Does struggling with unforgiving equipment make a better barista?

Want to talk espresso but not sure which forum? If so, this is the right one.
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#1: Post by allon »

Just curious on the thoughts of the HB crowd - does having to struggle with unforgiving equipment make one a better barista, in the long run?

Hypothetical -
Barry the Barista starts out having to struggle for every shot with inferior equipment, and learns out how produce acceptable shots with what he has, occasionally hitting awesome. Then he gets a new machine, top-of-the-line, and everything is so much easier now; he can produce awesome shots with ease.

In an alternate universe, Barry Prime starts out his career with the top-of-the-line machine.

In all other ways, these alternate universes are equal.

A year (or two) later, both Barrys are attending a local barista shootout, and a wormhole opens. Suddenly, Barry and Barry Prime find themselves in competition between each other.

Who wins, or is it a tie?
LMWDP #331

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#2: Post by another_jim »

Depends on Barry.

If Barry is just looking to make decent espresso, fighting unforgiving equipment to get there will teach him more. If Barry wants to explore the world of coffee, reliable equipment that produces the same output for the same input is going to take him further faster. Since "decent espresso Barry" doesn't want to learn any more than he has to; both versions of Barry are better off with good equipment.

It also saves both Barrys on upgrade costs.
Jim Schulman

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Randy G.

#3: Post by Randy G. »

When speaking of grinders and espresso machine, inferior equipment meant that the results are not predictable or difficult to duplicate. In other words, inconsistent. The grind may lack fine adjustment or low tolerance adjustment may mean that the grind varies from one batch to the next or possibly has a very wide particle size range. The espresso machine may have a wide dead band for temperature, poor water distribution pattern, or overly-forceful initial water delivery. Or maybe all those things may be true. If the barista hits a really good espresso, what combination of factors made it happen? If the espresso is bad, what variable was incorrect that caused it? There is no way to tell.

The key to making decent espresso is to control as many variables to as close a tolerance as possible, so over time one can know, as an example, what a two degree change in brew temperature does to the taste. Or possibly how the body is affected by a one gram more coffee and a half-step more coarse in grind setting to compensate. As time goes by the barista can taste the espresso, and in some cases just watch the flow, and knows what changes need to take place (if any) to produce acceptable results. That can only be accomplished with quality equipment.

A new barista can use basic, inconsistent equipment for a year or two, getting shots that have maybe 5% excellent, about 15% very good, about 60% drinkable (just), and the rest undrinkable straight. And when they finally get to a shop where they taste really great espresso, buttery smooth, sweet, rich, deep, with a lingering depth that lasts twenty minutes on the palate, what they have learned from their incapable equipment that they need better equipment.

You can't strive for consistency with inconsistent equipment.
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#4: Post by Psyd »

Do ya know why there are so many excellent Finnish race car drivers? (Outside of this country, of course, where they turn right as well as left)
'Cause great racing is finding the edge of adhesion without exceeding it. Making that turn, or braking point, or accelerating out of the turn, at the highest speed that the tires, downforce, and weight of the car will allow and still have the car go in the direction that the driver intends.
The Finns excel at that because it's damned cold in Finland, and the entire country gets covered with some form of snow or ice, and they spend their entire lives contending with that adhesion equation.
Adversity training makes adverse situations just another day, and day-to-day situations a walk in the park.
Espresso Sniper
One Shot, One Kill

LMWDP #175

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Randy G.

#5: Post by Randy G. »

Psyd wrote:...Adversity training makes adverse situations just another day, and day-to-day situations a walk in the park.
But any given turn is the same radius, snow is always slippery, the tires are of a set compound and inflated to a tested pressure, the steering box is the same ratio every race, the driver sits in the same position that has been tested and found effective, even the seat has a custom pad to hold that driver in place in that car. The variable on any given day is how the driver uses the gas pedal to find the best speed through a turn.

That example is over simplified, but the point is that the driver is using the best equipment built to give precise performance. What if the horsepower changed from minute to minute, or sometimes the brakes worked efficiently at 35 pounds of force and others at other times grabbed and locked at 15 pounds of pedal force? That inconsistency will get you killed. Fortunately, inconsistency in a espresso machine is rarely fatal. :wink:
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#6: Post by »

Randy G. wrote:.... That inconsistency will get you killed. Fortunately, inconsistency in a espresso machine is rarely fatal. :wink:
LOL Love it. Mostly the use of 'RARELY'...

Dr: Well... his teeth are yellow... uhhhmmm hmmmm .... was he using espresso equipment that resulted in fairly inconsistent espresso?
Partner of Victim: ...Hmmm... Well, I'd say yes. He/She never did part with his/her Silvia and Rocky combo. His/Her post count was 10000 on, I figured he/she learned how to control it and this wouldn't happen *sobs*.
Dr: Uhhhhh... wasn't Jon selling his GS/3 for a great price?!? I've seen tonnes of HX machines on sale in the B/S/T forums. Why didn't he just take the plunge!? That MAY have helped.
PoV: ....*look of guilt* I just wouldn't let him/her. *sobs uncontrollably* THE HOBBY IS EXPENSIVE OK!!!!


