Saturday, September 3, 2011

The State of Espresso Making

Imagine you are standing on the top of a ten story building and you have been tasked with dropping a paintball onto a target on the sidewalk below. It is a partly cloudy day, a few slight breezes, but you are a professional paintball dropper and have come prepared. You have your special paintball dropping shoes that provide just the right amount of grip, your special paintball leather gloves for that perfect handling, and your favorite paintball glasses that provide excellent perception abilities.

As you drop your first ball it veers off to the upper left of the target so you make your adjustments and try again. This time the ball is off the upper right side, then upper left side again, then the center bottom and so on. Occasionally the paintball makes it within an acceptable range on the target and you develop a complicated philosophy on how you got it there. Over time, though, this philosophy is not producing results so you do the only obvious thing: you get rid of the target and decree that wherever the ball landed is where you intended.

This, I'm afraid, is the state of espresso making today.

I came to this observation while visiting a number of coffee bars in New York City recently. In the last year I have been making an attempt to get out and see what others are doing; from roasters that I admired, roasters that are talked about, and coffee bars that are recommended to me. While I am happy to see a new generation of passionate coffee people, I could not help but notice that almost without exception, everyone was using semi-automatic espresso machines. One place even offered the option of making your drink from an old Piston Faema. The results were uniformly inconsistent, often disappointing, sometimes undrinkable. How did it come to this?

I first learned to make espresso on an old propane-fired Piston Cafethema. We used pre-ground coffee and didn't really think about whether what we were making was good - the concept of good hadn't really occurred to us. It wasn't until a couple of years later when I first went to Seattle for espresso machine repair training that I was introduced to the idea of making espresso properly. Obsession quickly replaced embarrassment and I threw myself into a quest for quality.

Being an Alaskan, I excused myself for my Johnny-come-lately arrival to espresso quality. The simple fact was that there existed a great number of people both in the coffee roasting side and the machine manufacturing side of the business who were chasing after quality.

I was fortunate to come across a three group La Marzocco GS2 paddle machine, now considered a modern classic. This machine set a new standard for taste quality over our old piston machines. Unfortunately, though, these early machines did not really have enough steam capacity to keep up with the demands of the growing Latte scene. We replaced this machine with a new La Marzocco Linea, and while the flavor of the espresso seemed to lack the depth of the old GS2, the introduction of volumetric dosing made things far more efficient on the bar.

We weren't the only ones to notice a difference in taste quality in these early volumetric machines, it was widely reported and soon Marzocco addressed this issue in subsequent machines while many of us modified our existing equipment.

The culprit largely was the mechanism that measured the water volume itself. The water would have to travel outside of the boiler to be measured and in the process would cool. Later machines would solve this but some users preferred the old on-off switches that bypassed this mechanism as a solution.

The next innovation would have a severe impact on our (by then) bars, this was the introduction of timers on the keypads. Rather than setting the grind and then assuming that all was fine until it looked wrong, now each shot would be timed as it brewed. Since our number one complaint from customers was drink inconsistency we quickly adopted these machines.

What seemed like an obvious quality tool turned out to be a nightmare.

Our first client to take delivery of the new "Chronos" machine called almost immediately complaining that the machine was inconsistent. After a number of visits out to the client the only solution was for us to replace to Chronos keypads with the standard non-timer variety. Sometime later I returned from a coffee buying trip to find one of our technicians holding a strange device. After inquiring what it was he informed me that it was a water pressure regulator to be installed on our Chronos machine downtown.

This was a new store with a wrap around bar that allowed one to sit and watch drink production. After a while I called the manager over. Watch with me, I said. . . This shot will be fast, this shot will be fast, this shot will be long, this one will be good, this one looks good, this one will be very long, and so on, I was predicting the shots with around 90% accuracy. How are you doing this? the manager asked. I'm watching how much coffee the barista is putting in the portafilter. The barista was operating at about 30% to 40% efficiency overall.

When I asked the barista about her experience of the machine's consistency she iterated a detailed examination of which group pulled more consistently than others. She assured me that she always used the same amount of coffee in the portafilter each time. And so it was, most baristas, when queried, expressed dissatisfaction over their machine's inconsistency, all were convinced that they dosed consistently.

