A Barista’s Pupil

    22 September 2012
    It was my idea to do a two-hour course of barista training. I was keen to learn how to finish off my coffee with a picture of a heart or a palm tree or perhaps a swan. I invited one of my sons to come along, as he too is a coffee addict.

    Now we are sitting in the barista school of Prufrock Coffee, in Leather Lane, looking at a whiteboard. This in itself is disturbing: insofar as I can remember, the whiteboard did not exist when I was at school. On the board are some simple graphs which demonstrate the relationship between dilution and extraction. The temperature should be 93.5°C, the dose per cup should be 15g of ground coffee, and the time allowed (presumably for the coffee to infuse) is ideally between 28 and 32 seconds. I hope I have this right. My son is something of a scientist, and he is clearly finding this easy. At school, I won the essay prize, so I am easily confused.

    In the new artisan coffee movement, Jeremy Challender, a 32-year-old Australian who is one of the founders of Prufrock Coffee, explains, precision is everything for the barista. Jeremy is able to analyse his coffee with the benefit of an app on his phone. He also has something called a spectroscope (or perhaps it is a spectrometer) to see what each dose consists of, I think.

    Grinding is very important, and this innovation guarantees an exact dose every time. For instance, if your Guatemalan beans (I am simplifying for your benefit) have a better flavour in a 18g dose than your Kenyan beans at 14g, you can capture these settings for ever. This little gizmo costs £400. Complete barista-standard coffee machines cost from £1,600 to more than £20,000. Jeremy has a number of fancy machines, and one Dutch machine which he seems to favour. It has chrome fins, like an old Cadillac.

    So far we have spent more than an hour discussing the technicalities. I haven’t made art on milk froth yet. I haven’t begun to live the dream. We now get on to grinding and tamping. We are shown how to work the grinder, which is operated by hand, producing the traditional clunk, clunk of coffee bars. We transfer this to the basket and then we tamp. My son goes first. Jeremy is impressed: ‘Nice technique, classical.’

    It’s my turn and I use the wrong tamp — too small for the basket — and the coffee is cruelly shunted into drifts. Coffee must be treated gently, and smoothed out. I hadn’t realised it was so temperamental. Jeremy levels my effort with his forefinger. He loves coffee; it produces a beatific smile on his face. I have read a coffee blog from Dublin which says that the ‘bleeding bunny syndrome’ is fatal for baristas: don’t demonstrate weakness or you will be savaged by your customers. Jeremy is serenity itself.

    Now I must heat the milk to the required 93.5°C. This can be done unscientifically, by placing the palm of your hand under the titanium milk jug. When you say ‘ouch’ it is ready. You can, of course, use the thermometer. You want 2oz of foam in a 6oz cup — I think. Now I have no idea what the brew ratio is supposed to be, not even what it means. But I have watched the next bit carefully, and pour my milk into the middle of the cup from 10cm, and then very close up to make the palm effect I am after.

    Instead, I make an unremarkable round white blob in the middle of the cup, a caffeinated île flottante. My son goes next. I simply cannot believe what happens: he makes a perfect palm frond. It seems to appear as if by magic.

    Our two hours are up. Jeremy tells me something about his life: he is from Sydney, and came to this country on a visit, taught jazz piano, and played publicly, but he was always interested in coffee. And this coincided with the new interest in coffee brought to this country by Australians.

    Jeremy joined up with the world barista champion for 2009, Gwylim Davies, a Yorkshireman, to start Prufrock Coffee. Their first venture was a concession in a clothing shop in Shoreditch High Street, and now they also have the Zen-like Prufrock in Hatton Garden. They serve exquisite coffees as well as teas and some lunchtime eats, such as avocado on toast with lime juice. Very Australian. But what actually distinguishes this new breed of coffee people is a kind of zealotry. They are interested in the origins of beans. Jeremy told me of a small grower in Central America whose crop is so small (seven bags) that it is bought by one individual coffee shop for the exclusivity value. And they are interested in making the world a better place.

    I have seen Square Mile Coffee in many of these artisan coffee shops, at a very fancy price. Jeremy tells me that Square Mile has two of the best coffee minds in Britain. I can’t exactly envisage a coffee mind, but their blends of coffee are delicious. I favour Redbrick.

    In the meantime, back home I have used up two litres of milk trying to make a swan, a fern, anything at all without success. It’s depressing: I will have to make a flat white to cheer myself up.