Expert baristas have a wide array of tools at their disposal, and each play an equal part in constructing the perfect espresso based coffee! Your daily brew from your favourite local cafe may appear to be made with ease, but every stage of the coffee making process has been refined over years of tinkering and experimentation. In this list, we’ll run through 5 essential barista tools and detail exactly what they’re used for and why.
If you’ve ever been around an espresso machine, you’ve likely spotted one of these poking out just above where the coffee shots are pulled. They look like a long handle with a round basket to hold coffee grounds at one end. Its ergonomic shape is designed so that it can be slotted into and pulled off the coffee machine with comfort and ease. The barista has to do this frequently, filling it with freshly ground coffee for every shot, as well as after brewing, when they need to get rid of any used coffee grounds.
Once the desired quantity of coffee has been ground into the portafilter basket and tamped (we’ll come onto what that means later!), it’s ready to be locked back into the group head of the coffee machine. This is where the fun happens! Hot pressurised water will now flow through the coffee within the portafilter and further through small holes at the base of the portafilter basket. The coffee then flows out of the spout at the bottom of the portafilter and into a shot glass or coffee cup below, where the barista can now add milk or hot water etc. Portafilters usually have one or two spouts, two are used to split the coffee into two single shots, whereas some portafilters have no spouts at all; these are called naked portafilters. Naked or bottomless portafilters are useful because you can clearly see exactly how the coffee is extracting, and if there are particular areas that are not extracting properly. Through this, the barista can adjust their technique in order to get a more even extraction and a better tasting espresso!
2. Scales / shot timer
Scales and timers are incredibly important tools within a barista’s arsenal. The secret to any great cup of coffee is perfecting the ratio between the ground coffee and the hot water. Each element of the espresso needs to be measured, weighed correctly and timed when brewing. This is to ensure that your espresso is well balanced, and not too bitter or sour. A set of accurate coffee scales also allow a barista to repeat their chosen recipe time after time, which is great at a coffee shop or an event, where a barista is pulling espressos all day long! Using specific weighted doses also helps to eradicate coffee waste, as the barista is using the exact quantity they require for all of their shots.
3. Coffee grinder
Everybody knows freshly ground coffee tastes the best! Which is why every good barista will have a coffee grinder at their disposal, calibrated to grind fresh shots for every single coffee they make. Baristas often say that a good quality coffee grinder is the most important bit of kit you can have when making a coffee. You simply can’t make high quality espresso without a quality grinder. Cheap grinders will leave you with uneven coffee grounds, which can cause a whole host of problems!
How coarse or fine your ground coffee is can alter the taste drastically, as it affects how quickly hot water can flow through the grounds when brewing. Too coarse a grind and you’ll have a weak tasting, under extracted shot, too fine and you’ll have an over extracted coffee, which will taste bitter. Baristas have to alter the coarseness of the coffee regularly, as part of the ‘dialling in’ process, which essentially calibrates their grinder and coffee machine. This has to be done daily (minimum!) at coffee shops, and our own baristas here at Social Espresso, constantly have to do this when out on events, in order to produce the best tasting coffee throughout the whole day.
4. Milk-jug or Pitcher
It’s no secret that creamy, glossy steamed milk is one of the highlights of a great espresso based coffee. Creating smooth, perfectly textured micro-foams is an art in itself, and without this, latte art can’t be poured. According to SA Latte Art champion, Jeff Stopforth, the most important features of a top quality milk pitcher are the handle and the spout. A jug with a more slim, elongated spout allows for more precise pouring, whilst a chunkier handle helps with stability and gives baristas more options for holding at varied angles.
When steaming milk, a barista’s milk should be filled just below the base of the spout. This helps prevent overflowing, which can happen quickly when working with pressurised hot milk! The texture of milk when steaming should be like that of wet paint, thick and smooth with little to no air bubbles. Once the correct texture is achieved, it all comes down to the barista’s technique and expertise! Learning how to pour quality latte art takes time and patience; a well shaped spout on the pitcher helps make it easier for beginners to hone their craft. Usually trainee baristas start with more simple shapes or patterns, such as a heart or tulip. Experienced baristas can create more intricate, detailed designs such as swans or rosettas, which definitely require a steady hand!
Once coffee is ground into a portafilter, it needs to be compressed evenly in order to create more pressure and achieve an even extraction. This is where a tamper comes into play! A tamper is a flat, round, metal weight with an ergonomic handle for comfort; they come in all different shapes and sizes, so it’s vital to have a tamper that is the perfect size for an espresso machine’s portafilter basket. Barista’s have to tamp every single shot worth of coffee, and so good technique is crucial for optimum extraction. This means applying an even amount of pressure when tamping, and keeping the tamper as level as possible. It’s also important to ensure that your ground coffee is distributed evenly before tamping.
Bonus ‘Tool’ – Great quality coffee!
Okay, we know this one isn’t exactly a tool, but any barista will tell you that without good beans, you can’t make good coffee! Here at Social Espresso, we’re keen advocates of specialty grade coffee and we think it’s crucial for all coffee to be sourced as ethically as possible. Good quality beans make all the difference to how good your brew tastes, as well as how they are roasted. Over roasted beans are more oily and offer a bitter taste, in contrast to well roasted beans that help to accentuate the natural flavours of the coffee.
We hope after reading this, you’ve gained some insight into the world of professional baristas and the tools they use to craft your daily brew!