…on excellent coffee…and my barista days

Once upon a time I worked as a barista – same little French patisserie in New Zealand where I saw my first croquembouche.  While I had always loved cafes (if you know anything about me, you know that at the tender age of 15 or so, I had blue hair, played the bass, and wanted desperately to own my own cafe), I hadn’t really appreciated the coffee part of them.

A lovely latte...

A lovely latte…

Until living in New Zealand, that is.

New Zealand, though you might not expect it, has an incredible coffee culture.  Or at least it did during my time there nearly 8 years ago now (oh my god, it’s been EIGHT years???).

When I was hired at this little place, I was told that I would be taught how to pull espresso, steam milk, and pour drinks properly.  Which would mean that I would not be permitted to make a drink – especially a latte – to a living breathing human being for several months, the time it was estimated it would take to train me.

Did you know coffee was this complicated?  Well, maybe:  we have an increasingly sophisticated (and locally roasted!) coffee culture growing in Halifax.  Places like Two if By Sea, Just Us, Le French Fix and Smiling Goat are really setting the bar (and, after becoming a total coffee snob – so much so that for many years I would only drink tea because I deemed it impossible to get a good espresso in this town – they are my go-to places in town for excellent coffee).

Anyways, I was reminded of my espresso pulling days the other day when I was getting a macchiato at one of the above establishments.  I watched the barista steam the milk in a very small jug for my drink and then pour most of it down the sink, leaving the foam to spoon onto my espresso.


You see, one of the rules of good milk steaming is that to get a really great foam – like what you would need for a cappuccino or to “mark” a macchiato – you need to start with fresh, ice cold (read: not having being steamed ten minutes ago for someone else’s drink only to be re-steamed for yours) milk.  And, once milk has been steamed, it’s not so great to be re-steaming it for other drinks.

What are some of the other coffee “rules” I learned, you ask?  What should I be watching for at my local java joint?  Here’s my take.  If you’re a barista who’s up on the trends of latte pouring and espresso pulling of the last eight years, please feel free to add more or update!

  • The froth on your latte or cappuccino should be creamy with close-knit bubbles.  It shouldn’t look like a five-year-old took a straw and started blowing bubbles in your drink.
  • A cappuccino is pretty much half foam, with the crema (the caramel-coloured foam that tops a freshly-pulled espresso) ringing the outside of the cup.  The milk for a cappucino is poured slowly into the centre of the drink to achieve this.
  • A latte is poured quickly, usually starting in the middle, working out towards the edge of the cup, and then back into the middle to create a beautiful pattern of crema and foam (this is why lattes are hardest – you have to start pouring, really commit, and get ‘er done quickly and correctly).
  • Espresso should never be bitter.  If it’s bitter, it’s been over-extracted (which means the barista let the water run through the espresso grinds too long).
  • Your espresso beans should be ground when you order your drink (not three hours – or thirty minutes – before)
  • An espresso is properly pulled when the crema begins to pour out of the machine, and should be stopped juuuuuust before the streams of coffee begin to twist into the cup.

Okay, that’s enough.  Maybe you’re not a coffee nerd and maybe you don’t care.  But I just felt like sharing, because I was feeling some love for the excellent coffee that I have the privilege of drinking in this wonderful city!

And then there are some days where whipped cream and chocolate are needed....

And then there are some days where whipped cream and chocolate are needed….

4 comments on “…on excellent coffee…and my barista days

  1. Yes, us kiwis do love our coffee and some of us, especially those living in the main cities can be quite spoilt. A day can be ruined by a badly made espresso. I’ve never made a proper coffee before, but I don’t imagine it is easy. Still there are so many bad coffees around, I do wonder if it’s a talent you are born with or a skill that can be learned?

    • I was so amazed at how consistently wonderful the coffees I had were in New Zealand – it just wasn’t a place that I knew to be coffee-crazy!

      I think coffee skills can be learned…but perhaps the palate to appreciate the subtle nuances in roast is born….

  2. Thanks Jessie. Just acquired a foamer from Epicure and am so excited to apply some of your tips 🙂

    • Awesome! Let me know how the foamer works – I’m always open to new ways of frothing milk (man, that sounds somewhat strange….)

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