In Pursuit of Lazy & Repeatable EK43 Gloop

I have nothing new to add to this conversation, if you read @strivefortone’s blog entries on this matter and Mat North’s blog entries on this matter and you “get it” then don’t be expecting new insights here, this is merely my own “EKsperience report” into experimenting with the freeze/tighten/drop world and the EK43.

This is on request as my Instagram has had quite a few messages asking “what is going on with those weird shots…?”

I’ve had a hard time explaining because what I’m currently doing is the intersection of trying to sate two completely independent desires and it’s not easy to separate the results.

Anyway, the last year or so…

Just over a year ago now I was still in Japan, I ended up spending half a year there without my EK43 and mostly drinking filter coffee at the excellent PNB Coffee. When I did venture out of this pattern I’d be found drinking more “traditional” third-wave espresso as that was what was available in Tokyo – medium comfort roasts and tighter gloopy ratios than what I was used to.

Going even further down that path I also in a moment of crazy experimentation tried one of these bad-boys from Streamer Coffee.

Ooft.

When I finally returned from Japan I found myself craving more sweetness, more body, less acidity; all those things that if we’re honest with ourselves – most of the run of the mill customers swinging by and just “picking up a coffee” will find easier to consume without having to interrupt their morning with flavour notes/warnings.

I at this point then experimented with dropping temperature/pressure and tightening up my shots but returned to the classic EKSpresso ala my original blog entry fairly quickly because I wasn’t able to get the experience I wanted out of this setup and the EKspresso (on the whole) simply tasted better.

I then spent a couple more months without the EK43 as it got broken in transit from an event in Ukraine so I brought in a dozen different tea varieties and loved the simplicity of adding water at the right temperature and the right time and never having to faff around just to get a cup of hot tasty liquid.

I also picked up a Nespresso machine and some of Colonna’s capsules – they tasted good, they were repeatable and they were better than 90% of the cafes in the UK – I want coffee to be like that always and then I want the other 10% too.

When the EK43 came back I immediately felt the burden as I started throwing coffee through it as part of my daily ritual.

The growing pains of Home Espresso

Dialling in is a total ball-ache.

Every morning I’d weigh out half a dozen doses of that day’s espresso beans and use the first three to dial in, starting with yesterday’s recipe as a starting point. Coffee is an organic product and changes even throughout the course of the day.

This unfortunately means that in order to drink a cup of coffee, I’d usually have to taste a pile of bad coffee beforehand which sorely reduced the desire or even ability to simply sit down and enjoy that cup of coffee.

This is fine in a service setting, it is not fine when you are the only one drinking the coffee.

Multi-roaster means wasted coffee

Not including the waste from dialling in – after a few weeks of sitting in my kitchen most bags of coffee would start tasting hollow, woody, dull, etc. This would limit my ability to order great beans which meant I would find myself unable to order the beans I wanted when they were available for sale and then resorting to lesser products later on because those beans were now sold out.

Scheduling bean deliveries is hard

I travel a lot (or used to anyway, I really am trying harder not to this year) and had to try and schedule bean deliveries for when I was in and then to try and make sure that I had sensibly aged beans by the time I arrived back from whatever trip I was next on.

This usually meant ordering beans as soon as I arrived back at my house and a day or two before I left my house so that my time away could be used to age new arrivals and so on and so forth.

Caffeine intake is hard to control

Because I tended to up-dose for the EK43 and then pull big gushy shots, I could usually manage two of these 55g gushers a day and then I was out. That hardly allows for variety does it?! Not to mention being unable to make sensible milk drinks. I like the occasional milk drink.

This is all so frustrating and all I wanted was a cup of coffee

New Goals

The point of that meandering backstory above is that I now had several new goals to achieve with my home espresso

  1. I wanted sweeter, gloopier espresso
  2. I didn’t want to have to dial in coffee every bloody time
  3. I wanted smaller cups of coffee
  4. I wanted to be able to order in any coffee I desired and not worry about it going stale
  5. I wanted to simply drink a cup of coffee in the morning and not have an ordeal doing so

Freezing beans

Having been following Michael Cameron and Mat North and their adventures it seemed that freezing my beans might help me attain most of the above without too much fuss.

Having been meaning to get around to this for some time, I finally picked up a vacpac machine at the start of this year, froze some beans and then dialled in via refractometer with those frozen beans (Start with a gusher at a desired ratio, work your way up until EY starts dropping again, somewhere around this point is usually a sweet spot) some frozen beans from a roastery that I didn’t even like that much.

The result was an espresso that was “almost enjoyable”, whereas the best I’d managed with that bean up until then was “barely tolerable” (They were pretty insoluble beans and I suspect it just got easier to pull something out of them). I also gained quite a few notches on the EK43 dial because I was grinding a lot coarser to get the same sort of times than I would have been.

Not in itself enough to warrant celebration but it was an interesting start.

Dropping pressure

Despite that extra space on the dial, I was at this point still on fairly high doses (19g) and dishing out shots around 50g in weight. Dropping to 16g I found it hard to control at my usual 9 bars and so dropped my pressure down to 5bars where I still had a lot of leeway on the dial.

Dropping temperature

Despite the extra space on the dial and the more controllable shots at lower doses, I was easily hitting bitter extractions at 94C unless I brought my shot times below 20s even for ratios just a tad over 1:2 – in my quest for “repeatable” this was a bit of a “no go” because an extra second at this sort of speed means an extra 5 grams of coffee and a completely different espresso shot. (16g to 32g is very different to 16g to 37g!)

Previously when I had dropped temp/pressure and tightened up my shots with room temperature beans the results tended to be underwhelming, it was hard to get any real sweetness out of any of the beans I had available without making those shots almost as long as my traditional EKspresso shots at which point I had the sweetness but none of the clarity and none of the desired body and therefore had gained nothing and lost a lot by trying to be be clever.

This time, using frozen beans with just that one lousy batch of unwanted coffee seemed to really sort this problem out, not only was I having controllable ~30s shots with 16g doses at 1:2 but they were even tasting good with beans I didn’t even like that much.

The first real test

A day or so later I was away on holiday and a batch of coffee that I knew I actually liked was finally ready for brewing as espresso, I stuck it in the freezer the morning before and dialled in the evening before I flew out.

The next morning it was 6am and I was preparing for my flight, I hadn’t touched the grinder from the previous day’s dialling in and I ran four shots through at exactly 16g -> 34g in 35s) which was the previous day’s recipe. They all tasted great and most importantly I didn’t feel as though I’d wasted any time making them.

On returning a week later, again not moving the dial from that original position I repeated the experiment to exactly the same results (although I chose to then adjust the recipe because my own subjective mood wanted something a little brighter).

I resolved to start sticking all my beans in the freezer to see how this would do long-term and whether the results were consistently acceptable.

A couple of months later

I’ve now got a freezer full of beans (as is the fashion these days) and I’ve got a list of recipes next to the machine (onto my second list now, I get through a lot of coffee).

One of the touted advantages of this frozen bean malarkey has been stated to be “one size fits all” recipes and similar grind settings and I’m not so sure about that seeing as my recipes seem to be quite diverse.

The Menu

I have found however that I’ve got the ability to use a far greater range of beans from across the spectrum and have therefore been doing so – and that might account for my variety of recipes as well. I could probably split them into three groups (Traditional 1:2 @ 25-30s, Lighter 1:2 @ 30-35s,Lighter Still 1:2.5 @ 30-35s) and that would cover pretty much every coffee in my freezer.

No Dialling In

What is for sure, is that when I make my morning coffee I can look at my sheet, weigh out a single dose of beans (or two if I have a guest) and put through two shots that will be close-enough to the sheet and taste “okay”. I haven’t had to do a morning dial-in for weeks now

Gloop

Most of my shots now tend to fall in the 1:2 range with a TDS between 9 and 11 (which is almost an EKstretto), I get a lot of sweetness (perceived or otherwise) at this ratio at the cost of clarity (which if I wanted, frankly I’d use a cupping bowl).

The ability to do this has (probably) come from the increased extraction over tighter ratios facilitated by the frozen beans generating greater amounts of fines. (probably, from what I’ve read, I don’t really care about the reason, I just care about the result).

Consistency

With the long gushing shots, the key metric to define success on the consistency front once already dialled-in tended to be “time”, a few grams here or there didn’t make much difference at a ratio of 1:3 but a couple of seconds would render a shot undrinkable.

With these shorter gloopier numbers, I find that weight is a lot more important and I actually have a lot of leeway with time – with the exception of a couple of knife-edge beans I’ve found that I have 2-3s either side of my goal where the coffee will taste “good enough” providing I hit the weight target and I’ll be happy to drink it.

