One on One Petra Veselá – Coffee connoisseur
Petra Veselá is one of the Czech Republic’s leading experts on coffee. The author of a publication simply entitled Kniha o kávě (Book about Coffee), she is an internationally accredited expert taster and runs courses for baristas in how to prepare the perfect cup. We met for a coffee at one of the handful of cafés in Prague where Veselá considers the brew to be of a genuinely high quality. The first thing I asked: when did her interest in the beverage begin?
“It started with my own café. When I didn’t make the exams for university, I decided to open my own shop for sweets and so on. In the town where I live, Jílové, there was already a shop selling sweets so I was thinking, what goes with sweets? All right – maybe coffee!
“I didn’t even drink it before I opened the shop. But that was my beginning, how I started with coffee.”
Now I believe you work more teaching people how to make coffee?
“Yes, exactly. That’s the main work I do now. I do a lot of training sessions and I teach people how to make a really good espresso or cappuccino or other beverages from espresso.”
Tell us, what is the secret to making a good cup of coffee?
“There are many things. It’s the barista, it’s the machine, it’s the coffee grinder, and of course the knowledge of the barista – if they know how to use the coffee grinder.
“That’s the biggest problem in a lot of cafés in the Czech Republic. They have good technology but they don’t know how to use it.
“The other problem is the beans. Because a lot of places have pretty expensive coffees, but they are not fresh. When you have a one-kilo package of coffee and it’s not open, usually you have to use it within two years.
“But, honestly, two years is really too long. When you have the coffee really fresh roasted it’s completely different. So when you have fresh coffee, a good barista and good equipment, that’s half the battle.”
What are people doing wrong with their grinders? What’s the mistake in their approach to grinding coffee?
“They smell and it doesn’t taste good and it’s not healthy. So it’s good to clean your grinder every evening, after every shift.
“Then there’s the adjustment of the coarseness of the coffee. I think in the Czech Republic the biggest problem is that the coffee is too coarse. In 30 seconds you make a really big cup of coffee.
“But the proper espresso is 25 to 35 milliliters, which is pretty small, and you have to make it in 30 seconds maximum, which means you need really finely grinding.”
What other mistakes do people make?
“They use wrong words for espresso, for example. Maybe you’ve heard of piccolo…”
Well espresso is a confusing word in this country, because you never know what you’re going to get.
“Yes, exactly. When you go to Italy, where espresso comes from, and you order an espresso you always get a small cup of coffee – which is an espresso.
“But in the Czech Republic you get a big cup of coffee, and this is not good. So when you want to order here, a lot of people ask for a piccolo.
“But piccolo doesn’t exist. If you go to Italy and ask for it, they don’t give it to you because they don’t understand you. So that’s a big problem.
Also I read an interview with you in which you said that people often make the mistake – and I think I probably make it – of putting coffee beans in the freezer.
“That’s true. Coffee doesn’t belong in the fridge. The problem is that when you remove it from the fridge a lot of oils come through. When you make an espresso, then they are not completely together any more and the espresso won’t be as perfect as it was before.
I guess the idea of what a cup of coffee is differs from country to country?
“Yes. Completely. Every country you go to, the coffee culture is completely different. For example when you go more southern in Europe – Italians, Spanish people, maybe also in France – they are used to having really small cups of coffee. Espresso and ristretto is the main cup of coffee there.
“But when you go more north, Norwegians and Danish people, Swedish people are used to drinking filter coffee more. Which is also good. It’s a different preparation. You don’t have to prepare coffee just as an espresso.
“That’s a great possibility to work with beans differently, and I think filter coffee is also very good. When it’s well done, it’s very good!”
When I first came here 20 years ago, the Turek, the Turkish coffee, was very common. But now it seems to have more or less disappeared. Why has it disappeared?
“I’m not completely sure that it’s disappeared. That applies to the biggest cities, like Prague, Brno or Pilsen – when you go to a café or restaurant, they already know what an espresso, or at least they serve you a big one.
“But I think that a lot of people at home, or in smaller towns, still prepare the Czech Turek.”
I read an interview with some man who was an expert on coffee and he said that under Communism the general standard of coffee here was higher than it is now. Would you agree with that?
“I’m not completely sure. I would say that in the last two years the coffee culture in the Czech Republic improved. For example, in Prague two years ago you had only two or three good cafés with good coffee.
Are there really so few?
“Yes, there are. But I’m talking about places where every time you can get a really, really good cup of coffee.
“I’m a little bit of a coffee freak. You have to understand that I work with coffee every day and I’m really a coffee specialist and it means that I expect a very good cup of coffee.
“Then you have cafés that are a little bit better, of course. But for the perfect cup of coffee, there are, like, five or six places in Prague now.”
I read a quote from an Italian guy who was a member of the family that owns the Illy brand. He said he welcomed the advent of Starbucks and all of those chains because it improved people’s knowledge of coffee. Would you go along with that?
“Not completely. I have to say that I don’t like these kinds of chains. Coffee loses something cultural. I think drinking coffee is a ritual. You go to a café, you stop for a while, even when you just have an espresso at the bar.
“Of course it’s fast, but you stop for a while. You don’t think about anything else. You talk with your friends or discuss something. I think this goes so perfectly with coffee. You sit and enjoy your cup of coffee.
“But when you have it in a big cup with a lot of milk and you take it with you, that’s completely missing. I don’t like those chains because of that.
“I don’t think they have really quality coffee. The coffee is very dark roasted, so it’s very bitter. That’s on purpose, because when you use a lot of milk you have to be able to feel the coffee. And not all of the baristas there really know how to make coffee – not at all.”
Right now I myself am having a coffee with milk and sugar. Do coffee experts consider it wrong to add sugar and milk to coffee? Are you taking away from the taste?
“But then it’s up to you what you add. I have done some really difficult tasting courses and we tried espresso first without sugar and then with sugar. Because sometimes sugar develops tastes which were not there before.
“So I don’t think it’s wrong. It’s up to you what you add. I like to drink cappuccino, which is espresso with milk and milk foam. I think it’s completely fine.”
I drink four, sometimes five coffees a day, quite strong ones. Is that too many?
“I don’t think so. When it’s well prepared, then there’s no problem. And when you feel good afterwards, that’s the most important thing. The amount of coffee, how much you drink, is absolutely individual. It really depends how you feel after coffee.”
I feel like I can’t function in the morning until I’ve had maybe a couple of coffees. Is that something that you also experience?
“Not really [laughs]. The funny thing is that I don’t drink coffee that much. I usually have one or two cups a day. I don’t drink it in the morning, because where I live now I don’t have a big coffee machine.
“I’m used to having really good coffee, for which you need to have a good machine. So I wait till I go to a café, or when I have a meeting or something, training – then I have my cup of coffee. Then I enjoy it. But I can work without coffee, actually [laughs].”