A love/hate relationship with espresso

May 22nd, 2011

It goes without saying that trends and fashions are cyclical. What is in one day is out the next, only to be back in fashion once embracing it seems sufficiently different to what everyone else is doing. Such is brewed coffee vs espresso.  (I should probably warn you now that this is going to be a fairly long post…)

Outside of fashion my own feelings about espresso have changed dramatically over my career. It was all I knew coffee brewing to be for the first couple of years, and then I fell in love with brewed coffee and espresso seemed so awkward, so difficult and often so unrewarding in comparison. I was probably a bit too negative about espresso – I vaguely remember the idea of writing an article where Chris Tacy would defend espresso, and I would be all about brewed coffee.

Considering Chris’ fairly recent post this might seem a little odd. That particular conversation has gone down one path and I want to talk about something else – which is how much I enjoy brewing espresso these days.

I was recently running a couple of workshops at the Caffe Culture tradeshow, and I realised that explaining my own evolution of emotional attachment to espresso could be a good structure to explain how I now think about brewing.

This all starts with walking offstage in Berne in 2006 in the WBC finals.  I was delighted to be up on stage, I had a lot of fun but I definitely remember the feeling of walking off stage and feeling that I had absolutely no idea how to brew espresso.  I knew I had great raw materials, well roasted, and some nice kit to brew on.  I had been unable to push and prod my espresso into tasting how I wanted it to – I simply didn’t have the knowledge to exact the change on the cup profile that I wanted.

Looking back – I was serving fairly high dosed, fairly light roasted, underextracted and strong espresso.  It was sour, and no matter how much I slowed down the shot I couldn’t get it to sweeten up the way it had in practice.   Maybe I will come back to why later….

Espresso was so dispiriting for so long.  We end up using words like art for brewing, which I think is probably wrong.  Brewing is execution of task.  It should require craft, but not art.

Let me put this another way:  If I walk into your shop and order an espresso – how confident (as a percentage) would you be that the next shot you pull and serve will represent you, your shop and your coffee properly?  Be honest….

For a long time I felt that my own number was probably around 40-50% on a good day.  Sometimes espresso sucked, and I didn’t know why.  After the WBC the stress bumped up a notch – if I was serving coffee somewhere people would walk up with expectations and I rarely felt confident that I met them.

This nature of espresso is why there has been so much bullshit, myth and voodoo around for so long.  We explain things by looking for trends rather than explanations.  A classic example of this would be our approach to coffee grinding an humidity/weather.  I would argue that the weather will affect your grind, mostly by affecting how busy you are.  This impacts how hot your grinder is running, resulting in a grind change.  I simply haven’t seen a change in grind happen quickly with a rapid change in moisture/humidity. (I could imagine a gradual change would make more sense.)

I don’t want to get into a humidity debate – just an example of causation vs correlation.  Another might be the advent of naked portafilters.  At the time people were suddenly raving that they produced espresso with more body, more intensity, more sweetness.  The explanation was simply that people were pulling shorter shots, that looked normal volume because of the additional crema, but doing it so fairly slowly – they were pulling reasonably extracted ristrettos, they’d changes the recipe rather than the absence of a portafilters bottom somehow impact the extraction that occurred inside the basket above.

I’m getting off topic – I want to come back to why I enjoy espresso more.  I enjoy it more because it I have a functional recipe that I can replicate accurately, and relatively easily.

No doubt Vince Fedele had a big impact on this – with both the Mojo and the also the VST baskets.  I’ve already seen some strange things written about them, and what they do, so perhaps it is worth explaining a bit more.

We brew espresso by controlling flow rate using the resistance of the coffee cake.  Traditionally we think of two variables to control that resistance:  grind and dose.  Using these we can control how long the contact time is for a fixed volume of solvent (water).  The combination of contact time and quantity of water basically decide how much we extract from the coffee.

We didn’t factor in a third factor into that resistance – the bottom of a portafilter basket.  We tend to think of their job as being about filtration rather than impacting contact time.  However, they ought to be treated as an additional constant of resistance.  Most baskets are built with the majority of end users in mind.  Most end users – and that is a very large majorirty – are dosing around 7g per shot of espresso/14g for a double.  With a relatively small dose you need to grind pretty fine to get your desired contact time which has the benefit of exposing an increased surface area which makes the coffee easier to extract.

