Coffee Cup
"Espresso! My Espresso!"
An Ongoing Internet Novelette
by Randy Glass - Copyright 2008 - All rights reserved

Coffee Cup
The Myth of the Golden Rule

September 8, 2008

It is just about a month short of eight years since I began this website, and I now post Chapter 100 to my story. It just worked out this way, but I think that this is a very appropriate work to mark this numrical milestone.

     There is a lot of science, engineering, and technology involved in making espresso. The grinder is a precision tool, holding two cutting burrs in precise alignment, their opposed cutting edges edges a few thousandths of an inch or two apart. Even the low-end espresso home grinders can adjust this distance in increments of a thousandth of an inch, and the better grinders can adjust n finer increments than that. The Espresso machine heats water and holds it in storage until it is needed to brew. The water is then forced through a small amount of coffee at a predetermined pressure.

     Then we apply all sorts of science after the fact. We install digital thermostats capable of controlling the boiler temperature to a tenth of a degree, and we use precision thermometer devices to read the temperature of the water right at the coffee. We use digital TDS meters to judge the quality of the water, and when it is not just right we install special filtration and treatment systems to the water to assure its quality. A well known coffee enthusiast even used an electron microscope to examine the quality of the grind produced from different grinders (which was actually a very interesting article)!

     We take all that science and research, and all our experience, put it all together and state that to make espresso you need:

  • 14 grams of coffee
  • 202 degrees water temperature
  • 9 ATM of brew pressure
  • 35 pound tamp
    And all that just to make about two ounces of coffee.

         We have all heard of the rules of making espresso, often expressed as "The Golden Rule":

    2 ounces of espresso in 25 seconds
         Sometimes it is given a range, such as, "About two ounces in about twenty-five seconds," but however it is worded, it is repeated and repeated, and repeated.

         But there are numerous problems with that "rule." Let me explain: when a new home barista hits the scene, and is asking the universal questions about what equipment to buy, and do they really need a grinder, and where to get coffee, the conversation invariably leads to preparation and production parameters. How much coffee to grind, why does the flow come out so fast when they push the button, is it supposed to be that color, why is the crema so thin, etc. So the more experienced home baristas often quote (preach?) the "Golden Rule."

         "I get about two ounces in the first ten seconds. What should I do."
         "Grind finer. You want about two ounces in twenty-five seconds."

         If I had a quarter for every time I have heard that presented in much that way, I could have bought and paid off a coffee shop by now.

         We all have to start somewhere. The new home barista with a new set of equipment has little to go on. Few machines come with useful information about the the various procedures involved in making espresso, and fewer give specific directions as to how to adjust things when the coffee beverage produced does not taste good. So many new home baristas search out further direction on the Internet, and many hit the various websites and discussions groups and hear the Golden Rule preached. A greater problem is created just by the name of the thing. if there is a rule it is that in the procedures involved in the preparation of espresso there are no hard and fast rules.

         The "Thirty-five pound tamp to create two ounces of espresso in twenty-five seconds," rule is not a rule. You can call it whatever you like, but it is not a hard and fast rule to be blindly obeyed. When a new barista starts out it makes for an excellent guideline. The new equipment arrives and there does need to be a beginning— a starting point. Grind some coffee, fill the basket, tamp it down, lock and load, hit the button, watch the clock and the graduations on the measuring cup, and see what you get. Too much espresso? Grind finer. Too little in twenty-five seconds? Grind more coarsely.

         What we lose in using the term "rule" is that it has gained so much importance by its repetition over the years that we lose sight of the fact that there is an art to espresso; a sort of fuzzy logic. With all the science and technology involved in making espresso we must always remember that we are creating a food product. All the precision measuring tools and technology cannot tell you what it will taste like. You don't weigh espresso, you don't measure is refractive properties nor pour it through a viscometer— you drink it. You taste it. It's a food product. The real measure of espresso is how it tastes to YOU. Tastes to you.

