How to find zen in espresso?

Want to talk espresso but not sure which forum? If so, this is the right one.

#1: Post by henri »

There was a time when espresso was a treat. At home, I'd drink generally awful, stale preground filter coffee, out of a habit that goes back generations, and mainly to satisfy a physiological dependence. But in a nice café you could get something different: this concentrated small drink of pure chocolatey goodness. It was always good; sometimes excellent; a few times, otherworldly.

Now that I've been making espresso at home for two years, I struggle to connect with that earlier emotional state. I regularly get frustrated over how difficult it is to brew consistently excellent espresso. I'm detecting an almost cyclical pattern: I can be making consistently delicious shots for weeks on end and be happy, only to then fall into another sequence of weeks during which nothing I do seems to improve a string of consistently disappointing shots.

I suppose isolating variables is the standard piece of advice here. It is definitely easy to get lost in the multidimensional parameter space of espresso by tweaking one parameter one way, then thinking tweaking another parameter will solve the problem (and so on and so forth with third, fourth and fifth parameter) - when in fact tweaking the first parameter the other way would have been the correct course of action. But while I could standardize my routine to the point of always using the same coffee the same number of days after roasting, at the same brew ratio, ground using the same grinder and brewed in the same basket in the same machine, I feel this will ultimately only contribute to boredom. Will not anything excellent degrade in subjectively perceived quality with repeated exposure over an extended period of time? Is there such a thing as having too much of a good thing? Is there "absolute" goodness in coffee, or just perceptions that are judged relative to other perceptions? Will I need to drink more bad coffee in order to be reminded of what good coffee is?

But if regularization risks boredom, then going in the other direction - the direction of less regularity, more exploration - risks frustration. (I have plenty of stressors in my life; I don't want my hobby to become another.) To this can be added the psychological effects of Gear Acquisition Syndrome and upgraditis - the expectation that acquiring this or that piece of machinery will result in this or that improvement in the cup, often without any real scientific backing.

How do you navigate this? Are you able to make consistently good espresso and not get overly frustrated in the process? Are you still enjoying your hobby?


#2: Post by ojt »

Enjoying very much. I keep things low-key, avoid FOMO. Enjoy the drink the way it comes out and improve next time if necessary.


#3: Post by Smitward »

This is my own personal experience, but I find a lot of joy in the process itself. I like opening the bag and looking at and smelling the beans, the way they sound when they fall into the measuring cup and measuring out just enough. I like the sound of the grinder and the change in aroma. I like the physical process of tamping and pulling the shot and watching it come out the portafilter. The taste and drinking experience is obviously the endgame but there are so many more things to enjoy and to successfully complete during the process. I think being totally present for all of the other steps enhances the drinking experience. For me the joy is present in much more than the 4 sips.

When you take joy in the whole process, being slightly off in a cup is offset by the perfect 16.0 measure, or perfect tiger striping, or a perfect stop to get the ratio you want. Admittedly when all of these line up it's extra magical, but there are so many steps to find flow and joy in.


#4: Post by BlueWater »

My day job is highly analytical and I have perfectionist tendencies. Years ago I found that I was applying those traits to my hobbies and killing my love of them. Two things have helped me: as Smitward said, being mindful and enjoying the journey, not just the end result. The other is the Japanese concept of wabi-sabi
'For Richard Powell, "Wabi-sabi nurtures all that is authentic by acknowledging three simple realities: nothing lasts, nothing is finished, and nothing is perfect."' Working on adopting that world view helps me enjoy the espresso experience for what it is in that moment, even if there are flaws, and know that the next shot gives me an opportunity to make changes.
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#5: Post by MNate »

For me the zen combo is either:
Robot + Kinu M47 + comfort blend bean or
DE1 using Adaptive Profile + Niche + Comfort blend

The Robot and Adaptive profile can both kind of fix mistakes and still make an enjoyable drink. The conical grinders also give a wide sweet spot that's consistent and easy to dial in. Same with comfort blends- a wide range of temps and grind sizes can give good results. It's just easy.

I'm in this mode now but someday would like a big flat grinder again and again start buying light roast single origins that require lots of tweaking to get the unforgettable shot.

At least that's my experience. I do think I was in a fairly easy place with other equipment too but the common factors have been an easy comfort blend espresso and just keeping the same approach all the time. No chasing the memorable shot. There is something comforting in that approach.

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#6: Post by cafeIKE »

henri wrote: How do you navigate this?
Keep notes.
Similar roast, similar starting point.

