The Serious Art of Good Coffee

You can't make an exceptional thing to eat or drink without exceptional ingredients.  But more than that, the finished taste and experience should be in the hands of a skilled artisan.  This is especially so for coffee and a skilled barista.

You can’t make an exceptional thing to eat or drink without exceptional ingredients.  But more than that, the finished taste and experience should be in the hands of a skilled artisan.  This is especially so for coffee and a skilled barista.

 Any old fool could make a cup of Joe, just the same as anyone could fry an egg, but just as you wouldn’t choose a battery farmed egg over a free range one if you could help it, neither should we accept a weak cup of coffee made from scraps off the coffee factory floor as a compromise (usually price related) from a coffee made with well farmed beans in great conditions and with great care.

Michael O’Donovan is co-founder of the Food Depot Gourmet Street Kitchen food truck with his wife and Masterchef Ireland reigning champion, Diana Dodog.  If you have ever visited the food truck, I’m sure you’ll agree the coffee is outstanding.  But Mike didn’t just turn up with a coffee machine without any clue of what he was doing. Mike has a wealth of training and experience in the barista arts, and he is on a mission to let people know that great coffee shouldn’t be a surprise, rather it should be part of the everyday.  In this exclusive blog post, Mike lets us in on his thoughts, hopes and dreams for Ireland to become a nation of coffee lovers in the everyday sense and to do away with the perception that good coffee is elite at best, a myth at worst!  Don’t suffer in silence – Mike will let you in on some great little hints and tips to make sure you are never without a great cup of coffee!

I have always loved good coffee, but it isn’t easy to get great quality and consistency in Ireland and especially when you’re someone like me who knows a lot about it.  Living in rural West Cork, I find that good coffee is almost an oxymoron and that those serving it are often missing the point that coffee isn’t just about the caffeine hit, just as important is a coffee that packs taste and is in itself a thing of quality.  But coffee drinking just isn’t as built in to our culture as tea drinking is so there is no real importance given to training to become a good barista. Training is scarce and it can take months to get to a level where you can truly call yourself a “barista”.  Training is of course available in Ireland, as is great coffee and the barista machines too but we’re just not quite “there” yet in Ireland when it comes to great coffee coming as standard and so we suffer through endless cups of bad, bland, weak, bitter coffee.

So what makes me an expert in this field?  Well, for three years I was making coffee full time, day in and day out in one of the busiest coffee shops in Cork – Butlers on Oliver Plunkett Street.  You could spend your days waxing lyrical about the pressure of your machine, the fine ground of your bean, the texture of your milk etc, but this isn’t what everyone needs to know about their cup of coffee!  Barista’s need to teach their customers about getting the coffee they’d actually like to drink, everytime they want to drink it!  But how do we get there?

When someone asks me for a coffee at the Food Depot, I like to get more specific about it.  I ask questions until I get an idea how they exactly like their coffee – only then can I make them a cup of coffee that they will love!

Firstly, lets talk about where we get it wrong: hotel breakfast.  Indeed – rather than just blindly accept the standard bottomless filtered coffee decide to be in control of your morning cup of Joe. How?  All hotels have proper espresso machines in the dining room (and if they don’t, why are you staying there?)  Please, do not be afraid to ask for an espresso and hot milk on the side – you will always get it, and once you have it you are now in control. Remember, quantity isn’t always quality and one good coffee is worth more than you may think!

Secondly, we need to talk about brewing your favourite cuppa at home!  Instant coffee is the effortless, quickest, easiest way of getting our caffeine hit.  Is it?  Really?  People nowadays are obsessed with healthy living, traceability etc as Ireland becomes more produce driven than ever before.  But did you ever stop for a moment and think about instant coffee and what is in it?  I have been fortunate enough to have been to a coffee plantation in Guatemala where I saw first hand the different grades of coffee beans being selected for certain types of coffee.  Instant coffee wasn’t among these beans.  After all the peeling and drying process of the raw green beans the outer layers, husks and silver lining being brushed to the side on the sunny terrace, this then is what is collected into a bucket along with any damaged, de-formed and broken raw beans and ground down to make your instant coffee in a jar.  In essence, there is hardly any of the precious bean in there, it’s just waste product.

So what can you do at home to get quality coffee with very little effort?  Get yourself a stove top espresso machine!  Simple, cheap, fast and always reliable; all you need is some of your favourite coffee, add water and heat and you are ready to go!  Once the water is heated in the bottom, it will filter through the grind and push the strong espresso to the top.  Don’t be afraid of strong coffee – you can always add hot water or hot milk, but always start with an espresso – it is the basis of every good coffee!

I must just quickly mention about Nespresso machines.  They are an efficient, no mess, no fuss solution but – where is the actual grind?  My personal view is more conservative on the subject.  I don’t mind spending an extra two minutes to grind my coffee fresh from the beans and saving money in the long run instead of constantly having to buy pods.  I prefer a more elemental preparation – I love, love, love smelling the freshly roasted beans, grinding them and extracting the espresso from it so soon after grinding.  It just does not compare.  I have a small Badger & Dodo coffee machine at home and I don’t honestly know how I would survive without it!  It cost the bones of €100, is easy to clean and you can sip a very good quality coffee any time once you find your favourite type of bean or blend, and vacuum sealed the coffee will hold its freshness for up to a week!  Of course doing this will take a bit of an effort and preparation, but for those days when you can’t get to your favourite coffee shop, I think this is the best solution.

From one end of the coffee spectrum to the other – if you want to get seriously into your coffee in an extreme way, then you can do no better than head to Melbourne in Australia (well, I did say if you were serious!)  Diana and I were on a visit there on our holidays earlier on in the year, and we visited Dukes Coffee Roasters on Flinders Lane in CBD Melbourne where they take their coffee making to the next level! ( The standard is so much higher and the customers expectations wouldn’t allow for anything else.  When you order a coffee at this joint, you can expect the following to happen:

  • The extraction of the espresso is timed.
  • They only use La Stada and La Marzocco coffee.
  • They use steaming to reach the optimal temperature of the milk.
  • They have one person who is specialised in pouring.
  • They have a Pass Manager – just like in a great restaurant.
  • They call orders by your first name.
  • They serve only coffee – want anything else then go someplace else!
  • The queue for coffee is out the door.

The value of a good coffee shop and barista in Australia and New Zealand is on a different plain to our corner of the world.  It is a highly regarded occupation and these funky, laid back cafe’s employ knowledgable people who love discussing coffee.  It is an art, and people take it very seriously indeed.  It’s time we took a leaf out of their book here in Ireland, and start doing the same.

To good coffee, everyday.

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