We all appreciate a great cup of coffee and know that for this you need three things… a great coffee machine (preferably a manual espresso coffee machine; a great blend of perfectly roasted coffee; and of course… an experienced barista!
However, there is a fourth need! The right accessories to allow the barista to prepare great coffee. What exactly are these?
1. The Tamper and Tamp Mat
A coffee tamper is a critical tool for compacting ground coffee in the portafilter. The tamper is a heavy weight forged to the same inner diameter of the portafilter, with a comfortable handle that allows the barista to compact the ground coffee… with control. Too much pressure and the water from the boiler of the coffee machine, will simply not be able to pass through the grounds, and too little pressure, and water will flow through so fast that you will get weak and unexciting coffee.
Typically made of stainless steel, this tool is a must have for the coffee making process, although there are now a number of variants that include “distributors” and spring-loaded options where pressure can be set to ensure more consistency in the tamping process.
The tamp mat is a rubber mat that takes the brunt of the downward tamping process. A good tamp mat protects the portafilter from hard pressure knocks, but is not too insulated or spongy so as to have inaccurate compression characteristics. You also do not want to be indenting your counter tops with the characteristic shape of your portafilter! So as correct tamping is vital to getting the best extraction, invest in either a square tamp mat or one that has a lip that goes over the edge of your countertop. I prefer the latter type because I get much better control of my portafilter in the tamping when pressing against the counter as I press down, but it is all a personal preference.
2. The Milk Frothing Jug
One may think that all milk frothing jugs are the same, but that could not be further from truth. The shape of the pouring spout is critical for control in pouring the steamed or foamed milk into the espresso. Too wide and the fineness of any latte art is lost and too narrow and you will lose the pouring speed needed for milk to cut into the espresso.
The thickness of the jug wall is also important for retaining temperature and for avoiding heat related distortion, especially in the spout area. This also has a role to play in the longevity of the jug because with constant use and cleaning, the jug can distort over time and affect the pouring characteristics.
One final feature of a great pouring jug is the position and comfort of the handle to allow balance and control of the pour.
3. The Knock Box
A coffee shop would just not be the same without the sounds of the grinder, the hissing of steam wands hitting the milk and the sound of a portafilter being emptied into a knock box. A knock box is a round, square or rectangular plastic, wooden or metal container, which has a strong rubber coated bar running across it. The used ground coffee in the portafilter is then knocked out by striking the portafilter against the bar.
Design is important to avoid wet coffee grounds flying in all directions and for the collection of a good number of coffee pucks before emptying. Then of course the quality of manufacture will determine just how long the bar lasts before a replacement bar is needed, and worse, the actual knock box needs replacing.
We recommend metal boxes for exactly this reason and a stainless steel or powder coated metal knockbox, while a little more expensive than a plastic knockbox, will last longer and be more cost effective in the long run.
4. The Thermometer
Ensuring your milk temperature is within a certain range is very important for making great milk-based coffee drinks. As a barista, you do not want to burn your milk, nor do you want complaints about the foam or steamed milk being cold. This is where the thermometer is important, and as a barista you will be constantly eying the little dial hinged on the lip of your milk frothing jug to make sure your milk steaming is within range.
It simply is not worth buying an expensive coffee machine with group head temperature control, high-capacity steam generation and loads of other electronic aids, only to buy a cheap thermometer and have your milk steaming process go wrong.
Today milk temperature thermometers come in analogue and digital forms, but we still prefer to use analogue milk thermometers with a scale that allows quick reference to the green band that indicates “acceptable temperature.”
5. The Scale
The consummate barista will want to know just how much ground coffee is in their portafilter. The reasons are first, that this impacts the flow rate dynamics in the portafilter and secondly, the extraction characteristics of the coffee. Imagine your portafilter is packed with 25g of coffee instead of 16g… that is a lot more coffee than you were expecting and if you do not adjust your tamp, you will have a slower water low rate through your coffee and the potential for overextraction. Secondly, there will be a dramatic taste profile change, which could result in stronger flavour and overextraction which leads to an increase in undesirable compounds.
Of course, this will also lead to increased cost as more coffee is used in the coffee making process! So use a good digital scale that can read down to 0.01g intervals.
6. The Shot Glass
Now that you know your grinder is dishing out 16g of coffee consistently, you will want to perfect your tamp pressure and the amount of water your coffee machine delivers into each cup. The tamp pressure will of course affect this because the heavier the tamp, the longer the time a set amount of water will take to flow through it. So here you need a shot glass calibrated for 30 and 60 ml (single and double espresso shot) and a timer to measure just how long it takes to get the shot out.
7. The Timer
The best baristas are constantly checking themselves against the standard they set for each blend they use. They also use this to pick up wear of the grinder blades, because as grinder blades wear, the grind becomes coarser and flow rate increases. Not that I would be able to tell the difference! It is a good idea to buy a few extra shot glasses too because a busy coffee machine, wet fingers and glass shot glasses… what could go wrong?
8. Cleaning Brushes
The well-trained barista has cleanliness drilled into them from the start of their career. From always wiping down their steam wand after frothing a pitcher of milk, to brushing away loose coffee.
There are four main areas for brushing:
The group heads need to have loose coffee brushed away from them to avoid having the coffee grounds acting like sandpaper on the silicon seals that push down on the portafilter. Wear here reduces the seal effectiveness and leads to leaks and reduced water pressure. So a group head brush is an essential component for any barista.
The steam wand should be cleaned regularly by wiping milk away on the outside and by flushing the inside by using hot steam. However, it is also very necessary to occasionally use a thin metal cleaning brush to clean the inside of your steam want to remove microdeposits of milk and over time, scale buildup. You want maximum hygiene when using milk, and the best flow and heat transfer, so scale deposits need to be removed.
Dust is the enemy of many electronic devices and so it is essential to keep your grinder as free of dust as you can… and of course, grinding coffee makes for a lot of dust! The grinder brush is essential for keeping your grinder clean and free of the finer powder that can accumulate. You will want to remove fine dust because it alters flow rates of water through your portafilter too. We suggest a grinder minder brush which has a long brush for reaching into the grinding chute and chamber to brush out the grinds.
Any proud and professional barista will want to keep their workspace clean and here the other end of the grinder minder brush is fitted with a paint brush type attachment that allows horizontal sweeping of coffee waste into your hand or bin.
9. Cleaning Chemicals and Accessories
Daily backflushing of the group heads removes daily dirt from building up in the coffee machine and blind filters and blind rubbers are necessary accessories for keeping coffee machines clean. These are supported by detergents for cutting away the oils in the coffee which can lead to dirt clustering.
A good detergent powder will not corrode or tarnish your group heads or portafilters, so find one that you can safely use to keep your coffee machine in great condition.
You may want to use a chemical cleaner on your grinder to remove coffee oils there that may again result in fine particles adhering to the surfaces of chutes or grinding chambers.
Finally, descaling powder is an essential part of the barista accessory list and especially so in areas with harder water. Flushing scale out your boiler keeps the heat transfer process at optimal levels and water passages clear of obstruction.
Good coffee, good coffee machine, good barista… all very necessary for great coffee … but without a few inexpensive accessories and you will never make that great cup of coffee.
The best barista’s take time and care to enhance their coffee making skills by using quality accessories and it really can be said that a barista can blame their tools for a poor cup of coffee!