Samui Wining & Dining
Becoming A Barista

Anyone can decorate a cappuccino, but becoming a barista at The Coffee Club takes a lot more training.

 

11Coffee: a nice easy topic that just about everyone knows about. There must be very few people who don’t enjoy a daily blast (or several) of this perky brew. But, thinking about it, there are three types of coffee drinkers. Firstly, there’s the person who quite likes a warm drink that’s coffee-flavoured and who’s happy with the instant stuff. The next step up the ladder is more involved; people who prefer the real taste of coffee made fresh from roasted beans. And then, at the top of the tree, there are the experts. And these are the folks who really know their Kopi Luwak from their Guatemala Chajul.

I’ve always thought that it was all simply a matter of what beans are used – some are better than others. I mean, just how much skill does it take to chuck the beans in the grinder and then dunk them in boiling water?

Which is why my eyes were suddenly opened when I went to The Coffee Club to find out about all this. The Coffee Club is one of Chaweng’s newer establishments, close to Soi Green Mango and not far from Burger King. It’s plush, spacious and modern, and on two floors plus the busy kitchen at the top. Yes, kitchen, as this isn’t just a coffee parlour. There’s a whole range of Thai and International meals and snacks available upstairs, plus an airy balcony that’s ideal for street-watching. And the ground floor area is where you’ll be able to sample the pastries, snacks, a range of Swenson’s ice-creams plus, of course, the coffees.

I was lucky to be able to catch their roaming ‘barista-trainer’, Khun Tawachai Moonyong, more cheerfully known as Khun Dan. And I placed him immediately on the spot by asking him if anyone, even I, could make a coffee with one of his machines. He grinned and asked me to wait upstairs. A few minutes later he rejoined me carrying two small cups of black coffee. No, not one each. Both for me. “Taste them and tell me the differences,” he challenged.

Yuk! I need sugar in my coffee! Dan shook his head disapprovingly and made me try again. There was a difference, though: one was more bitter than the other and a bit thicker, almost dusty, somehow. Then he made me roll each around my mouth first, rather than just swilling them. Yes! One of them left a pleasant aftertaste and a mellow coffee flavour in my throat that was almost an aroma. “Well done,” he proclaimed, eyes twinkling. “You are able to tell the difference between a perfect espresso and one that’s been ruined by over-packing and stewing in boiling water. If any of my baristas were making coffee like this they’d need re-training!”

One of the first things he explained to me was that coffee is similar to wine. One needs to be aware of, and to identify, the acidity, the body, the flavour, the aroma, the texture and the balance, and this is an essential aspect in the training of a barista. “I could probably teach you most of what you’d need to know in a day,” he went on, “but it would then take you months of constant practice to learn it. But this is not where to begin. The first thing a trainee barista needs to know about is geography.

Lesson 1: there two main types of coffee beans, Arabica and Robusta, and they grow in a wide range of climates. Beans from Asia, India, Africa and South America all have different qualities and flavours. The temperature, the rainfall, the humidity and the soil quality all affect the overall taste, and that’s before this is changed again by roasting, grinding, scalding, and pouring.

And then, now that you know there are lots of things to be aware of, the second stage is to spend time tasting, and learning to appreciate these things. And this is where the parallel with wine comes in. What is termed ‘acidity’ is a desirable characteristic in coffee. Unlike in wine, here there’s no connection with the idea of ‘sour’ or ‘bitter’. Rather, it’s the quality of dryness that’s produced at the edges of your tongue and in the back of your throat. This should provide a sharp, vibrant sensation, without which the coffee tastes dull and flat.

The aroma, too, is closely linked to our perception of taste. It evokes qualities that can be described as ‘floral’ or ‘earthy’. And then there’s the body: the thickness, heaviness or texture that’s left on the tongue. Khun Dan compared this to gargling with whole milk and then with water: a good way to make the point! Baristas must develop an awareness of all these things and be able to taste the differences between them. Which is why it takes time to create a sensitive barista (those ‘baristas’ who make a name for themselves just by decorating a cappuccino with pictures are not very high on Khun Dan’s list of experts).

A good barista needs to be able to taste the difference between the heavier body of an Indonesian coffee compared to one from, say, South America. And also be aware that only a heavy-body coffee will retain its flavour when diluted by milk. The ‘espresso shot’ is the basis for every type of coffee drink, and the barista needs to be able to feel (with his fingers) if the grind is correct and know precisely what quantity to put in the machine. The changes in daytime temperature affects the beans, as does the humidity, and quality coffee shops like The Coffee Club will make tests and change their machine settings three or four times a day to adjust for this.

And then there is the realm of ‘blending’ which is an advanced art by itself. The high acidity of one bean creates a poor aroma, for example, and so a portion of a high-aroma stock is added to it. The Coffee Club’s signature blend is a slow roast at a low temperature of Arabica beans from South America combined with Robusta stock from Africa or India, providing a solid aroma combined with a good body, and it’s taken a long time to perfect.

And I thought coffee was just coffee! Which is probably why I’m a food-writer and not making coffee for people quite just yet.

 


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