Barista Camp EU – Day Three

And the slow crawl towards exhaustion reaches its climax..

The day started off with the combination of a sore throat, sniffly nose and a mild hangover from the previous evening’s boozing and presumably dip in the cold midnight waters of the hotel outdoor swimming pool.

Sensory Foundation

It also started off with an hour long lecture as an intro to the sensory evaluation of coffee and a surprising lack of coffee to be drunk about the place. In time both this and therefore my senses started coming to (thanks The Barn and Five Elephant!).

The lecture was a mixture of pretty basic stuff and a bunch of science that wasn’t really going to be relevant in the exam but was interesting nonetheless (receptors, chemistry, nerves etc). It was nice to have some formal introduction to the world of sensory evaluation that I’ve been practising with for the past year or so.

I had to bail out when the practicals came though as my throat and head were getting painful and stuffy, so while I had a quick dip in the cupping bowls of “Umami, Bitter, Sour, Sweet, Salty I didn’t spend quite as much time with this as I might have.

A two hour nap commenced, skipping lunch and leaving me in a somewhat better state for the afternoon of lectures..

Christopher Hendon – Performing a Good Experiment

I’ve sat through quite a few lectures from scientist types and fallen asleep through nearly just as many – thankfully in this case Christopher is a super engaging speaker with a humourous delivery and good content. Christopher is a scientist who has come into coffee via his research with Maxwell on a number of topics (including the water stuff!) and it’s good to see somebody else who is interested in coffee at a professional level (and beyond) but doesn’t want to get into it commercially

If I had to make money with it then it wouldn’t be so free to enjoy it

He started off with the art of asking the right question, with a preference towards asking questions with a distinct “yes” or “no” rather than open ended subjective answer as well as looking at whether the question could be answered within set costs (and how to drive down costs via collaboration).

A focus on big goals with small experiments to aim towards those goals and a critical attitude towards interpreting results with an entertaining real-life exhibition of the famous “Birthday Paradox”. Those graphs from the EK43 featured again too with the same data (grind distribution) displayed in “volume”, “surface area” and “count”. Once again showing that the oft-repeated phrase “the EK43 produces almost no fines” to be utter bunk ūüôā

The talk closed off with the “Great Coffee Experiment” whereby he wants everybody to submit their extraction results¬†for coffees from two regions that are close together but produce very different coffees so he can see trends (or lack of).

This can be found here¬†and is worth contributing to if you’ve got a refrac and you’re likely to have an Ethiopian and Kenyan side by side at some point (from whatever roasters).

Scott Rao – On Extraction Measurement

I was hoping to have my method or understanding of extraction challenged by this talk and ended up leaving disappointed on that end but that doesn’t mean I didn’t enjoy it. He’s a pleasantly intense and passionate character with strong opinions on extraction (not experiencing confirmation bias here at all hah).

One little titbit that was interesting was pointing out how with batch brew with more coffee you should configure a shorter brew time as total contact time needs to remain a constant. This isn’t intuitive until pointed out at which point it makes perfect sense – coolio.

What was interesting in the cupping was that there was a clear preference from some people in the room (presumably londoners) for the “under-extracted” and acidic flavours and a clear preference from the local Italians for the “over-extracted” and bitter flavours.

While I myself would always aim for ‘sweetness perception’, there has been a growing part of me that wants to play with complex acidity and what that really means (see also the Brewers Cup entries this year). With modern and well roasted coffee the lines around “under/correct/over” are falling apart because you don’t get obvious “defects” at high EY but it doesn’t mean you necessarily want to push there. Refractometer to the rescue in understanding¬†the what¬†and taste buds for informing the why.

Christian Klatt – Heating (in) Grinders

We know a little about this from the WBC finals this year and there have been a few experiments done Рbut Christian (who works for Malkhoenig)  has done the research on how various temperatures of bean affect grind distribution and flavour.

My takeaway was that it can either be a positive or negative thing (more fines at cold temps, fewer fines at higher temps, chemical changes) but it’s entirely grinder/burr/time/etc dependent and there was so many variables that the best (current) option is to keep temperature stable and low if you want consistency (how this applies then to these pre-heated burrs¬†shrug).

