The Princess on the Pea

Want to talk espresso but not sure which forum? If so, this is the right one.
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#1: Post by HB »

Recently I was reminded of the child's story The Princess on the Pea:
Hans Christian Andersen wrote:Once there was a Prince who wanted to marry a Princess. Only a real one would do. So he traveled through all the world to find her, and everywhere things went wrong. There were Princesses aplenty, but how was he to know whether they were real Princesses? There was something not quite right about them all. So he came home again and was unhappy, because he did so want to have a real Princess.

One evening a terrible storm blew up. It lightened and thundered and rained. It was really frightful! In the midst of it all came a knocking at the town gate. The old King went to open it.

Who should be standing outside but a Princess, and what a sight she was in all that rain and wind. Water streamed from her hair down her clothes into her shoes, and ran out at the heels. Yet she claimed to be a real Princess.

"We'll soon find that out," the old Queen thought to herself. Without saying a word about it she went to the bedchamber, stripped back the bedclothes, and put just one pea in the bottom of the bed. Then she took twenty mattresses and piled them on the pea. Then she took twenty eiderdown feather beds and piled them on the mattresses. Up on top of all these the Princess was to spend the night.

In the morning they asked her, "Did you sleep well?"

"Oh!" said the Princess. "No. I scarcely slept at all. Heaven knows what's in that bed. I lay on something so hard that I'm black and blue all over. It was simply terrible."

They could see she was a real Princess and no question about it, now that she had felt one pea all the way through twenty mattresses and twenty more feather beds. Nobody but a Princess could be so delicate. So the Prince made haste to marry her, because he knew he had found a real Princess.

As for the pea, they put it in the museum. There it's still to be seen, unless somebody has taken it.

There, that's a true story.
What does this story have to do with this site's subject matter, namely the pursuit of exceptional espresso? It came up in the context of the reviewer's dilemma of calling out demonstrable differences among espresso equipment, strongly supported suppositions based on experience, and pure speculation based on little more than a hunch.

HB's Buyer's Guides are founded on demonstrable differences to assure that their performance claims can be reproduced by those who purchase equipment based on our recommendations. At the other end of the spectrum are assertions of performance differences whose detection demands taste sensitives similar to the Princess' sensitivity to an imperfect sleep surface. Below are examples I've read over the years (paraphrased from memory):
  • Pressure variations of 0.1 bar and/or temperature variation of 0.1F
  • Damaging heat during grinding attributable to the motor
  • Detrimental taste impact of "baking" the puck in the group for 30 seconds
  • Distasteful flavor of "unseasoned" portafilters (or those with chrome finishes)
  • <add your favorite wild claim here>
It's possible some individuals can detect such differences, but I'm skeptical, especially when their claims are not backed up by blind taste tests. More practically, from a reviewer's viewpoint, I assert that the validity of their claim is irrelevant if only a minority of highly skilled baristas can reproduce it.

Moral of the story? The next time you read what appears to be a nonsensical or outrageous claim about espresso results, remember the Princess. :wink:

PS: For those new to HB, this post is a continuation of my semi-retired blog Overextracted.
Dan Kehn

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#2: Post by michaelbenis »

And of course I would imagine the converse applies.

If you find that a given grinder tastes sweeter and think it may be because the burrs are well away from the motor and it has a fan, or you find that a bottomless portafilter tastes nicer, or that upping the pressurestat just one quarter of a turn gets you more delineated flavours from fruity beans, then you have every reason for letting a fellow enthusiast know so that they can, if they choose, repeat the experiment - and if anyone tells you otherwise, you can now always tell them to.... take a pea..... :mrgreen:
LMWDP No. 237

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#3: Post by another_jim »

On the surface it seems like a delicate balancing act: get too picky and you're a princess on pea, not picky enough, and you join the whatever brigade.

Everybody occasionally goes overboard in one direction or the other; but people who are always over or under-scrupulous have a problem: they don't care as much about the coffee as about themselves. The princesses want to impress you with their perfection, the whatevers by their cool.

As Dan says, for an enthusiast website, the danger is having the reviews written by the Princess on a Pea "if you don't spend a bundle to experience this significantly imaginary difference; you're not a real coffee lover." So my preference in fairy tale reviewers is the kid in the "Emperor's New Clothes."
Jim Schulman

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#4: Post by Fullsack »

I would speculate, most assertions about espresso preparation revelations are not backed by the type of research done by another_jim and other H-B tribal elders. One great shot from a slightly tweaked routine and the technique is shouted from the roof tops. The finding is more akin to superstition than science. Thank goodness for the little MVP meter.
LMWDP #017
Kill all my demons and my angels might die too. T. Williams

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#5: Post by michaelbenis »

Let's put this another way: Leaving bullsh** aside as imaginary peas, if people can't find out about the little details that will help them really improve their coffee-making as they like by visiting an enthusiasts' site, where are they going to go? Starbucks online?

Sure, different people will want different levels of "fussiness", but one needn't exclude the other...
LMWDP No. 237

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#6: Post by Psyd »

Fullsack wrote: One great shot from a slightly tweaked routine and the technique is shouted from the roof tops. The finding is more akin to superstition than science. Thank goodness for the little MVP meter.
I'd suggest that there is nothing wrong with this kind of assertion, properly labeled.
"I did this and this happened, and I liked it!" isn't really a scientific discovery, and problems only occur when the person claims that there is a relationship between the two, and that it is now the 'only' way to get to heaven.
I have no problem with folks announcing their results, just those that suggest that theirs is now the one true path, and handing out lil cups of Kool-aid.
Espresso Sniper
One Shot, One Kill

LMWDP #175

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#7: Post by another_jim »

The problem is superstition masquerading as science. There are two mechanisms for this; one is taking only half steps towards the truth, the other is reckless self-deception. Both result in errors.

