I don’t know anything about coffee.
I know how to boil a kettle, and how to pour water into a cup, but I don’t know anything about dialling in, roasting, cupping, Aeropress, V60s, Chemex, tasting notes or any of the technical jargon. In fact, I actually had to google “coffee language” to be able to come up with enough words for that list.
I’m dating a Barista. He’s great at his job, he knows a lot of things about coffee and he’s trying his hardest to pass it on to me, and to keep me caffeinated with the highest quality and best tasting coffee there is. The first thing that pretty much everyone has asked me about our relationship is “do you actually like coffee though?” and his job title shows up in every single social media handle he’s got. He comes home from work covered in it and he always smells delicious. I’m not convinced he doesn’t just roll around in it for kicks.
Recently, we went to Brighton (because I love Brighton and Clark had never been), so of course this meant that we had to check out several of the city’s best coffee establishments. Brighton has a (not entirely misplaced) reputation for being “hipster”, and so does specialty coffee, so it stands to reason that the two are perfectly matched. Despite the fact that there seems to be a Starbucks or a Costa on every street, independent coffee shops seem to survive perfectly – or at least, they appear to. It might be entirely misguided because as previously mentioned, I don’t know anything about coffee.
I will forever maintain that a huge part of a relationship is being open minded to the interests of your significant other – so here are some things that I have learnt from dating a barista.
1. Coffee Can Be Complex
Gone are the days where I would whack a spoonful and a half of brown granules into the bottom of a mug, sling in some boiling water and then top it up with milk and sugar. I never really considered where it came from or how it got there – in fact, I didn’t really ever drink coffee because I like the taste. I drank it because I was perpetually tired and therefore needed something to make me temporarily functional. I had to stop drinking Red Bull because it was messing up my intestines, so I moved to coffee instead. As it turns out, things like Nescafe and Kenco are frowned upon in the specialty coffee industry, in the same way that using kitchen scissors to trim a dog’s eyebrows is frowned upon in the grooming industry. There are a lot of different beans from a lot of different places and they all taste different in themselves, and also again depending on how they’re brewed and whether or not they’re mixed with other beans.
One time, fairly early on in our relationship, I’d spent the night at Clark’s, and as he’d gone to work, I decided that I’d make a cup of coffee (because as previously mentioned, I am always tired and require caffeine in the same way that a car needs fuel). By this point, he had taught me how to use a Dripper Thing, so I went downstairs into the kitchen and boiled the kettle (because apparently, no matter how specialist the brewing method, it’s okay to use a kettle). When I opened the Cupboard Full Of Coffee Related Paraphernalia (that he’d introduced me to on something like our third date), I figured it would be a simple task of locating the Dripper Thing, whacking a few spoonfuls of ground coffee into the filter paper until I have enough for the desired strength (read: complete guesswork) and bosh, I was good to go. It didn’t turn out to be that simple because even in his own house, he has enough stuff to make Hogwarts look ill equipped – to the point where I couldn’t find the right medium of coffee to use because all of it was in BEAN FORM.
I briefly considered my options. Do a Google to try and teach myself how to be a Barista in five minutes, or revert to my tried and tested method of granules, water, milk, sugar and go.
2. Commercial Coffee Isn’t Necessarily Good Coffee
This has been the most difficult thing to come to accept. I am a die hard Starbucks Fan. In my defence, it’s very rare that I ever get something coffee based in there, opting instead for a Grande Chocolate Cream Frappucino with Hazelnut Syrup. Whether you’re a coffee-snob or not, they are delicious and I will defend my choice of beverage to the death. In fact, dating a Barista has probably made me more likely to grab something coffee based in Starbucks because I know it will annoy him. I had a Special Edition White Mocha Cold Brew from there recently (which, by the way, I am not ashamed to say was amazing), and I could practically hear his eye twitch from the stress.
As for Costa, I have worked opposite one in Eastleigh, Farnham and now they’re building on in Pets At Home Winchester’s car park. I can’t really get away from them – even though I went through a stage of avoiding all the ones in Basingstoke Town Centre because I knew that Clark worked in one of them and I was scared of awkwardly bumping into him. But, I digress.
