Coffee Cup
"Espresso! My Espresso!"
An Ongoing Internet Novelette
by Randy Glass - Copyright 2002 - All rights reserved

Coffee Cup
A Lot Of Great Espresso

     I finally invited my friend, the commercial roaster I have spoken of so many times, and his girlfriend over for dinner and an evening of socializing. Of course, part of the evening.. actually, a big part of the evening was spent talking about coffee, espresso, the coffee business, espresso education and such. I had the foresight earlier in the week to call and ask him to bring some of his roasted house blend over. I told him I wanted to let him loose on my machine to see what he could do with it.

     Silvia had been on some hours by the time dinner was over and as the girls sat down to talk and the boys went to work pulling shots. The following took place about two or three hours ago and my head is still spinning from the experience- from the caffeine, and also from what I learned.

     It wasn't long before my friend found himself at home with Silvia and Rocky. I watched carefully as he dosed, leveled and tamped the first shot. I had him measure two scoops of beans at a time into Rocky as I knew that the grind would have to be adjusted to his roast and/or technique as we went along. He dosed and tamped the first double. I was at first taken by his lack of care in dosing and leveling. No real care about getting the grounds even in the PF, and he just leveled them off casually with a finger. It appeared that there was even a cavity here and there where the coffee was not completely filling the basket. I watched carefully as he tamped and it was clear that he was tamping with less force than I had been. This first double he pulled flowed far to quickly, with too much total volume, and turned light in color too soon. He smelled it and it went down the sink without a tasting. I asked and he said that he used about a twenty pound tamp- I have been using about a twenty-five to thirty pound tamp.

     He clicked Rocky one click finer, two scoops of beans went in, and he ground another double. This one flowed much better, stayed darker longer, but did lose just a bit to much viscosity at the end. We tasted this one and it was pretty decent.

     The search continued, and once again Rocky was set one additional click finer. For those keeping score, before whole this session started I was grinding at an actual +4 (indicated +2 on Rocky as my actual zero point is at -2) so we were now grinding at an actual +2 (indicated 0). This shot was excellent. It not only looked great coming from the spouts, looked great in the cup, but it tasted great as well.

     He then tried it with my current house blend, home roast and that was also excellent. The sweetness was a bit greater (I use a lot of Mandheling- more than he uses), but the flavor, texture, and follow were comparable. It was now my turn (I wasn't going to let him have ALL the fun!). I pulled a double with my blend, using the same finer grind and lighter tamp he had been using, and once again, it was an excellent shot- pretty much a duplicate of what he had produced using my blend.

     He tried one click again finer, now at an actual +1 above burrs touching (indicated -1) and this time it was over-extracted. You could smell it in the cup and taste it in the shot. Back to indicated “0” and a couple more excellent double shots were pulled. I now know that when I was advocating grinding finer and tamping lighter that I was on the right track, but I had just not gone far enough. I will recommend to you, that if you are having trouble getting a decent cup of espresso at home, and you are starting with a quality blend and roast, to just keep grinding finer and tamping lighter. It worked here. But why?

     Dr. John explained it quite well on not too long ago if memory serves. Under-extracted espresso is nasty. Generally speaking, the “stronger” it is the better it tastes. Weak espresso has all the easily-extracted elements in it. These are mostly bitter (like water-soluble caffeine which is exceedingly bitter). As the extraction becomes more complete, fuller, the oils, colloids, and other difficult-to-extract elements begin to be pulled from the grounds. These not only work to overwhelm the bitter taste, but some of them actually act to isolate the tongue from the bitterness. Stronger espresso is better tasting espresso.

     Of course, over-extracted espresso will not taste good. This comes from action such as exposing the coffee to too hot water temperatures or pulling a shot for too long of a period of time. From my experience tonight I would say that if your machine is brewing with water that is anywhere near the proper temperature, and with all the other “rules” of pulling an espresso shot being followed, then under-extraction is far more likely a problem than over-extraction.

     If you are not pleased with your espresso, try this: Ignore the clock, ignore the temperature read outs and ignore the temp surf. Get back to basics. Try one click finer and a lighter tamp- about 15 to twenty pounds of pressure. Just enough to settle the grounds. Work towards ABOUT two ounces in ABOUT 25 seconds. Watch the flow from the spouts. If it get real light in color then adjust accordingly by grinding another click finer. And keep going finer (don't let the burrs of your grinder touch!). Adjust the tamp lighter if need be. I feel that you will find that it is very easy to under-extract by grinding too coarse even if you are within the 25second/two ounce “rule.” But as you grind finer and produce a fuller and more complete extraction your espresso will improve. Once you get to that point, then fine tune with temperature control and timing methods that you feel have worked in the past.

     We had spent about an hour tasting and discussing espresso and by now we were paying for it- the tasting past, anyway. My knock box was about as full as I had ever seen it and I was pretty well awake, I can tell you. So was my roaster friend.

     If you didn't notice, at no time during this did I mention anything about temp surfing or boiler temperatures. He pulled his shots when he was ready, whether the boiler light was on or not, and regardless of the temperature indicated by my boiler-mounted thermometer. No temp surfing, no bleeding of the boiler, nothing. Lock, load, and “FIRE IN THE HOLE!” with no countdown whatsoever. And they were still tasty. I can't wait to apply this with some temp control added in to the equation. It can only get better!

     As we waited for the caffeine to burn off to a manageable level so we could take a walk in the cold night air (37 degrees out at about 9:30 this evening) we talked about how a small adjustment here and there in the process, just as we had experienced this evening, can make a huge difference in the quality of the espresso. He illustrated this by telling me of a coffee shop where he had helped them tune their espresso much in the same way he had done here at my home this evening. A little temperature adjustment here, and a little grinder adjustment there, and such. He took them from a bitter, under-extracted espresso, to a smooth and sweet brew, just s he had done for me. The shop barrista called him a few days later and stated that his customers were now complaining that they couldn't taste the coffee. That's how accustomed they had become to the bitterness of the under-extraction cutting through the milk, sugar, and chocolate syrup. You'll hear no such complaints around here!

     "So what'll it be today, folks? Can I start anyone with a straight espresso?"

Coffee Cup
  -   -   - Silvia
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