There's so much more to a perfect cup of java than meets the eye. Catherine Smith tracks down the best in the business to learn the tricks of the trade.
Put the basket to the gasket and the finger to the ringer, chants Emma Markland Webster as she smoothly slips a cup under the group head and a stream of rich, hazelnut-coloured coffee streams out. Exactly 25 seconds later, it is ready for us to examine. Three students and Emma lean over, inhaling the sweet/bitter/acid aroma of the coffee and examining the colour of the crema, the fine cinnamon-coloured foam that shows the beans have been correctly extracted for maximum flavour and minimum bitterness.
The last time I examined extractions so thoroughly was on nappy duty with the babies, but I don't recall it being this much fun.
It's a rainy afternoon, and I am here with two other lucky owners of top end home coffee machines in the workshop of Atomic coffee roasters in Kingsland. Emma just happens to be the organiser of the national barista championships, the first New Zealander to compete in the world championships (Oslo, 2002) and certified to judge worldwide. The Coffee Roasters Association also calls her "the mother of all things barista in New Zealand", and with her constant patter, mad eye-glasses and in-depth knowledge she has sure helped nurse the industry along.
She also runs classes for home brewers. Lesson one: she would never call someone a barista without years of training and a real feel and passion for their craft.
The coffee world is a fiercely competitive one. Coffee Roasters Association president Tony Kerridge of Wellington's L'Affare reckons there are more than 120 roasters in New Zealand - Australia has just over double that at 330. Many are pro-free trade, some swing to organic, some support emerging coffee producers in the Pacific Islands. All are determined that their lovingly artisan-roasted beans are treated with the skill and respect they deserve when they are served to customers. Many roasters, realising that a fancy machine does not a good coffee make, started offering driving classes for the new owners of home espresso machines some of which can cost $5000 or more.
"Good coffee comes back to the hands 'the mano'," says Emma. "There should always be a little bit of fear. You never know what that day's humidity will do to the coffee, whether the grind is a touch too fine, whether you need to adjust the resistance or the water temperature. A good barista is using all her senses - touch, smell, even the sound of the extraction. You'll never get 100 per cent perfection, 90 per cent is pretty good."
All this to get a perfect cup of coffee. But Emma breaks it down in easy to remember aphorisms.
Beans are like bananas - best fresh, but not straight from the roaster as their chemicals need to settle. Five days to seven days old gets rid of the bright, acidic taste.
Everything must be clean, clean, clean - the grinder, the basket that holds the grind, the steamer arm: stale, old coffee or milk can ruin the next brew. The basket of the porta-filter (that's the handle that twists into the brewing business end of the machine) must be scrupulously dry and free of coffee before it is twisted into the gasket.
The coffee must be exactly measured and tamped so it is completely even (too tightly packed and the water can't pass through, resulting in a bitter over-extracted brew, too loose and uneven and water sloshes about resulting in under-extraction). Again, we learn to examine entrails: the puck left in the basket after extraction should be beautifully even and hold together.
And that's before we get to the milk. "Remember, the angle of the dangle," says Emma, "and nobody likes a crusty knob". Really, these coffee people are their own tribe. The steamer head is just below the surface of the milk, stretching it into a shiny, liquid foam (not a mass of bubbles), and we use our fingers to feel the milk reach just hot, but not scalding temperature. Again, real baristas can sense the changes in the milk - seasonal fluctuations in proteins or fats, for example - and adjust accordingly.
A cunning jiggle of the jug (see, the language gets to you) and the milk is diffused through the coffee so that the crema is on top to give the first flavour note when you drink.
Two hours have flown by, with just enough time to discuss life after espresso. English-born Emma is convinced that espresso-obsessed New Zealanders are missing out on other valuable ways of truly tasting coffee. She points out that coffee in "cupping" will be brewed with hot (not boiling) water through a filter cone or a cemex. Cupping allows you to taste the true flavour of a roast of beans
"With these softer brewing methods, you can taste the subtlety. Just ask any roaster," she says. Cuppers do not judge coffees, but can discriminate between tastes in much the same way as wine tasters.
David Huang - currently No 3 barista in New Zealand, and owner of the Espresso Workshop, agrees. He and business partner Andrew Smart have an espresso bar tucked off the main drag of Parnell in Falcon St, and also offer filter coffee made to order so people can teach their palates to taste differences in countries of origin or roasting styles.
"Espresso uses a medium to dark roast. Other brewing methods highlight the softer flavours of coffees, so we use a medium to light roast," says David.
"It's subtle and enjoyable. We are into the third wave of coffee now, it's about the whole bean to cup concept, where individual roasters go out and source the beans."
David and Andrew run workshops at their store, and have a website that has tasting notes for roasts that read like fine wine reviews: "red apple, sugar cane, light cocoa, with medium body and a lingering long finish. The nature of the delicate sweetness ... Medium to full body with a buttery mouthfeel .. vanilla, caramel, and cane sugar sweetness, balanced acidity highlighted by green apple, lemon and lime notes ... soft cocoa and spice tones."
Aha, learning all this sounds like the perfect way to earn my True Aucklander badge - and not merely drink coffee like everyone else.
How to make perfect plunger coffee
Many of us do not have a high-powered coffee machine - nor the barista skills - to make our own espresso at home. Hans Pronk and Craig McLeod of ME coffee boutique in the CBD have the solution.
"A well-made plunger lets you taste the delicate notes of the coffee," says Hans.
* Use a coarser grind of coffee, larger than espresso grind, as there is less pressure of water or steam pushing through the coffee to extract the flavour. Use about 20g of freshly ground coffee, so that the beans are releasing their gases and aroma.
* Use water that has just gone off the boil - about 95 degrees, rather than 100 degrees so that the water doesn't scald the coffee.
* Leave the press off the coffee and let the water and coffee steep for up to four minutes (and yes, Hans suggests using a timer until you get the sense of how long that is).
* The key to a good plunge of coffee is how you break the coffee grounds that have risen to the top. Gently break the top with a teaspoon and then scoop the grounds off the top of the brew and discard. This removes the grainy, gritty dirty stuff in the bottom of the cup.
* Put on the plunger, plunge and then pour.
Atomic runs home barista classes on "the Rocket" ( $120 per person) and Coffee Geek espresso tastings and supping sessions (Saturday mornings, $40). Ph 09 846 5883 420C New North Rd, Kingsland.
Espresso Workshop classes and tastings, 19 Falcon St, Parnell, 2 Owens Rd Epsom. Ph 09 630 9397.
Nic Berry offers home barista workshops ($150 per person) as well as school holiday barista and cafe skills training, professional barista and competition-level training. 39 Taharoto Rd, Takapuna. Ph 09 489 1656 or 021 564 255.
Espressoworkz (and Eden Coffee). 100 Mt Eden Rd, Mt Eden. Ph 09 623 0063.
Be in to win
Go in the draw to win a copy of Jessica Godfrey's How to Make Really Good Coffee (Random House, 2010) worth $27.99.
Email your name, address and contact phone number to firstname.lastname@example.org with "Good Coffee" in the subject line, by Thursday, April 14.