My visits to Costa were usually only for either a caramel latte or a mocha if I was tired (which, as previously discussed, I was), or a hot chocolate. I didn’t really care what the actual coffee tasted like, as long as it was sweet and caffeinated. Although if it was Christmas, I would end up spending an embarrassingly large portion of my pay check on their Black Forest Hot Chocolate, which I will never get bored of for as long as I live – although last year, I did also try the Toasted Marshmallow one, which was nice but equally didn’t really taste too much like marshmallow. Again, I digress.
Cafe Nero is decidedly “meh”. It’s rare I ever go there, so I’m not going to comment on the quality of their coffee. I once had a pale green and sickly sweet “mint” Frappe from them and then went on a train. It threatened to make a reappearance on more than one occasion – and while that’s obviously not Nero’s fault, I kind of associate the entire place with the feeling of crippling nausea.
Anyway, aside from continuing to exert my God given right to enter whichever chain coffee establishment I please, I started to notice that there is a huge difference to how their drinks are made compared to the independent cafes. If you take all of the equipment and ingredients out of the equation for a second, and ignore the roasting and the origin and whether or not it’s a latte or a flat white, and the actual final taste (which I will get to in a second), and you’re left with a conveyor belt of drinks, being made as quickly as possible in huge volumes. Whilst writing this, I was doing a bit of research into why Starbucks is so unpopular within the specialty coffee industry (or maybe just specifically Clark) and I found out that they roast the beans at a much higher temperature than most roasters, to produce immense quantities in a short time. This means it tastes more bitter and burnt than perhaps it should. Obviously it’s convenient – Starbucks has 24,000 stores worldwide and Costa, the second largest coffee chain, trails behind with 3,400 stores and a further 6,000 Express machines – but quantity has compromised quality. It’s all about getting as many drinks into the hands of customers in the shortest time. Costa employ a guy called Gennaro Pelliccia as a coffee taster, who had his tongue insured for £10m in 2009 – which leads me very nicely on to…
3. People are really, really serious about it
You know you get those people that are really into wine, and they go on about the peachy undertones with fresh citrus and how they are best consumed at precisely 14.5 degrees, in a glass made from unicorn tears and Martian sand? Yeah, people do that with coffee as well. There are competitions, both for who can produce the best, most intricate Latte art, and then Barista championships where they are required to produce three sets of four drinks – an espresso, a milk based drink and then a signature drink of their own creation – all within fifteen minutes, whilst giving a running commentary of their process and ingredients, and the knowledge that they could lose points if the judges don’t like their choice of background music. It’s easy to see why coffee enthusiasts carry the stigma of pretentiousness – but I’m starting to realise that it’s probably not entirely deserved.
As a dog groomer, a huge part of my job boils down to passion – you have to love dogs to be able to do it well – and coffee is much the same. I’m sure there are specialty coffee baristas who lack the passion, in the same way that there are commercial baristas who don’t – but when you pour love into what you do, the quality of the end result will reflect that, irrespective of whether it’s a Mocha or a Cocker.
(All of those puns were completely unintended and, as I’m editing this, I honestly don’t know how I didn’t notice any of them until now)
4. A Macchiato Isn’t What I Thought It Was
If you have read my first Not Worth Reading post, you’ll remember one of the occasions I went Northwards to see Mr Cruise. I went to get a couple of tattoos done by an artist in Kettering, and then I went to a place called Kino Lounge and ordered a caramel Macchiato, expecting it to be a large, sweet, caramel and coffee flavour drink – the sort of thing you get in Starbucks. Instead, what I got was an extremely strong Espresso size coffee that confused me a lot. By the time I finished drinking it, it was about eight o clock at night, and I could already tell that drinking something so strong at that time of night was going to be a bad idea.
I posted it on Instagram and earned what I expect was a disappointed head shake from the coffee enthusiasts on my news feed (at last count, there were two – hi George) and received a swift lesson in tiny coffees from Clark. Turns out, Macchiato means “to mark” in Italian, and refers to the ‘marking’ of the espresso with a tiny dollop of milk foam – a long way off from what I was lead to believe by mainstream coffee shops.
