Book Review: The professional barista’s handbook – Scott Rao

February 28th, 2008

I have a lot of books on coffee, and I am pretty sure Scott Rao does as well. Of the 100-150 I have maybe 25 are on espresso, and of those I’d consider maybe 5 useful in some way. The quality of coffee literature, especially espresso, for a long time was pretty poor. Same myths, misinformation, boring and repetitive information cobbled together by lazy writers and written for the consumer.

Keeping the Illy texts to one side (because there is limited information on making espresso in it) the barista bible for a long time has been David Schomer’s book – “Espresso Coffee: Professional Techniques”. For me the thing that made this book so popular was that it gave answers. A definitive brew recipe was laid, from technique to brew temps to cleaning regimes. In coffee answers are hard to come by, and suddenly there was a book with lots. I remember quite clearly reading it the first time and jumping straight on the machine excited by what I had learned.

However as you progress past that book in your barista career you realise that it doesn’t have all the answers, and that claiming anything definitive isn’t helpful and instead exclusionary at the expense of progress.

I picked up “The Professional Barista’s Handbook” last week and I’ve read it a couple of times now. It is quite ambitious in its undertaking – it aims to explore espresso preparation without giving definitive answers (in fact the text often has a side note reinforcing this). It succeeds in being well written, clear and concise and Scott has chosen his battles wisely. The discussion of temp stability is well treated, and I enjoyed how he treated dosing techniques and coffee doses used around the world. Unlike previous barista material the old 7g dose is validated and given equal worth to heavier “3rd wave” doses. (I am probably going to get in trouble for that sentence!) The passage on fines migration during extraction and preinfusion was also well illustrated and explained.

Do I agree with absolutely everything in the book? No. For example he correlates 7g brew recipes with lower brew temps, and higher doses needing higher brew temps (due to the increased amount of coffee that absords heat itself). However I tend to find that most places using lower doses (throughout Italy let’s say) are using HX machines, and often left at factory settings which means that without extensive flushing the shot temp is as high as anything being used with heavier doses. BUT the idea that lower doses need lower brew temps is an interesting one and what I appreciate most about my disagreement is that it inspires me to ask more questions and to want to learn more. No book can answer every question, but a good one should get you excited about the topic and inspire you to go out and learn more and generate more questions.

I think its a great book, I see at as essential reading for anyone who enjoyed Schomer’s stuff and wants the next step. I’d be interested to see what other people who’ve bought a copy think.

“The Professional Barista’s Handbook” – Scott Roa
$45 + shipping

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