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Oil slick rescue!

Ye gads!!!!
What an adventure. Today I (unintentionally) came to the rescue of a coffee shop (which had better remain nameless). The problem? Espresso machine pulling shots too short (ie: not enough water running through the coffee.) It was also flashing its lights rather pathetically, hissing worryingly when it refilled and also beginning to leak hot water out of the side of the machine!

Pressure and temperature dials seemed normal and there was no obvious cause of the leak. So, I tried to reprogram it to increase the volume of water going through the coffee. No joy. The espresso was just dripping out, incredibly thick and black and sludgey, and a double shot took over two minutes to pour. It tasted vile and coated the roof of your mouth like bitter tar.

So I thought, maybe it’s just ground too finely. I adjusted the grind – it was very finely ground, like icing sugar, but seemed to be clumping together too. Even turning the grinder to its most coarse setting didn’t improve the espresso, so I turned it back again and ground some more in case it was a one-off blip. It was no anomaly; the second batch resulted in the grinder getting blocked as well and I had to poke the stuff out with the end of a spoon. So we decided to give the machines the benefit of the doubt, and tried to pull a shot using decaf espresso from another grinder. This shot worked perfectly!!

The Doctor’s diagnosis?

REALLY terrible coffee!

Seriously.

The decaf shot was what gave it away. There was nothing wrong with the espresso machine, it was the coffee going in to it that was causing the problems. On closer inspection, it was roasted really, really darkly. This picture doesn’t do it justice, but next to the decaf espresso, the beans looked black and very shiny. Rubbing ground coffee between my fingers felt really greasy – a sign of very low quality coffee (higher quality arabica has less oil content). The fact that it was blocking the grinder tells me exactly how greasy it was – coffee should not do that! And even very very finely ground coffee should never be so thick as to withstand the espresso machine pushing water through under 15 atmospheres of pressure.

Here’s the beans. They look safe enough, don’t they? Looks can be deceptive.
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In the end, we just had to throw the beans away. A different blend of espresso roasted by another company but made in the same grinder and with the same espresso machine, worked fine and poured a nice shot. The roast can make A LOT of difference!

Here is the bag of machine-breaking beans, just in case you were wondering. Take note of the roaster’s logo.

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Posted by on March 20, 2013 in Uncategorized

 

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Skill recognition on CBC!

Are we too obsessed with coffee?

Very interesting piece on CBC radio this morning: a coffee novice and sceptic attends Camp Pull-A-Shot and realises coffee is the most complicated drink we consume.

Pulling the perfect espresso, drawing attractive latte art, the intricacies of roasting or subtleties of cupping aren’t for everybody, but it is great to hear a balanced piece explaining the complexities of the industry, and why you can actually attend a two day course on how to make coffee, in the mainstream media. Being a barista is a very skilled job, but those skills aren’t recognised often enough outside the industry.

 
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Posted by on January 12, 2013 in Uncategorized

 

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Wipe your knob!!!!!

Oh wow, I think this is the longest its ever been between posts on here!!

Very sorry, dear reader(s). Well, I finally made it, I am in Regina, Canada, and now gainfully employed as Head Barista and front of house manager at 13th Avenue Coffee House. Most of these adventures are detailed over at my The Regina Monologue blog, but I am not quite sure where this one fits. It’s my coffee adventures!

I’ve mentioned in a previous post already about the Canadian love affair with filter coffee. Virtually every food place I’ve been in had great tanks of the stuff, their beloved Bunn machines, where “medium” or “dark” blends are kept hot (and stale) in the equivalent of giant thermos flasks all day every day. My new employers have three such tanks of coffee. They also do a lot of award winning, excellent vegetarian food, and wonder of wonders, they have an espresso machine!