Some of this is down to me trying to be a lot more relaxed about what it is I am drinking (although there are limits) and most of it is down to those shots actually being pretty delicious.

At the low temperature of 92C (and I’m considering going lower) it seems a lot harder to hit bitter flavours and the frozen beans allow me to grind at a level here I can generate enough resistance at that temperature. (Lower the temperature, the finer you usually have to grind).

Waste

In terms of coffee, I’m not wasting any; I’ve resolved to not buy coffee in from un-trusted roasteries and even when I branch out and risk the occasional espresso roast it’ll generally be usable and tasty enough for my morning coffee.  That means all of the coffee I buy actually gets drunk (I don’t think any bags are in the freezer more than a month yet as I tend to get through them

I’m not so keen on the plastic waste from the vac-pac bags which have to be cut open each time, it goes straight into recycling but I find myself wishing for vacuum sealable zip-lock bags or similar. I am thinking about using the manufacturer plastic urns for this purpose but I’ll need to do a side-by-side comparison with the bags to see if they’re actually going to keep the beans as well

Smaller cups of coffee

Apart from the lighter filter roasts that I stick through that need the extra few grams output (and even then I’m on 16g doses so…), I find myself being able to have 3-4 espressos through the day now which means I can actually sample a lot more coffee.

Mission Accomplished…

Two separate sets of goals achieved with a number of variables being changed in how I make espresso at home.

  • Low doses are a requirement for smaller espresso shots, low pressure allows this without simply gushing through the puck
  • Lower temperature shots allow me to pull those shots for longer without hitting undesirable flavours
  • Freezing the beans allows me to grind at a coarseness that still generate resistance for both those low doses and low temperatures
  • These shorter, tighter shots are sweeter and more “coating”, some would say at the cost of “clarity” but that’s a goal I’ve thrown by the wayside anyway
  • Freezing the beans means my recipes don’t change, meaning I don’t have to dial in beyond the initial session (which is usually only three shots anyway)

One of the cool side effects of this is that I’ve been able to use some espresso roasts now (even those simple Brazilians) and despite the EK traditionally turning most of them into roasty messes over 15 seconds I’m able to enjoy those simple and sweet coffees the way they were meant to.

I’ve even started buying in decaf because it’s all so damned tasty I want to drink espresso in the evenings too.

I hope this goes some way into explaining the recipes being seen on my Instagram and at the very least the motivation behind what I am doing. I have no doubt that it’s not to everybody’s taste and I still really enjoy those long EKspresso shots; just when they’re dialled in by somebody else (like @bcktoblckcoffee ).

 

The Monopoly On Taste

Something happens to people who start roasting, they become analytical machines capable of objectively describing coffee in terms that are exact and precise – that’s why they spend so much time calling each others’ coffee roasty, underdeveloped or baked because they’ve all agreed what those things mean and they’re all correct about it all of the time.

A Story from the UK Coffee Roasting Championships

I was at a “fun” cupping table at this event with a whole bunch of coffee from a bunch of roasters in London (tasted blind so if you wanted to refer to a cup you’d do it by number or by its dominant flavour).

One of the cups was clearly a Kenyan – which to me tend to taste of tomatoes (sometimes ripe ones, sometimes not). When I was trying to communicate with another friend about the coffee I had just tried I referred to it as the “tomatoey one”.

A voice bellowed from next to me quite aggressively, “It’s not tomatoey”

Ah yes, I realised, I’m stood around the table with a bunch of roasting competitors and my taste experience is therefore invalid and wrong because I am incapable of being objective and using the correct words because that’s what they all do all of the time. (roll eyes).

I tried explaining that tomato was what I tasted and that it’s not (always) a negative taste descriptor for me and this was met with a wall of refusal followed by dismissal because he found out I wasn’t in the secret cabal of roasters and therefore not worth listening to. The end message being simply: “Around this table we are being objective so you are wrong to taste that”.

(side note: with the exception of one exceptionally roasty coffee, most of the cups on the table tasted a little underdeveloped because they were roasted in London and then thrown in Glasgow water with little calibration or dial-in, so tomato may have been “correct” even in that context –  this is by the by however…)

Tasting notes and the common person

One of the tasting notes that my stepmother recently identified in a natural Ethiopian I had stashed away in a suitcase was “marmite”.

I had to think quite hard about that to work out which bit of the coffee she was referring to and I ended up pulling out a jar of Marmite to compare. It turns out that the yeast present in the marmite spread has a similar sort of aroma to a fermented coffee (Yes, natural coffees are mostly shite because of this but that’s outside the scope of this little rant).

Is Marmite a valid taste descriptor? Was she wrong to taste Marmite? No; taste is entirely subjective and while the process of getting a coffee cherry into a cup is for a large part a scientifically objective process the resulting experience is nearly always a subjective one for the vast majority of people.

Professionalism and Objectivity

We try to calibrate on known terms as part of sensory training in the coffee industry, this is done via the official SCAA/E tasting lexicons, Q grading and sensory exams as part of the diploma program (and as part of judge calibration too).

This is useful because in the rare cases where two people have both tasted the reference flavour for a particular note (Oregan Blueberries for example) they can both say Blueberries and know exactly what they’re referring to (even if the subject matter itself doesn’t really correspond to the experience either of them have really had with blueberries over the course of their lives).

Most of us do not have this luxury – and some of us have decided that we’re not interested in even trying to even go down this rabbit-hole because it’s far easier to get coffee into the hopper, see if we like it and then serve it if we do and stop there).

Communicating with most roasters is an exercise in frustration because by and large they tend to operate in their caves, don’t talk to each other or other people and are happy with the product they’re producing and are generally miserable about the product other people are producing.

“You are wrong to taste that”

Is a prime example of why these days I don’t bother talking to roasters, when they invalidate somebody’s subjective taste experience because they “know better” they are in fact being boring “coffee wanks” and become people not worth talking to.

This is a common interaction though either through explicit statements like the above or the casual and implicit dismissal of opinion because we’re not a roaster (or we’re a roaster that they don’t like) and therefore aren’t worth listening to.

The dismissal of an experience, the dismissal of subjective (and fairly casual statements) because this is a Serious Business for Serious People who have to be objective in every interaction is hugely harmful in gaining useful feedback from the people who do matter – those that actually drink the coffee from something other than cups at the cupping table in the roastery.

This is essentially a human thing; a social interaction – which for those of us who want more than just a shot of caffeine is what coffee is all about; reducing it to “incorrect” and “correct” taste descriptors simply ruins the experience for everybody involved and alienates people who might actually give you useful feedback about your product over time.

Something to think about anyway.

 

 

Some Thoughts From Running My Glasgow Cafe On Tinder

Cafe Ashton.

I’ve always tongue-in-cheek referred to my apartment as being a bit of an exclusive cafe experience – slinging the best EKspresso in town but it wasn’t until a few months ago when I got back from Japan and set up my Tinder profile to explicitly invite new customers that I started to get some real guests in off the street.

tinder_cafe

I’ve had a lot of fun with the project because nearly every single interaction with my guests has started with “I don’t really like coffee but...” and ended with “Wow, wow wow, this espresso is amazing can I have another one please?” so let’s talk about that.

The Expectation/Reality Gap

We have a situation in the coffee industry where we spend most of our time catering for people who already like coffee in whatever form it takes. They’re not averse to bitterness, not averse to dirty flavours in their cup and not averse to dark roasted wet hulled Sumatran mud-in-a-bucket. That their coffee sometimes tastes nice is probably a pleasant surprise but they probably don’t come to the shop because the coffee tastes nice – they come to the shop because they’re on the way to work or the barista is very handsome/pretty and they’ve got a crush on them or their fancy latte art.

That’s great – they pay the bills I guess but they pay the bills only to a certain price point because we’re competing with the Costa or Starbucks around the corner on their terms and racing to the bottom on price and there is only so much we can get away with before these people go there instead because really they’re happy with any old cuppa so long as it wakes them up enough that they can walk into that 9am meeting that somebody thought was a good idea and resist the urge to flip the table and set the place on fire the first time somebody offers to “take the discussion offline”.

These customers are pretty rubbish really and yet we constantly cater for them with the most middle-of-the-road coffees we can find at the prices we can afford to sell them at whilst telling ourselves that because we serve a higher quality product people will somehow notice this and come and buy the good stuff off us instead.

These customers are also rubbish because they ask for things like macchiatos out of habit and dump three sugars in their espresso even though it’s going to make it taste like soap and you’ve warned them it’s going to taste like soap but they’re the customer and they know best and they’re going to put three sugars in their espresso without tasting it because you’ve told them that it’s “coffee” and they know how they like to drink their coffee so shut up already because you’re the barista and you’ve got a warped view of the world.