Nobody knows, more research required. We did a cupping of frozen beans vs room temperature beans vs heated beans and my preference was the room temperature beans – go figure.

There were tons of interesting questions being asked during this talk but a lot of the answers were basically just acknowledging that they were interesting questions that couldn’t be answered yet.

Back to the Sensory Room

With a quieter practise room I decided to go and subject my nose to the Cafe Nez experience – picking out various scents between floral/vegetal/herby/resinous/spicy/carbony/etc¬†around the tasting wheel is¬†fairly easy although identifying the individual scents as “peanut” or “blueberry” less so – I guess this is just a matter of resetting the brain’s instinct to identify certain aromas with their real-life counterparts. This ties in nicely with what Sang Ho was saying yesterday about creating a common language and vocabulary for describing taste.

Anyway, bed early because feeling crap..

The next morning (and beyond)

There is no “Day 4” in this series of posts, Day 4 is finishing off day with the sensory theory exam and the sensory practical exam (the former I’ve done already and the latter I’m hanging around waiting for while I write this).

I’ll probably pass the practical (I passed the theory) if my nose just holds out a little longer (I am a day off getting a pretty hefty cold from the feeling of it) and even if I don’t I’ll be continuing my sensory training.

While the courses I chose for this barista camp were seriously basic I didn’t feel that they were patronising in any way and I really enjoyed them. They have piqued my interest in going for the full coffee diploma and from discussions with various ASTs yesterday I think I’d manage intermediate/professional barista level without too much hassle.

The sensory and green however are things that I want to pursue further as I have less experience with them in a formal setting and you can’t just pull out a refractometer to measure them. Being able to pull out and calibrate myself with professionals around the world when describing taste would be super useful and fun so that’s what I’m now setting myself to do. (These two tracks alone would get me the diploma).

Education Engage.

Barista Camp EU 2015 – Day 2

Yesterday was quite an interesting and packed day.

Barista Foundation

At 9am it was back to the machines in the Barista Foundation course and because it had been realised that the lever machine was a pretty bad thing to be setting noobs on we were 6-7 to a machine for the morning dial in and milk learning (ouch!).

The instructor did an admirable job of managing this rather chaotic set-up and I largely just sat out the espresso re-cap because I’d have just got in the way and stepped back in when it was milk-o-clock because I need all the practise I can get on commercial wands.

By 11am it was time for the practical exam and half of the people in the room who had never used a steam wand before had now used a steam wand once or twice and were not ready for it. Thankfully the instructor (Alessandro) decided to delay and stagger the practical exams over the afternoon after the lectures and we all got to get a bit more practise in on the steam wands. (When your wand can steam a jug of milk in 5s vs your home wand of 40s it’s something that needs getting the hang of!).

Here is a little chap that we put together with some fairly badly steamed milk

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I just don't even #baristacampeu

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Rina Paguaga – Stories from Origin

This was a super engaging talk from somebody who makes their living running a coffee farm. Forced out of Nicaragua by war when she was young with the rest of the family (across the border to Honduras) their family had to restart the entire business when they returned on a new farm in the early 90s when her father was already 70.

A picture of her father got a huge cheer as he’s still around and kicking twenty years later.

The farm is now ran by her and her brother and they’ve really focused on the quality pipeline from the plant to the barista, educating the pickers to only pick the properly ripe cherries and doing the processing on site where they can supervise it properly. They’re in the top 3% of the CoE because of this and have started branching out into naturals and honey process coffees (which is a risky but rewarding business if you can get it right).

This was a really insightful talk that really brought across how much of a story most of these farms probably have behind them (In My Mug from Has Bean would agree!).

Sang Ho Park

Obviously I like Square Mile and know who Sang Ho is and a little about what is going on with their taste standardisation initiatives but I didn’t realise quite how in depth they were going.

Sang Ho is a really engaging and humorous speaker and his anecdotes about being a young korean growing in Britain and how this influenced his own perception of taste were both funny and insightful.

The mile high takeaway was that we need a common language¬†and understanding of what the flavours are in coffee and other products and the research and materials they are trying to produce are about trying to make that conversation more precise so when two people say “Blueberry” they are refering to the same thing rather than some emotive recall from childhood.

