My specialty independent craft coffee barista class at Artisan couldn’t have come at a better time.
I’d just been on a date with a Swedish animator. She was two years older than me, she had a nose ring and had studied at somewhere called Hyper Island.
I had no idea how it was going. The usual signifiers – a laugh, a little hair touching maybe – seemed to feature very little in her stoical vocabulary. At the Tate Modern the only thing she stopped to admire was an entirely black wall mounting that I’m not even sure was part of the exhibit.
Just as I was preparing myself for the news I’d never be cool enough, she told me in her tentative low-key growl that it might be fun to hang out again.
All I needed was a breakthrough date idea: something breathtakingly hip, so beautifully considered that it thawed her Viking heart. Something like the coffee school at the Ealing branch of Artisan, one of the emerging players in London’s exploding craft coffee wars.
There’s actually a statistical correlation between coffee and humourlessness. Swedes are among the biggest consumers of coffee in the world, lagging behind Norway and Finland, the only countries to invent franking machines and the Moomins.
And sure enough, the ghost of a smile began to appear on her face as we crossed the threshold into a spacious coffee Mecca. The aromas hit us first, of course – rich, dizzying wafts that unbalanced us as we were ushered to the back. Around us were all the familiar coffee shop accoutrements: typographic posters, red brick, muffins stacked on slates and wooden crate light shades.
We made it to the educational area sectioned off by a set of very tactile ripped sack curtains, and sat down at a thick-set wooden table for six. Our teacher for the morning, Alessandro, greeted us as he tended to an array of kettles and other apparatus.
I saw the projector on the table and realised this wasn’t just going to be about mere tasting – I might actually be expected to learn something. And yes, artisanal coffee’s getting huge and even Starbucks is changing its ways and we should all have a think about what exactly it is we’re spending £2.50 on every single morning rather than saving for a mortgage. But do enough people really want barista-level mastery of the subject?
That question was answered as the seats around us filled up. A very normal, smiley young couple next to us had treated each other for Christmas to not only this morning’s class, but an entire Introduction to Coffee certification endorsed by Europe’s Coffee qualifying body, the SCAE. Another guy told us eagerly how he’d been getting into Bulletproof Coffee, a fairly recent innovation laced with butter and brain-boosting oils. He’d read all about Alessandro’s credentials (competing in international barista competitions) and wanted to pick his brain on the best coffees and brewing techniques.
The morning started off with a slurp tasting of eight speciality coffees through which Alessandro demonstrated the basics: the optimal 55g of coffee per lt. of water, extracted (the technical term for brewing) for four minutes while the ‘crust’ forms (a reaction produced by the release of CO2). With no milk to dilute the flavours and with eight to compare, the diversity was a revelation. I suddenly found myself recognising words I’d seen on coffee bags like ’nutty’ and ‘notes of raspberry’.
Alessandro explained that coffee covers the entire breadth of our taste palette – but there’s a complex art to every stage of production that goes on behind the finest quality beans we know as speciality coffees.
Once he got started the pace was frantic, leaving me little time to jot down notes. He took us through coffee’s historical key points – from its discovery in Ethiopia, to London’s ‘Penny Universities’, where people would gather from miles around to drink coffee and get a cheap education. We learned about every aspect of production and how variations affect the bean’s flavour profile – from the earthy flavours produced by drying the beans on the ground, to the deeper and more interesting flavours that come from growing beans at higher altitudes.
I was disappointed that the class didn’t involve much more actual drinking of coffee, except for the end when we were invited to pull our own espresso shots. You have to pack the ground coffee into the portafilter just right, aiming for an optimal extraction time of 25 seconds. I hit 26: my espresso was wonderful, but could it have been just that little bit better? They wouldn’t let me try again though.
If you’re not a coffee evangelist yet, the increasingly saturating ‘culture’ around it can seem a little OTT. But to enter into Alessandro’s world for a morning is to see immediately why people get carried away with themselves. For one thing, the taste of a speciality coffee well brewed makes you realise just how much of a rip-off the big chains really are (it’s because their beans are prioritised for short extraction times). For another, you see the ritual of brewing it at home for what it is: one of those half-art, half-sciences you can experiment and tweak with your whole life and still be perfecting.
More to the point, if you’re looking for new date ideas, learning a skill together in the morning is pretty refreshing. I wasn’t cool enough for her in the end, but Artisan Coffee School certainly helped me keep up appearances for a little while longer.
words Lawrence Hunt