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
), 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.