If drinking filter coffee was illegal I’d be a criminal, no doubt about it. I’m addicted to the rich aroma of the brew that fogs the air, the dark thick liquid filling the cup and the fantastic kick that jolts me awake.  But I have a secret… , I know nothing about coffee,  I’m nothing more than a coffee aficionado poser.

Realising that one day the beans could be spilled and my reputation left in ruins, I decided that a crash course on the ins and outs of coffee was needed. I’d heard that there had recently been a flourish of micro artisan coffee roasters in Cape Town, and it was them who I was seeking to enlighten me.

Micro artisan coffee roasters have coffee flowing through their veins. They’re passionate about roasting a good blend and pouring the ideal cup of – to them- black gold.  These artisans perform their complete range of artistry on – site in their coffee establishments, in full view of their patrons. Much like winemakers, you’ll find them tweaking this and adjusting that in search of the perfect alchemy of tastes.

My first lesson took place at such a roastery near the start of the now famous “Fan-walk” on the CBD outskirts where David, one such  artisan,  passionately gave me the interesting, edited,  run- down on the history of coffee.

“It all started back before 1000A.D , in Ethiopia, when a local herdsman noticed his sheep energetically “frolicking” after munching on a certain berry. Not wanting to be deprived, he chewed on a similar berry and instantly felt happier. He took a sample to a local monastery where the monks started to use it to stay awake for extended hours of prayer. Sometime after that Arab traders got their first taste of it, began cultivating it on the Arabian Peninsula, and started the coffee trade. Ottoman Turks then introduced it to Constantinople with the first known coffee shop opening in 1475. Such was the demand for the product that Turkish Law granted women the right to divorce their husbands if they failed to provide them with their daily quota of coffee.

“The Roman Catholic Church got in on the act around 1600 when Pope Clement VIII went against his advisers to consider coffee an “Infidel threat” and baptized it instead.

Coffee has even influenced big business. In 1668 Edward Lloyd’s coffee house opened in England which were frequented by merchants and maritime insurance agents- it eventually became Lloyds of London. It got its nickname “Java” when in 1690 a coffee plant was smuggled out of the Arab port of Mocha by the Dutch who became the first to transport and cultivate it commercially in Java and Ceylon. The birth of the multi Billion dollar coffee industry in Brazil was thanks to a dangerous liaison when a Brazilian Lieutenant struck up a clandestine liaison with the wife of a French Governor. She gave him a floral bouquet containing cuttings and fertile coffee seeds which he put to good use. Coffee has also influenced music and Johann Sebastian Bach composed his Kaffee-Kantate. Partly an ode to coffee and partly a stab at the movement in Germany to prevent women from drinking coffee- for fear that it sterilises them, this was around 1732. And for a more modern bit of trivia, in 1995 it was reported that coffee is the worlds’ most popular beverage with more than 400 billion cups consumed each year and is a globally traded commodity that is second only to oil.”

With my espresso cup empty and interest stirred, I made my way to my second on-site lecture where my practical education was about to begin.

Entering the warehouse styled coffee house I realised that this establishment was the real deal. A coffee roaster stood guard at the front door, wooden bean – filled bins lined the face-brick walls and the shop was buzzing. The owner introduced himself, and led straight into the lesson.

“The roast of the bean is a key factor when it comes to the taste. Whether it’s a light, medium or dark roast, the finished product is to the Roaster’s personality and taste. For the lighter roasts the bean will display more of its “original flavour” – the flavours created in the bean by the soil and weather conditions in the location where it was grown. As the roasting process lengthens and the  beans darken to a deep brown, the origin flavours of the bean are eclipsed by the flavours created by the roasting process itself, with  a dark roasts dominated by the roast flavour. The beans, once roasted, should be allowed to settle for 3- 4 days and shouldn’t be used if older than 2 weeks.”

Lesson two noted I was on the move to learn more.

Coffee roasters have an onsite lab where their different roasts are continuously being tested. So it wasn’t too strange for me to find myself inside the next coffee shop which resembled such a testing lab. With very neat lines, sparse furniture, and white walls, this coffee house was very clinical but far from sterile.

As if pre-ordained I’m invited to attend a coffee tasting or “cupping” to those in the know.

Noticing that the beans which are going to be cupped are slightly lighter – I ask to be told more.

