Exercises for tuning your barista techniques

Beginner and pro baristas share tips and tricks.
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HB
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Postby HB » Sep 20, 2005, 10:48 pm

As I reported on The Bench, the thermofilter has proven handy for increasing the accuracy of the initial HX cooling flush. This sort of "technique tuning" has me thinking about other ways of developing skills more quickly, both for newbies and advanced home baristas. Full-time baristas probably pick up a lot of this stuff over the course of a few weeks simply by pulling hundreds of shots a day, but the equivalent practice can take months for enthusiasts.

Are there "exercises" that are part of the morning routine which could be practiced in isolation? For example, here's a few that I do from time-to-time:

  • Brew temperature management (HXs) - whether using a thermocouple over the lip of the basket or thermofilter, every once and awhile I'll recalibrate what I think is the temperature to what objective instrumentation says. As a rough guide, I consider obtaining the target temperature to within 1.5F acceptable, although it isn't difficult to do a little better for the third shot and beyond. Anything above 2.5F degrees off target temperature is getting pretty sloppy, and 4F or greater is a sink shot for all but the most forgiving blends.
  • Volumetric coffee dosing - for a long time I was into weighing beans either before or after grinding to confirm the dosage. Sometimes when I'm first testing a machine the old habit will return, but generally I'm a basket volume guy. If I'm overstocked with beans, that's one place they'll be put to use: Dose, weigh, dose, weigh (repeat five times). My target accuracy is within 0.5 grams and I won't get too irritable if it remains within 0.7 grams.
  • Steaming temperature - different machines and tips steam at their own pace, but I prefer to stick with feeling the sides of the pitcher to judge the milk temperature. That can be tricky when switching from a monster steamer like the Elektra A3 to her little sister the Microcasa. I'm overdue to recalibrate by tossing in a thermometer, if only to confirm consistency across machines. I have the sneaking suspicion that the end temperature is varying too much.
  • Latte art practice - something that I loath to do. Abe jokes about my "onion" latte pours; he'd really split his sides at some of my other attempts, my odd favorite being nicknamed "butt crack" (sorry, no pictures... imagine a failed heart). I could use stale beans to provide the base for pouring; somebody suggested using a lightly dampened cup dusted with cinnamon to simulate crema action. Haven't tried it myself.
So that's my list... are there other exercises you do? I think there's a few trainers among the HB membership (malachi, ThaRiddla, King Seven, espressobsessed)... to move to the next level, do you assign "homework" to your trainees?
Dan Kehn

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barry

Postby barry » Sep 21, 2005, 1:00 pm

HB wrote:Steaming temperature - different machines and tips steam at their own pace, but I prefer to stick with feeling the sides of the pitcher to judge the milk temperature. That can be tricky when switching from a monster steamer like the Elektra A3 to her little sister the Microcasa. I'm overdue to recalibrate by tossing in a thermometer, if only to confirm consistency across machines. I have the sneaking suspicion that the end temperature is varying too much.



sound. learn the sound of the milk. the milk will tell you when it's done.

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malachi

Postby malachi » Sep 21, 2005, 6:16 pm

Taste, taste and taste some more. Taste espresso, cup coffee, taste wine...
"Taste is the only morality." -- John Ruskin

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HB
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Postby HB » Sep 21, 2005, 10:43 pm

barry wrote:sound. learn the sound of the milk. the milk will tell you when it's done.

Sound is an excellent temperature indicator for cooling flushes -- I rarely look for the "water dance" nowadays, especially since the sound is more accurate. But sound in terms of milk temperature? Sure I listen for the introduction of air ("tch tch tch"). I know the sound changes as the milk heats up, but I've never considered it for temperature because it seems so dependent on the particular machine.
Dan Kehn

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barry

Postby barry » Sep 21, 2005, 10:52 pm

the sound is independent of the machine, which is why it makes such a good reference. you listen to the suck to determine air injection and mixing; listen to the pitch to determine temperature.

with some practice you should be able to do microfoam to a specific temp (within a couple of degrees), with your eyes closed.

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HB
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Postby HB » Sep 21, 2005, 10:55 pm

barry wrote:with some practice you should be able to do microfoam to a specific temp (within a couple of degrees), with your eyes closed.

Really? Thermometer free, no touch frothing... that's very Zen. Thanks, I'll give it a try.
Dan Kehn

snoboy

Postby snoboy » Sep 22, 2005, 11:58 pm

barry wrote:the sound is independent of the machine, which is why it makes such a good reference. you listen to the suck to determine air injection and mixing; listen to the pitch to determine temperature.

with some practice you should be able to do microfoam to a specific temp (within a couple of degrees), with your eyes closed.


I know the sound you speak of. There seems to be a very distinct change in pitch just at the right temperature.

The real trick is pouring the latte art with your eyes closed though... like Sammy Piccolo did... in competition. :o :shock:

ant

Postby ant » Sep 25, 2005, 4:19 am

but also you must remember that sound varies according to how much you stretch the milk or even how much you burn the milk. It can screech and it can growl depending on what you do to it. So lets say there are several different test tracks in the album of milk, there might only be one song which can be classed as your 'favourite' and two others that are nails on a blackboard or a cat on a hot tin roof :)

Personally, I use sound alongside time and touch but also regularly go back to the thermometer.
Anthony Lau

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HB
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Postby HB » Sep 29, 2005, 12:30 pm

Another exercise for the bottomless portafilter fans: Use the stock double-pour spouts. I like the visual confirmation of a good extraction that bottomless portafilters afford, but it's good practice to "fly blind" on occasion. After a couple months of using the bottomless portafilters, I forgot that it takes a few extra seconds when there's spouts involved.

PS: I don't know of any cafes in our area that use the bottomless portafilters regularly... and nearly all the home baristas that I know do.
Dan Kehn

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malachi

Postby malachi » Sep 29, 2005, 12:42 pm

There are some problems with using bottomless portafilters in a commercial setting.
And, of course, IMHO there are some problems with using them period.
"Taste is the only morality." -- John Ruskin