(Before we begin I must confess that Part II to the previous article is on hold. The following truffle is meant to tide you over in the meantime. Enjoy.)
The ristretto shot of espresso is one of the most fiercely debated and favourite topics amongst the coffee cognoscenti. It is the purists pour. The cutting edge of espresso extraction, flying in the face of the “Big Gulp” coffee drinker like nothing else around.
In anything at all, perfection is finally attained not when there is no longer anything to add, but when there is no longer anything to take away. Antoine de Saint-Exupery
Antoine would have drank ristretto shots.
There is no where to hide with a straight unadulterated shot of espresso. Even more (less?) so with a ristretto shot. Any weakness in the blend or in the preparation of the coffee will be brought to light here. Either the heavens open up and the angels sing after that first sip or....something significantly less. Which is always such a disappointment knowing all the potential distilled into the dribble of coffee liquor that barely coats the bottom of your cup.
But is it too gourmet? Is it too out there? Is it all just frivolous posturing? Should we try and get more people to master the short pour before we challenge their manhood by requesting the shortest pour?
I have a friend with a particular fondness for the ristretto shot. He loves coffee to a fault and looks to absorb every aspect of it through every pour. In turn he looks to share this zeal for coffee and particularly espresso with anyone that will listen. When he orders a coffee at a given cafe, he orders an espresso ristretto. It’s a test, and the road forks dramatically after this request has been made. I’d wager that if he had a nickel for every quizzical look he recieves following an order for a ristretto, he would be a very rich man. His hope of course is that the barista would perk up in light of the fact that before them stands someone who is both knowledgeable and particular about their coffee. The hope is that a discussion could, if warranted, take place between barista and connoisseur about the finer points of coffee, espresso in particular.
Each time I hear my friend’s request, I cringe. I want to shout out “Don’t do it!” Of course I never do. Again and again the gauntlet gets thrown down. Rarely, if ever does the barista perform the dance of the demitasse without hesitation, serving up an espresso that delights the senses.
I have a theory about people who order a ristretto shot. People will order a shot of espresso this way for two reasons: they know what they are talking about (unlikely) or they want to appear as if they know what they are talking about. In my experience most people order a ristretto shot because they are tired of getting served a long shot (i.e. demitasse full of espresso) when they order an espresso. In an effort to clarify what they want they will ask for a ‘ristretto’ shot, to make it abundantly clear they want a short shot. In reality I don’t think that they would know a true ristretto shot from a stupendous ol’ short shot if it came up and nipped them in the bum. The standard I teach is a 1 oz shot of espresso, not including crema. Unless otherwise requested I believe that this should be the default volume served in all espresso based drinks. I have served this to people asking for a ristretto shot and have only had positive feedback in return. To serve a true ristretto shot (.75 oz of liquid in 25 seconds) an adjustment to the grinder is required and is not realistic or recommended (NOTE: The preparation of a ristretto shot is highly debated with no definitive answers. The above is one of only many “right” ways to prepare a ristretto shot). A lazy man’s ristretto shot is as simple as pulling the cup out from under the pour when only .75 oz of liquid has run through. Please, don’t be lazy.
Do I train people in the finer points of the ristretto pour? No, almost never. Am I holding back the progression and refinement of the espresso movement in Vancouver? Hey, whoa. I’m not selling super-automatic espresso machines here. I usually have a total of 2 hours to distill all my know how into a couple of part-time staff. It isn’t pretty.
Some perspective is order. I worked retail coffee in an extremely busy location. The Granville Island Public Market, Vancouver, Canada. The consumer here is the high end of what’s available in the city. The money, the educated, the well travelled shop here, as do the European tourists. The market is a tourist destination of some repute. 8 Million people a year are going through the doors and lets for the sake of argument say that in 3+ years, 24 million pass by my coffee shop. So in 3+ solid years of flying the bar I had, are you ready for this? I had one person request a ristretto shot. Of all the Italian tourists, nary a one. In their books it seems that espresso is espresso. It is short unless otherwise requested and their fussiness over .25 of an ounce is non-existent. I would also wager that most people are not able to differentiate said difference unless they themselves are preparing the coffee
The one person whose order for a ristretto shot I took in stride became my new best friend. He even wrote a letter to my boss. It was like there was this little thrill that he had found one of his own kind. Someone who spoke the same arcane coffee code as he did.
A ristretto shot of espresso is very freak. It is very geek. It is very Coffeegeek. If you’re communing with the inner circle of Coffeegeeks, sure fly the freak flag high, but the rest of the time please keep your card carrying ristretto membership in your pocket. Stop the insanity. You’re only hurting yourself. I can’t bear to watch.