Behind the Grind – Dublin Bar Academy Barista Course Review
My name is Darina and I am a coffee addict. It is no word of a lie when I say my life is caffeine fuelled, and what a costly little habit a daily dose can be. Think about it, we spend the better part of three euro on less than 50 millitres of this magical elixir, making it the most expensive thing we imbibe on a daily basis – but do you ever wonder how that price is justified?
With specialty coffee shops like Granthams and The Fat Fox, Irish roasters like Bell Lane in Waterford and a collective fascination with hunting down the perfect cup reaching peak hysteria, now seemed like the time to arm myself with some in depth knowledge and skills.
There has never been a more exciting coffee culture in Dublin and it is evolving rapidly, thanks in no small part to the return of people like Taurean Coughlan (of Two Boys Brew in Phibsborough) and Conor McMenamin (of Rathmine’s 250 Squared) from the coffee culture capital of Melbourne. Bringing back with them the desire to push forward what many would say places like 3FE started, a revolution has begun.
With that in mind, exploring the addiction I share with so many others seemed like a fabulous way to spend a weekend. Dublin Bar Academy’s Illy Barista course (€219) caught my eye, and the opportunity to go down the rabbit hole of the art of coffee was irresistible – not least because copious amounts of the real black stuff would be mine.
First impressions count, and off the beaten track on North King Street, DBA revealed itself to be the most unique red-brick centre of learning I have ever graced. With vibrant murals and a US frat house-style decor, ping pong and pool tables flanked an impressively stocked bar lined with people who actually want to learn! As coffee dependent as I am, the amber glowing bourbon lining the bar grabbed my eye, but I remind myself it is Saturday morning and anticipate a good cup of Joe to get my engine going for the two day intensive course ahead.
My fellow students – a mix of coffee enthusiasts and aspirant baristas – and I managed to move beyond the bar to meet our instructor for the weekend, DBA’s Head Barista Paul Taylor. Having developed a passion for coffee whilst exploring the bustling cafe cultures of Australia and New Zealand, here in Dublin Paul has manned the machines from Third Floor Espresso (3FE) to Urbanity and run his own clothes and coffee boutique Tamp & Stitch, bringing a wealth of experience to the hands-on Illy certified course.
Jumping straight in to Coffee 101, Paul talks us through the various stages of a coffee bean’s life, from green and ripe to dark roasted and everything in between – including Cascara, the berry shells enclosing the prized coffee bean. Those in the know will have come across things such as Cascara tea and even Cascara lemonade, infused with these dried shells which contain more caffeine than the bean itself. I make a mental note to source these once I leave and add in my newfound understanding of altitude’s effect on coffee beans and I already feel my hipster café street cred increasing, less than an hour in.
Next, a field trip to see an operational roaster in Smithfield’s Urbanity was the perfect immersive experience for reasons far beyond understanding the mechanics of a roasting machine. Meeting the duo behind the petite cafe, we were being given a glimpse into how two young dreamers turned the idea of their own little gem into a reality.
Approaching the DBA course from the angle of sharing the same dream myself – this was inspirational and a real treat. It helps that Urbanity’s in house roasted coffee, small but perfectly formed, is crave-worthy and entirely unique to them. But that is another story, which you can read more about here.
After exploring trendy Smithfield some more, I can safely say it is coffee lover Mecca, making it the ideal venue for an immersion course for aspirant baristas. A trip to Proper Order for a specialty Toffee Apple Almond Latte, which was unlike anything I had ever tasted before, confirmed this. As the home of the 2017 Irish Barista Champion Niall Wynn, my little detour was totally for educational purposes, but then it was back to the grind – literally!
With Paul’s favourite phrase – ‘Finer Slower, Coarser Faster’ emblazoned in my mind, I start to appreciate each sip so much more, having spent a solid two hours learning the intricacies of the grinder, the know-how needed to “dial in” and how even the slightest change has an impact on flavour extraction, something I had zero knowledge of before. Paul is enthusiastic, knowledgeable and most importantly very practical and hands on – any questions we had, he didn’t just answer, he demonstrated why the answer was so. Taking the approach of all great educators, his second mantra was ‘if you make a mistake, that’s great’.
