Espresso yourself

How to get a groovy cup of coffee at home without being a barista.

click to enlarge The three coffee blends sampled during Giorgio Milos' lecture. He said "coffee bean" may have come from the original phrase Kaffa bun, meaning coffee in Ethiopian. - Meaghan Habuda
Meaghan Habuda
The three coffee blends sampled during Giorgio Milos' lecture. He said "coffee bean" may have come from the original phrase Kaffa bun, meaning coffee in Ethiopian.

Dark, oily coffee beans have the best flavor. Espresso has the most caffeine, and achieving a quality cup of Joe at home isn't possible.

These and other myths about coffee were uncovered during coffee expert Giorgio Milos' Be Your Own Barista course inside the Epicurean Hotel's classroom theater Monday evening.

An award-winning master barista who teaches at illy's Università del Caffè — an international coffee education program that's recognized as the most comprehensive of its kind — Milos took his student body of about 20, including this reporter, through an interactive crash course on the world's morning nectar.

From the history to the roasting to the drinking, "Coffee is very personal," he repeated throughout the presentation.

Milos had his first sip of coffee in Italy, his birthplace, at 8 years old. He said he remembers his mother drinking the beverage, and smiling. 

"Why does this taste so horrible but smell so good?" he asked her. His mother said that he wasn't old enough to enjoy it yet. And Milos said she was right — we learn how to drink coffee over time.

Coffee is huge, according to Milos, and millions are involved in the coffee sector. Brazil is the crop's largest producer, and Vietnam is the second. Seventy percent of of the world's coffee production happens in South America, he said.

The two most common species of the coffee plant — first discovered in Kaffa, a former province of southwest Ethiopia — are Arabica and Robusta. Sixty percent of the coffee people consume is Arabicia, and 40 percent is Robusta.

Milos said Robusta possesses twice the caffeine that Arabica contains, but that Robusta won't give you a good cup of coffee. It has a harsher taste, with ashy, bitter notes, than Arabica, which is smoother and more citrusy.

He also said that some locales, like Italy, use Robusta as a filler in other coffee blends. Much of the instant coffee that's produced is Robusta.

Before it even reaches a mug, coffee has many opportunities to decrease in quality. Processing, harvesting, growing, storage, shipping and roasting all impact coffee's end condition, and maintaining quality is one of the most difficult things to do, Milos said.

Our class tried three kinds of coffee, and Milos instructed us to smell each before tasting. The first was Ethiopian, the second Brazilian and the third was an illy blend, a mix of Arabica coffees from nine countries that had attributes from the first and second samples.

Here, the difference between washed and natural coffee processing was clear. The washed Ethiopian blend was bright, more acidic and had a clean aftertaste, while the natural Brazilian blend was sweeter and fuller bodied with the bitterness of dark chocolate.

The lighter the roast, the more acid it has, and darker roasts have an increased bitterness. When a coffee is over-roasted, it doesn't matter where it came from because the flavor is destroyed, he said. Thus, light roasts tend to be more flavorful.

Over-roasted coffee beans are shiny (carbon dioxide pushes the oils out). Milos said shopping at Whole Foods — where bins of dark beans are nearly empty and the lighter beans remain untouched — reminds him that some drinkers aren't aware of this.

"That's why my biggest advice is be afraid of the dark," he said.

Coffee enthusiasts will be pleased if they stick to buying coffee that falls between City Roast (medium roast) and Full City (medium-dark roast).

One student asked when people started taking milk and sugar with their coffee.

Milos said the percolator, which brews a bitter coffee, created cravings for sweetness. Though he doesn't think that milk and sugar are contaminants, like one of his teacher's used to tell him, Milos said he doesn't like to see two drops of coffee swimming in a milk- or sugar-laden sea.

Translation: If it's a good cup, they won't be needed. However, since skim milk buries the taste of coffee, whole milk and 1 percent are better to use.

He was frank about espresso not being a drink, too.

"It's an elixir," he said. "You drink it for pleasure."

According to Milos, espresso, which has less caffeine than other preparation methods, becomes a drink when mixed with cream or other ingredients.

Finely ground beans will yield more espresso, and he advised roasting soon after the beans are ground. In two hours, half the flavor is lost. A finer bean also means a longer extraction time, making for a tastier espresso.

Never use boiling water (190 to 197 degrees works), he said, and the extraction should take 30 seconds for a 1-ounce espresso shot.

Milos said he wants people to have an experience while drinking coffee, and that we don't just drink the bevvie for its taste.

We enjoy the caffeine, its social aspect, the ritual of it all.

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