Category Archives: Thoughts

Redefining the Barista: Back to the Future


I remember when I started getting really into espresso coffee and reading all the stuff about the importance of making good espresso as captured in the importance of the espresso blend, the espresso machine, the grinder and finally…. the BARISTA. Even if you got everything right and the barista failed to tamp with the right amount of pressure, prep the machine and maintain it during and after the day, the espresso would still come out bad. I still get people saying to me, “oh! don’t worry, we are using a really good coffee” and worringly they may add “I’m not really good at making coffee but the coffee is good” – like the most important thing is the coffee – it’s a lot more than that.


So, when I started visiting really good coffee shops way back when – over 10 years ago, I was not just excited to be ordering coffee, but I would always be excited to chat to the barista and ask them about their day, the coffee, what temperature they were brewing at, etc. The barista was the star of the coffee shop – the leading actor – everything started and ended with him/her serving you a great cup of coffee. Okay, I confess, these things still get me excited and may be I even go further like “if it’s fruity, can you increase the brew temperature so that it isn’t too bright” and “which coffee is best for milk, espresso or filter brew” which leads to me to the main reason why I’m writing this piece.


I found out lately that most baristi (plural for barista) I quiz tend to give me a slightly puzzled look. I’ve noticed too that even though the game has been upped in espresso, most people still go to a really good cafe and just order a latte and pour sugar into it. Great! good coffee is in vogue but I’m not so sure if the onus on taste has been successfully transferred to the masses.

Am I loosing you?

The barista is an expert – an expert at making good coffee and all experts should be familiar with their tool and provide a service in a professional manner.

I accept that not everyone that walks into a cafe will be like me or the others who have way more expertise than me, but I kind of expect that the barista should be able to answer some basic questions about the coffee and to advise me on what would be best.


Coffee is now big business, after all McDonalds and Dunkin Donuts wouldn’t have focused on coffee if it wasn’t and you wouldn’t have the likes of Starbucks offering flat whites (the drink of the espresso milk based connoisseur).

Just the other week Perfect Daily Grind conducted a poll on twitter about what we want to see in 2017 and I wrote…. “I’d like to see baristas more versed in coffee knowledge”.

I hope I don’t come across as a coffee snub as my wife jokingly describes me – well! I think she says it jokingly. It’s just that I want the service that I used to get when I started my coffee journey many moons ago, as usually things develop for the better. I recall a quote from Seth Godin;

“Don’t find customers for your products, find products for your customers.”

My understanding of which is that some of your customers want more and you shouldn’t shun them but attend to them to. I wouldn’t go to the extreme like some cafes who snub you if you don’t know anything about coffee, order a cappuccino in the afternoon (in some cafes in Italy, they’ll say no) and scream at you if you put sugar in your coffee. In fact one cafe, doesn’t even have sugar.

Even though I’m in my 40s (no shame), I still want to learn and thats what got me excited about coffee – there was so much to learn and I’m sure there’s still more to learn, so teach me barista…. I’m not saying each barista should be like former US barista champion, Pete Licata, who visited the coffee farms to learn which coffee to choose for the WBC, which he finally won in 2013.

The situation is further exacerbated where attention to detail in making a great espresso has been compromised in favour of a milk based drink. Again, the basis for a good cappuccino, flat white of latte is a great espresso but that has been sidelined, so much so, that I rarely order espresso out of my home, but there are exceptions


So, what next?

Back to the future or the basics – teaching the barista to focus on the essential elements coupled with great customer service based on good knowledge of the coffee they are brewing and how to adjust the brew parameters during the course of the day. When I had a coffee shop, I used too ask the barista to check the espresso machine and time the shot about 4-5 times a day. We weren’t as busy as your typical London cafe, which I presume would need checking a lot more times during the day.

I think when you look at all those lovely bags of coffee and the way they describe the coffee; caramel, blackcurrant, grapefruit acidity, lemon curd, etc the main reason we don’t taste them is the barista – harsh, but I guess it’s also down to your palate too. 


