Cycling is not just a sport, but for its participants (and some of those don’t even participate very often) it’s a whole lifestyle too. A lifestyle primarily modelled upon a fictional vision of continental café culture and what it means to be a Euro Pro; perfecting sartorial elegance whilst in the saddle, training at speeds slow enough in order to check your look in shop windows, and supping espressos with your riding chums in a sleepy village piazza.

Unfortunately our aspirations rarely match up to the reality; drinking coffees from Costa in the grey drizzle of Croydon town centre with portly gentlemen in lycra is hardly living the dream.

You can’t do much about the drizzle or unglamorous riding companions, but fortunately it is possible for you, with a bit of effort, to recreate that authentic Euro coffee experience. The Kingston Wheeler’s own gourmet and coffee aficionado Richard ‘Zorro’ Walden (a man regularly spotted commuting to work in full white Italian national champions kit – credentials that speak for themself) guides you through the process…

The gold standard

Cycling and coffee go hand in hand like, well, cycling and coffee. Whether it’s the double espresso buzz before your training ride or a social cappuccino while kicking back with fellow club mates, coffee is the perfect accompaniment to any kind of ride.

But do cyclists really take their coffee seriously enough? The proliferation of high street chains marketing themselves as ‘coffee experts’ or ‘authentically Italian’, but then utilising lazy and slapdash methods has created a very low bar for the general public’s perception of how good coffee should be prepared and more importantly, how it should taste. In reality they are miles away from delivering you the equivalent of a hand crafted Colnago in a cup.

Crema the crop

Just as a good quality homemade stock is the staple base for a whole range of exquisite French cuisines, the espresso is the foundation for the myriad of choices which appear on the average coffee menu.

Espresso is a small shot of pressure-brewed coffee using between 6.5 and 7.5 grams (about 1 Tablespoon) of finely ground coffee. Brewing takes about 22 to 26 seconds, and when done properly will feature a layer of rich dark golden cream, called crema on the surface. This crema is one indictor of a quality espresso.

From this foundation, what you add to it creates your drink:

  • Macchiato: a small amount of milk foam on top
  • Cappucino: a topping of steamed milk foam
  • Latte: 1:1 ratio of coffee and hot milk
  • Americano: 1:1 ratio of coffee and hot water

There are a whole range of other coffee drinks, but for the purists the following should apply: a cappuccino is the first cup to linger over with your morning cornetti; the macchiato is the encore performance with a little less milk around mid morning. After that it is all about espresso for the rest of the day. Latte? That’s training wheels for the uninformed. Mocha? I’d rather have some tiramisu with an Americano. Café au lait? Only in Paris, and only with my morning baguette.

Dream machine

As with bikes there are a huge range of coffee making machines and makers to choose from – cafetiere (90’s dinner parties only), paper filter machine (think American diner), stove top espresso machines (ancient art, but a little primitive) and of course let’s not forget the horrible world domination of the Nespresso!

But for the real barista in the making, investing in a good machine is crucial. It has to be a pump operated espresso machine with a heavy duty filter holder, such as the Gaggia Classic, which I use.

Beans meanz…

Bean selection is a personal choice depending on what appeals to your taste buds, but always buy as fresh as possible and never from the supermarket. The shelf life – from the day they are roasted to finishing off the bag – should never be more than a month. I have never tasted better than Square Mile Coffee Roasters’ Espresso blend. They take their bean selection seriously and roast their beans in East London, then immediately distributing to local outlets around London. You can also buy from their online shop.

Don’t grind, burr

A classic mistake people make is using a cheaper twin-blade mill rather than a quality burr to grind their beans. The difference is the blade mill will not grind the beans to an even consistency and creates too much heat in the process, releasing too early the essential oils required for brewing.

Get kitted out

So you have your machine, your beans and your burr. But what else is required before you get brewing?

  • A 20oz metal milk pitcher for steaming your milk and doing the required milk art
  • A milk thermometer to know when your milk is at the right temperature
  • A damp cloth for keeping your preparation area clean and wiping the steam nozzle
  • A spoon for regulating your milk foam when pouring
  • And finally… milk. Always try to use whole milk as it stands up to the milk frothing process much better than semi or skimmed milk.

High brew

Fill your machine with fresh filtered water as this will give you a cleaner tasting and smoother coffee. Once it has warmed up you need to purge the machine to remove any air pockets, this also warms up your filter holder before use.

Next grind your beans. Now this is where experimentation and experience comes into play. Your burr will have a fineness setting. Depending on how fresh your beans are, you will need to adjust this setting to work towards a brewing time between 22-26 seconds. This is from the moment the coffee starts to pour out of the filter holder into the cup, to when the flow turns to a milky colour (which is when you need to stop otherwise your coffee will be bitter).

Once you have your ground coffee you can fill your filter holder, using a tamper to pack the coffee down, adding a small twist of the tamper at the end. As soon as you re-attach the coffee filled filter holder to the machine you need to start the pump straight away so the coffee does not burn. Use a stopwatch to see if your timings are heading in the right direction. Getting it right depends on quite a few factors and the trial and error process is the fun part perfecting your coffee making technique.

You should now have a perfectly brewed espresso in your cup. Empty the coffee from the filter holder, give it a wipe and attach back to the machine and switch the steam button on.

Milk

Your machine will take a bit longer to get hot enough to use the milk steamer, but most machines have an indicator light to let you know when it’s ready. Give your steam a quick blast to release any moisture and check the pressure is strong enough.

Now introduce the steam wand to the milk, slowly ‘surfing’ the top of the milk with the bottom of the wand to introduce air into the milk. At around 100 degrees Fahrenheit sink the wand into the bottom of the pitcher and tilt the pitcher 45 degrees. This creates a ‘spinning’ motion with the milk. At around 150 degrees Fahrenheit your milk should be the consistency of thick paint with ‘microfoam’ rather than big bubbles. Knock off the steam and clean the steam wand. Bang the pitcher on the worktop a couple of times to release any big air bubbles and you are ready to pour!

The type of desired coffee – cappucino, macchiato or latte –  will be determined by how much foam vs milk you add to your cup. But as you get good and master your milk prepping skills you’ll be able to attempt the revered practice of coffee art!

Bellissimo!

Sit back and enjoy what will be a properly crafted coffee, one that can truly be described as being made with skill, artistry and passion.

Photograph of Cancellara and the Leopard-Trek boys spotted over at Bianchista
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