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Are we straying from the path of righteousness?
By Teemu Pihlatie
It is likely that you, the reader have studied or read up on espresso coffee. It is therefore also most likely that you have come across the four M's of espresso, the golden rule, know of David Schomer and his take on techniques etc. There is a lot of theory behind a small cup of coffee.
I would like to point out that discussing the ingredients, coffee (or Miscela, the blend, one of the four M's) and water is outside the scope of this short article. Suffice to say that they are crucial in the pursuit of good espresso coffee.
This article presents a question and by no means aims at disputing the findings of the highly regarded professionals behind the theory. I merely suggest that we should consider the prevailing imbalance of the remaining three M's as well as the overly strict adherence to the commonly accepted "rules" from the viewpoint of an average (or beginner) consumer and home espresso aficionado.
Imbalance of values
On your journey towards better home espresso, it is easy to get distracted and engulfed by the hardware and technical approach to coffee; the endless tweaking, the vicious circle of continuous upgrading in pursuit of the perfect grinder (Macinadosatore) and espresso machine (Macchina espresso). We are weighing our beans or ground coffee to a fraction of a gram, measuring the brew temp with our newly acquired multimeters and thermocouples to within 0.1 of a degree. We are studying, measuring and timing our cooling flushes with similar accuracy and diligence. Sound familiar? There is nothing wrong with all this as such. No doubt it will in absolute terms result in a better cup of espresso and more consistently so, but is this really where we want to be?
I put it to you that we are drifting from the path of righteousness. We are focusing too much on the technical while, if not forgetting, then at least de-emphasizing the actual skill of espresso preparation. I personally admit to doing this prior to recently realizing the error of my ways.
We increasingly look for convenience; we desire digital temperature controls, automatic dosing and the like because we are no longer willing to take the time and effort to learn. We want the machine to do the work and thinking for us. Espresso preparation is becoming more a science than the art that it should be. For those of us who are familiar with Austin Powers (the movie character), one could say that we have lost our "Mojo".
An alternative approach
In my humble opinion good espresso is not and should not be about the money nor should it be about the gadgets. It is about taking the time to understand and learn about coffee. Espresso preparation should not be a clinical process performed in solitude, in surroundings resembling a laboratory, but an experience to be savored in good company. It should be tolerant and allowing for some variance, even occasional faults in the resulting espresso. Perfection in the experience does not require perfection in the cup.
This is not to say that there is anything wrong with getting quality hardware if you can afford it and as long as it is not only the means to an end. I hold in high regard those who take the path less traveled and know one can also get great results by "doing it on the cheap". I admire a friend who bought a used LaPavoni lever machine from eBay for $200 and paired it up with a Zassenhaus hand mill. After learning how to use them, he was able to produce good shots relatively consistently. No scales, no thermocouples. This just goes to show where your point of focus should be: On the skill. An investment of time and effort will have a much higher payoff than throwing money at equipment.
My proposal to you, fellow aficionados
While they might be useful in the learning process, how about giving the thermocouples, scales and stopwatches a rest for a while? Forget about PIDing. Use the "Force" instead and go by feel, sight, smell, taste - your senses and instincts. It is not difficult to develop an eye and a feel to how much coffee you need to dose. Getting your distribution and tamping right is not that hard, either. You will learn to pull a shot by observing the color and consistency of the pour. You will know when you get the shot right even before you taste it. No need to time it with pinpoint accuracy. You just need to practice and learn.
Does your espresso improve in quality with this approach? Perhaps not in absolute terms, but I argue that in the absence of superfluous gadgets and with the focus in the appropriate aspect of the process it will not suffer greatly either.
The point is that espresso coffee is so much more than achieving the perfect shot time after time, every time. A large part of the enjoyment comes from mastering the technique, without the interference of a computer chip, knowing that your skill, your hand, Mano dell'operatore, the fourth but commonly the weakest link of the four M's is responsible for the results. Getting this right will give you pleasure like no other...
The perfect home espresso experience
When you have mastered the skill, you will appreciate it. Your significant other will appreciate it. Those "in the know" and other aficionados will appreciate it. Those who are not in the know will also still appreciate your espresso, possibly even more so since they will no longer be taken aback by the technicality of the process.
...and there is an added bonus. Invite a few friends, colleagues or neighbors over for a cup. In this more casual and social atmosphere, without the overwhelming techiness, perhaps you can spread the "gospel" of good home espresso and lure them to join the "dark side of the Force". You, the "Jedi Master" shall have a "Padawan"...
I admit that the article generalizes and exceptions do exist. In fact many of the readers are likely to be skilled home baristas, but I also feel strongly that a majority of home espresso machine owners have no clue on how to use their machines properly or at least not how to get the best out of them.
Some may disagree with my thoughts and are naturally welcome to do so. There are no absolute truths and this article is just a summary of my personal approach to espresso coffee. If it triggers discussion, good. If it ends up improving someone's home espresso experience, even better.
I am still learning myself, but I am already very happy with my espresso. Without the gadgets. Just the four M's and the "Force".
Want to talk espresso but not sure which forum? If so, this is the right one.