If there’s one thing that braces you more than the culture shock of visiting an awe-inspiring country like Ethiopia, it’s the reverse culture shock of returning to the United Kingdom. In the winter. So, after arriving in Southampton dock by ferry from Normandy under the cloak of a moody blighty morning, I proceeded to do what seemed to be the most natural thing by now, and make a brew. A short ride to the pebble beach overlooking the straits separating the mainland from the Isle of White was all that was needed to find the perfect spot in which to prime the stove-top Bialetti. As the dim light of daybreak grew to bursting point over the horizon, I toasted my first British sunrise in ten months with a strong shot of Ethiopian Arabica Harar coffee. The familiar spicy aroma emanating from my camping mug was like the warm embrace of a long-lost friend. I felt at home once again.
Now, the only possible way to reverse the onset of early January culture shock blues is to start as I mean to go on and begin the next phase of this coffee-inspired adventure. Determined to engineer as best a soft landing as I could devise, my entry point into the stratosphere of the London coffee scene had to be no other than a visit to the London School of Coffee.
Under the expert guidance of one of the UK’s leading barista’s, coffee consultant and filmmaker, Daisy Rollo, six of us gathered in the comfortable surroundings of the well-equipped training room for a day of espresso-based discovery. Following a short introduction about the origin of coffee and methods of processing, Daisy moved on to one of the many crucial aspects in pulling the perfect shot for the trained – and uninitiated – barista: The grinder. ‘It’s all about the grind’, Daisy said as she took the Italian-made Mazzer Lugi apart to make sure the ceramic burrs were squeaky clean. Soon, fellow coffee enthusiast and Podiatrist student, Tanya Tunpraset, and I were experimenting with varying degrees of coarse-to-fine grind from a sample of Hove-based Small Batch Coffee’s own delectable espresso House Blend (Brazil/El Salvador/Guatemala) with warm orange and citrus notes. It quickly became apparent how much of an impact the slightest of adjustment to the dial made to the extraction time. `You’re never more than a nudge away from achieving the right grind`, Daisy added encouragingly as I tamped my ground coffee (approximately 9g for a single and 18g for a double) to achieve an even, smooth surface before getting to grips with the brushed stainless steel Rancilio Sylvia espresso machine – a work of art in its own right – to pull some test shots of my very own.
When you consider the extraordinary journey that coffee has gone through from its early days as a cherry on the mother tree just to reach the basket in a group head of an espresso machine, you really don’t want to mess things up in the final moment. An extraction time of less than fifteen seconds means that the coffee is effectively being ‘washed’ and results in a stringent, acidic taste at the front of the mouth. More than thirty seconds of extraction and there’s a serious danger of ‘burning’ the coffee as the machine forces hot water through the coffee at a temperature of between 87-91 degrees centigrade under nine bar pressure, Daisy warned. Over extract and the result is an espresso with a strong ‘bitter’ taste that lingers at the back of the mouth long afterwards. Sound familiar?
I was surprised to learn that even the humidity in the room can have a significant impact on the extraction time and thus the required level of grind. The more moisture in the air, the more resistance. All that remains is a small but critical window of opportunity where the practicalities of good agronomics, scientific endeavour, and the skilled roaster’s gift to the experienced barista conjoin to make the perfect shot of espresso. It is both an art and a science in equal measure. But what exactly does constitute the ‘God Shot’ where the pursuit of perfection becomes the Holy Grail for the dedicated barista? Well, apart from being a subjective question, the answer lies in achieving a good balance of acidity, body and sweetness; the product of the complex array of compound oils that give an espresso its distinctive crèma. `We’re looking for an espresso that is neither acidic, nor bitter; one where a balance of taste sensations should dance all over the tongue`, Daisy hinted yet still leaving much to the imagination. But before we could reach for our stopwatches, she went on to advise that time is only a guide and we should really be looking for visual clues in the changes to the colour and consistency of the coffee during extraction.
By early afternoon, my heart was racing. The copious amount of caffeine ingested throughout the morning’s experimentation was coursing through my veins like a raging bull and it was high time to take a break. A discussion over lunch revealed that some of the coffee disciples in the group were, unsurprisingly, looking to move into the coffee business; others wanted to hone their barista skills; another wanted to make better coffee in the kitchen. And why not? Good coffee surely begins at home.
After lunch, we turned our attention to the practice of mastering the art of making microfoam; minute pockets of air that give the milk its silky texture, shiny surface, deliciously smooth consistency and ever-so-sweet taste. Again, time becomes a key differentiating factor. A mere 3-4 second change to the initial texturising stage can mean the difference between pouring the perfect latte or cappuccino. Interestingly too, it is the protein content of the milk that helps to make the micro-foam, and not the fat. This means that – in theory at least – you should be able to get just as good foam from semi-skimmed or skimmed milk than you can with the full, calorific equivalent.
After Daisy gave us a skillful demonstration of her own latte art with ridiculous ease that I am sure belies years of training, the senses took the driving seat again and we all set out to have a go ourselves by experimenting with a small dairy’s worth of milk over the course of the afternoon. We were encouraged to listen to the subtle changes in sound as the milk was first texturised and heated up in the jug. Finishing up with a display of our own best attempts at producing a presentable (and drinkable) latte and cappuccino, my ticker was back in the outside lane again.
My admiration for the humble barista has taken a quantum leap. Within a matter of split-second timing, their approach can potentially make – or break – a good coffee. That’s a huge responsibility for one person to carry on their shoulders when you consider that it is estimated more than 400 hours of labour can go into the production of one pound of the good stuff before it even reaches the grinder. Daisy tells us that the secret of success is all about achieving consistency. A fitting mantra for the day. Pulling that illusive God Shot – or well-balanced espresso – might not be obtainable on every occasion, but it’s worth spending the time and effort trying. Judgement, I suspect, follows shortly afterwards…
Respect to the Barista.