I’d like to see the time when you enter a coffee shop and those taste profiles are displayed on a coffee menu, so that you are tempted to taste something different and escape with your taste buds to another world – ah! the drink of the escapist and the non-compromiser of taste.


Here’s to 2017


If you’ve been following me for 10 years, then you’ll know that….. drum roll,  2017 will mark the 10 year anniversary of fromcoffeewithlove.com  – time really flies when you’ve fallen in love with coffee, been drinking it with scrutiny and writing about your experience, phew!


It all started when I decided to delve back into my roots to be of service and how I had wanted to start a coffee shop some day but then found out that I didn’t know anything about coffee. So, I started reading about it, making the coffee geek.com my fave website. It was so fascinating that there was so much about a bean and how to get the best out of it. Then came the movement – the launch of cafe culture – an annual London coffee fair, where I met soon to be WBC champ, Jim Hoffmann and others – the bug had bitten me – I wanted more and then I started thinking about the whole idea of coffee.

And having amassed a whole lot of what I thought back then was knowledge about coffee , I thought, I’ve got to share this with as many people as possible, so they don’t get conned into paying for rubbish coffee.

I recall with excitement how I started the blog – the concept of the drink of the escapist – sipping a drink made with berries grown in some exotic land, dried and shipped mainly to Europe to be roasted and sold to cafes. The whole concept really intrigued me and that’s why when I had a caffe, it was called, Escape Caffe. I used the Italian word for coffee because like it or not, it was the Italians who having brought the drink to Europe through Sicily made people intrigued by the concept of frothed milk with a strong tasting coffee, espresso and its brothers and sisters, cappuccino and latte.

So, to mark this special year, I promise

  • to try and blog more
  • go down memory lane with some pics
  • to try and blog about other things related to coffee
  • to give away some coffee during the anniversary month – hint, it will be in August 2017
  • to try and blog about cafes differently
  • investigate the possibility of writing a book based on my blog
  • dream more

So, here’s to a special date 17.01.17 – the year of 7s – a special number with generations gone by and the original number for a single espresso, 7 grammes.

Live is too short to drink bad coffee.

 


Coffee: The rule is, there is no rule


I know that sounds like a paradox and I’m sure some of my followers are like “what is he talking about” For many years, Lameen, that’s my real name – has been saying adhere to the golden rules – measurement, temperature and volume, to name a few. BUT, the main reason I’m writing this, is that occasionally I’ve strutted into a place to dictate how my coffee should be made, and on more than one occasion this year, I’ve been pleasantly stunned by coffee served to me without the rules I hold dear.

Don’t teach an old dog new tricks with Espresso

That’s the pic at the top of the blog. So, after not having espresso for about 5 days, I strutted into the airport lounge and spotting an espresso machine, asked for one naturally. As soon as the barista started making the espresso, I said “la!” i.e. no in Arabic and asked if I could make it. So, I clean the very filthy group head, flush it and ask for the coffee. To my horror, it’s pre-ground espresso, stored in a drawer and although there’s air condition inside, it’s like 40C outside. For a coffee geek like me, my mind is “oh no the moisture, the crazy unstable temperature will affect the coffee, which has already been pre-ground and for how long has it been pre-ground”. Resigned, I’m like, okay, here’s how to tamp. I attempt to tamp with wait for it,  the bottom of the glass, because the tamper is not large enough to cover the porta filter “aargh!” – this means that although some of the coffee will be pressed, the coffee on the border will not. OK!, so I now attempt to make an espresso – flush the group head and place my porta filter inside the group head and brew – what a disaster – the coffee is all over the place and the coffee resembles…. I’d rather pass.

The barista and his colleagues detecting deep disappointment on my face, then resorts to pull an espresso for me – I watch him and the only thing he does differently, which makes me feel happy, is that he cleans and flushes the grouphead before he pulls the shot and guess what – it looked a lot better than my attempt. So, how did he break the rules;

  • he used pre-ground espresso, as opposed to grinding on the spot
  • he didn’t measure the coffee, as opposed to using about 18-22 g for a double
  • he didn’t really tamp, as opposed to the rule of 30 pounds of pressure
  • the espresso machine was really hot – I’d guess close to 100C, as opposed to about 93-94.5 C

And that’s what I could see. So how did it taste. Not bad and above my expectations given the rule breakers. So, to conclude, the rules were broken but a decent shot ensured.