         When we discuss the so-called Golden Rule, what hasn't been stressed enough is that the parameters of the Golden Rule are only starting points. But examine it from the point of view of that new barista. If they know nothing of espresso preparation, approaching the making of espresso from a starting point of ignorance, and a person perceived as knowledgeable tells them of this "Golden Rule," they hear "rule" and strive to always achieve those parameters. Then, after all of two or maybe three weeks, when they feel they are mastering the art of espresso, they pass the "rule" on because they have used it to make some twenty or thirty doubles and it works because it is the best espresso they have ever made, notwithstanding the fact that a more experienced barista might just toss it into the sink by the appearance of it alone.

         So let me reiterate: The parameters often stated as "The Golden Rule" do not create a rule at all. They are a foundation from which to begin. A starting point. A place from which to begin. They are the white line across your path behind which to prepare for the entire race which lies ahead. After the gun goes off you leave it behind and move towards higher, more precious goals.

         There are a myriad of things we do to get towards the finish line. The temperature of the brew water, water quality, grind setting, dealing with clumping of coffee, distribution of coffee in the basket, the amount of coffee used, the tamp, and the brewing pressure. And of course there is the coffee itself. How it was roasted, the blend, and how long it has been since it was roasted. We adjust and modify our process each day, trying to create espresso that is delicious day after day. All the time fighting changing humidity, aging of the roasted coffee, and changes in our palate. The three factors we most often change are grind, dose, and tamp; sometimes knowingly and with purpose, and other times accidentally.

         Whenever we make adjustments to those preparation parameters there should be a goal of better espresso. While the journey is fun, the destination of espresso is what it is all about. When making these changes there are three things to consider:

  • The First:   does the change work to create a more acceptable espresso?
  • The Second:   is the change repeatable— pull after pull, day in and day out?
  • The Third:   can it be easily modified or adjusted, and do you know how to modify or can you modify it to be sure that "The Second" is achievable?

         As examples, if you use a N, S, E, W tamp before the final full tamp, can you do that with the same force in the same place, every time? If not, what is its value? You do it today and the espresso is wonderful, but tomorrow it isn't so good. Was it the tamp or was it something else? Did it work for coffee that is five days old but not for coffee that is seven days old? If you decide to use a tamper that clicks at thirty-five pounds of force every time but it is not adjustable, are you losing the ability to change a parameter that might make a difference, or is a scientifically accurate tamp a good thing? What about the shape of the tamper? Flat, convex or concave? Some stress that it should match the shape of the shower screen while others have had success just using the bottom of a spice bottle.

         A factor that is not taken into consideration when the "Golden Rule" is preached is the correlation of equipment, the coffee, the water quality, the espresso machine's brewing temperature stability (or lack thereof), the level of violence in how the water is introduced to the coffee, headroom, particle distribution created by the grinder, basket depth, basket volume, clumpiness of the grinder's output.... Get the idea? For any given combination of these it might be best for the barista to strive for a 30 second pull, or maybe just 1.75 ounces in twenty-five seconds.

         And even then, there has been so much information passed down over the years which has become part of the catechism of espresso that it hasn't been widely questioned. Take tamping force as an example. We hear, over and over, to always use a tamping force of 35 pounds. Many people, myself included, have even recommended using a scale to learn what that amount of force feels like. There are even come very expensive devices sold to assure a consistent tamp. But some experimentation has shown that a tamp in the range of about 10 to 60 pounds results in about the same results. It is no coincidence that 35 lies exactly in the middle of that range. Some folks report that they do not tamp at all, and others state that they use a handstand tamp- pressing, literally, as hard as they can. All report that they make very good espresso.

