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Tools of the Trade, Bean Scene, Issue 10, 2005

Appearing in Bean Scene Magazine,

Issue 10, 2005


                             Tools of the Trade

You won’t find a mechanic fixing your car with a paintbrush or a hairdresser cutting your hair with a spanner. Many baristas however don’t use the correct tools of the trade. Their coffees are therefore often either incorrectly made, inconsistent or just plain ugly, write Matthew Gee and David Gee.

In the old days people used to make homes with their bare hands. Eventually they got the job done but the finished product was generally pretty shonky. For some odd reason, even with the wealth of training that now exists for café owners, people still make espresso without the correct tools of the trade and so their finished product is shonky too and on top of this, incredibly inconsistent.

When we talk of tools we’re talking about baristas using thermometers as they texture their milk, spatulas to help them pour their milk, timers to periodically time their pour, tampers to compact their coffee and stencils to help create interest with chocolate powder on top of their cappuccinos, hot chocolates and caffe mochas. We will 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 600ml or 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 needle on 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 simply cannot achieve consistency 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 and on the following day gets a coffee that is OK in temperature but not ideal. The reason that her coffees are all different temperatures is because three different baristas prepared her coffees on these days.

Mary obviously has the patience of a saint because if it was one of 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. People who don’t use thermometers 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.

We have been taken to task over our love of thermometers by a few café owners who claim that they have done tests in their café and 9 out of 10 times they get within 2 degrees of ideal without using a thermometer. All this does is prove our point – that even seasoned baristas get it wrong 1 out of 10 times!

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 and narrow 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 hold it back (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 perhaps should be plastered to the foreheads of all learner baristas). We feel that 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. Small spatulas are better than the huge thick ones that are better suited to the 1.5 litre jug (which we don’t recommend using).

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. Free-pouring is a skill that takes beginner baristas a long time to perfect. We have yet to see a good flat white from a beginner barista that hasn’t turned into a caffe latte that is also presentable and 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 or fifty 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 ha – 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 has been explained in our previous articles but essentially you want the extraction 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). However 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 (or at least a seconds hand on your watch) can help achieve this perfection.

[4] Tampers – a tamper is a small metallic object that has a bulbous end on it that is pushed into your filter basket to compact your coffee. The correct use of one entails pushing down on the coffee with about 18kg of pressure then 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). This is then followed 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.

Go to your bathroom scales at home and press down until 18kg is reached on the dial or digital display. A lot of people are surprised by just how much pressure this is.

The external metal tamper spoken of above will help you achieve a better extraction than using the hunk-of-plastic one that is connected to the grinder.


[5] Stencils – these are sheets of plastic with a shape cut out of them. They are held over a coffee and chocolate sprinkles applied over the top so that 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 liberally apply superfine chocolate drinking powder 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 are flat on top with largish holes will not cut it if you want to master chocolate art on your coffees.

You may not want to use stencils every time you sprinkle chocolate on your coffees but it sure beats boring coffees that have chocolate haplessly dumped on top by the barista. As we’ve said before, gourmet coffee is not only about wonderful tasting coffee but presentation and creating that "wow" factor as well.


Having been hands-on operators of four cafes simultaneously, consistency has become an integral part of our vocabulary. It is what all café owners should strive for once they or their staff have perfected their coffee-making. Using the correct tools will ensure that excellent coffees can be turned out at speed with consistency, which will ensure success for any café.

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 (bean there, drunk that...), produced several coffee 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 2005 David Gee and Matthew Gee

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