It’s a Rancilio Epoca 2 group, and it has not been well used. The vast majority of the place’s trade comes from the restaurant side of the business, and the next largest proportion is the filter coffee. Espresso barely gets a look in, and their machine was not well loved or cared for. This is through no fault of the staff nor the new business owners – it was simply that no one had ever been shown how to use the machine, or more importantly, how to clean and maintain it, and because it accounted for so little of their trade, it was never a priority. But now I am here. And it is my priority! So, I had it sent away for a repair and a service, which cost a rather painful amount of dollars, but the improvement is stupendous!

I honestly found it difficult to believe it was the same coffee going in to the machine. Regina, unfortunately, has really, really hard water. Most of the repair work done on the espresso machine was just unclogging it and removing all the limescale inside it. It now has a shiny tank again, and new water filters! The difference in the taste of the espresso, made with clean, softened water, with the right amount of pressure, at the right termperature and with no leaks was incredible! I even got approval from The Boss’s Italian Dad, who requested a Doppio Espresso – presumably to test me! 🙂

Next week I am going to do a bit of Staff Training and make baristas of them all. I am encouraged by the fact that some of the team actually seem genuinely interested, admit to drinking an unhealthy amount of coffee, and do prefer espresso to the filter coffee they serve up to the customers. This is a great start as it means they will know when they make it badly. I’ve always found it harder to train up non-coffee-drinkers for that very reason – they can’t tell when it’s good! Hopefully, when I have a crew of skilled baristas, the customers will notice and we can start weaning them off the tanks of filter coffee in favour of the good stuff too!

Part of the training is going to have to include cleaning and maintaining the machine though. They can’t do much about the pH of the water here, but they can learn to detect problems with the machine. Everything from changing the filters to backwashing and checking the group head seals, to the simplest thing: getting in to the habit of wiping the milk wand after EVERY use. I usually tell people, “you have to wipe your knob otherwise it won’t squirt properly!!”. Strangely, this tends to stick in their heads quite well…

Updates on progress to follow!!

 

 
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Posted by on April 28, 2012 in Uncategorized

 

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North East Coffee Festival

Well, I survived!! There are still three charity collection cans floating around in Afternoon Tease cafe because I haven’t yet heard whether UK Coffee Week HQ want me to send back the whole cans, or just write them a cheque.

For a first attempt at organising something like this, I think it went really well. In the end, only five places in Darlington actually signed up with the UK coffee week, and of those, one completely ignored my attempts at getting them involved on a local level. But to be honest I am quite glad about that because I had plenty to deal with as it was. Plenty of places got involved without actually signing up officially though, which was great. I did a coffee ‘treasure map’ sending people to seven different coffee shops around town (including Caffe Nero and Clervaux) and finishing at Afternoon Tease, where I gave the first person back (Congrats to Robin Ellwood!) the “treasure” – a bag of organic single origin Costa Rican beans, the most enormous coffee mug I could find and a cafetiere. Because if you’ve managed to get round seven coffee shops in a week, obviously you must be in need of more coffee!!

The ever-enthusiastic Neil at Golden Brown cafe roasts coffee on site, and did some roasting workshops for interested customers – I met a few who had attended and said it was ‘fascinating’! I was a bit gutted I couldn’t make it to them myself. I don’t know how much Neil raised but hopefully the roasting workshops and the treasure map boosted his sales as well.

I did a poster for the Vitae Public Engagement competition, all about coffee quality (as usual) and hosted in Durham. The idea was the explain people’s academic work to members of the public, so I thought I’d do my bit since the event happened to coincide with coffee week. I didn’t win, but I didn’t really expect to, and I did get to talk to a lot of interesting people, including Kathryn from Allegra (organisers of UK Coffee Week) who had made it all the way up here from London for the day. Really nice of her to make the journey!

