One of our favourite baristas, Jen Murray, is busy checking out the worldwide coffee scene. Jen has compiled a few tips on how to streamline your coffee-making procedure and improve your efficiency, whilst maintaining the all-important quality and taste. A must-read for the professional barista, Jen’s tips will give all of you home baristas the inside track on industry best-practice techniques

Stepping behind the bar in someone else’s café can be a bit daunting, even for someone with many years industry experience. In my role as Head Trainer for Five Senses, café owners often invite me to put my skills into practice in their café, frequently during their peak ‘busy’ periods!

Don’t get me wrong — this is a privilege and one of the best parts of my job. Checking out specialty cafés keeps me inspired and informed. I am, however, constantly amazed by the expectation that I will dazzle them immediately with my first shot. Stepping into a poor workflow, or even a different one, can cause even the best barista to fumble.

In my opinion, there are two types of cafés. There are specialty cafés (my type!) which focus on quality first, speed second. These places usually employ passionate baristi who take pride in the result in the cup, rather than the speed at which they can deliver. These cafés are frequented by educated coffee lovers, who are after an ‘espresso experience’ rather than any old caffeine fix, and they are gaining in popularity. I’ve heard people call this style ‘culinary coffee’ which I believe is spot on.

In sharp contrast are the vast majority of cafés whose focus is firmly fixed on speed and cost-cutting. If there is one thing that can be said in favour of these cafés, it’s that most of the time they have an incredibly effective workflow. With such a high focus on the speed of delivery, they have been forced to develop systems for coping with high demand. Unfortunately, 99% of the time, this is achieved by cutting corners and taking shortcuts, which vastly reduces the quality of the coffee in the cup.

It also concerns me that when speed is made the top priority, quality barista training is virtually non-existent. This means that poor techniques (which have often been made up on the spot) pass from barista to barista like a bad game of Chinese Whispers. For example, alarmingly frequently I find that baristas speed up extraction times by under-dosing or making the grinds coarser. I’ve seen extractions based on this ‘technique’ which gush out in five seconds or less, resulting in a watery and tasteless shot.

The average coffee drinker (ie one who isn’t directly involved in the coffee industry and who wouldn’t consider him or herself a coffee geek), usually equates the quality of the coffee in the cup, with the type of bean used. For instance, if they like a particular brand or blend, they expect that it will always taste the same, no matter where they go or who makes it. Although they have a small part of the equation right (the quality of the bean), your average coffee consumer knows very little about the varietals that go into creating a great cup; blends, roasts, origins, and the list goes on …

Therein lies the big dilemma faced by quality-driven cafés: how can they deliver the quality they want in a reasonable amount of time? It all comes down to good preparation and organisation. Workflow — it’s really important!

As consumers learn more about coffee and become more discerning, the concept of ‘culinary coffee’ is growing rapidly, and I see many cafés trying to move forward on this issue of quality over speed. Once they realise just how much this involves, their biggest obstacle is accepting that it takes longer to create a good cup ‘sans’ the shortcuts. So I’ve developed a step-by-step workflow which I teach in new cafés in order to establish good habits.

  1. Prepare a clean milk jug with the right amount of cold milk and place beside the steam wand
  2. Remove portafilter (‘PF’)
  3. Knock out spent grinds
  4. Give PF a quick wipe with a dry tea towel (I typically fix this under the grinder or attach it to my apron)
  5. Turn on grinder (if you have a slow grinder, you may do this as step one)
  6. Dose into clean PF, taking care to move the PF back and forth to get as even a dose as possible
  7. Turn off grinder once the PF is close to full
  8. Collapse grinds — tap PF lightly a consistent number of times on the bench or grinder (once or twice will do)
  9. Top up PF with remaining grinds (you should not need to turn the grinder back on)
  10. Collapse again, then level off into dosing chamber
  11. Tamp coffee bed with a correctly sized, quality tamper
  12. Quick flush of group head
  13. Insert PF and immediately begin extraction
  14. Place cups under the spouts
  15. Purge steam wand
  16. Insert milk jug and begin steaming milk (while monitoring extractions)
  17. Turn off steam wand
  18. Quick purge and wipe of steam wand
  19. Pour drinks and serve
  20. Start again!

Whilst this might seem like a lengthy process at first, it’s surprising how quickly it becomes second nature through repetition. Let’s not kid ourselves, there are certainly quicker ways to make a cuppa, but thankfully there are increasing numbers of cafés which are just not willing to budge on quality.

Hopefully, the times they are a‐changing! Smart coffee consumers will soon learn that for the same price and just a few more minutes of their time, they can be enjoying a cup that not only satisfies their craving for caffeine, but also allows them to taste something that often, unfortunately, remains locked in the bean due to bad technique. It’s all about workflow — good workflow and well-honed technique, combined with great beans, delivers a truly memorable coffee. Just what we all want!

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