There was also a good discussion of how the barista when describing coffee was typically subjective and the roaster usually has to be objective because they’re looking at quality control of the bean and trying to find defects and remove then. They also need to calibrate with the other roasters in the team and language is a large part of this.

(This goes back to what I keep saying about preferences being subjective and flavour being an objective and quantifiable thing, but I digress).

Anyway, it’s possible to create the equivalent of the pantone colour chart for taste and what’s what they are doing with FlavorActiv. Creating pre-prepared concentrated flavours with the appropriate chemicals from the study of the composition of the flavours. The session ended with a cupping session of some pre-prepared “defects” which made the room smell awful and brought out the best of my gag reflex. Super effective though – fermentation defects and phenol are going to be staying with me for a few weeks.

Maxwell Colonna-Dashwood – Water

Read the book, this talk was just an entertaining summary of that ;). There was a fun cupping between the various different waters that he was talking about and I successfully picked out which one was whihc (because water does make a huge difference).

I did pop over for a chat and to talk about brew ratios and equipment and how various combinations of these things could also make huge differences alongside water. The end result really though is that coffee from soft water areas are usually going to taste pretty guff on hard water or vice versa.  (Obviously this is super generalised and the actual talk contained the usual spiel about Ca, Mg and bicarbs).

Foundation Barista – Practical and theory exams

With a bit more practise, milk was super easy on the commercial machine and passing the practical was easy (again, ¬†should have proabably done intermediate haha). The theory was the equivalent of asking a secondary school student about their ABC – I think that it’s a great intro if you’ve never touched a machine before but I guess that’s not what we’re about on this blog!


We headed out into a british pub full of british people (guided by some wonderful Serbians who wanted to go and drink beer), new friends were made and we ended up in the pool at 1am when we got back. Oh what fun.

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Out with some fine people from #baristacampeu

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Looking forward to today!

Barista Camp EU 2015 – Day 1

I’m at Barista Camp in sunny (hah!) Riccione learning more about the coffee industry.

Yesterday started off at about 2pm with everybody turning up and being given a cupping spoon (very important) and briefed on the importance of always carrying this with us. I can get behind a conference that has a tasting element to it :).

Coffee Shop Economics

The first talk of the week was from Andrew Tolley (of Taylor St / H+H), and was a basic intro to the economics of running a coffee shop; as my colleague pointed out if you’ve ever seen a profit and loss sheet there wasn’t anything massively new here but the talk was really well delivered (Andrew seems like a stand-up chap and I’ve enjoyed a few conversations with him since). I’m pretty excited about their plans of roasting for themselves as well as the retail market and will be checking that out come October.

Barista Foundation

After this was our first session for the Barista Foundation course hosted by Alessandro Bonuzzi. I’ve chosen to do the foundation units because I wasn’t sure what I knew from the standard coffee diploma syllabus and thought I’d have knowledge gaps but it turns out I needn’t have worried as most of the people in class haven’t used an espresso machine before.

This is actually super cool because it shows how accessible this event is for people who aren’t in industry but just want to learn more about coffee (there were a few remarks before I left about this being for professionals and it’s nice to see that this worry wasn’t founded in any reality).

Alessandro is a great teacher and I enjoyed his delivery very much, in hindsight I should have probably chosen to do intermediate but it’ll be nice going in next year with foundation already behind me (assuming I pass the written exam haha). If anybody was thinking about doing Barista Camp and were put off because they weren’t sure if they were really qualified enough hopefully this will change their mind for next year.

Evening Fun

Developer conferences usually have quite a party scene and involve a lot of beer both sanctioned by the event and pushed by the developers themselves. In complete contrast there aren’t really any bars on site and while there is the occasional bottle of beer most of the activity so far has been very inclusive towards the non-drinkers.

Last night involved events such as

  • Blind latte art smackdown
  • Sensory test (guess what foodstuff has been dissolved into the water – smoked salmon almost made me hurl)
  • Beer Competition (try and sell a bottle of becks or a local beer to a judging panel, how well can you do it?)
  • Capture the flag on the beach

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Cupping challenge! #BaristaCampEU #teambuilding #team6tho

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This is really nice; bringing people together over team events rather than trying to break social barriers through the use of crazy amounts of alcohol. Perhaps developer conferences should do more of ¬†this (or perhaps the developers would complain but perhaps that’s a cultural issue that needs stomping on).

