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espresso that behaves -- a call for theories
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e61brewski
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e61brewski
Joined: 7 Dec 2004
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Location: greenville, sc
Expertise: I live coffee

Espresso: isomac tea, riviera lever
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Posted Fri Dec 23, 2005, 11:59pm
Subject: espresso that behaves -- a call for theories
 

you know that feeling of a good espresso blend that grinds with especial consistency, where you can just feel the evenness of the distribution with your finger, where the tamp offers that cathartic "snap" as the grounds settle into a cohesive puck? i do. and some of it is definitely barista skill and technique. but what makes an espresso blend in itself particulary workable or responsive to changes and barista input?

i've been mulling this question since intensively pounding through some code brown over a recent weekend, and i was struck again with how some beans and blends just have it, that dependable consistency that is such a huge enabler when you want to experiment or tweak various brewing factors. others are finicky to no end, and neither is necessarily a superior coffee, taste-wise (taste being the final arbiter ... can i have my third-wave sew-on patch now?). a couple buckshot ideas are on the blog, but the best way i can find to describe what i'm talking about is in terms of that subconscious confidence level you have when building a shot. right or wrong, your brain starts making assumptions about how spot-on this shot is likely to be, and with a blend like code brown i find that confidence soars -- often justifiably -- because everything just handles so well. the grind feels perfectly consistent, the distribution just feels right, the tamp locks in, etc. with other (perfectly legitimate) blends, the grind clumps, the distribution is tedious by necessity and the tamp feels more like mashing cooked cabbage than a sharp, snappy puck-stomp.

what factors contribute to this? ideas? is it all in the origin? the roast? i've worked many an amazing espresso blend that demanded huge amounts of patience and precision, often delivering what you wanted only after some head-banging rounds of tweaking. nothing wrong with that. but what makes for workability?

 
the blog: http://ben.szobody.com
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jim_schulman
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jim_schulman
Joined: 19 Dec 2001
Posts: 3,772
Location: Chicago
Expertise: I live coffee
Posted Sat Dec 24, 2005, 12:19pm
Subject: Re: espresso that behaves -- a call for theories
 

In terms of grind feel -- more the humidity than anything else; it's amazing how mess free my counter is in these cold dry days.

In terms of grinding -- aged beans and some low growns need an utrafine grind, some high growns an ultracoarse grind. Since grind sizes are a distribution, it follows that a blend with some of each (coarse and fine grinding) will be more forgiving of grind variations.

In terms of taste -- sour and bitter tastes vary as all the shot parameters change. Sweetness and an oily heavy body (or oily thick crema) buffer extremes of sour and bitter tastes. This means a much wider range of extractions will taste good, and such blends will be forgiving.

I'm probably incomplete, maybe even wrong, on all counts -- but I am pretty certain that each of these three "nice to have" things are from different causes.

 
Jim Schulman
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e61brewski
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e61brewski
Joined: 7 Dec 2004
Posts: 131
Location: greenville, sc
Expertise: I live coffee

Espresso: isomac tea, riviera lever
Grinder: mazzer major, isomac gran...
Vac Pot: dirt devil lx
Drip: wouldn't dare
Roaster: i-roast
Posted Sat Dec 24, 2005, 8:58pm
Subject: Re: espresso that behaves -- a call for theories
 

i had a feeling i was expressing the idea poorly.

In terms of grind feel -- more the humidity than anything else

managing humidity is a neglected factor, i agree. but not what i was talking about.

In terms of grinding -- aged beans and some low growns need an utrafine grind, some high growns an ultracoarse grind.

again, agreed. and perhaps a factor in an espresso being workable or not. but i'm not talking about just the obvious differences in the age and origin of beans.