Yes I have worked in Germany thanks for asking – I know all about the real world and have had to watch customers do things to their drinks that I know is going to give them a bad experience (and give me nightmares) and there is nothing I can do about it because those customers who have always liked coffee are the worst customers and catering for them is the worst thing for our collective sanity.

Gaining New Custom

The problem is that the middle of the road garbage we’re pumping out for the people who already have a preconceived notion of what coffee is at the price point we’re having to do that at isn’t ever going to change anybody’s minds if they don’t like coffee already. It’s not different enough to stand out as anything other than coffee and they’re unlikely to really enjoy it unless it has 8oz of whole milk dumped over it and at that point why bother anyway?

I don’t do middle of the road garbage at Cafe Ashton, I typically buy coffee that I want to drink and that people already familiar with coffee would drink and respond with “That doesn’t taste like coffee” – in a shop this is dangerous territory because if you’re offering coffee and then serving something that doesn’t taste like coffee you’re going to get some upset old men on your case (especially in Glasgow).

I get that, but what it does mean is that my guests who don’t like coffee (which is most of them) tend to be given neat EKspresso and instantly get floored by the sweet and sticky fruity goodness. “Why don’t coffee shops serve this?” they ask again and again and then I have to go into that tired old spiel about dishing out fruity Kenyan espresso is going to be upsetting a lot of people because it doesn’t taste like coffee and the good stuff is too expensive to be doing that with anyway at the price point that people expect and blah blah and so on.

Forget “Coffee”

Obviously at the conferences that we run with Tame Baristas we’re able to reset expectations because the coffee is free and we’re able to give an intro to every person as they swing by with their order (remember – we end up with 75% orders as neat espresso because of this).

We can’t do this in a shop because it’s arseholish (it is), those people who want their morning “coffee” aren’t looking for an “experience” and nor should we be trying to force it on them – but where are the coffee shops serving the mad gourmet shit and re-branding it to gain new custom from those who wouldn’t have ordinarily come in for coffee?

These people have no prior expectations about price and don’t want their coffee to in any way resemble the Nescafe or Nespresso that most people spoon into themselves at home by the gallon. These people  are the wrong people to be marketing “coffee” at, perhaps in the same vein as the “Gary” Vegan Cheese Incident we should be calling it something different to get their attention – I suggest starting with “Heaps Mad Fruity Gourmet Shit” and working your way up from there.

There is a whole market out there that is entirely untouched and somebody needs to be the first to successfully pull these people in and start charging sensible prices for the experience and de-couple it from the negative connotations that the word “coffee” brings to the table. Cafe Ashton is only so big and can only do so much volume before the neighbours complain at the constant noise coming from the EK43.

Worth thinking about anyway, I haven’t seen a coffee shop trying to sell to this market yet and tricks are being missed.

EKSpresso for the masses

The game

A few months ago I was jokingly asked to personally cater the coffee for a conference (Devsum) I regularly speak at by the organisers who have been watching my learnings about coffee over the last year or so. Knowing that this was a two day event with 700 captive attendees, I enthusiastically accepted with the up-front admittance that I’d need help from somebody who actually knows how to run a busy coffee bar and that I’d need a budget for very specific coffee and equipment (EK43 + at least a two group La Marzocco volumetric machine).

To my surprise a budget was found and I found myself frantically trying to find suppliers for the equipment and coffee and to get help from the local Swedish crowd. This turned out to be an exercise in frustration, with initial promising communications either being ghosted by e-mail or simply turned around a week later with a “no we can’t help you”. Somehow we ended up with the gear we needed though via an informal rental agreement with Johan & Nystrom for the EK43 and Ditting grinders and via Espressospecialisten for the two group Linea AV and batch brewers.

As I was given budget to bring help in, I asked James Wallace from Back to Black to help and he graciously agreed to come out to Sweden and help with this silly endeavour (by help, I mean take charge of the bar and tell me what to do and how to do it).

We didn’t want to skimp on the coffee and we wanted to truly blow some minds – conference coffee is (for lack of a better word) usually shit – and even when they bother getting in real baristas the coffee is still just the standard sort of muddy crap you can get from any half-arsed “third-wave” operation on the high street, playing it safe for commercial reasons and not making any waves. For want of a better phrase – sack that.

In preparation for the event (having absolutely no experience of coffee bar workflow and being unable to use a commercial steam wand), I picked up four guest shifts in Glasgow a month beforehand and considered my preparation “done”. Two of these were with James at Bakery47, so I had a good idea of what the EK43 workflow would look like, one of them was in a quiet pop-up by Dear Green on a little Mazzer and Linea set-up and the other was at Spitfire Espresso where I took over a shift from the co-owner Danny and pretended to know what I was doing for the afternoon. Many thanks now extended to the owners of these businesses who took the risk of letting this “home barista” loose behind their bars and in front of their customers.

The coffee

Koppi are excellent and local, Johan & Nystrom have a wide selection of coffees of which some are the type of thing we’d like to serve – Drop are also excellent and local. Papercup in Glasgow are our friends and occasionally pull in some stonking beans that just need to be shared.

With this in mind, we grabbed a day’s worth of beans from Koppi (their Colombian Buena Vista – Washed Caturra) for espresso, a day’s worth of a Kenyan Oreti Natural SL14 also for espresso (!!!) and a variety of beans from Johan & Nystrom and Drop for keeping the batch brewer interesting during the day (and if people wanted a manual brew during our quiet periods we could cater to them and have a nice conversation about it).

None of this stuff is cheap, it’s high-end specialty coffee and probably twice the price per kilo than anything you’d usually find at this sort of event. The Colombian was a fairly safe (light but easy/sweet) espresso and the Kenyan was (in our words) “Batshit crazy” – which meant it was also a risk because this wasn’t a self-selecting coffee audience but just a cross-section of geek society who (mostly) had mostly not really tried light roasted specialty coffee before.

So commercially this would be a bit “risky”, I have been insisting for years now that this isn’t actually the case and it’s all a matter of framing it properly to the customers (and our experience the coffee festival – an admittedly self-selecting audience backed this up) but this would be a real test. A light roasted Kenyan espresso? A natural at that? A non-industry crowd? Unthinkable – let’s do it.

 

Some numbers

We did over 1000 coffee based drinks in the two day period, in reality we only did about 4-5 hours of service in total (most of the time people were in sessions and not having coffee). We burned through over 14kg of the coffee that we brought with us during this time. Of this, about 800 of the drinks were espresso-based and the rest was from the batch (which grew in popularity as people realised that the stuff in our big jug wasn’t the same as the shite in the other jugs around the conference centre). We would have probably gone through all of our coffee were it not for the late set-up on the first day and the early finish on the second day (we organised pick-up of equipment at around 15:30 in the afternoon). We had to throw away probably 10 espressos during this time because they (probably) weren’t up to our standards.

By all accounts this was a huge success from an EK43 workflow perspective and quality perspective (all of our espresso was from the EK43) and from a general machine/milk/barista-orchestration angle.

Day 1 – The Koppi Washed Colombian

We started off with the Buena Vista because

a) It had actually turned up
b) It was the easier of the two espressos and we knew we needed to ease people into the fruity stuff.

For the first couple of hours of service with the Koppi on spro and the Johan & Nystrom in the batch most people were asking for the standard mix of lattes and cappas, and most people were ignoring the batch because they considered it suspect. The coffee was free and as we are chatty people we chatted to our customers despite the huge queue that would form between sessions. Talking/shouting to one customer would influence the other six customers behind them in the queue and was therefore a good use of our time.

If we were asked what we recommended, we would recommend an espresso – knowing full well that our espresso wasn’t like most espresso and even the non-regular coffee drinkers would probably like it. It was a quality light-roasted bean and was dialled in perfectly to our standards on the EK43 (buckets of sweetness and a light fruity acidity). If the customer agreed to this, the next half-dozen customers would end up asking for espresso too. This kept on happening and I kept on shouting about the batch brew being available and encouraging people to try it.

A few hours later a good 30-40% of our orders were for straight espresso as word got out that what we were serving was not what most people would expect when ordering espresso. We also started shifting more batch as people realised this was a good way to bypass the queue and get a tasty coffee immediately.

We were clearing the queue several times per 20-minute break despite it terrifying the hell out of me when I first saw it and our “repeat business” was booming (not to mention them then bringing their friends with them). When the bell rang and people went back into the session we’d count the doses of espresso we’d used and I’d be amazed to see we were serving 60-70 drinks in this short time period.

The Buena Vista was a great place to start because it was such an accessible espresso and during the day I made sure to tell all the customers (both in the talks I was giving and when serving them) that we were going to be serving something very different once we ran out of the Colombian.

