With basic barista training, drinks that take just a minute to make can look incredibly imaginative on coffee menus. Ian Boughton investigates
Serving decent espresso-based drinks is in itself a genuine skill and one to be respected, but training staff in coffee-making goes beyond that. The emergence of the signature drink, a venue's own item based on espresso coffee and put on menus at a premium price, has suddenly turned coffee into a creative and profitable art form.
As the Beverage Service Association recently observed, this has led to the previously unknown concept of the "rock-star barista", which is the coffee equivalent of the hero mixologist. However, it's now widely realised that drawn back to practical levels, the world of espresso offers staff the way to achieve both respect and self-respect, and it can give a café the same kind of buzz and add profitable items to the coffee menu.
Drury Tea & Coffee has already set its barista trainer, Fabrizio Liverani, to work on quick espresso recipes, typically a 30-second combination of vanilla, whipped cream, and espresso, which can easily retail at £2. For this month's Caffè Culture show, Liverani is expected to demonstrate A Shot in the Dark, a cocktail involving espresso and Vov, an Italian egg liqueur. The longest part of the preparation is the 30 seconds in the cocktail shaker.
The How of Wow is a programme devised by the Metropolitan Coffee Company which takes up the same challenge - how to devise speciality drinks which add appeal and profit to a menu, but which don't take ages to make.
"We're trying to stretch the boundaries of the coffee menu and we've already been excited by discovering what can be achieved," says Metropolitan's managing director Angus McKenzie. "Every 15 minutes at Caffè Culture we'll be showcasing things to do with beverages. A simple example is to colour your whipped cream, which gives an entirely different presentation to a mint mocha or a chocolate drink.
"You need no fancy equipment and with a little imagination anyone can do this. We guarantee people will take away some ideas they can use in their own cafés. And some of the most successful drinks are not complicated - you can make an astounding coffee with espresso, steamed milk, a dark chocolate sauce and a Monin syrup called Rose - if you were blindfolded, you'd think you were drinking Turkish delight. So many effective ideas are so simple, so we're encouraging everybody to do something different this summer."
Metropolitan has experimented a lot with the Monin flavoured syrups, distributed in the UK by Bennett Opie. The newest product, which brings a lot of ideas for transforming coffee drinks, is Monin's collection of chocolate sauces. These can be used to transform conventional drinks, such as creating a white mocha, and impressive 'coffee art' toppings can be put together.
"Sauces are more versatile than syrups in their applications," says Darril Ling, brand manager at Bennett Opie. "While they haven't replaced syrups, the need for both a chocolate sauce and syrup has reduced. The viscosity of the sauce allows greater flexibility of use in greater numbers of drinks and culinary applications. These are a very rich, milk-based product, of a viscosity which is such that you need to use comparatively little of it. You can use it to make a good mocha - we've tested it, and JD Wetherspoon uses it for that."
Wetherspoon's is not alone in taking a new interest in coffee menu items. The Krispy Kreme doughnut store chain, which launched in the UK with bean-to-cup machines, has changed to traditional machines to introduce some theatre to coffee-making and all staff now attend fortnightly refresher courses at Drury. As an incentive, the best performing staff got a trip to the Rancilio espresso machine factory in Milan, and Richard Cheshire, vice-president of operations, says coffee sales have almost doubled since he began the programme.
Other established giants are taking a fresh interest. At Caffè Culture, Kenco's barista trainers will demonstrate latte art, which is the skill of drawing patterns on the froth of a coffee. The Nescafé Coffee Company is also developing ideas such as Mint Madness, a mocha-type recipe based on its Aero Bubbly Hot Chocolate Drink. And virtually every major high-street chain now has an in-house barista competition which challenges staff to come up with recipes.
Is all this just artistic theory, or does it work in real catering? There really is a history of cafés using this kind of training to create attention-getting coffee drinks. The biggest name doing so is Coffee Republic, which is just about to bring back the idea of recreating chocolate bars in coffee form. Several independent cafés have tried this, for instance, using coconut flavouring to replicate a Bounty, and caramel to replicate a Mars bar.
