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Cutting Edge Espresso - Bean Scene Magazine, Issue 8, 2005

Appearing in Bean Scene Magazine,

Issue 8, 2005

Cutting-Edge Espresso

          The old v the new in espresso


There are a lot of people out there in café land who use outdated espresso techniques. Getting up to speed with modern trends in espresso is paramount in running a successful espresso bar. It will win you customers and increase your profits write David Gee and Matthew Gee.


A lot has changed in the world of coffee in the past ten years. Education and awareness will help to change outdated techniques but unless you are willing to change, you will be like the poor kid at school who listens to a 1990’s Sony walkman on his way home rather than a much better and cooler Apple iPod. We train thousands of people each year – our own staff, own wholesale coffee customers and members of the public who come to our courses and many people come in with preconceived notions of how the perfect coffee is made. Some swear black and blue that their customers love frothy-tops on their cappuccinos. Others want to know how to layer caffe lattes (layering went out with Miami Vice – didn’t they know?). Others want to froth milk like they’re milking a cow (you know the old up-down motion that we witness people doing sometimes?). In this article we explore some of the old v the new in espresso techniques in an effort to put you on the cutting edge.

Using the correct tools for the trade

Trying to make espresso without the correct tools is like trying to build a house with your bare hands – eventually you will get the job done but the finished product will be extremely shonky. With espresso not only is the finished product shonky but the more you make, the more inconsistent they become. We’re talking here about baristas using thermometers to froth their milk, spatulas to help them pour their milk, timers to periodically time their pour, tampers to compact their coffee and stencils (on occasion) to help create interest with chocolate powder on top of their cappuccinos, hot chocolates and mochas. We willl look at each tool now in turn and explain their relevance to the coffee-making process:

[1] Thermometers – these are placed near the handle of your 1-litre jug, facing you so that you can see the dial easily during the frothing process. You are aiming to achieve a temperature of 65 degrees C which actually means turning off the steam wand at 60 degrees C as the dial will wind up slightly after you have finished frothing your milk. Using a thermometer will ensure consistency in the temperature of your milk. You cannot get this without one. Picture a café that doesn’t use thermometers. Poor old Mary who walks in at 11am each morning to get her weak decaf flat white gets a luke-warm coffee one day, scalds her mouth the next day, gets a coffee the next day that feels almost OK but a little on the cool side and on the next day gets a coffee that she needs to wait five minutes for before she drinks it as it is just too hot. The reason that her coffees are all different temperatures is because four different baristas prepared her coffees on these days.

This particular Mary obviously has the patience of a saint because if it was us, one bad experience with the temperature of our coffee and we simply don’t go back to that café. And there are lots of people like us. The solution is simple – use a thermometer and everyone gets it right every time. Why people dislike thermometers is beyond us. We suppose they treat coffee-making as some artisan craft that is all "look and feel". These people obviously think they are like jedi knights and will hear a voice or get a shiver down their spine when the correct temperature has been reached. To us though, these people should view thermometers like light sabers that you wouldn’t want to cross Darth Vader in a dark alley without.

Using a thermometer also takes the focus of milk frothing away from your pain threshold (how long can you hold the jug before you can take the pain no longer) and onto the swirling of the milk (where it should be).

[2] Spatulas – these are long strips of metal that come out at a slight angle from a wooden handle. They are used to help guide out froth from the jug or to restrain it (depending on whether you want more or less froth coming out of the jug). Used correctly, they will speed up the process and ensure that the right amount of froth is achieved on each coffee, thereby helping to create consistency (a word that should be plastered to the foreheads of all learner baristas). Spatulas are better than spoons because spoons get people into the habit of putting the jug down after the frothing process and scooping out froth and slapping it on top of their coffees. If all baristas knew how to get the right amount of froth out for the coffee they were making during the pour, the world would be a much better place. The alternative to using a spatula or a spoon is of course attempting to free-pour out the correct amount of froth. We have yet to see a good flat white achieved from a free-pour. A spatula can hold back the majority of the froth (but not all as you want some creaminess coming into the cup) and help push a nice amount out at the end (about the size of a twenty cent coin). A skilled barista will have created beautiful, creamy milk that the thermometer can now glide through to make a simple pattern on top such as a four-leafed clover. (Ah hah – another use for the thermometer you see!).