After all of this was done a lot of us headed across the road to the bar and commenced the drinking until well after 2am – but we were already united via the fun team events and the wine became an excuse to hang out at a bar rather than the driving force behind our socialising.


I am really enjoying the camp experience, everybody is super friendly and willing to engage on almost any topic. I’m getting a bit bored of hearing the phrase “Oh you’re just a home barista” but this sentiment doesn’t come with any malice and once the conversation has started everybody’s opinion is taken just as seriously regardless of background so I’ll forgive this small (and repetitive) transgression.

Very much looking forward to the upcoming sensory modules and the next few days.

Most coffee sucks

(There are terms used in this blog post and I know most of my readers aren’t coffee folks yet, please refer to the glossary for help and then ping me on Twitter and I’ll try and fix it)

I have been struggling with coffee this year.

Most coffee at most shops is not good, most coffee I’ve made at home has been also not good; I can say that I have maybe had two dozen coffees this year that I’ve truly enjoyed (most of these in the last month at my own house but more on this later).

I have been travelling a lot less (yay!) which means I’ve not had the chances I would have usually to pop into the “very best” that various cities/countries have to offer. That’s okay because it has meant I’ve had more time (and money) to spend at home trying to re-create some of those very best experiences in my own kitchen.

It has been a very frustrating experience as I got way ahead of myself and purchased beans from dozens of roasters across Europe and found that

  • Most of the recipes that people tend to talk about don’t work with my grinder/water
  • Most of the recipes that people tend to talk about don’t work with most beans
  • The beans themselves are all over the place in terms of roasting profiles and grind settings for both ‘spro’ and filter

It doesn’t help that when I’ve mentioned recipes that have actually worked with the more renowned roasters’ offerings the local baristas have often responded with scorn, bemusement, or even outright dismissal! (To be fair I’m bloody annoying at times in my attempts to eek out learning from anybody who might have something to offer me – sorry!)

Beans do come in a wide spectrum of roasts from “touching it with water makes it taste like burned toast” to “I can’t get anything out of this if I try replicating what baristas¬†tell me in coffee shops”. Oh – and let’s not get into the number of times I’ve been sent beans that are baggy, papery or simply¬†past their best, not helpful.

Trying to understand this without the tools to measure it has been one of the most frustrating experiences of my life. Two major changes to my arsenal have alleviated this hugely:

  • A refractometer
  • re-mineralised water (thanks to Maxwell initiating the research and Spencer for experimenting with ways of achieving this).

The latter most of us can’t do – especially not in a commercial environment until gear inevitably shows up to fix that (although it has brought more sweetness and accentuated flavours¬†to my cup it is very much the last 20% of a far bigger picture)

I have started achieving the results I wanted to re-create in the first place and started to understand why I’ve really stopped enjoying coffee in most shops and why I haven’t (and probably never will) enjoy most efforts from the current batch of third wave coffee shops across the UK.

Quality is not subjective

I get this a lot, “What you like isn’t what other people like”, and I fall firmly into Kaminksy’s camp at this point in stating that quality is not subjective. Some aspects of quality are definitely measurable and most people when it comes to coffee (or indeed food, alcohol or any other consumable) simply haven’t been privileged enough to have experienced the quality that others elsewhere in the world are creating. It is enough that there has been a step up from commodity and that’s where the journey seems to stop¬†(Make no mistakes about it, I recognise I’ve been lucky in eating and drinking the way I have this past half decade and it has absolutely turned me into an insufferable bore – first world problems).

It has felt a little like I’m explaining the unexplainable at times when trying to get an idea across of what the coffee is that I *want* to experience or *have* experienced. Och – No more – this stuff is measurable and I’m going to talk a little about where I have ended up on this journey and what it is in terms of numbers that I deem to be drinkable coffee.


It is measurable. If we’re not measuring it then we’re probably under-extracting because there is an illusion of safety (either by using coffee that’s been over-developed and presents hints of sweetness at low levels of extraction) or simply serving something that doesn’t taste awful because we’re stuck in a local maximum where it’s tolerably ‘fruity’ (read: sour but roasty enough to keep that at bay, note: this is not true sweetness).

