Friday, 30 August 2013

"Whole Latte Love" - My Life With Coffee.

I take my coffee seriously, but not too seriously. I made my first espresso back in the summer of 1979 when I worked Saturday nights at a pizza restaurant where my Mother worked as the cook. The coffee machine was one of those old-school contraptions with a piston-lever that you had to pull down to allow the infusion to take place. The handle would slowly rise back to its starting position as the dark brown nectar of the Gods dripped thickly into the cup. To the right-hand side was the steam arm where you would hold a jug of milk to be frothed up into a hot and silky consistency.
It was a good machine to learn on because it was difficult to use. Every other machine I've used since has been a piece of cake compared to that one.
I worked in hospitality in various capacities throughout the '80s and '90s, but I found that I was always happiest when behind a coffee machine. I haven't worked in restaurants for about a decade, but I'm happy to say that coffee making is a skill that I haven't lost.
Of course, things have changed in the industry over the last ten or fifteen years. Nowadays, there are coffee-making courses run by various coffee companies, café owners talk of accreditation (whatever that is), and the corporatisation of coffee, thanks to companies like Starbucks, Gloria Jean's and Hudsons, has taken the fun and laid-back nature out of the simple act of making coffee.
I read an article a few years ago about the Post-War influx of Italians who came out to Australia to start new lives. A lot of them set up cafes and Espresso Bars all over Melbourne, but a great many of them settled in the inner-city suburb of Carlton which has evolved into the Italian hub of this city. There is a three block stretch of Lygon Street, from Elgin Street right over to Pelham Street which is filled with Italian restaurants, pizzerias, cafes, and other businesses. Certainly, there are other cuisines available, from Thai to Jamaican, but the Italian contingent occupies the majority of real estate in this street.
The article went on to state that, by the early 1950s, when the first of these cafes began to appear, they all housed these large, shiny stainless steel coffee machines and an engineer from the City Council had to be present at these cafes because these machines emitted steam. I can just picture the scene; some pencil-necked, bureaucratic stickler-for-details fellow watching the machine intently as a bunch of Italian waiters stand around smoking cigarettes and softly cursing him in their native tongue.
Would have been priceless to have been there.
By the late 1980s, this town was pretty rife with places where you could get a decent cup of coffee. And then the chain cafes started springing up. The places that had a temperature gauge sitting in the milk jug ("To ensure consistency of the milk.") and offering four or five different sizes of take-away coffee cups. Oh, and they served decaf. What the hell!
Now, not to have a dig at Starbucks, but they were one of the main proponents of temperature gauges and extra-large coffee cups.
As far as temperature went, I could always 'ensure consistency' of the milk by placing the palm of my hand against the side of the jug. When it got too hot for my hand, the milk was hot enough. None of this temperature gauge crap.
And as for different sized cups, that's always been a pet hate of mine. Three different sizes to choose from, the largest being a staggering 450ml. Were they nuts?
Who needs almost half a litre of coffee to get their day started? What, are they in a coma?
And then there were places who would charge an extra two or three bucks for an extra shot of coffee. So if you ordered a double-espresso, these places would slug you something like four bucks fifty. Bad form. That's not the way to do it.
Now, when I first started making coffees, everything was served in cups. Sometime in the mid-Eighties, I noticed places began serving some coffees in glasses. This is where the differentiation between a flat white and a caffe latte occurred. One of my favourite bosses once said to me; "Flat white is for people who can't pronounce caffe latte."
There were others who would say; "Well, no, a flat white is two thirds milk with one third coffee and no froth on top, whereas a caffe latte-" blah, blah, blah.
Sorry, I don't buy it. Once you start talking actual precise measuring, you take the fun and the romance out of coffee. It really isn't rocket science. And, after a while, you develop an eye for correct measurement anyway, so you don't have to measure everything to the nth degree.
This favourite boss of mine also said; "You know, at the end of the day, it's all just fesserie, but if it's done well, people appreciate it." Fesserie translates into drivel, claptrap or poppycock. Basically, bullshit.
And he was right. I used to tell some of my co-workers who took it all too seriously; "You know, it's really not that hard to make a decent coffee. All you need is love."
Yes, I was being facetious, but really, all that's required is that you pay a little bit of attention to what you're doing.
All this other stuff about 'extraction' and 'four-fifths of milk' ,etc is just a load of guff.  
There were a million places making wonderful coffees for four decades in this town before everybody started taking it all so seriously.

