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The perfect cup of coffee

May 6, 2012

Coffee makingMy husband can drink a double espresso at the end of dinner and is asleep as soon as his head touches the pillow.  My teenage daughter is now following in his footsteps.  However, this isn’t because they have some genetic immunity to the stimulating effects of caffeine as espresso-based coffee is only actually in touch with the coffee for 20-25 seconds.  This means less caffeine is extracted than methods like filter coffee; and accounts for why Italians are able to down little cups of seemingly strong ristretto throughout the day without their pupils being the size of saucers and hopping around like the Energiser bunny.

The school

I was in the International Institute of Coffee & Barista Training at Knowledge Village, Dubai on a morning’s course to learn how to make the perfect cup of coffee at home.   The course was taken by Radi who knows a phenomenal amount about coffee and coffee-making.  This was serious stuff and the facts and figures came fast and furious:

500 billion cups of coffee are consumed worldwide every year.

This will continue to grow, for instance Starbucks is opening 1,100 new shops in China

Coffee drinking  outstrips tea in the United Arab Emirates with 7156 tonnes of coffee sold in 2011 (up 11%)

Coffee machineThe last point is perhaps no surprise as this region played a major part in the early history of coffee.  The story goes something like this:

The story

A goat-herd in Kaffa, Ethiopia noticed that his animals became rather frisky after eating certain fruit and he found similar stimulating effects when he ate them himself.  Traders from Yemen took the cherries back to their lands and started cultivating them; a brew was used by sufi monks to help them stay awake during prayer.  Gradually, trade in the beans started to reach wider and wider throughout the Middle East but the Yemeni’s protected their monopoly for two centuries by never selling the raw berries or plants.  The port city of Mocha in Yemen was the major trading hub and beans were exported as far as Turkey where they were first roasted.

Coffee making

Coffee houses started to spring up around Europe and its first reputation as ‘the drink of the devil’ was overturned when the Pope blessed it.  Eventually a sea-captain smuggled some plants across to the new colonies and planted them in Martinique.  Coffee was declared the national drink of the colonized United States by the Continental Congress, in protest against the high taxes levied by the British government on tea.  The first espresso machine was made in France in 1822 but the Italians adopted and perfected it; there are over 200,000 espresso bars in Italy today.  Apparently lots of people think that coffee actually grows in Italy rather than a narrow sub-tropical band around the earth.

The beans

Now I always thought there were lots of different kinds of beans but there are only two: Coffea Arabica and Coffea Robusta and although the former is thought best, culture and taste often determines the blend.  Like grapes for wine-making, the location, soil, altitude, climate and weather effects how the beans taste and single origin coffees often have a unique flavour.  We all had a good laugh about Kopi Lowak, the most expensive coffee in the world as the coffee cherries go through the digestive tract of a civet before being collected.  There is a trial to replicate this method with goats (goffee?!).

Unroasted coffee beans

We smelled some unroasted beans, they had little aroma as it is by heating the beans that the colour changes, the sugar caramelises and oils are released to give the scents and flavours we love.  A darker roast gives a stronger flavour, less caffeine and more bitterness (and can mask poor quality beans).  Again, the degree of roasting can depend on national tastes; in Spain they love a burnt taste, French and Italians favour medium roast and the Scandinavian’s prefer theirs lighter.

More wine tasting analogies when it comes to assessing quality: colour, aroma, flavour and body.  Getting a particular flavour and taste is difficult from a single estate which is where the art of blending comes in.

Radi went on to explain how cleanliness of equipment, the freshness of roasting, the timing and techniques of grinding, storage and packaging, water and brewing time all has an impact on the final taste.  She demonstrated how to make Turkish coffee and how to use a French press, a moka pot and filter coffee.

Coffee making

Radi also showed us how to make coffee using the espresso machine and she explained exactly how to achieve the perfect ‘crema’ which is the hazelnut coloured layer on top of the espresso which is a concentration of the essences from the coffee.  Any white disturbing this shows that unwanted elements have started to be extracted.  The precision and intricacy involved made me appreciate how difficult it is to get a good cup of coffee and how much depends on the skill of the barista.

Five essentials for good crema:

  • Use a clean machine
  • Use freshly ground beans
  • Correct grind size for the coffee-making method
  • The ‘thump’ to compress the coffee in the holder must be just the right pressure.
  • Calculate exactly the right time for the water and the amount of coffee to get the  perfect crema.

