Understanding Espresso

Beginner and pro baristas share tips and tricks for making espresso.
User avatar
Posts: 2695
Joined: 19 years ago

#1: Post by malachi »

Fundamentally, making great espresso is the result of understanding espresso. Until you understand espresso, you cannot make great espresso. Until you understand espresso, you are that prototypical chimp poking a stick into a lump of earth because you did that one time and tasty things came out of it.

So... what do I mean by "understand espresso"?
I mean everything. I mean you need to understand not only the realities that lie behind every component and factor and variable that goes into the cup but also the relationships between each and every one and the results of changes to all of them - and to their relationships. Yeah - I know, sounds incredibly hard and difficult. Well, it is and it isn't and in the end the payoff is great.

And... how do you go about "understanding espresso"?
Thus, the introduction is over and now we move on to the meat of the subject.

First - you need to do some reading.
  • I'd suggest two books. One is Espresso Coffee, The Science of Quality by Illy. The second is Espresso Coffee: Professional Techniques by Schomer. When reading these books do not pay attention to tactical advice or technique instructions and instead focus on understanding the science, the factors and the theories and realities that lie behind those techniques. This should give you the foundation to begin to learn.
Second - once you have these theories in mind you need to examine your grinder and your machine.
  • Have they been well cared for? Do you need to clean, repair or adjust anything? And, most importantly, do you understand how they work and how the theories you've learned apply to them? For example - if you are "temp surfing" do you know why you're doing this? Do you understand the science behind not only what is happening when you do this but also why you have to do it and what the goals are?
Third - now evaluate your techniques, methodologies and protocols in light of those same theories.
  • Do you need to change any of them? Do you need to adjust any of them? Do you understand the goals of each step and decision and do they make sense?
Fourth - you need to have a standard and standardized coffee to learn with.
  • This means that you're probably going to have to hold off on roasting your own coffee. While roasting is fun, the truth is that untrained enthusiasts (including trained baristas who don't know how to roast like me) working with non-commercial roasters are not going to be able to produce the consistent quality and profile needed for learning with. You don't need an incredible or amazing coffee. What you want is a coffee that you can get easily, that you can get regularly (preferably twice a week at least) and that has a consistent quality, taste, profile etc.
Fifth - you learn.
  • Start pulling shots and evaluating what you are doing - and what the results in the cup are. Don't experiment at first, instead just try to be as consistent as possible. Pull the shot - taste it. Evaluate the shot - and what happened with the coffee, the machines, the technique and the extraction behind that shot. Repeat. Pay attention to variance in all the factors and variables and try to discover the connections between those variances and the resulting variances in the cup.
This is probably going to take months. Literally. It took me over a year - and I was working professionally. Eventually you will begin to be able to make deductions and then you will learn to predict. Once you reach this point - you're ready to start experimenting.

Don't experiment with your coffee or your equipment at first. Instead - focus on the variables within your control as a barista. Also, at first only change one variable at a time. Alter your dose. What happens in the cup? Alter your tamp pressure. What happens in the cup? Alter the grind. What happens in the cup? Alter your extraction time. Alter your extraction volume. Once you start to be able to not only draw conclusions but also make accurate predictions, start altering multiple variables. Try dosing heavier and grinding coarser. Dose lighter and pull a shorter extraction volume. Each time, try multiple variants of the same combination (dose heavier and grind coarser, dose heavier and grind finer, dose lighter and grind coarser, dose lighter and grind finer). Learn. Deduce. Pay attention.

Once you feel like you understand these variable and their relationships - start changing aspects of the espresso machine. Try going up with the temp. Down with the temp. Decrease the pressure and increase the temp. Again, do multiple variants and while doing this keep the coffee and your barista variables consistent.

Now start combining the machine and barista variables.

And then... start using other coffees.
This is the big day. If you've really paid attention, really invested the time and really learned... the day you start pulling shots with a new coffee will be nearly life changing. I remember pulling a shot of a new espresso and knowing instantly that it would taste best (to my palate) with a slightly higher brew temp and a dose of around 18grams and would be best pulled quite short. I even knew roughly what the resulting flavour profile would be. And I was right.

On that day - I became a barista. And that is how you too can become a barista and can go from producing drinkable espresso to creating great espresso.
What's in the cup is what matters.