I worked at one of Carlton's most popular cafes back in 1992. I was the coffee-maker, using a three-group Faema E91. A fully automatic machine, but I preferred using it on manual settings. As great machine to use, but man did it have some sharp edges! I was cleaning it one day and managed to slice a groove across three fingers between the knuckles and first joint. A customer laughed when this happened, the effing jerk! He laughed again when I cut the same three fingers a few minutes later, a few millimetres closer to the knuckles. I should have asked him what the hell was so funny, as I staunched the flow of blood with a handful of serviettes. 

It was a great place to work. The staff were wonderful, mainly female, almost all Italian, and very pretty. Yes, I know, not very PC. Who cares. 
pic above courtesy of

About a year later, I quit this place and started working at a small bistro around the corner on Lygon Street. I worked as a waiter, but it was the kind of establishment where all the staff made coffee. Whoever was near the machine when an order was placed would be the one to make it. Although, some nights there were staff who would commandeer the machine in order to get out of having to move around too much throughout the restaurant. Bastards. It was a relaxed place to work in and I stayed there for five years. They had a gorgeous copper Rancilio Z9 machine exactly like this one. The owner told me that he'd been offered ten grand for it, but it was a very rare machine and had been a part of the place for so long. This was another great machine to use.

vendesi macchina caffè extralusso 1

About six years ago, my wife and I decided to buy a coffee machine for home use. After reading numerous reviews on domestic machines, we settled on the Ascaso Dream.
Made in Spain, this machine has been a little workhorse. And dig those cool, early 1960s lines!
As with many European machines, the temperature gauge stopped working some time ago, but the machine is overdue for servicing, so I'll look into getting it replaced soon.
My wife or I (whichever one of us wakes up first) will flick it on in the morning and about 20 minutes later, it's ready for action.
It has a water reservoir in the back which holds about 1.3 litres and the internal boiler ensures that there's a steady supply of hot water at the ready. The 16 bar pump is enough to force water through the ground coffee loaded into the gun. You're all set.
We get our coffee from a place where the staff are all too cool for school. If there's one trait that I can't stand, it's smugness. Come to think of it, there are a few traits that I can't stand, but that's another post, surely. Being smug and self-satisfied does not really work with running a café, in my opinion, so we've been looking around for another place where we can get a decent blend. They do exist, but the real trick is the fineness of the grind. If the blend is too fine, it gets clogged in the group handle and begins to burn  (or rather, roast) as the water pushes through it. If it's too coarse, the water pours through it like a tap (faucet), producing nothing more than black water. So getting the grind right is paramount to producing a good cup of coffee. And if you drink espresso, then it's even more important, since an espresso is all about the taste of pure, unadulterated coffee without the addition of milk.
Anyway, we finally worked out (after much purchasing of incorrectly-ground beans) that the proper grind for our machine was a grinder setting of two-point-seven. This grind setting produced the best results.
The other thing with this Ascaso machine is that you need to pack the gun to the brim in order to get a decent cup.
And so, this morning, I filled the gun (properly referred to as a group handle, but back in my day, we all called them guns) with some of a Brazil blend that I bought the other day;

And tamped it down flat;

 Hard to really see properly in this picture, but the coffee needs to literally ooze from the spouts of the group handle. I was making myself a caffe latte, so I was using a Duralex glass. First designed in the late 1920s in France, these beautiful glasses are a staple in European households and Melbourne cafes. And they're tough. Very hard to break, but if you do, trying to pick up the broken shards is like trying to pick up an angry scorpion. I learnt long ago to use three or four paper serviettes in order to avoid getting cut.
Growing up, these glasses were what my Dad would use for drinking the wine that he used to make, while I sipped Tarax Lemonade out of them, and if I stop typing and look into the kitchen, I can see a few of them next to the sink, waiting to be me.

