Basket Overdosing; time for a serious re-evaluation!

Beginner and pro baristas share tips and tricks.
Ken Fox

#1: Post by Ken Fox » Jul 21, 2007, 2:28 am

The beginning of this week I took delivery of my new Compak K10 WBC conical grinder, an event that is only tangentially related to what I am posting about in this thread. I say "tangentially related," because I had waited for the arrival of this grinder before trying out reducing the dose of coffee I use in espresso making. This is a topic that Jim Schulman and Andy Schecter have written about previously (Jim much more than Andy :P ), and in preparation for playing around with this I ordered some lower volume portafilter (PF) baskets, plus a couple of accurate gram scales.

I've posted a little bit about this in the Titan Grinder Project thread, however I think this topic deserves its own thread which is why I'm starting this thread HERE. For the record, all the stuff that Jim and Andy have done on solubles extraction with different grinders and at different doses, is "interesting," however entirely beyond the point, and I won't refer to it further, here. I must however credit Jim and Andy (and others) with bringing these topics to the fore, in the first place. There is not an original idea that I've had about this, which is not derivative of something that they and others have written on this topic, including what I have put into this post.

What I mean to address here are the practical issues, not the science, not possible explanations, "just the facts," that each and every person reading this can test for themselves and see if it works for them; I think it will.

The two main grinders I have been using the last few months are Cimbali Max grinders, which have a hybrid design with both conical and planar burr sets. These are not commonly being imported into North America, however they are destined to be somewhat modified and imported directly in the near future. The new grinder, which I received the beginning of this week, is a straight conical (the Compak, above). I believe that my observations would however apply to any decent espresso-capable grinder, regardless of whether it is based on conical or planar burrs.

What I have been doing during the last week is dosing 14g into the portafilters, as opposed to the 18 or 19g I used to use routinely. I originally thought I could do this with lower volume double baskets, but this has turned out to be impossible since these will hold 17g at the rim rather than the 14 or 15g I had assumed. So, I went to plan "b" which was to use my gram scale accurate to 1/10g, by dosing into a ceramic ramekin which I'd preweighed and then "tare-ed" the scale to rezero it. Once 14g or thereabouts was in the ramekin, I transferred the coffee with a Teaspoon into the PF basket, which turns out to be much easier than it sounds, with the last bit out of the ramekin being literally poured directly into the PF. Then, I take the spoon and quickly distribute it in the basket, then quickly tamp, then pull the shot. The whole process takes very little more time than dosing directly into the PF.

Dosing from the grinders into the ramekin eliminates mess around the grinder, which saves time on clean up. Precisely weighing the dose going into the PF more or less eliminates "sink" and other compromised shots, so in the end the whole process in reality, in a home setting, takes no more total time than simply dosing into the PF.

OBVIOUSLY, you will need to adjust your grinder to grind much more finely with this lower dose than the larger doses you may have been using. The "goal" is to get approximately the same time/volume relationships in your 14g extractions as you were getting from 20g or whatever you were using before. Obviously, there is nothing magical about 14, so you could try 12, or 15, just keep it on the low side.

So what is the result?

I don't think I'll ever go back to "overdosed" baskets again. The shots are more "balanced," more "nuanced," and HUGELY more consistent and repeatable. The shots consistently blond at about the same time, every time, assuming the grinder setting is right. I haven't had a single channeled shot since I changed to this technique, and I use a bottomless PF for my shots so it would be readily evident.

What are the conclusions I would like to draw from this?

A huge one is that a lot of the "mystique" of espresso making and how hard it is, is based upon the propensity of home users, especially those in N. America (where the popular online venues are located), to overdose their baskets. No wonder that Schomer was able to write an entire book about espresso making, that reduces every step to the very most "anal." No wonder that people think this whole home barista stuff is so damn hard! No wonder that the whole phenomena of "barista competitions" got started! We have been using espresso machines with too-large doses, which makes the whole process much harder and the results much less certain.

14g (or presumably 12g or 15g) shots are balanced and subtle and good, in a way that 18 or 20g basket shots are not. In order to make shots from overdosed baskets the barista has to jump through all sorts of hoops and used assaultive, in your face coffees and blends in order to "knock your socks off," which is what the goal has been for home users and for high end cafes.

I have no question that some blends and some coffees will not taste as "good" at 14g as they would at 20g, but then is this a reflection on the technique, or on the coffee or the blend? I think it is the latter.

