So... what do I mean by "understand espresso"?
I mean everything. I mean you need to understand not only the realities that lie behind every component and factor and variable that goes into the cup but also the relationships between each and every one and the results of changes to all of them - and to their relationships. Yeah - I know, sounds incredibly hard and difficult. Well, it is and it isn't and in the end the payoff is great.
And... how do you go about "understanding espresso"?
Thus, the introduction is over and now we move on to the meat of the subject.
First - you need to do some reading.
- I'd suggest two books. One is Espresso Coffee, The Science of Quality by Illy. The second is Espresso Coffee: Professional Techniques by Schomer. When reading these books do not pay attention to tactical advice or technique instructions and instead focus on understanding the science, the factors and the theories and realities that lie behind those techniques. This should give you the foundation to begin to learn.
- Have they been well cared for? Do you need to clean, repair or adjust anything? And, most importantly, do you understand how they work and how the theories you've learned apply to them? For example - if you are "temp surfing" do you know why you're doing this? Do you understand the science behind not only what is happening when you do this but also why you have to do it and what the goals are?
- Do you need to change any of them? Do you need to adjust any of them? Do you understand the goals of each step and decision and do they make sense?
- This means that you're probably going to have to hold off on roasting your own coffee. While roasting is fun, the truth is that untrained enthusiasts (including trained baristas who don't know how to roast like me) working with non-commercial roasters are not going to be able to produce the consistent quality and profile needed for learning with. You don't need an incredible or amazing coffee. What you want is a coffee that you can get easily, that you can get regularly (preferably twice a week at least) and that has a consistent quality, taste, profile etc.
- Start pulling shots and evaluating what you are doing - and what the results in the cup are. Don't experiment at first, instead just try to be as consistent as possible. Pull the shot - taste it. Evaluate the shot - and what happened with the coffee, the machines, the technique and the extraction behind that shot. Repeat. Pay attention to variance in all the factors and variables and try to discover the connections between those variances and the resulting variances in the cup.
Don't experiment with your coffee or your equipment at first. Instead - focus on the variables within your control as a barista. Also, at first only change one variable at a time. Alter your dose. What happens in the cup? Alter your tamp pressure. What happens in the cup? Alter the grind. What happens in the cup? Alter your extraction time. Alter your extraction volume. Once you start to be able to not only draw conclusions but also make accurate predictions, start altering multiple variables. Try dosing heavier and grinding coarser. Dose lighter and pull a shorter extraction volume. Each time, try multiple variants of the same combination (dose heavier and grind coarser, dose heavier and grind finer, dose lighter and grind coarser, dose lighter and grind finer). Learn. Deduce. Pay attention.
Once you feel like you understand these variable and their relationships - start changing aspects of the espresso machine. Try going up with the temp. Down with the temp. Decrease the pressure and increase the temp. Again, do multiple variants and while doing this keep the coffee and your barista variables consistent.
Now start combining the machine and barista variables.
And then... start using other coffees.
This is the big day. If you've really paid attention, really invested the time and really learned... the day you start pulling shots with a new coffee will be nearly life changing. I remember pulling a shot of a new espresso and knowing instantly that it would taste best (to my palate) with a slightly higher brew temp and a dose of around 18grams and would be best pulled quite short. I even knew roughly what the resulting flavour profile would be. And I was right.
On that day - I became a barista. And that is how you too can become a barista and can go from producing drinkable espresso to creating great espresso.