Believe me you can taste the difference.

The crema

My morning at the IICBT was one of the most informative and enjoyable learning experiences I’ve had for a long time.  I’ve recounted only a small amount of what was covered and feel I now have an understanding of coffee that I’d never had before.  Cafés of Dubai watch out;  there’s a new discerning customer on the loose!  The IICBT does a range of courses, some aimed at professionals in cafés and restaurants, but others for enthusiasts like ourselves (all food bloggers).  The cost is reasonable too, a day’s course is 550 AED including lunch.

There was a quick competition to rearrange some words into a sentence – my favourite kind of pastime.  I won lunch for two at the restaurant at their Italian restaurant Tichino’s in Silicon Oasis.  I’ll let you know what the food is like, but one thing’s for sure, I’m sure they’ll serve a good cup of coffee.

Coffee with steamed milk

Read more about coffee

There are many blogs dedicated to coffee – here’s 42 of them. Is the rise and rise of coffee shops good for urban development?  This blogger thinks so.  Coffee prices are at a 30 year high due to increased demand (Brazil and China) and speculative investments leading t0 an impact on Fairtrade agreements – BBC R4 Food programme investigatesRaw Coffee Company roast and supply Dubai’s only premium 100% organic 100% fair trade fresh Arabica coffee. What makes coffee exceptional? Colonna Dashwood might have an answer.

Disclosure: I was a guest of IICBT

Are you a coffee aficionado?  Or does a jar of instant lurk in your cupboard (like it did in mine until this course!)?

  1. sharmila permalink
    May 6, 2012 8:24 am

    ….. i really enjoyed your piece on coffee… there is nothing more perfect than to start a day with a perfectly brewed cup of coffee… in south india where i stay… a lot of the beans come from Mysore and the hills of coorg; the coffee mixed with chicory, is rich and has a hint of caramel quite unlike most coffees abroad.

  2. May 6, 2012 9:56 am

    Wow Sally…how very interesting…will get my DH to read this…he’s would love all the tips on a good espresso…we just picked up a small saeco espresso machine and have been experimenting since…thanx for sharing this one:))

  3. May 6, 2012 10:13 am

    Sally – very interesting read. Broke two myths that I had –
    1) How come some of my friends have no problem sleeping in-spite of drinking a whole lot of coffee
    2)There are many many varieties of coffee beans
    3)Starbucks spread their stars worldwide while earning the bucks because of their magic mantra (didn’t know then that coffee was declared a ‘National Drink’)

    Loved the B/W images juxtaposed against the coloured ones. Look forward to your posts for obvious reasons – soul treat:)

  4. May 6, 2012 12:45 pm

    Oh, how I miss coffee! I can’t drink it anymore, as caffeine and I don’t agree, but I can still remember the quest for the perfect blend, and the endless tiny cups of espresso. Sigh. Lovely post, Sally! 🙂 PS. Kopi Luwak is absolutely awesome, best I’ve ever tried. Loved it!

  5. May 6, 2012 1:03 pm

    Interesting! That is one of my favorite drinks. Unfortunately, I don’t own a machine, but I make my coffee the Turkish or Italian way.



  6. May 6, 2012 1:12 pm

    Very interesting read Sally, and beautiful pictures…
    I don’t drink a lot of coffee cos I can’t sleep when I do, strangely enough I can drink those tiny espresso’s at the Italian restaurants and in Italy. Reading your post I know why!
    I just like “the good stuff” and don’t like the black liquid we are being served here in Belgium.
    I have these coffee beans covered in dark chocolate from English CHocolatier Hans Sloane, the beans are roasted so they become nutty and nice to eat together with the chocolate. I think you would like them 🙂

  7. bettybooindubai permalink
    May 6, 2012 2:34 pm

    Really interesting – I will have to book this some time soon. Thanks for sharing

  8. May 6, 2012 6:06 pm

    Great post! Dave can also drink coffee before bed, I however cannot – the smell even keeps me awake 🙂

  9. May 6, 2012 7:01 pm

    I’m the same as your husband but recently I had a cold drip coffee that made me feel like a spinner because of the high caffeine content. Frequenting a barista course is something I’m planning for a long time.

  10. crasterkipper permalink
    May 7, 2012 12:46 am

    I like the bit about keeping people awake when praying…maybe that’s why the Pope blessed it after all!