Annette at Sublime Coffee Corner, who sells a huge range of different coffee beans on the indoor market, did a coffee tasting session as well as being featured on the treasure map. She said it went well enough, and certainly got to enlighten people to the joys of Kopi Luwak coffee, ahem 🙂

I ran a short barista class at Afternoon Tease on the Friday, which was so much fun! Two who had provisionally booked couldn’t make it at the last minute, but the crowd I got in were brilliant, asking me loads of questions, really getting in to it and most significantly, not being afraid to have a go on my machine. One said she was blown away by the tiny margin of error, how the tiniest thing can make such a huge difference in how the espresso tastes. For my part, it was exhausting! I did get to drink A LOT of espresso, tasting all their attempts no matter how bad! However, as usual when I try and ‘teach’ something I am passionate about, I vastly over-ran and talked solidly for the best part of three hours.

Finally, on the Saturday, we held a few coffee themed stalls in the market square (the back-story for this deserves a blog post in its own right, but in simple terms, this was achieved *despite* the council, not exactly with their help!). My beloved coffee Ape van has now been sold (waaaaaaa!) and I sold it on the understanding that its new owners came to the coffee festival. They did, in fact, the festival actually became the launch of their new business. Apey boy is now called Little Coffee Van, and although nervous, they managed some pretty decent cappuccinos! On a less positive note, they also go a taster of the local open market – thus producing another one joining the campaign pressuring the council to invest in the market and breathe some life in to it, I hope!!
We also had beautiful cakies from Cupcake Kisses, Golden Brown cafe came out and sold freshly roasted coffee beans and gourmet chocolates, Tea Experience came all the way up from the other side of York to pacify the tea drinking half of the population, we even had a massage stall called Reinvigorate for when people had had too much caffeine! I tried to do a sort of information stall, using some of the posters and displays I’d done for uni and some coffee paraphenalia I’ve collected (of which I have A LOT nowadays!). However, Afternoon Tease was open at the same time, and I couldn’t leave Carl manning the place on his own. My parents came up for the weekend to help out with Miranda but I still ended up pedalling backwards and forwards between the stalls and the cafe on Betty the bike. I also did a short but live radio interview for BBC Radio Tees which was terrifying, but at least it wasn’t as awful as the mugshot in the local paper. Ugh.

Anyway, things have been learnt. Kathryn seems pretty keen for me to do this again next year (!!!) but that will depend a great deal on how cooperative Darlington council are feeling because there were parts of the initial setting up of the festival which I have no desire whatever to repeat! A budget would be lovely too… However, moans aside, I really do enjoy doing things like this, hopefully all involved benefitted from it, it was something very different for Darlington, we raised some money for a good cause, and we all got a lot of very very good coffee. Which is the main thing, for me at least!!

Here’s some pretty pics from the week:

Afternoon TeaseGusto ItalianoOrigin cup!Cafe PregoClervauxSeasons

Costa CoffeeGolden Brown CafePoster of Coffee QualityEspresso served in Turkish IbrikDay 8Rachel and Nyx Chapman

Stalls at the Coffee FestivalTea ExperienceFlowering TeasCoffee Information StallCoffee paraphenaliaBeans!

Day 9Cupcake KissesReinvigorateThe Little Coffee VanLittle Coffee VanBaby Coffee

North East Coffee Festival, a set on Flickr.

Some photos from the participating cafes and the main even, 4-10th April 2011.

 
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Posted by on April 19, 2011 in Uncategorized

 

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An Anthropological Experiment: the Breastmilk Latte

It had to be done. In fact, friends have been suggesting it since I first got pregnant. I am currently breastfeeding Miranda and my taste for coffee finally returned post-pregnancy, so why not combine the two? Given the amount of espresso I consume, I’m fairly sure my milk is flavoured anyway…

I am intrigued by how a breastmilk latte would be received in general. I am not planning on selling them, don’t worry! Miranda would object! But, what do people think about the concept? Is it disgusting? Something you’d want to try? kinky even?

Personally I don’t see it as disgusting or anything remotely kinky – breastmilk is a wonderstuff and I am continually fascinated with what my body is capable of doing. This experiment is just an extention of that fascination and curiosity. Miranda is very keen on the stuff and I’d like to know what it tastes like and how it behaves

Making my latte was a little hampered by the fact that Miranda has been very hungry this morning and it therefore took me twenty minutes to manually express about 30ml of milk. Therefore, I decided to go for a breastmilk macchiatto instead.

