Five years during college and graduate school were spent behind an espresso machine, prepping half-caf soy double tall cappuccinos with extra foam. I pulled thousands of espresso shots. I burnt the sensation off the tips of my fingers.
I’m still barista-level picky about the amount of foam in my lattes (there should be almost none) and I can tell, even now, when milk is done steaming by the pitch of the steam wand.
But I didn’t learn much about coffee. The main skill I cultivated over those years was how to smile at people earlier in the morning than any reasonable human being should have to.
Between when I frothed my last professional macchiato 10 years ago and now, coffee culture has become an entirely different thing. Stone Creek Coffee, a Milwaukee-based café and roaster that moved into the Madison area about a year ago, gets that, and they’ve dedicated an entire segment of their business to it.
“Every time I teach a public class, people are filled with questions I forget people have,” said Hailey Barsch, Stone Creek’s director of education. “I forget that not everybody knows this stuff, and that’s OK.”
Barsch drove in to Madison on a recent evening to teach “Home Brewing Methods,” a three-hour, $50 class that recurs every other Friday. (The next Madison class, Espresso 101, is set for Friday, Dec. 22 at 5 p.m.)
She brought with her a PowerPoint, bags of light roast coffee from Nicaragua, Ethiopia and Costa Rica, six years of experience in coffee and a number two pencil with Stone Creek’s tagline, “Never Stop Learning,” on the side.
She had just one student: me, the former barista and cold brew drinker without even a French press at home anymore. I decided to ask enough questions for a class full.
“I’m going to mess some things up, I’m going to do some things correctly, we’re going to taste the differences,” Barsch said. “I’m going to force you to drink things you may or may not enjoy today.”
The brewing method Barsch liked best was a V60, so named because it’s shaped in a V at a 60-degree angle with curving ridges along the sides to allow airflow. It’s deceptively simple; I quickly realized it may take a good long time before I learn to pour at exactly the right pace in exactly the right places.
“When I’m at home I drink V60s primarily,” Barsch said. “When I started at Stone Creek Coffee, I realized how bad my drip coffee maker was. The V60 allows me to manipulate the variables and play around a bit more.”
Barsch made quick work of her lesson, breaking down the coffee brewing process into sections. The main reason coffee at home doesn’t taste as good as in the shop is water, she said. Madison’s water is known to be particularly hard.
“Water that’s not ideal will mess with the chemistry of your brewing,” she said. “It won’t just taste different, it’s also going to change the way you brew and extract.”
According to Barsch’s notes, a few things about making great coffee are pretty standard. The water should be between 195 and 205 degrees Fahrenheit. Paper filters are generally best, and burr grinders do a better job at grinding coffee than the blade grinder my parents have used for decades.
Everything else has a range. Barsch outlined the magic ratio of about 1:15, or 1 gram of ground coffee to 15 grams of water. To illustrate, she brewed three cups of coffee as weak, balanced and strong.
When my grandma wanted strong coffee, I was pretty sure she was asking for French roast, or at least the darkest roast we had. Barsch confirmed that while that’s not what strong coffee is, that’s often what customers ask for.
“When someone comes in and asked for strong coffee, a lot times they’re looking for a coffee bean as opposed to a drip,” Barsch said. “They want something with a bold flavor. We can throw a shot of espresso in their coffee. We can also, if we’re making a pourover, just put more coffee in it.”
We also experimented with grind size, for which Barsch offered a helpful visual. Making coffee with a coarse grind is like pouring water through rocks (that’s best for my Toddy cold brew method). The finest grind is like water through sand, used for tamped-down espresso shots and Turkish coffee.
“Coffee being crushed through burrs offers a much more consistent grind,” Barsch said. “Blades are going to chop one piece multiple times while another piece keeps getting missed.”
We played with an Aeropress, a portable and efficient method that Barsch used on her rustic honeymoon in Hawaii, and examined a Chemex, which looks like a larger, connected version of a V60.
Since it produces a larger batch, Chemex coffee takes longer. Barsch doesn’t love hers.
“I only pull out my Chemex when I have family over,” Barsch said. “It’s like, sorry guys, you’re going to have to wait, I’m making more coffee and I’m just going to stand here in one place for 10 minutes while my husband entertains you.”
Barsch allowed early on that for those who’ve grown accustomed to taking their coffee a certain way, change may take time.
Yet almost every coffee she brewed for me, even some of the “wrong” cups with too coarse a grind or a weak coffee to water ratio, tasted better than the bitter, scalded drip coffees I’ve drunk in the past. Even before I packed up, I’d added a V60 and a coffee mill to my Christmas wish list (I can’t bring myself to ask for the $130 burr grinder yet).
Barsch knows old coffee habits die hard. But she’s confident in the power of coffee conversion.
“I ask new baristas, how do you brew your coffee at home? And the answer is usually a French press or a drip coffee maker,” said Barsch. “I’m like, give it a few months. You’ll have a V60 or an Aeropress.”