[3] Timers – the right one will count down from thirty seconds and an alarm will ring, signalling the precise extraction that you should be aiming for in your espresso. This will be explained in more detail in a later section, but essentially you want it to take thirty seconds from the time you press the espresso button on your machine to the time the espresso finishes pouring into the cup. Espresso is all about extraction. If it comes out too quickly (like a waterfall) then your espresso will be weak and underextracted (the crema will be thin and will dissipate quickly) but if it comes out too slowly (like a slow dripping tap) then your espresso will be strong, bitter and overextracted (the crema will be dark in patches, bubbly and your espresso will smell burnt). Somewhere in the middle is where the espresso comes out with the consistency of a strand of spaghetti (the Italians might say like an inverted rat’s tail - charming!) and you will find this occurs when the extraction is between 26-30 seconds. Using a timer can help achieve this perfection.

[4] Tampers – you will get few arguments from the old-fashioned baristas here but they are becoming more prevalent and thank goodness for this. Tampers are small metallic objects that have a bulbous end on them that is pushed into your filter basket to compact your coffee. Correct use of them entails pushing down with about 18kg of pressure, using the small end of the tamper to knock on the side of the filter basket once the first compaction has occurred (this knocks the grinds that were sitting up around the side of the filter basket back into the middle) and following up with a light secondary tamp so the grinds that got ejected in the middle are now pushed down to create a consistent bed of coffee that the water can evenly run through to create your espresso.


[5] Stencils – these are sheets of plastic with a shape cut out of them so that when they are held over a coffee and chocolate sprinkles applied over the top, a chocolate pattern is left when the sheet is removed. The key to using them is to hold the stencil close to the top of the coffee (or hot chocolate) and apply superfine chocolate drinking powder liberally so that the shape comes out with good definition. We recommend using Indulge Your Senses drinking chocolate with a proper "mesh" chocolate shaker. Throw out the old shaker that you see people in fish and chips shops shaking salt from (actually maybe you should keep it – your three year-old will love shaking sand out of it in the back yard – just don’t use it again in the café). The metal ones that have a flat top on with largish holes on top will not cut it if you want to master chocolate art on your coffees.

Milk Texturing

So far we have spoken about "milk frothing" in this article but the correct name for the procedure that so many baristas find hard to master is "milk texturing." A lot of people out there in café land still serve up dry, frothy, aerated, horrible cappuccinos. We like to call this froth "roadhouse froth" because these are the places you typically find it. This type of froth is created by over-stretching the milk. In other words, the barista (can we call them that?) has injected too much air into the milk and the finished product literally needs a spoon to scoop out this froth. Old-fashioned cafés will marvel in the creation of their mountainous cappuccinos and the chocolate sprinked which are then applied will remain dry until the froth is eaten with a spoon by the customer. Using a better technique will easily create what is now considered to be a much better result – creamy, silky, shiny milk that will really flow out of your jug and not need any spoon to scoop it out. This creamy froth will blend in easily with the crema on your espresso and will contain no visible bubbles (there are of course bubbles - actually thousands of them – but they are very hard to see with the naked eye). The cappuccino (or hot chocolate or caffe mocha) will have a nice dome on top but there will be enough creamy froth so that the drink is not spilt when the cup is lifted. The caffe latte will have about 10mm of this creamy froth on top and the flat white about 2mm. You need this froth to create any sort of coffee art. Dry, aerated froth is impossible for the coffee-artist to work with.

