Coffee Myths, Dispelled!
Lots of people talk about coffee but not everyone has their facts straight, explain Matthew Gee and David Gee. It’s time to clear the air and separate fact from fiction…
We don’t know what it is about coffee (and wine for that matter) but almost everyone seems to have an opinion on it and almost everyone is an expert. It’s OK to feign ignorance on world affairs, politics and religion but coffee…no way! Proffering an opinion seems to be an obligatory part of any dinner party conversation, café tête-à-tête or office banter around the drink cooler.
But not everything you hear is necessarily true. In this article we try to separate fact from fiction so that you can be even more informed than before. Wouldn’t you just love to make Phil from Accounts squirm as he realises he’s been telling everyone completely the wrong thing about the merits of arabica coffee over robusta?
Let’s work through some of the common myths:
That only the coffee company should adjust the grinder, not staff members
All over the country this morning chances are the following conversation took place at the local café…
Café Worker: “Hey boss! I think there’s something wrong with the grind. The coffee is pouring out really, really slowly.”
“I told you! Don’t touch the grinder! Let the coffee company guy do it next time he’s in.”
We estimate that probably 90% of 'baristas' do not know how to adjust the grind of the coffee to achieve the optimal tasting espresso.
You can be a world barista champion, have AAA Grade arabica beans, froth milk like a legend and be working on the most hi-tech Italian espresso machine but your coffee will taste awful if your grind is incorrect. Differences in the humidity in the air and atmospheric pressure mean that you will have to change it almost every day.
If you are working on a commercial espresso machine and grinder, ensure that you are adjusting the grind on a twice-daily basis to ensure that your 30ml shot comes out in 30seconds (the 30ml-in-30seconds rule). Turn the collar on the grinder to make the particle size finer if it is coming out too quickly (eg. 15 seconds) and the other way to make it courser if it is coming out too slowly (eg. 45 seconds). A quick pour will yield a weak coffee with little crema and a slow pour will yield a strong, bitter coffee with a dark, bubbly and inconsistent-coloured crema. The water from the group will have spent just long enough to produce a beautifully extracted espresso if it has spent 30 seconds running through the compacted coffee and into your cup.
At home, it is a little more difficult to get the 30second pour if you are buying your coffee already pre-ground. The only way you can influence the pour rate is by altering how heavily or lightly you compact the coffee before you insert it into the group. If your espresso is pouring too quickly, pack harder, if too slowly, pack more lightly. If you want to get serious about your coffee you should invest in a grinder but make sure you are able to adjust the particle size of the coffee (read between the lines - don't get a cheapie!).
That lattes have more milk and less coffee than cappuccinos
Some people are indignant about the milk v froth content of lattes and cappuccinos and say that lattes have less coffee and much more milk than cappuccinos. Here's the bottom line: both have 30ml of espresso, both are served in standard 240ml (8oz) cups (some people use a glass for latte) and both have milk which should be heated to 65°C. There are only two clear differences as we see them: lattes have slightly less froth than cappuccinos and cappuccinos usually have chocolate powder sprinkled on top. A good latte has about 10mm of creamy froth on top which should be level with the top of the glass. The cappuccino should have froth that starts about 10mm from the lip of the cup and forms a nice "dome" which sits on top of the cup. Because the dome is comprised of tightly packed creamy froth, there is no chance of spilling this drink as it is taken out to the customer.
As an aside, for those of you who haven't mastered the "layered" latte served in a tall glass, don't worry - it's a bit passé. The squat Gibralter or Duralex "Provence" tumblers are more "today."
Flat whites are an Australian creation. People will look at you very strangely if you ask for this drink in a foreign country. Some people swear that a flat white should have no froth. We beg to differ. When you have your grind right and have that beautiful, honeycomb-coloured crema on top of the espresso and you have frothed your milk effectively, you should be able to get a mixture of the cream and the crema sitting nicely on top of your flat white. This mixture of white and brown can then be "swirled" with your thermometer to give the customer something interesting to look at. It should be about 2mm thick before the heavier milk starts to kick in. Flat whites with none of this mixture of crema and cream on top (call it froth if you will) look like dirty dishwater.
