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Coffee at the Moment by Mark Prince
Meet the New Drink: The Traditional Double
Posted: June 10, 2003
Article rating: 8.4
feedback: (17) comments | read | write
Beautiful Double Shot

Before I get into this article, I know that people are waiting for content around, and specifically, my Day Three Report from the SCAA. I'm very much stalled in writing it, and I don't know why - everytime I approach the article, I get writers' block. Actually, it's more like "writer's fear" - for some reason I cannot figure out, each time I go back to the article, I loathe working on it. I promise to get over it soon, and I will publish it.

In the meantime....

Getting graded for World Barista Championship (WBC) judging credentials is becoming more and more important to me as of late.

I've been spending a lot of my spare time (which there isn't much of) studying the WBC, Canadian Barista Competition (CBC), and United States Barista Competition (USBC) judging forms, going through the 15 minute routine on my own, and most importantly, expanding on my palate by developing my espresso tasting skills.

In the past 10 days leading up to this article, I've brewed about 250 double shots of espresso on a La Marzocco Linea. I know this because I average just over a pound's worth of coffee a day, and I can usually get 23 doubles out of a pound. About half are done as ristretto (meaning 17.5 grams of coffee used to brew 1.25 oz of liquid) but roughly half are genuine doubles (17.5 grams used to brew 2.5 - 3.0 oz total volume). Brewing "normal" shots is something kind of new / old for me - I used to brew normal doubles five years ago, but gradually moved to doing ristretto exclusively. I've gone back because, by and large, most of the shots done in WBC, USBC, CBC, and US Regional competitions are normal doubles (ie, two basket packs for four cups of espresso).

(By the way, a huge, huge shout out to the companies that supplied me with this coffee recently: Supreme Bean for many, many pounds of Espresso Del Norte, Espresso Bella Luna (awesome), and Organic Espresso; JJ Bean House of Coffee for several pounds they gave me when I judged a recent in-house competition; Caffe Artigiano and Intelligentsia Coffee for their supremely superb Black Cat Espresso; Hines Public Market Coffee; and last, but certainly not least, Doma Coffee Roasters for Vito's Espresso Blend, which was awesome).

Click for larger image
Starting a double pull
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Streams exhibit tiger striping (blurred)
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Evening out, no blond
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Still no blond
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hun' percent crema, baybee!
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Shot ended, settling
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Taking it's time.
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1 minute after start of shot. NB: the line market indicates 1.5 oz for each shotglass.

Back to the subject at hand: Along the way in my conversion back to normal doubles, something nifty happened. I started developing a new respect for the normal double espresso.

I'm trying to put into words some thoughts here, and it's difficult. I went ristretto way back when because I fell in love (figuratively, of course) with the super intense wallop of flavour that a ristretto delivers. It was (and remains) a challenging drink to pull off, but over the years, it's become easier for me to produce at a given "bar" of quality in my ristrettos. In short, I've become spoiled.

Going back to normal doubles confused me at first, because some of the normal espresso shots I pulled were amazing in the pour, and amazing in the taste. Not as intense as the ristretto can be, but just as good in their own right.

Maybe it's like the difference between a Guinness in Dublin and a Chimay in Belgium. Both are "beer" but different beverages. Both capable of stunning and residing in your taste bud memories for a long time.

So I got to thinking about it a bit more. Maybe, just maybe, back in the day when I made the gradual shift to ristretto from the normal double, I was compensating for my overall lack of artisan skill and experience in brewing the traditional espresso.

Maybe I gravitated towards the ristretto to compensate for just plain sucky espresso building skills.

Wow. If this is the case, what does that say about the lofty ristretto? Is it a crutch? A handicap helper? That doesn't quite jive with the common mentality that the ristretto is more difficult to pull off well than a normal double is... I'm so confused.

But the more I think about it, the more it makes sense. Perhaps the perfect "normal double espresso" is the more challenging drink to make - perhaps the "good or better" ristretto is easier. Use more coffee, grind finer, brew less. Get more flavour - easily.

My path back to the normal double espresso came from my Barista competition judging experiences. I had some truly stellar espresso drinks, brewed as normal doubles. I remember Sandy Hon's drink in the USBC. I remember Heather Perry's drink. As far as I can remember both were normal doubles - that is, one portafilter load was used to brew two cups' of espresso. Other Baristi did well too, impressing my tastebuds with such a flavour and richness punch that I would have sworn they were ristretto, except for the fact that I saw the pours.

I think I'm only realising this now - as I type this. My conversion back to brewing more doubles was to get re-acquainted with the traditional espresso beverage, but subconsciously I wanted to see how the heck some of the world's best Baristi pulled off such amazing drinks from a brewing method I wrote off personally so long ago.

The traditional espresso I've been enjoying this week have been flavourful, thick and for many of them, no hints of the tang-bitterness my memory cells remember from the old days of espresso done the double way. Not all were - some were runny, bitter shots that weren't much better than the cafe-espresso I often complain about. But a fair amount were good, and a small amount were truly great.

So what changed from five years ago? Having top quality equipment surely helps, including a stepless grinder like the Mazzer Mini. And experience, of course, and also research to a certain extent make up a lot of the difference. I know a heckuva lot more about the espresso brewing mechanics today than I did five years ago. I turn that knowledge into skill and real-time adjustments on my tools to pull off the better shot.

And this is why I think doing the awesome normal double is more challenging than the ristretto. If anything, the grind is even more crucial. For the ristretto, you adjust the grind to float on that very fine line between stalling the machine, and punching out 1 ounce in 28 seconds from a full double basket.

With the traditional double, it's pretty easy to dial in a 25 second double shot, but absolutely minute adjustments on the grind are required to turn a runny double (you can usually tell by the streams) into a rich pour with tiger striping through the entire pour.

But it doesn't stop there. I found with my ristretto pulls, I could get a bit lazy in my tamping technique - not by much, but a little bit off center, off level, no real attention paid to leveling the loose pack before tamping, and I could still get a good shot. Not so with the superior normal double. I find that if I am even the tiniest bit off level in my pack, the shot suffers - no tiger striping, lots of blond at the end of the pour. If I don't precisely pack the loose coffee so it's even in the basket before tamping, ditto on all the above - no stripes, lotsa blond.

But if I use my skills and my knowledge on full tilt, pack perfectly, grind right, maintain the machine correctly (with LM Linea Automatics, it's important to flush out some cold (all things relative) water from the flowmeter before brewing), I can get what I used to think was darned near impossible - a beautiful tigre stripe in the stream, tigre flecking in the espresso crema, and no hint of blond in the shot.

The taste? On the really good ones (very rare), you get the proverbial "coffee that tastes as good as roasted coffee smells".

And let me tell you, it's a revelation. And it teaches me one thing that I knew to be true - you never, ever stop learning and expanding your knowledge when it comes to coffee and espresso.

Article rating: 8.4
Posted: June 10, 2003
feedback: (17) comments | read | write
Coffee at the Moment Column Archives email author
Mark PrinceColumn Description
Whether it's up to the minute, happening this day, this week, or in the recent past, this column's goal is to present coffee and attempts to make the experience truly culinary. You'll find short reviews about past events, interesting coffees coming on the market, new and different ways to enjoy espresso and other brewing methods, and give an insight into efforts around the globe to make coffee a truly culinary thing. Column written by Mark Prince.

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