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Coffee Break

Why you should cut your Barista some slack

Written by . Published on November 30th 2011.

Coffee Break

WE have all stood in a coffee shop, waiting impatiently for our morning or lunchtime coffee. Feet tapping, fingers drumming, checking our phones and sighing, as we cannot imagine why it is taking the barista so long to make our coffee.

When you consider just how much there is to making a good shot of espresso, or brewing great coffee perhaps we should quell our impatience and give a hefty dose of respect to the barista and their art.

Precision and consistency are the barista's watchwords. That, and good customer service.

Firstly, learning to make good coffee takes time, lots of skill and knowledge. It is not just a matter of being able to pull a perfect espresso, but to do so time and time again, precisely and consistently. Precision and consistency are the Barista's watchwords. That, and good customer service.

Perfect Espresso
As Alan Miller from Union Coffee points out, wonderful latte art does not make a good drink on its own. Union run four levels of Barista training. Latte art is only covered in the last level when everything else has been mastered. 

Firstly, there are different types of machines, the ghastly bean to cup coffee machines where the barista has no control over the finished drink and no ability to fine-tune the espresso.  

Coffee Machine
Comparing a barista operating a bean to cup machine to one behind to a fully controllable espresso machine is like comparing a fast food chain burger flipper to a Michelin starred chef – arguably it is the same broad job – preparing food, but no sane person would judge the skill levels to be the same.

To serve great coffee you need control on every stage of the process. The espresso machine or brew bar is the last stage of the bean's journey from the coffee bush to the consumer's cup and there are umpteen variables that that barista has to be aware of and control whilst juggling the timing of making up to three drinks, all at difference stages, at once.

The size and freshness of the grind will affect the final coffee. Ideally you will have a finer grind for espresso than for brewed coffee. Once ground coffee loses flavour and taste quickly and the oils start to oxidise.

Precision = Dosing The Ground Coffee

For consistent espressos you need to use the same texture of grind and the same amount of coffee every time. At Prufrock a high tech grinder precisely measures coffee to a 0.1 of a gram into the coffee or filter basket.

Before filling with coffee the empty filler basket and handle (portafiller) should be kept slotted into the machine to be warmed to the right temperature.

Perfect Coffee - Tamping
Once the basket filled with the right amount of coffee at the correct grind coffee should be compressed, or tamped. Again the amount of pressure and twist to polish the coffee are all-critical to the taste and strength of the final drink. After tamping any loose grounds are wiped away. 

Precision - Weighing The Shot

Once ground and tamped the portafiller is slotted into the machine to pull the espresso. Again timing is precise, under-extraction will result in a smaller shot lacking in flavour and over-extraction will result in a bitter taste and a weaker shot.  Experienced baristas can measure the volume by eye, but many time or even weigh the shot.

Here the temperature and pressure of the water are vital and will effect the formation of the crema made from coffee oils on the surface of the shot. A good barista will regularly taste the coffee from the machine and will be constantly adjusting the setting.  At Prufrock, even when there is a long queue, the baristas will throw any shots that are less than perfect away, rather than serve them.

Latte Branches

Only when you have mastered the pulling the perfect espresso and perfectly steaming milk is it time to get to grips with latte art, which adds to the visual appeal of the drink. Jeremy Chandler made the swan and branches above for me at Prufrock coffee. 

Just as an over extracted espresso will not taste good, residues on the machine can also taint the coffee. A good chef will constantly clean their knives during service, and for tiptop coffee a barista keep their machines clean and tidy. An espresso machine needs to be flushed through every half hour or so during busy periods, this takes around a minute, then the machine and grinders will need to be thoroughly cleaned and taken apart at the end of the day.  

So respect your barista and their knowledge, training, passion for coffee and ability to give good customer service, great ones are few and far between.

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LisaNovember 30th 2011.

This will make me a little more patient in the morning. Maybe. Interesting in any case...

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