 

Never buy pre-ground coffee

Okay, on this occasion, the coffee was bought for me. Whenever my colleagues travel and buy coffee, they bring it back for me to brew and serve them, which I try and do every Friday when I’m not busy – a rare scenario of late. If ever they ask me “whole beans or ground” I always answer, “whole beans”. On this occasion, a colleague brought me this bag from Kenya, apologising for having not brought back beans. I casually looked at the bag, Java House , Kenyan AA arabica, which looked well presented and was even more taken aback by the tasting notes of grapefruit, blackcurrant and lively. Again, sceptical I brewed it using my french press recipe of 60g to one litre of 95C water. Wow! guess what? There was a bloom on top of the coffee (a sign of fairly fresh coffee) and more importantly of all, I tasted a grapefruit acidity with a hint of blackcurrant. 


Okay, so that rule was broken.

 

Espresso is always brewed at 9 bar pressure for about 22-25 seconds

So, just this week, after Ramadan, I headed to my fave cafe in Vienna, Balthasar to check out their new espresso machine a Slayer Espresso machine. Otto, the owner, had been telling me for months that it was coming and he was so excited. In fact when I met him on Wednesday, I should have interviewed him as he relayed to me for about 4 minutes what the slayer could do. The gist was that you can brew at different bar pressures and for as long as you want, so I ordered a fruity espresso. In short to get a fruity espresso, it is brewed at 3, then 9 and then 3 bars of pressure over about a minute !!! what ? Usually, espresso is brewed at 9 bars of pressure for about 22-25 seconds with about 18-22 grammes of freshly ground coffee yielding about 25-30ml of espresso.

 So, what has changed ? The whole game with this type of espresso machine – the rule is, there is no rule, because you can now brew espresso how you like, like a recipe ordered to your preference “fruity, nutty, low acidity, high acidity….?” carry on.


 A really fruity cup with over medium acidity.

 

Just one more thing

Well! I’ve got to redeem myself somehow – we can’t just give up on the rules, ion not there’ll be anarchy.

So, as a prelude to my first experience, way back in January this year. I ordered a cappuccino at a top hotel in Zimbabwe (Meikles) because I spotted a La Marzocco GB5 machine, BUT. Watching the barista, I saw he used pre-ground espresso coffee, didn’t flush the group head, didn’t clean the group head, didn’t tamp with any real pressure, didn’t measure the coffee systematically, frothed a foam mountain and didn’t appreciate the kind of machine he was using. So, I stepped in and he was so willing to learn but on this occasion I didn’t touch the machine – I just guided him from across the counter. In the end, I got a good cup, with thick crema and although no latte art was present, it was along the lines.

 

To top it off, the barista was excited by what he had just learned, he was going to access youtube to learn more skills and watch latte art being poured. Yay! a job well done.

So, yes sometimes the rules can be broken and you may succeed but in general, adhere to and know the rules before you tamper (sic) with them.

 


About Consistency: The Beans

 

When we usually talk about quality, we try and add the term, “consistency” – why? because we prefer to experience things in a consistent manner. We want to know that if we go to our favourite restaurant and order our favourite meal, that the experience is always great, replicate of the last time we went there or ate there or even better – the ideal. So, our favourite “thing” is born of consistency – not letting us down – always the same quality or even better – something we can rely on.

And so, after that lecture on consistency, what’s this post about ? Beans in short. If you study carefully the picture of of the coffee beans at the top if the post, you’ll notice something peculiar – not all the coffee beans have the same type of shade of coffee brown – some are lighter than others and hence there is some inconsistency. This usually means one thing – the coffee has not been roasted with care, paying attention to two things – origin of coffee, whereby coffee from different farms have been added into the roast, with lack of attention to variety and also roast profile. On the farm, different coffees need different exposure to heat when they are roasted, even from the same farm. On the roast profile, if the beans have not been sorted and tested properly, usually in a sample roaster, then when you roast them for distribution or for commercial purposes, you’ll get what I got. This means that in summary the coffees roasted above have not been roasted properly or to their maximum potential.

