As most of you reading this will be aware, life’s too short to drink bad coffee. Thankfully, living in Perth we don’t have to.
I decided earlier this year that it was time for me to get more serious about coffee, so I bought a decent consumer-grade machine & grinder and started to work my way through several kilos of beans. Following the instructions – and conflicting opinions on countless web forums – I worked out how to produce a reasonable shot, although I struggled with consistency when it came to milk. Even worse, I’d usually get the first one right and then screw it up when making mine. I knew I needed help, and it was time to take the plunge and attend a barista training course.
There are quite a few barista training schools operating in Perth at the moment, some attached to roasters, some to local hospitality schools and some independent. Most of them offer different levels of training, from introduction to full-on professional, and that so many of these exist shows just how big the cafe/coffee scene is in Perth now – whether it’s sustainable is another matter. I wanted to do a Saturday course and recently spent a day at one of the independent schools, Fremantle Baristas, which was offering their “barista basics” and latte art courses for the combined price of $220 (a saving of $65).
Fremantle Baristas is located in the heart of Freo close to the markets, and their eight-student classroom is fitted out with four professional coffee machines and grinders. Our day started at 9:30am, and my group included a married couple who had just purchased a mobile coffee business, a young couple travelling around Australia hoping to take the UK coffee scene by storm, some teenagers looking to get into the industry and me, a 40-something food blogger there primarily for his own amusement.
Our teacher for the day was Olivier, a charming and witty Frenchman who did a great job at putting everyone at ease and set the tone for the day early on. Our group was easy going and thankfully not competitive, it must be a nightmare to deal with a room full of people who walk through the door thinking they already know everything. I’m sure they get plenty of those!
The first item on the agenda was a round-table lesson about the different types of coffee beans, how to identify nasty blends from good ones and also how horrible most of the coffee in Europe is. It was then time to get our hands dirty, and after a brief introduction to our machines we started producing shots. Everything was done on manual to begin with, and I found this to be a very valuable part of the day as I quickly realised that I didn’t have any idea what my home machine was actually doing. The concept of “blonding” (look it up) was a new one to me, and was the first thing I looked for when I later turned my home machine on.
Being a room full of amateurs with nothing at stake, the pressure was never really on and there was a very friendly and supportive atmosphere in the room all day. Olivier was obviously used to dealing with students incapable of carrying out simple tasks, and did a great job of making you feel good even when failing miserably. If you were struggling, he’d gently guide your arm and then tell you that you’d done it right. If you continued to fail, you wouldn’t get any harsh criticism. This kind of teaching might not be appropriate for a professional course, but for our group it was spot-on.
Once we’d “mastered” the shot, it was time for milk, lots of it. A mind-boggling amount of coffee and milk went down the drain during the day, and it was hard to resist the temptation to drink way too much of it. The “basics” course finished after five long hours on our feet, but at this point I felt confident that I could go home and make a flat white, cappuccino, mocha or double-shot-latte (sorry, long macchiato topped up).
After an hour’s break for lunch, five of us returned and three newcomers joined for the difficult part of the day – latte art. Olivier warned us that we were going to struggle, but hopefully no one would cry. And struggle we did. There were occasional successes, although it was clear to everyone that there’s nothing easy about latte art. I was completely hopeless at all three designs, you can see my one almost-acceptable fluke above.
The day ended well after 5pm, and after making 50 or so coffees I left never, ever wanting to smell or taste coffee again, although of course that didn’t last long. I’ve already started to tweak my home machine, and don’t just blindly hit the buttons any more. I’ve also started to notice how much easier and better things were on a several-thousand-dollar machine, but that’s another story… I’m already producing much better coffee, although I’ll pass on the latte art for now. I’ll try it again one day, but I’m not getting my hopes up.
If you enjoy decent coffee – and, like me, spend much of your spare time drinking and criticising coffee made by others – I thoroughly recommend taking a barista course. Even if you’re not interested in making coffee at home, you’ll have a much better understanding of what goes into your morning cup, and an appreciation of the skill and effort of the barista who made it. Just don’t cry when you fail trying to make a heart-shaped splodge in a flat white.
This article first appeared on OZeating here.