  11. May 7, 2012 10:30 am

    I first discovered IICBT over three years ago when I was a student at Knowledge Village. I always used to pass by, and one day went in to speak to them for a story I was writing for a student magazine. They were so helpful and very informative, and while I didn’t do a course, they did pass on a lot of information about coffee and its origins. Nice place 🙂

  12. jamielifesafeast permalink
    May 7, 2012 9:23 pm

    Really fascinating, Sally. I’m not only a coffee lover but am so interested in how things as banal as coffee came to be as huge and, well banal as they are. Or so we think. I loved the ritual of coffee in Italy and though Italian espresso was too strong for my taste, many a morning was spend standing in a bar drinking a perfect cappuccino. Wonderful experience and write up.

  13. May 7, 2012 11:24 pm

    I love coffee but am bad at drinking it….and staying balanced :-). Thanks for the insight into espressos and why Italians can still walk after a few….I love these bits of knowledge that open up our thinking. Mine anyways

  14. Dima Sharif permalink
    May 8, 2012 6:26 pm

    Interesting how the coffee bean and the cocoa bean are so similar in that they go through the same production process. Enjoyed reading this post and love to know about these coffee classes, so nice how Dubai is becoming well rounded in its food scene 🙂
    By the way, I am one of those gene mutations who drink coffee and sleep right away (any type) I even have it when I have to go out in the evening after a long day, in an attempt to make it through the night, but it does nothing for me!! lol

  15. May 9, 2012 9:41 am

    You always seem to win something when a competition is involved! 🙂 Thank you for sharing, you can always make a story so interesting and enticing to read! And so glad I took your advice to use wordpress as a new blog- so I can follow and like everything now! cant wait for the ‘New Look’… x

    • May 9, 2012 10:58 am

      I wish I could win the lottery! I’m a huge fan of WordPress – it works well for me. Like the design you’ve chosen.

  16. May 9, 2012 12:33 pm

    Love your post Sally. I am a coffee drinker and have a few machines here and in Jordan:)..
    I will click your link to the school and find out when I could do a course… I also loved your black and white photos at start… Very cinematic and Godard like:)

    • May 13, 2012 10:10 pm

      I was inspired by those gleaming machines!

  17. May 9, 2012 7:56 pm

    Great piece. Coffee is a big thing in this house. In fact, leaving behind the shiny ECM Giotto in Sydney when we moved to London was one of the hardest things to do- so we made sure when we landed here we lived within walking distance of great espresso. Monmouth coffee is luckily within a 5 minute stroll….

    • May 13, 2012 10:11 pm

      I could live without coffee but not without tea… however drinking well made good stuff makes an enormous difference.

  18. May 10, 2012 1:14 am

    WOW! I’m such a coffee fan and bubbling with jealousy at your having attended this event! I’d never heard of Kopi Lowak…and I always assumed that Italy had created the espresso machine. I can only imagine how informative this session was, such a wealth of knowledge, just reading it has perked me up at this ungodly hour of the night!

    • May 13, 2012 9:49 pm

      I now know why you get the bitterness you don’t like!

  19. May 10, 2012 11:02 am

    Really super post Sally! Beautifully written and hugely interesting and accompanied by those lovely arty photos-great stuff!!

    • May 13, 2012 9:48 pm

      Thanks – had fun with this one.

  20. May 17, 2012 3:22 am

    I would have LOVED to have gone to this class 🙂 I drink a lot of tea but have recently started exploring the coffee and espresso world. Thanks for all the great info and fabulous post per usual!

  21. June 7, 2012 9:43 am

    Oh good heavens! No instant coffee here, but I am glad to hear of your conversion ;-). While I studied in Costa Rica, I was able to do a “rural stay” in a little coffee bean growing village and learned an appreciation for good coffee. Plus, any time in or around Italy will forever ruin almost any other coffee available in the world. We use french presses (I have three, and actually want ANOTHER) and then a moka for our espresso. I’m sold on the moka-method, but if I ever actually had counter space for a serious Italian (red) espresso maker, I doubt I would be complaining. All that said, I don’t drink coffee daily or even weekly. It’s more of a treat that way, and keeps me from becoming an addict!

  22. Marc permalink
    November 28, 2012 4:01 pm

    the picture shows a SanRemo Espresso – Machine, is it your own ?
    where did you buy it ?
    thank you in advance
    best Regards

    • November 28, 2012 4:14 pm

      No – not mine Marc. It’s at the place where I took the coffee course. See above for details. Cheers


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