For further proof, look at the picture below during the brewing process.

You can even see the inconsistency with different shades of brown.

On the origin of the beans – these came from Ethiopia, roasted by a well known roasting company and cafe there. When it was given to me, I was  bit sceptical. Nevertheless I prepared it and shared it with my colleagues. The first most prominent comment came from the person who gave them to me “I was expecting more – it didn’t taste as nice as the ones you usually give me” He was right in a nutshell. But to add more, it wasn’t as flavourful – it didn’t delight the taste buds and it wasn’t “consistent” in the mouth, leaving that lasting flavour in your mouth. Another colleague, with a trained palate from wine tasting, termed it a robust roast with plums and low acidity. I have to confess, that the second time I brewed it, more colleagues had warmed to it and it tasted better. By better what do I mean, let me qualify that statement – I mean, “easier to drink with a bold, robust flavour, a very “pick me up” coffee for the morning, good in the morning with milk”. Furthermore, this type of coffee can only be brewed the robust way – French press or filter – any other way will “expose” its frailties and probably render it “undrinkable”. Do I sound harsh ? a little bit, but I have more to add.

Why am I sceptical about the roaster ? Because I know that’s where the final skill lays. So, I rarely buy coffee roasted in Africa from a shop or airport, just like I never buy coffee from a supermarket in Europe or anywhere else. It’s not that I am prejudice, it’s just that for something I hold so dear, I need to know as much as possible before I commit to it – sure I can be adventurous – ask my wife, but when it comes to food and coffee, I’m constantly searching for consistency in quality. Nevertheless to finish off on a positive note, this coffee brewed adhering to strict principles of temperature, water quality and weight was kind off rescued to give a drinkable cup.

If any coffee roasters are reading this and want to add anything or even better, want to write a special guest article on this subject, please contact me.


CNN and Vienna Coffee

 

OK! so you may already know that I was featured in a recent article on CNNs website about 8 of the World’s coffee great drinking cities see link here http://edition.cnn.com/2014/03/04/travel/best-coffee-cities/

I’ve got to add that I’m grateful for the coverage to Sarah Reid, the author of the article. However, I wrote a lot more about drinking coffee in Vienna including recommending a few other places. I’m glad that Caffe Couture and Essenti were on the list, BUT the one major omission was the Vienna School of Coffee – a must for serious coffee snobs in Vienna. I wrote about it in December 2012 but although it’s only opened on Saturdays to the public, its still a must for anyone visiting Vienna or living in Vienna.  

I promise a blog on Essenti very soon, as that’s the only place I haven’t blogged about yet.


So, Do I still Love ?

20140303-221322.jpg

Oh dear what a gap of 4 months. I’m sorry for taking so long to write about coffee and in all honesty, I don’t have an excuse. To come clean, It’s not like I’ve been working on some major project, or that I broke a leg or something similar, it’s just that I’ve been distracted somewhat. When I think about writing about a new experience or to sharing something on my blog,  I get distracted with something else, so, it’s just been a lack of dedication.

But of course, that doesn’t mean that I’ve given up on you and coffee. I’ve been busy, as those who follow me on twitter and Instagram know, on the social media scene, which has changed quite a bit. But nevertheless I’ve missed writing on my blog. After all, it’s the easiest place to share what I’ve been drinking, or what I’ve discovered, etc. So I promise in 2014 (2 months have flown away already) to share more on my blog.

Wish me luck and see you very soon.

From Coffee With Love


I’m Blending….

I'm Blending: The Beans by Lameen
I’m Blending: The Beans a photo by Lameen on Flickr.

I’m blending, yipee ! But what exactly does that mean ? In summary, it means that I’ve got my experimental hat on again. Having changed my coffee bean roaster at my caffe, Escape Caffe, I’ve started sourcing beans from another roaster but this time I’m sourcing single estate coffees from different regions of the World. I’m experimenting because part of my character loves change and getting to understand things from the bottom right up. Have I lost you ? It means that I want to understand what makes a good espresso blend. So, I’ve been trying to build up on my basic knowledge of taste profiles.