The obvious question is – how do you create this type of creamy, silky, shiny texture in your milk? You really have to see it demonstrated to fully understand the procedure but we will attempt to put it into words. Hold your 1 litre jug so that the steam nozzle is at the side of the jug and buried under the milk. You want a swirling motion in your milk as soon as you turn the steam wand on. A good way to achieve this is to have the jug handle at right angles to the actual steam wand itself and have the steam wand literally coming out of the spout on the jug. Once you turn the steam on you will see a swirling motion of the milk. Move the jug downwards so that the nozzle is no longer buried but sitting on top of the milk. You will hear a distinct hissing or "slurping" sound. Drop the jug too much and this sound becomes excessive and steam rises out of the jug and big bubbles are created. This is NOT what you want to happen. Keep lowering the jug down millimetre by millimetre to create more creamy froth. By 40 degrees C you should have enough creamy froth created in your jug and you will not want to keep lowering it so either leave it where it is or lift the jug slightly so that the nozzle is once again submerged. The swirling of the milk should continue but now the process is very quiet as there is no hissing any more. When you hit 60 degrees C turn the steam wand to the off position. Put your jug on the bench (remember to clean the steam wand after each use) and tap the jug on the counter a couple of times to get rid of any surface bubbles.

The ERD (Excessive Random Dosing) Syndrome

One of the most comical things to observe in a café is a barista who takes him/herself too seriously. These same baristas are usually the ones that stand at the coffee grinder and madly flick the handle on the side of the grinder 10-20 times until their filter basket is full. Here’s a news flash for these baristas – the modern grinder has a doser inside the chamber that ensures that you only need to pull it once for a single handle and twice for a double handle so long as you set it up properly from the start (between 7-9 grams for a single and 14-18 grams for a double, depending upon your basket size). Always ensure that your chamber is at least half full so that you ensure you are getting the full dose out every time you pull the handle and in busy times, just keep the grinder on automatic so that the chamber is always fairly full. You will use this grind within 10 minutes if you are busy and not even the most strict aficionado can say your coffee has gone stale in that period of time (it takes about 45 minutes to an hour in most environments for your ground coffee to degrade).

At the start of the day and the end of the day when you are not as busy it might be worth manually turning the grinder on and off but always ensure you have enough grinds in the chamber to ensure your doser will work properly.

Standing in front of the grinder and flicking coffee madly into the basket 10-20 times and pushing excess coffee away with your fingers is:

  1. unhygienic
  2. outdated
  3. time consuming
  4. excessively noisy
  5. and most importantly

  6. creating inconsistency in your espresso. Taking out the guesswork (ie exactly how many grams is in the filter basket) is paramount in ensuring a perfect extraction every time. N.B. This section should be read in conjunction with the next section on espresso extraction.

We don’t know whether it is because of the barista competitions (where for some odd reason baristas tend to do this) or whether it is simply because some baristas see other baristas dosing incorrectly and copy them, but the practice of excessive random dosing is alive and well but should be avoided at all costs.

Espresso Extraction

Understanding extraction is another crucial factor in creating consistent espresso. Modern espresso bars understand it. Old-fashioned espresso bars have no comprehension about the notion that how quickly the espresso pours out from the machine will directly affect the quality of it. Good baristas strive for a 26-30 second extraction of their espresso. In other words, they look for a period of about 30 seconds from the time the espresso button is pressed to the time the pump stops and pushes out the last few drops of espresso. If the extraction is around this time, the espresso taste will be maximised and the crema will be nice and honeycomb in colour and consistent in appearance. The spent coffee will also fall out in one nice compact "puck".

The old golden rule was "get a reasonable amount of espresso in the cup and never touch the grinder." The new golden rule with espresso is "30ml-in-30seconds." In other words, get exactly 30ml (you will get this every time if your espresso machine has been programmed properly) coming out in 30 seconds and you will have a great espresso. As a barista you can directly impact upon the extraction by manipulating the grind (we assume everyone can tamp consistently at this point as tamping is the only other major variable in the extraction process). You need to familiarise yourself with your grinder so that you know which way to turn the collar to make the grind finer and which way to turn it to make the grind coarser. Remember you need only move the collar one or two calibrations to make a significant impact on the extraction so do not spin it like a roulette wheel or you really will have problems making your coffees!

