Hello, my name is Amy, and I am a barista. It was never my ambition to become a barista and I probably won’t always be a barista. But I have to admit, it’s a pretty handy skill to have acquired—especially for someone who cares for coffee as much as I do. Today I’m here to share my passion for caffeinated hot drinks with you.
Working in a busy coffee shop can be pretty insane. You order, let’s say, a medium cappuccino. I start making your drink: arms flailing everywhere, tamping a three-shot, extracting the espresso at precisely the right time to ensure the shot doesn’t “die”, and keeping an eye on the milk temperature while making sure it’s chirping lightly enough that the froth is free of bubbles. I’m also supposed to chat to you while I do this, and I do. You think that it’s easy because the machine in McDonald’s can make ‘the same drink’ in half the time. In actual fact, it’s pretty hard to make good coffee in good time.
So first things first: Please be polite to your barista. We’ll make anything you want—extra-hot, extra-shot, decaff, soya, syrup, extra syrup, you name it. Just please be nice to us.
At the same time, we understand that you’re paying a pretty fat stack of cash for your drink, so you’ve got to know that it’s been made perfectly. So I decided to share some secrets of the basic espresso drinks so you can judge the quality of your favourite “jungle juice” (as my dad so bizarrely puts it).
Espresso: The taste of your espresso will depend on the blend, but it should not be sour or weak. There is a correct way to extract and serve espresso and, if the barista has followed the method properly, you’ll taste the espresso at its best. The barista should warm the cup beforehand so that the espresso stays fresher and hotter for longer; as it is a short drink, the heat will obviously dissipate quicker. It should also be served immediately. If an espresso is left to sit, it will “die”—that is, the taste will change and it will become sour. It should also have a golden-brown “crema” on the surface—a few millimeters thick, completely covering the espresso. This comes from the release of carbon dioxide when the espresso is extracted under pressure.
Americano: An Americano is not a regular drip coffee—it’s much, much better. The Americano is simply shots of espresso with water added; a true coffee-lovers drink, by adding water to the espresso, the flavours are coaxed out—as this brilliant blogger suggests, we baristas know that it’s just like adding a little water to a good Scotch to bring out the florals. Like an espresso, it should have a golden-brown crema on the surface, which differentiates it from a standard black coffee. If you’re a black coffee drinker and you haven’t already switched to an Americano, do it. The lovely, rich flavour is entirely different and so, so good.
Cappuccino: A cappuccino is a layered drink, split into three “sections”: espresso on the bottom, then milk and foam in equal parts—although you can request a “wetter” cappuccino, with more milk, or a “dry” capp, with more foam than milk. You can tell if a cappuccino has been made well by the texture of the foam: the milk has been steamed to expand it, which creates bubbles, but you shouldn’t be able to see the bubbles. In fact, the foam should be so thick that if you lay a spoon across the it, the spoon should not sink into the drink, but stay sitting on top. Also, to really enjoy a cappuccino, make sure you have it in a mug rather than a take-away cup with a lid.
Latte: If you observe a standard latte in a clear glass, it should be a light brown colour throughout with a pinky finger’s width of foam at the top of the drink. As with a cappuccino, the foam shouldn’t have visible bubbles, but rather it should be a smooth, glossy texture. If you’d like your latte made differently—with less foam, more foam, more coffee, less coffee, or extra hot—you can simply ask and any good barista will be able to make it exactly as you want it.
Flat white: A good flat white is the best way to distinguish a good barista. We steam the milk in a whirlpool to really eke out all the bubbles, leaving the entire milk with a richer, creamier texture and a glossier appearance than normal latte milk (this special milk is known as ‘microfoam’). Then the barista should pour your drink so that there is a visible pattern—a heart, a florette or a tulip are standard designs but it’s possible to create all sorts of “latte art” with a flat white. If you’re used to ordering stronger lattes, try a flat white instead. The ratio of coffee to milk is higher, allowing the taste and quality of the espresso to shine through.