Support Your Local Barista

So as your enjoying your precious and delicious cup of coffee settled nicely in a warm cafe, or headed for the door clutching your chill easing cup on a winter morning, you find yourself feeling so thankful for those amazing beans that make your drink of choice. But when you pay do you notice that tip jar on the counter?

We all see the smiling face that serves us our coffee, seamlessly turning our hastily placed order into a smooth refreshing cup of beautiful liquid gold. But how many of us really take a moment to see the amount of work that goes into that process? This post is going to take a look (albeit a brief and simplified one) at the day to day life of that charming friendly barista that answers your craving for coffee.

Making a good coffee, be it a classic latte, the tiny bundle of joy that is a macchiato or the omnipresent and world beating flat white, is an art, and a hard learned one, trust me. Let me break the process down. A good coffee starts with the perfect bean of course, but then it requires a precision of brewing. A typical barista may work with a recipe that produces 36g of liquid from 18g of coffee grounds in around 28 or so seconds. Just how much work does this involve? Well lets see from my perspective should I happen to be left in custody of your local coffee outlet…

First the coffee grind. Having been dialled in that morning (I’ll come back to this later on) the espresso machine I’m using will be set to pass temperature balanced pressurised water through the head at the right rate to allow for the precise extraction time desired, but that can only work if I have my grind bang on. Water will pass through the portafilter at a constant rate if my tamp is right (this ones coming up in a moment) but that rate will vary based on the grind, too fine and the water will pass slowly and over-extract creating a nasty aftertaste in your drink, too coarse and a short pull will lose the flavour and subtlety providing a acidic profile that is not pleasant at all. Ok so thats all a matter of setting the grinder, after all the settings are precise on a good unit right? Just need to work out the right setting, lock it in and off we go? Well not as much as I’d like, you see as the atmosphere changes, we open a new pack of beans, the moisture in the air affects the beans in the hopper, and the rest, then the pull time will alter, these factors change the way the water interacts with the grounds, so multiple times a day I’ll be redialling the grind through a combination of experience and good old trial and error, to ensure the timings are consistent.

Ok so thats part one, next up tamping. Tamping is the art of pressing grounds evenly into the portafilter to create a density that will allow for an even flow of water as the head fires it through. The trick is to understand that water follows the path of least resistance, a tiny crack in your coffee puck (what we call the pressed grounds in the portafilter) and the water will rush through and we get the lovely under-extraction we talked about earlier. How am I avoiding this? Well once the right weight of grounds are in the portafilter I will be seen tapping it against my hand and looking intently into the portafilter, as I judge by eye how evenly I have spread the grounds in the basket, leave it uneven and cracks will happen. Once that is settled and I am happy I will use a tamper (basically a metal press) to push the grounds down and create a tight puck that will allow perfect water flow. Of course I have to be able to replicate my tamp identically each time I pull a shot or all the hard work is wasted and the timings will be off.

Now for the easy bit, if my grind is spot on and my tamp is clean and even, all I have to do is fire pressurised hot water through the portafilter for exactly the right time and to ensure it’s produced the desired weight of drink. Simples! Unless of course you want milk in your coffee, or an extra shot, or two, maybe a mocha, some syrup? I won’t overload this article with all the arts involved in each of the above, but take the simple milk in your latte…

Milk steaming and foaming is an art in itself, to get your milk to the consistency that you expect I need to use the steam wand in a very exact manner, just a few seconds with the tip of the wand creating the top foam, then settling it below the surface at an angle to produce a consistent whirlpool effect as the milk steams. Judging the temperature by the feel of the hot jug in my palm, I aim for the exact moment to remove the wand and leave a milk just thick enough to pour clean and just sweet enough to cut through the bitter notes of your coffee, trust me it matters. If you ever get the chance have your barista steam some milk to various levels and taste it, the difference is amazing. Then all I have to do is that swirly pour thing that lets you see the little heart or flower on the surface of your coffee, always looks easy right? If you have a friendly barista ask one day (when they are quiet) if you can pour your own milk, just let them steam it and pass it to you, and ask if they can show you how to pour a simple heart. I guarantee you will never look at your coffee at the same way again. I am far from an inexperienced guy in the world of coffee and my latte art is frankly woeful, trust me its no simple thing.

Well there we go, your coffee is ready and looks great. Job done. Well yeah, though I will add that I aim to do all this in under 40 seconds from grinder to finished cup so as to preserve the perfect flavour of your drink. Think about that one, 40 seconds isn’t long.

Now that you have a summary of the art of a barista right? Not quite. Remember I said I would come back to dialling in the machine earlier? My day started a little early, about an hour before doors opened in fact, as I had to switch all the kit on and warm it up whilst I helped clean the cafe, set up for any food service, cash in the tills etc. Then it’s dialling time. Dialling in kit is a technical process, I adjust settings on the espresso machine itself to ensure ideal water pressure and temperature, to get that precise timing I keep talking about. Then its time to check your grind, through pulling a few shots weighing the grounds and fluid each time, and tasting them I will settle in on the grind that starts the day, aiming for my perfect timing and weights, I could go into detail on this, but I won’t, its not simple though, trust me. Now this process takes time for me, I can dial in for a good half hour or so, on a new set of kit maybe longer, on gear I have worked with long enough somewhat quicker, the SCA Advanced Level Barista training means a barista can dial in kit in 10 minutes or under, more than a little impressive I’d say, not something I can do consistently.

Anyway there you go, aside from remembering all the different drink recipes, keeping up with orders in a busy morning service, serving food perhaps, oh and doing all the usual till stuff while being chatty and friendly, thats a barista for you. So maybe next time you see the little jar on the counter, stick a quid in?

About Bear Essentials CoffeeIf you have enjoyed this or any of my writing please check out my Homepage to find out more about me and my work. Follow the blog and if you feel you can, drop a donation to support this project. Thanks, – Bear

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