26th October 2011

I had a play with some of the most exciting espresso I’ve tried for a while last week… This was blind, but I knew what one of its components must be… However, this is still under wraps, and still being fine-tuned by Peter and co at the roastery, but it is approaching very fast from the horizon – to appear soon!! JGC’s seasonal house classic, Formula 6, sounds like a great blend right now to me, and is approaching even faster – it will be on for the first time in quite a long time later this week at the cafe. A happy coincidence is that my selections for our espresso over the next few weeks will exhibit flavours with much more of an autumn/winter vibe, although that’s not something I’ll emphasise too much, for fear of giving the wrong impression of seasonality in coffee!

I’m currently in the usual cycle of making coffee to the best of my ability (however well or poorly), often feeling that it could be much better than it is, then (re) reading and researching the techniques, blogs, articles and forums, etc, and trying to put some of this information and theory into practice, by making yet more coffee (at work and at home), tasting, again, rethinking, again, and thereby gradually trying to learn and understand a little more about the many interrelated aspects of the craft. Sometimes this process leads to a sense of genuine progress and improvements being achieved …whilst sometimes it seems merely Samsara-like. A more scientific approach would probably help here, but when most of each working day is given to more straightforward preparation and service, rather than more structured investigation, that avenue is usually snatched rather than fully explored.

Obviously, the more you taste and experience as a barista, the higher your expectations become, over time, and I guess it is possible to be unfairly critical of your efforts (especially if you measure what you taste against occasional experiences of the very best). But if you know the bar can potentially be raised… the temptation is there, and should not be ignored, regardless of any amount of wonderful feedback generally.

It’s really that classic issue of repeatability and consistency that interests me most at present. It’s not (quite so much) about how to dial in a coffee (or even fine tune it) so that it tastes good (or great) to my taste at a certain (approximate) recipe. Rather it’s how to best repeat and sustain that same taste and extraction (mainly with espresso, but also with brewed coffee at home) from drink to drink, and throughout the working day in a commercial environment, as various factors and variables change (aside from the usual basic constant adjustments one makes to attempt to maintain parameters) – and about an attempt to better understand the many interrelated factors which affect this.

Some of the things I’ve happened to look at in recent weeks as just part of this continual process are linked below, although they are a fairly random and only loosely related selection (some not even very current), that are listed together only because one thing lead to another… and because I like to mention things on the blog occasionally that I’ve found interesting, incase it helps others to find them as well:     

Grind not Dose (one of Those mammoth forum threads that is packed with interesting stuff, and which can lead in all sorts of directions)

Some Aspects of Espresso Extraction (one of Those classic papers which I’ve read previously, but have revisited this week)

TTL David Walsh (a wonderful talk about grinding, grinders, and wet grinding. Oh, grinders! A ‘unhappy marriage’ indeed! I really think they are one of our very Biggest impediments) 

I spent an hour or so last week on the espresso machine with Finca La Malacara, briefly looking at a few things that often crop up and intrigue me generally with espresso, on our machinery, rather than specifically with this (delicious) coffee, as such. I wanted to swing the balance in a slightly different direction, back away from instrument measurement and from maintaining fixed recipes. I left my scales in the box, and largely ignored shot time, during pours. Instead I looked more at other aspects like grind and dose (volume, and approximated weight), and visual measurements like cone shape, flow rate and colour.

I value scales a lot, as well as other pieces of kit that we can utilise to measure things, create recipes, and improve our understanding and repeatability. But it’s all too easy to become over reliant or over-focussed on these tools, and recipes, and then they can become counterproductive. An ‘ideal’ recipe (which I also value), is just that – an ideal rather than a constant that works in any circumstance. You can make the same recipe (dose and shot weight, time and temperature) at different times and end up with a very different cup, because there are many other variables involved that such recipes overlook. Whereas juggling some of the parameters away from the ideal recipe as conditions alter can result in a better shot, albeit perhaps less great than the ideal, but the best available under the circumstances. This scenario is probably accentuated when using a grinder like the Anfim Super.

So sometimes it’s good to look at things from a different perspective …before putting it all back together. For instance, the last couple of weeks have seen me get my thermometer back out at home, only to end up trusting it more than I should have, and spoiling several brews, before eventually realising that its originally quite rapid response time seemed to have slowed so much as to be of almost no use at all. Technology can fail or be imprecise, and even accurate kit and seemingly precise recipes don’t necessarily produce repeatability in themselves, let alone as variables change. So other things should always remain at the top of the toolbox.

So, bearing that philosophy in mind, what do I do? I’ve just ordered upgrades to my gadgets, naturally! 😉 What I hope will be a much higher quality, more accurate and precise set of scales (and more expensive!), with better load cells, for dose and shot weights, and an ultra-rapid response miniature needle probe thermocouple thermometer and meter for brew water temperatures for home brewing. I think there’s some logic there somewhere! All tools are good – but if you’re going to measure stuff, do it as accurately as you can afford, and try to utilise all your different ways of evaluating things together in a balanced way.

Also, that espresso type that lives in the region of a 100% brew ratio is something I have mixed feelings about. I don’t think it’s always necessarily the best way to represent really nice beans, but it’s undeniably alluring and super delicious when done properly, and sometimes sincere interest in it from others becomes impossible to ignore. But when achieving a favorable extraction hints at a scenario of pushing the grind towards the sort of dose weight and volume that can probably only possibly be contained in an elusive 5.3cm vessel that ships only at 60 USD (?!), things are easier!

And a big shout to our team, a really lovely bunch, many new, who are progressing handsomely, at many various levels.

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