Coffee Cup
"Espresso! My Espresso!"
An Ongoing Internet Novelette
by Randy Glass - Copyright 2011 - All rights reserved

Coffee Cup
False Authority - Teaching How To Make Bad Espresso

Friday, December 30, 2011

      I know that some of my community members and acquaintances think I am over the edge when it comes to coffee. A few people have mentioned to my wife that they would be embarrassed to mention to me that they drink pre-ground, supermarket coffee. That's a bit sad because I love to talk about coffee and introduce folks to better. But the fact is that I take coffee seriously and have spent countless hours creating and maintaining this website. Whether my efforts here as ego-driven, a result of my being a teacher and wishing to share my knowledge, just trying to show folks that there is more than the large, red plastic containers of pre-ground coffee, or a combination of all those, I have tried to fight the good fight for the last eleven years.
      I suppose all that effort I have put in has made me a bit sensitive when I come across someone sharing incorrect information. It is even worse in that regard when I run across someone who uses a title or place of authority (or we are led to assume their authority on a subject) to spread inaccurate or wrong information. Last night a post on Home led me to a video that could easily fit that description.
      The video was presented by Custom House Coffee and was titled, "The Home Barista - Part 1- The Perfect Espresso." This particular video is touted as covering the basics of making a shot of espresso. It featured George Doumaney, whom the description states is a "Master Barista" and co-owner of Custom House Coffee in Rhode Island. Sounds like a wonderful bit of public service, but it is definitively not an example of that. It perfectly about midway between a truly educational, valuable instructional video and ""Mad TV's" video of Miss Swan's visit to Starbucks. It's not funny enough to be comedy and at the same time, far from being a guide that could possibly assist the home barista in getting started making espresso at home. In other words, not valuable on any front other than showing what not to do, and I suppose that is something of value in and of itself.
      Let's take a look at the 3 minute video and see what exactly I consider is wrong here. The times in the first column are the points in the video to which I refer along with a screen clip of that moment in the action (just in case the video is pulled). Quoted sentences in bold are taken from the video's soundtrack:

