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Coffee in Australia by Alan Frew
Meditations on a Mantra
Posted: September 28, 2002
Article rating: 8.3
feedback: (6) comments | read | write
One of almost 400 shots I've pulled on Silvias in the last 2 weeks, and they ALL looked like this! More important than that, they all tasted good. Always remember that taste is the ultimate coffee goal.

I recently read an article in a Sunday magazine about the obsessions of high end audiophiles. These people spend more on buying audio equipment than the average person spends on buying a house. What really struck me was the reply the interviewer got when he asked an audiophile what his favorite music was.

In paraphrase, the bloke said something like “I really only listen to 6 or so special recordings, to test the system out.” In other words, the actual quality of the music had been subsumed into the perceived quality of the sound and the system used to produce it. I was struck by the similarity in attitude to several people I know who have the coffee “bug.”

They always seem to be chasing (at great expense) the “best” espresso machine, the “best” grinder, the “best” filter basket, tamper, etc.etc. What often seems to be neglected (in my opinion) is the taste.

I have to say that, having used a variety of commercial equipment over the last 18 years, I think that beyond a certain point the machine has far less influence on quality than the operator and the beans do. When talking about domestic espresso machines I think that this point begins with the Rancilio Silvia. “Lesser” machines have compromises in water distribution systems, non commercial portafilters and showerscreens, smaller boilers etc.

Machines “above” the Silvia generally have heat exchanger or dual boiler systems allowing you to steam and brew at the same time, larger boiler capacity and greater thermal mass. This enables them to produce more good shots in a shorter time, froth more milk, scramble eggs etc. but it doesn’t necessarily improve the quality of the espresso shot itself. In fact, for an experienced operator it’s probably easier to get a consistently good shot from the Silvia, once you get your technique right.

What brought these thoughts on was a couple of extended sessions with commercial 2 group machines (Grimac and San Marino) where the only variables I could play with were the grind, dose and tamp, the brew temperature, pump pressure etc. being “givens”. I kept on thinking “Hmm. Not a bad shot...almost as good as from a Silvia.” After a while it was obvious that the machines produced consistent shots, but probably needed a bit of fine tuning for group temperature, not to mention cleaning, descaling and pump adjustment. My thoughts then wandered off to “Would I really want one of these hulking great monsters in the kitchen?” and “Even if I did, would my coffee be any better?”

Which brings me to the ultimate mantra, one that should probably be engraved on the inside of the wallet of anyone in the grip of “upgrade fever”. Repeat after me, in your best Australian accent, “Yair...but what does it TASTE like?”

That’s the part that should never be forgotten in the scramble for bigger, better, newer and shinier brewing equipment. Or anything else to do with coffee.
While all this stuff was going on inside the somewhat limited confines of my brain, I was browsing through the alt.coffee newsgroup and saw yet another “newbie” to decent coffee being advised to take up home roasting. Look, if you’re an experienced and/or fanatical coffee hobbyist, there is no doubt that roasting your own coffees will give you the freshest beans possible. Sometimes they’ll also be the best tasting beans you’ll get. But if you’re new to the idea of actually brewing coffee (rather than pouring hot water on to instant) then home roasting is a lot of hard work for some very uncertain returns.

Attempting to roast your own espresso blends is probably even harder, especially for someone new to espresso. If you’re uncertain about what you should be tasting in the first place, adding even more variables to the espresso process is not going to improve the end result. My advice to anyone contemplating a coffee hobby would be:

1) Find a good “Specialty” coffee supplier
2) Buy a decent burr grinder
3) Get a simple brewer, plunger would be my preference, and learn how to use it
4) Taste the different “varietal” coffees your supplier sells, and work out what you like and don’t like about them.

If you’re new to espresso, 1) and 2) remain the same but you should standardize on a single espresso blend (and I emphasise: BLEND) and learn to get the best out of it. When you’ve got your basic tastes and techniques down pat, then you can start to experiment with different blends and beans.

Whichever way you brew, there is no substitute for getting the basics right before moving on to the exotics, remembering always the Mantra, “Yair...but what does it TASTE like?” Eventually moving on to home roasting may improve your coffee flavour, but it’s far from guaranteed. Particularly with espresso, where developing good blends is a difficult art.

Which of course leads me to the beans.

Given good beans, even shock! horror! pre-ground (from me, of course, www.coffeeco.com.au), a CHE-E-E-a-p pump espresso machine, a la Krups Vivo/Gusto, and good technique, you will get better straight espresso than 95% of cafes outside Italy serve. In fact good beans can make up for many deficiencies in any brewing process. The sad fact is that many roasters either don’t know or don’t care what “good beans” are. Right now there are more excellent coffees on the market than I have ever seen, at record low prices, and not a lot of interest from local roasters at all. Sadly, rather than maintaining the cost of their coffee and improving the quality, they are maintaining or decreasing the quality (such as it is) and cutting their costs.

Really good quality coffee isn’t expensive, and makes a huge difference to the quality of the output of most brewing processes. As with all things coffee, the Mantra really comes into its own here. If “Yair...but what does it TASTE like?” was the opening sentence in all coffee purchasing negotiations, the world wouldn’t be awash with crap coffee right now.

I live my life right up at the sharp end of the coffee industry, and all I can say is that if you’re not drinking coffee for the taste, you’re wasting your time. So next time you brew or buy a coffee, take your first sip and think to yourself “Yair...but what does it taste like?” and you might just have a life changing experience!

Article rating: 8.3
Posted: September 28, 2002
feedback: (6) comments | read | write
All Retired Columnists Articles
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Alan Frew, 07.21.2003, Rated: 7.7
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Alan Frew, 02.23.2002, Rated: 8.3
Up at the Sharp End
Alan Frew, 05.24.2003, Rated: 7.5
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Training Espresso
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An Introduction
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Making Progress
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Bean There, Roasted That Pt.3
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Beans & Roasts, Pt.2
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Beans and Roasts, Pt.1
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The Hunt
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Grinder Adjustments
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