User avatar
Compass Coffee
Posts: 2844
Joined: 19 years ago

#2: Post by Compass Coffee »

Excellent food for thought and advice Chris. Wish I read something like this four years ago! Gives me some very good direction on what to do to advance further.
Mike McGinness, Head Bean (Owner/Roast Master)

User avatar
Posts: 214
Joined: 18 years ago

#3: Post by Alchemist »

That is really great advice. It reminds me of a discussion about martial arts and a black belt. To the outside world, being a black belt was the "top". On the inside, the new black belt knows that they now have enough knowledge to START learning. Same thing here - the real fun and learning starts once you can call yourself a barista. Myself - nope - not a barista. Maybe a roaster (and I only say maybe), but I have too far to go still to be a barista.
John Nanci
Alchemist at large
LMWDP #013

Posts: 106
Joined: 19 years ago

#4: Post by GreatDane »

Great Advice Chris! I am a coffee roaster 1st, Espresso nut second. I would say to all who are roasters, they should use one espresso blend or good single origin bean roasted the same as they explore espresso. Personally, I have found Sweet Marias Monkey Blend to be very forgiving. I would say your basic approach applies to roasting as well. I just responded to a question on 1st and 2nd crack. If you don't understand the fundamentals of roasting, 1st and 2nd crack are often allusive indicators of roast level. I have read both of the books you recommended. I found both to be very helpful. The problem is there are very very few true baristas out there. There are many people pulling shots that have no clue about what they are doing. Maybe that is why Carabou and Peets have gone to automatic machines. Why train a professional when an average pressure extracted drink with satisfy the masses.


User avatar
Team HB
Posts: 10481
Joined: 19 years ago

#5: Post by cannonfodder »

Without understanding the science, you will not master the art, but without understanding the art, you will never master the science, talk about a duality. A month ago I took Chris and Dan's wisdom to heart. I put away the gadgets, quit tinkering and re-concentrated on what is in the cup. After all, that is all that matters.
Dave Stephens

User avatar
Posts: 637
Joined: 19 years ago

#6: Post by barry »

is something wrong with chris' datestamp, or did that post really sit here w/o any responses for seven months?

User avatar
Posts: 21941
Joined: 19 years ago

#7: Post by HB »

Yes, the timestamp is correct. It was an example entry for the 2005 SwagFest writing contest, as was Chris' Being a Barista Means Paying Attention (excerpted below and also a no response post).
malachi wrote:While there are many tips and tricks and techniques that will help you get better espresso - nothing is as valuable as paying attention.

What do I mean by pay attention?

I mean do each and every thing without thinking about anything but what you're doing.
I mean don't be distracted.
I mean watch the shot as it pulls, smell the shot, think about the shot.

Pay attention to the differences in your techniques and coffees and settings and pay attention to the result in the cup.
Pay attention to each shot and each drink over time - and pay attention to the big picture.

Too many people are thinking about their upcoming workday while making their morning espresso. Too many people are thinking about distribution while they are dosing. Too many people are talking on the phone will steaming milk.

Look at it this way... to reach a certain point in your growth as a barista you need to absorb, observe and learn X. Each time you pay total attention to the entire process of making a drink you absorb, observe and learn X/Y. If you're watching with 10% of your total attention... you've just taken a six month or one year or one decade process and multiplied it by 10.

Pay attention.
You never know what will elicit comments in an online forum. I figured the tempting title Like kissing your sister in Overextracted would draw commentary. Nada. OK, maybe my odd reference to the 2005 World Toliet Summit was inappropriate. Sorry, it seemed funny at the time. :shock:
Dan Kehn

User avatar
Posts: 637
Joined: 19 years ago

#8: Post by barry »

HB wrote:You never know what will elicit comments in an online forum.

i think you might be assuming everyone reads every section all the time. ;)

User avatar
Posts: 21941
Joined: 19 years ago

#9: Post by HB »

Touche! :lol:

On a related note, guests (= non-members) who just can't get enough can use the View recent posts link on the index page. It displays the posts for the last three days across all sections. Members can use View posts since last visit instead; note that it goes by date only, so any "unread" posts are marked as read when you log out.
Dan Kehn

Posts: 20
Joined: 19 years ago

#10: Post by AlMac »

cannonfodder wrote:Without understanding the science, you will not master the art, but without understanding the art, you will never master the science, talk about a duality.
It's proof that philosophy applies to espresso. This is an example of the hermeneutic circle: you cannot understand the whole without understanding the parts and you cannot understand the parts without understanding the whole.