The procedure you need to follow is really quite logical. If the espresso comes out too quickly (ie 10 seconds) you need to slow the pour down by making the grind finer (a finer grind will have less air holes in the compaction and will therefore be harder for the water from the machine to flow through the ground coffee). If the espresso comes out too slowly (ie 45 seconds) you need to speed the pour up by making the grinder coarser (a coarser grind will have more air holes in the compaction and will therefore be easier for the water from the machine to flow through the ground coffee). Only when the water from the machine spends approximately 30 seconds running through the ground coffee will the right amount of flavour be extracted from it.

Good cafés educate their staff about extraction and actively encourage each and every barista to adjust the grind if the extraction is not correct. Old fashioned cafés yell and scream at baristas who touch the grinder but their problem is that because of the relative humidity in the air changing causing the extraction to speed up and slow down regularly, rarely will their extraction be spot on if they don’t manipulate the grinder. Their coffees will generally be too weak or too strong and bitter but rarely will they be exceptional. If only they knew how to adjust their grind they could achieve perfection every time!

Machine Programming

Typically you will have four buttons per group which you can program. You should program one to be a single espresso shot (ie 30ml – which gets dispensed through the single spout as you should be using a single group handle), one to be a double espresso shot (ie 60ml – 30ml gets dispensed from each spout as you should be using a double group handle), one to be a ristretto shot (ie 20 ml - which gets dispensed through the single spout as you should be using a single group handle) and the last to be a double ristretto shot (ie 40ml – 20ml gets dispensed from each spout as you should be using a double group handle). Whilst it is true that in Australia we don’t get many ristretto drinkers, we do get plenty of weak coffee drinkers so we give these customers a ristretto shot (20ml) as their espresso base before we add their milk. By virtue of this shot only being 20ml and not the standard 30ml, their coffee will be "weak." This saves the guesswork that exists in some cafés that do not have this button programmed as they typically either stop the espresso pouring or pull the cup away when they think they have enough espresso to constitute the base for their weak coffee. This is obviously not very consistent. Sometimes you may get 10mls, sometimes 25ml but that same weak coffee drinker wants it done the same way each day not made differently each time.


Cutting-edge espresso involves using the correct tools and techniques to create not only great coffee but consistent coffee. Acting like Yoda and trying to pass off coffee-making as some craft that needs to be handed down through the ages is both hazardous to great coffee-making and to be honest, quite outdated. If you use your tools, master your milk texturing, understand how your grinder should work and program your espresso machine properly, you will be on the road to creating great coffee. You will join a lot of cafés out there now that are at the cutting-edge for these reasons. All it takes then is passion, flare and customer service skills and that is the subject of our other article found in this edition of Bean Scene.

Matthew Gee and David Gee currently run a wholesale coffee business in NSW and a barista training school called BARISTA BASICS Coffee Academy that operates in Melbourne, Brisbane, Sydney and Newcastle. They have also owned four cafes in Brisbane (still own one), have been partners in a specialty coffee roaster, have written Australia’s first textbook on coffee, produced several training videos on commercial and domestic espresso machines and are currently producing a book focussing on domestic espresso machines.


Last year Matthew and David appeared on Bert Newton’s Good Morning Australia and Channel 9’s Fresh with Jeff Janstz. They have also worked as official espresso tasters for Choice Magazine’s 2004 and 2005 review of home espresso machines. They also periodically appear on Ella James’ Saturday night radio program on Sydney’s 2UE. In 2005 they appeared on Mornings with Kerrie-Anne Kennerley on Channel 9 and Today Extra with Nat Jeffrey on NBN3.

Ó & Ô 2004 David Gee and Matthew Gee

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