Becoming a Coffee Nerd

I got into the habit of buying a coffee every day when I started working in London. Every day I’d make my pilgrimage to the local coffee shop, get my coffee and often it wouldn’t last the rest of the walk to the office. I found a nice cup of coffee set-up my morning perfectly, helping me feel wide awake and getting me into the stride of the day’s work.

Someone suggested I visit Flat White, a local independent coffee shop. Once I’d been there my eyes were opened, their flat whites were smaller than the large lattes I’d been drinking, but the flavour was the thing that stood out. At that time they were brewing the local Monmouth Coffee’s Expresso blend, heavily dosed and brewed at ~93º (I once overheard one of the baristas describing the brew recipe in detail). The flavour was rounded, chocolaty and nutty, yet at the same time there was this wonderful flavour that hinted at black treacle. For anyone wondering what a flat white is, it’s similar to a latte except that it’s usually served in a smaller cup and it often contains double espresso to make it a fairly strong short coffee.

Experiencing Flat White made me realise that the coffee available in the good independent coffee shops was amazing. I started to seek out the best cafes near to where I worked, Fernandez and Wells, Sacred and the newly opened sister of Flat White, The Milk Bar. Experiencing such good coffee every day made the worst coffee stand out. I began to notice when machines weren’t being cleaned properly and I could swear it got to the point where I could tell if a coffee was going to be bad by the sound of the steam – too much noise meant the milk was likely to be scalding hot or burnt.

The Guerilla Baristas

At the time I started to get into coffee in a big way I was working with a great web team who all enjoyed coffee, so we decided to club together and buy a machine for us to use at work. This had hilarious consequences as we worked long hours inadvertently over-caffeinating ourselves as we learnt how to use the machine.

During this time we kept the machine to ourselves to prevent people using it and damaging the machine by not knowing how to operate it. This nearly went wrong when some sales droids from the floor above commandeered the machine and started to burn the coffee badly by brewing it with steam. We discovered them when the smell of burnt coffee wafted around the corner.

Ultimately our team coffee experience came to an end when we came up against some over-zealous facilities staff who had decided staff couldn’t be trusted to operate a toaster let alone an espresso machine. We managed to get off the hook for a couple of months but after our machine was confiscated we had to call it a day.

The Home Barista

It wasn’t long before I bought a machine to use at home, followed shortly by the purchase of a grinder so I could dial in the perfect grind. I then spent lots of time experimenting and learning as much as possible how to balance all of the variables in making espresso. I worked within the limits of the machine I got to a point where I was pretty happy with the results.

An important part of the process was that of which coffee to brew. I’d tried coffee from Drury, Monmouth, Square Mile Coffee Roasters and Hasbean but in the last couple of years or so I’ve been buying the majority of my coffees from Square Mile and Hasbean who are probably the finest roasters in the country at the moment (imho).

The main thing here is finding coffee that works well with your machine. My machine (a Rancilio Silvia) doesn’t have the ability to control the temperature exactly so without that control I have to find coffees that are forgiving of not being brewed at a very specific temperature. Experimentation has found that some coffees seem to really lend themselves to being brewed by a home machine with great results every time. Other coffees can be hard work and difficult to get right and you’d only find perfection with them if you could set a very specific brew temp. That said, it is possible to pimp up a machine like mine with a digital temperature control but I’ve not yet explored that route.

Since  buying my own machine I’ve also spent lots of time attempting to perfect my latte art skills. For milk drinks this is all important as the milk must not  be over-heated. Also the aim is to create a textured microfoam, where the individual bubbles are barely visible. Spooning great lumps of foam into a cup is a definite no-no, your coffee should not resemble a bubble-bath in a cup. When the milk is just right I can manage a resaonable attempt at a rosette. The rosette is achieved by pouring the milk, zig-zagging from side to side using less width as you get to the edge of the cup  and then pouring a straight-line back through the pattern.

All this prancing around isn’t just for showing off, rosettes and other latte art are only possible if the texture of milk is perfect so it’s one indicator of a good coffee.

