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Technique and creativity in a cup: the quality of coffee according to Andrea Guerra

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Coffee and cocktails are two sectors that give baristas and bartenders maximum creative freedom. Two complex worlds where you can experiment, delight and inspire customers, with the essential help of a good deal of technique and expertise. The right mix of creativity and preparation is indeed the main way paved by Andrea Guerra, roaster and roastery teacher, and trainer at the Specialty Coffee Association, in the journey towards the natural and unavoidable destination of the quality of coffee.

Andrea, you started as a barista and then became a “roaster”. A true “coffee addict”. Tell us about your journey.

Yes, it’s true, I started as a barista. My journey started in Romagna, in Milano Marittima, where I took the first steps behind the counter at the famous Caffè della Rotonda, the Grand Hotel in Cervia and the Vistamare Suite. I then had long experiences abroad: three years in Miami, Florida, at the Ago Restaurant, owned by renowned actor Robert De Niro, one of the most exclusive restaurants at the Shore Club in Miami.

What is your main job today?

When I came back from the U.S., I started working in the roastery and training industry in Florence, at La Tosteria, a company specialised and with a long history in roasting coffee. I’m in charge of quality: I supervise the supply chain, from the selection of raw materials to roasting.

Tell us more.

We start from tasting and therefore the selection of samples of raw materials, to roasting and the creation of different types of coffee blends, both for espresso and the filter. I want people to become aware of the double-role of coffee: on the one hand I carry out research as a roaster, on the other I’m an authorized trainer at the Specialty Coffee Association, meaning I train baristas.


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The ruling creativity

Creativity behind an original drink as the aromatic discovery of the characteristics of differently-roasted beans: the will to learn and discover behind the counter can be expressed in many ways, enriching the journey of growth towards excellence made by every professional, in search of the quality of coffee and cocktails.

How did you become passionate about and specialised in the world of coffee? When did it all start?

It started with cocktails. This may sound weird, but in general those who start working in a bar at a very young age usually follow a common and shared path. The best opportunity for young people to express themselves comes from the world of cocktails, while passion for coffee is a destination, you learn it through experience. You slowly start to appreciate the differences, the techniques, and you come to discover the magnificence of a plant with 125 different species. It’s a bit like the world of wine. But in general, I think that most baristas who specialised in coffee started in a cocktail bar.

Two worlds that give the barista maximum freedom of creative expression. Any coffee-based cocktail?

The most famous is of course Espresso Martini, very popular in the U.S.. It’s a mix of espresso and spirits created by American intuition, in a class of cocktails all served in the classical Martini glass. The ingredients are: espresso, vanilla vodka, some drops of Frangelico liqueur, and maybe a bit of cream, for the most audacious versions.

In your opinion, is there a common mistake made by baristas? Any clichés about coffee?

In Italy, people attending courses and those who decide to open a coffee shop run into misconceptions. Let me give you a few examples. Oftentimes baristas are convinced they are doing the right thing, but in reality they are skipping fundamental steps. As for customers, there is a widespread opinion that to be a barista, professionalism doesn’t really matter. Or again, there are popular beliefs, for example that the best coffee is the one with the thickest crema. And even that the longer the sugar takes to sink into the crema, the better the coffee. Another confusing element is the choice between short and long coffee. Beliefs with no scientific foundation.

Speaking of false myths and set phrases: filter coffee seems to be experiencing a new springtime. Is it very different from espresso?

They are completely different worlds, you can’t compare them. They are extracted differently. Filter coffee is extracted through “percolation”, so the body is different, as well as the coffee. If you choose a filter coffee, you need a dedicated coffee: Altura varieties are perfect, in particular Arabica varieties. On the contrary, for espresso you can choose either Arabica or blends of Arabica/Robusta, but “darker” and generally longer roasting.

Let’s talk about taste: blend or single-origin? Which one to choose, and based on what?

On average, coffee production areas can be classified based on the scents they express. Coffee is produced at 600 to 2,000 meters of altitude. The higher you go, the more thermal excursion slows down the maturation of the fruit. This results in a more intense aromatic concentration and density. If I drink a single-origin coffee, I look for one with complete traceability. To give you an example, you should always ask for traceability, and all the steps and processes the coffee comes from. Just like a cru for wine. Usually, when selecting a blend, you always look for something “round”. The rule is to balance the single varieties and their taste. In a blend, technically speaking the ultimate expression will be the search for “elegance” and “body”. This is when you see the ability of the roaster.


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The system as a quality chain

The quality of the whole chain as a necessary condition to produce a quality coffee, the natural result of a number of choices and virtuous behaviours by all the different actors involved, from raw coffee importers to the barista behind the counter.

What are the technical steps that most affect the quality of coffee?

When working in a coffee shop, first and foremost there is the maintenance and constant cleaning of the machines and grinders. Every component of the grinder must be clean, from the hopper to grinders. Otherwise essential oils (the fat substances of coffee) oxidise and release small amounts of rancid aromas into the coffee. The same is true for grinders. The barista must take care of the grinder in a daily basis.

What is your advice for selecting a grinder?

My first piece of advice is to only use “on demand” grinders. This is for technical reasons. Just think that each coffee, after only 15 minutes from grinding, loses 60-70% of its aroma. Secondly, it’s preferable to use reliable grinders. For this reason, I personally prefer grinders with flat burrs because they allow you to get a more homogeneous particulate, avoiding as much as possible the “fine” part, that is the impalpable grind with the consistency of talcum powder.

And how does it affect the quality of the roaster’s job?

For simplicity, we can say that the roaster affects 50% of quality. If I extract a perfect coffee, that expresses all its potential, it means the roaster has roasted, conserved and packaged the coffee perfectly, so to seal the aromas. And that he/she has ensured an optimal chain.

How about at home? Any advice on how to make the best coffee at home in our own kitchen?

Regardless of the machine you have, you need to buy coffee in beans and grind it instantly. There is no standard dose, but the richer the blend is in Arabica variety, the more you need to dare with some extra grams so to best enhance all the characteristics of your coffee. In Italy, everyone has a moka pot at home: I suggest you make the best use of it, also because the professional espresso machine has at least nine bars of pressure, making it quite difficult to have one at home.


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Andrea Guerra’s ratings

Microphone on to conclude: the real quality coffee according to Andrea Guerra, in his triple role as taster, barista and roaster.

What is the aroma or taste that impresses you the most in a coffee?

I prefer Ethiopian coffee varieties: Altura coffee with bright acidity and intriguing citrus and flower scents. In particular, the Ethiopian Yirgacheffe, a special region suited to plantation.

Where have you recently tasted the best coffee?

I found great coffee and qualified staff in Barcelona, Madrid and even in Greece, where they are making huge strides in terms of professionalism. Also in Italy, of course, but too often we think that coffee is in our DNA and therefore we struggle to be humble and learn something new every day. Coffee is much more expensive abroad, which encourages the search for quality; moreover, outside our country they don’t have to get rid of bad habits or vices. So, in the end, they turn to professionals and coffee becomes a science.

What makes a good barista?

In general, a good barista knows how to be guided by passion and doesn’t settle for common knowledge. In the world of coffee, it’s someone who does his/her best to ensure quality, through technical knowledge and experience.


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