Day 2 – The Papercup Natural Kenyan

I must admit I was nervous about this; I like this coffee as an espresso because it’s completely off-the-wall in pretty much every aspect of flavour and concept. Because we considered this one slightly “darker” (urgh, let’s not use this word too much) we dropped dose and tightened up our brew ratio so effectively we were using about 12g of coffee per espresso drink. The Kenyan was so out of the park that even in an 8oz latte you could taste the serious power of this coffee.

People were queuing up as soon as we had dialled in and asking if we had the “Crazy Kenyan” on yet (the power of advertising to a captive audience) and the day started with us shifting over 50% of our espresso based drinks as neat espresso (and we were getting through 4L of batch brew every break – again the power of education). The amount of neat espresso being served carried on increasing unbelievably and nearly all of our feedback was along the lines of “Wow, I can’t believe coffee can taste like that – it’s amazing”.

We served just as many coffees this day as the previous and people looked mortified when we shut the bar down to pack up again, at 15:30 people were still wanting shots of that natural Kenyan and were disappointed they couldn’t get it.

Wow! Espresso on the natural Kenyan beans really is something! @robdoescoffee #devsum16

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On Education Then

First up, neat espresso served in this style does not accept sugar – rather than balancing out the acidity it almost has a curdling effect on the espresso which turns it sour and is most unpleasant. We didn’t even keep sugar on the bar although there was some present on the back shelves which we were happy to serve people if they really wanted it. We had a few people who asked us if we had sugar for their espresso as clearly they were very used to doing this with their usual brews. We don’t want to be arseholes who get on high horses about the sanctity of coffee but we also don’t want people to go away with a horribly negative experience simply because they added sugar to an espresso that got worse because of it.

We would gently let them know that we’d be happy to give it to them but we’d prefer to serve them milk if they didn’t like the espresso as it was (and we’d be happy to give them sugar for that if it still wasn’t sweet enough). Every single one of them would then sip the espresso and then go “Oh, okay – I don’t need sugar”. Every single one of them. We ended up using no sugar at all – it doesn’t mean I’d choose not to have it – there is a huge difference between saying “We don’t do sugar” and “This style of coffee is going to taste really bad if we put sugar in it but here are some other options if you want to make it sweeter”.

Similarly, we were fairly relaxed about milk drinks at smaller ratios when we were serving the Colombian (Macchiato/Piccolo/Cortado/etc) but when we tasted the Kenyan with these ratios (We all do this right? Taste the espresso with all the ratios to get a feel for what it is we’re serving) it tasted absolutely awful and way out of balance – losing all the nuance of the espresso and gaining little of the sweetness of the milk, it was almost unpalettable.

We resolved that we would advise the customers to either try the neat espresso or get a flat white off us, anything in-between would be advised against because we didn’t want people to get a negative eexperience with our coffee. Surprisingly all of our customers chose to try the espresso without any milk at all and again walked away happy with their drink.

Due to this experience I started offering espresso to people when they asked for a milk drink (while they waited for the milk to be steamed), a large number of these people then decided they didn’t need a milk drink after all and in subsequent returns would then ask for an espresso. Being in a busy service environment the milk wouldn’t get wasted – it’d go to a customer a few people back (after seeing somebody enjoy the neat espresso, folk within ear-shot would invariably change their order to an espresso as well.

Customer expectations are so far removed from what we are serving that we have to almost reset them, and being in an environment where the coffee is pre-paid and the customer isn’t handing over any money directly we were given a lot of flexibility in experimenting with ways of doing this. The trajectory of milk vs espresso orders was a testament to how well this worked – and we ended up using far less milk than we expected on the second day because of this.

It helps that we were being super nice to our customers and they were in a mood to be super nice to us, this is probably a conference thing.

 

On Workflow and Consistency

  • The EK43 + Good Coffee is so damned consistent. With the Koppi we had the EK43 set to 2.3 *for the whole day* and not once had to change it. Pre-dosing our shots no doubt helped with that as the coffee was temperature stable. Conferences are very peaky for traffic and this stability really helped us with the 30 minute lulls between customers as we rarely had to throw any shots away.
  •  So long as you can set expectations and can sell it to them, customers are ready for some really over the top coffee and indeed they loved it, I told them we would be doing something mad-crazy and they couldn’t wait for it to be on the bar because of this.
  •  Milk is still the bottleneck, and we managed to avoid this by converting a lot of our orders to neat espresso – hah, more happy customers
  •  Some of these customers were classic continental types (Italians) who have (by reputation) a very fixed view of what coffee should be, not a problem – see also: expectations once set
  •  Part of this was (apart from some banter with a known friend) was because we weren’t dismissive about their “usual” coffee, what we were doing was simply “different“, not “better” (okay it is better but we don’t need to say this to them…)
  •  Good workflow, once taught makes everything possible. I’m not a “trained” barista but with James’ guidance I managed to fulfil a large amount of the duties without stressing unduly and making a mess of everything. That the pre-dosed EK43 is so dependable probably contributes a lot to this frictionless service.

The thanks

To Tibi for asking and Johanna from Cornerstone for “fixing” so much of what we needed and for James for agreeing to make it possible, to Johan & Nystrom for stepping in with the grinders at the last minute and to Espressospecialisten for being some of the most professional and courteous engineers we have ever had the pleasure of working with – this was amazing and has increased my thirst to do more with this passion…

On Espressospecialisten – our engineer came in and we did him a quick Aeropress of the Colombian before we’d dialled in “It’s a bit crap” I said, “first of the day” his response was “don’t worry, I’ve had two geishas already”.

He sat and watched us work for our final service and didn’t once make us feel as though we needed to shut down in a rush, it was a pleasure to make him and his colleague some of the crazy Kenyan spro (which they very much enjoyed too).

I love interactions like that, pure friendliness and enthusiasm from everybody involved – this event had the feel good factor all over it.

Which brings me to…

Tech event coffee is something that needs shaking up. We have been asked already if we can provide services to more events and seeing how much we enjoyed doing this and how much our customers enjoyed what we were doing, we are opening ourselves up to do more of this in the future.

Hanging out with software developers and being able to bring something very different to the table and give them something to talk about and bond over as well as educating whole waves of people at a time is a very exciting prospect.

We’re calling ourselves “Tame Baristas” and if you know of a (tech) event that wants to do something a bit different at the ludicrously high-end of coffee, we are now available for hire as a team. Given our efficiency structures and absolute focus on consistency and quality we are confident that we can bring something unique to the table.

If you’re a barista who is open to travelling to do (well paid) service at international events and learn the EKspresso workflow, please drop us a line so we can gather a list – it’s time to start team building.

An open letter to my coffee roaster(s)

Dear Coffee Roaster(s)

I’ve been drinking a lot of La Cabra lately.

I’ve had to change my recipes and goals entirely from my usual beans, rather than brewing at the extreme end of 96C with brew ratios of 55g/L, I’m down to 93C at 62g/L and aiming for something lower in EY% and more subtle and yet somehow a little more beautiful.

The colour of these coffee beans is surprisingly light and yet they’re remarkably soluble, it is a very strange thing to witness. I’m used to my coffee being described as “lightly roasted” and there isn’t really much in the way of words left to talk about what La Cabra are shipping here. Brighter is Better they say and Bright is indeed Better I think I agree with now too, if it means extracting a little less from a little more and pulling out just the raw essence of each bean and it results in the cups of coffee I’ve been drinking these past two months then I can’t argue; this is my personal preference and it has been met.

What I want to talk about though is some of the confusion around this. It seems as though the goals I’ve sometimes had with some of my coffee (higher extraction) are better off not being even considered with these beans.  It’s not that higher extractions taste bitter or over-extracted – they just start to get a bit dry or grassy (Yeah, from going too far – not an under-extraction thing) and the wonderful experience I might have at a lower extraction had is lost. According to the refractometer I might have been sitting at 20% EY which didn’t seem high and I might have pushed further and yet the sweetness and brilliance would have been sitting a little lower than that the whole time.

Brighter is Better indeed.

So my typical brew recipe and goals have been changed substantially by a coffee roaster and if I used that with my usual beans it’d taste awful and that got me a-thinking…

The variability of the coffee roast

If you talk to your local coffee roaster about their coffee, they’ll probably tell you the recipes they’re using to brew it and they should probably be listened to because their coffee will taste as they best intended at their preferred temperatures, times, and brew ratios.

If you speak to your local coffee roaster about other roaster’s coffee they will probably use some of these following words: “over-developed, under-developed, unevenly-developed, burned, baked, stalled, too slow, too fast”.

