Rachel Grunwell is a fitness writer for the Herald on Sunday.

Learn the art of coffee-making

How do you get great coffee without leaving home? Do you really need a monstrous machine that hogs the kitchen bench and costs as much as a small car? Rachel Grunwell asks some coffee experts.

Investing in an espresso machine is a good option if you'd like to perfect the techniques of the city's best coffee makers. Photos / Doug Sherring
Investing in an espresso machine is a good option if you'd like to perfect the techniques of the city's best coffee makers. Photos / Doug Sherring

I confess it: I'm a coffee addict. I love caffeine and it genuinely takes me to my happy place. People think I live in Mt Eden for the school zones, but it's really because of the cafes that beckon me with their brews.

Don't get me wrong, I only need a cup or two daily, but I'm also a bit of a coffee snob. It has to be the good stuff; I would rather drink putrid tea than wince over a cup of that instant stuff.

But when I was off work after having a baby, I got to thinking about the cost of my daily takeaway habit. I did the sums: I was paying $4.80 daily per large trim flat white; that's $33.60 weekly or $1747.20 yearly. Add in my husband's weakness for short blacks ($3.80 at his local) and it was costing us a whopping $3130.40 a year, roughly the price of a trip to Fiji - for an entire week, for the entire family. Ahem. I decided I needed to give home-made a go.

So the bloke and I started taste-testing different types of coffee until we found a blend that rocked. We dusted off a coffee machine that a mate bought us years ago and dug out the plunger and an ancient stove-top contraption from the cupboards.

We figured one of them surely had to do the trick and gave them all a whirl. Alas, at the end of the trials, I was crying over my coffee cups, admitting that nothing tastes as good as the bought stuff.

Now what I should have done was ask a coffee hotshot like Richard Goatley, an owner of coffee roasting company Altezano. He and his two brothers import and roast coffee beans and make beautiful blends for 50 cafes. They also run a barista school where anyone can learn the art of coffee-making.

Goatley has a few tips for getting a great brew at home:

* Buy the best adjustable grinder you can afford because freshly grinding your beans is the key to maximising the sensory experience of coffee. Once the beans are ground, the granules' much larger surface area makes the mix more likely to oxidise (ie go off). Make sure the coffee is kept in an airtight container in the dark once it's opened. Don't keep it in the fridge.

* Decide on the brew method you like. In the extraction method, pressurised water is forced through the coffee, by an espresso machine or the stove-top maker the Italians call a caffettiera. This is best used with blended beans, "because there's no single bean in the world that has the balance of complexity, body and acidity", says Goatley. In the infusion method, such as plungers or the simple filter-type systems, water is in contact with the coffee for longer. This method is best for single-origin coffees (beans from one plantation), so you can taste that coffee's specific flavour and notes like chocolate, nuts or citrus.

Goatley uses a Chemex to make his "pure" coffee fix at the weekends. This hourglass-shaped vessel, made of heat-resistant glass, costs about $50 and makes clear, flavourful coffee without bitterness or sediment. He also likes the ritual of putting quality ground coffee in natural filter paper at the top and pouring hot water (not boiling because this strips flavour) into the Chemex and watching it drip through into the bottom of the device. He reckons there is a resurgence of low-tech brewing methods like this.

By the way, there are no "ultimate" beans to buy; everyone's ideal coffee taste differs. Like wine, coffee varies wildly in taste, reflecting the unique altitude, soil and climate conditions of the area in which it is grown. And even then it changes in taste from season to season. Coffee beans aren't grown in New Zealand. The closest growers to us are in Queensland. Coffee comes here from many [laces, including Central and South America, Africa, Vietnam and Brazil.

* If you like milk-based coffee - the flat whites, lattes and cappuccinos, which revolve around the temperature and texture of milk - Goatley says a quality espresso machine is a must to get "the best flavour in a cup".

"Go manual," he urges. "Choose machinery where you are in charge of the variables - the dosage, the tamping (the packing of the ground coffee into the basket) and the length of exposure to water, rather than focusing solely on convenience. It may be a little more frustrating at first, but in the long run you will get more fulfillment from an acquired skill."

* Buy fresh coffee. "If you don't know when your coffee was roasted, you are wasting money", warns Goatley. He recommends buying locally roasted coffee that tells you when it was roasted - coffee should be used between five and 15 days after roasting. He reckons supermarket coffee can have use-by dates of 12 months; the likelihood is they're not fresh and can be "a trap for the novice caffeine junkie".

Hans Pronk, an Auckland barista who owns the ME Coffee Boutique and the roasting company Merito Espresso, agrees that fresh beans, a quality grinder and great equipment are important for a good home-made coffee. He uses his work espresso machine during the week for his coffee fix. But at the weekends, he opts for a Swissgold filter device, which costs just $38. It has "a softer process" that shows the complexity and diverse flavours of the exotic single-origin coffees he loves.

He says plungers (which are great for making coffee for a lot of people quickly) can make good coffee too - use freshly ground beans and water that's "not too hot", then leave the coffee for a few minutes before using a teaspoon to scoop off the gritty bits at the top. Plunge and pour. Voila.

For those wanting a good espresso machine at home, Pronk says money matters. You could easily pay $2500 to $3500. He reasons the best ones have more pressure and more thermal stability, which is vital for optimum extraction of the coffee - and they will last longer. "My brother-in-law bought one for $700 and it was okay to start with ..." says Pronk.

David Huang, an award-winning barista and owner of Espresso Workshop, says his Britomart coffee shop machine cost $13,000. He used to use very expensive machines at home too. But he's since become "a purist" and drinks filtered coffee at home, using a $30 Hario V60 filter.

The coffee hotshot says ultimately a good coffee comes down to "50 per cent good coffee beans, 30 per cent great roasting. The remaining 20 per cent comes down to the person preparing it."

So that means I have a 20 per cent chance of making a decent coffee in our household this weekend. That's if I freshly grind the best (ethically-sourced and local) beans I love and use a decent device correctly.

"Practice makes perfect", encourages Altezano's barista trainer Antoinette Mudford. So I'll keep practising to get that perfect cup. But you'll still catch me at my favourite cafes sometimes too, meeting my mates.

Sometimes things taste nicer when someone else does the hard work.

- Herald on Sunday

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