Half steps happen when somebody tries something, it works, and he or she shouts it from the roof tops. A few more people try it, and they like it, and they agree. Suddenly, it becomes a proven and common practice; but one that is untested, and may not stand up. My favorite pair in this category are two cleaning tips, the PF wriggle and the no detergent back flush. Every time I've done a thorough cleaning after doing these time honored rituals, and after doing nothing, I've gotten the same amount of crud; so I suspect they would not stand up in a proper experiment.

Reckless self-deception occurs when someone issues instructions, and backs them up by pretending to have a level of refined espresso taste that doesn't exist. Nobody contradicts him, since anyone who does is announcing their own deficient taste. The once near universal acceptance of 203F shots and 30lb tamps come to mind as examples. This results in a double falsehood. The lesser one is unfounded practices. The greater one is a stunted and narrow view about espresso taste and the nature of good technique.
Jim Schulman


#8: Post by coffeefrog »

I don't agree with your definition of "half steps". The phenomenon arises not from some failure of scientific method, but from both sides of the exchange, from the need that a lot of people have for very simple answers combined with a strong desire on the other side of the exchange to be right. Its all those questions that pop up asking what is the best coffee machine, tamper, roast profile or cup (implicitly there is one, questions of the form "what kinds of things do people like?" are more rare) are driven by that need. How do we stop people wanting simple, single dimensional answers and grabbing them when they are delivered?

A shocking number of people appear here with a story that goes something like "I've never tasted good coffee but I want to spend a significant fraction of my monthly/annual income on some kit". They are not looking for some nuanced discussion and they are about to invest heavily in something that they know nothing about. You want them to suddenly become sensible about it after they have handed over the cash? They want to buy expertise, the fact that too many people end up sounding like Enid Lumley (who, as I recall, memorably wrote in The Absolute Sound years ago about putting dishcloths over the taps in her kitchen and turning them sideways to improve the sound of her stereo) is hardly surprising.

I don't think the reckless self deception issue is as polite as "nobody contradicts", its more that you get ignored, drowned out, or abused. My earliest experience of a coffee forum (not this one) was my responding to a question, suggesting something that I liked, and being told by a prominent third party "you have no idea what you are talking about", which took me aback somewhat because I had clearly been talking about what I liked.

The stuff that gets traction gets its traction from two sources, people whose writing is congenial to the audience and people whose posting volume is high enough to make them appear part of the in-group. Neither has much to do with experience, science or superstition. Filtering discourse by the degree of science or degree of superstition requires addressing the traction and qualification issues. I suspect that trying it either shuts down discussion (the qualification to speak is hard to achieve) or it introduces a meta-level of problem, where the science in the science is debatable.


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#9: Post by michaelbenis »

These things are all the stuff of dialogue and of learning. They are what a forum is.... um.... for!

Try and filter them out a priori and you may well find out that some of those peas are pearls, and that you have replaced one supposition, prejudice or superstition with another.....

And anyway it's horses for courses. I take this stuff pretty seriously but - for example - simply cannot be bothered with WDT. What does that make me, a hypocrite or a heretic - or someone who spends more on a decent mattress?
LMWDP No. 237

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#10: Post by another_jim »

In the 1830s, Andrew Jackson abolished legal and medical licensing, along with the US dollar. He believed that the citizens of a democracy should know for themselves, without being told by an authority, whose word or IOU they could trust. By 1900, the world had gotten much bigger, and couldn't work without us routinely trusting complete strangers. So legal and medical licensing, and the Fed were back; along with entirely new certifications, like engineering degrees or credit ratings from Dunn and Bradstreet. Now, a century later, the world is larger again, and even the quality of everyday goods escapes casual inspection. We need, or at least want, authoritative advice on what to buy and how to use it.

And there's nothing wrong with that. A wealthy economy requires specialization, that we become more and more knowledgeable about less and less. So for most things, we should rely on recognized authorities. But this is our hobby; our own little Jacksonian world, where we, the citizens, are the authorities, and the sole recognizers of merit.

This discussion is already "meta," aimed at clarifying what "we, the citizens," that is, people who have been here a while, say longer than 6 months, should recognize as sensible discussion. Michael thinks we should discuss every detail, no matter how obsessive or obscure, and entertain every claim about their importance. I'm thinking we need to frequently throw the cold water of hard nosed testing on these things so that we don't go overboard. Probably we need both, some people making wildly over-refined claims, and others throwing cold water.

That leaves the newbies. They fall into two classes. The first is those who come here because they want to upgrade their home espresso, but who don't want to make it a hobby it. They probably don't register and post, but just search through the content to find what they need. The second group is the one Greg addresses: they want to get into espresso, but know just as little as the first group. Their posts ask for an authoritative primer on the current state of the art.

My feel is that we shouldn't blithely accommodate requests like these. If someone wants to make espresso a hobby, he or she needs to understand that productive participation on the forum is primarily about developing coffee judgment and taste, not about equipment best buys. If all they want is the best gear at a certain budget, they don't need to post, they can just lurk.
Jim Schulman