Finding Good Coffee Shops

The most noticeable thing is that lots of the great independent coffee shops brew great coffee because they are really passionate about coffee, they understand it and they know how to get the best results from their machines and the beans they are using. By contrast, the worst coffee comes from places which don’t care, they don’t clean their machines regularly and they steam their milk within an inch of it’s life.

The best tip is find a good independent. Most chains sell average coffee at best, and shockingly bad coffee at their worst. Interestingly several chains have started offering flat whites following the success of the independent coffee shops. I’ve tested some of these wares and I have to say, the one I had wasn’t a flat white, it tasted awful and was so hot I could have boiled an egg in it. So I’d personally avoid this sorry attempt at trying to emulate the success of independents at all costs.

Simple Brewing at Home or Work

If there aren’t any good coffee shops near you then consider buying an espresso machine for your work-place if you think you won’t run into trouble running it. If an espresso machine is too extravagant then consider using a French Press or Aeropress. Espressos and espresso-based drinks are great but French Presses and Aeropresses are great ways to brew coffee. The results are different but can be equally satisfying. If you do go that route be sure to look for brew recipes to help tweak the best results from whatever coffee equipment you are using. For example Square Mile has some excellent video brew recipes for brewing with a French Press. Another benefit to starting simple is that if you start with a French Press you can always step up to an espresso machine later on.

Happy brewing!

This entry was posted in August 2010, Food & Drink and tagged by Stuart Colville. Bookmark the permalink.
Stuart Colville

About Stuart Colville

Stuart is a Python hacker and web geek with a penchant for blueberry muffins and fine coffee. By day Stuart works as a Ops Engineer for the Online services team at Canonical, the company that works with the community to bring the world Ubuntu Linux When he's not slaving over a hot terminal Stuart occasionally writes a blog at Muffin Research Labs where's he's been threatening to publish his research on Muffins and other baked goods for some time. Stuart also blogs about coffee at Cafe Research.

5 thoughts on “Becoming a Coffee Nerd

  1. I’ve always loved coffee and grew up with the good stuff, so I do feel a pang of shame when I drink instant at the office. Price and caffeine have been my stumbling blocks – for a cheap start, I’ve considered a glass French Press; is there anything to look out for when buying one, a brand or minimum spend for quality?

    I’m also wary of re-igniting a caffeine addiction I just might have had through uni, which created sleep patterns I’m still trying to fix. Any tips for not letting an enjoyment of coffee turn into a dependence on caffeine?

  2. @Ronan: Bodum french presses are fairly in-expensive (from around £10 and up) and would make an excellent choice in terms of quality and value for money.

    Re not overdoing the caffeine; I personally stick to a limit of only taking at most 4 shots of espresso a day (or 2 cups from a french press). Normally I have a double shot at each end of the day. If I have too much caffeine I find I tend to lose focus and so it’s something I really look to avoid. That said I’ve rarely had problems being able to sleep, I often take coffee at 10pm or later but I’ve built up a tolerance to caffeine over time. So the best advice I can impart is, don’t overdo it, and start slowly especially if you’re not currently taking coffee regularly.

  3. Hey Stuart, you mentioned what brand of espresso machine you brought, but what brand of burr grinder did you go for? I’m currently trying to find a fairly decent grinder for < 200$US, any suggestions?

  4. @Micheil: The grinder I have is a Macap MC4, which is both stepless doserless version. Being doserless is ideal for home use as you can grind straight into the porterfilter, so it’s always fresh and is easy to clean. I’ve been really happy with it – it’s built like a tank.

    For $200US it’s difficult to provide a recommendation. The Rancilio Rocky is ~$350 US, Macap grinders look to be $500US+. It might be worth investigating Iberital, which are a Spanish company that have been making commercial grinders since 1975 and their grinders look to be somewhere a little above your ballpark.

    You are probably aware of this but it’s worth spending as much as you can afford to on your grinder – as it’s just as important as the espresso machine.

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