drink - issue 6 - people

Practice makes perfect: an education in coffee

9' to read

The worldwide famous cypriot designer talking to C41 about his personal experience around coffee.

Looking back, it is perhaps unsurprising that my training in coffee should have coincided with the end of my High School education in Cyprus and the start of my military service. The hard exercise regime combined with a constant lack of sleep sent me in search of an elixir to help me stay awake and keep going. At first, my coffee had to be sweet and milky: additives to mask the bitterness. Like many teenagers, I loved the smell but was not accustomed to the taste. Coffee, like so many other foods, demands an acquired taste which is in itself an important journey. For me, coffee soon became a novelty as I explored all the different types to enjoy, from Greek to Nescafe Frappe, the latter being the national drink throughout hot summers. As the taste became familiar, I slowly reduced both milk and sugar, perhaps it was my exercise of growing up and realising that if you do something, you need to do it properly! Finally, I reached a point when my coffee became just black.

When I came to London to study in 88 there was initially only “coffee” at home: Nescafe Gold, an upgrade from the plain processed predecessor. Most attempts to drink it at local cafes were a complete failure: it seemed I had landed in a country of tea where coffee simply didn’t exist. Coffee-flavoured-tea was how I described what arrived when I ordered a cup. Yet, a few years later, by complete chance, I was taken by a friend to Bar Italia—a cult place in Soho that had remained untouched since the 50’s—and suddenly, real coffee existed here. Perhaps I was merely unlucky before not to have landed in one of these rare cafés where one could get a real espresso.

The Italian coffee became my benchmark. I explored the different brands available in shiny bricks of vacuumed foil packaging, and I explored the impressively imposing professional machines that made it.

I remember buying a domestic version of one such machine during a trip to Milan: a ‘Gaggia Baby’ in bright red plastic that I still use to this day. It sat alongside my many moka pots in different sizes and designs, even the Neapolitan types.  Then, as I started to travel more widely in Europe and I realised that “real” coffee also existed in so many different countries: Portugal, France and Spain…

These were the years of adventure when ground coffee was itself still a novelty, and a good cup was even harder to find. The first wave of the London coffee revolution started sometime in the early 90’s and it marked the moment when Italy lost its monopoly over the beans.

I continued my research by learning about the origin of the bean as well as the different varieties. Back then, of course, roasting was just one type, dark. However, I soon learned how different degrees of fineness when grinding coffee was linked to methods of preparation. When buying beans in specialist places I began to ask for a specific grind, speculating over the preferred way I was to make it. Hand coffee mills were yet to be discovered.

Only recently has the art of coffee started being about any variable that can affect the final result. From the porcelain cup and its temperature, the temperature of water when preparing it, the pressure of the water flowing through the coffee, the type of paper filter or permanent titanium filters, the exact weight of the beans by milligram, to the date of their roasting. Each of these factors deserve exploration and experimentation. Then roasting itself generated new ranges: green beans became an option where the oil from grinding them would create fine layers beneath the surface. About this time Japanese accessories were at the top of the market making preparation akin to a laboratory experiment. Coffee preparation once a respected craft was becoming an art.

I started grinding my own beans after the owner of a specialist store refused to grind them for me. He wasn’t being obtuse, he simply explained to me that if I enjoyed my coffee I should grind the right amount immediately before preparing it and not the whole bag in one go!

So, I bought my first ceramic burr grinder, housed in see-through plastic. Before that, I had previously ground coffee as a 12-year-old using my family’s Braun blade grinder, an electric machine from the 60s for which my father had brought some Arabica coffee beans during a trip to Burundi and my mother asked me to prepare coffee for guests. Fineness was all done by eye and depended on how long I held down the lid.

From that point on coffee preparation became both a labour of love and a long daily ritual. Always the best beans, with carefully chosen qualities, ground at the correct consistency, often prepared by simply dripping water at the right temperature through a filter and then drunk in a beautiful hand thrown Ingegerd Raaman cup. Could it get any better? I never thought it could, until one day I found a long-forgotten tall brass mill given to me many years previously by an aunt. It had had little importance to me then, just another object without contemporary relevance, yet its rediscovery lead to a key revelation: even if ceramic mills were good enough for grinding, they couldn’t offer the satisfaction of working with a highly engineered tool. The absence of a beautifully crafted, heavy object in my routine was clear.

I had met Carl Aubock IV at the opening of my exhibition in Vienna in 2012. Before that all I knew about Carl Aubock were the beautiful collectible brass objects by his grandfather, Carl Aubock II. He invited me to the family studio and workshop where apart from housing an incredible archive of historical artefacts, he was still making a selection of pieces with the same meticulous handmade quality. Who would have thought that a few years later I would be invited by a close Danish friend and dealer of Aubock pieces in London, Nina Hertig, to work with such an institution on the design of the missing tool. Carl and I started our collaboration with a pepper mill. Our roles were clear: I was to provide a drawing and Carl would work out the mechanics and making. It was the perfect partnership. Never before I had come across anyone more humble and enthusiastic and with such an invaluable knowledge of craftsmanship. Our first project was a big success leading us to the much bigger challenge, the long-missing tool, the coffee Mill.

What always bugged me on existing coffee grinders, was the long lever handle that visually threw the object out of balance. I wanted to design one where the handle would be almost an extension of the body. The design was to be simple, a straight cylinder split in half with a thinner one offset from the main axis, as if it was simply balanced on top. However, for this to work, it would require gears to initiate the grinding motion. It was one of those moments where one starts thinking why this had never been done before, and if this had ever been possible to achieve? Carl accepted the challenge and after a very limited back-and-forth, the first prototype arrived in my house.

It was a beautiful heavy object which demanded immediate use. I picked it up, placed a handful of beans inside the body and put the lid back on, attached to the handle. Through short circular movements, I gave it a few turns and immediately placed the object back on the kitchen counter. “It doesn’t work!”. I left it there and went straight to my computer to write a long email to Carl listing all the reasons why our experiment had failed. After all, there might have been a good reason why lever handles needed to be that long.

Carl, never responded to my email and my assumption of failure made me reluctant to chase his answer.

The mill stayed untouched on my kitchen counter until a few weeks later when I decided to give the object another try. This time I managed many more turns but once more placed it back. I revisited my list and reduced my arguments against the object by half. I wrote to Carl again, apologised for the harshness of my previous email, and allowed some room for hope that if we were to address the reduced list of points, there was a small chance to rescue the project.

Carl never responded to that email either. What did his silence mean?

It was only after one day, when a friend walked in my house and was very intrigued by the heavy tool on my kitchen counter that I picked it up a third time to demonstrate my failed design. While using it, I clearly explained all the intentions behind the existence of such an object until the point when the handle came to a free spin. I had just finished grinding enough coffee for one cup! I offered to brew it and moved the conversation to another subject.

The next morning was a Saturday and I had much more time available when I decided to give the Mill one more chance. The pleasure in using it was bigger than any of the complaints I had raised before. I enjoyed my cup of coffee and decided to write to Carl one last time: “Dear Carl, the Mill is perfect! Thank you.”

Was this an acquired experience?

This story is featured on C41 ISSUE 7 Bellissimo.