Mo' Better Clarity

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

#1: Post by Marshall »

I had a meeting this morning with Stephen Morrissey (WBC) and Kyle Glanville (USBC). This presented an opportunity for me to explore my recent adventures with "clarity." I told them I had been extremely happy with my Dalla Corte Mini's consistently sweet and full-bodied shots, until I experienced the same coffee brewed on a customized La Marzocco. We then talked about the idea of "clarity," the ability of a shot to display many distinct flavors. I described the dozens of permutations of single-vs.-double, pressure, dose, distribution disk thickness, and temperature that I had tried in the last 5 weeks to try to replicate that LM shot.

They immediately understood what I was talking about and said that the deep and narrow La Spaziale and Dalla Corte baskets were good at producing sweet, chocolaty shots, but could not do "clarity" like a La Marzocco. In fact, Kyle said he thought lever machines produced the most clarity. They thought, by the way, that a Cimbali Max Hybrid would be up to the job.

Stephen had an interesting warning, which is that, what many people describe as "clarity" is actually the sharp flavors produced by a dirty brewhead that hasn't been scrubbed and backflushed often enough. Both of them are scrupulous about machine cleanliness, backflushing (with plain water) whenever there is a lull.

So, basically, I am giving up on this quest at home and have decided (for now) to stay happy with predictable, sweet and full-bodied shots. I'll get my clarity dose when I visit the pros.
Marshall
Los Angeles

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GC7
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#2: Post by GC7 »

Marshall

You have obviously tasted a much wider variety of espresso then I. Are you trying to tell us that "clarity" and the ability to distinguish many different flavors is better then sweet and full-bodied? Could balanced sweet and full-bodied be better tasting then too many flavors that are not in balance. How dependent on the type of blend or SO used is the assumption that one or the other taste profiles will be better or what is intended for that coffee?

Thanks for your insights.

mivanitsky
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#3: Post by mivanitsky »

Marshall,

I'm glad that you have the luxury of seeking clarity at a nearby shop. :)

I realize that where you live, 5 miles is probably like 30 miles for me! Living in the sticks, with no good coffee within 100 miles, I have to get my clarity at home.

Back to topic. It seems that the only variable which you haven't really adjusted (or been able to adjust) is gicleur size/flow rate. This or some ratio of it to coffee area or volume may be significant.

The "facts" that levers have the greatest clarity, and that narrow baskets (leave out deep - I know you are smart enough to downdose!) are no good for clarity, seem contradictory. I wonder how Kyle explained the inconsistency. Pressure profile is a copout, since levers, LMs and Synessos all can give great clarity.

(now awaiting the wisdom of people who are good at coffee math)

-Mike

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Marshall

#4: Post by Marshall »

GC7 wrote: [Numbers added]

1. You have obviously tasted a much wider variety of espresso then I. Are you trying to tell us that "clarity" and the ability to distinguish many different flavors is better then sweet and full-bodied?

2. Could balanced sweet and full-bodied be better tasting then too many flavors that are not in balance.

3. How dependent on the type of blend or SO used is the assumption that one or the other taste profiles will be better or what is intended for that.
1. I don't want to minimize the achievement of a barista, beans and equipment to consistently produce sweet, full-bodied shots. For many people and roasters, this is the holy grail, and many a new home barista has torn his or her hair out trying to produce it. I thought it was all I wanted (the DC is great at it), but it turned out it wasn't.

2. Of course.

3. I'm not sure what you meant, and am pretty sure that Jim Schulman, Malachi and a bunch of others here are better able to answer than I. But, yes, some (actually many) blends are absolutely designed (with enormous effort, I might add) to produce a simple sweet muddle of flavors, while others (and certainly S.O.'s) have the capability of a much wider palate.
Marshall
Los Angeles

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another_jim
Team HB

#5: Post by another_jim »

Marshall, how memorable was the meal before you got the wonder shot? Could you be under a Kona spell?
Jim Schulman

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Marshall

#6: Post by Marshall » replying to another_jim »

Ha! Good, but not that good. I was literally speechless. When I recovered, I congratulated the waitress and the owner. Bar Bambino on Mission St. in San Francisco. Richard Reynolds took us there specifically for the coffee.
Marshall
Los Angeles

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malachi

#7: Post by malachi »

Honestly I think it's highly personal.

Some people probably won't care for espresso with exceptional clarity and complexity - or at least would prefer a shot that is smooth and sweet and more simple - and vice versa.