Try this for yourself for a few days before you pass judgment on it. In order to do it right, you really need an accurate scale, one that can weigh down to half a gram or less. This sort of scale is readily available for around $30. I can't think of any repeatable way of doing this without such a scale, since home users are not going to adjust dosers since they grind per shot, and don't make enough shots in time to use the grinds when fresh. A photographic timer might work, but you'd still need a good scale to calibrate it.

I think you will find that your espressomaking will all of a sudden become much more predictable, repeatable, and it will appear as if your skill level has taken a big jump. In addition, I think your espressos will taste better.

I am finding that I can drink more espressos in a day, from the lower dose, without getting the sort of caffeine buzz I was getting before at the higher doses, which is an added benefit.

ken
What, me worry?

Alfred E. Neuman, 1955

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HB
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#2: Post by HB » Jul 21, 2007, 10:45 am

Ken Fox wrote:OBVIOUSLY, you will need to adjust your grinder to grind much more finely with this lower dose than the larger doses you may have been using. The "goal" is to get approximately the same time/volume relationships in your 14g extractions as you were getting from 20g or whatever you were using before. Obviously, there is nothing magical about 14, so you could try 12, or 15, just keep it on the low side.

So what is the result?

I don't think I'll ever go back to "overdosed" baskets again. The shots are more "balanced," more "nuanced," and HUGELY more consistent and repeatable. The shots consistently blond at about the same time, every time, assuming the grinder setting is right. I haven't had a single channeled shot since I changed to this technique, and I use a bottomless PF for my shots so it would be readily evident.

What are the conclusions I would like to draw from this?

A huge one is that a lot of the "mystique" of espresso making and how hard it is, is based upon the propensity of home users, especially those in N. America (where the popular online venues are located), to overdose their baskets.
Ken, thanks for sharing your results. However, I'm not certain if you're advocating precisely measured doses or smaller doses, of which measured doses are a necessary evil because volume dosing it difficult below the rim.

When I'm in test mode, I remove the portafilter retainer clip and dose directly into the basket. I have several baskets and just drop them in a tub for cleanup later. The dosage I choose is based on the machine. For example, I found the Cimbali Junior wouldn't tolerate updosing and settled in around 15-16 grams. The Elektra A3 fell in this same range. The E61 based espresso machines with Faema-style baskets are typically in the 17-18 gram range, or about a nickel's worth of clearance. Generally speaking, I've found espresso machines that side channel with low clearance ("donut shots") improve with a finer grind and lower dose.

Yesterday at Counter Culture Coffee's Friday espresso lab was typical of my test routine. The goal was to compare the Kony and Super Jolly side by side, so I dialed in both grinders, measuring the dose on a 0.1 gram accuracy scale. Once I had pulled three or four consistent espressos on both grinders, I put the scale aside for the test, comfortable that my observations of the required dosage level using the scale were reproduced by volume dosing. Although the scale would assure a higher degree of dosage consistency, speed is critical when there's a crowd waiting for their sample.

(Unfortunately the results are not worth publishing. A local news reporter and photographer stopped by to interview the regulars at the Friday CCC espresso lab. Although it was fun time for all, the focus on delivering paired drinks was lost.)
Dan Kehn

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chelya

#3: Post by chelya » Jul 21, 2007, 10:52 am

Ken, I was thinking about the same thing for some time. Your post was the tipping point. Which lower-volume baskets you would recommend to get to experiment?
I use "LM" ridgeless and they are pretty much impossible to dose less then 17g.

Ken Fox

#4: Post by Ken Fox » replying to chelya » Jul 21, 2007, 10:58 am

I think the baskets are irrelevant; I don't think you can buy double baskets that only hold 12 or 14g. In Italy, where this sort of dosing is normal, I believe they rely on adjusting the dosers in their grinders, but this will not work in anything other than a very high volume setting such as a busy cafe.

You will need some way of measuring the coffee independent of the basket size. A cheap 0.5 or 0.1g scale is the easiest and cheapest way of doing this that I can think of.

Just use your regular baskets; they should work just fine with a lower dose.

ken
What, me worry?

Alfred E. Neuman, 1955

Ken Fox

#5: Post by Ken Fox » Jul 21, 2007, 10:59 am

HB wrote:Ken, thanks for sharing your results. However, I'm not certain if you're advocating precisely measured doses or smaller doses, of which measured doses are a necessary evil because volume dosing it difficult below the rim.
I am advocating precisely measured, smaller, doses. BOTH of these things.

ken
What, me worry?

