latte hearts

This photo won’t impress the average coffee geek and I’m not about to win any latte art competitions, but for me it was a minor miracle. I’ve poured a heart before, but this morning might have been one of the first times I’ve poured two hearts in a row. Why is that a big deal for me? Typically I would have poured a heart and then, much to my frustration, followed with some sort of blobby wombat (my son is great at identifying shapes in my latte art). For two years I’ve been using the Bellman milk steamer and while I believed I understood the fundamentals of milk steaming, it has taken this long to begin to consistently apply the knowledge.

As a home barista, making consistently good coffee can be challenging. Unlike professional baristas, we don’t get to refine our skills by making hundreds of coffees a day. We might only have a couple of shots a day to put our knowledge into practice. Without the benefit of professional training we resort to watching YouTube videos, reading blogs and forums, or trying to inconspicuously eyeball the barista’s technique at a local café.

If you’re like me and use only manual brewing equipment, you’ve also got a few other variables to deal with. For example, the ROK espresso maker achieves pressure with muscle power, and so it isn’t applied as consistently as an automated, electric machine. If I’m in a bad mood or a hurry, I might press the levers harder than usual. On the ROK espresso maker, there’s no automatic shot timer, volumetric control, pressure gauge or PID. At only two coffees a day, it’s going to take a while to train our muscles to apply the pressure evenly and consistently from coffee to coffee.

If you use a manual grinder you’re also potentially challenged. Where do I set my LIDO 3 grinder for espresso? What’s the setting for the Aeropress on the ROK coffee grinder? I might spend an hour researching and get three different answers, none of which seem to give me the results I’m looking for. Often we get our information from other home baristas who have also learned without the benefit of professional guidance.

While it only took me a few weeks to start making decent espresso with the ROK, I reckon it took me several years to really master it. Without the benefit of training, there tends to be long gaps in my learning. A few times, when it seemed my espresso making had plateaued for a long period, I’d have an epiphany that would take my coffee to new levels. This only comes about because, in my search for better coffee, I’m open to being wrong and am aware that there’s still a lot I can learn.

One thing that’s pretty universal, is that old habits die hard. Both amateur and professional baristas may hold onto ineffective or incorrect techniques, believing them to be correct. For the home barista, it might be a long time before we discover that we’re off track. We don’t have a trainer or fellow barista looking over our shoulder, asking “why did you do that?” or “hey, why don’t you try doing it this way?”. While we might know something in our method is contributing to poor results, we might look for solutions in the wrong place. For example, we may labour over grind settings when it’s actually the water temperature that’s contributing to bitterness or under-extraction. Water temperature has been a recent revelation for me. Though I’ve seen folks talk at length about water temperature, as a simple home barista it just seemed too pedantic for me to worry about. Rookie mistake.

There is almost always something I can tweak in my method to achieve better and more consistent results. For example, new users of the ROK espresso maker can find it challenging to get crema and understandably, may feel frustrated. Back when I first started working with ROK and was not very knowledgeable about coffee in general, I wondered whether these frustrated customers might be justified in blaming their espresso maker. After working hard hard to learn the ins and outs of the ROK, espresso and coffee in general, I discovered the solution to crema-rich espresso, perhaps blindingly obvious to some people, is to use freshly roasted coffee, a burr grinder and experimentation. In a culture of push-button instant-gratification, having patience for experimentation may be the most challenging component.

When my coffee doesn’t meet my expectations, I’ve learned to not immediately blame my tools. I remember a particularly humbling experience when a fella brewed me some fantastic coffee through a sock, after pan-roasting it just minutes beforehand. It flew in the face of my preconceived ideas of what was required to make good coffee. With the right knowledge you can do a lot with very little. You just need to understand the method and the materials.

Achieving consistently great coffee requires an ongoing desire to learn and improve. I continue to try and practice humility and remain open to being wrong – there’s huge rewards in discovering our mistakes! For the home barista, perhaps the most important factor isn’t fancy gear, it’s patience.