Slaves to the machine

EnotecaAustralians love their coffee, but how important is the machine in producing the beloved latte or ristretto? By Danielle Veldre

Ordering a coffee in a restaurant can be a profoundly disappointing experience when a cup of instant coffee arrives at the table.

The fact is Australians have developed a highly sophisticated palate for the fruits of the Coffea plant, and we’re spoiled for choice.

While there have been plenty of rhapsodies on the bean and on the barista, the machine is a vital ingredient in making a good cup.

“It’s actually 60 per cent barista, 20 per cent the quality of the beans and the other 20 per cent is how the barista maintains their coffee machine,” says Bambini on Park’s barista, Vince Lok.

Bambini on Park recently opened around the corner from the original and highly feted Bambini Trust on Elizabeth St in Sydney’s CBD.

Lok uses a La San Marco machine at Bambini on Park, and in his 11-year career has worked with most of the big brands including La Marzocco and ECM. But he says the La San Marco is the best so far.

What exactly makes for a good coffee machine? Bells and whistles or, as some purists would prefer, is the more manual the better?

Chef and owner of the Little Larder in Brisbane’s New Farm, Matthew Wilkie says it’s as much a matter of personal taste as anything. The busy inner city café uses a Nuova Simonelli machine.

“I think it really is a personal preference. Some people like doing a lot of things manually. Sometimes there is a bit of an art to it in that respect, but in a really busy place like ours, you just really need to do your shots and press a button and do your milk, so the one that we have is very suitable,” he says.

“We used to have a really old machine, an Italian one, and it was really quirky. We had to wait for it to fill up,  and sometimes wait for it to get pressure back.”

According to Lok, maintaining pressure is one of the vital elements which goes into the makings of a good machine.

“A good coffee machine should have a dual double boiler, because we make coffee at such a high rate. A dual double boiler means every time you extract you don’t lose temperature, because you might be making teas at the same time, and the steam might be going off. A lot of the older machines loose pressure; with a dual double boiler you get a perfect extraction every single time.”

Wilkie, whose machine has only two grips because of restrictions on space, says having your hands free to work on other things is vital.

“On our machine you can set your jug up so you can steam the milk while you’re doing shots. That’s really important to keep the flow going, otherwise you’re just standing there holding a jug of milk half the time when you could be doing several other things.”

Lok agrees having the flexibility to get other things done is what separates the good machines from the bad. But he says maintenance of the machine is the single most important factor in continuing to produce good coffee.

“Any barista can make a good coffee. But over a long period of time and under pressure, it can be quite demanding. It’s very important to keep your coffee machine clean to keep producing that good drop,” Lok says.

“Regular back flushes in between orders expel all the residue and the coffee oil,  or the excess, so that way the next coffee that comes through is clean and crisp.

“There’s also day-to-day duties, cleaning the machine with chemicals—a lot of coffee shops don’t do that, they might do it once at the end of the week, and it can actually build up in there. Over a long period, if you’ve got a good palate, you can actually taste the ‘burntness’ in the coffee.”

It’s not just for the benefit of a consistently good beverage that maintenance is important, Lok says.

“Coffee machines are built to last a lifetime. The machine is only as good as the person who uses it. So that comes back to maintenance as well. If you look after the machine, it will last you a lifetime,” he says.

“I think there is a profound difference between a great coffee and a coffee that’s alright,” Wilkie says.

Ultimately, the quality of the product is what will keep the customers coming back.

“I think 90 per cent of people don’t know when they’re having a great coffee, and I don’t think they really care. But the 10 per cent that do know about coffee really appreciate it.”

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