Recently, I took it upon myself to add onto my existing skillset somewhat but mostly just further my own interests in a field that I get a little highly strung about; coffee. I threw out almost half a grand on 3 lessons spanning 2 days and lasting about 16 hours of coffee at a pretty nice place called Belaroma in Manly Vale. I never really knew much about the place until I searched online. I suppose I was swayed by the fact that they got 2 stars in the good cafe guide from 2011, a feat they repeated again this year, despite the fact that their cafe is located in an industrial area. Also, they have one of the best baristas in Australia in Scottie Callaghan, who placed 3rd in the World Barista Championships in 2010. No mean feat. The cafe itself runs through around 100kg of coffee a week, no mean feat considering their shitty location. I might be biased right now but I’m of the opinion that it’s the best place north of the bridge to get a coffee in Sydney.

They had the credentials on paper but I thought I had Sydney’s coffee scene figured. Belaroma is a nice addition to that cos it’s the real deal. Matt Brown, in particular, was the mentor that seemed to have a real passion for coffee and a passion to impart his knowledge to the tiny little class; just 3 or 4 peeps at a time, with a maximum of 6 at any time. The small size is nice because you really need a good amount of attention to get it. Overall, I was very pleased with the lessons and came away, not only able to now pull a shot to save my life, but I also gained a far greater understanding of coffee. I used to think I knew a little something but reading shit online and believing random people you’ve never met is completely different to doing it yourself firsthand and coffee is definitely a hands on kinda thing and a very opinion based thing.

The first part of the course, we had an intro on coffee history and toured the Belaroma roasting facility, which was pretty cool. They actually roast quite a lot for all kinds of customers, including Krispy Kreme countless cafes of all types. The great thing is they offer the training for these places to learn to make better coffee. Next up, we learned a little more about espresso machines (heat exchange/double boilers etc) and grinders before we started pulling some shots. After getting the timing and grinds right, we went onto milk coffees and the cleaning process. In total, it took about 4 hours or so. Then we got offered to stay and make as much as we want, which I duly obliged and dumped like, 5 2l bottles of dairy farmers into the sink. I was making coffee and maybe because the gear was good or the coffee was decent or maybe the teaching was good but I didn’t make too many bad coffees. Most of them were pretty fucking pleasant if I say so myself.

The second part of the course, we went more in depth into how the machines worked and how you’re always kinda fighting a shifting battle with espresso tech at the moment. Whilst there’s variable pressure machines and all kinds of stuff to try and minimize the heat loss/power loss, you’re always kinda fighting a losing battle. Baristas don’t exactly just make good coffee. They’re trying their best not to fuck shit up, which is nigh impossible when you’re busy. I now completely understand why Bear Pond in Japan closes at a particular time because the power grid isn’t strong enough. It’s fussy in the extreme but if you’re chasing consistency and perfection, that’s what you gotta do. The later part of the course, we finish off making more coffees, pretending that we have to coordinate stuff like if you actually got a docket. Matt was making 4 coffees in 2 minutes, each one pretty damn perfect whilst I was like 4 in 3 minutes fumbling like a fool. We also got down to the basics of latte art, which I was pretty shit at. I did a decent rosetta. Not great but almost passable. The heart is the easier technically but I took a while to get the hang of it. Ultimately, it’s all about getting the milk right. Just like the rest of coffee, it’s easy if your standard for what’s good is set pretty low but insane if you’re reaching for the stars.

The last lesson, was all about the experience of coffee and it was pretty interesting. We got to learn more about single origins (which may actually come from a rather large area) as well as the third wave stuff, like filter coffees and ice drips and how the marketing issue is just as important as the coffee itself. We had this cool little smelling session where we tried to tell apart these various coffee smells from little jars. The funny thing is that I always though you drink coffee or similarly wine and you’re told how it’s got this or that but in truth, they’re really the same. It’s not actual apricot flavour or caramel or toast or actual leather. It’s just language that approximates the aromas and flavours in coffee. Like it’s an apricot accent in coffee that kinda somewhat feels like a particular aspect of apricot. This session felt like I was a fragrance maker almost. I thought I’d have an upper hand, with my chef’s palate but hoenstly, I’m just a beginner trying to learn another language. It’s just completely different to what I’d assumed. We tried out some nice coffees too, both had Cup of Excellence awards (Rwandan Kayumbu COE / Guatemala COE Finca Capetillo Y Anexos), using an Aeropress and a Vario grinder. Bear in mind the COE thing isn’t the gold stamp for good coffee. There’s so many variables to fuck it up but it’s a guide of sorts.

Post lessons, I just got myself a brand new grinder because fresh ground is the only acceptable standard right now. Previously, I bought a bag of Brazilian beans from Workshop Espresso, pre ground to use on my Kalita dripper. The guys kindly explained that they mostly roast beans for espresso and that was the lightest bag they had and it’s not the best for filter coffees. Really beautiful but I kinda wasted it getting it ground for me because you lose so much of the nuttiness and aroma. Lesson learned, I kopped a proper bag of light roast (now I totally understand the light roast phenom in Melbourne) from Mecca (Rwandan Nyakizu COE), weighed out my beans and water. The result was a beautiful cup and a half of coffee. Just delicious, juicy and crisply acidic with lots of fruit character and a sweetish finish. I’m gonna screw with the grind settings until I finished the bag ($30/250g) and figure out what’s best.

Before the course, I’d just gone to Melbourne and got scared of coffee. Because the standard in Melbourne is insanely high and it felt like I was dipping my toes into a world as complex and amazing as wine and I kinda didn’t want that for coffee. After the course, I’m now thinking that it’s a good thing that coffee is so broad but it’s still confined. It’s a realm where you really feel you can have your own say, whether you’re a coffee producer, coffee roaster, cafe or even consumer. It’s also a fuckload cheaper than wine by volume and about a quarter as poncy. I suppose at the end of the day, most people don’t give a shit about whether they detect the terroir of a particular bean because it’s a lot harder to get that in an espresso and that’s what most people go for in Australia. It doesn’t have to be full of BS but it really isn’t. It’s just the reality of things and the standard and subjectivity of a good cup of coffee keeps changing and you can choose to frame it if you want but it’s going to keep evolving and that’s what’s exciting about it.

Can’t wait to get my hands on a Rancilio Silvia to fuck with. Hehe.