Alfred E. Neuman, 1955

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RegulatorJohnson

#6: Post by RegulatorJohnson » Jul 21, 2007, 11:09 am

seems to me that an over-dosed/under extracted shot, would have less caffeine, than a under-dosed/more well extracted shot. 2 ounces from 18g would have less caffeine than 2 ounces from 14g more is extracted from the smaller dose because it will be more thoroughly extracted.

the 18g has overall more caffeine in the basket pre-extraction but the 14g puts more in the cup post-extraction.

am i completely off base?

jon
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chelya

#7: Post by chelya » Jul 21, 2007, 11:09 am

Ken Fox wrote:Just use your regular baskets; they should work just fine with a lower dose.
Thanks. I'll give your spoon distribution a try.

Ken Fox

#8: Post by Ken Fox » Jul 21, 2007, 1:59 pm

RegulatorJohnson wrote:seems to me that an over-dosed/under extracted shot, would have less caffeine, than a under-dosed/more well extracted shot. 2 ounces from 18g would have less caffeine than 2 ounces from 14g more is extracted from the smaller dose because it will be more thoroughly extracted.

the 18g has overall more caffeine in the basket pre-extraction but the 14g puts more in the cup post-extraction.

am i completely off base?

jon
I am telling you how the caffeine I am getting from these shots affects me.

For whatever reason, I believe that I am getting less caffeine from these shots than I was getting from my previous 18-20g shots.

ken
What, me worry?

Alfred E. Neuman, 1955

gscace

#9: Post by gscace » Jul 21, 2007, 4:51 pm

Ken Fox wrote:I think the baskets are irrelevant; I don't think you can buy double baskets that only hold 12 or 14g. In Italy, where this sort of dosing is normal, I believe they rely on adjusting the dosers in their grinders, but this will not work in anything other than a very high volume setting such as a busy cafe.

You will need some way of measuring the coffee independent of the basket size. A cheap 0.5 or 0.1g scale is the easiest and cheapest way of doing this that I can think of.

Just use your regular baskets; they should work just fine with a lower dose.

ken
Actually, Rancilio's double basket doses 14 gm just fine.

I agree that the business of overdosing shouldn't be slavishly adhered to, but I also think it could be appropriate at times. A couple of months ago, Peter Lynagh from Terroir Coffee visited me and he was dosing 14 gm of the Brazil Daterra that he brought. It was extremely tasty at this dose level, and opened my eyes to see that there is more than one way to skin a cat. Now, when I'm trying coffees, I experiment with different baskets and volumes, but rarely updosing. I think that the geometry of the basket, aspect ratio of the cake, dose volume and headspace above the cake do have an influence on taste. It's certainly worth experimenting with.

WRT to dosing less than the actual volume of the basket - Use a radiused tool to strike off the excess coffee. It leaves a very consistent volume of coffee in the basket and forms the top surface into a uniform, spherical shape. Works great! Some of the Aussie pros have had tools made. I don't get too tricky. I use a curved plastic picnic knife for a first crack at underdosing a basket.

-Greg

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another_jim
Team HB

#10: Post by another_jim » Jul 21, 2007, 5:41 pm

The habit of updosing in the US was based initially based on the requirement of making large milk drinks. When the better Seattle cafes started emphasizing straight shots from the late 90s on, the first generation of blends they used was based on this dosing practice. In a cafe, if 90 percent of the drinks being served are milk, then the blend needs to be tuned for that. Even if one has a second, straight shot blend, using a different dose for it would be a PITA.

Obviously, the time has come to reconsider this. There's no doubt that lighter roasted, more acidic coffees are better enjoyed at lower doses. Some machines develop severe taste problems if the puck hits the shower screen, which means the dose has to be well below the level of whatever basket one is using, and finger strike dosing won't work. Finally, some grinders seem to perform better at lower doses.

However, I'm not quite with Ken on this if I understand him correctly. I don't think substituting one rigid routine that's considered better for one that is considered worse is the way to go. I would prefer to get to the point where I'm comfortable with multiple baskets, multiple doses, and tasting the results. That way I can use whatever works best for whatever coffee happens to be up. This does have disadvantages, a rigid routine is going to produce more consistent shots than one with a lot of options and variations. It comes down to how much variation you want in your everyday coffees. If you are using the same coffee for long stretches, a rigid routine is going to work better; if you change blends a lot; you're better off being able to change baskets and doses as well.
Jim Schulman