An awful lot of the coffees that I have absolutely hated have presented huge amounts of bitterness and roastiness beyond 18% EY (or even lower), they have been optimised to present some levels of sweetness (with a complete lack of sublety) on average gear, sub-standard water, and more importantly easy-to-use-and-understand recipes on the shop floor. Good quality greens can still shine through this unfortunate set of circumstances but these are rare cases indeed.

These are *low quality* roasted coffee beans, it is a measurable fact by how easy it is to “over-extract” them and these are rarely worth the effort or time of day. (Over-extraction as a roast-defect – anyone?)

Often the shops serving this coffee will also guest high quality (and expensive) stuff from a big name roasters in Europe and then use very similar recipes for filter (and sometimes even for espresso ūüė•). Maybe some small changes will be made based on taste and¬†but because the coffee has been designed for higher EY it is often harder to extract and we end up falling miles and miles short of anything resembling a good cup of coffee.

At best the baristas might acknowledge “it’s not as good as we’d have expected”, and at worst they’ll tell me it’s amazing but then it’ll turn out to be a major disappointment. This stems from a lack of experience with tasting well extracted coffee and isn’t meant as an insult or overly negative remark.

It might¬†taste okay if we haven’t experienced what that coffee is supposed to taste like at higher extraction yields but more often enough it’ll be a local maximum where it tastes inoffensive and if we’re super¬†unlucky it’ll make us pucker our mouths with the excessive dryness that sourness can cause (and be mistaken for the edge of high extraction because we’ve been told that over-extraction is drying). Local maximum!!

Good quality coffee *demands* high extraction. High extraction yields on average gear and sub-optimal water requires more work and can require drastic changes to brew ratios and brewing times. Guided entirely by taste it might be possible to get to this point entirely by chance if we’re feeling like a bit of a maverick and adjusting our variables beyond what we might ordinarily do. (Similarly low extraction yields on amazing gear is not only possible but amazingly prevalant and sometimes far¬†worse!).

We seem to have these numbers (or similar) fixed in our heads

  • 18g->30-35g
  • 60g/1000ml
  • 30seconds
  • 2m:30s

We are either roasting coffee to suit these numbers on the gear we have or abusing coffee that doesn’t fit our mental model of what our outputs should be and then complaining that it’s underdeveloped and hard to extract.

Kaminsky talks about this in his lectures (and they are years old and do show some signs of being dated but if you are a professional barista and haven’t watched them yet then you’re probably missing out) and yet things are not changing fast enough – how do we fix this?

Measure measure measure

If we are making coffee on a daily basis either for ourselves or for other people and we are not measuring extraction yield then we are failing ourselves and those other people.

The refractometer is not a toy for the rich geeks, it is not a tool to be kept in a drawer and used once a week by a single privileged person. The refractomer is a tool to be used almost (if not actually) daily with each coffee to understand what it is we are serving and how to get the most out of it. The refractomer should be out on the shop floor being employed by the baristas in order to fully understand what it is they are serving.

  • It is as essential (if not more) than weighing scales for in and out
  • It is more reliable than our taste buds and does not lie
  • It is an educational tool in the absence of any real taste experience in understanding what well extracted coffee actually tastes like

A brief example

I was working with a coffee from London recently that was tasting both dry and dirty in my mouth (using a traditional recipe for brew of 16g dry to 230g of output). I could have spent an age trying to push this by changing grind settings and times but instead I took out the refractomer, realised I was only getting 15% EY at best and no matter what I did at this brew ratio I was never going to get it above 18% EY at the solubility I was seeing.

The ratio I ended up with was 12g of coffee to 250g of water (allowing a reasonably fast time with a relatively tight grind). This might have only led to a TDS of 1.0 but tasted just as strong as a poorly extracted coffee at 1.3 (with the added bonus of sweetness and complex flavour).

Would I have ended up at this ratio without the refractometer? Possibly, in my total blissful ignorance and with a lack of “experienced” people repeating dogma at me I try a lot of crazy things, but I’d definitely have not ended up there as fast and wasted a lot more coffee.

The refractometer told me that this coffee was going to be difficult on the water and equipment combo I had at hand and I made a change based on the clear evidence to push to a higher EY (and then see if it would taste better).

