Anthony Lawrence of UCC Coffee uses his 20 years of industry experience to solve common problems with three very simple solutions.
Espresso coffee has a Jekyll and Hyde personality at times. Just as much as it can be extremely simple and straightforward, espresso can turn, almost on an unseen whim, to a stubborn, unyielding, obstructive obstacle that only wants to ruin your day. Thinking back on my experience working and operating cafés, it amazes how far we have come regarding the technology we now have at our fingertips. How we achieved anything resembling a decent coffee more than 10 years ago surprises me endlessly. Our jobs are defined and determined by our repeat customers. Our success is measured by our consistency, and that all hinges on this fickle essential ingredient.
What would you think if I told you that it is possible to control the whims of espresso during service while not spending an extra precious cent on new equipment? And it only involves small adjustments to your existing set up. All that’s needed is to focus on three seemingly “overlooked” areas of coffee service: Cleanliness. Workflow. Technique.
Cleaning is the most important thing we as baristas do between each order.
A clean workstation is an effective altar with which we can pump out order after order as quickly and consistently as possible. A clean workstation generates less random events that can shift our coffee quality away from that coveted sweet spot. It goes beyond simply dry wiping our portafilter baskets and steam wands, and into the more unseen areas.
We’re talking about water quality. Not from the filter but the quality of water as it comes out of the group heads. Backflushing with a blind basket throughout the day separates a great barista from a legendary barista, and it takes no time at all. Do a blind backflush with blind baskets a few times, running eight to 10 seconds. This can flush all that build-up out of your group head.
Water makes up more than 95 per cent of our espresso material, so if it’s not clean, how can our coffee taste good? Take things a further step and really clean out your group handles during the shift to eliminate any build-up before it affects the quality of your shots.
My advice to baristas when chasing that perfect cup is to think big, act small. What is the first step toward getting your workstation in order? Keep it clean. Keep it at a constant state of readiness and your coffee will never taste better, or worse for that matter. That tight proximity is what consistency is all about.
If we view cleanliness as foundational to good tasting coffee, then workflow is the facilitator to getting tasty coffee out to our customers quickly. A coffee station with good workflow makes getting through orders effortless. A coffee station without it becomes a chore. A good friend of mine once referred to being in this situation as “death by a thousand cuts”, where you don’t notice the points of friction in your workstation until you have experienced them many times to the point of frustration or pain.
Tiny factors such as putting your grinder too close to a wall or installing the coffee machine at an obtuse angle can create bottle necks in the way a barista moves about. If a barista must spend a few seconds moving from point A to B, think how much additional time is spent – or wasted – when they replicate that movement a thousand times over. It adds significant minutes to the overall service time.
I once worked at a very busy coffee house sandwiched between two massive weekend markets. The coffee machine was jammed into the very end of the bar with barely four-square feet of space. When it came down to our busy periods, it was impossible the solitary barista could fit into this workstation to tread above the wave of coffee orders. We couldn’t rebuild the bar, so we got creative and elected the order runner to texture milk-and-pour orders on the outer side of the bar. This simple solution made busy days fun and took care of our biggest workflow issue.
So, if your workstation is not working for you, get creative. Try new positions. Moving your grinder from the left-hand side or the milk station to your service point can make all the difference. Think big, act small.
If we view cleaning as keeping your workstation in a state of readiness and workflow as the ease in which you complete your orders, then technique is how consistently you handle the coffee when in service. My approach to espresso service is to be deliberate and consistent. Knowing exactly how you are handling your coffee and how to repeat those steps are the essentials to gaining good technique.
Think about the journey the espresso takes from hopper to cup – dosing, tamping, then extracting. Are you being consistent with those steps? Are you tamping the same way? Are you dosing consistently? When approaching these key variables my thinking is this: where can we get out of the way of the coffee and let it do its thing.
Any variations in these areas can create very different tasting results, even if the difference may at first seem minor. Are you being rough with loading in your shot? This can disrupt your tamped coffee and increase the chances of channelling in your coffee. It is better to move at an easy pace during this crucial stage, not rushing to the point where you are slamming your equipment around.
If you want to keep your dose more consistent, then incorporate a scale into your workflow. If you couple that with a dosing cup that fits to your portafilter basket, you will be surprised how much this can help the transfer of the correct dose while minimising spills without slowing down your pace of service. Other tools that can help with tamping are tools like grind distributors, an automated tamper, or even a simple push with your hand to spread the coffee grounds in the basket to ensure a more even tamp. These tools are readily available so a small investment in this step between grinder to coffee machine can ‘help the barista get out of the coffee’s way,’ so to speak.
As a barista trainer for UCC, my goal first and foremost is to make a barista’s job easy. As espresso coffee has seemingly infinite variables, my advice to any barista at any level is to focus on what you can control, which are the areas of cleaning, workflow, and technique. Keep the focus on your workstation cleanliness; arranging your workstation to work for you not against you while keeping an eye on how you are dosing, tamping and loading in your shot will help keep you on track. Your customers will thank you, as well as yourself.
For more information, visit ucc-anz.com
Thanks to Calum Mawson for his assistance in this article.
This article appears in the June 2023 edition of BeanScene. Subscribe HERE.