Sunday, 29 July 2012

Milk Chemistry In Espresso Drinks

Recently I switched the type of (cow's) milk I use in espresso-based drinks, from Arla's Cravendale (which is marketed as, and rumoured to be the barista's favourite in the UK) to milk from my local dairy. The milk has approximately the same fat content of just under 2% (semi-skimmed), but it is visibly much more of a solid white rather than having that slightly translucent appearance that Cravendale semi-skimmed has. It also tastes more like whole milk... more flavoursome ... more wholesome.  In a traditional 6oz cappuccino it makes fewer bubbles, smoother microfoam, and results in a more delicious coffee drink. As a barista I just find it to be a better ingredient.

So if we assume a 1oz shot (I'm using volume rather than mass just to make it easier to communicate) and 3.5oz of milk (pre-stretch), that cappuccino consists of (very approximately):
  • 2.2% coffee solids
  • 20% water
  • 77.8% milk
I think that as a breed, we barista are learning more about the smallest part of this cup, the coffee... about the fruit and the beans themselves. Great. Some of us are also learning about the next largest part, brew water... how water TDS is just the tip of the iceberg and different waters dramatically affect the covalent bonds that are broken, and compounds that are created & extracted during the brewing process.  Even better.  So to me a logical progression is to understand more about the ingredient that comprises the largest part of what is in many customers' cups - the milk.

I have so many questions. For example:
  1. Obviously, what is it that makes one milk taste better than another? Cow diet, no doubt, but which dietary components lead to which milk flavours? Shouldn't we be speaking more closely with milk suppliers regarding this? 
  2. Why does my new milk have less bubbles when steamed? (This one has been discussed on forums and it has been suggested that it relates to the use of supplements in cow feed during winter. I'd like to find other possible reasons.) 
  3. What chemical reactions are happening during the steaming process, and how do each of these affect flavour? 
  4. The whole "don't stretch the milk after 100F" thing is such an established part of barista training, but what is it all about (what IS denaturing of proteins)?
There is a lot to uncover, it is going to get technical, and I am by no means a natural when it comes to chemistry! So in the meantime maybe it's a good idea to get some 'quick wins'... snippets of info that might open this up a bit.

87% of milk is... water! So even in the average milky cappuccino, around 88% of the cup is actually H2O!!
Lactose is a sugar found only in milk. It is often said that milk sweetness in a cappuccino or flat white comes from the lactose.  However, lactose is about 30 times less sweet than standard cane sugar.
On arrival at a dairy, up to 10% of the content of milk is gas... including CO2 and nitrogen. A source of bubbles, perhaps?
 UPDATE: It seems Morten Münchow is the man when it comes to milk chemistry relating to coffee. Let's see how I get on...

Sunday, 8 July 2012

Changes in store for WBC Judges and Competitors

During the recent World Barista Championships we saw Stephen Morrissey (2008 WBC Champion) discussing WBC judges' scoring with the comperes, Nicholas Cho, James Hoffmann and Stephen Leighton. For me his insights were fascinating. For example, he said (and I'm paraphrasing, so forgive me if this isn't exactly correct) that the ideal scoresheet as completed by a judge is one that should need no further verbal feedback... that for every score on the sheet, the judge should write a comment explaining that score well enough for the competitor to understand why that score was given. Upon hearing that I couldn't help feeling that, however, that Stephen's is perhaps an idealistic view of the transparency within WBC scoring. My own experience was extremely rewarding but it left me with many unanswered questions and not enough clarity of what I need to do differently in future competitions. (“Buy a watch” was the advice jokingly given by one judge, after I overran by 37 seconds.)

Stephen is on the Board of World Coffee Events (WCE), the organisation that runs and regulates the World Barista Championships - including coordinating judging activities. I wanted to understand more from Stephen's perspective, so I wrote to him. I'm sure he's a busy man and can't reply to every email from random baristas around the world. Nonetheless, I stuck my neck out because if you don't try then you will never know. Surprisingly, he did read my email and contacted two of his colleagues at WCE – Ellie Matuszak and Carl Sara, who are the Co-Chairs of the committee that oversees all of the competitions. The three of them decided to respond!

Thanks so much for agreeing to this. For the benefit of readers could you please explain who you are?
We're chiming in on behalf of the WCE Competition Operations Committee (COC). The COC is responsible for the work around this topic.