The espresso was Costa Rican Tres Rios but I can’t make any claims about the quality of it because I was using my home espresso machine, which I know isn’t the best. If I can express any more milk at the weekend I’ll take it down to the Ape van and try it on my professional machine with my awesome Honduran coffee.

The little milk I managed to express was very thick, and frothed very well. It smelled very slightly like canned condensed milk when I heated it, but got up to the same temperature as cow’s milk does without burning or separating. It didn’t quite go as shiny as cow’s milk, but that could be my frothing technique and/or the relatively crap milk wand on that machine!

So, the end result? Pretty damn good. I can see why Miri likes it. Very rich, oddly sweet but perhaps a bit too strong a smell to be completely palatable, though it only smells of Babies. I think a full sized latte would be overwhelmingly sickly to be honest. I am not sure what I was expecting it to taste like – I know breastmilk is so full of goodness and essential vitamins and proteins and enzymes vital to Miranda’s growth and development that I half expected it to taste like a protein shake or some of those ghastly health food smoothies you get in Holland and Barratt or something. It was a relief to find it doesn’t.

Sadly not on sale for public consumption as I have a very exclusive market for it at home, but still, and interesting experiment!

 
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Posted by on September 7, 2010 in Uncategorized

 

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Caffe Culture 2009

This week I toddled down to the 2009 Caffe Culture Show, at the Kensington Olympia in London. Caffe Culture is a huge trade fair for the coffee shop and cafe industry, and although obviously aimed at the retail side of the industry, there were plenty of coffee roasters there trying to find new customers. It was these I aimed to talk to – the next step of this project is finding the people who actually buy in the coffee from the farms I’ve visited, and simply asking, why do they buy this stuff? What is it that makes Cecocafen’s coffee better than all the other stuff in Nicaragua? And so on.

Muchly easier said than done.

Firstly, as always, I nearly had a heart attack when I found out how much a pre-9.30am travelcard now costs in London (£15??). Then I got lost somewhere round Earl’s Court. Then I got chatted up by an ancient Latvian piano tuner with REALLY bad breath – (Sorry, Mr Boris Knarr, but I don’t think I will be calling you when you get back from St. Petersburg in a few weeks….!) But there we go – nothing unusual, a pretty average morning for me!

But when I finally got to Olympia, Coburg Coffee Company (who roast for Caffe Nero) were nowhere to be seen! This was not helpful, given they were my main reason for going. This was also strange because I could have sworn I saw them in the line up on the Caffe Culture website, they were there last year, and all the rest of the usual suspects were there. I mooched about scabbing as many free coffees as I could (and cookie crumbs, and chocolates, and fruit smoothies, and iced coffees, and disgusting neon coloured energy drinks and even an icecream!) whilst soaking up the atmosphere.

This is, admittedly, the only trade fair I’ve been to so I don’t know if this is typical, but even despite the hyper caffeination of most of the attendees, the whole event felt oddly laid back. Everyone there was trying to sell you something, but not aggressively. Only a few of the stalls stood out – as ever, La Spaziale, the espresso machine makers, dominated the right half of the hall, with lots of lovely, cripplingly expensive coffee machines (“As used in the World Barista Championships”!). Matthew Algie (a roasters) covered their stall with black chalkboard and every time I went back, it was covered with different graffitti and coffee-related doodles. Beyond the Bean, who do a bit of everything also had a huge, cheerful stall as well (with lots of freebies) but everyone else just made do with their little red cubicles, relying on their name printed above them as their means of identity. This is why I spent a good ten minutes chatting to a bloke from E-Lites. He was sitting in a stall with “Electronic Cigarettes” above his head. Utterly bizarre.

