Adventures in Coffee
This article first appeared in NZNewsUK.co.uk on 13 May, 2011.
Learning about coffee is a slippery slope. Learn just one new thing about coffee and suddenly it can take over every thought you have – in a nice way! For instance, the first coffee house in the UK was opened in Oxford back in ’52. That’s 1652, by the way. Two years later, Cambridge had its first coffee establishment. Both buildings are apparently still in existence. Twenty three years after the advent, England had over 3000 coffee houses. Charles II tried to ban coffee houses in 1676 but the law was repealed before it was due to be enacted. Coffee is embedded deep within English history.
Try this. There are over 90 species of coffee plants. 75% of our drinking coffee comes from just one species: the Arabica.
Answer this: which country drinks more coffee that any other per capita? Just to help, New Zealand weighs in at 36th in the world, working through 3.7 kgs per person every year. The leading country consumes 12 kgs a year (Australia only manages 3kg).
Learning about coffee isn’t really about facts and figures. It should be much more hands on than that..
The first of my recent adventures was with the Department of Coffee and Social Affairs on London’s Leather Lane. Chris McKie is one of the business partners at the Department. After spending his days pulling shots of espresso, he can be found conducting coffee-making classes. I spent a brilliant two hours learning the basics of grinding, tamping and steaming on a La Marzocco machine. Chris hands out knowledge like it was candy on Halloween. The class left me with three basic thoughts.
There’s no excuse for bad coffee.
Anyone can learn to make a decent espresso.
A good barista is worth his or her weight in gold.
Coffee making is pretty simple. Water at the correct temperature. Beans roasted and ground within a reasonable set of parameters. Make sure your equipment is clean and working properly. Anyone following these basic rules will make a good cup of coffee. Making that killer cup of coffee though only comes with practice. And more practice. That’s why good barista should be treasured.
There are plenty of cafes and coffee roasteries that have coffee classes. They’re lots of fun (well, my one was) and should improve your home coffee making experience (mine definitely did). We’ll come back to the Department in a moment.
My next adventure came through Reiss Gunson. Reiss owns and operates Londinium Espresso in West London. He’s a coffee roaster and coffee equipment supplier. His particular love is for black coffee. He reminded me that coffee was a naturally sweet(ish) drink that the instant phenomenon reduced to a bitter, tasteless concoction that screams out for a sugar addition. Anyone who’s had a well balanced shot of espresso will know what he’s talking about regards the sweetness. I spent four hours with Reiss, chatting about coffee and working my way through 15 cups of coffee, mostly using his Bosco lever machine and I was surprised how simple and effective a lever machine was for making good espresso.
Back to Department of Coffee for adventure number 3. Sometimes it’s not even about making the coffee. One of the big questions for coffee lovers, especially newbies, is how should I be tasting coffee. Some people can baffle you with talk about herbaceous or caramel notes, an oily texture or fruit salad. Fruit salad from coffee beans! Yep, it’s possible. Like wine, a few people have been gifted with an awesome sense of smell to work with. The rest of us have to work at it, which means drinking lots of different types of coffee and paying attention to those differences. Thankfully, places like the Department of Coffee offer coffee appreciation classes where you can get a solid grounding in what to pay attention to and what different methods of coffee making will do to your beans. Tim Ridley led the course I was on and again it was very hands-on. The highlight had to be watching a siphon filter at work – coffee as theatre.
My final adventure was with yet another New Zealander, Glenn Watson. A Patumahoe boy, Glenn splits his time between the travel industry and a coffee training business. And perhaps more importantly, he runs the Coffee Forums UK website – one of the best coffee resources you could hope for. I managed to coerce Glenn into making coffee at a dinner party (he didn’t need much coercing, to be honest) and we spent an hour of bliss just filtering a variety of beans and generally neglecting the guests. Who knew that you could tell where coffee beans came from by looking at the dregs in the bottom of a filter?
People such as Glenn, Tim, Chris and Reiss are fantastic sources of knowledge when it comes to coffee (and they’re all London based Kiwis). Sometimes you may have to part with a little cash to tap into that fount while at others, it may just be striking up a conversation with someone (in Glenn’s case, it was Twitter). However you go about it, if you love coffee then take the time to learn more about it. It will open up the world just that little bit more for you.
And the answer to my coffee consumption question?
Finland. Who’d have thought?