Dom Knight has developed a healthy appreciation for the skills of a good barista.
Dom Knight

14 Dec 2017 - 10:27 AM  UPDATED 19 Jan 2021 - 9:25 AM

Once upon a time, serious coffee nerds bought French presses. We used to call them plungers in my family, and we brought them out at the end of every meal. My parents shelled out for pre-ground beans in little foil packets from the supermarket, instead of using instant coffee from a jar. I remember once going to a shop that ground fresh beans for us in a giant mill – it smelt amazing. Back then, fancy cafes even gave you your own little French press to use at the table.

Then the espresso machine arrived, and Australians gradually consigned their plungers to the bin, or used them for tea. My parents’ cappuccinos always looked so enticing with that layer of thick, chocolate-encrusted froth. Babyccinos hadn’t been invented yet, but my brother and I always demanded a teaspoon of froth.

I went to school near a strip of Italian restaurants, so I was drinking proper cappuccinos myself by my late teens, eventually graduating to flat whites and even the occasional short black. I thought I was so hardcore when I began drinking coffee without milk.

But takeaway espresso coffee is expensive. I began having two or three a day, which we’ve just learned can have health benefits, fortunately. I was shocked when I did the maths. Each daily $3 cup equates to $1095 a year – and three a day equals $3285 a year. Many cafés now charge $3.50, $4 or even more per hit – and I usually have almond milk these days, which means a surcharge. And then there’s the waste of all those cups …

My first attempt to save money on coffee was buying a reconditioned Nespresso machine on eBay. Great crema and no messy grounds! It felt like a huge step forward, and at 70c per cup, I was saving plenty of money, even after spending $200 on the machine.

But then some colleagues threw shade on the whole ‘pod’ thing. They were bad for the environment, they said, quite apart from the whole issue with Nestlé. Even the local pods I was buying came in an exterior plastic wrapping to keep them fresh. I felt chastened.

Worse still, I realised that the taste wasn’t quite working for me. Fresh espresso has a complex flavour, often quite nutty with a sweet aftertaste – whereas the pods seemed quite bitter to me, unfortunately.

So I started looking into ‘proper’ espresso machines. Browsing high-end coffee makers is like checking out fancy hi-fi equipment – you want to experience the really pricey stuff, but can’t imagine spending that much yourself.  At my local department store, I checked a Sunbeam machine called the Torino with chrome so bright it sparkled, fully automatic Jura machines where supposedly you press one button and get a flat white, and a high-tech Breville unit with a colour screen, fittingly called the Oracle.

Thanks to the plethora of online coffee forums, I quickly made a few conclusions. Freshly ground beans were a must, both to avoid the pod situation and because they’re the most flavoursome. Ideally, you’d consume them within two weeks of roasting.

This meant I could enter the exciting world of boutique-roasted beans, which I was all for – and at $14 for 250g, I’d still save money, since a shot only uses about 7g of beans, meaning you get about 35 shots in a regular bag.

I learned that fully automatic machines, though extremely handy, tended to produce coffees that couldn’t be mistaken for a cafe version. I wanted great results – and I also wanted to develop some sweet barista skills.

I also discovered that serious coffeeheads would never dream of buying machines at a department store – they go for imported Italian machines made by the companies who supply commercial machines for cafés, like Rancilio, Gaggia and La Pavoni. I wasn’t willing to pay thousands of dollars, though, since giving up takeaway coffee was ultimately meant to be a money-saving exercise. 

I read reviews and watched dozens of videos of various machines on YouTube, and concluded that going mostly manual and developing my skills would be both fun and satisfying in terms of the results.

In the end, I bought a Breville Barista Express, from an Australian manufacturer that, unusually, exports appliances overseas. This is the cheapest entry in their high-end home range, costing up to $900, although I got it for less on sale. It’s relatively compact, albeit still much bigger than most Nespresso machines, and boasts a built-in burr grinder, which is apparently the best sort, a decent steam wand and a satisfyingly solid portafilter, which is the metal unit with a handle where you put the coffee.

Like any manual machine, there are quite a few variables, and if you screw any of them up, your coffee won’t taste right. First, there’s the grind size – that is, the dimensions of each little pulverised grain of coffee. Then there’s the dose size – how much the grinder dumps into the portafilter. You’d think you’d just choose ‘enough to fill it’, but the finer the grind, the more space it seems to take up.

Then there’s tamping, which is key to the operation. You use a flat metal circle with a plastic handle on top to flatten the coffee grounds. The aim is to produce a perfect flat disc of coffee, just below the lip of the portafilter, using quite a lot of pressure, but not too much, or the water won’t flow through it properly. If you get the grind, the dose and the tamp right, the shot should take about 21 seconds to extract.

First there’s a pre-extraction phase, when the machine wets the coffee, and then it ups the pressure to perform the main extraction - all of which is measurable via a pressure gauge. Get it right, and you’ll end up with a compressed puck of coffee which falls easily out of the portafilter when you tap it on the knock box - a little plastic bucket with a horizontal bar that you can whack with the portafilter so the coffee comes loose.

Getting all these elements correct is hard. The manual blithely says that changes in ambient temperature and even humidity can affect how the water flows through the coffee, requiring adjustments to the grinds and doses.

After pulling more than 100 shots through the machine over the past few months, I reckon I’ve got the tamping down, but I still can’t reliably predict whether the water will flow through too quickly, which means it’ll have less flavour than it should, or too slowly, which will make it taste bitter.

This is why pods are so easy to use – they remove just about every variable. But although I’m far from a master, even when I stuff up a bit, to me it still generally tastes better than a pod. Using freshly roasted beans that are ground seconds before you make the espresso really does make a difference – and the smell is amazing, too.

Then there’s the equally challenging task of steaming milk so you get the right kind of stiff foam with tiny bubbles, and pour it so that what goes into the cup isn’t too liquid or too frothy. That’s another complex manual process in itself – although I’ve found videos of people making impressive latte art with the same relatively cheap machine I bought, I’m far from that level myself.

Using one of these machines takes longer than using a pod. But I’ve now done this enough that it takes only a few minutes more, and the results feel worth it.

I might go and do a barista course so I can understand more about the process, and improve my output. But if nothing else, having a scaled-down version of a proper machine has taught me what a great job the average barista does.

Sure, their machines are much larger and more powerful, but the sheer number of adjustments that have to be made to produce reliable shots makes me realise that making great coffee is an art in itself - even before you start making lattes with leaves and hearts on top.

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