The secret of great coffee is ...

17:00, Jun 22 2013
COFFEE CULTURE: Barista Masako Yamamoto has been immersed in the art of coffee since she was a child.

Coffee with milk and sugar? That's conventional. How about coffee mixed with coriander seeds, blackberry, onion, toast and honey? This is not a bizarre meal; rather a list of aromas some people find in the old cuppa Joe.

Until today, my descriptors had been limited to, well, saying coffee smells like coffee, but I am being enlightened in a small room at Kingsland, Auckland's Atomic Cafe and Roastery, where barista Masako Yamamoto is teaching our small group how to make coffee using an espresso machine.

At 26, Yamamoto has been making coffee for nearly half her life, so her proficiency can be trusted. She was born and raised in Rotorua, where both of her parents worked in hospitality. Her Japanese father owned a restaurant called You and Me, andher Hamilton-native mother owned a cafe called Zambique. Yamamoto worked in the cafe from theage of 14. A coffee sales rep would visit occasionally for a training session. Then Yamamoto would just practise her technique.

There is a lot of esteem in the coffee industry if you're talented at your craft. Yamamoto has taken part in a number of coffee competitions, some casual ones with other local baristas and some more serious international challenges. She was a recent runner-up in the National Meadow Fresh NZ Latte Art Chapionship (won by fellow Atomic barista Sam Low).

She has entered the Huhtamaki New Zealand Barista Championship twice, and this year earned a place among the top six. That contest determined who would represent the country in the World Barista Championship late last month (where Wellington's Nick Clark came in fifth). Yamamoto was required to create a perfect cappuccino, espresso and a signature drink. She chose to create a coffee centred on scent. "I got rose petals and cardamom and also some vanilla. I sprayed a bit of that into the cup before I put my espresso in and that's what I served," she says. "I was just really interested in the idea that aroma can challenge your perception of taste."

Yamamoto had her first taste of coffee when she was 10, and she enjoyed it. She developed a sophisticated palate early in life because her chef father encouraged her to try new things. "Dad would let us have a sip of a beer or a sip of wine just to taste it. But we always talked about food and wine, and still do. When our family gets together and eats it's always discussing what we think of the tastes and the flavours and the combinations. We're all quite critical... we've been spoilt from an early age so we've got high standards now," she says, laughing.

It wasn't until Yamamoto moved to Auckland to study fine arts at Elam and needed a part-time job that she ended up constructing a successful full-time career as a barista. Her duties include serving customers, clearing tables, helping with stock and coffee machines and, of course, making coffee. On an average day she will make 300 to 350 cups, and 400 or more on Saturdays. But you'd usually have another barista helping you, because that's just a lot of coffees."

PERFECT CUP: So many things can affect the taste of a well-brewed cup of coffee.

In this coffee-making class, I'm only making one cup. Yamamoto takes the class once a fortnight, depending on demand. It mainly caters to people with coffee machines at home who want to learn how to make better brews, although today there is another barista picking up some extra tips. "We're getting more and more people enquiring about becoming a barista as a job, so they want to learn how to make coffee so they can go and apply for jobs. There's nothing really out there at the moment that can teach you to do that," she says. "It's a funny career choice but more and more people are interested in it."

While I can't start my day without caffeine, I'm a newbie when it comes to using a coffee machine. They've always intimidated me - how much coffee do you put in? How hard do you tamp it? What do those buttons do? By the end of this lesson I can make an alright coffee and I know about words like "dose" (how much coffee you put in the filter basket) and "extraction" (the process of the water trickling through the ground coffee, resulting in espresso).

Yamamoto drinks between two and five coffees a day. "Some days I go a bit crazy and get a bit excited and have a bit more than I probably should." She constantly sips coffee to make sure it's tasting right from the machine. She starts her day with a single espresso ("it wakes you up and gives you a bit of a kick") before moving on to a single flat white or long black. "I kind of mix it up. I have a bit of everything."

Though Yamamoto says she hardly gets the chance to relish drinking coffee. "I wish I did savour it more. I really like it when I come in here and I'm not working and I actually get to sit down and somebody makes me a coffee - I can sit here and actually enjoy it. But a lot of the time it's like drinking on the go."

She drinks tea and coffee at home where she is the designated coffee maker for her flatmates. Does she ever drink instant coffee? "Desperate times call for desperate measures, I suppose," she laughs. "I probably wouldn't drink it for taste... I'm not that much of a coffee snob, but I have so much coffee around me that I don't see why I would ever drink an instant coffee."

Much like tasting and smelling wine, coffee has a number of different notes and aromas, and in the coffee tasting wheel in the Atomic Home Barista Handbook (that comes with the course), there may be even more adjectives for caffeine than grapes. "Coffee's really interesting. There's a lot you can pick up on and they're all affected by things, so it's really cool to be aware of what your coffee's actually tasting like. I mean, brewing it through a Chemex [coffee machine]or a Softbrew [filter pot] and drinking it black, you do notice those things a lot more. With an espresso machine everything's quite amplified and exaggerated, so if you have something that's quite cranberry-like, you put it through an espresso machine and it's going to be really sour, whereas through a Softbrew it's probably more drinkable and a little bit more subtle."

Yamamoto believes New Zealand's coffee culture is growing, with an increasing number of people becoming discerning drinkers. "There are a lot more people out there who are starting to actually taste coffee. It's not like this caffeine hit; it's actually like, 'Hey, this coffee tastes different to this one and this one's made better than this one,'" she says. "We're really lucky - alot of New Zealanders drink really good coffee on a day-to-day basis compared to a lot of other countries." 


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