Great! So... judging & scoresheets seem to be a sensitive subject for competitors. What are your views on how well the current system works?
At present judges are evaluated based upon the Judge Competencies framework. However, no secrets... the current status of WCE is a bit unusual. The assessment tool, the Judges Calibration Workshop, was built before standardized training toward it was created.

So there is a gap in how judges are trained to attain the competencies required to judge?
That is why we are working on that training now. In fact, WCE is currently developing a standardized judge training program to be in use at the National Body level. We formed a specific subcommittee to develop these modules, the Instructional Design Subcommittee or IDSC.

Ah yes. I recall Instructional Design from the SCAA Instructor Development Programme. In short, it's a model for building training courses.
You will recall that proper Analysis, Design and Development can make all the difference in creating a successful training program or not (this is called the “ADDIE” model of instructional design). No point in doing any Implementation and Evaluation unless and until the AD&D are fulfilled. This training program is huge. It is going to be about 10 separate modules, and based entirely on training toward the Judge Competencies.

Sounds good, but what does this actually mean? What will be different?
The changes you should expect to see range from the obvious to the less-so. First, judges will be trained better, meaning they will be explicitly trained toward successfully meeting the Judge Competencies (= better judging: more fair, more transparent, more accurate)

That's a lot of training. So to clarify, would this new training only be given to judges at the World Championships, and not at a National level such as the UKBC?
No, actually the opposite. We still will not be training judges at the World Level- all training will take place at the National Body Level. Judges can qualify to judge in the World competitions by passing the Judge Certification Workshop. This means that judging from nation to nation will be more consistent. Judging from the National Body level to World Barista Championship level will be more similar. No more surprises as in "my Head Judge trained me to do it a different way" etc.

And hopefully it will go all the way through to Regional judging too (i.e. during National Heats), where there have been some high profile critics of the standard of judging. How do you hope to get this training delivered across so many judges in different places?
Long term, we hope to continue to leverage the parent companies to grow and distribute the training, but we are still working out the details of what that means exactly. (Full disclosure, I am employed by one of the parent companies.)

So we should have better trained judges in future, who will all have a better understanding of the rules and how to apply them. Great! But what about competitors? We need a clear definition of what the judges expectations are. No secrets! I have previously suggested a Competitors Calibration Workshop. What is happening to address that?
One of the forthcoming changes is that anyone who wishes to can sit the National Body level judge training. Active barista competitors may not judge in competitions, but can sit the training. Other interested parties who want to learn about WBC (coaches, volunteers, newbies) can participate in the training and learn something without committing to judge (though we hope they do if they want to).

So attending the judges training will help to prepare competitors for their performance on competition day?
In fact, some modules will be specifically designed for use in the months prior to a competition, rather than at it.

Thanks, Ellie. It sounds like a big improvement to me.
Thank you for your candor and enthusiasm for the process of improving WCE activity as an educational tool.


As a first time competitor in 2012 I saw many good things and some not-so-good things. There is currently, I believe, an unnecessary communication-gulf between competitors and judges. Some judges seem to recognise this but are unsure how to make things better. When I have previously asked for more clarity from judges, I have been told “we are not allowed to coach competitors”. This problem presents a great opportunity for improvement! Both parties could and should work together more collaboratively. It seems to me that the guys at WCE have become aware of that, and are being very proactive in addressing it in a professional manner. I think the changes mentioned above are nothing short of a giant leap for barista-kind, and I look forward to seeing how this is rolled out globally. There will be challenges involved in implementing the new training program, I suspect, but if it is implemented well then the outcome will be a larger number of highly skilled baristas throughout the world due to the competition being an even better learning tool than it currently is. In my view the WBC remains one of the best possible avenues for learning and fulfilling our potential as baristas, and the future of the competition just got brighter.

To learn more about the voluntary members of the WCE Advisory Board go to

Tuesday, 3 July 2012

Obligatory Coffee Books Post

I've blogged numerous times about how stupidly difficult it is to become an educated barista via any sort of good formal training in the UK - particularly outside the London area. I'm self-educating, out of necessity. Today someone else from outside London contacted me for advice regarding coffee books, as he is experiencing the same problem I am with the poor education framework and how slowly things seem to improve, if at all.  Taking matters into your own hands seems to be the only way at the moment.

