‘When you buy thousands of kilos of coffee at a time, you have to know what you’re buying,’ says Martin Pearson who works at the Lot Sixty One café and coffee roastery in Amsterdam. Martin and the company’s other baristas fly out regularly to Africa, South America and the world’s other coffee growing areas to taste and try before they buy.
‘You can buy coffee off the stock exchange,’ Martin says, ‘but it can be low grade, you don’t always know who’s made it. So we source our own and choose the quality. Fairtrade takes everyone’s coffee and everyone gets the same price, so the good growers don’t always get the rewards they should be getting. With the Direct Trade that we use, we buy direct from individual growers so the best growers get the rewards.’
I’m learning about coffee and the skills of a barista at one of the regular hour-long workshops Lot Sixty One operate in the roastery area just off their ever-busy café. One Amsterdam resident who’s also on the course says, ‘I always bring people to this café to have a really good cup of coffee, so it’s great to see behind the scenes!’
We start with a lesson in smelling and tasting coffee. On a work table (this is work, not relaxation) four cups are covered with saucers. Each one contains four grams of lightly-roasted beans, covered to keep in the aromas. When the saucers are removed we’re encouraged to stick our noses right in the cups and try to spot how one coffee differs from another.
‘This is what we call a cupping,’ explains Martin, ‘and it is a standardised way of tasting coffee. You mark coffee out of a hundred based on quality. Everyone does the same process. You grind it quite coarsely. Now get your noses in there!’
We do as we’re told and try to smell the differences between Ethiopian and Brazilian coffees.
‘That fourth cup has a Colombian coffee called Tamana,’ says Jeremy Green, another of Lot Sixty One’s baristas, ‘I’m getting cranberries, blackberries… a bit of tartness.’
I nod as if I know exactly what he means.
‘You have to remember,’ says Jeremy, ‘that different coffees are good for different things. Some coffee’s good for espresso, but you’d use a different one to do a latte or a cappuccino. Brazilian is great for espresso, as if you want to add milk to it you can still taste the coffee. Add milk to an Ethiopian coffee and it tastes of milk.’
After nosing the coffee we move on to slurping it, as Martin adds water that’s just off the boil to each cup. ‘You put the coffee onto a teaspoon and really suck it in.’ A series of slurping noises ensues as we now try to differentiate the tastes.
Jeremy then gives us an insight into the skills of the barista.
‘If you want to make serious coffee at home then spend the money on the grinder, not the machine. Your grinder is really important.’
He tells us this after making a cup of coffee he’s not happy with. ‘It’s a little too light,’ he says. ‘The water’s running through too quickly, so I’ll try it with a little coarser grain.’
Apparently the Italians who come to the workshops are sometimes surprised by what they find.
‘Italians tend to make coffee the way mama made it,’ Jeremy explains. ‘They’re quite rigid in that way, but the world of coffee has moved on. We always heat milk up to 65 degrees Fahrenheit, and we do that for all coffees, including cappuccinos. The Italians are shocked: You can’t make cappuccino like that! But we do, and I don’t care: it tastes better that way.’
Finally it’s time for a little fun, and a demonstration of latte art. Martin shows us how to do it by the way you hold the cup, how close you pour it and the angle at which you pour in the milk. Naturally what he produces is a Picasso compared to our own dismal blobby efforts, but after a few tries we do manage to improve. Slightly.
‘Don’t worry,’ he says. ‘It’s taken me four years to learn this, you’re not going to master it in five minutes!’
Well, if nothing else, we’ve had a lot of fun, been educated, and enjoyed several really great cups of coffee.
For information on coffee courses see the Lot Sixty One website. If you simply want one of the best cups of coffee in Amsterdam, the cafe is open daily till 5pm at Kinkerstraat 112 in Amsterdam’s Oud West district.
All Photos (c) Mike Gerrard.