Express Espresso

Espresso from a Naked Portafilter

I am utterly in love with the process of brewing coffee. I appreciate every method and am at peace with how little we know. This “un-knowing” provides and opportunity to learn, innovate, and move forward, even if it happens by moving back.

There is one method in particular that keeps me perplexed. Yes, you guessed right: Espresso. In a recent conference at the Nordic Barista Cup, James Hoffman gave quite an interesting talk, a summary if you will, of a topic he has been addressing for quite some time on his blog. In his presentation he mentions Espresso’s history, its reinventions, and its current state.

As far as I am concerned Espresso is the backbone of the Specialty Coffee industry right now, which to me is a bit sad. Not because we are serving Espresso, but because instead we are serving a highly inconsistent beverage mostly due to its name. See, Espresso was invented to extract coffee quickly, and provide cups to more people in a shorter period of time. So far thats all good. Except as far as I understand the main intention of a high end Specialty Coffee shop isn’t to plow through a line of customers, but rather to serve exceptional coffee. History, mostly due to the industry, has created a precedent of what espresso should be, which includes a short period of time for a Barista to pull that shot. This speed of service is going against what I think we should be striving for; better coffee in the cup.

I can, with my two hands, count the number of experiences I’ve had in which after one sip I say “Wow, that is amazing espresso.” The list shortens as the espresso cools. Only a couple of times have I had a shot of espresso that is still amazing after it cools. On the other hand, I’ve had innumerable amazing experiences with brewed coffee, which seems to always get attacked.

Brewing espresso is hard. It is even harder when you have a line of customers, a hot grinder, a volumetric or timed dose, an uneven tamp, etc. During Jame’s presentation he addressed where he sees room for improvement in espresso. Better (green) coffee in blends and grinders that keep cool and don’t hold on to coffee and can grind weighted doses and have seasoned burrs (if burrs is what the manufacturer decide to stick with), as well as better baskets.

All these problems, mechanically at least, can be fixed. The best espresso I have tasted came from the hands of an Aerospace Engineer who saw these problems and hacked away at his grinder, baskets, espresso machine, and tamping techinque until he got what he wanted. The result? An extraction time of 1:30, hardly express. Not even legally Espresso if the SCAA were involved.

This goes to support the following proposal. I believe that to improve the quality of espresso in the cup, on top of resolving the issues brought up by James, we should ;

1.- Change Its Name: Making espresso right is not an easy process and it takes time. Its name comes from history but what we are trying to achieve with espresso today is not an Express cup of coffee. Its name is setting us up for failure, as far as quality and consistency go. The beverage we all dream about is simply a pressurized and filtered extraction of a tamped puck of coffee. It doesn’t necessarily need to be prepared in 25 seconds.

2.- Study: Many already do. However it is not often that those who study the process make espresso for customers. This is not specifically for espresso, the whole industry has to spend more time and money educating the people who are interacting with the process of brewing.

3.- Change the Process: It takes the Engineer I mentioned earlier about 10 minutes to distribute and tamp his coffee, including several steps I’ve never before seen in a shop. In an effort to “feed” the line we are rampantly grinding and unevenly tamping, resulting in inconsistent shots that we are paying up to $4 for. Spending more time evenly distributing and tamping may even give the grinders a little more time to cool between grinds (not exempting the hot grinder issue from resolution).

I love espresso as well as its process, but I think we ought to do it right and doing it right may mean we don’t serve 100 drinks per hour. I am not trying to preach a business model or style of shop, and I am aware that there is room and a customer for every cup of coffee. However, I do think shops that are charging a premium for a new experience and amazing coffee should fulfill their intention.

During the Q&A session at James’ presentation a man while posing his question mentioned the involvement of Engineers from other industries. I am absolutley for that, and know that most of the problems James mentioned could be resolved by Engineers. However, the engineers who could resolve these problems get paid for resolving these problems, making an already expensive coffee grinder even more expensive. But that is another topic…

Here is a link to the presentation. I highly recommend it.