Previously, names had to be misspelled on menus to get around any danger of being sued, but Coffee Republic has done a deal with major brands and will serve sticky-toffee coffee under the Toffee Crisp name, a Rolo latte, and perhaps milk drinks featuring Jaffa Cake and Jammie Dodger. Last summer Coffee Republic tested Iced Café Mocha Mint Matchmakers, a large iced coffee made with chocolate and mint syrup topped with cream, chocolate sauce and chopped nuts, finished off with a red straw and a long mint Matchmaker. Not that difficult, and retailing at about £3.
The UK Barista Championship, to promote inventiveness in coffee, is run by the Speciality Coffee Association of Europe and this year's final has just shown again the difference between intellectual drinks for competition and realistic drinks for everyday catering. One entrant from the Caffè Ritazza chain entered his Happy Feet drink, a blend of cardamom seeds, fresh mint, single cream and chocolate, topped with espresso and served on top of a block of ice inside which were frozen mint and coffee beans, which turned out to be the competition's top-scoring drink.
And the reigning champion, Jim Hoffmann, liquidised a doughnut in a centrifuge before combining it with espresso, which might be considered unrealistic for the everyday bar.
Other competitors were more retail-orientated. Jon Armstrong of Clements coffee bar in Belfast recreated a Guinness in espresso using a combination of molasses, espresso, cream and a little fizzy water - the result can be served in a catering scenario in about 90 seconds. Rival Hugo Hercod of the Relish deli in Wadebridge, Cornwall, presented a hazelnut mocha which used a praline, blitzed in a blender, with a little vanilla added to the steamed milk. When customers see it on the menu, he points out, they know what to expect and are more likely to choose it.
In February, First Choice Coffee hosted the BaxterStorey Barista Championships, where William Munoz from the company's L'Oreal site in London took first prize for his signature drink, Seduction, containing cherry liqueur, Green and Black's Fairtrade chocolate ice-cream, chilli powder, milk and coffee. "It just goes to prove that proper training and imagination can conjure up innovative new drinks for the customer," says managing director Elaine Higginson.
Java Republic, the Irish roaster which has won Great Taste Awards and which launched into UK delis and restaurants last year, recently awarded its own barista title to Alicja Kuziel of Kylemore for an item that's quick enough and profitable enough to go on a restaurant menu. To make Alicja's Delight, the barista dips the edge of the cocktail glass in water and then into chocolate and pops an After Eight dinner mint into the bottom. The coffee is a double espresso and latte-style milk, finished with a design in chocolate sauce, a slice of strawberry and a sprig of mint.
John Sherwood, executive co-ordinator of the UK Barista Championship, says certain competition drinks could appear on a restaurant or café menu. "In my capacity as an international judge I have experienced and, in some cases, suffered, many different styles of drink. Signature drinks are getting more and more complex and I've judged in India, where a large proportion of the drinks were totally overdone, like ice-cream sundaes, and this is certainly not desirable.
"However, in the Lebanon, one entrant distilled fresh rose petals on stage using an antique still. The drink he prepared was simple and had a wonderful aroma and taste of roses which went incredibly well with espresso. The whole performance wouldn't be possible in a café but, using ready-prepared rose distillate, the drink would."
One who has done a lot of work in exciting short-order coffee menu items is Paul Meikle-Janney of Coffee Community, who worked with the Beverage Service Association on the soon-to-be-launched City & Guilds VRQ barista certification, writes the barista exams for the Speciality Coffee Association of Europe, produced the barista skills CD/DVD which is handed out under the names of several espresso-machine brands, and devised the recipes for a series of chocolate and coffee drinks for the Barry Callebaut company.
"I've recently done a lot of training on speed of service," he says. "Espresso is the à-la-carte coffee which you don't produce until it's ordered and it's quite reasonable for managers and employers to want to know how to make the menu exciting, profitable, and quick.
"The spin-off is one of the reasons I still love working in a bar, because I enjoy the feedback from making a good drink. This is where good barista training can certainly make your staff enjoy their job and I very much believe that learning a skill like this makes your staff feel an inch taller."