Is it possible that every roaster apart from your local roaster is wrong? Probably not – enough people are drinking enough coffee and enjoying enough coffee that clearly things are being produced by most roasters that are drinkable by the consumers that have gotten used to using their specific recipes to make that coffee taste good.

The real problem comes in buying in coffee from a guest roaster that we are unfamiliar with and applying our standard recipes to that coffee and hoping for similar results; even within a small geographic distance this is rarely the case.

A wide spectrum

Most of the coffee I buy tends to be fairly lightly roasted and require quite an aggressive operation to bring out the sweetness (or be risk being subjected to a 16% EY brew).

If I was used to buying slightly darker coffees (say from North America for example) and I came across one of these European coffees and applied my usual recipes to them I’d be calling them out for being too light, sour, grassy and difficult to drink.

Similarly as I am used to my usual European coffee, when I buy something from North America or Australia than in all likelihood I’d be over-extracting by default and calling  them out for being too dark, roasty or bitter.

Sitting on various internet forums and social media it’s clear to see that there are huge divides over roasted coffee and the recipes then used to turn this coffee into a drink; seeing Aeropress recipes that mentioned temperatures of 85C used to curdle my stomach until I had some coffee that had been roasted with this sort of recipe in mind and I realised what sort of flavour they had been going for.

Different markets are roasting for different consumers within speciality and the recipes being used across those markets tend to differ wildly across the targets that those roasters are aiming for (whether it be sweetness, brightness or simply “ease of use for commercial customers”).

By the way this is why most online training resources are invalid for “the other 50% of people”, they’re usually regionally accurate but globally unhelpful. Palettes vary across continents

It’s not as simple as “Light vs Dark” or “Less-developed vs More-developed” because there are a ton of variables within the roasting process that seem  to affect the end result with respect to sweetness, acidity, solubility and they don’t sit on a simple 2D axis. (I could be wrong here, I don’t roast – but the results I’m getting from my constant buy-in of multiple roasters lead me to this conclusion)

I recently had a really enjoyable (not speciality) coffee from Cafe L’Ambre in Tokyo, the brew ratio was probably 80g/200g (with a total of 50g out) and it was roasted super dark from 30 year old aged beans; stick that on your light/dark scale if you will.

Brewing it “right”

Taste is subjective (there I said it, so don’t bother posting this in the comments), yet once a coffee roaster has their paws on a coffee bean and subjects it to irreversible change via the application of heat over time they have (hopefully) made some decisions about how they want that coffee to taste. (That is, in as much as it is in there power to do so)

They’ll know what that coffee is going to taste like as espresso (if that’s what they’re intending it for), or as a filter coffee (similarly) and they’ll have a profile in mind to bring out aspects of the coffee that they personally find pleasing.

For the best chance of success, assuming you and the coffee roaster aren’t massively misaligned on what you actually want from a coffee then you’re best off brewing it with similar goals in mind.

In the case where our goals are not aligned it would be useful to somehow know this, I’m pretty bored of buying beans from a new roaster and finding out after a long dialling in session that I’m never going to get the kind of results I want because the roaster had a very different idea of what they wanted to get out of the coffee.

 

Giving feedback

Is often nigh on bloody impossible – especially without a common language.

I’ve had roasters refuse to talk to me forever after I described their coffee as being a tad on the roasty side, I’ve also had roasters listen to everything I have to say but it was like we were talking a whole other language to each other because we lacked the common vocabulary to describe the results we were getting.

Metrics like extraction yield are useless without the greater context and a lot of that context comes from understanding both the roasting process and brewing process – the former of which is something I don’t have (and am unlikely to have for quite some time yet).

That lack of context however can often be seen as a reason to dismiss the opinions of the end-consumer of roasted coffee and it seems as though a lot of roasters exist within their own little bubble where everything they do is great and everything everybody else does is awful for one reason or another.

As a long time user of a particular roaster, it is possible to build up a relationship by which you can then have a common language and sufficient trust that you can say “Hey, you screwed the pooch with that one” and come up with a fix, but with newer roasters or with new suppliers it’s very difficult to describe why you didn’t like a coffee because it’ll either be seen as ignorant whining or preachy bullshit.

It also doesn’t help that when you’re doing something a little less conventional (high extraction EKspresso anybody? that if the baristas don’t know much about it it’s unlikely the roasters do either.

This is costing roasters money and customers

I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve been in a coffee shop and I’ve asked the question “How did you enjoy X from Y?” to be answered with “I didn’t like it because it was…”

When pressed further , typically these coffee “professionals” have  simply used their usual guides and gotten unsatisfactory results. To their credit at least they’ve recognised them as unsatisfactory and not passed them onto their customers.

I’ve been to other coffee shops and borne the pain of of those unsatisfactory results because the people making the coffee didn’t know any better and were happy serving sour guff in a cup.

A lot of this has to do with education and tooling as I’ve said before; a refractometer goes a long way to understanding  the results we get from our ground up coffee beans and water, and most people aren’t using them because they’re seen as expensive or unnecessary because of the “we’re all craftsmen around here” attitude.

Even in the case… or especially in the case where one of these tools isn’t present, those guide recipes become even more vital so this goes double for those of us at home who don’t have the benefit of tooling to measure our results.

As an end consumer, going through half a bag of some coffee beans and getting crap results will most likely result in them not buying from that roaster again, despite it being entirely possible for them to get the results they’d like (or even prefer!) from that roaster.

Raw numbers help

So why don’t most roasters publish preferred recipes and results in more detail on their websites?

A lot of coffee roasters will have some half-arsed brew-guides on their sites which describe loosely the following: grind profile (coarse sand, fine sand, caster sugar), amount of coffee and amount of water. Usually this is repeated for a few brew methods and they stop there.

This is typically useless because these recipes are so ultra-generic, two people could follow these instructions with even the same gear and variables be so different that extraction could be anywhere between 14% and 24% and the experience range from catastrophic to heavenly miraculous.

Similarly just posting an EY and TDS target wouldn’t be good enough either as it doesn’t tell you how you got there (a 21% brew at 5min is very different to one at 2min)

It’s no doubt expected that people that know what they’re doing will do it right and know they’ve done it right and that people who don’t know what they’re doing will make a mess of it but still be happy with whatever they’ve produced.

By and large perhaps this is true, but surely we can do better? Given that the coffee roasters themselves are (presumably) making coffee for both themselves and each other behind the scenes surely it’s not beyond the realms of imagination that they could be posting information such as:

  • Brew temperatures
  • Brew times
  • Extraction yields (Even telling us which grinder you used is helpful)
  • Solubility scores (somehow??)
  • Etc

The argument that taste is subjective and everybody’s recipes will be different is a lazy one; The decision about taste has largely been made by the roasting decisions and the resulting decisions over some of the most important brewing variables have therefore been made too. This goes hand in hand with what James from Back to Black has been saying about  when roasters include notes about texture with their tasting notes. 

I can think of dozens of occasions where I’d have saved a lot of coffee and time by knowing simply what temperature to set my boiler at and roughly what I should be aiming for in terms of extraction yield.

I believe that some roasters provide more info to their commercial customers than to their retail market and this is something I don’t understand given that we’re paying more for our beans.

Help me to help you

Before giving feedback I need to have a little certainty and confidence that I’m not just doing it wrong; if I have the brew parameters and results preferred by the person roasting the beans then this step would be far easier.

On top of that – raw numbers are all we have and raw numbers are what I choose to share with a roaster when giving feedback (read: bitching) about their coffee. Saying “at 7 days after roast, using the EK43 I brewed 15g/250g in a v60 at 93C in 2m10 and it came out at 24% EY and it tasted flat and dull and I’m having a hard time keeping EY down” tends to at least tell the roaster something about their coffee (and most other people too).

Saying “at 10 days using the EK43 I brewed 14g/250g on the V60 at 96C in 2:30 and it still only came out at 18% and tasted a bit roasty and inspid” tells a whole other story and both of these stories tell you a lot about the coffees that ended up in my hands.

Normally coupling these numbers with the numbers from another coffee I did enjoy helps because it gives the roaster a rough idea of what I was looking for in the first place.

If these numbers can be used to provide context back to the roaster then there is no reason why these expected numbers (and more) can’t appear on the roaster’s websites and give some indication as to what the coffee should be looking like when being turned into a drink – it’s not much to ask and it would make further communication much easier in the long run.

The more info we are given, the more info we are likely to give back. (Perhaps, maybe, I don’t know).

Addendum

This blog post started off as a rant about how crap communication from roasters to end-users is and then vice versa and has turned into more of a ramble because as I went through the process of writing the post I realised why the communication was crap and cut a lot of my points; we all have drastically different ideas of what we want from our coffee and it’s very difficult from a brief sentence of complaint on Twitter to determine whether somebody’s goals are massively misaligned from our own or whether there is truly something that can be fixed about a coffee.