I felt odd walking round with a badge saying “researcher” on it because this denoted me immediately as “non-customer”. Nevertheless, the vast majority were very happy to talk to me, with a couple of exceptions. Lincoln and York Coffee Roasters were not the most helpful, and neither were Darlington’s Coffee Company – sadly named after a bloke called Mr Darlington, and not because they are based down the road from me! However, I had a lot of fun chatting to others; I admired some lovely shiny steampunkish espresso machines from Fracino, sampled a lot of very fine chocolate from Montezuma’s, and amazingly for me, I got very excited about finding teapigs a really good, funky company who can get me proper Andean Yerba Mate! This does a Happy Bel make. I talked to a LOT of people about biodegradable coffee cups and so on as well. At one stage I was debating whether to research more about coffee cups, as it is the most obvious form of waste from the retail coffee industry. These were all biodegradable and made from recycled materials, and the cake slice trays and sandwich boxes were made from some form of sugar cane by-product. Impressive, but there is a limit to how much paper-cup-related sales pitch I can take in!

There were also plenty of talks, including the SCAE workshops (barista training, roasting etc which I went to last year and therefore avoided this year) and business seminars. I sat in on a few of those (for tips on Doctor Coffee’s Cafe of course!). Deborah Meaden did one! Explaining why hosting the Macmillian cancer charity’s Big Coffee Morning makes sense for your business as well as being a generally good thing to be involved with. James Hoffman was on his Square Mile coffee stall, as the only “coffee celebrity” there, although I am sure I saw Gwilym Davies wandering around too.

So, did I actually acheive anything useful for the project? Well yes. The two most friendly and helpful companies I talked to were Union coffee roasters and Matthew Algie. I actually met one of the buyers from Union, Jeremy Torz, which is exactly what I needed. I explained I was studying ideas of coffee quality, and that I’d been out on farms (coincidentally, his colleague was out in Matagalpa recently too) but wanted to chat to roasters and see if their views of what coffee quality is, differed at all. He reckoned it shouldn’t. Good quality coffee roasters go on “origin trips” – actually visiting the farms they are buying from, in one big happy, consistent joined up industry. Which is nice if it actually happened – but my experiences in Central America lead me to believe otherwise. This surprised him; Union prize themselves on working with the producers so that the coffee is not only high quality, but sustainable as well. If anything, this made me more determined to find Coburg, just to see if this idyllic-sounding method actually pans out with a such a large company. For Jeremy, however, quality meant a lot of factors in harmony with each other, but most importantly is the altitude the coffee is grown at. On the stall, there were samples all from the same region in Guatemala, but from different heights. Roasted to perfection, even I could tell the difference. The higher the altitude, the better tasting the coffee. But surely it’s not that simple?!

200520093701It is not, according to people from Matthew Algie (and fortunately for my project). You can still have great quality green coffee, and decrease it’s quality by roasting it badly, and so on. Under a chalked-on caffeine molecule diagram, someone had written out a coffee roasting how-to on the wall of their stall, complete with details of the actual chemical reactions going on inside the bean. I stood their gazing blankly at the wall, until someone approached me, ‘Ari’ made me a (*very* good) coffee, and said “Oh you must come up and spend a day with us! Talk to…. she’s our master roaster”…. Matthew Algie are based in Glasgow, which makes life that little bit easier. I hope they intended me to actually take them up on the offer!!

So, a little acheivement, and a lot of fun. And hopefully by the next Caffe Culture, I will be in business with Doctor Coffee’s Cafe so I can actually particiate properly!

 
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Posted by on May 22, 2009 in Uncategorized

 

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Not Spilling the Beans – Barista Championships 2008

When I got my first job in a coffee shop I thought, “I like coffee, that machine looks fun – how hard can it be?”. I was more worried about burning the food in the café or how I was going to amuse the scary looking emo teenagers in the corner than what sort of coffee was going to go into that strange noisy hopper on the worktop. I’d used the coffee machine when I worked in the pub; it involved sticking a cup underneath and pressing a button. I could cope with that. All would be well.
That was 2006, and in the last eighteen months my views on these things have changed a great deal, especially after my experiences over the last few days.