Armed with a portafilter, digital scales, grinder know-how, the precise brewing recipe for a perfect cup and the optimum extraction time, we were unleashed on the beautiful Astoria machines I have seen take centre stage in many of my favourite coffee haunts. We learned how even simple things like “tamping” down the ground coffee into the portafilter carelessly can result in a bad cup – a minefield! The coffee bean, Paul explains, is 70% cellulose and 30 soluble. Only 18 to 22 percent of the soluble portion is worth drinking, so breaking this down and extracting only that proportion of it is, as by now you can imagine, tricky!
There are so many variables involved in the crafting of just one cup, which go far beyond the choice of bean. From the brewing formula to the grind to the tamping – my mind was genuinely spinning. By the end of vast trial and error, Paul had demonstrated that coffee has a Goldilocks zone, with three stages of extraction, under extraction producing a sharp, sour and strong shot and too much contact between water and coffee leading to a weak, flavourless cup. The creamy, sugary, sweet middle ground is the bulls-eye which can so easily be missed.
After turning out what seemed like a million shots and admitting defeat in my mission of finishing every cup to minimize waste, I was eager to get stuck into the milky way of things, which would take up most of day two. Nelly’s Hot in Herre played in my head for a good five minutes as I contemplated turning on steamer wands wantonly – who hasn’t wanted to do that? Once the novelty wore off I managed to get to grips with the art of steaming, tilting the jug, dipping the wand, pulling away at just the right time. That which baristas make look so effortless actually requires precise technique – yet another process I entirely take for granted when awaiting my morning cup.
The longer it takes to heat the milk the better the texture, cold milk must go into a cold jug, the checklist for perfect milk was longer than I thought. Temperature and texture of the milk is key, Paul explains, and latte art is essentially just accesorising. Separating the truth from the trendy, Paul takes the same approach I take in the kitchen – flavour and texture are most important and presentation comes after. I now know the screaming cat noise the steamer wand makes which denotes scalded milk – I’ll be a tough customer indeed going forward!
In order to earn our certificates, a final challenge awaited – a real life café simulation. Paul broke the group into teams of three and tasked each with producing the shot, steaming the milk, and finishing the drink. Yelling latte macchiato to flat white and everything in between, we were put to the test alternating between the various jobs until an entire round table was covered in every name on the coffee menu – a sight to behold!
This was a fantastic exercise to demonstrate that it isn’t as easy as it looks, pressure mounts in a busy café and you have to stay focused to produce consistently good coffee. Paul didn’t go easy on us and by the end we all really felt like we had earned our stripes.
My overall thoughts? I would have loved to go into a little more detail about the different types of coffee popping up in the various cafés I have been haunting – from Cloud Picker to Dark Arts and beyond, but that is another day’s work, with every day being a school day. Learning how to man a coffee machine was much more intensive than I thought and over two days you really feel like you have gotten your money’s worth with so much packed in to a weekend which flies by with a mixture of fun and challenge.
Paul was adamant that the person making the coffee and the grinder are the most important factors in producing a fantastic cup of coffee. Could I walk into a coffee shop and confidently wow with my skills? Dodgy latte art aside and armed with what I now know I like to think so, so name the time and place and I will gladly get my grind on!
For more information on Dublin Bar Academy and the courses on offer, click here.
Growing up with the name Darina, I was constantly asked if I could cook like my namesake. With that(and greed) as the ultimate motivator, I realised that baked goods make excellent bribes and an obsession was born! I am the only person to have contested both Masterchef and the Great Irish Bake off, fuelling my desire to focus on food in a serious way. Working with TheTaste allows me to satisfy this craving and marries my food fascination with my love of writing and ranting.