Coffee classes

04:01, May 29 2012
Joanna learns how to master her machine.

A self-confessed coffee fiend, Joanna Davis embraces her inner barista.

Bean me up

Surely it can't be that hard to make a decent espresso? I've always thought this 'barista' thing was overblown. After all, the profession didn't even exist 20 years ago.

In those dark days, the grumpy person behind the counter at the tearooms sold you your toasted cheese and pineapple sandwich, with an afghan on the side if you needed a treat, and you were grateful if your cup of instant coffee was hot.

I remember paying 50c for a coffee at Canterbury University's student café in the early 1990s. One of my friends was so cheap he would overflow his (regulation Railways) mug so it filled the saucer too - to get more. It didn't matter; it all tasted like dishwater.
But these days we're drowning in coffee culture. We know where we can get a decent cup, we have our favourite cafés, and we eschew all those inferior places where they obviously don't care about coffee.

We pay almost $5 a cup for it, often every day and sometimes (guiltily, in my case) more than once a day. In fact, financial advisers call this the "latte factor" and warn against the way we're blithely spending up to $1500 a year on our coffee habit.
It's not surprising we sometimes think: "Imagine if I could make this myself at home ..."
"I could make my own yummy trim latte."
"I could impress my friends and family."
"I could save money."

These are the naive ambitions that have brought me to coffee school.
It's a two-hour session on a weeknight at Reality Bites Cafe. Reality Bites is not my local, not even in my top three, but it's on my way to work and I've seen people queuing for their daily dose at 7.30am. They obviously care about coffee.

I'm joining five others to learn how to use the compact home espresso machine I splurged on a few months ago. It has an Italian-designed bar pump for "complete extraction of oils, coffee solids and aroma", and an Italian-designed crema system "with a stabilising baffle". It was made in China and cost less than $400, unlike the $10,000-plus some commercial espresso machines go for.
It also came with a 30-page instruction book, which I have never opened.
The espressos I have made have been drinkable, but not much like the ones I buy.
My fellow students have the same aim: to make good coffee at home (and maybe to spend less at our favourite cafés).
Tammy Garth, the head barista, is endearingly enthusiastic as she shows us Clarence, the coffee plant, explains the difference between arabica and robusta coffee beans, and throws around words such as crema, tamping, and blonding off.
I have a few Emperor's New Clothes moments as she talks about the different flavour notes (caramel, nutty, berry accents, etc) and says coffee has more characteristic tasting notes than wine. I suspend my disbelief and we get down to the practical business of making coffee.

It seems there's a lot I've been doing wrong. That includes using pre-ground coffee (some say it loses its flavour within 20 minutes), not storing my pre-ground coffee in an airtight container, not filling the basket enough, not tamping the grinds evenly, not purging the machine before running the extraction through.
And that's before we even get to dealing with the milk.

Possibly the most important thing of which I was blissfully unaware was the need to watch the extraction as it comes through and stop it as (or preferably before) it lightens. The extraction takes about 20 seconds to drip through and should be stopped before this colour change to prevent the bitter high-caffeine ick getting through. And there I was judging it by how much coffee I wanted in the cup.
There's some nervous laughter as we each take our turns making the coffees; grinding the beans, packing the basket, extracting, texturing the milk and pouring.
There's a kind of pleasing rhythm to it: grind, fill, tap, tap, fill. Tamp, tap, tamp, wipe, purge and wait. Someone overfills, someone manages to get a hair in theirs, but, overall, we're impressed with our efforts. The coffee is drinkable; it's café-like, it comes with a fantastic chocolate brownie (supplied). If it wasn't 8pm, we might be tempted to have another cup.
The tutor demonstrates how to make a standard leaf design in the milk froth. She can also create a rabbit, a kiwi, a fish tank and a cyclist. My own effort looks more like a road-kill hedgehog. But that lesson is for another day - this is only coffee 101 and there's already enough to remember.
If I do forget anything, I can refer to the tightly written A4 page of instructions Tammy has given me. And if that fails, well, there's always my favourite local.

Reality Bites Cafe coffee school offers a two-hour session for $40, with a maximum of six students.