Archive for March, 2009

…Back to work!

March 10, 2009

duale

…And our dear old Ducale/Fiorenzato! To be fair, whilst this can be a cantankerous old BEAST of a machine, it has lots of  ‘charm’ …and I seem to be able to get much thicker, syrupier, sweeter shots from it than from the (lovely) San Remos at the comps… Someone who saw it the other day thought it might be about 40 years old?! It definitely has NO water filtration, and is wildly unstable. Apart from me backflushing, and cleaning the portafilters and screens, it’s not had any sort of deep-clean/service for years – as no engineer will dare touch it, because apparently you can’t get any spares for it. So – how come the nice shots? No doubt, with enough time experimenting with a modern, stable machine, I could exceed what this produces (and exclude its embarrassing failings). But all I know is, as things stand, I couldn’t get my shots tasting as nice at Glasgow with a modern machine as I’m used to them tasting with this, on a good day… And fortunately they still managed to come 4th. What’s that all about?

Some people mentioned that the San Remos, being so stable, and cooler than many older-style machines, perhaps require a lighter dose. The heavier dosing that often makes shots work well with hotter machines won’t necessarily work with these – the acidity can come out too much, and the sweetness can get lost. So things like this could be a factor; every machine has a learning curve, and you know what works best with yours. I liked the San Remos (not surprising really I suppose, given what I work with!), and I’m not advocating old, unstable, dirty, decrepit, furred-up machinery. But it is surprising that, with the right care and techniques, I seem to get nicer, thicker, more satisfying shots (I think) from our ancient machine, than I was able to get from the San Remos, albeit with only a very short time to get acquainted with them: It seems to contradict what you would expect. And I’ve noticed a similar situation occurring when I’ve tried S5s…

Romanticism? Dose levels? Technique? Knowing your machine? My tasting not attuned enough? Not enough time with decent machines to hit the sweet spot? Old machines better?!

I wouldn’t say no to a modern machine though! Sometimes (quite often!) our machine just will not make great coffee, no matter how diligently I follow my techniques.

To say the machine has ‘some issues’ would be something of a euphemism. It has a broken autofill that causes water to spout from the steam wand every 1/2 hour or so until you manually drain the boiler. It suffers from huge pressure surges and drops. Inexplicably, only one of the two groups pours a nice shot (and even that unevenly, with 1.5oz into one shot and .5oz into the other, unless you juggle the cups back-and-forth as it pours, causing you to be glued to the machine during the pour, and for the outside of your cups to be plastered in dribbles). And the pours, whilst usually hanging fairly nice and straight like warm honey to start with, always descend into a rather dribbly, gushy affair towards the end (even when the shots taste good)…

So, not to mention the other aforementioned issues, I’d happy enough to wave a fond farewell to this old dear – thick, sweet shots or not! …Or would I?

When the shots are good, they can be really good (I think), but sadly it can feel like something of a rare triumph when I manage to pour a really good shot with our equipment. Given the quality of the coffee I am now using, the training I give to all the other staff, my own level of ability and experience, and my attentiveness to every shot, I suppose the creation of very good or even great espresso aught to be much more common at the plan than it actually is – and I believe machinery is now the main factor preventing this (whilst it would also be greatly beneficial for the learning of the barista techniques and professionalism to be impressed on all staff more rigorously as a job requirement by the cafe). I think, as a minimum, I may urge for some new grinder blades as a ‘present’ for my winning the Welsh heat, which might help to hone the quality a little, given that they have never been replaced since I’ve been here – so two years at least!

Have no fear though – I take the espresso very seriously at the plan, and if you come in for a coffee, it will be made with fantastic, fresh beans, and I will do my best to ensure that it’s somewhere between good and, potentially, very good!

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UKBC 2009 semi finals …And my wayward shot!

March 6, 2009

gwilym

Gwilym UKBC 09 winner!

Still kicking myself about my stupid blunder with my shots during my set in the UKBC semi finals!

Like a complete tool, I managed to place one of my shotpots a couple of millimetres out of place, and so missed one of my four shots as it poured for my sig drink, meaning the judges had to award me ZERO points for the taste balance for the drink. I suppose I should take consolation in the fact that finishing 15th in the UK with no signature drink points is quite impressive! I only ever really hoped to finish in that kind of position anyway, in this, my first year competing (especially as an almost entirely self-taught barista with no coach or competition support) – but it’s still so annoying, after so much hard work and preparation, to realise that I would have placed higher, if not for such a silly error.

Doh!Doh!Doh!Doh!Doh!Doh!Doh!Doh!Doh!Doh!Doh!Doh!Doh!

