Tips for a top coffee

SARAH MCINERNEY
Last updated 05:00 25/05/2011
CUP OF JOE: Coffee is an essential part of the day for many.
Waikato Times
CUP OF JOE: Coffee is an essential part of the day for many.

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Coffee is an essential part of the morning ritual for many, offering a much needed kick-start to the brain as the working day begins.

Or a welcome break from the desk as the afternoon slump sets in.

With prices ranging from $3.00 to $4.50 a cup, it's a relatively inexpensive indulgence on its own. But if you're like me and drink two cups a day, it starts to add up.

With prices tipped to rise due to the escalating cost of beans, it might be a good time to get some more use out of the old home espresso machine or whatever domestic coffee-making equipment you have at your disposal.

A Gaggia espresso machine has been in use in my kitchen for about two years now. I love having the freedom to make a decent coffee whenever I feel like it, but the promise rarely lives up to the reality. And I'm not blaming the beans or the machine! 

With that in mind, I spent a couple of hours with Australian barista champion Scottie Callaghan in the Belaroma barista training room in Sydney.

Given that I was after tips to use at home, Callaghan arranged for our "masterclass" to be conducted on a Breville.  Limitations in home espresso machines may mean you'll never match the efforts of your favourite café barista, but as Callaghan proved they can still make a mean coffee.

BUYING BEANS

The first lesson Callaghan was keen to impart was about the beans. Leaving aside any preference you have for single origin or blends, Callaghan's main message is fresh is best. Coffee beans may last for years and years but you'll get the best flavour from them in the first month after roasting. So only buy what you'll consume in a month and grind them as needed.

Store the beans in a dark, airtight container (not the fridge or freezer). If they come in a resealable bag, keep them in that too.

"Being able to grind your beans as freshly as possible makes a big difference," he says.

As a basic guide, Callaghan says lighter roasts will be "easier to palate, sweeter, fruitier, spicier and more acidic, which when added to milk are easier to drink". The darker the roast, the stronger the "coffee" flavour.

ESPRESSO AS THE FOUNDATION

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Given the look of horror on Callaghan's face when I described my $30 blade grinder (it's good for spices but not consistent enough for coffee, he says) I decided it was time to upgrade to a conical burr (flat blade is another good option). Grinding the beans is where the fun begins.

"How fast or slow the water is going through the coffee is going to control what you are extracting from your coffee," he says.

And this is all controlled by the amount of coffee in the group handle, known as the dose, and the size of the coffee, known as the grind.

Get the dose right first, then concentrate on the grind, he says.

THE DOSE - GET YOUR SCALES OUT

As a rough guide, Callaghan says 18 to 22 grams is a good weight to produce an excellent coffee. This produces a double shot, so use your larger filter basket. Callaghan says this is enough for one coffee, but I found it too strong.  I'd use it for two coffees but it's all a matter of personal preference.

"Probably the fundamental thing most people get wrong at home is how much they put in here," he says.

"I hear some people say, when I want it weaker I put less in, and more in when I want it stronger, which is not the case at all. It's more understanding how fast it should flow."

A good way to figure out the right dose for your coffee machine is to inspect the coffee grounds in the filter basket after you produce a shot (known as an "extraction"). Callaghan says if it is watery and has a mud-like appearance – if you put your finger in it, a significant indent would be left behind – the dose is incorrect. 

If it's running too fast, put more coffee in. If it's running too slowly, put less in. The size of the grind will also have an impact on this.

THE GRIND

The fineness or coarseness of the grind will have an impact on the colour and speed of the extraction. This all impacts on the taste. Getting it right is a matter of trial and error.

Callaghan suggests the following as a guide:

Colour: the crema should be a golden, dark hazelnut or dark honeycomb colour. Not yellow and mottled in appearance. If you're extracting for two cups, this colour will be lighter.

Speed: the coffee should drip out of the group handle into the cup like honey off a spoon. As a rough guide, 30 ml in 30 seconds. If the liquid is coming out too quickly, the grind needs to be finer. If it is coming out slowly, make it coarser.

I have to say this was all news to me. The instruction book for my machine recommended filling the cup up to one-third with espresso before adding the milk. While it may be close, this shouldn't be the guiding principle; the colour and the speed should be.

Don't forget:

- Heat up the group handle before tamping in the coffee. Callaghan says it doesn't matter how hard you tamp it.

- Run some water through the machine before putting the coffee-filled group handle in. This is called purging.

THE MILK

For a milk coffee such as a flat white or a latte, Callaghan advises letting the extraction run slightly longer than you would for an espresso.

"Watch the colour, the dark colour at the beginning is good; this then begins to fade.

"At about 20ml to 25ml it will be blond, you will notice slight streaks of brown. When these have run out stop it."

Milk frothing is a two-step process. Start by dipping the nozzle just under the top of the milk. Keep it there until the milk just starts to warm up, then dip the nozzle much further into the milk. The milk is done when the jug is too hot to touch. Callaghan says always purge and clean the frothing wand afterwards and never reheat milk.

He says an unclean coffee machine and reheated milk are two common causes of bad coffee.

ROAD TEST

It took three attempts but finally my bad-café-foam was replaced by creamy milk with a small layer of thick foam on the top. I wouldn't say I've quite mastered the art but I'm getting there.

As for the extraction, it's also a work in progress but my taste tester noticed a definite improvement. It took three different amounts for me to find the correct dose plus three more tests for me to get the grind to the right consistency. I still don't think I've nailed it but I'm getting there.

I noticed the espresso tasted a bit bitter. Callaghan says this might be a limitation of my machine (possibly pump pressure or brew temperature) and suggested I try different purge lengths before inserting the group handle to brew.

"Try it with a two-second purge, a five-second purge and a 10-second purge - usually you will taste a difference," he says.

This road test took quite a few hours, partly because I was getting used to a new grinder. Now that I have largely figured out the settings and quantities it should be quite quick - although I suspect if I switch to different beans I'll have to do some tweaking.

Most of all I just want the quality to be consistent. Otherwise my friends might start asking for instant!

- Sydney Morning Herald

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