15th January 2011

It’s often the case that it’s only just as a seasonal blend is about to run out that I finally feel most comfortable with it, and feel that I have come to more fully understand and sometimes successfully capture its very best qualities. Through experimentation and tasting I discovered (fairly!) early on where I most enjoyed the ‘Winter Hoard’ blend, and it was a strange journey of fine-tuning that led me to almost certainly some the lowest doses I’ve used intentionally. Sure enough when I brought my scales into work to check out the numbers, I found that as expected I had arrived at a brew ratio that went all the way down to nearly as low as 40% (aiming for about 43% ideally) – only just still espresso by many folk’s standards!

Not sure exactly why this was (and perhaps others might prefer this coffee made differently anyway), but I guess it might be something to do with it’s all African nature, or the predominance of Sidamos and Yirgacheffes in the blend… A striking example for me though, of how different coffees really do nearly always require different handling and fine tuning, often for quite some time, until you are able to best represent their characteristics to your liking: one of the things that over the last year or so, since acquiring top quality machinery, I have been able to better understand, experience first hand, and put into practice.

It’s strange too, how different coffees require different types of grinder adjustment to keep them where they should be. On our Anfim, sometimes it’s mainly the timer, and sometimes almost only grind, that mostly need utilising to keep the coffee behaving. My modification to the grind steps helps in that regard.

It was whilst using this blend that I also experienced a blend going a little further from roast than I would normally aim for these days …but with some surprisingly very happy results, which makes me think about re-assessing my usual target window for espresso freshness, in terms of what might work best for individual coffees. Even on the very last day of this blend, I had one of the most beautiful shots I’ve been able to achieve with it, and did not actually find this blend very adversely affected by a slightly longer than anticipated stay.

Then afterwards, fresh Caffe Naturelle went back in the grinder for the rest of the day, after a considerable absence, and I quite soon found myself happily brewing at about a 63% brew ratio (this is a blend I already have a feel for, so easier to get up and running), and …Wow! I’ve taken to mostly liking a single shot from a split double lately for both tasting and enjoyment, but this was one of those shots where I just had to drink the other half as well, straight away! (after a recent post by James H I’ve tried letting good shots go cold, and then tasting, and have found it useful and interesting – but I still much prefer them warm/fresh/just hot!)

Great right now to have a lovely batch of our organic milk to work with. For about a week I think we were once again suffering the less than ideal effects of what the cows had been having for their tea recently. Although sadly not everyone realises or appreciates the difference in texture, appearance and mouthfeel, to me this new batch is worlds away from the other, and a joy to work with and drink – such a difference!

The above mentioned use of scales and weighing of shots is one of the tools for better understanding coffees, shots, and issues of repeatability for both doses and shots that I have found really interesting and useful over the last year or so. Admittedly, I’d agree it’s not something we should be too reliant upon (just like time or volume), and that tasting is the best tool – but I have certainly found it can help to really nail a coffee, and work towards better understanding and repeatability of that once there, as one part of many things we can utilise in unison like taste, time, dose, volume, visuals, instinct, and knowledge of roast age. It’s also surprised me by sometimes illustrating just how inaccurate (or rather inconsistent) timed doses can sometimes be, and also how quickly shot parameters can get out of whack, even when visually very similar. But, even though this is a great tool that allows for ever better fine tuning, it really does have its limitations. For instance, just because your brew ratio is ‘right’, it doesn’t mean the extraction was ideal in terms of evenness, etc, or that the temp was ideal during that extraction. And there are often various slightly different combinations of dose weight and dose volume in the basket, grind size, and shot weight, that can all lead to the same brew ratio, some of which might not be as ideal as one of the other combinations. Even though brew ratios and brew recipes can be very precise, that’s all they really are – recipes and guidelines for what can work best, all being well.

My feeling is that achieving 4th in the UKBC finals last year, and now being able to work with great machinery in recent times, are by no means near the ceiling of achievement or learning as a barista – if anything these things have simply created a sound base to build upon, and the points above are some of the things that I’ve been able to explore since then, to continue to progress my skills during my day-to-day life as a full-time barista, alongside continued (but more controlled) exposure to as many different coffees and blends as is sensible, which gradually develops my awareness of origins and tastes. This is also in combination with lots of little things like starting to watch for and pull quakers and overroasts here and there, continued refinement of latte art and milk skills, developing my barista training for staff, and general management of everything the plan cafe currently does with its espresso, adopting thorough machine cleanliness practices, carefully tightening up the freshness of all the coffee we use for espresso particularly, and the more in-depth exploration of various filter brewing methods and techniques at home, and a little (so far only the theory, as I don’t have any gadgetry for this) research into things like extraction %/yields and TDS/brew strengths, etc, which is helping me to have a broader feel for coffee, and other great methods for coffee brewing.

…Just a few things I wanted to note down, partly for my own interest so I can remember at what stage I learned certain things, but also incase they might be of any use to anyone else.

Oh! And, partly deliberately, but so very gradually I almost haven’t noticed, I’ve made the transition to almost always drinking coffee black now – straight espresso and black filter are my usual brews of choice (whether successful or not!), although the odd flat white or capp are still a real pleasure here and there …and if a pourover isn’t perfect, a little milk  might go in, and do wonders!

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