Laila Wilbur isn’t just a Seattleite with big brown eyes and a nice smile. She also knows a hell of a lot about coffee, having grown up in her father’s Cherry Street Coffee House shops and worked as a barista for 14-plus years.
Her coffee skills are so strong, she was even named the US Barista Champion at the Specialty Coffee Association of America competition in 2014. Suffice to say, the woman can make you a tasty latte.
And considering it is National Coffee Day, we figured the time was right to ask Wilbur how you can make amazing coffee and espresso in your own home. Here are her top tips.
“The truth about the Pumpkin Spice Latte at Starbucks is there’s no pumpkin in it and it’s full of gross chemical sugar stuff. You can make one at home and it’ll taste way better.”
1. Use whole milk.
“If you’re making a milk-based drink, I recommend using whole milk,” says Wilbur. “A lot of people use nonfat milk because they’re watching their weight, but in order for milk to foam and create that really creamy texture, it needs fat. So if you’re watching your weight, choose a smaller drink. But try to stick with cold whole milk. Or two percent at the lowest fat content.”
2. Use fresh beans.
“Always get fresh-roasted coffee—something that’s been roasted within two weeks or a month, maximum. Find something local, something that’s been roasted around your area, a local coffee shop, a local roastery. Beans lose their freshness and become stale fairly quickly. A fresh-roasted bag will have more flavor in the cup.”
3. Learn your coffee type.
“Variety, elevation and terroir all play a role in the flavor of coffee, much like wine. So get to know the types of coffee that you like. Maybe ask the barista at your local café for suggestions. Darker roasted coffees are going to have a really heavy roast flavor. If you want something that’s a little sweeter and has more citrus, go for a lighter roast. Keep experimenting until you find the beans that are right for you.”
4. Grind the coffee fresh.
“For the most part, don’t use pre-ground coffee. It’s going to have a more stale, bland taste to it. When you grind the coffee, you oxidize it. It’s similar to cutting an apple in half—it turns brown because its sugars and oils are exposed to air. The same thing happens to coffee when you grind it. So grind your coffee when you’re going to make it or grind at the coffee shop and use it up within a week.”
5. Use a burr grinder.
“There are blade grinders and there are burr grinders. Burr grinders are going to more uniformly grind your coffee. A blade grinder slices the coffee sporadically—into huge chunks and fine little powder—and that means your coffee is going to extract differently and not taste as good.”
6. On a related note, watch your grind size.
“Grind size—the size of the coffee particles—is going to affect the way the coffee pours. If you’re brewing espresso and water is just gushing out, your grind size is too coarse. Vice versa, if you’re putting in the coffee and no water is coming out, your grind size is too fine. It should take about 20 seconds to brew two ounces of espresso. If it’s happening much faster or slower than that, your grind size isn’t right and it’s not going to taste good. Of course, you can avoid all this by finding a home espresso machine with a built-in grinder.”
7. Use a high-quality machine.
“To make a cappuccino or a latte at home, you need good steam pressure to get that really good textured milk, and you need the pump espresso machine to get the right quality of espresso. I use the De’Longhi EC 860 and the Icona pump at home. Those are my two favorites. The Icona pump is super simple, there are only like two buttons, and it looks cool.”
8. Finish with latte art.
“When you go to a really nice coffee shop, you’re going to get this beautiful design on top of your latte. And it’s super, super easy to do this at home, and guests love it. Think of the espresso as your canvas, and the steaming pitcher and the milk as your paintbrush. You’re essentially painting on the espresso. The key is to bring the pitcher incredibly close to the espresso, as close as you can. To make a heart, make a big circle with the milk and then slice it in half.”
9. Spice it up.
“The truth about the Pumpkin Spice Latte at Starbucks is there’s no pumpkin in it and it’s full of gross chemical sugar stuff. You can make a pumpkin spice latte at home and it’ll taste way better. Go to a grocery store and buy Libby’s pumpkin pie mix and put that in the bottom of your cup. Add your espresso, mix it up and then pour your milk on top of it. You’re going to have a pumpkin spice latte that tops the Starbucks Pumpkin Spice Latte tenfold, and you don’t have to wait until September to get it. You can drink it all year round if you want.”
10. Whatever you do… keep your coffee out of the fridge.
“It’s a pretty big no-no to refrigerate or freeze your coffee. The only time it’s ever acceptable is if it’s an unopened bag of beans. Once it’s opened, I would never freeze it or refrigerate it. You should just be using it.”