Few cookbooks devote a single page to instructions on how to make great coffee. That’s a shame, for two reasons. First, a special meal, hours or days in the making, shouldn’t end with a mediocre cup of joe. Yet even today, in the era of ubiquitous Starbucks, the coffee served at some of the best restaurants in the world wouldn’t pass muster with the average street vendor in Seattle or in Portland, or just about anywhere else where people value their coffee.
Another reason it is painful to see fine coffee making neglected at restaurants is that major advances in technology, technique, and understanding have actually transformed the art in recent decades, in much the same way that Modernist ideas, techniques, and ingredients have revolutionized food. While Ferran Adrià, Heston Blumenthal, Wylie Dufresne, and other Modernist chefs were pushing through the limits of cooking, pioneering baristas like James Hoffmann, Scott Rao, Andy Schecter, Tim Wendleboe, and others were working out the art and science of espresso and brewed coffee.
So when we were planning Modernist Cuisine, we decided early on that it should include a whole chapter on coffee. We think it’s crucial that all chefs understand the basics of what matters most in coffee making, from the roasting of beans all the way through the artful presentation of steamed milk. Preparing excellent coffee takes skill, and doing it consistently requires dedication and practice, but also a solid understanding of the details.
The coffee chapter in Modernist Cuisine, which runs to nearly 50 pages, is a good starting point. But for even more insight and instruction on the subject, you could check out the work of some of these masters in the field who are as committed to making uncompromising coffee as we are to food. The best books I’ve found on this topic are The Professional Barista’s Handbook and Everything But Espresso, both by Scott Rao.
Rao’s explanations of the how’s and why’s of coffee are as important for baristas and coffee enthusiasts as Harold McGee’s work has been for chefs and serious cooks. Through a balance of clear technical explanations and practical tips, they open your eyes to subtleties and phenomena you didn’t even know existed and show you how to control them where you can. For people who want to improve the quality and consistency of the coffee they make, these two books are the ones to buy.
Several online forums and blogs also provide great sources of information. The forums at CoffeeGeek.com and Portafilter.net, for example, are overflowing with great ideas and research (as well as some not-so-great opinions). Andy Schecter, a frequent contributor to CoffeeGeek.com, was the first to publish espresso brewing ratios, for example, which have been highly influential in the barista community.
I also get a lot out of James Hoffmann’s blog at jimseven.com. James and I met back in 2005, when I was the head development chef at The Fat Duck, and James was preparing for the World Barista Championship (which he won in 2007). If you’re in London, make sure to check out his coffee-roasting company, Square Mile Coffee Roasters.
Tim Wendelboe, who along with James and Chuck Lambert helped us in writing our coffee chapter, also has a book out now.
Whether you’re a professional barista or only make coffee for yourself at home, you’ll probably be surprised by how much more pleasure you can derive from this simple beverage with a relatively small investment of time and money.
Chris Young is a coauthor of Modernist Cuisine: The Art and Science of Cooking