Coffee and the new profession “barista”

 

According to the most popular legend, coffee was invented in Ethiopia, more concretely in the region of Kaffa, in the province of Abissinia and it was the product of the curiosity and empirical spirit of a monk: Naironus Banesius. Apparently, the shepherds of the region were complaining because their herds did not let them sleep quietly till late at night, so the Maronite monk decided to investigate what was happening. He realised that the animals were eating some dark-green fruit that looked like little cherries. We don’t know how many infusions he might have drunk before finding out which plant exactly was the cause of the hyperactivity of the goats but what we do know is that when he did it with the coffee he was finally able to devote more nighty hours to his prayers.

I reckon they might not have got anything drinkable out of the first beverages until somebody came across the idea of roasting the grains to produce one of the most exquisite ways to provide our bodies with some liquid and a good deal of caffeine, very often necessary to get started in the morning or to simply to keep active when we are already tired.

Many hundreds of years have passed since Naironus Banesius did us the favour of experimenting with the plant and we can already thank God that he didn’t poison himself with any other vegetal that the herds were surely eating, because had it been the case, our civilisation would be quite a different one!

Coffee is drunk all over the world and in several ways and nowadays it has turned into something so sophisticated that there is even a modern profession linked to coffee right now: The barista. Do you know what it is? I didn’t know myself until recently, when an acquaintance from the neighbourhood, with whom I was drinking a beer at the time, explained to me that he only and exclusively drank coffee from one of his friends, who was a real expert.

As real a coffee lover but also ignorant of its secrets, I asked him if I could possibly talk to the barista to clarify some doubts I had about the beverage that lightened up my tedious mornings.

The young man allowed himself some time off for me and so I went to his workshop in Poblenou a Wednesday evening. Kim Ossenblock, that is the name of the coffee expert and renowned barista, received us with a smile and the will to record my curious questions to prepare one of his numerous videos.

I had a couple of questions ready for him. The first one was obvious. How did he get into the world of coffee?

He explained to me that he worked in the field of gastronomy here in Spain and he observed carefully how to prepare a good coffee for his guests. It did not take him very long to have fans that explicitly asked for Kim to be the only one to make the coffee for them. The good reputation of his coffee spread quickly and one day, a company devoted to roasting coffee offered him to conduct courses about this drink. He’s been doing that for 3 years now and he has become a barista. So started a big adventure that took him to win the championship of coffee tasting in 2012. And in fact he was third in the international championship, which is not a trifle!

His coffee passion has led to the publishing of his first book. I was skimming through it soaked with curiosity while I was listening to him.

The following question was one I was most interested in. I asked him what the secret of a good coffee was. Kim replied that it is of pivotal importance how the coffee has been processed and where it is grown. With the processing he refers to the roasting of the grains. If the coffee is not duly roasted the taste will not be the desired one. And a coffee that has been roasted for too long will be too bitter…

I tell him that some years ago I read an article in Germany about someone who was trying to make a machine to make the coffee sweet. Kim reminded me that coffee comes from a fruit and that the fruit is sweet. We make coffee bitter by toasting it. The barista went on with his explanation telling me what the other factors to make a good coffee are: the coffee grinder and the technique you use to prepare the drink. According to him preparing a good coffee takes time because it is like cooking.

During the talk the Belgian expert brought us a coffee for us to try it. I was surprised that he offered us filter coffee and not the Italian one but my surprise disappeared with the following question. I asked him which coffee machine he would choose in case he could only have one: an Oroley, the filter coffee machine and an Italian one as those we find in the cafés. He replied that the filter one. I then enquired whether he did not think that the paper of the filter spoilt the taste of the coffee and he clarified that one can always use a metallic filter, a textile one and that there is even one made of stone. The truth is that I was about to check if there was no hidden camera in the place. The thing about the stone filter seemed to me quite curious at best.

As for the Oroley he did not praise it very high either because he said one has to control the time it is on the fire too closely if you don’t want it to burn too quickly.

Kim justified his predilection for the filter coffee by saying that if the coffee is not as intense, the tastes and the flavours are easier to perceive. The expert reminded me of the fact that 90 per cent of the world drinks this sort of coffee and when I asked him if he didn’t miss the cream on top of his cup he explained that he did not need it. Our Spanish or Italian coffee is a bomb for the palate and you can’t fully enjoy it.

The reply to the following question surprised me only partly. I asked the Belgian to tell me which country in Europe produces the best coffees in general. He told me that people in Scandinavia usually drink good coffee because Scandinavians were willing to pay three euros for a good coffee and this allows you to buy quality. Would you have said that? Apparently there people buy the Arabica variety of coffee and not the Robusta we mainly drink here. The following question was compulsory. Which country in Europe drinks the worst coffee? He couldn’t decide whether it was Spain or Italy. Gosh! And we take pride in our coffee! I suppose its poor taste comes from the fact that we buy the variety Robusta, bitterer and with a lot more caffeine but which is less expensive. This and the fact that we want to drink a really strong coffee and, as we had mentioned previously in the discussion, some bars make it with tap water and they don’t clean the coffee machines often enough.

I then asked his opinion about high roast coffee, the one you roast together with sugar and he claimed, in a very assertive way, that one should consider studying whether this sort of coffee is harmful for one’s health. It was clear to me that he didn’t like it either.

He did not have to think much at all before answering the last question. I required him to tell me the best proportions to prepare a good coffee and he said without blinking: 50% Brazil, 30% coffee from El Salvador and 20% from Ethiopia. I wrote down this proportions in a note in my cell phone to experiment just as soon as I had the time to find the different sorts of coffee.

Before going he gave my acquaintance and me a bag of coffee that I took home overjoyed. I walked out of the door very happy but also a bit worried. It seemed that I would never have a palate delicate enough to become coffee taster. To tell you the truth a bit more than a year ago my coffee machine started making funny things so I had to get used to the Oroley. But from time to time, when I have the time, I still run the risk of using the expresso one even though it sometimes propels the filter part due to the pressure and I find myself having to clean up the mess. But I can’t help it. Every now and then I do feel the need to savour the intensity of an expresso coffee with a good cream topping. Maybe, as the German slogan for the candies Fishermans Friend said “sind sie zu stark, bist du zu schwach”. If they are too strong, then you are too weak…

The thing is that I am saving to get my expresso machine repaired or to buy another one. I drink enough filter coffee when I am on holiday! Apart from that, offering your guests a good cup of this deliciously bitter and galvanising beverage it means you want your guest to come back. Maybe therefore Turkish people turned the engagement ceremony into an official visit in which coffee was drunk. And the exact words to describe the drink were a code that entailed the message as to if there would be a marriage or not.

During my travel to Istanbul, the tour guide that an Egyptian couple and I hired, explained to us the following tradition. In ancient times when a man wanted to married a woman, the mother of the future bride-groom visited the family of the girl together with some of her friends.

The future bride would then prepare coffee and after the chatting, when the family of the man was alone again, the man’s mother could say something as: “the girl was very polite and of a very good family. But the coffee wasn’t that good”. That meant: “Son, you won’t marry this woman”. The making of the coffee and the adjectives given to it were a message to communicate the bride-groom to be if his election was or not what the mother considered suitable.

There are indeed many anecdotes about the coffee around the world because this drink is part of our lives. Moreover, has anybody ever thought what would those long nights at the desk be for those who study for exams if that Ethiopian monk had not been the personification of the empirical spirit itself?

 

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