee machine will be fresh enough for 1 – 2 days, so cast a beady eye in the hopper at your local coffee shop if you are buying coffee on a Monday morning; chances are at the first 50 cups from there will be stale. And finally drink your coffee within 1 – 2 minutes of it being made.
Tamping the coffee into the basket of the coffee machine or espresso pot is also important – quite a firm pressure is needed. A successful “tamp” leaves the final used grounds looking like a firm chocolate biscuit rather than a slushy mess. Put it another way, you only know you got that wrong after the event, and the mess is its own punishment.
The take-home secret for me was that good coffee is made at a rate of 30 mls in 25 to 30 seconds – ie, the passage of water through the coffee grounds must be completed no sooner (to avoid weak or sour flavour) and no later, to avoid the coffee being burnt or bitter. Rita made coffee that was completed in 11 seconds (no crema, no aroma) and showed us coffee that had been made without refreshing the grounds – it had the aroma of an ashtray, off-putting to most.
All the milk used last night was heated with a milk steamer spout, which is an art on its own. The spout must be placed just under the surface of the milk and the correct sound is a gentle pss-pss, not a loud busy spurting which causes weak coarse froth (another thing to listen for at the coffee shop). This starts altering the milk proteins, which gives milky coffee the professional taste and texture. Towards the end, the nozzle is moved lower into the jug to froth the milk; final temperature should be no more than 65 degrees C. The hand-test for 65 degrees if you don’t have a thermometer is “One, two, three, ouch!” on the outside of the jug.
Then the jug is tapped and swirled to get rid of the large bubbles and incorporate the altered proteins (“stretching” the milk – till it looks like white paint). When the milk has been “stretched” like this, it pours in like velvet and makes a froth that holds up throughout the drinking period.
Making the cappuccino pattern is achieved by powdering the coffee with cocoa first, and pouring the milk in such a way that the froth comes out last. Clever little hand movements are involved – Rita added those with her hands guiding the amateur cappuccino makers.
Many a coffee pupil was too wimpy with the milk “stretching” and ended up with a froth that collapsed:
There were other technical differences between cappuccino and latte. I forget the details – a little more milk for the latte, served in a glass instead of a 180 ml cup, different depth of froth. All measurable, but probably undetectable to the average joe-buying Joe. They probably wouldn’t have a clue it all came out the same barrel, just that it’s served in different containers.
This didn’t come up with Rita, but Yahoo tells me that coffee is called “joe” because of an order put out by Josephus Daniels, Secretary of the US Navy in 1914, rescinding the officer’s wine bar and making a cup of coffee the strongest drink on board US ships.
When it was my turn for coffee, Rita made me a long black – two shots of coffee in half a cup of hot water. I had been secretly disparaging of the tiny 30 ml shots going into the cappuccinos and lattes; even with the half cup of hot water and 60 mls coffee, my cup was only 3/4 full, but it was exquisitely satisfying with a rich crema several mm deep. She told us how to make sure we get a good long black at a coffee shop – not to ask for a long black, but to tell the barista to take half a cup of hot water and put in two shots of coffee, as otherwise we will get one shot of coffee that has had an extra long blast of water through it, leading to a weak and burnt flavour.
The next person asked for a long macchiato. This was way outside my experience, but in fact it’s merely a long black with a dollop of steamed milk “just to mark the coffee, the way they say it in Italian”, and decorated with a little froth.
One man went up to make himself a Flat White, which I had assumed was black coffee with plain milk: sommer coffee. However it’s an Australian invention – steamed milk stretched down to no froth, with the top part of the milk held back so that the original crema remains on top of the coffee after pouring.
Today with the taste of last night’s coffee still in my mental gullet, I got out my stove-top espresso pot. The 20% of the coffee experience for the machine can be discounted, since there IS no machine. And the 20% for the beans counts for little too, as we buy whatever ground coffee is on special that week. But the 60% for the home barista… ah, that’s where we really fall apart.
Unless I can figure out how to set the gas cooker to make the water bubble through the grounds for precisely 25 to 30 seconds….
But, hey, I got the crispy chocolate biscuit effect from the grounds afterwards. I_can_TAMP!
For a Home Barista course (4 hours plus 2 hours practise) @ $150, see www.homebarista.com.au
For the Wine Guild of Victoria, see http://www.wineguild.com.au