Hey guys, just wrote a new coffee essay for my website, entitled "The Simplification of Espresso. It's hosted on my site with some other essays at http://www.chrisweaver.co.uk but I'd love to start a discussion about it on here.
It's been awhile since I have done any writing about coffee. It's been a tumultuous six months for me; between leaving my job at The Angel, travelling around europe, living in Leeds and generally being an unemployed aspiring author. Recently however, the bug has bitten me again, sending coffee flowing through my veins and greasing my cogs into motion.
In the last few weeks. I have started again to get involved into the barista side of speciality coffee. I was privileged to work a trial shift at Fernandez and Wells in Soho, London. Unfortunately it came to nothing, though it was a great chance for me to see the working of an efficient coffee bar, managing to sustain high-end quality without the common drop in speed. I have also been making a nuisance of myself at my former place of employment, The Angel Coffee House. Helping the eager, if in some cases inexperienced, staff pour the best coffee with the equipment they have.
Throughout these last few weeks re-mounting the coffee horse I fell so hard from, one word has been repeating itself in my thought processes. Simplification. From my own experience as well as watching those on the same journey, baristas go through a number of different phases in their learning process.
Phase One – The Craving to Learn
The craving to learn fills inexperienced heads with more knowledge than they can possibly hope to use. What this achieved for me was a tendency to put steps in my espresso pouring process without the knowledge to understand why. Tapping, the practice of knocking the side of the portafilter with a tamper, is a great example of this. The more I've thought about the benefits of tapping; knocking the loose coffee from the walls of the portafilter, the more I'm realising the negatives; disturbing the puck and damaging the tamper, far those purported benefits.
Phase Two – Obsession Over Detail
Following this craving for knowledge then came the desire to read up on everything and I fell eagerly into my obsessive phase. Buying Scaces and excessively sensitive scales to achieve scientific perfection in what I now can perceive as a very imperfect craft. Coffee is after all an organic and finicky substance; reacting to humidity changes, age and roasting technique on a whim. I struggle to get my head around how an extra 0.2g of ground coffee in an espresso shot can be that relevant given the plethora of variables between the green bean and the cup.
Phase Three – The Frugal Coffee Bar Owner
Finally the third phase is one that nearly every commercial barista I have spoken to understands. The desire to placate the financially minded coffee bar owner. Within this phase comes various bad habits; the erring towards under-dosing, sacrificing milk texture for the need to control milk wastage. Even under-flushing the groups; burning the shot, to conserve water and energy. Now I understand the desire to keep a close reign on the barista, milk being one of the main expenses in a busy coffee bar. I worked in a place once where the milk and coffee wastage was painful to see, and the business, and profit margin suffered greatly for it, I have also worked in a place where the expectations placed on the barista started to seriously deprecate the quality of the coffee.
What these three phases often lead to is the development of habits each offering a step in the ritual of pouring a double espresso. Before I deconstructed my technique, here is what I would do every time.
1.Grind the coffee into the basket, rattling it around to achieve 'perfect distribution'.
2.Re-distribute the pile of coffee with my finger to make it look pretty.
3.Apply a soft tamp to expose the walls of the portafilter
4.Tap the portafilter to knock loose grinds from the wall
5.Apply a heavy tamp
6.Polish the puck
7.Wipe the rim and wings
8.Lock and load
A lot of people reading this might recognise most, if not all of these steps. However, when I analysed the process, many of them seemed pointless. Rattling and knocking the portafilter around did not give me a perfect distribution. Thinking logically, I realised that dosing into a centred pile in the basket and allowing the tamp to spread the coffee outwards would give a more consistent distribution. Under these principles, distributing with my finger was also out the window. Then I came to tamping. As I previously mentioned, tapping is out. Those few coffee grinds scattered around the wall of the basket just weren't significant in the overall shot to justify it. Also, the need for a soft tamp, followed by a heavy tamp didn't seem efficient if I wasn't planning to tap. Finally, polishing the coffee puck could be done in the same motion as lifting the tamp out from my one and only tamp.
After all these changes, I found myself left with a simple and efficient method with half the amount of steps, however awkward it felt at first.
1.Grind the coffee into the portafilter, focusing on creating a centred pile in the basket.
2.Tamp the coffee at my desired weight, spinning the tamper after releasing pressure and before lifting it out.
3.Wipe off the rim of the basket and wings
4.Lock and load
This level of simplification felt incomplete at first. I felt as though I had lost the theatrical aspect to the pouring of espresso, like I was trivialising a holy process. But the more I used my more simplified technique, the more I realised that efficiency is more important than theatre. So many of the those steps were detrimental to the quality of the shot, adding more variables than they erased. I was even getting more consistent pours from a naked portafilter and seeing much fuller shots before blonding crept in.
I'm not saying that there isn't room for the sort of measurement and experimentation we have all partaken in during the development of our barista careers. What I am saying is that we need to be more aware of each of the steps we take in the process. Efficiency and speed should be paramount in a coffee bar, without sacrificing quality. The more variables that we can prevent ourselves from introducing, the more we can hope to control and understand the variables that already exist. So please, give it a go, analyse your technique, remove the extraneous steps in your process, and compare the consistency and resulting shots side by side, you may be surprised.