Before I dive into the questions, he's not a barrister but a barista, as Kevin keeps telling me. Yes there is a difference. I know you thought they were the same - or is it just me? So here's a teachable moment for those of you that don't know:
a person who is specially trained in the making and serving of coffee drinks, as in a coffee bar.
(in England) a lawyer who is a member of one of the Inns of Court and who has the privilege of pleading in
the higher courts or any lawyer
I jumped right in and interviewed a locally brewed South African barista - and I had so many questions. Now I know a lot of you think that I am such a serious coffee drinker because of how much I love it (and how many litres I drink a day - think it's two because they say you should drink about 2 litres of water a day and I just add coffee for extra flavour) but I don't think I am the most discerning or knowledgeable for that matter. And so I was able to reveal all my ignorance on these caffeinated matters and have the expert keep me informed. Here are some of the questions I have always wanted to ask about coffee. You might have a completely different set of questions then leave a comment at the end I will ask them in the next session - but for the moment we'll just stick to mine.
Q: I am a new coffee drinker and I go to the shops and there are so many different flavours, how do you choose a good coffee? How do you know where to start?
A: I think you have to know what you want. Do you want strong coffee or mild coffee, decaf, regular, or flavoured coffee. A lot of people don't even know that you can get flavoured coffee. I think you need to know some things to make the choice. For example: There is a coffee called 'Blue Mountain' - this is a very rare and expensive coffee that only comes from a certain area in Jamaica, it's some of the most sought after coffee in the world, and most of it is sold to Japan. You can just about not get it in South Africa and if you do, its very expensive. So when you see a package in the shop that says Blue Mountain coffee, and its the same price as the Mocha Java, or 'House Blend', you can be pretty sure it's not true Jamaican Blue Mountain coffee. If you look at the small print on the package you will see something like 'Blue Mountain style' coffee. I've personally never tasted any and maybe I will some day, when I go to Jamaica;)
Q: So what do you look for in a coffee?
A: For me personally I like a full-bodied coffee, I will look for something that has been roasted to the right colour - in other words something that is not too dark nor too light. If it's too light it will likely be too mild,and if it's too dark it can be too bitter, and very strong. Next I will smell it for freshness. To smell if coffee is fresh is really something that comes with experience. Also because I roast my own coffee, I know what it's supposed to smell like after it's been roasted.
Q: Is there a bad coffee maker or bad coffee? I've tried to make lots of different coffee's and a lot of them just don't taste that great. I have come to the conclusion that I must just be a really bad coffee maker.
A: It could be both. But it could also be the coffee you choose. Some coffees are poor quality. There are some coffee sellers in Europe who take beans that have been returned from supermarkets because they are past their sell by date and they reprocess it and then ship it out to the less discerning third world countries like ours.
Q: Do you ever lower your standards and drink instant?I am asking because I always wonder what coffee specialists drink and if they would ever drink anything but the best?
A: I do, I keep a small bottle of Douwe Egberts decaf in my kitchen cupboard, and I sometimes have one of these in the evening if I don't feel like firing up the espresso machine.
Q: What about decaf coffee? I have heard that drinking decaf coffee is so bad for you because it's all done chemically and that you might as well just stay with regular coffee?
A: There are two processes that I know of. The better, more expensive way, is where they use hyper-cooled CO2 (carbon dioxide) gas which is pumped through the beans at high pressure and removes almost all the caffeine, but leaves the taste profile of the beans intact. Apparently it leaves no residue at all because it's in the air anyway and we breathe it all the time, so it's not poisonous as such. The other, more economical method, is to use a chemical called methylene chloride. Product labels don't normally say anything about which process was used, but when we get our green beans it usually tells us on the bag how it was decaffeinated. I prefer the CO2 method.
Q: What is instant coffee?
A: It's liquid coffee that has been made from beans and then freeze dried - by evaporating all the moisture that is with it. They brew it like normal coffee - and then make the granules. Most of the instant coffee we get is made from a coffee variety called Robusta, which has less flavour than Arabica coffee and it has a higher caffeine content. Its also much cheaper and a much hardier bean. It grows in lower altitudes and is more pest resilient.
Q: How do I decide on which roast to choose when I choose my coffee - medium roast, dark roast?
A: Medium roast is always a safe bet - its like the middle of the road. Many people prefer different roasts at different times of the day. You might want something stronger to get you going in the morning, but you prefer a milder coffee in the middle of the day, or in the afternoon. Then in the evening, or after dinner you could want a decaf so you're not up all night. Unless being up all night is your thing..! If keeping 2 or 3 open bags of coffee in your kitchen is too much, then maybe a medium roast would do for anytime of the day.
Q: Now when we get it, it's roasted and prepacked - so what does that mean to us in terms of freshness and quality?
A: Most supermarkets sell ground coffee with a sell-by date of almost a year, which they shouldn't really do. Rather check the date of production. You can't really find super fresh coffee in a supermarket. If you go to a reputable coffee shop, their beans have not been roasted longer than a month ago and they grind it and make the coffee at the same time. If you are about to buy from a specialty coffee store or any coffee seller,ask them when the coffee was roasted. They should be able to tell you especially if they are running a coffee shop. Freshness is very important for good coffee. That's why most self-respecting coffee shops will grind their own coffee beans on site because they want to ensure that its as fresh as possible.
Q: So in fact if you go to the supermarket, if you have a choice you should buy beans and grind them yourself?
A: Yes, whole beans stay fresher for longer. Ground coffee deteriorates at a much faster rate. The general coffee rule is that roasted beans should be used within 1 month, ground coffee should be used within 1 day,and freshly made coffee should be drunk within 1 hour. The longer coffee sits on the warmer plate in a coffee shop, the more bitter it gets.
Q: Are there different types of coffee or are they categorised by the country they come from?
A: Arabica and Robusta are the two main types of coffee. Arabica is a better choice of coffee for brewing, as it has a richer, more delicate flavour. The Arabica coffee we sell is mostly from East Africa, Central America and Indonesia. Robusta has a higher caffeine content, is mostly grown in West Africa and Southeast Asia at low altitudes, and is generally used to produce instant coffee. There is probably more Robusta sold in the world than Arabica.
Q: So what exactly do you do as a judge when it comes to coffee?
A: Coffee judging is a whole other ball game. We'll have to cover that in a separate interview... :)