Lessons Being Learned as a Noobie

Beginner and pro baristas share tips and tricks for making espresso.
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gonzomup
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#1: Post by gonzomup »

There are a ton of really experienced folks here on H-B, willing to share loads of information. I'm grateful for all of the things I'm learning from them. It seems like there are a good number of newbies arriving too, whether new to being a home-barista, period, or new to better-grade equipment that a place to see simple lessons learned might be helpful. I know I'm learning all sorts of things on this journey and hope that sharing part of that journey might be useful to others. Heck, many of these lessons are things I see/saw in other posts from far more experienced people. If nothing else, maybe my reiterating them (as a relative newcomer) will accelerate someone else's learning curve. Feel free to add your own!

I'll keep these simple, start with a handful. I'm still on the journey with all of these, not an expert by any means.
  • Water quality matters and different water recipes affect the taste of your final product. Even going from filtered water to distilled+remineralized water makes a dramatic difference. The lesson here is: experiment!
  • A good grinder does make a huge difference for espresso. Being able to make tiny adjustments to grind size -- consistently -- has a big impact on taste, quality, etc.
  • Practice puck prep! Get to a place where you have quality puck prep and, maybe more importantly, are consistent with it.
  • Learn your machines' nuances. Start from what the manuals recommend, they're your baseline. As you play with things, pay attention to what changes and how. Make a mental note or better still, write it down.
  • Take notes on your recipes: the basics of dose, water/yield, time, and how it tasted. You needn't be fancy. I have quite a few tasing notes that read, "gross!"
  • When in doubt, keep it simple. It's so easy to fall down the rabbit hole of this tweak and that modification. You'll have time for that. Philosophically, I'm a proponent of learning the basics before branching out, so you want to have a solid foundation you can always come back to. It's like a security blanket.
  • Your palate will develop over time. You'll "taste" more in your drinks as you sample more...which leads to my final lesson for now...
  • Try different coffees. Start with something familiar then don't be afraid to step outside your comfort zone. For example, I enjoy a bright, acidic drip or French press; I thought my preference in espresso was to the darker end of things. The first couple of lighter roasts that I tried seemed to confirm that. But as I moved up the learning curve a bit, I found that I like a much wider range of roast than I did at first.
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++Coast++
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#2: Post by ++Coast++ »

Can't wait to read and share some best practices for newbies... considering I am self proclaimed. While the equipment purchase is a big deal, well, HUGE deal, I've had to remind myself to come back down to earth that this is about the learning, journey, morning ritual, taste, and if you are so lucky, sharing with the people you love. My personality is impatient, I want to know it all and right now but like my favorite espresso's made so far, they're deep and balanced, filled with character that doesn't develop overnight.

With all this said, does anyone keep a log of espresso recipes? e.g. a note book that provides columns for in/out, grind, weight, time, etc? I've searched a bit online... considering opening my own etsy account...

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Jeff
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#3: Post by Jeff »

I would use notebooks with enough lines for "a bag" of shots on a page, maybe 6"x8". Small enough that they didn't take over the counter.

I'd record the blend or origin and roaster. Then for each shot
Dose
Grind
Shot time
Yield
Flavor impressions

The impressions are more like "yuck, still bitter" than flowery marketing, though I would note interesting things I tasted.

On each row I'd box around what I changed

There are apps for this, but I find writing things down somehow helps me see the patterns more easily.

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gonzomup (original poster)
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#4: Post by gonzomup (original poster) »

I note the coffee (and roast date), method of prep (espresso, moka pot, French press, drip), water recipe (still experimenting), grind, dose, yield, time, and tasting notes...much like what Jeff does it seems. My notes are more linear. I like the idea of arranging the headers across the top and one row for each brew.

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Jeff
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#5: Post by Jeff »

One other thing is that hot coffee tastes hot, and that's about it. More of the flavor usually becomes clearer as it cools to a reasonable temperature. I don't heat my cups as it just means I need to wait longer to enjoy it.

fjen
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#6: Post by fjen »

Another tip after years of faffing around.