I’m of the opinion that more open data and information would go some way to fix this – but I’m open to other opinions on the matter. Ideas…?

 

 

Everything I’ve learned so far about the EK43 and Espresso

I find myself in the slightly unexpected position of being repeatedly asked questions in coffee shops by baristas (and increasingly shop owners!) about the EK43 for the creation of espresso. (or EKspresso as it is known as).

I have spent the last half year making nothing but EKspresso and this is a dumping of what I have learned so far, if you are already making EKspresso shots happily then this blog post probably is not for you unless you want to teach me some more things in the comments.

So – there are rumours that this grinder is amazing for making espresso with as well as brewed coffee, and the increasing number of people with an EK43 available to them still mostly only use it for the brew. While they have probably tried a few shots through it out of curiosity it is hard to put in the time and research required to do know it well enough to achieve “properly” when you’re also running or working in a busy cafe/roastery/etc.

Being my only grinder I’ve had to actually commit to it and I’ve found the end result to surprise even me after spending many months perpetually chasing the kind of coffee I used to drink at places like Macintyre’s and then finding out that the new coffee burrs give an even better result than I could have ever dreamed of.

This is the result of many peaks and troughs of “aha” moments and “why can’t I consistently do this right, I should give up now EKspresso is clearly too hard for a mere mortal such as myself” momentsIf you can do me a favour and read most of the statements I make in this blog entry with an “in my opinion so far” in parenthesis beside them then I’ll do you a favour and strip that disclaimer out of the rest of this text.

This blog entry is long and split into several sections if you want to skip down to the appropriate one

The Goal of EKSpresso At Cafe Ashton

Consistent sweetness and clarity of flavour. No muddiness at all, acidity is welcome but it shouldn’t make my tongue roll up and hide in a corner – without at least some sweetness espresso is nothing. Higher EY isn’t necessarily everything but a more even extraction will often mean a higher EY and “more” flavour – it is definitely part of the equation. Consistency is everything – it’s no good loving one spro and then hating the next – I have to know my guests are going to be blown away by their spro.

If these goals aren’t your goals then carry on reading any way, I might change your mind.

Things we need for a good EKspresso shot

The beans

A well roasted coffee these days is one which we can push the extraction up with and not get horrible roasty notes or bitterness from; annoyingly this makes them harder to dial in as well as without practise we can’t easily identify this “over” extraction by taste, we just shoot past our optimal extraction and go right back to under-extracting again. A reasonable level of solubility is useful too as it means extracting more faster and less chance of muddy results.

For already-trained baristas this is probably easier than it was for me – probably, if they’re trained on good beans but most baristas haven’t ever even tasted a well extracted espresso on high quality beans in their entire life (I am convinced this is why so many people are so happy with the piss-poor dribbles from those miserable mazzers).

We do trust our taste-buds way too readily and enjoy what we already know and are familiar with – it’s not until we have had a few stand-out EKspresso shots that we realise that everything we have ever tasted has been bad and we have been “doing it wrong” our entire our lives ;-).

We do enjoy what we know though so don’t go down this journey if you’re not happy to accept that once you’re able to repeatably make good EKspresso you’ll likely start disliking coffee beans from roasters you used to really enjoy and find even well dialled-in Mythos shots start to fall short of your high expectations.  I have no doubts there are going to be many more improvements over the coming year or so and that some of the things I’ve written here will be entirely invalid – tea sales at coffee shops that don’t keep up are only going to increase then.

The burrs

Coffee burrs. New coffee burrs. If the EK43 you have access to is over a year old at time of writing it probably has the old coffee burrs.  I have had amazing shots from the old coffee burrs but it is not what I’m writing about here; they pour far more rapidly and messily and are far harder to be consistent with.

People will throw around remarks like “You need turkish burrs to get a decent espresso pour” and these people are incorrect. Before the new coffee burrs this was sort of true and there are still some benefits to those turkish burrs even now – but even well dialled-in spro on turkish burrs tend to tastes muddy to me now. Aiming for an espresso pour that looks just like the other espresso pours from other grinders is a weird goal when we think about it – focus on the end result only.

This is a whole new world of coffee, we should take nothing less than the new coffee burrs with we when join it.

The measurements

Get a refractometer, I wish I had done so sooner as it was completely transformative and saved me weeks of effort in the first two days of owning one. This wasn’t entirely an artifact of me being a completely ignorant amateur – several baristas I know with many, many years between them have also had major “oh man how did I do without this” moments once they started refracting.

We don’t need to buy a VST refractometer, an Atago one will do (miles cheaper) and we don’t need to use those expensive filters – we’re not doing science, just cool down and mix our liquid well and get it on the sensor pronto, repeat for a dozen shots across a spread of times and find the peak, now we understand our coffee better than we did before. We don’t even need the app, just the basic maths of (tds * brew weight) / dose.

Edit: Lots of questions about this – I’m not saying filters are useless by any means, but when comparing like-for-like and finding a ‘peak’ where extraction starts to fall again it’s good enough to do without. Want accurate results to  share with others online? Use a filter. Doing science? Use a filter. Casually dialling in some spro, don’t bother. Hope that clears up this sentiment.

When we cost up the time we spend (or can spend) dialling in coffee and look at how much time a refractometer can save us it simply doesn’t make sense that we can spend so many thousands of dollars on fancy machines to make coffee with and then not afford the few hundred quid a basic Atago would set us back.

I don’t tend to use the refractometer to dial in my daily coffee any more because it has given me so much insight already and I can usually taste the tipping point where my spro goes from under-extracted to unevenly extracted (or more rarely: over-extracted), but as a problem solving device when a new coffee comes in it is still worth its weight and more in gold. My house is littered with A4 sheets of paper with “dose, time, yield, tds, ey) written on them.

An open mind, but not too open

One of the biggest issues I encountered when learning how to do EKspresso was the lack of experience anybody around me has with it themselves. This meant when describing an espresso recipe of “22seconds for a yield of 60g” I got serious looks of distaste from the baristas I was talking to. This meant a real crisis of confidence regularly and it wasnt until I got the refractometer and was able to back up this sort of recipe with numbers that I was truly comfortable just letting my taste buds do the work for me there. (Try and do a 60g shot without getting an EY over 20%…).

Having an open mind and just accepting that the shots I would be pouring would be vastly different to what would usually be expected of espresso would have helped massively and letting the opinions of others who probably never even tasted a shot above 16% make me feel as if I was doing it wrong was foolish. It’s hard if you’re the only one tasting these shots – getting knowledgeable people visit Cafe Ashton to have a go and confirm that things did indeed taste great was essential.

Making that perfect EKspresso

Okay here we go – let’s do this – these are the steps I take when dialling in a new coffee bean that I know absolutely nothing about.

Pick a dose and stick with it

I pretty much do everything as 19g in an 18g VST basket, this is simply just because my espresso machine tends to suck the puck out of the basket onto the shower screen if I dose at 18g. Going with less with 18g tends to mean 20 second shots for desirable yield so it’s hard to control and still be consistent – so stick with 18g and above if you want great success without messing around with lower pressure profiles. I’d do 22g if I was in a commercial environment and serve everything as split shots but at home this is way too much espresso for one human to get through and still have room left for filter later. How much pre-infusion? I use three seconds then 9 bars all the way – no messing around at my house.

Aim high on the yield

The temptation here is to stick to a classic brew ratio of 1:2 or less because we think that mouth-feel is a really important part of espresso (it is, but more on that later). Trying to do this will either result in frustration over “not being able to grind fine enough” or constantly getting under-extracted shots. Throw away this style of thinking and aim for 1:3 or just under (to begin with – some coffees work better at 1:2.5 but for now let’s not worry about that).

Aim fast on the time 

The higher the extraction we can get in less time, the more clarity the spro will typically have – presumably because we’re grinding coarser, have an even grind size, less chance of channeling, etc. Certainly I’ve noticed with a naked portafilter that shot times under 25 seconds tend to come through super evenly with minimal effort on my part.

Nutation is pointless as while it might slow the pour down, it just adds another variable to be inconsistent about – a light tamp on a tapped flat surface is all I do these days, minimal interaction = minimal variation.

If it tastes super roasty and burned at the 1:3 all the way through 20 seconds and 30 seconds it’s probably a crap coffee, throw it away and give up if you can’t get something reasonable in a dozen shots. I wasted so many hours trying to dial in coffee from local roasters because I like the people and like the idea of buying local. Get some Five Elephant in and start there if you’re in doubt – a lot of coffee is roasted for crap gear and low extraction and isn’t for this style of coffee.