In terms of taste -- sour and bitter tastes vary as all the shot parameters change.

yes again. but this speaks to barista skill -- the business end of the portafilter. this is and always should be the biggest concern of any barista, amateur or pro ... self-analysis and learning the beans, the grind, and other shot parameters. your own willingness to work has the biggest impact on taste, our holy grail (again -- third-wave merit badge?).

the issue i'm mulling, however, is a matter of workability in the coffee itself. i am just an amateur junkie, but i believe my technique is well-represented in the cup (though a constant work in progress). c'mon pros, help me out here. is it not obvious that some beans and blends just "cooperate" better than others? they hold up consistently under varying conditions, respond unequivocally to changes in parameters, "feel better" on your finger during distribution, in your elbow during tamping, and offer more insight before the pull as to how good this shot is going to be. why else would folks refer to some blends being "finicky" and others being easy to work with? i keep coming back to the term "workable."

this is not necessarily more desireable than anything else, unless you're lazy. i am more than willing to bust my butt playing with a finicky blend to get something delicious at the end. no problem. i'm just curious about what makes a workable blend workable. with me, i can study two beans or blends for weeks, widely vary my technique and apply the best barista skills i know -- and produce two good cups of espresso. but one takes all kinds of attention and grind/humidity/volume management and the other just performs like a champ as long as you cover your basic bases. again, the most workable coffees, to me, are obvious from the moment you start handling it. yor confidence level soars with these coffees, because you've done your part, and it responds -- you see it in the grinder, you feel it in the tamper, and i'd argue you can hear it in the machine when the pump kicks in.

no doubt origin is some of it. but what kinds of beans/origin characteristics are known to be manageable? is there a blending philosophy for this? how much do you think dosing contributes? (seems to me a down-dosed coffee is a more predictable coffee.) and how much does roasting have to do with it? do light roasts tend to be more finicky? what types of roasts/origins tend to grind more finely, thus lending themselves to easier distribution and snappy tamping?

i'd love to hear from some of the hard-core cuppers and head-to-head testers in the forum, who i'm sure can speak to workable versus difficult coffees. unless, of course, i'm making everything muddy as a shot of overbaked, low-grade kenya. if you can withstand yet another attempt to frame the debate, check out the blog.  

can't say i didn't try.

 
the blog: http://ben.szobody.com
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jim_schulman
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jim_schulman
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Posted Sun Dec 25, 2005, 1:36am
Subject: Re: espresso that behaves -- a call for theories
 

e61brewski Said:

i'd love to hear from some of the hard-core cuppers and head-to-head testers in the forum, who i'm sure can speak to workable versus difficult coffees. unless, of course, i'm making everything muddy as a shot of overbaked, low-grade kenya. if you can withstand yet another attempt to frame the debate, check out the blog.

Posted December 24, 2005 link

Ok, in that case, I'll shuffle off, and do a bad Brando as Godfather imitation.

 
Jim Schulman
www.coffeecuppers.com
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e61brewski
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e61brewski
Joined: 7 Dec 2004
Posts: 131
Location: greenville, sc
Expertise: I live coffee

Espresso: isomac tea, riviera lever
Grinder: mazzer major, isomac gran...
Vac Pot: dirt devil lx
Drip: wouldn't dare
Roaster: i-roast
Posted Sun Dec 25, 2005, 11:09am
Subject: Re: espresso that behaves -- a call for theories
 

apologies, jim, if the reply was tart. i do agree that it seems origin is a factor. has to be. and you have no way of knowing how good the barista skillz are on this end, or if i'm another newbie still figuring out the basics. the business end of the portafilter is obviously the first concern.

let's take for granted that a barista is solid, the technique consistent and commendable. after that, what makes a blend or bean workable? don't go away. you've  been around the block more than me, probably, and surely have some experience along these lines.

 
the blog: http://ben.szobody.com
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jim_schulman
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jim_schulman
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Posted Sun Dec 25, 2005, 1:53pm
Subject: Re: espresso that behaves -- a call for theories
 

I'm still not sure where you got barita skills in my reply. I said coffees are more forgiving if they are sweet, heavy bodied, and have oily crema, since these allow for more sour and bitter tastes, and therefore allow a wider range of extraction temperatures and flow rates.

 
Jim Schulman
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e61brewski
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e61brewski
Joined: 7 Dec 2004
Posts: 131
Location: greenville, sc
Expertise: I live coffee

Espresso: isomac tea, riviera lever
Grinder: mazzer major, isomac gran...
Vac Pot: dirt devil lx
Drip: wouldn't dare
Roaster: i-roast
Posted Mon Dec 26, 2005, 5:30am
Subject: Re: espresso that behaves -- a call for theories
 

jim:

at the risk of digging myself deeper and/or spooking away any of the conversation i was hoping to spark...

