How to make the perfect cup of coffee
Learning the art of latte, espresso and crema is no easy task
Cian Traynor, a true coffee lover learning the art of crema from three very different teachers. Photograph: Alan Betson
Midway through an intensive barista training class, a man who calls himself “the happy coffee guy” inspects my umpteenth espresso of the day. So far, every attempt has failed to produce the right finish. The teacher tests the crema with a teaspoon, sips and pauses. “That, to me, is not that bad.”
After hours wincing at the bitter taste of failure, this feels like a breakthrough. Or it could be politeness.The teacher is Coffee Culture’s Alan Andrews, a consultant, coffee supplier and barista trainer.
We are in a gleaming espresso machine showroom in Dublin’s Citywest as part of barista level one, a ¤150, day-long course covering theory and practice.
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Andrews’ classes, in Dublin and Limerick, reflect a proliferation of interest from professionals, future baristas and coffee geeks. While all coffee-brewing methods face the same variables of extraction – temperature, grind size, pressure and ratio – get it wrong and you’ll miss the small opportunity to hit the espresso’s sweet spot.
After years of fussing over the freshness of beans and tutting at inferior roasts, this is a reality check. I’ve been kidding myself with caffeinated cups of bin juice.
Back in class, there’s plenty of supervised practice. Even when the closest I come to heart-shaped latte art is a manta ray, Andrews’ smile never wavers. “It’s annoying, isn’t it? Let’s try that again.”
This is the part of the day, he adds, when the colour often drains from people’s faces. “It’s all about trying to make people understand how difficult this process is while also engendering passion for it,” he says, “because you can’t teach that.”
In the wood-panelled workshop above 3FE Coffee, Colin Harmon’s cafe on Grand Canal Street, the four-time Irish barista champion has his own way of imparting knowledge. He does not believe in elaborate training, a set of rules or even barista accreditation. He has a more artistic philosophy, sharing nuggets such as: “An espresso is like a wave: it’s not repeatable.”
When he says he could train anyone in 10 hours, or that one of his employees came third in the Irish barista championships with only seven weeks’ experience, it’s believable. “Coffee is full of hearsay and pocket logic,” he says. “We teach it the way we think is best. Everything else is debatable.”
Harmon regularly holds four-hour barista classes (¤125) and three-hour home-brewing classes (¤50), which include lunch and a goody bag. He reckons the barista class tends to draw intense personalities who take coffee too seriously, which might qualify me automatically, though I sit in on the home-brewing class instead. It’s a light-hearted experience that focuses on theory and tasting.
At the Good Mood Food cafe‚ in Dublin 2, proprietor James McCormack runs the Dublin Barista School twice a month on Saturdays. McCormack, who trained at the London School of Coffee, gives a six-hour introductory course, for ¤150, with an open-ended invitation to return for practice. Over a two-hour private tutorial, with frothy cups piling along the countertop, he steers me through a methodology that’s instinctive rather than exacting.
When McCormack picks up one of my attempts at espresso, I suspect it wouldn’t pass at Coffee Culture, but he slurps it with a satisfied nod. “That’s better than the one I made. I’d be happy to serve that to a customer. It’s pretty much perfect.”
For now, my precision may vary, but I can at least evaluate a coffee, spot what’s wrong and navigate my way through the muddy inconsistencies – invaluable for any coffee geek.
coffeeculture.ie; 3fe. com