So, I flick the switch and about six to eight seconds later, the group handle begins to bleed coffee;
And on;

Till you get to the desired amount of liquid gold;

Looking at the photo above, you can just make out the three layers of the coffee shortly after it's poured from the gun. Black at the base, dark brown in the middle, and light brown on top. It begins to settle till you end up with this;

And, on top, it should look like this;

Depending on what blend of coffee you use, it will be in various shades of brown. From memory, I think a Kenyan and Columbian blend will produce a darker coating of crema on the surface. The stronger the coffee, the darker the surface.
The crema (translation- 'cream') comes from the oils produced by the bean. I think. I will readily admit that I'm not fully versed on the whole technical side of coffee. I just know how to make 'em.
Froth the milk until the palm of your hand gets hot. I will normally give the milk jug a sharp flick so that the milk mixes up a little. If left alone, the froth will tend to rise to the surface. This can produce a shoddy looking caffe latte and a pretty bad cappuccino.

Pour milk into the glass and the froth will separate from the milk so that you wind up with something like this;

Disregard my attempt at one of those stupid leaves that so many people bother with when making coffee. Some of them look so good that it's a shame to destroy them by drinking the actual coffee.
I buy coffee to drink, not to marvel at 'latte art', as they call it.
This coffee didn't turn out 100% correct if I was making it for a customer. Reason being that I think the layer of froth on top is a tad too much;

I usually aim for about the width of my little finger. But since I'm the customer, I'm not about to quibble with the result.
One teaspoon of sugar and it tasted fine, although the real test of a good cup of coffee is one where you don't have to add sugar. There was a New Zealander who used to own a hole-in-the-wall café in the city and he made the best damn coffee I've ever had. His coffees were easily drunk without needing sugar. If there is an art to making coffee, then that is an art form. Wherever you are, Peter, I hope you're doing well.

I've bought too many very, very bad coffees in my time. Those ones that taste like warm milk, with barely a hint of coffee flavour. Those ones where they've boiled the milk to within an inch of its life so that you take a first sip and scald your mouth. And then they add the further insult of taking your money for their efforts.
Never again. I've been a little more discerning in recent years and when I've gotten a bad cup of coffee, I've let them know it.
Thankfully, I don't buy as many coffees when I'm out and about.
I prefer to wait until I get home.

Thanks for reading!


  1. Very nice post on one of my favorite morning subjects! I must confess I'm one of those comatose who needs nearly half a quarter of coffee to get my day started... in my defense I'll say that the coffees I've found are rather, say, "unleaded".

    There was a little place near my work where they had a coffee machine like the one you described, with the big lever and all. They sold good coffee; alas, they fell victims to the bad economy and closed a couple of months back. Pity.

  2. Interesting post, Teeritz. I can imagine how good that latte must be. So with your cool Ascaso Dream machine, how many cups of coffee a day do you drink now? How do you deal with the caffeine-induced tremors? ( :

    I take my coffee black with no sugar. I always say, "don't you mess with my coffee!" In my opinion, the best for a pure black brew are Colombian (rich) and the hard to come by Philippine Barako (wine-like).

  3. A very interesting read. Momentary temptation to acquire a "real" coffee machine like that lovely Ascaso. I must admit to being astonished when the latte construction got to the teaspoon of sugar step. Summer afternoon iced coffee is delightful with a bit of the sweet stuff, but to me it kills the essence of morning coffee. But when have I tried it last? Perhaps I'm thinking of the way they like it in Mexico. I'll give it a go. Thanks for the great post. You've acquired another reader.

  4. By coincidence, Tori's making a French press just as I finish reading this, so I'm reading it with the actual aroma of coffee in my nose. Delightful! (:

  5. I don't like coffee myself, but I do like to make coffee for my boyfriend. Not by use of a machine, I use whole beans, a grinder and a cafetiere for it. SO despite my dislike of the taste of coffee, I did like reading your blog post a lot!

  6. Great article, Teeritz. I've taken to using an Aeropress for my coffee. It's especially fun for those of us who like to fiddle with the process until it's near perfect. The combination of water temperature, quantity and grind of beans and length of steeping time all greatly affect the results. When done right, it's fantastic.

  7. @ Miguel, being Spanish, you can probably easily withstand that amount of coffee. I probably drink the same amount, but spread out over the course of the day.

