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

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
http://www.professionalbaristashandbook.com
$45 + shipping

33 Comments

  1. Interesting. I’ll order a copy and let you know how it fares here in Denmark.
    Do you know this Scott Rao personally? I see he’s got a Mirage – niiice!

  2. I’ve never met Scott, though he did address me as “barista extraordinaire” on the envelope the book came in.

    I just don’t have the balls to write a book like this, because there are so many grey areas but he does a good job of laying down the backbone theory onto which you can add your own style.

  3. Amen. I’ve read the book (and met Scott) a couple times and wholeheartedly agree with your assessment. Cheers to Scott.

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  5. I haven’t read the book and probably won’t in the next months, but what I love is the use of a very good looking brewed coffee for the cover. Speaks for itself somehow :)

  6. excellent review James.. you highlighted the same areas that caught my interest.
    it also got me thinking (amoung the many questions it raised) about our commitment to manual pre-infusion and infusion… should we be using volumetric controls in busy situations, in the interest of consistency?

    cheers..

  7. hi james
    thanks for the thoughtful review. i look forward to meeting you in person at the barista jam next week in pennsylvania.
    -scott

  8. Do you mind me asking what the four other books that you find valuable are?

  9. I have got this book two weeks before. After I read, I decided to visit his coffee shop during the spring break. It’s only one and half hours drive from my place.

  10. This i beleive is why we love coffee so much. The search for the ever elusive answers to our many questions.

  11. @Lukas:
    Since the book is covering tea as well I assume the picture on the cover is displaying just this.

    @James:
    I don’t know this book yet but I will order one to find out if it contains anything new. Most books repeat the common stuff (including all those silly recipes) but also contain several gems you that haven’t been covered elsewhere before. I hope this is true with this book as well…

    For me the best book focused on espresso preparation (till now) is “Kaffee Espresso & Barista”, written by Ingo Rogalla in 2002. Unfortunately this book is available only in german. Ingo Rogalla is the current Swiss cupping champion.

  12. wolfram,
    rest assured, there is plenty new in the book. i have had the same gripe as you and that is what led me to write the book. you will find several new, previously undiscussed (to my knowledge) ideas and no recipes whatsoever.
    please let me know if you buy it and are not satisfied.
    best, scott

  13. Hi Wolfram, I have Ingo Rogalla’s book here too, and from what I know it’s the best german book on that topic. But I also think you will be very positively surprised by either Schomers book or Scotts!

  14. I had the pleasure of meeting Scott at Coffee Fest D.C., and reading the book since then. It’s articulate and informative, and the graphs and charts are quite interesting to pour over. This is one of those labors of love we all hope gets published (rather than yet another coffee cocktail cookbook, etc., etc.) because Scott has been very seriously involved in the business of coffee and is a true coffee nerd along with the best of them. Thanks for your efforts, Scott. This is a very worthy addition to the strongest coffee texts available.

  15. i just paged through the book today; it arrived while i was on an origin trip. i definitely found myself interested. i agree that i found some practices that are counter to my own espresso sensibilities, but i appreciated the arguments backing them up. it can definitely further the thinking for some with this “dialectic” but i didn’t find any of it that would break ground. it’s a solid basis for training. my .02 cents. -tom

  16. @Scott:
    :o) Sounds great…
    Thanks for your offer but I assume that you won’t hear any
    I always hope to find books, containing anything new.
    Ordered one, waiting mode enabled…

  17. James, you briefly mention the Illy texts, what do these contain?

    We were thinking of going to one of their courses as well in september, are they worthwhile in your humble opinion?

    Thanks

    Michael

  18. @Scott:
    I received your book this week and I really like it. It’s covering many aspects on coffee preparation. It would have been cool to have had this book some years ago when I started into coffee.

    @Michael:
    I assume James is referencing to the “Espresso Coffee, The Science Of Quality” book, which is available in a second edition now. This book covers more detailed issues on coffee including food chemistry and biological aspects. This book is a very good source of information.

  19. @Wolfram:
    Thankyou for clarifying that, you have a very nice blog as well, its a shame on my german language skills as Im sure there are some interesting articles!

  20. Thank you for the review, James. I hope I will get a copy from Scott Rao so I can review the book as well. As for the different temperature, I agree with you it does not depend on the dose. I would say in Italy it depends basically on the coffee you use, I mean on the coffee blend you serve.

  21. Hi,
    This looks great – how do I order a copy in the UK?

  22. ordered the book at a Dutch online service, what saves me the import costs.
    it’s a nice read, but i do not want to see it as the next step after Schromer’s book, which goes way further .

    what bothers me is the fact they only use american weight and content scales. and temps.

    what bothers me even more is the vague and not satisfying look on lungo preparations. i thinks there are better techniques to brew large espresso coffee’s.

    meanwhile i let it pass through the hands of all my barista’s cause it’s inspiring and well written. and maybe one of them is able to help me with those scientific diagrams. ;-)

  23. AA, you can get the book from my website, http://www.professionalbaristashandbook.com; shipping to the U.K. is $11.

    in the U.K. the book is sold by http://www.espressowarehouse.co.uk

    Carlo, there is a relationship between dose size and temperature, or at least there should be. i did not claim the italians DO base temperature on dose size, but i did hypothesize that dose size may have played a role in the evolution of generally higher temperatures being used in countries that favor larger doses. the full explanation is in the book; i will not try to recap the argument here.

    ROB, to further add to my comments on your blog: i try to stick to what i think is within my circle of competence. i confess to not being an expert on the best method for pulling a lungo. it has never been a focus of mine, and i’d rather leave out lungos than do a poor job writing about them.

    best, scott

  24. Rob,

    One question, actually two, how would you prepare a lungo if scott’s method wasn’t clear enough, I would be interested to find out.

  25. Having just finished this book a couple of times over the past few days I have to agree with you James.

    It does exactly what it says in the preface.

    ‘I know many other professionals as well as some obsessive nonprofessionals would like to find that same book I’ve been looking for. This book is my attempt to give it to them.’

    A great starting point for any barista. It indeed got me exited and back in front of an espresso machine at the earliest possible moment!

  26. Hello. I have moved to a wonderful and most beautiful part of the country. Living a major part of my life in Seattle, I would like to know and get some insight on how to become a baristia in Hawaii. This town is ready for the real world…Where do I start on my own?? What book or machine do I practice on?? I am like a sponge and ready — for the future!! What should my next step be?
    Thanks!

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