When I eventually realised the shot was missing the pot (towards the end of the pour when I turned back to the machine) I thought (or hoped!) that maybe it was just the faster, blonde section that had missed towards the end, and in the heat of the moment (already really tight for time), I blindly decided to just ignore the blunder, and use the shots as they were! Ideally, even though it would definitely have sent me quite a bit over-time, I should probably have remade the shot (or even better, put the shotpot in the right damn position in the first place!), as I believe the error cost me somewhere in the region of 35 – 102 points; probably about 60 – 70. My total score on the day was 501, and whilst I don’t know where a score of 565-ish would have placed me, I assume it would have made a rather significant difference… (although it was never going to be a top six performance).

All those nights carefully adjusting the ratios of the ingredients, tweeking the chocolate content by individual grams (69 in the end!), and playing with the fat content, temperatures, volumes, preparation and melting timings, to get the taste balance as good as possible: All out the window in an instant, by using 3 shots instead of the essential 4!

It’s silly to get wound-up about points and placing, as it distracts from the real reasons I entered the competitions (a love for the cuisine, and a desire to learn more about it), and there’s nothing I can do about it now, but I can’t help feeling I’ve let myself and the coffee down, by not ranking higher, due such a silly, but crucial, mistake on the day!

Que sera, sera!

On a more positive note, apparently my espressos came 4th, and I entered the semifinals in overall 9th place after winning the Welsh heat – so I’m really happy that such an exciting and unconventional (and potentially unbalanced and sour) espresso managed to be so consistently well received.

I made a few other silly errors that bug me too, but nothing else as significant:

* I placed the espresso spoons for the judges on the inside, rather than the outside, to use first (but they figured out what to do).

* I placed Se’s glass down the wrong end of the table (again, I think he found it without too much bother!).

* I forgot to start pouring their waters as I introduced myself (but ad-libbed and made the time up).

* I poured my sauce through my Ice-funnel the first time before making my sig shots, instead of during, as planned (hmmm – this is probably what threw me, and made me not concentrate on positioning those pots properly!!).

* I lost my whisk (I managed to totally hide it from myself under my ice-funnel after using it), so I had to ‘swirl’ my espressos into the sauce, rather than giving it a proper stir.

* One lot of milk wasn’t so good.

* The presentation on two of the capps was not so good (the second pour from each pitcher). I went for fairly safe, appley, traditional circles, because after a bit of a wonky rosetta at the heat, they stressed that symmetry and balance were more important than latte art (which is fair enough). So I ditched the latte art intentionally to achieve better points by pouring a version of a traditional. As it was, apparently they thought I had tried to pour latte art and failed – and so still marked me down! (perhaps one the the two poor pours) So to hell with it – I think from now on, I’ll bite the bullet and really go for those rosettas in future competitions!

So; plenty to learn from, and put down to competition experience.

Blunders aside though, the process of the competitions has been really good, and I guess I’ll definitely compete again next year. It’s been a good learning experience, during which I’ve developed my tasting knowledge, tightened my technique, and discovered some amazing coffees (with the help of Peter and JGC), which were always my aims in entering.

The quality of the other competitors at the finals was really impressive too – a very good year – everyone has commented that the standard just gets better and better, year on year, which is really positive for the industry. Glad to see Gwilym win – a lovely set on Tuesday – and congratulations to Jack, Tristan, Lance, Luke, John and everyone else for their achievements! Congrats to Dale too (who I understand is one of the select club of about 4 people that read this drivel – Hi Dale!), who’s set was, yet again, one of my favourites. I know he was annoyed with a few aspects of his performance too (looked great to me) …but I think he, myself, and Estelle, are now considering the up-coming Latte Art competitions by way of a comeback..?!!

…Now, where can I get two extra shotpots/glasses? Aah yes – in my goody bag – bit late now though!

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dale-h1     maxine     marcin 

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chuao2

chauo1

Congratulations Gwilym!

March 5, 2009

Just wanted to congratulate Gwilym, the new UKBC champ, and everyone else competing in 2009 – I always new competing would be tough – but having experienced the process first-hand, I’ve even more respect for all those who enter!

I confess I don’t know too much about the flat-capped-cart-phenomenon (who is quickly turning into a bigger caricature than Barista Boy himself!), having only spoken to him briefly a couple of times, but from what I saw on Tuesday, he’s a deserving winner: a really good set – knowledgeable, sincere, and with a technical preciseness and sense of ease that I’m sure can only come from much hard work and practice. He seems like a thoroughly nice fellow, and hats off to him!

Post to follow regarding my own reasonable, but much less impressive set, and cringeworthy sig drink shots blunder..!