Feb 10

All because of coffee

Today I realised I may have a problem.

I was more than just a little frustrated. I feared the bad coffee served to me in the Beaconsfield branch of Costa Coffee (franchise name: Coffee Snobs) would actually ruin my day. Bad coffee and its effects have ruined my day before. I couldn’t let it do so again.

I am spending a whole day with a client. The work I do for them is important to me. I don’t stop for food or coffee during the day. This flat white has to last me until 4.30pm. It’s 9.30 now. That’s an abnormal amount of time without espresso.

You see, I have become so dependent on making myself a beautiful espresso or flat white that I expect the same when I buy one. And if I don’t get it, I become vile.

Here’s my home routine. 1-4 times daily. I pre-heat the espresso machine one hour before first coffee. I clean and test the group head each time I pull a double. I leave two espresso cups in a bowl of hot water for 3 minutes. I tear-off 4 sheets of kitchen roll and put them aside to dry the cups which are removed from the hot water at the very last second. I grind the beans within 15 seconds of the extraction process. During this 15 seconds I use digital measuring scales to dose 18.5 grams of ground beans into a double filter basket. I tamp with a force of 30 lbs, which I also measure. I throw away approximately 3 cups of espresso for every successful one I make on the basis that the coffee wasn’t the correct temperature, the extraction was 5 seconds too short (weak! eugh!), the fragrance wasn’t right. I always re-steam the milk if I discover that the bubbles in my microfoam are too large.

So why the hell should I pay for coffee that tastes like burnt milk?

This morning I had an ‘episode’ at Beaconsfield Costa Coffee.

More often than not, this place lives up to my expectation for a chain café. This expectation is admittedly low when it comes to quality and high when it comes to high-street availability, but my goodness it is better than the consistently awful burnt weak crap they serve you at Starbucks.

(Note to any Americans reading this: I believe it is a uniquely British phenomenon whereby the coffee sold in Starbucks is consistently offensive. My experience in USA branches of Starbucks is far more positive. The coffee in your Starbucks stores is certainly less than drinkable, but not offensive per se. I think this is something to do with the superimposition of Starbucks corporate values onto the lame work ethic of the British workforce. It results in failure.)

I digress; I have become that belligerent git who makes a scene in restaurants and cafés. I have become that man I always disliked. I am not even 30 yet.

Back in Beaconsfield Costa Coffee. The place is where I go to pick up a satisfactory coffee. Seriously, they get it right a lot of the time. On the most part, very pleasant staff, and talented ones too. It’s the only place I’ll go to out of London to drink half decent coffee.

Sadly this morning they gave me a barista whose incompetence matched only the curtness with which she dealt with me. Don’t get me wrong, I would far rather have a rude foreign barista who made a wicked coffee than a smiling friendly one who made a mediocre one. Fact is, I’ve noticed that friendly professionalism and competence go hand-in-hand. And the flip side is that grumpy baristas usually make a terrible coffee, too.

This particular barista has burnt my milk before. And before, I have politely asked for a replacement coffee without burnt milk. And before, I have felt like an inconvenience for drawing attention to this. Not this time.

I need good coffee. I’m not in central London at Monmouth. I’m not at Sacred Coffee. I’m not at Nude Espresso. This is the only place I can get it right now.

The barista makes my flat white but shoves the lid on before I even get to see the creation. I am in a rush, I grab the coffee and run back to my double-parked car.

I throw my coffee into the coffee holder. Coffee flies all over the car, and over myself. I am running a few minutes late for my client. I don’t like to be late.

Why did the coffee fly everywhere? I always do this with a flat white. The foam on the top sits between the coffee and the lid, it never spills. I open the lid to inspect. It’s like water. Where is the foam? Where is the creamy sweet microfoam? Where is the attempt at latte art? All I see is grey murky liquid, no foam.

I’m in two minds. I’m late, but very angry with the coffee all over me and my car (did I think to bring a tissue – no). Really? Is this sloppy crap going to be my only espresso until 4.30 or 5? Please no.

I run back into Costa and explain that this is not a flat white. This is a latte, with no foam. The curt barista explains it is a flat white.

Please don’t argue. The difference between a good barista and a bad one: a good one would be horrified at the thought their creation was not up to scratch.

I say politely “I’m sorry, the flat white has a microfoam on top with a very smooth but dense texture that prevents me from throwing coffee all over my car. This is not a flat white.”

I lose my cool, and simply place the coffee in front of the barista and say nothing, waiting for a response. (It’s very unlike me to behave in this way.)

To her credit, the barista says “I will try to make you another sir”. Curt but solution-focussed. The short girl who took the order, standing next to her, looks like I just insulted her family and called her mother a whore. Oh really? You are giving me the death stare because your colleague served me bad coffee? I just threw coffee down me and you are giving me evils? Really?

I wouldn’t even dare to serve this to my own house guests let alone serve it for money.