If we’re not measuring our coffee, our coffee probably sucks

  • It probably sucks because it’s at low EY and roasted dark to be acceptable at low EY
  • It probably sucks because it’s at low EY and it’s designed to be acceptable at a high EY
  • ¬†It may suck because it’s been roasted for low EY and it is being over-extracted (unlikely and unusual in specialty places!)

In that first case having the roaster close to the baristas serving it just encourages that horrible downward spiral of death and this direct feedback isn’t the positive one that it could be. Seriously go and watch that Kaminsky video already.

Here are some more truths

  • It’s no longer 2005, we shouldn’t be dealing with espresso brew ratios less than 1:2 (we’ll never hit acceptable EY at these lower ratios)
  • ¬†It’s no longer 2005, we have the research available to make our coffee better
  • ¬†It’s no longer 2005, we have the equipment available to make our coffee better
  • ¬†It’s no longer 2005, we shouldn’t be roasting our coffee to cater for these low extractions
  • We know better, recipes should be changing (for both espresso *and* filter) from different roasters, often drastically.

This is not subjective conjecture, this is objective fact and it can be measured. If I am tasting coffee from a roaster and I’m encountering burned tastes beyond 19% EY then I am going to say so. If I am tasting coffee in a coffee shop and it tastes like under-extracted burned toast I am going to say so. If I am tasting coffee in a coffee shop and it tastes like dirty dishwater I am going to say so. These aspects of quality are not subjective – we need stop hiding behind this notion that everybody has different tastes so it’s okay to ruin good coffee with out-dated and shoddy practises.

Some strange retorts I have heard

Roasting lighter will put off our customers because they won’t like the acidity.

Nay – I become more and more convinced that this is trotted out because we’re confusing acidity and sourness – no customer is going to complain when they receive more coffee that is sweeter and moreish as a result of a higher brew ratio (And if they are, they’re also going to complain about the¬†sour/roasty under-extracted crap too).

Our coffee isn’t roasty, you’re just over-extracting.

No, the coffee *is* roasty, if I am encountering burned toast above 18% EY I can empirically state that the coffee is roasty. If we’re aiming for low extraction yields because we’re afraid of changing our brew ratio then we’re going to get left behind as times change and customers find sweetness in the arms of another barista.

Your gear is very different, we’re not roasting for that

I call shenanigans – Five Elephant roast specifically for high extraction yields (even encouraging 22-23% EY) on EK43s, but stretching their filter roasts out in my Lido3 or even the crappy Krups grinder I keep under my sink It still tastes great at 20% and 18% respectively (although we certainly lose clarity). An adjustment of recipes for the gear I am using and the water I am using and we achieve more than reasonable results. Saying otherwise is just laziness – there is plenty of material out there to learn from and improve our recipes with (If I can manage it with a few months effort then somebody working fulltime in coffee should manage it too)

Your tastes are different, this is all subjective

I’ve already mentioned this above but let’s talk about it again. Subjectivity is a preference for natural coffee over washed coffee. Subjectivity is a preference for chocolate over pomegranate. Quality is the measurement of extraction and what extraction we can achieve before encountering undesirable artifacts in the cup. Other aspects of quality are the presence of sweetness and clarity in that cup but these are harder to measure because one has to have experienced those things before in order to produce a meaningful rating. (but if Q graders can rate the green bean based on cupping sessions objectively, we can do it at our end with the end product). The work that FlavorActiv is doing *right now* is all about turning these things into objectively measurable detail.


Most coffee sucks, it doesn’t have to. I don’t actually enjoy making it all that much and would sooner pay somebody else to do it.

The sooner the coffee industry gets its ass into gear and catches up with the modern times the sooner I can sell my EK43 and relax. Yes the customers don’t care about how we make it and they’re going to be bored to tears if we talk about extraction and recipes to them outside of a workshop scenario. The chef in a busy kitchen doesn’t tell you what temperature their grill¬†is at but we¬†will still complain if the steak is overdone.

Sort it out and I’ll stop being a miserable grump about it all the time.

Peace out.


On a site note I’ve had funtimes with my stomach this year too, until I started pushing EY up and the problems mostly went away – coincidence?

Also ta to James Wallace of Back to Black for some proof-reading of my Whiskey induced ramblings..