In general, and I wish to emphasize, GENERAL, most coffee roasters have a formula for blending coffee for espresso preparation, which goes as follows:

A Brazilian for BODY,

a Central American for ACIDITY and an

Ethiopian for natural SWEETNESS.

One of your main goals in blending should always be to get a BALANCE, as you don’t want one coffee taste to dominate. In principle, very high quality or distinctive coffees (lots of black fruit juiciness, acidity and boldness/heaviness) are seldom used in blending for espresso. WHY ? Because they will dominate the blend. Think of it like making a soup/stew – if you cook – you don’t want to put lots of chillies in with subtle tastes like basil, as you will kill the basil taste with hot and fiery chilli. This is one reason why you won’t see Kenyan coffees in espresso blends. I can’t imagine blackberries tasting sweet if exposed to a harsh preparation process.

OK! what do we mean by BODY in the case of Brazilian arabica coffees ? We mean body as in the density of the liquid. IOf you taste/drink lots of good coffee, then you will know that some coffees taste light. Sure, they are both liquids, but orange juice does not have the same texture/body as apple juice.

Now, ACIDITY. I’ve spoken at this at great length before, so won’t go in to it too much, but in summary, it’s detected by the sharpness in taste when you drink coffee, resonate of citrus fruit. So, when you blend, although essential to round off the taste around your tongue, you don’t want it to dominate either, if not it could confuse your tongue with sourness. After all, orange juice and mlik (think of a cappuccino) don’t look nor taste nice together. Personally, I’m not in favour of medium to high acidity in espresso based drinks.

Finally, SWEETNESS. Very essential for coffee and to dispel the misconception that coffee is only sweet when you add sugar. However, by sweetness, we don’t mean sugary sweet, but more like natural sweetness, such as the type found predominantly in honey and sometimes elevated in dried fruit like dates, raisins and figs.

So, what are you looking for ? As the coffee roasters rule – and yes they do, as they control what you taste and more often than not, they roast the way they like coffee to taste – you are looking for a coffee that has a nut like character, with a hint of chocolate (and sometimes cocoa, because most people love the cocoa family) with natural sweetness wrapped around your tongue, well balanced and with medium acidity and a lingering finish. Wow ! what a mouthfull, quite literally.

For nuts, think almonds, hazelnuts and macadamia (if you are lucky) and more specifically BRASIL.

For hints of cocoa, toffee, subtle citrus fruitiness, think Central America, like COSTA RICA, GUATEMALA.

For honey like sweetness and sometimes hints of red berries think ETHIOPIA.

If you favour spices like vanilla (hard to get), cinnamon, etc then in general look to the East like INDONESIA, INDIA, PAPUA NEW GUINEA.

BUT, of course, coffee is a lot more complicated than this, so sometimes the basic rules above can be broken by sourcing coffee from a very high quality single estate farm, roasted by a very experienced cupping and roasting master.

I also don’t want to get into the wet-processed and naturally dried process of coffee as these too affect tastes and how you blend, but in general, a lot of top roasters seems to be ignoring naturally dried coffee when blending. Some also use just Central American coffees in their espresso blends. Personally, my ideal espresso would have hints of almonds, vanilla, caramel, buttery toffee, dried figs, medium to low acidity, balance, smoothness and lingering taste. Fussy ? Yes I am. I sometimes get this from drinking Square Mile Coffee Espresso blends and just this morning from Verve Coffee Roasters (my next post God willing).

 

So what did I experiment with ? First up I used a Brasilian for body, a Malawian for bursting chocolate and a Cup of Excellence Guatemalan for acidity, sweetness and for balance. The result, a bit mellow, easy to drink and favoured by most.

Next up, I tried just two coffees, the Brazilian and the Guatemalan COE. The result, bursting with energy, toffee, caramel and customers saying “Wow! what coffee is this, can you get more ?”

And so for my next experiment…….