At this point I should explain that I don’t believe my intolerance to be borne out of a sense of innate privilege, nor do I believe myself to be spoilt, nor someone who takes things for granted in life.

It’s more that I have grown used to my own exacting standards for pulling an espresso, foaming milk (this is an art if done well), and more and more frequently I find myself expecting these standards to be exceeded when I drink out.

I take the new coffee and run. I get back to the car, remove the lid to inspect. The microfoam is at least there. There are large bubbles in the microfoam. The milk from my replacement coffee burns my tongue. I am angry. But I am late.

See – this is how I start my day. Angry, late, disappointed, and with a burnt tongue.

All because of coffee.

Nov 08

The domestic guide to good coffee

This guide is a work in progress. Currently you are seeing the first draft.

Grinding your own

Always choose a burr grinder. A non burr grinder will chop the beans instead of crushing them to release oils. Chopping a good roast is a terrible thing to do if you want half decent coffee. It’s not worth buying a grinder at all unless it’s a burr grinder. If it doesn’t specifically say “burr grinder”, it most likely isn’t one, however expensive the unit may be. If you don’t buy a burr grinder, it is always better to have your beans ground at the shop where you buy it.

The quality of a burr grinder is defined by two variables:  

  1. Consistency of grinds
  2. Build quality (length of life, ease of cleaning etc)

It’s possible to purchase a cheap burr grinder for reasonable results. The Krups GVX2 is reasonable, although it may not last a lifetime. Mine broke after a few years. I found a replacement at Debenhams for £36 – an absolute steal. I believe Starbucks sell a branded version of the same model. It’s the cheapest reasonably decent grinder, and I use it. The compartment is not the easiest to clean, it requires a little shake sometimes mid-grind, to keep the beans flowing through. Also, you’ll need to clean grinds up, it does make a little mess. But that’s what coffee is about.

Better still would be the KitchenAid Artisan burr grinder. I haven’t used this unit myself, but it has great reviews.

Espresso machines

I’ve a lot to say on this subject, but I may fill this out at a later date.

It goes without saying, you must avoid cheap units in department stores or online. They often call themselves “cappuccino makers” or “latte makers”. The look like this.

The most important specification of an espresso machine is its pressure. Pressure is measured in bars, or atmospheres. Compare different machines on this specification to start with.

Avoid machines that use anything but coffee you can put in yourself. Nespresso is a well-known brand, and it’s the exception to this rule. It can make perfectly reasonable espresso, even with their cheaper models, and at an acceptable price. It makes a very good every-day espresso machine with minimal cleaning fuss.

The very best domestic espresso is made in lever machines like those from La Pavoni. They are also very high maintenance. You really have to want good coffee if you use this regularly.

Using a stove-top

Stove-tops are the cheapest way of getting espresso-like coffee. They cannot yield a true espresso, and they do not give a crema. That’s something that only a real espresso machine can do.

The most common stove-top make and size is the Bialetti Moka Express 3 cup. This is the one I have had most success with.

Often the coffee can taste way too bitter or way too weak, and sometimes coffee has a subtle taste of burnt rubber to it, due to the slight softening of the rubber seal. The seal may be replaced on Bialetti stove-top makers.

Stove-tops can yield reasonable coffee, but it’s very difficult to make them comply. It’s therefore advisable to lower your sights and use shop-bought name brands such as Illy or Lavazza as the consistency of the grounds will always be high, and grounds consistency is a variable that can throw the results out (strength, bitterness etc) by factors of ten.

It’s best to experiment with volume of coffee, volume of water, length of boiling and amount of heat. Also experiment a little with tamping pressure (how hard you press the coffee down) – start by not tamping it at all except to level the coffee grinds. Never tamp too hard.

A good starting place is to fill a 3 cup Bialetti Moka Express filter funnel with Lavazza espresso coffee, so it comes to just below the top of the funnel. Pat down with your finger to level the coffee. Run your finger around the rim of the funnel to remove loose grinds, ensuring that the rest of the funnel has no grinds stuck to it. Fill the bottom section up with cold water (filtered water is usually better, although such subtleties won’t be appreciated with a stove-top). Screw the lot together, nice and tight. Place on a medium gas heat from the smallest ring of your stove, or equivalent. Wait until you hear the perculating noise and wait a further 30 seconds to a minute. Taste the results without milk if you can, and vary the process.

It’s not uncommon for coffee to randomly taste so bad it’s undrinkable. It’s not uncommon for the coffee to simply never percolate at all; I’ve noticed this happening randomly on my own and friends’ stove-tops. It doesn’t necessarily mean a replacement seal is required. Just cool-off and try again.

There are no hard and fast rules except the following:

  1. Never fill water above the pressure valve. It’s usually best to fill the stove-top with cold water so the water level is just under the valve.
  2. Always remove grinds from the rim of the filter funnel before proceding.
  3. Avoid using washing up liquid on any of the parts, and never use a dishwasher.