This probably used to be a fairly safe thing to say but not any more. Today there are high-grade robusta beans being grown in regions such as the west coast of Africa. These robusta coffee beans can even be more expensive than arabicas because their quality is just so good. Roasters may use small amounts of this high-grade robusta in certain blends to give the
coffee extra “zest” and to help improve the crema. The resulting blend can produce a beautiful coffee so long as not too much of this robusta is used as a percentage of the overall blend.
When we talk to café operators about coffee freshness they smile and nod their head and within about 10 seconds their eyes start the glaze over. They’re probably thinking about paying the rent or making themselves another short macchiato but what they should be focusing on is coffee freshness. At the end of each day, coffee beans should be taken out of the hopper and put into an airtight container and stored in a dark cupboard. The hopper should then be washed and left to dry completely before putting it back on the grinder. The coffee that has already been ground in the chamber of the grinder needs to be ejected and stored in a separate airtight container. This ground coffee should not be used to make espresso the next day as it has already gone partially stale. It shouldn’t be wasted either. Smart cafés will use it to make iced coffees when they get a chance.
Coffee beans will last about 3 months from roasting if they are in an appropriate bag. Your coffee supplier should be supplying coffee beans in a bag with a one-way valve in it. The valve will let carbon dioxide from the beans out but won’t allow oxygen from the air in.
Other factors affecting coffee freshness include excessive heat, humidity and sunlight.
We’ve had great coffees from Starbucks and Gloria Jeans and awful coffee from city cafés. In our experience it’s actually been rare to get a bad coffee from a chain because of the procedures they have in place (like adjusting the grind constantly and using a thermometer to froth milk). If people don’t like the coffee from chains it is probably because it is not the blend that they are used to. Some chains use a mild roast, some a darker roast. Australians love to knock the coffee chains, but these chains have educated people about coffee and syrups and that benefits everyone.
Sorry, but that’s complete nonsense. We own a café that pumps out almost 1,000 cups per day and never send one out without it first being decorated in some way. The decoration is not only done on lattes, but flat whites, short macchiatos and long macchiatos. We even create patterns with the chocolate sprinkles on top of our cappuccinos, hot chocolates, steamers and mochas.
>People who say it takes too much time haven’t spent long enough getting better and faster. It may take you a few weeks to be competent, but after that it is a skill that will stay with you forever.
You may have come across this milk that the large milk companies have created specifically for cafés which supposedly creates better froth than normal milk (it also costs more than full cream milk). The reason it creates more froth than normal milk is that it has a higher protein content. As it is protein that reacts with the steam from your steam wand to create froth, there is more froth created in this “superfroth” milk.
We’ve got a couple of things to say about this type of milk. Firstly, if you learn how to froth milk effectively from the start, there is no need to rely on it. Baristas who swear by this milk are usually the same ones who find milk such a challenge when it shouldn’t be if you have had the right teacher. Secondly, it is more expensive. Most cafés are marginal businesses anyhow, so to pay more for something that you don’t have to is a bit weird in our view.
This notion that the best baristas are young red-blooded Italian males who must be fully decked out in black (with collared, long sleeve shirts - no tatty T-shirts, please!) is another myth that pervades the industry. We have met many Chinese, Korean, Sri Lankan, Indian, American and English baristas who make a mighty fine cup of coffee. It is the Chinese baristas particularly who seem to have the view that people see them as inferior coffee-makers and avoid them where possible. If this perception is true, it’s a sad state of affairs and it is a notion that has to change. We know a Chinese café owner who without a doubt makes the best darn lattes along Oxford Street, Sydney.
You see these young, arrogant guys at the barista competitions brimming with misplaced confidence, simply because they “look the part”. Whatever. For us, it’s the personality and skill that count when we’re hiring baristas and I’m sure other rational café owners think in the same way.
We’re not trying to persecute black-clad Italian males here. Our point is that regardless of heritage, everyone is capable of making great coffee given the right training and experience.
We hope we’ve settled some issues and cleared the air on certain much-talked about coffee issues. So go out, time the barista next time he/she makes your morning coffee, be vigilant about the 2mm of froth on your flat white, demand freshly ground coffee and frequent cafés that decorate your coffees!
Ó & Ô 2004 Matthew Gee and David Gee
No part of this article may be reproduced without the express permission of the authors