Latte Art Improvements…

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So I started this blog a couple of weeks ago, and did three posts in rapid concession, decided to leave it a little just so that I could really update with something relevant. Here are a few photos of my recent free pour latte art.

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These were all taken on the same day. I don’t know what happened, but something simply clicked. The first two were taken at work, and the last was taken at home. It really does just take practice, recognising where you’re going wrong, and then making note of it as you pour. I’ve been making sure to watch the ‘pros’ in my store, and see what they’re doing, and I’m not. I’m quite happy with the consistency that I’ve now got with my pours, and the symmetry I’m starting to achieve (which I mentioned in my previous latte art post)

I tried my hand at a tulip as well, really not that happy with it, but only because I’m comparing it to almost perfection. You can certainly see that it’s a tulip, but I’d like to get some definition, and more control over each push to for each level.

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Coffe Tunes #1

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As mentioned before, as well as being a Barista, I’m also a musician. This means (unsurprisingly) that I listen to music in my spare time, on my walk to work, whilst I’m at work, whilst I’m cooking, making coffee… You get the idea…

I thought it would be nice to share some of the stuff that I’m listening to at the moment. Some may be saddened to hear that it IS NOT your typical ‘cafe’ music. I have a huge appreciation for good Jazz etc, but when you listen to it for hours on end everyday, and often the same standards played slightly differently, it can get a little boring. (No one ever plays new jazz tunes!)

So simply put, I’m going to post links to some of my own Spotify playlists labelled ‘Coffee Tunes #’. Some of these tracks probably won’t be used in a cafe, but they are certainly a joy to listen to. Personally I’m a huge fan of record labels such as Ninja Tune, Warp, Planet Mu, Werk, and more a like, so check them out. Leave some comments too. What do you listen to?

Click HERE or the image above for the Spotify link. Enjoy!

Latte Art: Where I am and Where I Want to be…

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So this may be one of my more ‘pretentious’ posts. Latte art is looked on in a couple of ways. Some think it’s simply a pretty pattern, some think it’s just a bunch of hipsters who need to release their ‘creativity ‘ on the world as they don’t have anywhere else to do it, others think it’s a sign if good milk, and a good espresso (possible mixed in a little bit of the first two comments)

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For me, it’s a bit if fun, it makes pouring that standard Latte you’ve poured hundreds of times a little different, gives it a bit of character, and makes it your own little challenge. Sometimes you’ll be pleased, sometimes you won’t. Others will go “That’s amazing” where as the experienced might go “You did this wrong, you should have done that, try this net time”.

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This reminds me a little bit of my experience making music. Some may recognise that I’m a musician as well as a Barista. I studied ‘Creative Music Techniology’ for four years at the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama. The music career is hard to get into, and to be honest, I haven’t tried hard enough yet. This is one of the reasons I left my teaching career opportunity to come back to the cafe industry. Shifts give you extra hours of light in the day to do something other than get up, eat, go to work, come home, eat, then sleep. I have the opportunity to get up in the morning , make music, go to work in the afternoon, then eat and bed.

Anyway, I digress. My point to all of that was it’s connection with music, sometimes I’ll write a song, produce a track for a band, then you’ll have someone sitting over your shoulder telling you what they think. That person will either be ‘the general public’, that say “that sounds good”, “that’s awful”, or “that’s the best song I’ve ever heard, how have you made that”. You then have the people in the know, who say “have you tried doing it like this”, “you’ve done it all wrong”, “why did you do that”.

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Latte art is the same, the general public simply look at it and go, “that’s nice”, it may encourage the to come back to see what they get next. Between baristas (like musicians) , it’s a little bit like a competition. Who can do what, how can we improve, who’s the best etc.

At the end of the day I think it’s like this (similar to my philosophy in creating music). You start the piece, you finish it, you make up your mind as to whether or not you’re happy with it. Take on criticism, but don’t take it to heart, at the end of the day you’re the main critique here, you’re the person who needs to be happy with what you’ve done, this way, you will find that sense of achievement. If all you do is listen to what others say, you will constantly think that you’re no good, when infact, you’ve had fun, and done something you enjoy. It’s not a waste if time, you’re simply putting your mark on it.

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Have I made this out to be way big a deal than it needs to be? Maybe. It’s possibly an example of what my personality is like. I have a tattoo in my arm (my first and my last so far). It’s a Koi Carp. One of the original meanings for having a Koi tattooed is ‘to always better yourself’. This has been the way I’ve lived my life for while. I want to learn, I want to get better, I want to be my own critic and see my own flaws, to learn how to do it better. I will ask for help when it’s needed, and I will take on what’s said with a pinch of salt.

Throughout this post the images show a rough idea of where I started, an where I am now. I’ve improved, and there are certainly things that I want to do better. I like symmetry in Latte art, and I also like consistency (one of the reasons they all look quite similar). I’m currently just trying to find the control to do exactly what I want to do, rather than just sloshing the milk in and hoping for the best. These photos are both from work, and at home. The two below are at home, using the newer 12 oZ Rattleware pitcher I purchased.

