Putting it all together

Beginner and pro baristas share tips and tricks for making espresso.
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#1: Post by zaphod »

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Putting it all together
by Charlie Wicker

If you're reading this then you've probably thrown down good money to set up a miniature cafe inside your house and I commend you for that. Undoubtedly, you've sifted through articles and practiced technique so that your drinks impress your visiting friends. It's fun to throw a dinner party and have real cappuccinos with dessert.

You, however, are not quite satisfied with the drinks. Your friends don't seem to notice when you've over-extracted a shot or when the bubbles in the milk are unacceptably large. But you are troubled by these things. Don't worry, you're not alone. Those who have bothered to step up and try making espresso drinks in the first place are people who seek perfection. We're all troubled because perfection can never be attained.

You probably feel worse than when you started. When this whole journey began, it was easy. You knew so little yet you knew enough. Once you got your machine to produce the elusive crema, you were in heaven. And you made that authentic coffee shop hissing sound with the steam wand and a pitcher of milk.

"Check it out, this drink looks like something from a real cafe... it's awesome!"

But such jubilation has faded and the crema's too blond, or the milk's not pouring the way it should. How can you fix all this? You've been at it for awhile now so you already know what to do...right? You need to buy better equipment. That will surely improve the quality of what's in the cup. While new shiny gear is fun with all that bubble wrap and the hours wasted checking your UPS tracking number twice a day for a week, it's not what you really need. The good news is that what you need is free.

You need data.

It's time to get serious and apply some discipline and method to the madness. You probably do a version of this in your head but real recorded data will allow you to understand how and why things turn out good or bad (or somewhere in between.) You've read enough stuff to have an idea as to what's going on but, after this exercise, you'll know through experience, your experience, what works specifically for your equipment and your taste. In the end, it's how much you enjoy the results that matters.

What we're going to do is keep a very simple notebook with some key metrics for each drink you make for the next few weeks or so. It'll be easy and quick because if it's hard, then you'll just stop doing it. Each drink is an entry into the notebook. You'll place a rating into each column as appropriate. For purposes of this analysis we will be focusing exclusively on the espresso shot itself. Milk texturing is a topic for another day.

Before we talk about what goes in the notebook we'll need a few constants. You'll want to be consistent with the order and quality of the steps. For example, keep the dose, tamp, preflush, etc. the same every time. Whatever you do, keep doing it. If anything changes, like you're a little high on your dose, then make note of this.

The column headings for your notebook:

Day: This is not a calendar day but instead it's the day beyond the roast date of the coffee beans. i.e. 1 day old coffee would get a "1", 2 days old a "2", etc. Easy to remember, quick to write, easy to interpret.

Grind Time: We're pulling two pieces of information here: first, the numerical grinder setting for the shot and second, the general time of day. Use shorthand for time: M for morning, N for noon, A for afternoon, E for evening. Entries might look like 41M, 41.5E, etc.

Weather: Ok, so you've heard a million times how weather & humidity affect shots. Now here's your chance to know. Again, simple shorthand will do; we don't need "72 degrees and sunny with a 30% chance of rain." Instead, use the first letter: Hot, Warm, Cold then Rain, Sun, Fog. i.e. HS, CF, CR, etc.

The above column headings are all about the inputs of what we're doing. Sure, there are a dozen more data points that would be good to record but we all have plenty of other things to do with our time. Now we want to record the outputs. Draw a fat line between the above inputs and the following outputs:

Volume: Go for a straightforward visual measurement of how the shot sits in the cup. For reference, it might be helpful to pour an accurate two ounces of water into the cups you typically use so you'll know what that looks like.

Color: It would be helpful here to have a set of color swatches to compare but we're not that obsessed... really. Record using the following shorthand: Gold, Brown, Cinnamon, and the elusive T for Tiger mottle. If it's somewhere in the middle, feel free to combine, i.e. BC, GB, etc.

Taste: This is a hard one. How to distill hundreds of flavors that change over time into a single element? Instead of asking for that, let's ask for something much easier. Did you enjoy the shot? Score it from 1-10

Notes: Here's where you capture anything about the flavor, technique or experience that isn't accounted for above. Examples might be: Lemony, chocolaty, overfilled filter, ristretto ~1.5oz, etc.

Gather data for a few weeks. Your efforts will be rewarded.

Interpret the results

This is the payoff. Review what you've written looking for patterns. The answers are in there. Were the drinks better early in the day? Did you leave the grind setting alone and the time to pull the shot dropped? Did the best shots take just over twenty or did they approach thirty seconds? The great thing about this exercise is that it applies specifically to your machine, your technique, your favorite beans... and most importantly... your taste. After going this exercise, you can go from expert to magician.