Higher doses – 18g+ came about somewhat by accident.  They were a product of grinding to order and using a basket to measure a dose of  ground coffee by volume.  The increase in dose meant additional resistance.  The basket resistance, plus the higher dose resistance meant we had to grind coarser.  This coarser grind made the coffee a lot harder to extract.  We found we liked the texture and strength of a higher dose of coffee, and this trend went further with people pulling shorter and shorter shots.  This meant we had less and less water to use in our extraction.  End result = underextraction.  A byproduct of this was darker roasting to help balance out the sourness of the underextracted cup.

The VST baskets are great because they do a few things exceptionally well.  They have less resistance the larger they are.  This means that you can grind much finer than you otherwise could before.  This means you can extract more.  This is good news.

Secondly – the way they are manufactured means that they are extremely consistent – an exact number and size of uniform holes. This means that if you have a 3 group all the baskets will act exactly the same.  Plus they’re built to be much thicker so they’ll last a lot longer.  This is a bit of a simplified explanation but hopefully you’ve all read the article in Barista Magazine that Vince wrote because it was great.  (Best edition of the magazine ever too!)

I haven’t really explained why this means I like espresso more.  I should probably do that now.

If I take a great espresso machine, and a VST 21g basket, and I put 20g of coffee into it and in around 28s I produce around 32g (brewing at 94C) then I know with 90%+ confidence that it will taste how I want it to.  That is, to me at least, pretty exciting.  It also massively reduces the stress of espresso.  I know that it won’t be a perfect shot, but it will be very tasty and something I’d be happy to sell.

I’ll be honest – the above recipe is where I always start.  I won’t taste it till I get there – because I don’t want the first 2 or 3 espressos I drink each day to suck.  I’m all for tasting bad espresso for diagnostic learning, but I’m also all for actually enjoying the damn drink.

Based on what I taste I might make changes, adjusting how I extract based on the cup.  If things are a just a touch out of balance on the acidic front then I will likely do something pretty simply like use a little more brew water to up the extraction.  34-35g of liquid from that dose will still have great mouthfeel if you brew it properly.  Very rarely do I need to make that change.  I know what kind of extraction yield I have, and I know what I like.  I’m not going to be prescriptive in that – the point of analysing espresso extraction (for me) is to understand what I enjoy, how I can change things to get there and to define the boundaries of good coffee for the recipe I am trying to make.

I’m sure some people will be horrified by the simplicity of the brewing.  Shouldn’t I spend longer “dialling in”, fighting my flawed grinder (because they’re all flawed), and burning out my palette to emerge the battered hero of espresso brewing, victorious in my reasonably good espresso which I might then struggle to replicate with any great consistency?  It amused me to see that Schomer (from his last blog post) 1 seems to revel in the challenge, in the difficulty, and sees it as being an important aspect to treating coffee brewing as a craft.  I don’t agree, but it is ok if you don’t agree with me (or with him).

I’ll be honest – I think weighing scales are an essential part of a good, streamlined, efficient dialling in routine in the morning.  I think they’re a great quick QC tool when you’ve got a tired tongue.  I think they’re a great training tool.  Volume measurement being so common and so flawed is one reason that I struggled with espresso for so long.  I think it is a very good reason that many other people struggle with it.  I think it is crazy not to spend £10 on a little tool that can do so much good. Do we really want to keep struggling with it to preserve our own egotistical version of our craft – or do we simply want to sell people delicious cups of coffee? If we can get past the basic challenge of consistent execution then perhaps we can get to a place where we can be much more creative with coffee.

I’m not saying that I can now brew perfect espresso every time.  That would be as idiotic as using the word perfect to begin with.  I find brewing espresso much easier than ever before, and I drink more espresso that I enjoy than ever before.  There are still many challenges with it, and a lot of things we don’t understand.  There are other factors impacting cup quality in ways that are hard to quantify – can’t help but constantly come back to grinders here too.

I promised a while back that I’d stop going on about weighing espresso.  I’m not going to apologise for breaking the promise, and I hope other people identify with my own to and fro with espresso.  It is still a completely frustrating thing in many other ways – if you listen to the last podcast with Tim Wendelboe then we both talk a little about this.

  1. There is so much in that article that I’d like to respond to, but I don’t really want to get into an online blog tit-for-tat blog tennis match  ↩︎

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