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Ristretto and Branchwater: notes on diluting espresso

Postby another_jim on Sat Mar 30, 2013 11:48 pm

This recent thread about stopping shots got me thinking. If the taste of the flow as the espresso blondes is neutral; how can stopping the shot be critical? But there is lots of anecdotal evidence that changing the brew ratio slightly can create large changes in taste. This evidence is anecdotal since it takes multiple shots to change the brew ratio; and doing enough shots to cancel out shot to shot noise is a always a major project.

The answer is to copy a custom from drinking bourbon -- adding a drop to a splash of distilled water to a bourbon to "open up" the oak flavors. You can take the same shot of espresso, sip it straight, add a drop and sip, add a drop and sip, and note the changes that occur. I happen to have a jug of Zerowater, which comes with a neat little spigot, for my bourbon, tequila, steam iron and other distilled water needs. So I'm in a good position to check if this is something worth pursuing.

I've tried this two times each on all the five roasted coffees that I have available. I started each as a 100% brew ration ristretto, with the shot run until the it fully blonded to eliminate extraction yield as an issue. This is easily done with a lever or other variable pressure machine, since the flow can be retarded; it is not easy, but possible on a constant pressure machine using a very fine grind and close to choke dose.

My very interim results suggest this may be the real deal; and I urge others to give it a try.

In short, the anecdotal evidence is true, a few drops did change the taste balance on two of the coffees so that they went from a strong but non-descript bitterness to a much more open, complex and balanced flavor. The other three changed more gradually, with a splash needed to bring the fruity flavors forward and to mellow the bitters.

My feeling is that this does not presage well for making a goal of precise brew ratios. These changes of taste take place on a very narrow ledge at best to a knife edge at worst. They are not so much a result of extraction or concentration as something textural in the particular shot. I think that the bourbon method of tasting, and adding a few drops if the taste needs opening up may be the least complicated way to get the best shot.
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Postby TomC on Sun Mar 31, 2013 12:15 am

I've been following that thread with great interest. And this concept you describe here seems like an ideal way to "lower the noise" enough for the average human palate to actually be able to decipher these complex flavor compounds more separated and hence, unique as apposed to just blanketing, not in entirety, but relatively. But I may be completely off point.

The one thing that pops in my mind is wondering why, after reading about guys like Schomer, who've basically spent the last 23 years developing an espresso to a very specific finite ideal, and seeing that he mandates that whatever shot you're pulling is only going to be excellent when pulled between precisely 25-27 seconds, regardless of flow, makes me wonder if he wasted all that time and effort and instead should have just played with it till it tasted "right" and didn't focus on over extracting. If I'm not mistaken, he still seems to be very temperature focused and could care less for pressure profiling, so it's not like he's completely changed his tune in the last several years that precisely temp stable machines became a reality.

And with the Scotch experiments I've done, most of the time, taming the heat and burn of the higher % alcohol is what helps open up my palate to more of the individual flavors and enhance balance and complexity. I can see the correlation being made here, that likely has some valid points, but I'll counter with the idea that Scotches or other fine spirits that have normal to lower alcohol by volume generally tend to taste "just watered down" or diminished, when drops to splashes of water are added, compared to the higher % spirits opening up.

Maybe we're just letting the espresso "open up" more on our palates. I'd suppose if you had a specific espresso, say one that boasts bright blueberries and chocolate, when diluted slightly, allows the taster to experience and differentiate much more individual components that make up that blueberry and chocolate note.
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Postby TheSunInsideYou on Sun Mar 31, 2013 8:04 am

another_jim wrote:In short, the anecdotal evidence is true, a few drops did change the taste balance on two of the coffees so that they went from a strong but non-descript bitterness to a much more open, complex and balanced flavor. The other three changed more gradually, with a splash needed to bring the fruity flavors forward and to mellow the bitters.