Caffe Nero, according to their website, pride themselves on their coffee, referring to ‘the art of the barista’. All employees – baristas – ‘undergo days of intensive training before being allowed to serve an espresso.’ When I started working there, I can’t say I much noticed the intensity of the training; I had already done some barista training at Pumphreys Coffee House for my previous job, and as such, assumed I knew what I was doing. All I had to learn now was how to make coffees ‘The Nero Way.’ It is fair to say that everything in Caffe Nero is branded somehow, even down to the exact proportions of foam, milk and espresso that go in to the cappuccino. You can’t just serve ‘any’ cappuccino, it has to be a Nero Cappuccino, and as petty as it sounds, there are some glaring differences.

These differences become very apparent when it came to Barista Championship competitions. The Speciality Coffee Association of Europe hold regional and national competitions for baristas to show their skills and compete for a place in the World Barista Championship. Last year’s World Champion barista was James Hoffman from the UK, who luckily for me, happened to turn up at Pumphreys Coffee House when I trained there. I met a coffee celebrity! He was also one of the main judges for the UK regional finals this year. The competitors in these Barista championships took the event very very seriously, and not just because of the cash prize and prestige on offer for the World Champion. This competition is a culmination of a lot of practice, a lot of skill and a lot of hard work perfecting what is essentially an art form.

Meanwhile, Caffe Nero also hold their own Barista of the Year competition. The northern heat was held in Newcastle on 22nd January, and I tagged along to support some friends and former colleagues. Although the area manager described the event as ‘a bit of fun’ and the sheer quantity of free beer, the cheerleading efforts and the ‘Prize for Best Team Song’ seemed to demonstrate this, the specially made t-shirts saying “Barista of the Year 2008 Finalist” on them, and the prizes – a trip to New York and a chance to meet Nero CEO Gerry Ford – suggested that the competition did have a serious side.

In the northern region, there were thirteen competitors, representing the Nero stores in Durham, Darlington, Ripon, Gosforth, Newcastle, South Shields, Berwick and Hexham. Each store manager had put forward one or two baristas judged to be the best in the team. Their efforts were judged by regional managers and Nero ‘Coffee Maestros’ from other parts of the country. The Newcastle Caffe was not exactly a huge venue, and so only two baristas could compete at once, using different sides of the same Gaggia machine. Each side had two double handles, a grinder and a milk wand, and so technically speaking each barista could have potentially made four drinks at once. But as the area manager, Kirsten, announced beer bottle in hand: “Please don’t use the second handle on the left for espresso, its a bit dodgy…” Since espressos are the basis for all the drinks made in the competition, this should have been a bit of a hindrance, but it didn’t seem to make any difference at all!

The first two rounds were timed; the first challenge was to make a cappuccino, a latte and a single espresso shot in three minutes. The second was three medium cappuccinos in four minutes. After judging each, competitors with the least points, or those who ran out of time, were eliminated. Eventually, it was down to four baristas, Michael from Ripon, Frost from Gosforth, Becky from Hexham, and Steve from Durham. These four then had to make another series of drinks, this time without being timed. They just had to make the best drinks they could. From these, the judges picked the final two, Michael and Frost. The final round was to make a hot chocolate, a mocha, a latte and an espresso. After four attempts at his espresso, Frost eventually won the competition, and crowned the Northern region’s Barista of the Year. Celebrations were very noisy, but only Steve from Durham seemed remotely gutted about losing the chance to meet his hero, the enigmatic Gerry.