It would be years, and a revamping of our training program, before we would overcome this phenomena. In that time I observed other companies deal with this issue. Most of the chains adopted Super Automatic machines that removed the barista from the process. Perhaps in an effort to differentiate themselves from chains, or from a desire for more barista control in the brewing process, many independents have returned to semi-automatic machines. Indeed, the most talked about machine on the scene now is paddle operated machines. I'm afraid, though, that they have thrown the baby out with the bath water in their efforts to create the third wave of coffee. My trip to New York exposed me to the gulf between what high profile independents intend to offer customers and what is being delivered on their bars.

It seems to me that process now trumps product and that coffee quality now has more to do with showmanship.

Lest this be an isolated experience I took the opportunity to visit Seattle and catch up with the gang at La Marzocco. Now, Marzocco is a tiny company in the world of espresso machine manufacturers, despite their high profile. They are one of a small number of companies that still build the machines by hand and as a result can implement design changes fairly rapidly. As a result, they are on the forefront of paddle control machines, responding to customer demand. Today, 70% of their sales are semi-automatic machines, an almost complete reversal from about ten years ago. Then, most customers who bought semi-automatics did so for the cost savings. The new paddle machines are in response to the recent interest in "pressure profiling."

Now, I don't think a manufacturer should be faulted for responding to customer requests, but I fear that this current trend will have long term detrimental effects for espresso quality. The fact is that we are introducing more variables into the equation, making the ability to produce good quality more difficult. This will become a greater problem as these machines age and pass into increasingly less qualified hands. I related my experiences in New York to them and my reservations about semi-automatic machines but they assured me that this wasn't an issue.

So, an old friend of mine from Marzocco and I set out to see if Seattle was any better than my experiences in New York. The first place we came to had a paddle machine with pressure gauges mounted atop each group head, allowing the user to "surf" pressure while brewing. I asked the barista what pressure they shot for in which she replied: oh, I never look at those. Then, while we were talking behind the bar, she sets up another shot for a drink, busies herself at the sink, realizes the shot was still pulling, races back to the machine, stops the pour, then proceeds to pour the espresso in the cup, adds the steamed milk and out it goes. My friend looks at me at which I could only shrug.

On the other end of the experience we stopped into a shop that offered two espresso choices, the standard blend for drink making and a single origin for straight shots. I ordered a straight shot and noticed that he was using a deep dish basket, originally created in an attempt to produce triple shots. We long ago realized that extraction was a factor of basket diameter and depth, not just depth. Nevertheless, these baskets are still on the market and clearly in use. He prepares me an espresso that was no more than one ounce including crema; just barely enough to cover the bottom of the cup.

The experience was such that it sent shivers down my spine and the look on my face after I tasted it prompted my friend to try it. After sampling it himself he says, I don't think I know what good is anymore. I responded, not only is that not good, that is not even drinkable. As the day wore on it was clear that my experiences in New York were not an isolated event, that this is now the norm. Most telling for me was visiting one store that was maybe a quarter full of seated patrons and nobody lined up at the bar. Directly across the street was a Starbucks that not only was at least three quarters full and a line was at least 20 deep. If I were the proprietor of the independent I think I would be seriously evaluating my business. I think it would be foolish to write off those Starbucks customers as ill-informed. Chances are they have good reason why they choose to stand in line while the independent is nearly empty.

We have three Starbucks within a mile of our store in Denver and we routinely outperform them. In fact we joke to our customers that there is plenty of free parking at the Starbucks when we are full. We don't offer the same drinks as they do, there are no Frappuccinos or Carmel Macchiatos at our store, and yet we continue to pull customers from them. We differentiate ourselves from them not by knee-jerking away from technology, operating blind in response to the fully automated model of corporate chains that replace mediocrity with quality in the search for consistency. Rather, we utilize technology to improve quality and consistency by creating systems of monitoring and control that provides the barista the tools to make the right decisions for creating quality coffee drinks.

The SCAA should be applauded for their efforts in education with the creation of Barista Championships, Brewer's Cup, and Cupping Certification. Unfortunately, an insular culture has developed that seems divorced from reality. Some of this is manifested in the current trend of espresso machines that is directly traced to competitions.

A trend, I dare say, that is a step backwards in quality.