In all seriousness though... We hear many times in our lifetime from people older than us trying to instill some kind of wisdom or relation to how they had it growing up. The assumption is always that because of the way they learned 45 years ago, they're better at "X" today. "Kids" today just don't do "X" the same because of the tools they have at their disposal. I believe that however you learned "X" and whatever tools you use to do "X" are great to lay a foundation to do "X". But, are not substitutes for the drive and passion to do "X" as best you can or better.

We know that controlling variables leads to consistency in the production/brewing of espresso, but you need to understand those variables and how to control them to create a great product consistently. High-end machines help you control variables, but they do not necessarily TELL YOU how to create a great shot of espresso... THEY will never tell you to use fresh beans..etc.. haha

IF you use your struggles as a way to LEARN, than I'd say yes.
LMWDP #670

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#7: Post by another_jim » wrote:... but they do not necessarily TELL YOU how to create a great shot of espresso
Centrals that bring tears to my eyes now tasted like peanut lemonade when I used a lousy grinder. It tasted that way cupped or pulled.

Some African coffees can shrug off almost any sin in preparation, just like Bach is immune to lousy instruments, musicians or recording equipment; but a lot of coffees are more like Chopin or Berlioz; low end equipment simply can't bring it.
Jim Schulman

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allon (original poster)

#8: Post by allon (original poster) »

A lot of you are missing the point -- The question is not whether good equipment is better than mediocre equipment - it is whether it is as good to learn on. If the equipment makes it easy for an inexperienced barista to pull acceptable shots, will he be able to learn as well to pull excellent shots as maybe someone learning on a less forgiving machine and later moving to the higher quality machine.
LMWDP #331

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#9: Post by another_jim »

Perhaps people learning how to paint should wear blindfolds.

I spent many years doing ridiculous things because someone somewhere had pulled a god shot by flushing up rather than flushing down, or tamping clockwise rather than anti-clockwise. I spent five years avoiding good coffees and using lousy ones because the lousy ones were more fault tolerant. I learnt nothing at all in the twenty years I used basic espresso machines and grinders. I learnt a little more (mainly by home roasting) using so called high end home equipment for three years. Then I learnt more in six months with an HX and a commercial grinder than I had in the 25 years previously.

Trust me on this. If your grinder is bad and you machine is inconsistent, you cannot know whether the coffee is good or bad, or whether your technique is good or bad. All you can do is to ignorantly repeat the superstitious rituals that produced your last good shot.

Want to be a better barista faster on a low budget? Buy a hand grinder and press pot, learn about coffee, and save up for good gear.
Jim Schulman

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#10: Post by HB »

allon wrote:Just curious on the thoughts of the HB crowd - does having to struggle with unforgiving equipment make one a better barista, in the long run?
In a word, no. Chris Tacy's reply in The problem is on the handle side of the portafilter speaks to this point and is one of my all-time favorite posts:
malachi wrote:The whole "learn on a hard to use platform" theory is something that I've heard applied in other areas and in general I tend to disagree with it in all areas. I've seen it proposed in education, in driving, in cooking, in photography and in music. I don't feel it works anywhere.

In general...

First - doing so is incredibly frustrating and is likely to result in people giving up. A learning curve that allows for early positive feedback results in increased confidence which results in more effective learning and a willingness to fight through plateaus in development.

Second - learning skills that will be unneeded as one progresses is, IMHO, a waste of time and energy.

Third - in general, hard to use platforms tend to teach people to develop work-arounds and bodge solutions that become engrained and turn into bad habits once not using that platform. The unlearning process is usually harder than the learning process.

With espresso in particular I find that there is an additional flaw in the argument. The most common challenge for beginning baristas is not knowing what good espresso should taste like. This is a complaint we hear over and over again. The "if it tastes good to you it's good" argument fails for these people as the espresso is rarely good tasting for them early on with hard to use platforms. As a result, people tend to become calibrated to "acceptable" espresso rather than good espresso and often start drinking espresso in other forms that are more palatable (with sugar, in milk, etc.). People also tend to gravitate towards a particular type of espresso - a forgiving, darker roasted and low acidity coffee. Over time, people start to associate the flavour profile of this "acceptable" espresso with high quality. In other words, they lower the bar. This, to me, is the biggest problem with the argument.

In general, I think it is unrealistic for those who have fought through the process of becoming a barista on a "hard to use platform" and become successful despite the challenge to claim that this is the best solution for everyone. Just because you ended up being a barista - despite the challenges and despite the additional arbitrary hurdles you crossed - doesn't mean this is the best solution. There are a ton of good baristas out there who have never used such a machine.

Making it harder on yourself than it needs to be seems, in conclusion, to be unneccessary, counter-productive and at some level masochistic.
Dan Kehn