The art of coffee: can you be the roastess with the mostess?

Date:19-11-2013 08:58:20 read:4

The art of coffee: can you be the roastess with the mostess?

The nation’s love of coffee has led to demand for 'latte art’ skills, as we try to recreate café-style flourishes at home

Creamy creations: there’s plenty of science behind creating the perfect cup, but there is an art to it too, Maria discovers Photo: Rii Schroer

Coffee art? I’ll have a go, I thought, expecting nothing more complicated than a stencil of a snowflake, a sieve and some cocoa. But no, the art of the 'latte’ is another beast altogether.

Caitlin Ernest, an expert barista, is giving me a beginner’s class in the art of manipulating milk to create the professional’s signature smooth and decorative frothed milk finish — it’s the skill that elevates an ordinary cup to something special, and now every self-respecting coffee nut wants to be able to achieve it at home, too.

Caitlin’s lattes, the result of five years’ experience, are blended to perfection so that they feel like liquid silk on the tongue, and are adorned with the love hearts, tulips, and fernlike 'rosetta’ designs you see in the best cafés. So far, though, despite the incredible aroma of the Monmouth Coffee Company beans that we’re using, I have resisted the temptation to taste more than one: at the moment my latte 'hearts’ look a bit more like drunken rhinos, and I don’t think caffeine jitters will help matters.

According to John Lewis, thanks to the nation’s accelerating passion for coffee, this skill — which requires, Caitlin says, “good hand-eye co-ordination, control and practice”— is going to be the next cocktail-making in the host-with-the-most’s repertoire.

“This year, café culture has entered a new era, stepping off the high street and into our homes,” says Will Cummings, John Lewis’s assistant small electricals buyer. “The nation’s relationship with the drink has gone from being a habit to a hobby; people are much more discerning — they don’t want to be passive about the drinking, they want to learn about it, talk about it, be in the know about the beans, the roasting, and the flavours, and they are determined to recreate the more sophisticated coffee house experience at home.”

“There’s a showing-off element to it, yes, but it’s a geeky thing too. They’re taking that interest in coffee to the next level and want to impress friends with their 'barista’ skills too.”

While there has been a marked decline in the demand for basic filter/percolator coffee makers, sales of the 'expert’ café-style bean-to-cup machines have soared by 167 per cent, alongside a “massive leap” in sales of traditional manual pump espresso machines, grinders and milk-frothing jugs.

Show-off: tulips and rosettas are all part of the barista repertoire (RII SCHROER)

The department store has noted, too, the rise of the 'two-machine household’ — for instance, a 'pod’ machine for the quick early morning cup, and a second, more expert machine for weekends, when there’s time to incorporate those foamy flourishes. And more research is being invested in coffee machine technology by the store than any other electrical gadget.

“The gourmet side of coffee really comes out with manual espresso machines,” explains David Gubbin, who works for Sage, the company that has developed the new machine from the Heston Blumenthal range that we’re using today. “You’re not just pressing a button, but doing everything a good barista would do: grinding the beans, 'tamping’ down the coffee, making an 'extraction’ (the espresso that comes out of the beans), 'texturing’ the milk (not 'frothing’) and working it through the espresso in your cup to achieve a perfect top.” “There’s a theatrical aspect to it, like cocktail making, and it really is so satisfying when you get it right,” says Caitlin, who has been enlisted to demonstrate latte art to John Lewis customers.

But before you even think about milk, or anything decorative, the coffee 'base’ must be right.

“Temperature is the most important factor when it comes to getting the best taste from coffee,” David explains. “You need to get a flat line of 93C through your 30ml shot of espresso; too hot and it will be bitter, too cool and it will taste sour. It used to be that only the boilers of commercial machines had that very precise temperature control and the right 'extraction’ pressure, but you can now actually achieve that professional result on domestic machines.”

Your 30ml shot of coffee should take a full 30 seconds to come through the machine: “If it flies out, you’re not getting the full flavour from the beans,” Caitlin says. “It should look nice and syrupy.”

Now comes the milk. Perfecting the creamy texture of the milk is the most important skill. “It affects the feel and taste of the entire coffee. It takes practice, and you can’t rush it,” Caitlin says. Milk that is too foamy, bubbly or frothy is “disastrous” for a latte — we’re looking for a smooth, thick but silky consistency which slinks around the metal jug “like wet paint”.