I find that with great coffee it’s far easier to start at the under-extracted side of espresso and move up to the point where it starts tasting “muddy”. A refractometer will tell us where this point is too, as extraction tends to start dropping or flattening out at that time. (This is counter to what I’d do with darker stuff where I’d start over-extracted and work backwards).

It’s very easy to have doubt when we do an espresso at 19g to 58g in 23 seconds and it tastes amazing, it’s even easier to have doubt if we’re at 25s for a similar recipe and have our taste buds tell us that we probably want to go through even faster! This is now a common experience and I just accept it but the refractometer telling me that I’m getting 22% EY at these times is a really useful signal that our taste buds aren’t wrong.

Give the coffee time to become more soluble

More so than we seem to be encouraging in most popular literature. I can absolutely take a coffee from a roaster and do a gusher as spro and have it taste good within 24hrs of roasting but it won’t be consistent and more often enough won’t be soluble enough to easily extract well for the grind-range we have available on the EK43. Most good coffee is best between two and four weeks – it’s not just de-gassing, solubility just increases with age for whatever reason and higher extraction simply comes easier.

Know your reasons for pulling shorter

Strength: While a long brew ratio for a lot of light roasted and fruity coffees works really well (acidity giving way to sweetness at a slightly lower strength), some washed coffees just don’t have the character for this and will taste “watery”. Dropping down by 5-10g and increasing time by 2-3s fixes this. More often than not this is actually because the bean isn’t that soluble and the strength really is lower – a 20% EY at a brew ratio of 1:3 will nearly always taste watery. If it’s not easy to push the bean over this extraction yield at this sort of ratio it either needs a bit more time to become more soluble or is just not a good fit for this style of coffee. Pull shorter or do it as a filter.

Age: As a coffee gets older I tend to find that I drift towards more classic recipes (I write down all my recipes and extraction yields over the course of a bean’s lifetime at Cafe Ashton). That acidic and sweet 22% EY starts to turn into a bitter or muddy mess (and jumps up beyond 23%) at the same recipe from two weeks ago. Pulling back down to 20% at a brew ratio of 1:2 is a last resort and is a good way of getting the last of that spro drinkable. An easier solution is to open a fresher bag and put those beans to one side for when we next want to season a grinder. Why would we want to drink anything less than perfection anyway?

Roast: Some beans are just so good that we’ll want to use them anyway, some slightly more developed roasts just won’t work at these extractions and we have to pull them back to keep them at or under 20% EY. Most of the time this isn’t worth it but sometimes there is that one coffee that we really want to use and doing a brew ratio of 1:2 to keep that EY down is the only realistic solution.

Omniroasts are our friend, as are filter roasts – most (not all) of these so-called espresso roasts are aiming to dull the acidity to compensate for the crap job most grinders and recipes do of espresso extraction.

In defence of the “lungo”

Okay okay – so I’ve saved the answers to common questions and the defence over this style until last – the common objections or remarks from people questioning the EKspresso are (I’ll add to this if I’m asked any more)

  • I can’t grind fine enough to get a good espresso pour
  • The long shots are too big to do as milk drinks
  • The long shots surely won’t have the mouthfeel or strength I want from spro
  • “what about crema? Do I still get crema??”
  • I can’t afford to pre-dose all those beans out

Grinding fine enough

So first off, if we’re aiming for a brew ratio that’s bumping up to about 1:3 and aiming for times less than 30s (which is fairly common even for the high 22-23% EY shots) then grind size is simply not an issue. I can even do most Pacamaras as spro using this brew ratio and target time. The problem here is nearly always in aiming for that tidy looking classic pour. EKspresso does not pour like classic espresso and the results are so much the better for it.

It is true that if we’re using a lower dose then we’ll probably need to lower pressure and flow-rate to get a manageable pour time but for my purposes the 50-60g shots and the 19g doses suffice – this is therefore something that I don’t do.

Aiming for this high yield means that the low time isn’t such a big factor in variability – a gram or two either side makes very little difference to the resulting flavour.

The long shots are too big to do as milk drinks

This is a fair enough point – while at home my solution is to just drink a bit of the espresso while I heat up the milk, that’s not really workable for the shop environment. I think there are several solutions for this:

Don’t use the EK43 for milk drinks (this also means we probably shouldn’t use the EK for espresso either because it’ll just be a pain to keep dialled in). In milk the amazing clarity and sweetness isn’t exactly a priority anyway, a well dialled in Mythos shot will probably be just as good.

Do split shots – either properly by actually splitting the shot after pouring or just by using a spouted portafilter.  In milk the taste difference between the two spout outputs isn’t going to be that big a deal or noticeable for most people. Milk hides most sins and if we’re doing well dialled in EKspresso those sins are going to be pretty small when compared to the sins that most coffee shops are committing anyway.

Charge the same amount, make more money – no problemo.

Use bigger cups, as an industry our supposedly standardised names for 4oz/6oz/8oz drinks is completely pointless anyway given how different most shops espresso and milk styles are. 7oz flat white? Sod it – why the hell not?

Encourage people to drink less milk and more EKspresso – Ho ho yes indeed. Sorry not sorry – but this whole patronising notion that “most people aren’t ready for modern light fruity espresso” comes largely from the fact that most shops still serve under-extracted and sour guff that is borderline undrinkable unless we’ve taught both our taste buds and stomach to tolerate it.
Sweet fruity well extracted espresso is a surprising joy to people and I’ve now lost count of the number of times I’ve now heard the phrase “I usually have milk but wow, I didn’t know espresso could taste like that..”.

The long shots won’t have the mouthfeel or strength

I love this one because it’s completely nonsense; I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve been into a coffee shop serving modern well roasted coffee such as Five Elephant from a crappy mazzer with a recipe of 18g -> (<36)g and it has been under-extracted to the point of simply being muddy acid water. Pull the refractometer out and we’re lucky if these shots are above 16% (Indeed most shops tend to hit 16% and stop because there is a slight sweet hump there – yay taste buds!)

I have actually carried my refrac around with me with travelling and this is pretty much what I have discovered across the UK

  • 16% EY at a brew ratio of less than 1:2 means a TDS of less than 8% and this is terrifyingly common across our industry
  • 19% EY at a brew ratio of 1:2 means a TDS of 8.5-9%, and this is where most Mythos shots seem to be sitting
  • 20-21% EY at a brew ratio just over 1:2 means a TDS of around 9%, and this where a well dialled in Mythos seems to sit
  • 23% EY at a brew ratio of just under 1:3 means a TDS of around 8-9%, and this is where a well dialled in EK43 sits

Obviously there are outliers with folk using super soluble darker roasted espresso and such but I don’t care about that style of coffee so this doesn’t factor up here.

Essentially most shops aren’t refracting and most shops are under extracting and therefore serving short watery dribbles of guff-juice, or they’re extracting well on a Mythos and serving long-ish shots of coffee at or around the 9% mark.

Mouthfeel is such a myth I don’t even know where to begin, everybody I know has started off thinking this (including myself) and then when shown the facts and the end results realised that the quality of coffee coming out of these higher brew ratios with these lighter coffees and far higher extractions is much higher for a fairly similar strength of coffee. The intensity of flavour when using a sensible light roast is as such that we probably don’t want it much stronger anyway.

The fact is by pulling these long shots and extracting well, we actually open ourselves up the possibility of serving even more single origin coffee as espresso beyond those dull Colombians and Guatemalans.

Crema?

We get more of it with a longer shot, stop pontificating. With decent water we end up needing to really mix it in too because so much ends up being produced.

I can’t afford to pre-dose those beans

But we can afford to lose kilos of coffee because of mediocre grinders like the K30 (or duff grinders like any Mazzer made ever)?? Okay no fair enough – there is also a human element to this – weighing out beans for a busy coffee service is like stamping cups for a busy coffee takeaway service – nobody wants to do it and it is mind numbingly boring.

Thankfully there is a solution – the Five Elephant volumetric doser not only works but it works well, especially when you’re dosing at 22g (because the margin of error is less at high doses). Yes it’s not perfect but it’s the best we’ve got because…

Nothing better is coming in the near future

The Peak was supposedly an EK43 in a K30 form factor but from all reports it’s nothing of the sort, and the fact that Malkhonig has now decided to do a slightly more friendly “EK43Barista” seems to be a tacit admittance of this.

The Mythos seems to be the bare minimum for good coffee right now and I’ve still not had a shot from one that even comes close to the clarity and sweetness of a good shot from the EK43.

