I’ve been a self-diagnosed coffee snob for over 9 years now (*AHEM* – you’ve seen my take on the best coffee in Sydney, Brooklyn, Montreal, London, and San Francisco, riiiiight?). How is it that I’ve never learned how to make espresso drinks? I’m going to blame it on the motherland: Americans like their big pots of coffee, and it’s rare to find anyone who owns an espresso machine. It’s not that I never wanted to learn… it just never seemed accessible to me in my everyday life back in New York. That’s why I took advantage and experimented with the espresso machine in the kitchen at El Questro when I worked there earlier this year. I had so much fun playing around with it, but it really frustrated me that I couldn’t make consistently good (or even decent) espresso drinks.
If you’re not obsessed with all things Australia and/or coffee like I am, you might be surprised to hear that coffee is a HUGE deal in this country. Australia is a magical land where Starbucks is scorned in favor of specialty coffee purveyors. In New York, you can’t walk two blocks without a Starbucks within eyesight; by contrast, in Australia there are only 23 Starbucks total – better yet, 61 shops and counting have closed here due to lack of business. And that’s because Australians demand quality coffee. To meet this demand, highly skilled baristas are employed at thousands of independent coffee shops across Australia. As a result, barista training courses exist in all the major cities here.
It only seemed right that during my year Down Under, I would enroll in a barista course in Melbourne, epicenter of the Australian coffee dynasty.
First, a note on Melbourne barista courses: there are loads to choose from, but most exist primarily to pump out barista certificates. It’s common for those seeking employment in hospitality to take a course just to bolster their all-around hospitality knowledge and up their chances of getting hired for a job. They’re usually not doing it out of love for coffee or to pursue work exclusively as a barista. That’s totally fine if certification is your end goal, but I wanted to see if I could find a barista course in Melbourne that championed the overall experience of coffee making instead. I didn’t want to sign up for a class where it looked like they put their students on a barista conveyor belt.
There was one in particular that stood out as selling the experience rather than the end result. This is how I came to spend a fantastic morning learning espresso basics at The Espresso School.
The Espresso School is housed in a roastery in Clayton South, a southern suburb of Melbourne. It’s a bit out of the way compared to all the other CBD-located schools, but for your efforts you’re rewarded with a spacious, naturally-lit warehouse in which to hone your espresso skills. Better yet, you’re literally surrounded by coffee. As in, massive sacks of beans just hanging out in the background, all around the room. Glorious!
I took a seat with my fellow students in the classroom portion of the roastery as owner David took center stage. I knew I had signed up for the right barista course when he recalled the time he was lucky enough to sample a very rare, very expensive, and very delicious type of coffee bean: “This is why we chase coffee,” he told us, “For those mind blown moments.” I figured it was a bit too soon to stand up and clap, so I continued listening while David told us the story of coffee: its history, how and where beans are grown, and the variables that affect the quality of espresso. While it was all useful and arguably essential information to be equipped with before diving into the coffee making game, I was way too antsy to start playing with the espresso machine!
I didn’t have to wait too long to get my hands dirty though, ‘cause in no time David was demonstrating to us the proper way to craft an espresso shot. We each had our own machine and grinder to practice on, and a seemingly bottomless supply of beans and milk to tap into. I recalled my self-taught struggles back in the El Questro kitchen and the vastly different techniques several coworkers had shown me there. David shared his simple recipe and suddenly I was nailing shot after shot of espresso. Learning how to tamp right changed my whole coffee making game. Nailing (and tasting) every shot gave me a natural high that I rode out for the rest of the class.
The final segment of our barista class dealt with milk and how to make different espresso drinks. We sat back down and absorbed the requisite deets on how to “stretch” and “roll” the milk to produce microfoam: that silky milk used to make those cool patterns that sit atop an espresso drink (aka latte art). I had a feeling it had to do with the temperature of the milk and the position of the wand, but I never knew how to control these variables before.
My old guesswork had often produced overheated milk, a heinous screeching sound, and something that definitely couldn’t be considered microfoam. But under David’s instruction, I was producing consistently silky milk. By the end of the class, I felt very confident in my ability to make consistently great lattes and flat whites (apparently they’re essentially the same thing, just served in different cups).
I’d have loved to have spent more time practicing each type of drink (e.g. cappuccino, mocha, long/short black) rather than just a general espresso drink, but David’s Espresso Basics course is more about establishing a solid foundation of coffee making skills. We spent our 3 hours mastering the art of espresso and milk making, rather than rushing into making every drink on the cafe menu. Better to master one core drink than be able to make all of them mediocre-ly, I think. Of course, this just means I need to continue my barista education and sign myself up for a latte art course – or maybe an advanced barista course?
I can’t wait to get my hands on an espresso machine again. If you’re keen to learn the ropes and unleash your inner barista, I highly recommend signing up for a barista course in Melbourne at The Espresso School!
Thank you to The Espresso School for letting me sample their Espresso Basics barista course in Melbourne. Note that all opinions expressed here and elsewhere on this blog are my unbiased own, and are uninfluenced by any gifts or incentives I may receive.
As of September 2015 —
The Espresso School offers 4 different barista courses: Espresso Basics, Latte Art, Advanced Barista, and Filter Brewing. Prices start at AU$150 for a 3 hour course.