We have all done it: 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.
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When you consider just how much there is to making brewing great coffee perhaps we should relax, temper our impatience. In fact, maybe we all owe a little more respect to the barista and their art.
Making good coffee takes skill, and is not learned in an instant.
It’s not just a matter of being able to pull a perfect espresso; the art of a great barista is to do so time and time again, precisely and consistently.
What does a barista do?
A barista is the catering professional who makes coffee. The word translates from Italian as bartender, but it’s now universally used to refer to someone who operates the espresso machine.
It may not sound like much, and few of us are really sure what a barista does. However, the perfect brewing of all those espresso-based coffee drinks is a skill most of us lack. And that’s before you ever start to think about other methods, from pour-over, to Aeropress via any of the myriad of other coffee brewing techniques.
Espresso and espresso based drinks are always so much better from a coffee shop. There are great advantages to having a large machine running continually at just the right temperature, which is why your coffee is never the same from a home machine.
With espresso, there’s a great difference between the all-in-one bean-to-cup machine or even (horrors!) a pod machine, compared with a fully controllable espresso machine.
I think of it as the difference between a Michelin-starred chef and someone working in the local pub kitchen where 90% of the food is deep fried. Arguably it is the same job but in reality, they are worlds apart.
The professional espresso machine can be fine tuned in a way that a bean-to-cup machine never can. From the moment the precisely measured quantity of beans go into the cup, this process is magic.
Great espresso starts with the grind
The size and freshness of the grind will determine the style of the final coffee. Once ground, coffee starts to lose flavour and the oils start to oxidize. This means the coffee beans must be ground and then used right away for best effect.
Modern dosing grinders will precisely measure the amount of coffee delivered to the portafilter. This is kept slotted into the machine to keep it up to temperature.
After filling, the basket is tamped. Again, the amount of pressure and twist to polish the coffee are all critical to the taste and strength of the final drink.
Without proper tamping, the coffee will “channel”. This means that water will pass through fissures and weaknesses in the puck, resulting in an under-extracted and weak brew. After tamping, any loose grounds are wiped away.
Turn up the heat
Now it’s time to brew. The portafilter is slotted into the machine and the espresso is pulled.
The timing has to be accurate, allowing the coffee to brew just enough. Under-extraction will result in a smaller shot lacking in flavour. Over-extraction will result in a bitter taste and a weaker shot.
This is why it is so important grind coffee to the right size. The right grind ensures that the espresso takes the correct time to brew, between 20 and 35 seconds depending on the cchoice of coffee beans.
Correct temperature and pressure are also vital for that perfectly delicious drink. They affect the formation of the crema too. This is the foam on the surface of the classic espresso drink.
A good barista will regularly taste the coffee from the machine and will constantly adjust the settings, as well as cleaning and flushing to remove residue.
At the end of the day, the espresso machine and the grinder must be cleaned thoroughly. A good craftsman looks after his tools.
Putting on a show
When a barista has mastered the pulling the perfect espresso and perfectly steaming milk is it time to get to grips with latte art. This is the final flourish that adds to the visual appeal of the drink.
If you have ever admired an elaborate pattern in the foam of that espresso, consider the effort that went into it. Some baristas invest in presentation like Michelin-starred chefs and their creations can be remarkable.
So as you stand there in the queue for the morning shot, spare a thought for your barista. If you really love your coffee, allow them the time to do their job.
A barista who has the knowledge and skills to deliver a delicious coffee every morning deserves respect. Great ones are few and far between, so if you know one, cherish them!