My feeling is that this does not presage well for making a goal of precise brew ratios. These changes of taste take place on a very narrow ledge at best to a knife edge at worst. They are not so much a result of extraction or concentration as something textural in the particular shot. I think that the bourbon method of tasting, and adding a few drops if the taste needs opening up may be the least complicated way to get the best shot.


I'm really glad you did this, Jim. This is a really interesting study. Definitely something we need to continue to look into.

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Postby Anvan on Sun Mar 31, 2013 9:32 am

Logic fools us - that any flavor you like will always be that much better at its ultimate concentration. This led many of us to espresso in preference to coffee, cask-strength scotches, 100% cacao chocolate etc. And it is that same stubborn logic that prevents us from enjoying them to the utmost, assuming that any "watering down" is, well, just that.

It was revelatory to break through that paradox years ago by learning the remarkable difference made by a few drops of water to good whiskeys. In the craft cocktail movement, bartender/mixologists discuss dilution ratios with at least the same ardor as baristas debate brew ratios. (This reflects Mitch's recent campaign to equal Caffe Streets at home. The relationship between exact proportions when combined with just the right degree of dilution in good ice is also why a drink made by a master bartender will taste better than yours, even with exactly the same ingredients in what you think is the same proportions. Yeah, and they make it look easy to the point of apparent throw-it-together carelessness, just like the best baristas.)

This is all about chemistry, so enhancement-via-dilution applied to stuff coming out of bottles doesn't require such a huge leap of faith as does watering an espresso that you just created using plenty of water already. But just as Jim suggests - it works. In my case, I had been warming cups with hot water, and discovered by sheer accident that the espresso tasted better when just dumping out the excess water, leaving a few drops instead of toweling the cup dry.

Your outlook changes dramatically when you start thinking about water as a true ingredient, not just the medium. This article from the New York Times a few years back brings a lot of this together, including discussion with another WBC champion, in this case Square Mile's James Hoffmann - well worth the read.
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Postby mitch236 on Sun Mar 31, 2013 10:45 am

I have to say I'm very intrigued! I hadn't tried this but certainly will. One question, Jim states he uses distiller water and I think everyone else is just using tap. Does it make much difference?
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Postby Spitz.me on Sun Mar 31, 2013 11:17 am

So, I'd imagine, as pointed out clearly in the NYT article, dilution isn't a substitute for an exceptional pull. But, it does make it more interesting!

I remember Mark Prince tweeting about how water dilution works great for his spirits, but not so much for his espresso. Might be that I've pulled his sentiment out of context, but the tweet conversation that followed essentially concluded that you just don't add water to an espresso to make it better. Well, maybe not to make the shot the best shot ever, but maybe better than what's in the cup.

I had always wondered about what the right level of water was for Americano, not the STANDARD level, but for each individual coffee. I always felt that different levels of water for different coffees to make Americanos were needed.

Mitch, I would guess it makes a difference because one adds no flavour and dilutes whereas the other dilutes while adding the flavour of the tap water. Is one better than the other? I wonder... What regions tap water; brand's bottled water will become the next H-B standard sitting by the espresso machine... :lol:
I know I've pulled a great shot when the flavour is 'like a beany taste that tastes like a bean'.
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Postby another_jim on Sun Mar 31, 2013 11:23 am

I think distilled water (aka branch water, i.e. dew or rain) is traditional, at least for bourbon. I have no idea if it works better.
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Postby Anvan on Sun Mar 31, 2013 11:41 am

Just like us, isn't it? No sooner did we consider adding a few drops of water, than commenced the discussion regarding exactly which water. :)
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Postby Spitz.me on Sun Mar 31, 2013 11:49 am

I'm definitely going to experiment with branchwater and my filtered water using a double split into two.

Jim, are you pulling doubles into two separate cups and augmenting one? From what I read it didn't sound like it.
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Postby another_jim on Sun Mar 31, 2013 11:59 am

What's so bad about simplicity? Taste the shot; add a drop of water, taste again, see how it changes. Add a few more, and try again.

Eventually, it will need to be blind tested; but pulling two shots, then comparing then knowing which is which seems a needless complication.
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