Gwilym Davies has dedicated his life to creating the perfect cup of coffee. The British barista fell in love with the stuff over 20 years ago during a trip to New Zealand, and on his return to the UK, he managed a string of quirky coffee shops in east London. On a whim, he entered the UK Barista Championship in 2009, progressing quickly to its international stages, before promptly taking the crown of World Barista Champion. He then went on to found artisanal coffee-bar stalwart Prufrock in Clerkenwell, and has become a judge of the same contest he won. So, who better to guide you through the dark art of the perfect cup of coffee? Read on and you’ll soon be a caffeine whisperer, too.
Gwilym Davies, World Barista Champion
First up. There’s no such thing as the ‘perfect cup of coffee’…
‘The word “perfect” scares me’, says Davies. ‘There is no such thing as the perfect cup of coffee – serving the perfect cup every time would be both boring and soul destroying. It’s the search for perfection that drives me, not perfection itself.’ So, as the age-old maxim goes, when you set your mind to making a great cup of coffee, it’s not the final product that matters, but the satisfaction of making it.
Everyone’s tastes differ – and that’s okay
Like most things, Davies says that the art of defining a great cup of coffee is personal, too. ‘There are systems that grade coffee so quality can be assessed, but whether its enjoyable is up to the person drinking it.’ This means that your favourite flat white may be a totally different kettle of fish to the person standing behind you in the queue. Gwilym likes ‘a clean coffee with character, supported by sweetness and leaving a pleasant long finish without any dryness.’
Choose your weapons (beans) carefully
Selecting the right beans, and the right roast, is key to making a great cup of coffee. According to Davies, it’s best to opt for ‘good fresh beans’ from the latest harvest: ‘coffee will lose flavour and become woody if its is a long time from harvest,’ he explains. If you’re choosing freshly roasted beans, look at how long ago they were roasted. ‘How long they stay fresh depends on the packaging, but three months is a good maximum as a guideline,’ he says. Again, it’s a matter of taste, Gwilym prefers ‘lighter roasts. ‘I get more from the origin and processing rather than the bitter, ashy flavours of the roasting.’ But if your tastes lead you elsewhere, that’s okay too.
Invest in the right kit
Once you’ve found your preferred beans, you need the right tools for the job. Don’t skimp on your grinder – Gwilym recommends a burr grinder, which crushes the coffee beans and produces consistently finer coffee. The water you use should also be soft and, essentially, unchlorinated. After that, the choice is yours: a French press, Ibrik, espresso machine or paper filter will all do the job. ‘I tend to prefer filter coffee but I’ve had more delicious coffees than I can count, just by just pouring water on to coffee grinds and letting them sink to the bottom of my cup,’ Gwilym explains. So, if you get the basics right – quality coffee beans, the right grinder and good water – the rest should all fall into place.
Choose a recipe and work at it
As a professional barista, Gwilym routinely works from recipes, but he recommends using them at home, too. ‘You should be weighing your ground coffee and water if you want to consistently make the coffee you enjoy,’ he advises. ‘A good starting point is 1g of coffee for each 16g or 17g of water used. If its too strong or weak you can alter it from there.’ A handy tip is that millilitres and grams convert exactly – 16g is 16ml if you’re using a jug. Once you’ve measured this, it’s essential to use water that’s just off the boil – boiling water can burn coffee and turn it bitter. It’s also important to adjust time and agitation (any stirring or movement of the grinds in the water) to taste. ‘More time and agitation will extract more from the coffee if it seems to be lacking flavour, while less time and agitation will extract less from the coffee if its bitter and dry,’ Gwilym says.
Avoid these common mistakes
After all the effort you’ve gone to to source the best, freshest beans, buy the right grinder and weigh out your ingredients, it’d be a shame to waste it with a school boy error. According to Gwilym, mistake number one is not storing coffee correctly: it should be stored in a cool, dry place, and absolutely not left in the grinder. It’s also best to not buy too much as ‘the flavour will deteriorate quickly when the pack is open. Try to use it within one week once open’. Another common faux pas is keeping your coffee grinds in the fridge where you ‘risk smelly food and moisture contaminating it’, he says. Finally, he advises that you ‘try to avoid buying old coffee beans that have lost their flavour by looking at the roasting date, not their use-by date.’ Avoid these pitfalls, follow Gwilym’s expert advice, and you’ll be well on your way to that perfect cup of coffee.