- You don't need that shiny new piece of gear that just came out. Diminishing marginal returns hit quickly and hit hard.

A lot of coffee gear (especially from certain shops, like one that rhymes with Meber) cost a lot for the reason of being "premium". Most of the time though, you can get by with significantly cheaper alternatives and that shiny new toy really is just shiny. A good amount of modifications don't need much or can be experimented with for much cheaper.

Not to say you shouldn't get something if you enjoy it or if it'll bring you pleasure. Coffee is about being happy so, if it'll make you happy, do it. Just don't necessarily feel the need to grab that shiny new toy you see the influencers use.

---

I would also probably throw in:

- Understand the chain from start to finish. Coffee is an agricultural product that made it's way from a far flung land into your hands. Learn about the journey it took.

I feel like I gathered a much closer appreciation of coffee after starting to roast my own (whole other hobby entirely, it's a mess), but really it came from learning about the terroir, reading the stories of producers, and really trying to get a handle of how coffee gets from Point A to Point B. A lot can be learned from seeing how the farmer actually processed the coffee you're drinking or the conditions it was grown - and how those factors transfer into the cup you're drinking.

A lot of times, you may not get that information from the roaster you buy your coffee from directly. However, most specialty roasters by happenstance give you enough info to put the coffee description (Farm name, region, co-op name, etc...) into Google and get directly to the coffee importer's page which may have a lot more detail.

---

Last discrete tip would be:

- Not every $ affects the cup in the same way. Your dollar goes the longest way in the following order: Beans, Grinder, Water/Machine, Others. Each, however, have their own diminished returns curve to be aware of.

Getting good beans should be your main priority if you have limited budget. You're going to be hard pressed to get stellar coffee out of commodity grade beans. You really should put as much towards good beans as you can, whether it be from a local specialty roaster or some famous shop a thousand miles away. That's not to say you need to be paying hundreds of dollars a pound for a micro lot Panama Geisha or Hawaiian Kona for a good cup.

Once you have your beans sorted, your grinder should be your focus - you certainly can "get by" with a blade grinder, but the jump to burrs make a huge difference. For $100, you can upgrade your grinder significantly but for $100, you can barely make a difference in your machine. So on and so forth.

When running on limited $, focus those dollars on where it will make the biggest impact.

daveR1
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#7: Post by daveR1 »

I use Beanconquerer app on my ipad & it's the best coffee log I've found. The app developer Graphefruit posts on HB regularly.

++Coast++
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#8: Post by ++Coast++ »

Jeff wrote:There are apps for this, but I find writing things down somehow helps me see the patterns more easily.
Similar thoughts, I find keeping a written log very nostalgic as this hobby becomes increasingly tech oriented. Not that this is a negative, more of a personal style choice.
gonzomup wrote:My notes are more linear. I like the idea of arranging the headers across the top and one row for each brew.
My brain works in rows and columns as well.
fjen wrote:You don't need that shiny new piece of gear that just came out. Diminishing marginal returns hit quickly and hit hard.
I wouldn't be mad if you PM'd me this quote the first of every month. You'd probably save me $XXX's.
daveR1 wrote:I use Beanconquerer app on my ipad & it's the best coffee log I've found. The app developer Graphefruit posts on HB regularly.
Apple is whispering in my ear... "There's an app for that".

daveR1
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#9: Post by daveR1 »

All good points.
For me, I had a large stack of notebooks containing my coffee notes. I got tired of searching the notebooks to find the notes on that one coffee I had tried months ago. That's when I started searching for a coffee log app.

ShotClock
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#10: Post by ShotClock »

I would say that two prerequisites for good espresso are good beans and good puck prep. Everything else depends on those.

As noted earlier in the thread, diminishing returns are readily apparent - i think that there's really a sweet spot around $500 or so for a grinder and $1500 or so for an espresso machine. I think the old adage to spend equally on the grinder and machine is not necessary anymore.

Another thing I've noticed is that as I've got better at brewing, my taste in coffee has changed, and I've become less tolerant of poor coffees. This is particularly a problem for home roasting, as I find myself satisfied with my own roasts increasingly infrequently....