0:45 "The most important part is the grind of the espresso."Espresso is a beverage- a liquid drink. I recommend against grinding espresso. Most grinder manufacturers state that liquids should not be poured into a grinder. Later, he repeatedly refers to the ground coffee as "espresso" in the video.
      He rolls some of the ground coffee between his fingers and states, "It should feel like real fine pieces of sand." This test might be valuable for a preliminary adjustment of a new grinder just to find a close starting point, but that is all. One click of many grinders is just 0.001" and even at two or three clicks, which could be ten to twelve seconds difference in extraction time for some grinders. I do not think there are many people who could "feel" a single sample of ground coffee and tell whether it was the correct particle size for espresso. That would be difficult even if given two or three samples and asked to make a comparative analysis. We are informed that too coarse makes a "bittery" brew, and too fine, "...almost going to have a burnt flavor," according to the narration.
      He fills up the "portico filter" with ground coffee. This incorrect nomenclature is used in a few places in the video in place of "portafilter." I have never heard it called "portico" before and an online comment regarding this video was the only time I found this term used in reference to espresso machines.
      Other than filling and then leveling off, he does not discuss distribution of coffee in the basket which is a key step in preparation. While many high end grinders create a uniform, clumpless grind, others do clump quite a bit and further steps sometimes need to be taken to assure an even-density distribution of the ground coffee. Since this video's stated purpose is to help folks make "the perfect espresso" at home, this step should have been covered in more detail; or at least to say, some detail.
      After dosing he tamps, stating that he is using about 30 to 35 pounds of pressure on it. That's fine; not scientifically correct in terminology, but we get the idea. But as he tamps it looks like he is trying to screw the tamper into the coffee. He twists the tamper over and over (ten times at the first go at it by my count). This "polishing" of the coffee, as it is called, was stated as "looking cool" by a barista champion, even he said that it is unnecessary.
      One of the worst moments in this preparation portion of the video comes here when he strikes the side of the portafilter with force, seven times (count it yourself) in order to, "..get all that loose espresso off of the side.." After the pounding on the portafilter he tamps once again: " it down a little more to make sure there is no floating espresso on it."
      This is an indication to me that the barista in the video needs to further his education in the art of preparing an extraction. There is no benefit to tapping the portafilter after tamping. The loose coffee that might exist along the edges on the basket will have no effect on the extraction. Conversely there is great potential to damage the structure of the packed coffee or disrupt the seal between the coffee and the walls of the basket. This leads to channeling and under-extraction. The amount of coffee not packed during the tamping here may even indicate that the tamper is not of the optimal size for this basket.
      At 2:29 he has locked the portafilter into the group and he presses the brew button to begin the actual extraction process. He states that, "...about three and a half to four ounces of water come pumpin' out of this. It should take about thirty seconds." Four ounces would be a quad shot (two doubles in volume). It would take two of the cups shown in the video to hold that much. Since this mis-stated volume of water would be an odd mistake for a Master Barista to make, lets just write this one off as a result of on-camera jitters and move on.
      This is the point when the first evidence of espresso comes forth into the cup. Instead of the flow starting slow and viscous, like warm honey, the first drop shoots out of the spout and dribble down the side of the cup.
      Just three seconds later (about five to seven seconds into the extraction) the flow is already beginning to lose viscosity and turn watery. At this point, if you watch carefully, the flow also increases suddenly. From this point forward for the remainder of the extraction it is clear that the flow has lost viscosity and if issuing forth like water. This indicates a problem which might be poor distribution, too-coarse of a grind, over-dosing, or excessive brew pressure. Whatever caused the problem is unimportant. The real issue here is that this extraction has already revealed itself as a poor one.
      As the tan water flows out of the spout, he places his spoon into the flow and says, "You can tell this is going to be a nice shot because it's nice and creamy and there's lots of kremmer [sic] inside of this. The kremmer is the flavor of the espresso shot." What can be said about that? taste your espresso after the crema has dissipated and see for yourself.
      From this point forward, until the extraction ends, the espresso flows with the viscosity of water. The color is light and it is apparent that this is not a quality extraction. I would have to think that any dedicated home barista would toss this into the sink and begin again and that any professional barista would be somewhat embarrassed to present this extraction as a sample of their skills.
      At 2:50 The extraction is stopped automatically by the machine's volumetric water-dosing feature which is about 21 seconds of total extraction time, and only 19 seconds from the time pressure audibly built to extraction levels at approximately 2:31.
      He tests the quality of the extraction by moving the crema about with his spoon and states, "You shouldn't see any coffee peeking through." What he fails to say is that the very blonde, light-colored crema which lacks any mottling in color on its surface indicates, once again, that this was an under-extracted shot and will lack body and have little depth of flavor we should expect in a good shot of espresso. Beyond that, while I am not a formally-trained barista, I have never seen this as a test of the quality of espresso.
      And at 3:03 we see the coffee through the crema. So much for the test previously-demonstrated test. He then states, "This is the kremmer. That's the flavor." No, it isn't. It might be more accurately referred to as "a flavor."
      At the end he shows this view of the product he produced and says to the camera, "There you go. A prefect shot of espresso." Then he places the cup on the drip tray without sipping from it. I would not have tasted it either.

      For the knowledgeable home barista, it should be very apparent that ten seconds into this extraction the machine should have been stopped, the camera shut off, and the shot poured into the sink. That's no big deal. We try to avoid that, but sink shots happen to the best barista for a number of reasons.
      Both the SCAA and the SCAE both have specific programs to certify a person as a "Master Barista." In the description on YouTube it states that George, the man in this video, is a Master Barista. Whether his title is earned through such a certification program or not, I do not know. I checked his shop's website and could not find any mention of George nor his credentials. I hope his skills, knowledge, and training exceed the ability he demonstrated here and that he is capable of producing better espresso than shown in this video.
      What the Custom Coffee House website does state is, "Our baristas are experts at pulling the perfect shot of espresso topped with rich, caramel crema." While there may be truth to that statement, watching that video would make one think otherwise.
      If, even after watching that video, you are still interested in their methods, you can take their Barista Training Course for a fee (around $100-200 depending on class size). Their description of the course states, "We take great pride in our barista training, and you will be learning from true professionals who take their espresso skills very seriously."
      My point of all this was not to make fun of this shop's product nor of the barista featured in the video. On that level the video takes care of that all on its own. As a home enthusiast I make superior espresso at home on a daily basis compared to what is shown in that video. This video stated that it featured a "Master Barista" presenting the proper way to make espresso, aimed specifically at the home barista. The sum of the video's parts (the improper and unique nomenclature, the numerous outdated activities in preparation, and the very poor product produced) stands as a testament to the state of commercial espresso found in a vast majority of coffee shops across the country. While there are numerous independent shops which strive to, and succeed in, creating great espresso, they are sadly in the minority.
      So when perusing YouTube for espresso information, take care. Be skeptical. Just because someone says they know what they are doing or they are presented along with some title or certification, or even if they own a coffee shop, it doesn't guarantee that the information they are sharing is valuable or even correct.

Coffee Cup
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