Appearing in Bean Scene Magazine, Winter Issue, 2008
by DAVID GEE AND MATTHEW GEE
Il Barista a Casa
SUNDANCE – August 2008 – “Il Barista a Casa” (The Barista at Home) has become the surprise hit of the Sundance Film Festival this year after earning rave reviews from the some of the harshest critics in the US. Starring Andy Garcia, Orlando Bloom and Scarlett Johansson, who would have thought that a simple film about a small-town accountant (Bloom) who inherited a domestic coffee machine from his late mother could invoke such a moving human tale? Lust, greed and addiction all follow (of course all related to his new-found love affair with coffee) and in his search for espresso excellence, he finds that his life is never the same again….
Before you jump onto google to find out the release date for Australia, there’s one small thing we should tell you. The above film is not real. OK, we led you up the garden path, but it could be real, couldn’t it? (A good one for Ron Howard to direct we think!). Our belief that such a film could exist is a reflection of just how endemic home espresso machines have now become in our lives. Today, it’s plausible cinema but ten years ago, nobody would have had any interest in such a film!
Here’s a true story for you now. A doctor friend of ours decided one day that she wanted a good machine at home. Not a $2700 Vibiemme or ECM Giotto, but a sub-$1000 manual machine that would be a “good starter” and one which could be “practiced on” for a year or so before moving to the next level. She rang us for a recommendation and we were astounded at just how much she had picked up by spending a few hours researching on the internet. The merits of stainless steel and brass boilers over aluminium boilers rolled off her tongue like she was born with an espresso cup in one hand and a tamper in the other. This was her secret identity coming out. To us, it suddenly seemed that no longer was she one of the most skilled plastic surgeons in Sydney but she was the home barista. Her husband rolled his eyes in disbelief at what his wife had become, but by the passion in her voice he knew that there was no turning back.
A week or so later she called us back, and sounded a little despondent and slightly overwhelmed. She had purchased a machine and had set it up at on the kitchen bench. She had an accompanying grinder and had read the instruction manual over and over again. The pigeon-English made no sense to her and the picture of the cappuccino on the box reminded her of when she was a child in the 1980’s watching her mother eat roadhouse froth from a spoon off the top of her coffee. She knew coffee-making wasn’t rocket science (we had told her this for years) but she just didn’t know where to start. She did, however, have three perfectly thought out questions for us: “Am I normal?” “What is there to learn?” and “How do I go about expanding my knowledge?”
We have reproduced our answers to her in this article to hopefully enlighten other home baristas.
Am I normal?
Generally this is a question that your partner or psychologist can probably better answer than anyone, but if your question relates to your intense passion for coffee, then we can tell you straight away, the answer is YES! Why should we feel that having a passion outside of our “profession” is wrong or something we should hide or suppress? We often talk about people and pigeon-hole them according to what they do. We say, “Megan is a housewife,” or “Rhonda is an accountant” or “Tim is a lawyer.” Each one of these people may of course also be a coffee fanatic and there’s nothing wrong with that. In fact, having such a passion is enviable we believe. It keeps the mind active, the thirst for knowledge strong and can lead to satisfaction when it all finally “clicks” and the perfect cup is consistently served.
What is there to learn?
In short, lots. Coffee is scientific. The basics of extraction such as volume and time are critical. How to texture milk effectively is also key. After all, the espresso from your $250 machine from Bing Lee may be supreme, but if you are scooping roadhouse froth onto the top of your coffees that end up looking like Mount Vesuvius, your dinner party guests will no doubt be less than impressed (and to be frank, it can really bring the tenor of the evening down!) We’ve seen a rollicking dinner party go down in flames when poor coffee is served. Guests may say they are suddenly “all full up” but deep down the host should know that a half-left coffee is the ultimate insult….especially when the plate full of 71% Ecuadorian chocolate pieces are simultaneously devoured.
Other key things to learn include how to execute the pouring of different coffees and also how to clean your machine/grinder.
How do I go about expanding my knowledge?
Use the internet
Using the internet to search for articles relating to your coffee machine is the first port of call. Use appropriate keywords in google such as “how to use a Rancilio Silvia” or “making coffee from a Rancilio Silvia.”
If you have never ventured onto YouTube on the internet (www.youtube.com), you are missing out on a whole other source of information of the visual kind. When we punched in “Saeco Via Vanezia” on YouTube we came up with a guy called Barista Sebastiaan who ran through the making of a coffee from this machine. OK, he wasn’t a world champ milk texturer, (nor did he take off the froth enhancer when he frothed his milk) but it’s a good starting point for a visual demonstration and from there we can refine the search and keep watching other videos. Oh yes, all of this is free!
