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As much as we’d like to think otherwise, all baristas are not created equal. So what separates the good from the bad, the weak from the strong, the smooth from the bitter? Proper education and professional training.

All too often, espresso bars and coffeehouses hire a new employee and have them shadow their trainer. The glitch in the system is that the trainer probably wasn’t properly trained, so the mistakes and poor quality just continues to multiply.

The consumer is becoming more educated and aware of quality. If independent espresso bars and coffeehouses want to thrive and survive against the onslaught of corporate giants, they need to clean up their act. This is a business where the consumer is becoming more and more educated, and equally aware of quality. Creating strong, recognizable standards is the only way to create consistency - and the only way to assure your customers of your reliability.

Why would you spend so much time and money finding the perfect location, designing your look, selecting the best roaster and coffee beans, and marketing your business, just to lose your customer as soon as they walk in the door? If you don’t take the time to educate yourself in the science and techniques of drink preparation, then your money is being poured down the drain along with the unmemorable drink you just made. This is big business with an educated consumer, so make sure you give them what they want - Espresso professionals.

This is the first part of a two-part series about baristas.

Espresso 101
Let’s start with the basics of espresso. Espresso is not a particular type of bean - this is a very common misconception. Espresso is really just a method of brewing coffee, just like making coffee with a French press or drip brewer are each considered a method. Espresso is coffee being prepared one cup at a time, with the result being highly concentrated. It is the process of hot, pressurized water being forced through finely ground coffee to draw out flavor compounds.

Coffee is almost exclusively grown between the tropics of Cancer and Capricorn. This area just above and below the equator offers optimum temperature ranges and humidity needed for commercial coffee production.

Why does the coffee in Ethiopia taste different from the coffee in Costa Rica, or the coffee in Sumatra? The natural and environmental forces will affect the coffee, dependent upon a wide range of factors: elevation of growth, average rainfall, variations of soil content, temperature, humidity, and others. This is what makes coffee so unique. All of these natural and environmental factors create distinct taste and flavor variances between coffee varietals, as well as differentiating one region from the next.

The range of varietal profiles works fine for drip coffee, but for the purposes of making espresso, one wants a more developed and consistent profile. To choose the best coffee profile for your business, any one particular varietal just won’t have the range that you need. This is why espresso bars and coffeehouses use espresso blends. Think of it like baking a cake; you don’t want the cake to taste like any single ingredient’s flavor. What you are really looking for is the combined flavor outcome.

Your roaster carefully selects specific varietals they know will create the right flavor, body, aroma, acidity and aftertaste once the beans are blended. They create their secret recipes. This is part of the art and science of coffee roasting, and why different roasters’ coffees become known for having certain distinctions.

The other main reason to choose a blend for your espresso is to maintain consistency. Each coffee will change slightly every year, based upon the environmental factors affecting that region. Differences in rainfall, temperature, and humidity all come into play.

Specialty coffee is often compared to wine. You commonly hear people say that a wine is having a good year. Environmental and other natural factors play a major role in the success of the year, for wine grapes as well as for coffee. With a coffee blend, all the small fluctuations and variances of each particular varietal, when blended, help to balance each other out. It helps the roaster protect the profile they created, and also protects the end customer. They can reassuringly expect the same taste and profile year after year.

Coffee is a highly volatile product, and freshness is a major concern. Why go to all the trouble finding the perfect coffees to best suit your business, then let them just go to waste? It happens all the time. I commonly witness businesses storing their coffee incorrectly.

Coffee is very susceptible to damage from odors, temperature ranges, and moisture. It really needs to be stored in a cool dry place. It should not be next to any other product that may taint its flavor. If you store your coffee under the counter next to your cleaning products, there will be a good chance that tomorrow’s special is going to be the Windex Latte!

Keeping the coffee in a closed off area also will protect it from sunlight, which will speed up the deterioration process. You should never store your coffee in the freezer or refrigerator - regardless what you have been told (or what my wife thinks). There are just too many other flavors and odors that may taint the coffee’s true flavor. And, anytime you open that freezer or refrigerator door, the coffee is effected by condensation. Coffee is water-soluble, and the moisture from the condensation will start breaking the coffee down.