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What’s your art like?

Home Machine Maintenance…

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So today I decided to do the thing that I’ve dreaded for a long time. Take my home machine completely apart, clean it, and put it back together. As mentioned in my previous post, I own a second hand Gaggia Classic, it’s only been since I’ve owned the machine that I’ve learned about proper machine maintenance, and it’s only been recently, about a year after purchase that I’ve started to delve inside the machine and really started to take a look.

This is what saddened me when I looked inside….

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What you see here is some form of limescale build up and corrosion. It’s not the worst you’ll ever see, but it’s certainly not the best. I thought this might be normal, you look into the bottom of your kettle and you may see something similar. It wasn’t until I had my Dad send his machine to me for me to look at, and I realised that his (which is considerably older) looks brand spanking new compared to mine.

It’s quite daunting when you first open up the top of an espresso machine, you’re met by wires, bolts, boilers, pumps, everything.

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When I was younger I put together my own Computer from ‘scratch’ (motherboard, graphics card and the like). In all honesty this, like putting together a computer, is as easy as putting a toddlers Lego toy together. Let me remind you that these things are not computers, the wires don’t carry information, they simply carry power to the right places (it’s like drawing dot to dot) as long as you can remember how to count from 1-10, you can remember which way round to unplug and plug these back in again.

Everything else underneath the wires are simply nuts, bolts, screws, and thermostats.

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Thermostats are basically what tells the boiler what temperature to get to before turning off. The Classic has two of these (one for the water/espresso, and one for the steam wand/milk). This is one thing you DO NOT want to mix up as the steamers thermostat is considerably hotter than the water, you’ll simply end up burning every single shot if you put them back the wrong way round. Luckily, mine had a red dot on one and not on the other, so I could remember which was which.

So here’s where I stopped taking photos as I wanted to concentrate with this being my first time. (I also had a cat walking around on the work surface, and another clawing at my feet throughout this process, you can imagine the language I started using). Before move on, say hello to Dodger and Lola (they aren’t ours, cat sitting for my partners sister)

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So I proceeded to take apart the boiler, soak them in some cleaner, scrub them, and put them all back together again with some brand new seals, this being the reason I believe for the build up around the boiler (old seal causing a leak). Regardless of what I said earlier, I did plug a couple of things in the wrong way, but I managed to work out which ones were which and get it right. Home espresso has never tasted better.

So what’s my point to all of this? I know that this post has been hefty anyway, but imagine this. A coffee shop opens its doors, in the morning pulls an average of 50 shots per hour (dependant on customer intake), it’s open for 8 hours, so that’s around 400 shots. That machine will be back flushed and cleaned at the end of the day to get rid of the days coffee residue on the shower head etc. These machines are used so regularly that the machine is being constantly flushed through with new filtered water, home machines however are not so lucky. You may think “well I only use my machine for one or two drinks a day so why should I ever need to clean it like you have”. Well, the answer being what I’ve said. By only using it once or twice, you’re not flushing the system through like a busy cafe, you’re leaving water to go stale in the machine, coffee around the shower head with oils that will seep into every crack, maybe milk in the steam wand (hopefully not). If anything we need to be even more careful with home espresso machines, personally I find that after a couple weeks I can taste the dirt seeing into my espresso, I know then that it’s been way too long since I’ve done a proper back flush.

If you’ve invested in a machine, make sure you know how to clean and maintain it. I personally have started to make this a routine. Wiping the showerscreen, flushing through fresh water, and purging the steam wand after every use. Back flushing with clean water after each session. Back flushing with cleaner and soaking the Portafilter, basket, steam wand tip and showerscreen in cleaner each week. Using filtered water, and still descaling the machine regularly. Doing things like this will ensure that you get the best out of your machine, and all the money you invest into good quality coffee.

Take a look at some of these links for some useful information, and also for spare parts (mainly for Gaggia Classic) if you need them.

Ethan Zonca runs through taking apart a Gaggia Classic

Mark supplies some great advice and spare parts for a number of Gaggia products

Happy Donkey are great for cleaning products

Some great information from the Home Barista Forums on regular cleaning etc

This is my setup atm…

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So here’s a slightly blurry instagram of my current home setup. To a lot of budding home baristas, this image will be quite familiar. The espresso machine is a Gaggia Classic, often seen as a great starting point for people wanting to get serious about coffee at home. This is often compared to the Rancillo Silvia. I don’t personally have any experience with the Silvia, but a common modification to the classic is using the Silvia’s steam wand. This was my first modification when I bought the Classic second hand from gumtree (£50 bargain), and fortunately it was in pretty good condition too, seeing as the previous owner didn’t really have a clue how to use it.