Join a Social Networking Site
You will often stumble across these as you search for things relating to coffee on the internet. Good social networking sites can often be a huge help as you will come across other like-minded people who have probably encountered the same issues or problems that that you have encountered with your machine. These sites will also keep you updated with local coffee events and provide pictures and even videos that will inspire you to keep practising to perfect your new-found love. If you feel alienated by the exclusivity of a social networking site, don’t bother logging on again, just find another one! Some sites are run by people with vested interests (for example coffee bean and espresso machine sellers) so beware! We have just started one (www.baristazoo.com) and there is a great US site that is also worth a look also called www.baristaexchange.com. Another one worth looking at is www.baristaconnection.com.
Searching for coffee blogs written by people in-the-know is another great use of the internet that again, you can do from the comfort of your own home. Log on weekly to get a new dose of coffee-related information. A good blog will be fun to read and have information pertaining to all aspects of coffee, from how it is grown to how it is roasted and blended and how to keep coffee fresh. We have just started one (www.baristabrothers.com) with a slant on Australian coffee but there are some other good (although somewhat US-centric) sites that are worth a look also (for example see www.brewed-coffee.com and subscribe to the “Daily Dose”.). For a more heavy, industry-based perspective, go to www.coffeetalk.com
Doing a Coffee Course
Finding a coffee course that has all the key ingredients packed into one or two short sessions where you can even bring in your own machine to get instruction on, is the real key to breaking into that next league. Here knowledge can transform into a practical skill that can be refined with practice. The key things to look for are:
- Does the course cater for you? In other words, is the course suitable for a home barista and how much will you get out of it? Learning the 30mls-in-30seconds rule is great for a commercial barista working on a commercial machine but how does this rule differ for home machines? How does tamping pressure differ from a commercial environment to a home environment? A course covering both is probably ideal so that you have universal knowledge.
- Is the course run by professionals? It seems every second coffee shop and coffee roaster runs the odd courses here and there, but it pays to seek out a professional outfit where the trainers are experienced (ie who are café owners and/or professional baristas), are trained teachers and communicators and who use technology in their training. One of us attended a first aid course a couple of years ago run by a guy who would have been far more suited to sitting in front of a computer all day. His 2-hour monologue on first aid with no hands-on practice left everyone in the room wishing they were home mowing their lawns. More worrying than this though, was that nobody actually learned any first aid that stuck with them beyond the next day or so and were therefore none the wiser for attending after shelling out their $100. Forget about being a teacher, this guy was a bandit!
- Is the course impartial? Never underestimate the independent training facility that specialises in coffee (not fork lift licenses as well!) and is not beholden to any coffee or equipment brand.
- What do you get after the course? A written and visual summary is essential and a certificate is always nice. You may not be going to make being a barista your full-time job, but it’s nice to show your partner/friends! There are those people out there of course who would like to attend courses that are properly accredited. Again, research is pivotal, and don’t just accept what a coffee training course says it provides (there are a lot of cowboys out there who falsely advertise that their courses are accredited). Ring them up or email them with the crucial question – “Who are you accredited with?” If the answer is not TAFE, how is your qualification going to be truly recognised all around Australia?
- What tips would you learn that you may not necessarily obtain from the internet? A few questions thrown at your trainer should uncover little gems of information like what the best local brands of milk to use are (some will never give you creamy, silky milk), where to buy fresh, locally-roasted single origin and blended coffee and where to go if your machine (heaven forbit it!) ever breaks down.
There is one further word of advice if you do go down the route of attending a course. If you are interested in more than just “froth and giggles” and want an intensive and hands-on experience, you should expect to leave a good course with your mind full of knowledge, your hands shaking with exhaustion and an impatience to get back home to fire up the machine straight away.
Hopefully, we have helped to shed some light on how to become a true barista a casa. To master your craft, you need to use technology to your advantage to bolster your knowledge. By using this knowledge selectively and in conjunction with live tuition and practical experience - depending on how much you practice - you will be able to call yourself a barista in no time at all. And then finally you will be able to silence that shameless wine snob at your next dinner party.
David Gee and Matthew Gee run Barista Basics Coffee Academy in Sydney, Brisbane and Melbourne. They are past coffee-roasters, have owned 4 espresso bars and have published a book on coffee called bean there, drunk that… now in its second edition. Their training DVDs and book are used extensively by TAFE colleges all over Australia and coffee businesses and franchise operations all over the world.
© & ™ (2008) Matthew Gee and David Gee. This article must not be reproduced in full or in part without the express permission of the authors.