How long you are able to store the coffee before using it will depend upon the way it’s packaged. The sealed valve coffee bag is one of the most common types of packaging; it lets the gas from the freshly roasted coffee escape without allowing any air or oxygen in. Coffee sealed like this - as well as being stored correctly - should be fine for up to two months unopened. After the bag seal has been broken, the coffee will only be good for about 10-12 days.

Once your coffee is ground, it has about a half hour before there will be a noticeable change in flavor characteristics. Most specialty coffee roasters set their accounts up for a weekly delivery to maintain the highest freshness and quality standards, and in result, their customers.

Coffee is approximately 95% water. With this in mind, you realize what a major component it is in affecting how your drinks will turn out. The two main factors affecting your water are purity and temperature. The quality of your water not only affects the taste of your espresso, but also can dramatically increase the life of your espresso machine. Having proper water filtration is a necessity, so it is important to connect with your local water filtration company. Bad tasting water makes bad tasting coffee. It’s that simple.

If you use unfiltered water in your espresso machine, the minerals and calcium can create what is called scaling. Scaling is almost a rocklike substance that coats the inside of your machine lowering its capacity. Even worse, it will coat the heating element. When this happens, it will take longer for the heat to radiate through, causing a performance problem. To get your boiler de-scaled is expensive and time-consuming. Make sure your water is properly filtered, and be sure to regularly change the filters.

In order to properly brew espresso, the brewing temperature of the water should be between 198 and 202°F. Water too high will scorch the coffee, causing it to taste burnt and bitter. Water temperatures below this range don’t have enough heat to pull the flavors you want out of the coffee.

Coffee is one of the most complex agricultural products in the world. It has a massive list of flavor characteristics, from sweet chocolate, nuts, and caramel flavors to dirt, oil and charcoal-type flavors. To control which flavor you pull out or extract from the coffee, you need to be able to control the temperature of the water that is run through it, and how long the water is in contact with the coffee.

Brewing time, also known as water coffee contact time, is the single most important factor affecting the taste of espresso, with bean quality being the only possible exception. The brewing time needs to stay in the range of 18 to 24 seconds. The only way to adjust how long the extraction takes is to control the particle size of the coffee. The larger the particle size, the faster the water will go through it. The finer the particle size, the process will slow down. The way to control the particle size of the coffee is to adjust your coffee grinder.

Some other factors that can affect the flavor of your coffee are the weather, cleanliness and your grinding burrs.

Temperature and humidity will have an effect on the coffee. The more humid the weather, the slower your espresso shots will come out. The drier the weather, the faster your shots will be. Since coffee needs to extract within a certain range of time, these changes in the weather may make it necessary to adjust your grind several times per day. The level of cleanliness of your espresso will definitely have an impact on how the coffee tastes. This seems very obvious, but it is something that is commonly ignored. Proper cleaning of your espresso machine will dramatically increase its life. Back-flushing is a cleaning process, using a mild detergent to clean the inside of your machine. This process should be done two times a day, once with the cleaning solution, and once with hot water.

Grinding burrs are the sets of teeth inside your coffee grinder. You will find two pieces. One piece stays stable, and the other turns against it, grinding the coffee caught between. Eventually, these grinding burrs will get dull and start damaging the coffee. If your machine has steel burrs, they will need to be changed each time that 600 to 800 pounds of coffee has run through it. That really is not a lot of coffee, so it doesn’t take long. If you have titanium or porcelain burrs, they will handle about three to four times as much coffee before it is necessary to change them.

When the grinding burrs are new, the coffee is finely cut, shaving the beans into very similar size particles. During the extraction process, the water hits the particles quite evenly. If the grinding burrs get dull, they will smash the coffee rather than cutting and shaving it. With smashed beans, the particle sizes are uneven and the surface area has different sizes. The water will affect the particles unevenly during the extraction process, causing the coffee to taste burnt and bitter.

While these fundamental espresso basics are overwhelming at first, they will become second nature to a skilled barista. Using these valuable steps as a foundation, baristas can dedicate themselves next to the techniques of beverage preparation.

Keith Hayward is sales and marketing manager for Dillanos Coffee Roasters in Sumner, Washington. He travels the country facilitating barista training seminars. Whether teaching a class at an industry convention, such as Coffee Fest Seattle, or for Dillanos clients, his attendees walk away with a much richer knowledge of the coffee industry. Keith Hayward can be contacted at: Tel: (1)(253) 826-1807 or keithh@dillanos.com.

Tea & Coffee - April/May, 2003


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