More significant from the point of view of a trainee barista, was why Frost won. The judges were looking for various aspects of Nero coffee making, but not all of them immediately obvious. The emphasis of the competition was very much on Nero-ness – a bit of fun to get all the teams socialising together, but also more subtly, to reiterate the brand. One of the qualities of a good barista at Caffe Nero is the possession of good customer service skills, and a happy barista who is having fun is generally better at serving customers. More specifically, a happy barista who can make good coffees consistently, repetitively and very quickly is even better for the company. The point of testing competitors’ ability to make three cappuccinos in four minutes was to see if they could actually keep it up – anyone can make one decent cappuccino once, but it takes some skill to do it over and over again during an eight or nine hour shift, while maintaining a sense of humour.

As mentioned before, a Nero Cappuccino is a very specific thing as well. In a 15oz cup, there is supposed to be double shot of espresso (1/3 of the mug) one third hot milk, and one third dry milk foam. And chocolate on the top. In this case, Caffe Nero HQ tends to be fiddling while the cappuccinos burn. What shocked me, even though I know the company pretty well now, was that the judges did not even bother to taste the coffees made. The cappuccinos were poked to test the depth of froth, lattes were stirred to check consistency, and the espressos were timed to see if they poured for the correct 15 seconds (which would be woefully underextracted in any other circumstances). But no one actually tried them, there was no test of flavour. They just had to look right. However, it is very possible to make coffees that look great but taste foul, so I asked why they weren’t tasted and was told there was no need; the judges could see how well it was made anyway. “It’s not the Barista’s fault if the coffee isn’t good.” This worried me a great deal. If the coffee itself ‘isn’t good’ then this doesn’t say much about Nero as a company: area managers do not even believe their own marketing. More to the point, the very people in charge of judging the standards of drinks for the whole company are seemingly unaware that even if the coffee itself is high quality, it can still be ruined by being prepared badly by the barista. Coffee is NOT “just coffee”, cappuccinos should not be made just to look pretty, and it is very disappointing to think that the brand that got voted the UK consumer’s favourite for the past seven years still thinks like this.

To make sure, I went round sneaking mouthfuls of everyone’s attempts whenever I could. Some were very much better than others. However, none had anything like complexity that I was to experience the next day. The very next morning I eventually got myself to Edinburgh to see the Scottish heat of the official UK Barista championship. This was a much more serious affair. Fourteen competitors throughout the day, four ‘coffee’ judges including last year’s World Champion, and two technical judges, testing the way the baristas used the machines. Anyone could put themselves forward for the competition as long as they had two years experience in the industry, and you competed as an individual not as a representative of a particular company. Apart from the fact the whole event was sponsored by La Spaziale who make the espresso machines, it was relatively devoid of commercial propaganda. More interestingly, not one of the entrants in this heat came from a big chain coffee shop – no Nero, Costa or Starbucks baristas here.


Every competitor had the same task – to make four espresso shots, four cappuccinos and four of their own speciality drinks inside 15 minutes. They could use whatever blend of coffee they liked, and most took the time to explain to the judges what they were using and why, showing that they really actually knew the blend. Interestingly, one entrant, Andrew Mundy, used a single estate coffee from Cachoeira Fazenda, or Waterfall Farm in northern Brazil. Cachoeira Fazenda has won a great many awards, and is apparently one of the ingredients in Caffe Nero’s house blend, implying that Caffe Nero coffee really shouldn’t be dismissed so easily.

The four judges probably suffered severe sensory overload by the end of the day, having to taste three drinks from all fourteen competitors. They gave marks out of six for the taste and balance of the espresso, and the ‘tactile balance’ of it, how full bodied it was for instance. The cappuccinos were again graded on balance and consistency, but also temperature so as they were not too hot to drink like at Nero. Finally, the signature drinks were graded on flavour and also quality of the espresso base. Baristas also got points for technique and use of the machine. They were penalised for wastage – grinding too much coffee, or frothing too much milk, or even pouring away spoilt drinks, not that anyone needed to. They also lost points if they went over the fifteen minutes performance time.

