Is your coffee just something you grab as a take-out from the faceless coffee shop on your way to the office? Or is it worse, some grey watery liquid dispensed from a machine. Could you be getting more from your coffee and indeed life?
1. Pause just a moment and do it well. If you’ve ever been to Paris, amid the rush and packed metros, you may have seen that the French have a great way to enjoy coffee. They don’t do the take-out but they don’t sit down either. It’s au comptoir and it saves a few cents as well. A big advantage of standing at the bar is that the coffee is drunk from a nice little china cup – it’ll be an espresso – so it’ll taste better just because of that. Do you really want to be sucking cardboard or plastic?
Lent against the bar you’ll have enough time to pause whilst you drink your coffee and watch coffee being made, exchange a few words and then refreshed get on you way. Outside France we may need to find a little perch on a bar stool by the window to do our watching.
Other benefits of this approach is that it doesn’t produce the litter of waste cardboard coffee cups and because it’s an espresso busy bar staff can quite literally bang out coffees at a great pace without the snaking queues created by those demanding frothy milk. That brings me to my next point.
2. Take less milk and unleash the coffee. Lattes and cappuccinos are fine if you like frothy milk but this can disguise the taste of the coffee. How about trying it just black, espresso, or even with only a dash of milk, a macchiato? Ask yourself is it a coffee drink you wanted or a milk drink?
The same thing applies to syrups, sugar and dustings of chocolate or spice. All these dilute a pure intense coffee hit. If you really must do the milk thing then the current trend in milked coffee – the flat white – is no bad thing as it ups the coffee content. Failing that a double shot in your cappuccino will do. Let’s taste the coffee but there are dark forces at play there as well.
3. Seek out strength. This might be a shocking revelation but I’ll say it anyway, coffee aficionados might be ruining our drinks. This is a view espoused by British food writer Jay Raynor. What’s happening is that there are some people who view coffee beans in the same way that the French view their wine grapes. The concept of terroir – location, climate, soil and more – is being applied to coffee. You can get high grade organic beans grown at just the right altitude in Peru or wherever and therefore you don’t want it to taste just the same as normal beans. Hence the trend is to lightly roast them so as not to destroy any subtle flavours that you wouldn’t get with an “inferior” bean.
This deviates from the history of roasting that was to go for something towards the burnt end to hide the poor quality beans, particularly when the content of cheaper Robusta beans was higher and 100% Arabica blends were not as widespread. But I like a dark roast with plenty of poke that has a roasted coffee taste. And a bit of good quality Robusta will up the caffeine content and may improve the crema (the thin layer of coffee foam on top of an espresso).
So my view is to buck the fancy trend and ask what the strongest roast is and go for a real coffee hit. If you’re making your own coffee select French or Italian brands as these are darker and stronger tasting.
4. Not all coffee shops are equal so pick yours with care. Does the barista know their craft or are they really a waiter struggling with the art of coffee making? And where do they get their coffee from? If you want fair trade then go to where that is. Some shops will give you a range to choose from to suit your taste and conscience. But there’s a downside to having a wide range and leaning against our Parisian bar watching the grinder being refilled with yet another sack of fresh beans of the one variety tells a tale.
If there’s only one type of bean in the shop then it’s more likely to be fresh. The more variety the more likely it won’t be fresh and horror or horrors not even freshly ground. The fast moving French coffee will be ground just in time. Those precious moments after grinding where all those lovely dark roasted aromas could escape are minimised in those places that bang out the coffee quickly. The banging is from the knocking out of the used coffee grains by the way.
So avoid those places where it’s not fresh and they spend all their time scalding the milk. And if their freshly ground house blend isn’t great don’t bother. Choice isn’t everything, I can’t remember ever having a choice in Paris.
If you can’t find a good coffee shop (and there seems to be one every five paces where I live) then you’ve one other option.
5. Why not try making your own? You don’t need to have really fancy equipment to do this as a trusty old filter machine will work fine – often found when staying in a French gîte. Alternatively, you can use a cafetiere (French press) or stove top espresso makers. If you’ve the budget a small espresso machine is a worthwhile investment. Over time find what is limiting your skills at getting coffee how you like and spend the money there. For instance a grinder will be something you might add later on.
One important coffee making point is to make sure that the water temperature is right. If you’re using a cafetiere then don’t scold the coffee with boiling water, wait a few moments for it to drop. For espresso machines make sure they’re warmed up and some water has been run through.
Aside from the equipment the coffee granularity is all important. Espresso machines use a finer grind so get this right otherwise you’ll get a watery drink with little crema. And finally keep your beans or ground coffee in an airtight container in the fridge to preserve freshness.
In summary, the five ways that you can add a bit more spark to your coffee and indeed anything in life are:
1. Slowing down, enjoy a moment of calm and observe what’s going on around you.
2. Going for experiences that are pure and intense rather then frothy and superficial.
3. Not playing it safe – try the full experience – but don’t get sidetracked with fancy trends that might not deliver what you really want.
4. Learn about processes and understanding what you’re buying – be discerning.
5. Value the craft involved in making even a simple thing well and have a go at making things yourself.
And a bonus sixth is that there are some good things to learn from the traditional French way of doing things.
How are you going to get more from your cup of coffee?