Tuesday, July 2, 2013

UCC coffee seminar - espresso and cappuccino intensive class, Ikegami

Last week I attended an intensive coffee seminar run by UCC academy at Lucky Coffee Machine's showroom in Ikegami, Tokyo. The workshop was from their specialist course selection and was called ‘espresso and cappuccino fundamentals’ (エスプレッソ・カプチーノの基礎講座). It is intended for baristas, but is also good for people interested in coffee or business owners wanting to learn more.

Welcome to coffee school!

Since there may be a small café element to my business at some point I wanted to start to learn what kinds of things are important for good coffee and work out whether it would be prohibitively expensive to include it in my plan – semi automatic espresso machines seem to start from just under 300,000 JPY and go as high as you like. I’m also just a big geek for any opportunity to learn and this sounded like a fun afternoon.

Classroom funiki

Any trepidation about being a swot back in a classroom setting vanished upon being asked by a friendly gentleman if I’d like a cappuccino, latte or espresso while waiting for the class to start – there was no coffee at my school! It arrived decorated with a tulip, and I wondered if we might have time to touch on that unimportant but delightful part of the current business of coffee – latte art.

The gentleman was our teacher and the 4-hour class began with an espresso history lesson. The espresso maker was invented in France and refined in Italy. We were told how the fairly fixed methods of Italian coffee making evolved somewhat more freely in 3rd and 4th wave American coffee businesses and then came to Japan as a mix of the two countries' styles, often including a fair amount of guess-work and imitation. Here he sighted the Japanese early カフェカプチーノ/cafe cappuccino which looks like an Italian cappuccino but is often made with siphoned coffee and whipped cream rather than espresso and milk.

The courses at UCC aim to bring the fundamentals of good espresso (and espresso-based beverage) making back to a defined set of standards that once understood can be employed or not as the business owner sees fit for their purposes. Italy has the 4 Ms of proper espresso making, which are:
  • miscela / the blend of coffee beans
  • macinato / the correct grind
  • macchina / the machine
  • mano / the person making the coffee
  • To these UCC adds a 5th which is 'maintenance' of the machines.
We were also given definitions of various standard coffee drinks, their milk-to-espresso ratio as dictated by use of the proper sized cup and in the case of a cappuccino, filling it to the brim.

Effect on flavour of roasting

Next came the coffee chemistry lesson. Roasting the beans was likened to making caramel with the temperature and length of roasting taking the flavour from sour (green beans) to sweet (light brown) through to bitter (dark brown beans). Once roasted the beans are ground, and for espresso it needs to be a very fine grind.

A fine grind

The key here, we were informed, is that the beans are particularly perishable once ground. The flavour compounds, the oil and the volatile aromatic gasses in the grounds dissipate over time and so for the most flavourful espresso the ground coffee needs to be used soon after grinding. (And I would always buy ready-ground coffee in an Illy tin and keep it for months at home, oops. Although, David Lebovitz's post from visiting Illy indicates that their pre-ground coffee might be best one to choose if you do buy ready-ground stuff.)

Interestingly our teacher described espresso an emulsion, with the oil and flavour compounds being forced into the water through steam pressure, whereas brewed and drip coffees are more like infusions where much of the oil etc. will stay on the filter paper and gasses evaporate. A French press or cafetière will press out some of the oil into the coffee but it will not be an emulsion.

Marbled crema, a sign of a good espresso

I also asked about the stove-top espresso moka pots with the water canister that screws into the jug and also uses steam, but was told that it’s unlikely to produce a good ‘crema’ layer of foam or much of a complex flavour. These moka pots use 1.5 bars of pressure whereas espresso machines use 9 bars. Espresso machines also extract coffee at a slightly lower temperature 92-96°C vs. a stove-top pot's 100°C which also impacts flavour.

Next followed a demonstration and a couple of hands-on practices each at making espresso. We were taught about the importance of evenly packing the grounds and tamping with sufficient pressure in order to make sure the hot steam wont just escape through one weak spot but be forced through the entire cake of coffee, which will give you the most and most balanced flavour from your blend.

My espressos!

We then learned a little about milk. We were told that foods are more flavourful when slightly warm rather than ice cold (English beer!), and that the optimal temperature for milk is around 60°C, at which point it will taste slightly sweet. Dutifully, we tasted a little of the steamed milk handed out and by George he was right.

Milk, sweeter at 60°C

The pleasure of a cappuccino comes in the creamy mouth-feel of finely frothed milk, sweet from being at the right temperature, bringing out the sweetness of a medium-roasted coffee. You want a cappuccino now don’t you? I did, by the time we’d had all this explanation, and fortunately there was going to be chance to get tired of them as the latte art section was up next!

I guess this should be called cappuccino art really as the proportions of milk to coffee and cup size made it a cappuccino. It’s usually called latte art because bigger latte drinks have more scope for detail which must be useful in competitions, but we were just here to practice the basics.

Demonstrations (in order of difficulty) were of a heart, a bear, a rabbit, a tulip and a fern. It’s quite tricky! One or two people got it straight away, and I wonder if they weren't first-timers, but most of us needed (still need) lots of practice. Here are my 1st, 2nd and 3rd attempts:

The milk needs to be smooth enough (pour off the first bit of foam, then bang out the large bubbles by tapping the jug on the table top and swirling), then the general idea seems to be pour from a slight distance into the middle of the cup (speed, milk drives under the surface of the coffee?), then bring the jug down close to the cup and tilt the jug forwards to create a white circle (slower pour, more foamy milk from the back of the jug, rests on surface of the coffee?), and finish by dragging a final thin drip of milk through the circle to make a heart. Other images are variations of this basic technique, and it’s probably going to be best to watch a video to see how it’s done and then practice.

It was supposed to be a heart.. I poured from too high up

Latte or cappuccino art is a whimsy, even a bit silly maybe as it doesn't effect the quality of the drink (unless you take forever and the coffee gets cold), but it can produce a delightful effect that might make someone happy and since you have to pour the milk in anyway and it doesn't cost any extra.. yes I think that I’ll have to have another go at this :)

Here are some of the other student's slightly more successful attempts at hearts:

The course is delivered in Japanese and this particular one was 10,000 JPY. UCC offer longer courses for various purposes, details of which you can find on their site.

I understand their head office and main school is in Kobe, but that they may be opening up an academy in Tokyo.


  1. Colour me impressed. I have to say, I do kind of miss the 90s style lattes with lots of foam, but I'm glad we seem to have seen the back of the whole "latte in a bowl" trend.

  2. Aww, I like the latte in a bowl thing. Reminds me of Afternoon Tea sessions in Kawaguchi ;)

  3. Lattes at Afternoon Tea?! No no no. It must be a pot of Earl Grey!

  4. Oh yes, our http://www.afternoon-tea.net/ had bowls of latte, chai, and all sorts, along with Earl Grey tea I'm sure.

  5. hello, how ca I attend this seminar? is the seminar is at regula basis, coz from time to time I visit tokyo. is there any website that I can visit so I can enroll?

  6. Hi Elmer, the link to their various course info is: http://www.ucc.co.jp/academy/curriculum/specialist.php Good luck!