Image from: [   artist: koh]

4 Responses to “Express Espresso”
  1. fabian11 says:

    You make a great argument of what is unusual and should be changed about the way that Espresso is made today. Espresso is not express, i.e. it takes way too long, it is uneven, and it can’t be enjoyed when it is cold. It sounds like the drink was invented to make quicker, more even extraction for coffee that can be enjoyed at any time. Consequently, modern day espresso is nothing like it used to be.

    But what did it used to be? Why was the name Espresso given to this type of extraction? Was it different? Was it more even, enjoyable, quick?

    • lalinpv says:

      Hey Fabian,

      I highlly recommend you watch at least the first part of the video posted at the bottom. It talks about the specifics of the origin of Espresso and further on comments on its evolution. The name was originally given to the extraction for its speedy preperation time compared to the then usual 4-6 minute brew time per cup. Yes, it was very different. It was not the small, crema-laden beverage we now know but rather a larger cup of coffee sans foam. Was it more even? Who knows. More enjoyable? Who knows. Quicker? Well, just as quick as espresso is today. In your comment you mention that Espresso takes to long. I beg to differ. The argument I am trying to establish is to spend more time preparing espresso. You also mention that it can’t be enjoyed while cold. Most coffees, with the exception of cold brew, are not very pleasant after they’ve sat brewed for some time. But it is also important to notice that coffee should be drank at around 150 degrees F, and most espresso when allowed to cool to that temperature from extracting temperature is pretty sour. Our palates are not as receptive when dealing with extreme temperatures (very hot or very cold) so a very hot shot of espresso is better at concealing its flaws. As it cools, a proper extraction should not taste under/over extracted, which is mostly the case, but rather pleasant instead.

      I hope this answers your question.


      • fabian11 says:

        Patience is right. Not just for the Barista. The other day, I went to the quick to get little caffeine to read. I ordered my drink and started a conversation with the Barista Lady. We talked about precision of espresso, coffee sourcing and much more. In the meantime, she made 10 different espresso shots and tasted them. “Shift change, gotta make sure it’s up to my standards”, she said. I thought it was kinda funny that on the eleventh try, she finally dropped the perfect espresso into with the chocolate and milk, and the honey I added. I barely tasted the Espresso. The consumer waits longer, even if he does not need the quality the Barista looks for. In many ways, this is where I see the coffee movement right now. A bunch of talented, interested forward-thinking people that serve a growing demand of coffee-interested people. But most of those people just want their caffeine. There is an imbalance between perfection of skill and desire for a quality cup of coffee.

      • lalinpv says:

        I think its commendable that the Barista took appropriate measures to make sure the extraction was up to her standards. It is interesting however to see how it took her 11 shots to calibrate considering the Barista before her was pulling (hopefully) shots of the quality she was aiming for. This goes to prove that the slightest variation in tamping, dosing pattern, and distribution of grounds can lead to drastically different extractions.

        It would have been unfair for her to serve you the first “unacceptable” shot just because you were doctoring up with chocolate and honey. I believe that in any craft in which the intention is to serve a quality product the effort should be made regardless of what the customer does to alter the nature of the product. Gordon Ramsay would never serve you half raw fries just because he knew you were adding ketchup.

        I agree that more and more people serving coffee have knowledge of what they are doing, however compared to many other service industries, education amongst Baristas is still lacking, in my opinion.

        And yes you are right. Coffee, for a majority of people, is just a drug. And that is perfectly fine as well. I wish that it wasn’t, and I continue to share my passion to show that it can be much more than just caffeine, and this is what I believe is the core of Specialty Coffee. As far as the imbalance you speak of goes, I am imagining you are talking about the amount of knowledgable people in the coffee industry vs unaware consumers? If so yes you are also correct. To go back to the conclusion of this post, Specialty Coffee is here to provide a new experience and exceptional coffee. That is my intention, and that is how I try to balance the imbalance.

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