Personally, I loved the signature drinks. By far the best part of the day from the audience’s point of view was the fact that after the judges finished their analysis, the drinks were passed round for the rest of us to try. The signature drinks could be anything that involved espresso, that could be made inside the allotted time, and did not involve alcohol. My personal favourites were the truly bizarre ones: ‘Sun, sea and sand’, by Paulo Tanzillo involved risotto rice in the bottom of a glass, with espresso poured on the top, and finished off by topping it with a bright yellow cream made of whipped egg whites and lemon juice. It tasted a bit like bitter lemon meringue pie! Others included Leo Ventisei’s ‘Agua Dulce’ which was espresso with a slice of crushed lemon in the bottom and the glass crusted with sugar, it tasted stupendously good in my humble opinion. Kirsten Olsen made a drink inspired by the coffee’s origins – Brazilian, and mixed her espresso with avocado and lime. David Fraser served his drinks in tiny biscuit barrels, and used blended up ginger biscuits in his coffee.

I admit, I was a little disappointed with some of the winners, not because I thought they shouldn’t win, but because they were not the most interesting! Third place went to Agnes from Kilimanjaro Coffee in Glasgow, who made a signature drink infused with orange blossom and vanilla. First place went to Gillian Campbell with her iced drink with orange and chocolate. These were very, very good, if not the most original! However, it was the espressos and cappuccinos that won it – complete with latte art rosettas. Signature drinks are wonderful, but in most coffee shops, standard coffees are the most important thing, and this is recognised even at national competition level.

In a totally non-biased fashion, I was very pleased when Stuart Archer from Pumphreys Coffee House in Newcastle came second. Whereas I just got mouthfuls of the other competitors’ drinks to test, I’ve been lucky enough to sample Stuart’s coffee properly outside of competition circumstances, and it is very good indeed. Although he claims he spoilt his cappuccinos, the judges obviously didn’t think so. His signature drink sounded not only bizarre, but pretty disgusting too – espresso infused with garlic, and laced with chocolate. Debating whether to hold my nose first, I tried it, and contrary to expectations, it really worked. The garlic didn’t actually kill the coffee, and somehow brought out its natural sweet smoky taste. Not something I think many coffee shops will be offering on the menus very soon, but certainly an interesting treat.

Stuart and the other two winners will go through to the national final, held in London next month, and the winner of that event will represent the UK at the World Barista Championship in Copenhagen in May, and of course, whichever coffee shop this person works for will be able to advertise the fact to their own advantage. The Nero Barista of the Year will get a special t-shirt and the store he represents will be able to use the fact they have the best Barista in the company in their own marketing. But what other purpose is there to the competitions? Barista championships are like
any other industry awards: recognising talent and skill in the particular field, and to reward hard work, or act as an incentive to excel. But essentially, coffee is a beverage, designed for human consumption. The displays of coffee making prowess at the SCAE competitions are artistically and creatively excellent, but these are not the sort of drinks you will get served at an average coffee shop. In short, they are not actually designed for regular consumption – at most, they are a luxury afforded only to those who bother to seek out the independent coffee shops that serve speciality coffees and employ world class baristas (which are few and far between in this country). At worst, they are art for art’s sake, and remain relatively unconnected with the regular coffee shop industry as a whole. As former UK Barista champion, pointed out: “The British are at the ‘Blue Nun’ stage of coffee drinking.” Put more simply, we are not yet coffee gourmets, and in this country there is little place in the market for such luxury, and elitist, drinks.

Caffe Nero, in comparison, may not take the idea of barista awards so seriously, and may not be judged by the same standards, but the coffees made in the competition are exactly what the customer will receive when they visit a Caffe Nero store. This cannot be said of the SCAE competition. The Nero awards are designed to uphold their own standards throughout the company, and to reward talented employees, which it can be argued, is a much more practical reason for holding the competition. There is no doubt that the coffees at the SCAE competition were of much higher quality, but there is also no denying that it is Caffe Nero and similar chain stores that are the most successful and profitable, and not the independent cafés. In the current climate, it is the chain stores that are actually supplying what the average consumer really wants.

 

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