Changing the steam wand made an immediate difference. The extended length, smaller diameter, and pinhole end help to increase the pressure of the steamer, making good quality microfoam in the milk. (For anyone who doesn’t know, this is the term used for steamed milk where it has a silky shine and creamy texture, with no visible bubbles)

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More recently I have delved into other types of modification. You may notice the Portafilter at the front with the pressure gauge on it. Unfortunately I don’t have the knowledge of how to put one of these together myself, so I bought this online for £30 with the idea in mind that it could be passed around family and friends quite easily if needed. This allowed me to drop the machines pressure down to 9 bar instead of the insane 15 bar it had been set to in the factory (I’ve never used pods, never plan to)

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The grinder is my downfall. This relates back to my time at Starbucks. It’s basically a rebranded dualit bur grinder. Luckily enough, it does an alright job, and I came across a handy tutorial about how to squeeze some extra fine settings out of it. (Unfortunately these weren’t only re-branded by Starbucks, they had also been calibrated to their retail espresso machines, if you bought them as a pair then great, else it was a pain to dial in with the Classic until I discovered the modification). You may also notice that my Portafilter fits in there? Well my partner was quite amused when I pulled out the saw attachment from a penknife and sat on the sofa for an hour or so sawing away to make that happen, grinding straight to the basket is just how it should be done! (I plan to upgrade to an Iberital MC2 when I can justify it)

I have two milk jugs. One is a standard 600ml jug from the wonderful people at ‘Happy-Donkey’, but after bringing home a smaller Motta jug from work I realised that 600ml was way to big for the machine. I’ve just had a Rattleware 12oZ (340ml I thin ) jug delivered, which is wonderful to play with, and really makes a huge difference. Along with this I also ordered one of their ‘barista towels’. This does a great job of cleaning up and drying the Portafilter etc, before this I was using some cheap white microfibre cloths from Tesco, which as you can imagine look grubby after barely a single use.

I now have two tampers. Again the first is from Happy-Donkey, I used this for quite some time, but it it’s about a millimetre or so too small for the Classic’s basket (to some who won’t know, this makes a big difference, and also makes things messy!), I thus have bought a lovely tamper from ‘Knock’, which measures at 58.35, perfect for the Classic’s stock basket, and is wonderfully paired with a 17g Strada basket (go look them up, there are debates as to whether these are not as good as VST baskets, but I have no experience with the latter yet so cannot comment)

A Greinstein (think that’s right) domestic knock-box, this sits next to the machine and saves me diving into the bin for my basket every time it falls out when emptying the Portafilter. EVERY HOME BARISTA SHOULD HAVE ONE OF THESE.

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Finally. The baristas friends. A set of scales and a big ole timer. The scales are cheap from Amazon, and when I finally got a set that actually worked from the supplier, I have found them to be a valuable tool in helping me dose consistently. The timer was purely an impulse buy from a Tesco (£6), I got sick and tired of having to unlock my iPhone and find the timer app (even though newer features in iOS 7 make it easier, it’s still a pain) so this sits on top of my machine just to remind me of shot times etc (also helps when I’m brewing in other ways too).

So this is where I work…

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So this is where I work...

Just over two months ago, I started working at Waterloo Gardens Teahouse based in Cardiff. This wonderful tea house was created by owner Kas Ali, a delightful gentlemen with a passion for good quality tea, and top notch coffee sourced from some amazing farmers and UK Roasters.

This isn’t my first venture into the Cafe industry. I started by spending five years with the well known company Starbucks. Many people have both good, and bad things to say about this, especially with the ‘tax scandal’ that surprised and shocked people all over the nation. Despite this, I owe them my gratitud for giving me a great work ethic, for meeting some great people (both colleagues and customers), and like many this sparking my passion for coffee.

After Starbucks, I spent a year as a teacher in a local academy working with children between the ages of 14-16 (GCSE) with ‘challenging behaviour’. This was a great experience where I got to share one of my other passions, music. Despite having a comfortable salary, and having a great career ahead of me, I decided that the job just wasn’t for me at this time of my life, and I had a hunger to get back to the hustle and bustle of a cafe, and explore the world of coffee even more.

This is where Waterloo came in. I’d heard great things from friends, wondered onto their website, and discovered that they were hiring. I delved even further into the website, made a couple of visits to meet the staff, and discovered their passion for great coffee from roasters such as Has Bean, Squaremile, James Gourmet and more. They share their knowledge of tea with honesty an experience, and it was then that I realised these guys were the real deal, and when I decided that I wanted to be a part of it.

This blog will be a little self centered, in a sense that it’s about my journey and exploits into learning more about good coffee (and tea). The title is the nickname I’ve been given in the Teahouse, pioneered by an extremely friendly moustache wearing gentlemen called Alex, and it stuck within the first day of it being given to me, despite others trying to change it.

Please keep checking back for posts, get in contact if you have any questions, or if anything I say needs correcting (I’m still learning in every aspect), and please go and check out the Waterloo Tea website (click on the image) as both there and at home is where I will be learning and doing everything I post on this blog.

Time for an espresso. (Has Bean – Costa Rica Finca La Casa Vista al Valle Red Honey Villa Sarchi)