Hey, you know something? It probably isn't you. It most likely isn't your skill. It is most definitely not your ability or desire. It isn't your years of practice (or lack thereof). It probably isn't even your machine, your water, or your grinder (especially if you followed the advice outlined in the last two articles).
Don't blame yourself for the lack of "God" shots of espresso. There's lots of other things to blame, many of which are completely out of your control.
In the last two articles I wrote, I talked about Artistry in a Cup. The focus was two-fold: to discuss high quality espresso cups and the reason for their use, and also to introduce you to a beverage that is so perfect, so supreme, it's named the God Shot. (if you haven't read the two articles, part one is here, and part two is here)
One key thing I wrote was how fleeting God shots can be - they really are. The world's best baristas believe that they achieve these kinds of shots maybe one out of eight, and maybe even one out of five attempts. Myself? I'm lucky if I get one per full pound of coffee. My ratio is probably about one out of fifteen, or perhaps one out of twelve or even ten when I'm on a roll. The other shots I produce are good, great even. Heck, sometimes they're downright fantastic. But to know a God shot is to have one. If you haven't, you don't know what you're missing.
Why is this so fleeting? Why do people confuse "great" with the God shot? I hope the previous two articles went some way to explaining what the supreme shot of espresso can taste like. This time around, I'm going to tackle the fleeting issue more in depth, focusing on one specific aspect that can prevent God shots. Maybe through a bit more understanding, you'll move that closer to achieving espresso perfection.
It's in the beans...
Do you know what lipids are? Up until a few short years ago, I sure as heck didn't. But any real gourmet (and most gourmands too) knows what they are - lipids, to get all scientific on y'all, are things like triglycerides, diterpene esters, triterpenes, tocopherols, and the ever tasty and desirable phosphatides, to name but a few (all of which are in coffee and espresso!).
And guess what. Arabica beans are high in lipids - some 15% or more of their chemical content is made up of lipids of various sorts. Triglycerides make up the bulk - about 80% or so. Robusta, just for comparison sake, contains around 10% lipids, and sometimes much less (you'll see below why this is one factor in robusta's poorer taste).
So why am I mentioning lipids? Because of the non-scientific reasons - lipids are natures best aroma carriers! Thatís why gourmets know them so well. And guess what: Espresso preparation is especially tuned to bringing out lipids from the coffee bean in massive quantities. It's true.
So now you also know why espresso is so much more the essence of what "coffee" is all about. Espresso brings those lipids to the forefront - secure, brimming with flavour, and carrying all the best aromas of the coffee bean.
And some of the worst as well.
It's oh so very true. Lipids may be your best friend in the bean, but they are also your worst enemy. If a solitary bean in your 50-60 bean allotment for a single shot of espresso is off, is somehow gamey, is downright defective, then that bean's big time sourness is going to transport itself like a freight train into that shot of espresso you poured. The other 59 beans are going to fight a valiant battle, and they will win, my friend - they will win - but not without some cost. Your shot will be good, great even. Maybe even "excellent". But it will not be God Shot status. And there's very little you can do about it.
| All the beans in these pictures are the same roast. This is a stunted, stalled bean. Definite removal candidate. Click to enlarge. |
| These beans were far too light to keep in the roast, so they were removed. At the bottom of these pics, you'll see the normal colour beans. Click to enlarge |
| These are definite defects. Husks (middle of the bean is missing), deformities, even little holes. They were removed. Click to enlarge. |
| These beans weren't too bad in the color dept, but they were either granular or too small (I don't trust too small beans in an 18screen or larger roast). Click to enlarge |
| These were the beans I was going for. Mix in size but none to small or large, nice, dark brown colour, no oil, good range. These are keepers. I should note all these pics were taken with the same exposure settings, so colours are accurate in relation to each other. Click to enlarge. |
Then again, maybe there are a few things you can do about it. One thing you can do to reduce defects is to inspect your beans . It helps if you home roast - you can scope out the beans as green, during the roast ("ah ha! that one bean over there is refusing to go dark, like all the others!") or post roast as you cool the beans down. You can even do this with an Alpenrost drum roaster - before I roast a 227 gram batch (1/2 lb) with the Alp, I spread out the green on a cookie sheet. Defective, deformed beans get chucked. Then I roast.
Then for cooldown (the Alp doesn't cool down enough on its own), I spread those roasted beans back on the cookie sheet. This gives me a nice, uniform single-layer swath of roasted beans to inspect. Further defects get chucked. Then it's into the hopper they go, or put aside for a custom blend. (note - some beans are naturally uneven and can appear defective - most Yemens come to mind. Know your bean type).
If you're ready to hunt for defective beans, here's how to identify some:
Green Bean inspections:
- Funny shapes: weird shaped beans are usually the victims of birth defects. No kidding. They tend to lead to low acidity in the cup and mask some of your coffee's flavor potential. Ditch them. They ain't cute - they pollute. (this also applies to roasted inspection)
- Darker than the others: usually a green bean that stands out as darker than most of its brethren (by a significant amount) is defective - but not always. Sometimes darker beans are the result of improper processing, sometimes they are the victims of bug attacks when on the tree or fungus (and weren't caught and tossed in processing). Sometimes they are just plain overripe beans. If the darker colour is very noticeable, toss them. If it's black, definitely throw it out.
- Lighter than the others: just like a too-dark green bean may be suspect, one that's much lighter than the others is also a potential defect. They could be the victims of mold, wild fermentation, or could be the rather infamous stinker bean (real name!) that could have been contaminated by polluted water during processing. If it is significantly lighter than average, toss it.
