Coffee Wake-Up!

I always liked a coffee – morning, noon, and night. A cup of tea was fine but not at night (it keeps me awake)! Whether an instant coffee or one brewed at a local cafe, it would do. Of course there are good coffees and bad coffees, but I was not prepared for what I found on a recent visit to Australia. Note that I live in a small town in South Africa, proverbially 500 miles up a 1000 mile dirt road, so good coffee experience is limited here.

On our first day we stopped for a morning coffee in the Ferry Road Market in Southport. Amazing! A beautiful heart in coffee brown and milk white on the top? I was so surprised that I took a picture of this creation. And the coffee was great. Great like I had never had such a cup before, great like what have I been missing all my life?

From one end of Queensland to the other we had coffee, coffee, and more coffee. With the odd exception it was great stuff. From ‘Aroma’ in Noosa, to Xcoffee in Labrador we found such delights of taste and aroma, such tantalising and dedicated coffee outlets. Such artistic patterns on the top of the coffee too!

Latte Etching by Ian Balchin
Latte Etching by Ian Balchin

Back home I wanted to know how I could recreate that delicious coffee I had had on holiday.

Now I had to dump the electric drip machine, the glossy plastic finish in the filter section was eaten away and I assumed that the porous plastic surface there harboured staleness itself. Whatever I made with it was a waste of coffee and effort. It was better to use a high grade instant coffee I thought.

Now in a small town here there are no green beans, no coffee roasters, no roast beans even. As the supermarket manager explained, “nobody wants beans any more so we just keep the ground coffee”. So I was stuck with the standard packet coffee in 3 assorted flavours.

I had purchased at a local fete, some years ago, a small standalone espresso machine which I had had little luck with. The instructions needed instructions on how to decipher them. At another fete shortly after my return I found a rotating-blade coffee bean grinder. So I set about trying to recreate what I had left behind in the Antipodes and pressed the little device into action.

I found that a good whizz of the standard ground coffee in the grinder reduced the particle size dramatically and swiftly to face powder consistency. Unfortunately the water would not go through, and the safety mechanism rotated the basket off with a huge whoosh of steam leaving grounds all over the kitchen.

So I discovered the need to not overgrind and not tamp down with all my might (the bottom of a small round olive oil bottle fitted the basket just right and with a little effort I could compress the coffee completely solid).

Latte Art by Ian Balchin
Latte Art by Ian Balchin

Once I could get the coffee through without disaster I concentrated on 2-cup brews only. I need a proper ‘tamper’, I need a source of beans which I am told is available 80 miles down the road at our local ‘city’. I would love to find a popcorn popper at the next fete but I had to persevere with what I had to hand.

I reduced the fineness of grind, about 6 seconds is good. I only tamp down enough so that it looks solid, but isn’t really. I get water from a nearby spring since the local tap water is very suspect. I have found the best of the available roasts. So how is it now? Well, I haven’t got it to the standard experienced in Australia, far from it, but it is better than it used to be, it is even better than the local coffee shop if only I say so. So until I can move on it is just fine for now. Getting roast beans is my next move.

But just how do I get that picture on the top?

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Ian Balchin

I have owned and ran Fables Bookshop in Grahamstown, South Africa, for 20 years now. I do try to ensure that we have reasonable coffee for the staff and not just the lowest grade of instant on the supermarket shelf, sometimes my efforts are even appreciated!

I enjoy some computer programming in Perl which frequently causes excessive coffee consumption to concentrate my efforts. I look forward to improving my home brew by roasting my own beans some time.

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