So here's my list of books. Some of them are rubbish, and some are literally amazing in the depth of knowledge they summarize and pass on. I wasn't going to do a 'coffee books' post, but it seems a logical way to reference some of the methods I've used to learn more.

Starting a coffeeshop type books

The first coffee book I bought. I think it's very good, if a little ... well, very... dated now.  So many people want to open a coffeeshop and this book gives a decent account of the process it entails, by two people who made the leap in a very organised and professional way. They did their research, and the book helped me clarify what I would need to do, and how to do it. It's a daunting process, but this book provides inspiration, confidence and practical advice.  It doesn't have all the answers of course, but it gets you started.,204,203,200_PIsitb-sticker-arrow-click,TopRight,35,-76_AA300_SH20_OU02_.jpg

My next two books.  I had a splurge on books at this point! Both good ones. Not much about coffee but tons of practical and well structured advice about planning the business, preparing to open, post-opening activities etc.

The Coffee Boys are well known coffeeshop consultants, always running workshops at cafe events etc. Their books are fantastic as the boys (well... middle aged men!) share their knowledge of management theory alongside their own practical skills in running several businesses. It is very effective and it's easy to get quite swept along by how easy they make it all seem. Definitely good reference manuals for shop owners if you can avoid being hooked into their upsales techniques (well, they are consultants!). Not specifically at the speciality coffee market, and that is probably a good thing.

Barista books
So you get into coffee and eventually realise you need to read something a bit more detailed concerning how to make your coffee.  There are three obvious buys. No need for details... they are all bibles.

Crap books
I bought these three books because the SCAE-UK advise on their website that they may be useful in coming up with signature drinks for the World or UK Barista Championships. Nothing could be further from the truth, and if you base any of your sig drinks on the ones in these books you will be openly sneered at by UKBC judges (they seem to sneer at everyone, but these books will guarantee a full on filthy look!). Total waste of money, the lot of them.

Home Roasting

I reached a point in my coffee brewing where I realised there was a limit to how well I could make coffee without knowing more about what happened to that coffee before it reached me. The way it is roasted affects how it extracts. This is an excellent book to read even if you don't plan to home roast. It includes some fascinating history of coffee (often coffee history is written in a very boring manner, but this is very readable stuff), processing methods used at origin and how it affects the green beans, a little about different regions, and of course heaps of good stuff about the hows, whys and whats of the roasting process.

Wider reading and Coffee Origins

Then there are what might easily be thought of as 'coffee table' books if you go by the title and cover, but they contain some very useful information about coffees around the world. Brilliant for gradually building up an understanding of the characteristics of coffees from different regions. The world is such a big place, and it takes time to properly understand the differences, and WHY they are different... along with the key growing areas in each country.

Now I need to be careful here. The version I have was published in 1981, so it is very obviously out of date. Farms and growing regions have changed enormously, as have processing technologies, and also the varieties grown. So my version book cannot be relied upon. But if you can find an updated version (eg the one shown is the 1996 version - still old but more useful) then there are still things to learn from it.

I love this book. It touches on history, tasting, roasting, grinding, brewing, and most of all has a Global Coffee Directory, that is up to date and gives a really nice overview of many different growing countries, along with a small map of key producing areas and typical ratings for Body, Acidity and Balance from the country's speciality coffees (if a national generalisation can be made).

Advanced Books
Well... advanced is a bit of a misnomer. Really these are beginners books, but they are for serious beginners - those who have been into coffee for a while, learned a fair bit, but now feel ready to gain a much deeper understanding of coffee.  After reading (and re-reading!) these books, I think it's fair to say that the reader will be well on the way to becoming very knowledgeable about coffee.  In the US these are required reading for SCAA qualifications. Sadly here in the UK baristas seem to be disinterested in this level of detail. I'm not sure why, but perhaps because these books may seem like less 'fun' because of their detailed content. But I think they are worth knuckling down to... worth the extra concentration it takes to fully comprehend and then make use of the learning they provide.  I hope for two things: (a) that more people in the UK buy and read these books. (b) that the SCAE-UK will start to stock them for sale. I had to import mine from the US.

By the way, don't assume that the cuppers book is just for cuppers. As well as cupping, it is all about sensory skills. If you ever wanted to make that vital connection between your mouth, nose and brain, this is the book for you.