- Holey beans: Class, repeat after me: holey beans = bad. Holy beans = good. If you see holes in your beans, toss them - some little critter was probably crawling around inside of them. (also applies to roasted inspection)
- Smelly beans: hey - cup those green beans with your hands, and hold them up your nose. Take a huge wiff, a gigantic one. If you get a sour or moldy smell, a mediciney note, or the smell of wet soil, you could have a defective bean in there. Sometimes these are easy to single out (overpowering), sometimes not - it's up to you if you want to sniff each individual bean or not. Try sniffing a quarter of your sample at a time.
- Dressed beans: if you notice excessive parchment or, gasp, actual husks from the cherry on a bean, it may be the result of improper wet or dry processing. This one is iffy (except for the cherry parts), so toss it if you want. Keep in mind that some beans are meant to be this way, and by going through and eliminating the dressed beans, you'll probably be eliminating most of the beans from the sampling! If chaff is a problem on the raw beans, try rubbing them together in your hand, a small handful at a time. Most chaff will fall right off.
Roasted beans are a bit harder to deal with, but in addition to some of the points outlined above, here's some tips for spotting defective beans in a roast:
- Darker than the rest: In many roasts with home roasters, you usually get a blend of different colours in your roast - this is okay, and normal. But if a bean jumps out at you as being excessively darker than the others, tossing it is a good idea
- Lighter than the rest: Ditto for excessively light beans. Note this though - do not confuse beans that still have portions of their silverskin (chaff) attached with excessively light beans. And also note that some beans, notably Yemen, give widely different colours in their roast. Just like how Microsoft calls bugs "undocumented features", Yemen aficionados call this wide range in roast colours "a redeeming characteristic". Heck, so do I - I adore Yemen as a roasted coffee!
- Hull or Shell beans: (or fragment) If you notice any shells of a bean, hulls of a bean, or bean fragments, those are most likely defective beans that made themselves known during the roast process. Toss em. They may look cute, but they're not.
Much ado about nothing... not!
Okay, so the above may scare you some, may make you think these insidious, evil little beans are lurking in your midst, ready to ruin your God shot chances. Rest easy, my friend. Modern day picking methods tend to catch most defective beans before they hit your greedy little paws and home roaster, or before you pick up your bag of fresh roast. Further, buying from small farm sources, or high grade beans like Kenya AA, Costa Rican La Minita, or even most Indosnesian beans means that they are single source - in other words, the beans you bought all came from a single batch from a single farm.
Even further than this, buying from small farms usually means your beans were hand picked (the best way to ensure defect free or defect minimized beans). Bigger farms use strip picking, which lets a lot of defects get into the initial batch, but with modern techniques, most of those defects are found.
Still... I did say "not!" in the subtitle above, and here's why. Even with high grade, high quality, hand picked Arabicas, there's usually at least 1 defect per 300 or 500 grams - it's allowed by various coffee-grading associations, and well, dog crap happens, you know?
La Minita, the venerable Costa Rican farm renowned for their supreme bean claims 0 defects per 300 gram samples, but don't believe it. I found 3 defect-suspect beans in my last 227 gram batch done in the Alp - 2 before roasting, and one after. That's not too bad though - most of the time, I'm chucking about 5, 10 beans from a batch, before and after roasting.
If I'm getting 3 defect beans out of a half pound of green La Minita, that means I had at least 1 defect per 75 grams, or one defect for every 3.5 double ristrettos I pour (adjusting for weight difference between roasted and green). And thatís the ones I've spotted!
With my typical batch of Kenya AA, with its average of about 8 defects found per half pound roast, I'm getting one defect per 28 grams of beans (green) or a whopping one defect per double shot. And these are just the ones I've been able to spot with my amateur eye. Many defect beans are visible to the naked eye - many just disguise themselves as normal beans, and only let themselves known to you in the cup, after you've done everything else right.
Well okay, not really scary - but it is food for thought when it comes to figuring out why God shots are so fleeting. You can control your skills. You can have supreme machines at the height of their efficiency. You can temperature surf the machine until the cows come home. You can weigh your coffee grounds dosage to 0.1 grams with a mega-expensive scale. You can tamp using a hydraulic powered, super-calibrated tamper to 27.45 lbs of pressure if you want.
None of that means squat though if one little defective bean gets into your grinder, gets into your portafilter, and gets into your shot of espresso without you noticing it. But you will once you sip it. Lipids don't lie, and Lipids don't care. They just do their job and carry aromas and tastes and sensations - both good and bad. With arabica beans and their 15% lipid count, if your beans are defect free, you could get the proverbial God Shot - those lipids, in that volume, are going to make you sing and dance.
And here's where the robusta factor comes in - one good indicator of just how great lipids can be to you is the body count in arabica vs. robusta. 15% arabica. 10% robusta. You do the math - and you figure out why arabica seems such a greater sense of taste, range and flavour. Sure, there are other factors, but the lipids play a big role.
But the catch is, let a defect pass, and those lipids are going to work against you. That potential God shot, if you're lucky, just became a "great" shot.
If you're not so lucky, your drain could be the main recipient.
Author would like to thank Barry Jarrett, Chris Bell for their help in prepping this article. Book references include All About Coffee, 2nd Edition, by William Ukers, and Espresso Coffee: The Chemistry of Quality, Andrea Illy and Rinantonio Viani ed.