I spent time in Norway,which is  “Statistically”, the country that consumes the most coffee per capita. Learning from the less traditional and more innovative independent roasters  resulted in producing a lighter roast and more interesting tasting product,” says Renato the owner and partner to Helene.

The fresh beans are ground, meticulously measured and exact quantities administered. Water heated – but not boiled, poured, timed, allowed to settle, and ready to be cupped.

Not knowing what I’m meant to be tasting, the only difference that grabs my attention is that of a fresh “ping” like taste that fills my mouth.

“Even though the beans have a lighter colouring, it doesn’t mean that they’re any weaker. With the Nordic style roast the taste is slightly more acidic but still robust in flavour. We’re always pushing for lighter roasts to bring out more of the sweetness and acidity of the coffee, two ingredients in making coffee special and interesting.”  Sweetness and Acidity I think to myself as my mental coffee encyclopaedia increases in size.

My thirst for knowledge and a continuing caffeine rush is at the forefront of my mind and I’m off in search for my final instruction.

Charging into my last lecture theatre – a genuine coffee bar; retro in style and funky- I’m buzzing. Not serving anything other than coffee-in all forms-this is the place where someone needing a caffeine hit is sure to end up.

A 5kg roaster churns away in the corner adding to the perfect lecture theatre. My teachers and store owners- Judd and Carl introduce themselves by pouring me a “flat white.”

“There’re so many aspects to making a good cup of coffee,” starts Judd. “Just as with any trade or art the artist must know what they’re doing. It’s no good supplying a good roasted product if the Baristas aren’t trained in the art of producing a good cup of coffee consistently.”

Carl invites me behind the counter, throws me an apron and introduces me to the hissing, double headed coffee machine which is already spewing out a thick, rich, dark liquid.

“Extraction coffee is what you get from the coffee machines you find in most coffee shops. There are 3 points, besides the water temperature and pressure which are key to producing a decent cup,” starts Carl. “The grind of the coffee, the dose and the tamp.”

Lost at tamp, I cautiously nod.

I watch as beans are thrown into the grinder and soon the machine is in action gnashing away while releasing a tantalizing caffeine rich aroma.

“A fine grind for machine coffee, including Espresso’s, a medium grind if using a paper filter machine and a courser grind if using the popular plunger system,” says Carl as he expertly unhitches one of the portafilters or “handles” from the coffee machine. “The dose of the coffee in the handle is crucial. Too little and the hot water filters through too quickly. Too much and the water struggles to get through or will penetrate the coffee unevenly. The longest it should take from the grinding of the beans to the cup is 4 minutes,” says Carl while picking up a circular stamp- not unlike an olden-day seal – and fitting it perfectly into the coffee grasping head of the handle. Using his body weight he presses or tamps the coffee leaving a smoothly packed dose of the dark, course grind, ready to be extracted.

My mouth salivates at the thought of what the end result will be.

Slotting the handle into its prescribed parking place, a couple of switches later and the dark liquid is filtering into the cup.

“25-30 seconds is all that’s needed for a comprehensive extraction , but it’s important to stop it before the liquid starts to lighten. That can result in a weaker cup of coffee.”

Sweaty palms …

“Most coffees we make are milk based like Flat Whites, Cappuccinos and Lattes, so there’s another dimension that has to be added. The key ingredient – heated milk – should be smooth, creamy and with barely visible bubbles similar to a glossy white paint.

Judd tops up the cup with a swift move of his hand, leaving behind an airbrushed artwork floating on the surface- completing his masterpiece. It seems like a sin to disturb such a work of art but my need for a “kick” and my screaming taste buds quickly put paid to that notion.

Sipping my brew and savouring the experience, with a new found respect for these artisans, I realise that my reputation is no longer in danger.

How to make perfect Plunger coffee:

1. A tablespoon of freshly ground coffee per cup.

2. Boil water then leave to stand for a bit until “off boil”

3. Just pour in enough water to cover the coffee allowing to bubble and release the coffee gases.

4. Fill with enough water for the required servings, briefly stir contents and then place plunger on top. (Only brew as much as you expect to drink as the remains will continue to infuse allowing the bitter flavours to escape.)

5. Allow for 4 minutes of infusing.

6. Pour and enjoy

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