    @ Ton, I generally have three coffees a day. Two in the morning and one after lunch. More than that and I get a little queasy. After six pm, I switch to a cup of tea after dinner and maybe a herbal tea at around nine o'clock. It's easy to overdo things, but I've found that having my own machine means that I don't get caffeine cravings like I used to, since I know I can have one almost whenever I want. And I've learned how much I can have without feeling seedy.
    You take yours black with no sugar? You are made of stern stuff, sir. I have a long black from time to time, but I sometimes feel a little woozy later on.

    @ TonysVision, my wife doesn't take sugar either. She says it kills the taste of the coffee. Every now and then, I'll have it without sugar and it's a nice taste. really captures the flavour of the bean.

    @ Ted, great! It's my equivalent of Smell-O-Vision. Reminds me of that old Real Estate trick where, when putting your house up for sale, they encourage you to put a loaf of bread in the oven just before an open-for-inspection so that prospective buyers get the aroma of freshly-baked bread as they walk through your house.

    @ spiderwebz, we have a tonne of cafetieras in the house. I'll be breaking one out soon when I take the Ascaso in for servicing.

    @ Joe V, the Aeropress sounds interesting. It can become a fiddly process, this pursuit of coffee perfection.
    I'd love to get to the States one day so that I can drink the 'diner coffee' that I saw in movies growing up. Johnny Depp once said that even though he lived in France for a decade, he never got used to the coffee there and prefers the stuff that's served out of those bulbous glass pots.

    Thanks all. I can see that I may have to do a small follow-up post to cover some other aspects that I neglected to mention.

  8. Mmmmm.

    Now I feel bad about ordering that flat white! But, this is a great post. I'm going to obviously talk about Lyon street next week so I'll definitely reference your article.

    1. Nonsense, flat whites are fine. I used to cringe when guys would order cappuccinos (actually, it's 'cappuccini' if I'm talking plural) because they always strike me as a feminine kind of coffee. The kind a 1970s divorcee would order...before trying to seduce the waiter.

  9. Teeritz, milk and sugar buffer taste, not caffeine content. So the effect of my two cups of black coffee does not differ from your two cups of latte. What latte does is make you believe that you are drinking a less potent brew!

    Okay, I need my black now.

    1. Yes, Ton, but if you're having a cup of black coffee, isn't it a larger amount of coffee to begin with? My lattes are just under a third of a cup of coffee. Are your black coffees a full cup or are you having them shorter?

    2. That's true, although for me, the amount depends on the need of the moment.

  10. I like your post. Love those copper machines!
    I've have very few coffees this side of the pond that didn't need sugar but it's the rule in Europe. I generaly like a drip rather than espresso, or cafe au lait rather than caffe latte. But my favorite is Greek (or Turkish) coffee which I get at the Greek festival once a year unless I make it myself.

  11. Also, there's a hipster coffee shop (you have to drink it before it's cool, I like to say) here in my town.
    Here's their menu:
    Set the tempo...choose your espresso!
    Organic Green Planet, Metronome Blend, or Single Origin
    pour over
    cold brew
    syphon brew
    french press

  12. Oh goodness...must return to this post when I have more time to fully enjoy, but I love the photos!

    Many coffee fanatic shops here in Olympia, WA, which is a wonderful thing. I a lot of coffee making gadgets, but so far no nice espresso machine. Most recent and current favorite is a Clever Coffee Dripper, which is (as they bill it) almost like a cross between a pour over and a French Press in that it's a filtered cone, but rather than draining straight through, it has a stopper at the bottom. You grind the beans a bit coarse (like the press pot) pour in the hot water, and leave it to steep for a few minutes before setting the cone on top of a cup, which makes the stopper open and the coffee drains through. It really does make fine coffee.

    I confess, I just bought a little kitchen scale, one major purpose of which is to measure coffee and such more precisely. I are such a geek. I'm hoping it will help with the Aeropress as well. I use one some of the time (it doesn't fit my take-to-work tumbler, so it's more a weekend toy), and once in awhile it makes a spectacular cup, but I don't seem to have the knack for consistent spectatularism with it yet.