Even if we’re making the commercial decision to not use the EK43  in shops (and there are plenty of reasons commercially for making that decision), discarding the EK43 espresso genius as a gimmick when most of us haven’t yet had a proper EKspresso shot is missing out on a whole world of flavour that is available to us – and buying great coffee and sticking it through a Mazzer should be a hangable offence.

TLDR: Give EKspresso another go, it’s worth it.

Glasgow Coffee Festival 2015 – Behind The Scenes

In my ever continuing quest towards being able to consistently make a good cup of coffee and be able to get more of a handle on being able to convert a new bag of coffee into something closely aproximating what the grower and roaster first had in mind for their beans it became clear a few months ago that I’d have to start making more coffee and that the only way to make more coffee would be to do it for the public somehow.

To that end I’m now technically a “freelance barista” and am getting shifts in when I can (although this also means dusting off my social skills as well as multi-tasking in a pressured and noisy environment etc etc etc).

The latest bit of fun in this series was that James from Back to Black Coffee acquiesed to popular demand and decided to open a stall serving coffee at the Glasgow Coffee Festival and then go all out on the details to do the best possible job of it we could.

DSC_8316-2

James Wallace doing quality control at Back to Black Coffee

So what we were serving?

  • A huge selection of baked goods from one of my favourite places in Glasgow – Bakery47
  • Cascara and Mango Tonic
  • Mulled Cherry Cascara
  • Five Elephant – La Dulce Memoria on espresso
  • Five Elephant Kii AB on v60
  • Workshop Coffee Gachatha AA on v60

And how much were we charging? Nothing – all free apart from the baked goods which sold quite well once the day got going.

Preparation

This is where it starts getting funky – James knows I have been making my own water at home and asked if we couldn’t do similar for the stall on a larger scale.  We organised a cupping a few days beforehand and a session to dial in the pourover coffees so we would know in advance roughly where they needed to be in terms of time, temperature and target extraction yield.

Annoyingly the cupping came up with the result that the most time consuming method for creating water (see also: grindscience ) was better than the others – although hardening existing tap water rather than resorting to shipping in litres of purified water was deemed to be more effective when balancing the cost/rewards.

To that end I prepared enough concentrated calcium solution to create 100L of water at our desired hardness level and took them along to the event along with a TDS meter to calibrate our final solution..

Dialling in was fun as we established that the Workshop coffee was going to be very friendly to us (tasting good at a fair range of extractions) but the Kii was going to be a bit more difficult as it wasn’t singing to us the way that the Kii has sang to us in the past (give it a few more days and it would probably have been much easier!).

Anyway we probably put in a a couple of days work alongside our existing day jobs in the days leading up to the festival tweaking our recipes and sorting out the water and then the weekend came up too fast.

The Night Before…

We arrived the night before the festival to get everything set up and start creating the water for the next day – I swapped in a new magnesium filter to make sure we were at optimal filtation/mineral exchange and instantly regretted this decision as at the flow rate we were experiencing meant that it was going to take over three hours to create the water required for the next day.

That said we managed to get set up enough that James was able to drain his boiler and get roughly dialled in for the next day in terms of recipe (although at 9pm the spro was tasting awful to both of us). We had a lot of questions from those around us seeing us pouring water all over the place and setting up our gear with duct tape and funnels so we could automate the process as much as possible so we could get all our gear in place. (From a marketing point of view this was certainly worthwhile).

The gear? Two EK43s (one loaded with the Five Elephant doser and one for filter on the side). Three V60s and an impressive nunber of Brewista and Acaia scales, mini whisks and two refractometers because it’s always good to have a second and third opinion…

Anyway we left all our gear there and went out for a few beers,  I the spent most of the night panicking because up until then I hadn’t really tasted any of the coffees that we’d made in all our preparation time and actually enjoyed them. I am a fussy grump however and want everything to be perfect all of the time which is a bit optimistic when you’re dealing with something which at the end of the day is a natural product.

The day itself

Having no power for our gear for the first hour of our prep time was a bit distressing – thankfully we were able to pull enough wattage together for James to dial in the espresso to a reasonable level. Suddenly at 9am it started tasting more like the espresso I have come to know and love from my sessions at home chasing that “sweetness” that I’ve only ever really tasted from my EK43 and the occasional well dialled in Mythos. I hadn’t had one of James’ EKspressos in a while (since we both got refracs a few months ago in fact) and it was really confidence instilling to realise that we’d both ended up at pretty much the same destination in our target extractions and strength for our EKSpresso.

The pourover we weren’t quite so lucky with – not only was the ambient temperature far lower than anything I’m used to working in but I’m actually not that practised at doing pourover. It’s funny – a few months ago I’d have said espresso was hard and that filter was easy but I’m now completely turned around and think the opposite. Perhaps because I’ve invested so much time into learning how to make that perfect espresso – thankfully I have a large stockpile of beans which I was planning on doing some playing with next week around recipes with various ratios, times, pouring cycles and agitations so I can understand it more intimately.

The Workshop started singing pretty early on but the Kii was alternating between under-extracted guff (which I didn’t serve) and a flatter sweet coffee. Occasionally I was able to hit the magic number that got it to shine with a bit more complexity but I really wasn’t feeling it.

Patrick from Five Elephant was on hand to taste and suggest a direction to go in and we settled for pushing the brew ratio up a bit and trying to keep our target TDS above 1.4 (My preference is usually for about 1.3 but because we were serving in cardboard cups I wanted to stay higher so as to avoid the coffee just tasting of cardboard cups).

Anyway Patrick is a super nice chap and wasn’t an asshole about me abusing his coffee, we got very good feedback on the EKspresso which given the effort going in to the water science and learning was also really confidence inspiring.

The customers loved the Workshop most of the time but when the Kii hit the magic spot it was the preferred coffee by far. I ended up just constantly making v60s (and refracting nearly everything) and handing out samples of everything we did to anybody who passed us by. The mulled cascara and mango cascara was super fun to hand out to people once they were coffeed out  and we had plenty of people arriving at the stall because they’d heard about the magic fruit drinks that needed to be tried.

I was really pleased to see how many people really loved the espresso – often people order milk drinks because it’s the safe option and by not having milk on the menu I think we opened a lot of eyes as to what espresso could really be if you pushed the envelope a little. A lot of people who wouldn’t have ordinarily, chose to drink the espresso and were really surprised by the sweetness and complexity of it.

This pleased me greatly, as it shows that people are more than ready for sensibly roasted coffee so long as it is well extracted.

The competition

WOW, opposite us and to the right a little was Foundry Coffee Roasters and All Started Here with a seriously impressive two-group lever machine, an EK43 and mythos serving the new Rocko Mountain as a super-sweet well extracted fruity espresso YES YES YES. Two stalls at the same festival serving wildly different espressos but both chasing that high sweetness like a dream. I sent a lot of people from our stall over there once they’d tried our samples – and it was good that they also had milk drinks on because that no doubt pulled even more people over to the “light side of the force” with the ridiculous strawberry milkshake quality of their flat whites. Top top top game indeed.

Foundry + All Started Here

Foundry + All Started Here

(Photo source:  James R on Yelp)

I grabbed half a kilo of their new Rocko Mountain as well as half a kilo of a prototype roast that they’re working on, I really enjoy Foundry when I’ve got it in and meeting the chaps and seeing how they serve their own coffee has given me even more enthusiasm for the product they’re working on.

I also popped over to Atkinsons, an “old school modern roaster” down in Lancaster who really know their shit and are doing a great job of getting in some pretty interesting coffees and turning them into something that I’d want to drink. I picked up some of their honey-process pacamara and I’m really looking forward to getting that through the EK43 later this week.

Coffee is great.

The aftermath + Thanks

Well I’ve still not packed up yet but we went to the after party and then Diana from Workshop had organised a small sit down meal at the Ubiquitous chip with Patrick and a few others. It was really nice to sit down and relax after a hard day and catch up with some people who really know their beans. Patrick especially has put some thoughts into my head about next steps if I’m serious about getting better at coffee (although the suggestions weren’t aimed at me I am always listening).

I went home happy and want to thank everybody for their great feedback at the stall. I also want to thank Briony from Yelp who came and delivered some gloves to the stall at the start of the day when it was so cold we couldn’t refract anything and had to keep our refractomers in our inside pockets to keep them warm. The chaps at Dear Green who set everything up have a lot to be thanked for – logistically this sort of event is challenging and when we went home late at night they were still working hard and getting the Briggait into shape for the event as well as hosting the after party at their new roastery.

Next steps

More practise and experimentation with brew methods, more guest shifts, more travelling and more chatting to baristas who know better than me – I look outside of Glasgow again to see what others are doing and learn from them.

Next year I intend on being a lot more confident with that filter coffee.