McDonald’s recently did an advert for their McCafe range, about the over complication of coffee, attempting to “take a gentle pot-shot at the hipster coffee industry”, and claiming to “make cafe culture accessible to everyone”. I’ll be the first to admit that it can be a little intimidating looking up and down a massive chalkboard covered in Italian words when all you want is “a coffee please”, especially when you have someone in-the-know standing behind you judging you for your choice.
When Clark and I visited Bond Street Coffee, we were presented with a scary looking blackboard with a series of numbers corresponding to each coffee and, underneath, a simple explanation of the different flavours present in each one. Obviously it all made sense to him, but I was just like “that one says peach so I guess I’ll go for that”. Spoiler alert: it didn’t taste like peach. This is where I learnt that tasting notes do not equal flavours. If you choose one that says it has chocolate and dark fruits – it probably won’t taste exactly like either of those things. Having said that, I later tried a Flat White that tasted really, really citrussy to me, so I suppose it just depends on how sensitive your palette is. Clark’s all like “can you taste the red berries?” and I’m like “I can taste coffee” and usually he sighs at me because I am so orally impaired. I’ve been in his coffee shop when I’ve heard people order something like a caramel latte, only to be told that they don’t stock flavoured syrups, but instead blend beans from different origins together to replicate flavours such as vanilla or caramel. This was met by a bit of umms and errs from a customer, before agreement at the closest equivalent. I have no idea how they felt about the result, because I’ve not yet reached a point where it’s necessary to interview the general public in order to produce content.
On the other hand, places such as Starbucks don’t help this. It’s great that they allow the consumer to tailor their drink to precisely what they want – so if that’s a grande, iced, sugar-free, non foam soy latte with caramel drizzle then fine, whatever. The obnoxious and entitled requests that are so often mocked are, to me, the reason why coffee is assumed to be “hipster”, even though there is nothing more mainstream than a Starbucks. Like I said before, I ordered a macchiato in a bar thinking I was going to receive something completely different to what I actually got. Commercial coffees seem to have strayed away from the traditional medium to some extent, producing coffee flavoured drinks instead of actual coffee. Because they’re so common, they have completely changed the definition for a lot of people – myself included. Before I met Clark, I didn’t know the difference between a Flat White and a Latte, or even what went into a Cappuccino – let alone that a combination of two or more beans would taste sort of like vanilla.
5. It Tastes Better Without Milk and Sugar
I’m not talking about Kenco or Nescafe – because I’m still a fan of having an extremely milky, sugary travel mug of coffee on the go whilst I’m grooming, sometimes with a large helping of Coffee Mate for good measure (I like the taste. Sue me). Now that I’m learning more about specialty coffee, I’m happy to drink it black – and still enjoy it. Weirdly though, Bond Street Coffee had a strange monopoly on sugar. We both ordered the same thing, which is a pretty big deal seeing as I generally tend to play it safe and go for something milky, and the barista brought out two small ceramic cups without handles, and two blue jugs containing the coffee. He put them down next to us and said “I assume you don’t want sugar”, as more of a statement than a question, and disappeared back inside. Now I know that good quality coffee tastes better without sugar, and I know that different origins may taste somewhat sweeter than others – but I do like having the option there. The cafe itself recommends that people try their coffee without sugar first, in order to enjoy the “vibrant, subtle and complex flavours, including natural sweetness” which make complete sense. On this occasion I had a filter coffee, which I take black anyway so I suppose it’s a non issue, but if I’d gone for a flat white or a latte then I would have preferred sugar.
To be honest I think I’m just a bit uncomfortable with a complete stranger making wild assumptions about what I do and don’t like to drink. It actually has very little to do with the quality and/or taste of the coffee because in truth, it was actually really nice and I didn’t feel the need to add milk OR sugar. Principles, folks. Principles.
6. There Are Other Options Aside From Instant
Despite everything I’ve just said up there, making a cup of decent coffee isn’t actually as hard as I thought. Clark got me a Dripper Thing, some filter paper and some nice coffee. Of course it does take a little bit longer to make and require a little more equipment, but it is so worth it. I let Clark do the difficult bit – the extraction, the grinding and the combining flavours. For some reason he likes to grind the beans from scratch every time he makes a cup. While I was writing this, I asked him why he does it, and apparently it’s because the beans stay fresher for longer, and that helps to keep in the flavour. Grinding it increases the surface area, and therefore more oxygen can get to it and it goes stale more quickly. I just thought he liked adding the extra step because he gets to show off, but apparently there is actually a genuine reason.