The rookie mistake is to stand there, steaming and frothing the milk for ages, getting loads of bubbles into it, Caitlin explains. The key is to keep the tip of the nozzle of the steaming wand only just below the surface of the milk, listening for a gentle 'hussssshhh’ sound. “If you get that loud screeching sound that you might have heard in cafés, the nozzle is too deep in the jug, and the milk is being blasted and overheated.” A bit like making custard or a roux sauce, you feel a bit of 'pull’ when the consistency starts changing and the milk 'grows’ in volume. Caitlin recommends watching for about half a centimetre of froth above the mark of your original cold milk. She shows me how to 'polish’ the milk, swirling it ever so gently around the sides of the jug, a process that stops the foam from separating, and somehow makes it glossy, while knocking out any little bubbles.

Then, it’s a race against time while my espresso’s still hot and the textured milk is compact and smooth. Caitlin shows me how to tilt my cup with one hand, and raise the milk jug about 15cm above it, then swirl the jug lightly to pour a narrow stream of milk into wide circles that combine with the coffee. When the cup is about two thirds full, the thicker, creamy 'microfoam’, which naturally moves to the back of the jug, needs to be directed, as a white foam dot, into the centre of the coffee cup. This is done with a 'fast pour’: the milk needs to rush out of the jug quickly, but the hand must barely move.

“It’s a case of mastering doing two different things at the same time,” Caitlin says. “Usually when people get the jug in their hand, they freak out and start jiggling it really fast.” My first attempt does land the required 'dot’ of thicker foam in the centre, but then the rest of the foam follows in a big slap, leaving nothing resembling a circle, and no time to manipulate a design into it. My foam had started to separate because I wasn’t fast enough (bubbles are a sign that you’ve faltered, and they disappear – apparently – when you do it “with conviction”).

While the process has to happen quickly, control is everything. “Take a deep breath before you pour,” Caitlin suggests.

My next attempt is better, and she examines the surface: no little bubbles, a decent, neat-ish circle of foam in the centre and the desired caramel-coloured frame of 'crema’ around the edge. We progress to a heart, which means pausing very briefly at the top of your smooth foam circle, lifting the jug higher to narrow the stream of milk, then pulling a line back through the circle so that it draws into a point. “It took me over a week to get a perfect love heart, and after that it gets easier,” Caitlin reassures me. The surface should hold its shape, and be like cream on top — and this time it is. After another few goes, it’s a passable heart shape.

Next, I would progress to designs like tulips and rosettas, which create that 'fern’ pattern (using a series of 'fast pours’, in a rocking motion) then start “free-styling” like the best baristas, who, Caitlin tells me, hold informal competitions called 'smackdowns’ where they challenge each other to create increasingly complex designs.

“The guy who owns the place voted the best coffee shop is Australia can pour a chain of 14 rosettas into a cup,” Caitlin says. “Most people can manage three or four.”

I certainly won’t be winning any prizes, but it has given me an itch to get it right, which she assures me will come with time.

“The main thing is, even if the decoration isn’t quite right, if you’ve textured your milk properly, the silky finish and taste will still be perfect,” says David Gubbin. “And there’s another professional trick we can let you in on...” He picks up a cocoa shaker, and gives my latte a quick powder touch-up. “Easy as that.”

Expert tips

Buy smaller bags of fresh beans, paying attention to the “roasted on” date. Carbon dioxide is produced during roasting, and it can make coffee taste quite acidic. Try to extract your coffee between the fourth and 18th day after roasting, when the beans will have the right balance of flavour.

Keep beans in an airtight container in a cool, dark place, NOT in the fridge.

Grinding beans for each cup releases oils and aroma which you want to capture. You have to move quite quickly from grinder to cup.

If using a manual espresso pump machine, “tamp” the ground coffee down with your tamper tool, pressing lightly enough to get an even surface without grounds going over the side, with a slight twist if necessary.

How to get the perfect result

Use semi-skimmed or whole milk; you can’t achieve the right texture with skimmed milk due to the absence of fat.

Don’t overheat the milk; it affects the texture and the taste. You should be able to drink quite comfortably from your cup by the time you reach the café door (or in this case your kitchen table).

Hold the steaming “wand” just below the surface, with the uppermost part of the nozzle visible, listening for a “husssshh” sound, not a scream or a bubbling noise.

Steam only what you need. Watch for how the milk grows in volume – for one cup, aim for about ½cm of foam above the original level of milk, with bubbles knocked out.

Experiment with smaller cups at first: with a smaller surface area to cover, you will be able to pour your milk circles with conviction and control. Don’t forget to tilt the cup and pour from the milk jug at a height.

Practise pouring perfect circles in the coffee, then getting your big foam “dot” bang on centre, with a ring of crema around the outside, then try some hearts or rosettas. YouTube is a good source of demonstration videos if you want to learn intricate designs.

Turn your tilted cup level only when it is nearly full.

Caitlin will be demonstrating latte art at John Lewis’s Oxford Street branch at lunchtimes from now until the end of November (call 0844 6931765 for details).

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