I don’t remember the first time I had coffee, but I’m guessing it was probably near my 10th or 12th CBSE Board exams, when staying up late cramming was the way to go, understanding anything be damned.
That’s when my love affair with the aroma that coffee gives started.
So when I had the opportunity to have a short barista class and be introduced to a new coffee drink, I couldn’t say no, inspite of me having slowly weaned myself off coffee shop chains. Going to the UK was an eye opener in this regard. Before I left, I was probably supplying coffee chains with a lot of money. But I explored smaller family-owned shops, one-outlet-only coffee shops, got my own coffee machine and almost swore off instant coffee and coffee chains since then.
Back to Dubai. I toddled off to the Costa outlet at the Dubai Marina Promenade. My trainer for the day was Gihan Weerasinghe, who I was told, won the first Costa International Barista Competition in 2007. So one of the best baristas Costa had. No pressure.
We settled down with a cup of expertly produced Flat White and talked coffee.
I gingerly took a first sip, even though Gihan told me many people don’t need sugar with it. My best friend, who can have sugarless coffee without shuddering, deplores my need to throw in copious amounts of sugar into my caffeine fix. “What’s the point of coffee if you put so much sugar in it?!” she says. On that note, ever noticed that when you ask for sugar, most places give you brown sugar? Sorry folks, I need white there. Anyhoo, so I took that first sip of the flat white, and surprisingly enough, while I did need sugar, I only needed one sachet as opposed to when I dump 2-4 of them. An initial thumbs up from me for the drink.
Gihan, who has been with Costa for 10 years now, tells me more about the drink. There seems to be a bone of contention about whether the flat white comes from Australia or New Zealand – each claims it for its own. Gihan also tells me the difference between this drink and others like a cappuccino or a latte is the amount of time the espresso base is extracted. He said, “We want the sweetness and acidity, not the bitterness. When you do it right, you get a well balanced, rich, creamy flat white.”
The barista who won Costa’s first international competition admits, quite honestly, that he was a “stubborn” barista who loved coffee. But over a few years, he realized his potential and rose in the ranks of the company and now is a supervisor, who handles training teams as well.
He candidly said, “Anyone can make a good cup of coffee but only the guy who has passion will make it all the time and well.” He proudly tells me that Costa is the only coffee chain, not only to launch the flat white, but also uses a Cortissimo (a shorter coffee extraction method) to build the flat white. I’m also told that it took 8 months of training, with around 220 people in the Costa chain trained before launching the drink.
I’m then taken over to the machines. It’s my turn to make some coffee!
I think I failed. Quite miserably, I might add, although Gihan was terribly encouraging about my futile attempts to make that milk froth well! He guided me through making a flat white and I was surprised to see the amount of science that went into it. I had to use a timer to ensure I extracted the right amount of espresso. When getting the ground coffee for extraction, I had to make sure it was flat, just rightly so. When preparing the milk, I was given instructions on how many cms below top milk level I had to keep the nozzle and after how much time I had to move it deeper. I even had a thermometer so I knew when to stop the milk-frothing process. In short, you have to be well-trained to make a good cup of coffee!
And then of course, there’s the latte art. Can I say I’m just really, really bad at that? Where Gihan managed lovely flowery designs and heart-shaped designs, I was left with a poofy cloud. Or maybe it was a fat dragon, who knows? This is Gihan’s wonderful latte art in progress:
I tried making it a few more times before I was dejected with the amount of coffee I was wasting (yes, that’s my poofy cloud at the bottom of the image!)
Gihan even made me extract the espresso at different times, so I could taste the difference between the flat white’s cortissimo and the normally extracted coffee, which is immediately noticeable.
You can tell he’s passionate about coffee and ensuring everyone on the Costa team is well-trained to meet customer’s expectations. “Passion is what I’m trying to build within Costa.”
I was never a Costa fan to be honest, but *if* all the stores can re-create the flat white that Gihan made, then yes…I think it’ll do well.
Disclaimer: I was given the barista training and tasting of the Flat White, courtesy Costa. The drink costs Dhs 16 in Costa outlets. I vote for the underdog over coffee chains, but still think the Flat White is a pretty decent drink.