I buy five pounds at a time, leave the whole bag on the counter until I'm satisfied with the age and then parcel and freeze.
Dialing can take a week and a pound if it's something unusual and/or delivery is a day or two post roast.
Once dialed, I'm good for about 5 weeks of sleepwalking production.

It helps to have a wide selection of 'double' and 'triple' baskets and know how they react. Other than the bling factor, precision baskets boil down to shape and free area. Period.

Adjust two parameters at a time when tweaking. +10µm, +0.25g for a bit less bitter.

IMO, don't dose to the point the puck hits the screen. Change baskets to get more depth if that much coffee is required. IMO, pucks are compost ONLY and tell nothing about the shot. All information is the cup.
henri wrote: Are you able to make consistently good espresso and not get overly frustrated in the process?
Regarding consistently good, paraphrasing General George S. Patton "Several times every g..damned day."
The process is a doddle. Precision is the key. Accounting for environmental variables is important. How constant is your work area in terms of air flow, temperature and humidity? These niggles can drive one batsh.t if not accomodated.

Don't over think it. So many of these uBoob video are excruciating. Three+ minutes of fiddle-faddle to produce dreck?
henri wrote: Are you still enjoying your hobby?
More than ever and it's been a very long time.


#7: Post by HH »

I presume you are using the term 'zen' colloquially as opposed to asking how to make coffee in a style that is more consistent with Zen Buddhism. However, on the off-chance that I am incorrect, there is a wonderful principle of Zen which can be applied to almost ever facet of life to help us keep our lives focused on the here and now, and to not get stuck in cycles of overthinking or perfectionism.

It can be crudely summarised by the following phrase:

"Wash the dishes just to wash the dishes".

By this I mean focus on the task at hand. Even if that task is mundane and only seen as an obstacle to something else - such as washing dishes - focus on what you are doing right now and there will almost always be something to enjoy. Even with washing dishes. Focus on the feeling of the water on your hands, the smell of the soap, the sound of the water filling the sink.

So too with your espresso.

When grinding beans, focus on the colour and sound of the beans as you pour them into your grinder, the aroma as they are ground, the sensation as you tamp. There are so many things to keep one in the moment when making just one shot of espresso, one just needs to be present.
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#8: Post by jpender »

henri wrote:I'm detecting an almost cyclical pattern: I can be making consistently delicious shots for weeks on end and be happy, only to then fall into another sequence of weeks during which nothing I do seems to improve a string of consistently disappointing shots.
I'll bet if you actually kept a detailed log you'd find that there isn't really a predictable pattern.

I try new things and sometimes it doesn't work. Some coffees I just can't make taste very good. Whether it's due to lack of skill or equipment or simple taste preferences at some point it's not worth the aggravation. So I store that coffee way in the back of the freezer and buy a different one, often a very forgiving favorite.

So that's my way of achieving "zen": blame the coffee.

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#9: Post by drgary »

I keep coffees that I consistently and easily dial in. These are always ready in the freezer. When it comes to my own roasts, they're getting more consistent, but I've got no problems making a nice milk drink if the shot's mediocre. I've gotten a lot better with those milk drinks and thoroughly enjoy them. I'll also brew with other methods so that a coffee most easily enjoyed as immersion or pourover isn't an espresso struggle. I'm not currently interested in spending the megabucks on a hyperaligned big flat grinder but would rather drink my coffee developed enough that my good lever gear and conical grinders can handle it. Never say never -- if I sell some gear I could play with something like that, but not for now. I'm also not interested in excessive notes or precision measurements to perfect a shot. I'm happy to work at perfecting my peace of mind instead unless I'm reviewing a coffee or preparing something special for guests, neither of which happens often. I will spend weeks with a machine from my collection that becomes my daily driver for awhile so I become thoroughly reacquainted and at ease with it. These are entirely vintage pieces that are well built and controllable, and because I've mostly restored them, they don't break the bank. I do have a Robot and recommend that or another really good pourover, whether it's Flair or EspressoForge or something comparable to pull a reliable shot of something that isn't a super-light roast.

What I WOULD do for a good cup of coffee!


#10: Post by kpucci »

I recently took the plunge and bought a decent machine and grinder. I love espresso so this was a BIG upgrade for me from my original Saeco Aroma from a decade ago.

I was so excited and eager to start my journey. It has not been zen for me at all.

I love trying new coffee (get beans delivered every month) and this has turned out to be my issue in a nutshell.

Trying to dial in a shot has been a challenge for me at the best of times, but switching coffees has made this so much more frustrating to the point that I am going to sell my machine/grinder and go a Super Automatic unit.

My wife said that I should be enjoying the process...but it has not been so I will continue my journey to find my zen.