Once it’s in ground-form, it’s just a case of finding the appropriate receptacle: a Dripper Thing, Plunger Jug or Giant Syringe (me) or a V60, Cafetiere or Aeropress (Clark); sprinkling in the coffee straight from the bag until it looks vaguely like it’ll be the right strength (me), or measuring out the precise amount with the world’s smallest set of scales (Clark); then adding water straight from the kettle (me) or a really long teapot* (Clark). I think it tastes nice whichever way you choose to brew it.
*”It’s not a teapot. It’s a gooseneck kettle”
For an extra bit of research for this post, I also signed up to Pact Coffee, a subscription that sends fresh coffee direct to your door weekly, bi-weekly, monthly or whatever frequency you so desire. They were doing an introductory offer of three sample packs, plus a Hario V60 starter kit for £6.95 – normally it’s £12.95, so it seemed like an ideal opportunity to grab one. As a total beginner to specialty coffee (at least, without input from Clark), I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect, but Pact also enclose a handy booklet to educate you on the processes used to get it from “harvest to home,” and a guide to things like “mouthfeel”, “roasting profiles” and “tasting notes”. They don’t presume that the receiver of the package has any experience with coffee, which for me is automatically a winner. I’ve got to admit – even with the guide, I still can’t taste the difference between the three.
Also one thing I’ve yet to cover is widely available coffee machines by the likes of Nespresso, Tassimo and DeLonghi. We had a Krups one in the corner of my utility room for many years – and I can’t actually remember seeing anybody ever touching it until it made it’s way to the back of a cupboard. Then for Christmas 2016, in a bizarre stroke of foreshadowing, my parents got me a Tassimo machine and some Costa Latte pods, Caramel Macchiato pods (which still taste amazing, even though I now know that they’re not technically Macchiatos) and some Cadbury’s pods. I’m not gonna lie, I loved it then and I still love it now – do I really have to say AGAIN how much I love sweet and milky “coffee”?
The great thing about these pod coffee machines is that they are SO simple. I’m gonna go ahead and assume that most households don’t have an Espresso machine lying around to be able to make drinks to the same level as a professional Barista – so a pod coffee machine is an excellent alternative. It’s quick, it’s simple and unless you are one of the aforementioned Baristas, they taste great too. The only thing you have to worry about is occasionally descaling it and making sure the water tank is full. Speaking from experience, baristas are much more difficult to look after. Even though I do prefer to make a filter coffee now, I will still defend my beloved Tassimo and continue to bring Clark drinks from it and telling him to “close your eyes and taste this.”
– – – –
So there you have it. Even though I started at the beginning by saying that I don’t know anything about coffee, I still managed to write over 3,000 words about it so I guess that must count for something.
I’ve got to say though, it is actually a lot of fun learning about the more serious side of an industry that most people probably take for granted. Had it not been for Clark, I would almost certainly have ignored it completely. It’s also given me a new perspective on my own profession – I often forget that people who bring their dogs to me to be groomed don’t know anything about the actual process of grooming, and sometimes it’s hard not to roll my eyes when someone asks me for a “puppy cut” – which, for the record, means something different to every customer and every groomer. There is no such thing as a “puppy cut”, in the same way as there’s no such thing as an “expresso” – but as a client, if you don’t know that, then it’s my job to teach you, not look down on you. I overheard a conversation at Clark’s cafe about the different ways of pronouncing “macchiato”, and all I could think about was the millions of different variations I’ve heard of “Lhasa Apso”. It would appear that coffee and grooming aren’t too different at all.
If you’re not a coffee person and you’ve managed to read this far, thank you so much. If you are a coffee person and you’ve managed to read this far, I’m even more impressed – and I’m sorry to say that I will continue to enjoy Starbucks Iced Double Espresso Caramel Soy Latte with cream (which I’ve literally never had in my life but it sounds like it would be annoying).
If you’d like to check out my Barista, you can find him here.
If you’re local to Winchester, you should pop into Coffee Lab on St Thomas Street. Obviously I’m a bit biased, but they do great coffee and great food, and I really fancy one of the guys that works there.
until next time, thanks again for reading.