Thursday, December 24, 2009
When you speak to seasoned baristas regarding proper espresso preparation, they speak often of strict dosing levels, proper tamping pressure, shot timeframes and the like.  Problem is, if you watch them for long enough, you're apt to see the same baristas up- and downdosing, pre-infusing, pulling short shots and constantly tweaking their grind levels.  What in heaven's name are they doing, you may inquire.  In short, they are looking for that sweet spot in any coffee that produces what some call the "God Shot," or perfect shot of espresso.

It is important to know what each stage of tweaking will do to the final product and how to use these techniques to your advantage.  There are certain standards that form the foundation for all espresso preparation.  In short, these are:

Dose = 7 grams/single, 14 grams/double
Extraction Time = 18-35 seconds
Grind Level = whatever facilitates the above.

Some variables do not change.  You will always tamp at 30 lbs of pressure, and your machine will always be calibrated to push 200 degree F water through the coffee at 9 bars of pressure.  These things you won't really ever change, but the dose of coffee you use, the extraction time and the grind level are all fair game to change as you wish, within reason.  Basically, if you follow the above levels, you will get a palatable shot of espresso.  But these are just GUIDELINES.  In fact, if you look at what baristas are doing with coffee these days, you will often find an 18 gram, 18 second shot as commonplace, whereas tradition would dictate this severely updosed and quite short volumetrically. 

So, with such standards in place, why do baristas feel the need to constantly tweak their settings?  Why is updosing becoming commonplace in today's coffee culture?  Why are ristretto shots preferable to long shots? 

Are roast levels changing?  Are our palates fatiguing?  Where does the madness END?

I think perhaps both situations are true.  Coffee today is trending towards single-origin espressos, which tend to have a rather limited flavor scope, necessitating compensation in the intensity of the shot.  You see, a finely balanced espresso gives the drinker a complex map of flavor notes to explore, minimizing palate fatigue.  Practically, blended espressos are harder to tire of because there is so much going on in the shot, whereas these single-origin varieties, with their limited flavor scopes, have a tendency to get old fast.

One great example is an espresso a local shop was pulling for a while, Idido Misty Valley, from Sidamo, Ethiopia.  The espresso, like many Ethiopian coffees, was exceedingly floral, with strong notes of strawberry and blueberry.  It blew away many a barista with its almost brashly bold flavor profile.  This was a sharp, intense shot of espresso.  It was refreshing in that it tasted like no other espresso blend you've ever had.  But, because of this intensity, it tended to grow old to the palate faster than most well-balanced blends.  It is almost as if it burned out in its own glory.  Adding to the problem is the fact that baristas began pulling 19 or 20 grams of the stuff at a time, for 18-24 seconds, producing a super-short, super-intense drink that could only be handled in moderation.  It was an interesting excursion.  The coffee was an inspiration, not only to experiment more with single-origins, but also to experiment more with dosing and timing, squeezing every little bit of flavor out of those 18 grams.  Many a coffee-geek got over-caffeinated while that coffee filled grinders across the nation.

But what did this over-tweaking do for coffee nuts in general?  Did it wear people out or did it spark the interests of marginal coffee drinkers?  This is the question, in my opinion.  In my experience, that one coffee intrigued literally every barista I come into regular contact with, but at the same time, I knew plenty of moderate coffee drinkers who were utterly turned off by the intensity of it.  It was TOO different.  It was TOO intense.  The updosing and decreasing shot volumes that shortly followed became too much for casual espresso drinkers to take, and it scared some folks off.

Okay, that was a fine rant, but let's get back on topic.  Traditionally, espressos are blends that go through EXTENSIVE testing in order to produce a complex and full coffee experience when pulled according to the above parameters.  Ideally, tamping pressure and shot time should be standardized so that the only modification necessary is that of grind level, taking into account ambient temperature, humidity and atmospheric pressure, all of which can throw a shot off.  Ask any barista out there and they will tell you the same thing.  I believe the reason we have grown accustomed to tweaking levels to the extent that we do is that taste is such a subjective sense.  For instance, barring any abnormalities, blue looks like blue, sand feels like sand, an E note sounds like an E note and a rose smells like a rose, but taste is an entirely different beast.  Everyone's palate is slightly different, and so every barista strives to adjust his or her espresso to personal preference, oftentimes alienating the customers' tastes. 

The question - and I suppose I went around my elbow to get to it, as they say - is why do we demand such stringent blending practices from our roasters when we're going to tweak the blend beyond recognition on the bar anyway?  Is it the nature of the barista to seek out perfection, or should we show some faith and restraint when dealing with the artistry of the roasters blends?

As usual, I invite commentary.


Daniel Stewart Mueller at 8:48 PM |


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At December 25, 2009 at 9:45 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said........
Sometime this week we should brew up some of that Ethiopian business and write some music.

- Chris