         Just where is that excellent espresso hiding? Would two degrees cooler with a finer grind and more brew pressure be best? What if the brewing pressure is not adjustable. What if the grinder has click stops and is not infinitely adjustable? Now what? Should the amount of coffee be decreased and the grind finer, or should more coffee be used with the same grind but a tamp with more force applied? Considering the Golden Rule, should it be one click finer on the grind and a 30 second pull or leave the grinder whee it is and stop the extraction at 22 seconds? There is no one answer, there is no rule. Even if you and I have exactly the same equipment and use exactly the same water and coffee, the procedures may need to be different. Why? Because maybe I am making a cappuccino and I like a deeper flavor in my espresso to express itself over the milk, and maybe you like espresso straight and like a smoother, sweeter taste. And whatever the factors, we have different palates.

         So it begins to become more clear that you cannot discuss the various preparation parameters without considering equipment, and so the Golden Rule is not going to work for everyone as a rule. A good example of that is whether the machine has a fast beginning to the infusion like the Silvia, or whether there is a gentle, slow ramp up to brew pressure such as is found in E-61 brewheads. Hit the Silvia's brew switch and the water flows immediately at a pretty good force. The E-61 takes about five seconds to build up to a full brewing force. Does that five seconds count towards the 25 seconds of the Golden Rule? Should part of the five seconds count?

         I think it is obvious that it would take a huge volume of information to quantify the parameters for the various equipment combinations. So what to do? What did we do? We came up with a set of instructions and parameters that are general and somewhat universal in nature that can act as a starting point. But we need to be sure to stress that the "Rule" IS JUST A STARTING POINT, and that the various parameters MUST be tuned as you go along if you ever expect to create the best possible espresso.

         So we need to qualify our suggestions. Whatever we tell folks, there needs to be the disclaimer that these should be used as a basic, beginning guideline to be adjusted to suit the coffee, equipment, water, and the barista's needs and goals. Start with the basics of the "Golden Rule" to make something that approaches good espresso, then modify to improve. Do you need to actually use a gram scale capable of .1 gram resolution to be sure that you are using the the same amount of coffee every time? I don't know. I don't and never have. Maybe you do, and there's nothing wrong with that if doing so helps you achieve better espresso. Do you need to use the Weiss Distribution Technique (WDT) to stir the coffee in the basket to break up clumps and ensure a void-free distribution of the coffee? With the doser Kony I don't. With your grinder, maybe you do, and that's fine.

         But how do you know if you need to WDT? You watch the stream and see if it stays viscous and rich in color through most of the extraction process. If it does not, is it the distribution that is causing the problem? The barista reports that the stream turns thin in viscosity and light in color, and they are getting four ounces on twenty-five seconds. What do you tell them to solve this problem? Finer grind? Lower the brewing pressure? Better distribution? New grinder burrs? New grinder? More coffee in the basket? Less coffee? There is no one, universal solution because there are a myriad of problems that can cause the thin, light, fast stream. There are plenty of questions the be asked to find the solution to the problem. So when the "Golden Rule" is broken it only serves to identify that there is a problem and does nothing to help solve it.

         And what if the barista reports that the two ounces took thirty-eight seconds to be produced? What do you tell them? Grind one click more coarse? Use less coffee? Tamp softer? Turn up the brewing pressure? Very likely none of these. The first thing to ask is, "How did the espresso taste?"! I have had plenty of great shots that took over thirty seconds to produce.

         So, in summation, the Golden Rule not a rule. Along with the other basics of dose, distribution , tamping, and so on, it gives us a good place to which we can return when things get out of hand and nothing seems to be going right. Such as: If the brew temperature hasn't changed, and the water and coffee are the same, and the dose, distribution and tamp hasn't changed, and my espresso is just not what it should be, what should I do? Examine the grind! To repeat myself, to myself, "DUH!" Call it "Back to basics." Call it the "Starting point," or a foundation. Just don't call it a rule, and when sharing this information with a new barista, be sure to stress that it is just a foundation from which to build, and give the tools needed to continue the construction of fine espresso. It's all about what is in the cup, not what looks good on paper.

    2.5 ounces of nearly 100% Crema in about 30 to 35 seconds

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