Today, anyone can now become a ‘barista’ – essentially the Italian word for a barman, but the subtlety of it is in the understanding that great cocktails and great coffee are equal skills.
Being a reasonable ‘barista’ is not difficult. Raj Beadle, whose Gaggia machines from Italy won a ‘cool brand’ award last year and who has a new machine on sale in Curry’s and Argos, says more people are willing to try their hand.
“The people who buy these know when something is cool to have,” he said. “But they don’t all want to be too ambitious with their coffee.
“Most people are happy with learning to make a good espresso or cappuccino.”
What is a really great coffee? Essentially, it is espresso – produced by water forced under pressure through tightly-packed ground beans. And although espresso has a reputation for being black and strong, the host who can bring out the true subtleties of coffee wins a great deal of attention.
The big problem is the image of coffee. At the one end, it can be tasteless granule-mud, and at the other, coarse railway station early morning heart-starting rough espresso.
But in the middle are the dinner table espressos, and their subtlety is only now beginning to win attention.
Stephen Hurst of Mercanta is known in the trade as the coffee hunter, because he travels the world’s remote areas, meeting small farmers and searching out the best coffee beans.
“For a distinctive dinner party coffee, we need to show the coffee can be chosen in the same way as wine.”
The equivalent to a good vineyard or chateau is the term ‘single estate’ – this means coffee grown carefully on one farm. By contrast, whatever the advertisers say, most instant coffee is a blend of beans from all over south America or Vietnam.
“In Waitrose or Sainsbury’s,” said Stephen. “You should look for Union Coffee Roasters’ Fazenda Lambari, a single-estate coffee from Brazil.
“The Monmouth Coffee Company sells the Nicaragua Finca San Isidro y El Regreso, which won the international Cup of Excellence award this year.
“Look out for La Ilusion Estate Nicaragua, Fazenda Cachoeira Bourbon single-estate which you can get from Monmouth, good delicatessens, and from Caffe Nero coffee houses.
“Marks & Spencer now stock some excellent coffees, and their stock will get even better – try their Costa Rica.”
Jeremy Torz is roastmaster at Union Coffee Roasters, and warns that although Brazil is fabled in song as the place for coffee, the country’s beans range from the very good to the awful.
“Look for our Brazil estate coffee from the Lambari farm. It’s very affordable and a good start for novice coffee drinkers. The coffee is quite widely available in the Oxford area.
“A slightly more ‘obscure’ coffee may also be our Sulawesi Kalossi, which we offer only on mail order. Intensely rewarding, with a beautiful and complex aroma of almonds and butterscotch. With its low acidity, which allows it to linger gently on the palate, it forms an elegant after-dinner cup in winter.”
A completely new arrival in Britain, just introduced at Selfridge’s, is Hawaiian coffee. The true Kona coffee is named after an Hawaiian estate, but the blenders there have mastered the art of delicacy of flavour – Molokai Island Princess should be arriving now, a soft, creamy vanilla-textured coffee, easy on the tongue.
And one of the great American habits has now reached us – adding flavour to coffee. This began 20 years ago, when a salesman called Brandy Brandenburger mixed some fruit flavouring with his coffee in a diner.
It is now common in the USA to enhance a coffee with anything from almond, caramel or marshmallow, to orange or even strawberries and cream.
These flavourings are all easy to buy here, and Tate & Lyle has introduced the first British range!
It is also very entertaining to roast your own coffee at home, following the changes in colour and the popping sound of the bean developing.
Few coffee bar customers know that home-roasting used to be a British housewifely skill, only lost in the last 50 years. Today, more enthusiasts are re-learning the skill of test-roasting small quantities of different beans.
“Abandoning home-roasting came at a price,” said Ian Escreet of La Macchinetta, which makes small home roasting machines.
“While raw beans will keep well for years, roasted whole beans lose their flavour within weeks, and ground coffee can go stale within hours. The only way to be sure of fresh coffee is to return to the tradition of home roasting.”
And it is certainly a lot more fun!