From coffee drinker to barista… well almost!

Fuel for the daily grind

Drinking a good cup of coffee is pretty much essential to keep me motoring through motherhood on a daily basis.

It’s normally brewed up in my trusty stovetop or grabbed from a local cafe en route for a few laps of the park with Arlo on his scooter. But at the weekend I was treated to a day of pure caffeinated bliss at Union’s Roastery in East London.

Union Hand-Roasted is a fair trade artisan coffee company, created in 2001 by Jeremy Torz and Steven Macatonia who entered the world of coffee after being inspired by the micro-roastery cafes of San Francisco and their strong desire to source their coffee responsibly.

The coffee-charged duo travel the globe finding coffee growing communities in remote regions, building relationships and investing in sustainable livelihoods and farming practices. They then bring that coffee back to the UK to be transformed into their signature house-style roasts.

So on Saturday Steve and Jeremy threw open the Roastery doors and gave a group of keen bloggers a behind-the-scenes insight into their world.

We watched transfixed as the green coffee beans from Costa Rica were carefully hand-roasted. In around 15 minutes the beans gently transformed from green, to golden to rich deep brown. The rich scents wafting around the roastery were sublime.

Things got more intense in the mystical sounding ‘cupping’ room where we were given a crash course in how the coffee is assessed. I found this part quite overwhelming – coffee is so intense and complex that you really need to be very attuned to the flavours to decipher them.

From smelling the ground coffee, then adding water and stirring to release yet more aromas, then slurping to get a sense of flavour and sensation. You can see why it takes years of experience to become an expert.

A barista in the making? (Photo by Simon Kimber)

After a reviving lunch it was time for our barista training, where we were let loose on the machines. I’ve always wanted to have a go at making proper espresso but never had the chance. I was slightly terrified by the machinery, but once I’d had a go it felt much more achievable.

Saying that though, I was humbled by how much skill is involved in the espresso making process. I will be quietly respectful instead of drumming my fingers when waiting for my coffee in future!

Espresso is not just a drink, it’s a brewing process, also referred to as extraction – the act of forcing hot water though ground coffee, which “extracts” flavors, oils, colloids, lipids and other elements that turn water into brewed coffee or espresso.

There’s so much to think about to create the perfect extraction, or ‘pull an espresso’, this was my basic grasp of the headlines:

  • Keeping all your equipment perfectly clean and purging the water so there’s no trace of the previous coffee that’s been made.
  • Making sure you’ve got the correct dosage of ground coffee in the receptacle
  • How many taps you give it to level it off – two firm ones.
  • The amount of pressure you apply to the plug of coffee with the weight and making sure it’s perfectly level.
  • Judging how long you pass the pressurised hot water through, by watching the syrupy coffee coming through
  • Checking for the Crema: one of the sure signs of a properly brewed shot of espresso, the liquid contains emulsified oils which forms a dark golden brown layer resembling foam on top of an espresso shot.

My first espresso attempt (photo by Simon Kimber)

If you think that sounds a bit fussy – you can really taste the difference if any of these steps aren’t properly adhered to. For example the espresso tasted really bitter and unpleasant when the ground coffee hadn’t been pushed into the receptacle firmly enough.

We also learnt how to froth the milk – not for a mountain of froth cappucino style, but more glossy micro foam of flat-white style that you can manipulate to create pretty patterns on top of your brew. This was the trickiest bit for me and will require more practice!

Thanks to the team for such an interesting and fun experience – I was literally buzzing from the caffeine for the rest of the day, my family were slightly alarmed when I returned home talking nineteen-to-the-dozen in a crazed fashion about coffee…


If you’d like to try some Union coffee at a discounted price then i’ve got a treat for the first 2o people to get themselves over to the Union website and place an order.

Just enter discount code FIREFIGHTER10 at the checkout and you’ll get 10% off your order!

First 20 people only, 10% off until 31/12/11 – one use per customer


About Katie Bryson

Katie Bryson is a freelance food writer and blogger. She left a career in online news at the BBC to immerse herself in the culinary world, taking in courses at Leiths School of Food and Wine and an internship at Waitrose along the way. Her family food blog is bursting with recipes and tips for feeding hungry families that’ll help inspire all those frazzled parents out there wondering what on earth to cook for tea!
This entry was posted in Days out, Drinks and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to From coffee drinker to barista… well almost!

  1. ali.b. says:

    Sounds like a great day!! Can I call round for a latte!! lol

  2. Jan Bailey says:

    Sounds like you’ll never be short of a job now Katie! plenty of coffee shops around! ( only joking). Was the flavour really good? I’m still looking for a palatable Fair Trade coffee – especially an instant one. I’d welcome any suggestions.

    • Katie Bryson says:

      You know me Jan – corner shop, chip shop, paper girl, avon lady, yellow pages… I’ll try most things! My fave instant coffee is Kenco Millicano – it’s not fair trade but says it’s 100% sourced from Rainforest Alliance Certified™ farms. It’s the most convincing of the instants i’ve ever tried.

  3. Hi Katie,
    I’m Laura & I wanted to say congrats for being one of the 10 talented food bloggers on Britmums website. I was on there too!
    I am a massive coffee lover so a day out at Union coffee roasters is just up my street……love my flat whites.
    Thanks for the tip about Kenco Millicano. I have been eyeing it up but haven’t got around to trying it yet… I will give it a go.
    Off to watch GBBO now……Bye!

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