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

#1: Post by bruce »

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By Bruce Holmes

The top way to improve your espresso at home is to question anything and everything you have heard and seen about making espresso and verify for yourself what works. Your espresso will only improve if you have curiosity and constantly experiment. Whether the 'authority' is an Italian friend with years of experience drinking espresso, the dogma promulgated on the popular internet 'coffee nerd' forums, or your local Big Green, you must be critical of their advice and decide for yourself what works in your home. It is tempting to treat the espresso professionals as gods and to emulate what you see them doing in the cafe. But the way others approach espresso is not necessarily what is best suited to your own skills, tastes or equipment. Improvement in any craft can only be attained by hypothesis and experimentation. This is the scientific method and the way to better your home espresso. Seek out advice and information, look for ways to improve your drinks, but ultimately come to your own conclusions.

As an example of why it is important to question the experts, visit your local cafe, look around, and observe how the professionals are making espresso. Remind yourself of their ultimate goal: to make money. Their focus is on consistency , speed, and creating a perception of value. Many of these things are unnecessary or antithetical to good home espresso, where your focus should be on taste. Let's examine why consistency, speed and perceived value are important to an espresso vendor, but not important to the home barista.

Consistency? Big Green has thousands of stores and is trying to satisfy tens of millions of customers. Even your local privately owned cafe has hundreds or thousands of customers to satisfy. Their goal is to give a customer the same consistent experience every time he walks through the door. For the home barista, consistency equals boredom. The home barista is searching for the god shot, trying to coax new or elusive flavors from the bean. Our goal is often to create a different experience, not sameness. Question what the retailer is providing, and you will realize, by catering to the mass consumer they have made many compromises. Most of which are compromises detrimental to what we are trying to do at home. Why the 'signature' dark roast that leaves nothing but burnt fishy flavors? Why the one size fits all blend? To cover up off flavors, cover up stale beans and give Joe Public the same taste every time he takes a sip. Are you trying to emulate this dark roast at home because this is what the 'experts' use? At home you should be experimenting with different roasts, different blends, and developing your own palate. Mass marketed products invariably sink to the lowest common denominator: insipid, bland, and non-controversial. Think white bread and lager beer. Are you still drinking Bud? If you are making espresso at home, I doubt it. Dump the French roast and broaden your coffee experience. The 'espresso blend' fits into the same category as the French roast. Question the purpose behind that blend, what the retailer is trying to produce. Ninety percent of the coffee served in the local cafe is in milk based drinks, and most likely they are using a blend that goes well with milk. What are they covering up with milk and other additives (e.g. caramel, choco-mocha, hazelnut...)?

Speed? Ask yourself- what are the pros doing to increase speed? Customers hate to wait in line, and a cafe will take shortcuts to keep the line moving. Are you tempted to do the same thing at the expense of cup quality? Are they pre-grinding, then letting the grounds set in the doser to get stale? Have they coarsened the grind to allow the espresso come out faster? Is the barista using a careless, quick, cursory tamp to save time? At home, you should be experimenting with different flow rates, grinds and tamps to discover what best suits your personal tastes. What equipment are they using to speed up or automate the process or to allow the barista to multitask? Auto tampers, auto dosers, superauto machines are examples. Keep in mind that none of this equipment was developed to make better espresso. How many times have you seen a barista lock in the portafilter, press the button, then walk away to take another customer or froth some milk. Wouldn't it be cool to have to have this at home, you might think? The machine can give you the perfect amount, right? Not necessarily- a machine can not taste, smell, or see the coffee. Golden rules about shot time and flow rates are ultimately opinions and nothing more.

Perceived value? When you enter a cafe, look around and ask, how much money has this establishment invested in marketing, creating 'perceived value', at the expense of value in the cup? Cool music, trendy interiors, a clever logo for every blend, latte art. All these things create a case of "The Emperor's New Clothes" where people stand around feeling really cool about themselves while drinking swill. At home, are you also focusing on the superficial instead of what you are drinking? Are you lusting after the latest Illy cup, using a trendy but stale blend, or searching for a shiny machine that will look good on your counter? Are you spending hours developing muscle memory in your wrist to create the ultimate latte art, when you could be improving your tamping skills? Your friends might think having Mona Lisa in their cup is cool, but it doesn't make the drink taste any better. Think about your personal focus and whether you are working toward better espresso, or just better looking espresso.

To sum up, the one thing that you can do to improve your espresso at home is to question what you are doing and why. This will help you discover the correct parameters to make an espresso that you think is perfect. For every step in the espresso making process, question the authorities' methods because their motivations, equipment, and tastes are likely to be quite different than your own.