As coffee’s third wave took hold in the latter part of the last decade, the pioneers of the UK’s coffee scene took care to educate the public slowly and surely. That most achieved this without patronising their customers no doubt contributed to the success of the scene. But many people wanted to learn even more about the art of the perfect espresso. Stalking your favourite barista, perusing coffee websites, watching online videos and reading books can only take you so far. To become the ultimate home barista, you need a great teacher to show you the ropes.
The course you choose will depend on your goals. “If someone who wants to open a café asks me where to learn about coffee, I always tell them to work in a top café for a year,” says Sarah Tyers, formerly of Espresso Room, Taylor St Baristas and Kin Cafe. “It’s a complete learning experience, plus they’ll find out if it’s something they really want. If, on the other hand, your goal is to make a tasty drink first thing in the morning, learning manual brew methods – with something like the AeroPress V60 – may be preferable to taking an espresso course. The set-up is cheaper, plus it’s a satisfying way to learn.”
If you’re looking for the industry’s gold-standard qualification, Prufrock Coffee offers Speciality Coffee Association of Europe (SCAE) accredited courses as part of its Barista Resource and Training. These include Introduction to Coffee, Sensory Foundation, Barista Skills Foundation, Latte Art and Brewing Foundation, as well as intermediate and professional-level courses. Although many who attend these work in the industry or have ambitions to do so, the foundation courses are ideal for passionate consumers who want a thorough technical understanding of the processes behind great coffee.
The courses are run by Jeremy Challender, who exudes confidence in his knowledge and skill to communicate complex ideas in an effortless way, supporting his explanations with graphs, diagrams and practical examples, and always returning to taste as a measure of quality. We attended the Brewing Foundation class, a half-day course that actually lasted almost five hours. There we learnt the theory behind brewing great coffee and were given instruction and practical support in a range of methods including V60, Clever Dripper, AeroPress and batch brew. At one point, former South African barista champion and current Taster champion Wayne Oberholzer stopped by to demonstrate his AeroPress recipe. The whole session was an intense experience but Challender’s humour and passion shone through.
At the end of the course there was a short written test, and we were asked to use two different brew methods. The course, which costs £200 plus an SCAE registration fee, has made a huge difference to our home coffee – it’s the kind of training you keep coming back to as other factors come in to focus through experience, and not only because all participants are given access to a Google Drive loaded with documents.
The Coffee School at the Department of Coffee & Social Affairs offers a very different type of training but is no less effective for it. Where Prufrock’s courses are intense and scientific, Chris McKie’s are fun and practical – he is a natural teacher with a laidback communicative style.
The school offers a two-hour espresso class and a two-hour brewing class. Brewing for Taste focuses on specific coffees and the effect of brewing methods on taste, developing awareness of the potential of different brew methods such as V60, Espro Press (related to a cafetiere but with two fine filters) and syphon. McKie emphasises that the classes are very much about enabling customers to make up their own minds about their preferences and make coffee consistently the way they like it.
We attended the Craft & Science of Espresso, another of the school’s two-hour courses held at the Department of Coffee’s beautiful St Martin’s Court location. The four attendees, all amateurs, were tutored by McKie and a second barista trainer. A brief tasting session led immediately to practical experience, preparing and pulling shots and measuring extraction. The course is hands-on – you learn quickly and drink a tremendous amount of coffee. It also includes a short – and in our case, hilarious – introduction to latte art. The espresso course costs £50 and it gives a great insight into the care and attention that go into making quality espresso.
Meanwhile, over at Workshop Coffee, Sara Larsson and Kate Simkins run a Home Brewing Masterclass on Saturdays (£45), while James Bailey and Sam Brown teach an Espresso Masterclass every other Saturday (£95). Both sessions are hands-on and last two-and-a-half-hours. The home-brewing class helps you to understand the bigger picture of what goes into making coffee, including an explanation of how coffee gets from farm to cup. Students are instructed in AeroPress, V60 pour over and cafetiere brewing techniques, and work in pairs to try two of the brew processes.
But with so many course options, how is the average home-brewing enthusiast to choose. “I’d advise people to look for a training centre with established and proven trainers that also has correct and up-to-date equipment,” says Ben Townsend of Espresso Room and London School of Coffee. “Barista technique has evolved a lot in the past few years and not all trainers represent that. I’d also say there are some great times to be had in sensory and cupping courses, which a lot of home baristas ignore.”
So what made the courses we attended so good? A key feature of effective teaching is encouraging students to take risks and make mistakes. Prufrock achieved this by quickly creating a friendly group bond between students, while the Department of Coffee did so through a humorous and relaxed teaching style. Either way, risk taking is crucial. As Dr Carol Dweck’s MindSet research at Stanford University has shown, students with a fixed view of their own abilities tend to seek affirmation from external sources, be worried about taking risks and avoid challenge, whereas those she describes as having a “growth mindset” will see problems as challenges to be overcome, will enjoy doing so and will also be willing to take risks.
Another factor when choosing a course is matching it to your level of experience. Prufrock, for example, offers courses at different levels. Taylor St Baristas, meanwhile, pays particular attention to students’ expertise on its a three-hour home-barista course. “There is no one method that suits all,” says Taylor St’s Andrew Tolley. “Beginners need time to develop motor skills, so training is focused around that while also providing enough theory to help them understand the ‘why’ of what they are doing. As baristas progress, we increase the ratio of theory to practice, using smaller exercises to demonstrate theory.”
Education research also shows the value of multisensory learning in transferring concepts to long-term memory. Coffee training is, by its nature, multisensory. That which we do, smell, consume, hear and see is less likely to be forgotten.
What about the sheer number of cafés offering training? Can they all be good? Prufrock’s Challender has an interesting perspective (shared, coincidentally, by McKie). “In the normal transaction in a coffee shop, you have about 90 seconds of contact with each customer, even if you’re talking flavour notes. Whereas in training, whether you do a full day’s course or 60 minutes, it’s like an extension of customer service. It’s a special thing to offer.”
Those making filter coffee at home have two potential advantages over commercial baristas: there’s less time pressure and less concern about wasting valuable coffee. With a good choice of bottled water, the potential is high for coffee made at home (depending on what grinder you can afford). When it comes to choosing a training course, there are enough options for you to choose one that fits your needs best.
Most importantly, training means learning by tasting. “YouTube and blogs don’t offer you the chance to learn how to troubleshoot by tasting your coffee,’ says Workshop’s James Bailey. Training, meanwhile, provides opportunity to discuss taste, to examine the effect of different factors on taste and to learn about making your coffee taste better.
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