  1. nothing in my call for "hard-core cuppers and head-to-head testers" ws meant as a diss to you. i don't post much, but i hang around these parts a lot and have nothing but respect for your cupping, your experience, your 3,377 CG posts or your moderator title. no slight intended.

  2. if you say you didn't mean to speak of barista skill, i'll take your word for it -- although it would have been justified, in my mind. if some seldom-seen screen name i didn't know popped up with my questions, i'd definitely try to tactfully suggest an emphasis on self-examination. if i read this into your post, i apologize.

back to the issue.

coffees are more forgiving if they are sweet, heavy bodied, and have oily crema

do you mean to say that such coffees tend to handle better in the shot-building process? or just that they tend to be more forgiving in the cup over varied temp profiles and shot parameters?

 
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jim_schulman
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jim_schulman
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Posted Mon Dec 26, 2005, 11:55am
Subject: Re: espresso that behaves -- a call for theories
 

This is getting mildly annoying. If you ask a question, then read the answers. To restate it again:

For a given blend, what will vary the taste and mouthfeel is changes in temperature, pressure, shot volume, and flow rate. An unforgiving blend needs to be narrowly held to very tight tolerances on each. A forgiving blend can be varied more along each of these dimensions. Sweet, heavy bodied coffees, even strongly acidic or bitter ones, are more forgiving. Mild coffees without much acidity or bitterness are also forgiving, but boring (see answer 2)

Perhaps your question was how easy it is to vary all these parameters, and whether the type of coffee plays any role. Varying pressure and temperature is entirely based on how workable the espresso machine is. Varying extraction times and flow rates depends mostly on the how adjustable the grinder is, although blends of both high and low grown coffees are easier to dial in (see answer 1).

Knowing how to vary all these things; and in what direction, should the taste displease, is barista skill.

 
Jim Schulman
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e61brewski
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e61brewski
Joined: 7 Dec 2004
Posts: 131
Location: greenville, sc
Expertise: I live coffee

Espresso: isomac tea, riviera lever
Grinder: mazzer major, isomac gran...
Vac Pot: dirt devil lx
Drip: wouldn't dare
Roaster: i-roast
Posted Mon Dec 26, 2005, 2:58pm
Subject: Re: espresso that behaves -- a call for theories
 

Perhaps your question was how easy it is to vary all these parameters, and whether the type of coffee plays any role.

no. that would be a question about barista skill/knowledge. i'm talking about what goes into the physical nature of some coffees being highly handleable -- and the way that tangible workability tends to more accurately foretell shot quality -- and others being highly demanding (and often less confidence-inducing).

you're talking about forgiving coffees in the taste sense:

varying pressure and temperature is entirely based on how workable the espresso machine is. Varying extraction times and flow rates depends mostly on the how adjustable the grinder is, although blends of both high and low grown coffees are easier to dial in (see answer 1).

i'm talking about coffees that handle well in your hands (these build confidence and just happen to better indicate, i believe, eventual shot quality):

they hold up consistently under varying conditions, respond unequivocally to changes in parameters, "feel better" on your finger during distribution, in your elbow during tamping, and offer more insight before the pull as to how good this shot is going to be.


 
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IMAWriter
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Posted Mon Dec 26, 2005, 3:33pm
Subject: Re: espresso that behaves -- a call for theories
 

e61brewski Said:

i'm talking about coffees that handle well in your hands (these build confidence and just happen to better indicate, i believe, eventual shot quality):

Posted December 26, 2005 link

Ben....I believe I might understand your question, though I find that grinding with my Mazzer SJ, none of the many professional and home roasted espresso blends I've gone through distinguishes itself as having a tactile difference either in the distribution nor tamping area...I do find that the older my coffee, say 7-8 days, as it oils up, the clumps increase, which might make for a slightly different "feel."
I would also like to "gently' point out (as you yourself admitted) that your response to Jim, one of our most knowlegeable members here, as well as on other specialty coffee sites WAS a touch curt. My suggestion is this:...you are a writer....I peeked at your profile  ;>D.. so why not compose a detailed piece for CG members, defining your experiences with different coffees and such....assuming you don't trash something because it didn't perform as well as another, why not publish it here as a thread..maybe by acually detailing your own experiences, you can answer your own question!
Good luck

 
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