I think in some ways it's probably about what you're looking for in your espresso. Are you looking for something interesting and challenging - or something that is comforting and soothing? Do you want to drink a great espresso - or taste a great coffee? Obviously, it's not as simple as a binary decision like that - but I think you can understand what I'm getting at.

With blends (in particular) I do (personally) think that some lend themselves to a pursuit of clarity, and some to a pursuit of simplicity and balance. The same seems to me to be true of single origin espressos though there seems to be a correlation between the quality of the coffee and the likelihood that it will lend itself to a pursuit of clarity.

Realistically, however, a significant percentage of good coffees can taste great when prepared with either goal in mind.
"Taste is the only morality." -- John Ruskin

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shadowfax

#8: Post by shadowfax »

mivanitsky wrote:The "facts" that levers have the greatest clarity, and that narrow baskets (leave out deep - I know you are smart enough to downdose!) are no good for clarity, seem contradictory. I wonder how Kyle explained the inconsistency. Pressure profile is a copout, since levers, LMs and Synessos all can give great clarity.
It seems to me that there are multiple (2 that I see) factors at play. Lever machines (spring levers) are reputed to produce the most clarity, but they do not produce the heavy body of pump espresso machines. The reason here, as I understand it, is that they extract coffee at low pressures (I believe they tend to peak at 7 bars of pressure?). This lower extraction pressure produces shots with better clarity (more like brewed), but also less body (more like brewed also).

On the other hand, a pump machine with a small diameter brew group seems like it's going to run into issues of excessively deep pucks causing a larger differential in the degree of extraction of the top and bottom of the puck, which ultimately reduces clarity.

I don't know any of that firsthand, though--I have no experience with the La Spaziale or Dalla Corte, and most of my lever experience is with manual levers with high extraction pressures and, probably, too high brew ratios owing to my own inexperience. I'm simply presenting the plausible explanations that I have read and hoping to spark more discussion on this topic, because, for me, it's the most interesting part of this thread (as opposed to a discussion of whether clarity is desirable over sweetness, balance, and body).
Nicholas Lundgaard

mivanitsky
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#9: Post by mivanitsky »

I was probably wrong when I said "pressure profile is a copout," I should have simply stated pressure, as Marshall did say that he adjusted pressure among the other variables. It would certainly be easy to test as far as a constant linear pressure down in the lever range of 6-7 bar. Obviously, levers have a distinct pressure profile, which is not constant and linear. This would be impossible to emulate on a stock Dalla Corte Mini, as far as I know. I would suspect that, even with the flat pressure curve in a pump machine, with appropriate downdosing, fine grind and light tamping, a taste closer to lever would be achieved.

On the taste issue, I can enjoy both great clarity and sweetness, but as they are often exclusive, I usually prefer the former. This is especially the case for many (but not all) SOs. When I buy blends, I go for the complex and challenging ones more than "comfort food" most of the time. I find that as my skills improve, I am more able to deliberately achieve clarity in the cup. I find at this point that my palate, rather than my technique or equipment, is the weakest link. I find cupping easier than tasting espresso. Perhaps this is because I had a good guide when I first learned to do it (Andy Newbom). Maybe I need to go espreesso tasting or pull shots with Chris Tacy, but I suspect I can't afford his consulting fees!


-Mike

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another_jim
Team HB

#10: Post by another_jim »

Clarity has a meaning so easily operationalized that even an engineer should be happy with it:

Take two blends of espresso A & B, and make shots. Can you tell them apart? Now go with A versus 50/50 A and B. Can you still tell them apart? How about A versus 75% A and 25% B? The further a machine can go up this ladder, the more clarity its shots have.

Simple.

Notice, it could very well be that one can make finer distinctions using a plain old French press, and therefore it has more clarity by this definition than any espresso machine. The definition of clarity does not replace the regular definition of espresso or coffee as beverages, it simply clarifies what people mean by the clarity of a piece of coffee equipment or a brewing technique.

Once you accept this definition, the problem of clear machines versus embracing, warm, gooey machines also becomes simple. Is the experience you want mostly about the coffee in all its distinctness? Go with the clearest machine. Is the experience you want mostly about getting the ultimate in espresso-ness? Go with the machine that delivers precisely this experience with as wide a range of blends as possible.

I'm not knocking the comfortable espresso machine. My grandmother, bless her soul, put sour cream, chicken fat, and paprika on everything, so I was as the only kid who liked spinach. But after I grew up, actual spinach came as a bit of a shock.
Jim Schulman