Let’s start with coffee.
I must admit, I have form on this. I once got into a minor altercation with a coffee shop owner because I asked her to make an americano, rather than pour me a cup of stewed filter coffee.
She refused, pointing out it wasn’t on the menu.
I wondered aloud how hard it could be to just add a bit of hot water to an espresso.
A row ensued, after which I paid for my disgusting coffee and drank it resentfully, thus striking a blow for peevish consumers everywhere.
To be fair, I was probably blowing off a head of steam accumulated in hundreds of coffee shops over the years, because getting a decent cup of coffee in this country is a special kind of hell. It’s as though we see any kind of interest in the taste as a bizarre and needy affectation, best resolved with a heaped teaspoon of Nescafe and some scalded milk.
I have decided, therefore, to learn how to make the stuff properly myself. Not because I am considering a career change; but because it will mean that I can heckle all the more effectively from the sidelines in the future.
The first thing I learn at The Coffeesmiths Collective’s Coffee School is that I am ordering my coffee all wrong. What I ask for is, generally, a ‘two-shot americano with only half the water’. Apparently, I should be asking for a ‘long black’. This, at least, will make my life a little more simple.
Chris, our instructor, takes us through the basics of how to make a decent espresso with one of those hissing, steaming machines that have become so ubiquitous. And when I say ‘basics’, I mean ‘unbelievably refined and precise levels of calibration, skill and judgement.’ For these guys, coffee is a mathematical equation: 20.4g of coffee, ground to just the right consistency, exposed to water at 92°C under 9 bars of pressure for 30 seconds, to produce 30g of coffee, or near as dammit.
After he shows us how it’s done, I am struck with a kind of sweaty-palmed terror that I won’t be able to tell the difference between his coffee and the bitter sludge I got from the Evil Coffee Shop Woman. He hands me a shot in a glass, with a bouffant of yellow crema on top. I sip it: it’s extraordinary. Sweet and clean, I first taste almonds and then citrus. There is not a single scrap of bitterness.
My own efforts are less impressive. I am slightly panicked by the high standards, and, if I’m honest, a little bit frightened of the hot water. When I come to ‘stretch’ milk for a flat white (true aficionados don’t talk about ‘foam’, because the bubbles should be so small that you can’t see them), I keep prematurely pawing at the steam valve in terror.
Still. My first espresso is bitter, my second tastes of Marmite, but my third is half-decent. It’s not hard to make good coffee, it’s just difficult. By which I mean, you have to care about every parameter of every single cup. As Chris says, ‘Making coffee is just science.’
None of this makes a jot of difference to the coffee I’ll get from most cafes: I think, on balance, it’s best if I refrain from calling over to the barrista, ‘you’re tamping that unevenly, it’ll end up under-extracted!’
But it will mean that I can choose my coffee house a little better in the future: the beans should be ground to order, the milk should never be piping hot, and the coffee doesn’t have to taste bitter or cloyingly savoury.
For those of us who live outside of London, the choice will inevitably be more limited. But we’ll make some progress if we stop drinking buckets of syrup-laden nonsense, and start tasting our coffee instead.
- The biggest leap in flavour comes from switching from pre-ground to freshly-ground beans
- Milky coffee shouldn’t be too hot – anything over 65°C will destroy the flavours
- Use full-fat milk: it foams better, tastes better and still counts as a low fat foodstuff
- If you’re going to drink several cups of coffee, drink the milder ones first, e.g. a latte, and work your way up to an espresso, which will destroy your ability to taste more delicate flavours.
Coffeesmiths Collective’s Coffee School costs £45, takes 2 hours and runs roughly twice a month near Liverpool Street Station.3