The Barista Creed - Seven Years Later
Almost seven years ago I posted something to my personal coffee blog proposing a Barista Creed. That post fostered a lot of debate when it first came out and continues to do so occasionally today.
The creed came about because of a theory I had back in 2004/2005 regarding the true craftsperson barista. The capital B barista. I’ve been very fortunate in my life to have exposure to a lot of the world’s top baristas in the past (and even some today) and have had many an espresso shot pulled by these baristas. I realised that there’s a truly advanced skill that some Baristas have that I wish more baristas had (if you get my drift). That skill is the analytical skill that comes with a lot of experience with a lot of different coffees, machines and grinders. The skill that comes from pulling a lot of shots - years’ worth of shots. The ability to diagnose the process of making espresso anywhere, anytime, anyplace.
Those words were the foundation of the creed, which is pretty simple: The creed is "any coffee, any grinder, any machine".
Unfortunately over the years, people have questioned - ridiculed this even - because they can’t move past the “any” word, especially in relation to coffee (but also in relation to the grinder or the machine).
Folks. I’m involved with specialty coffee. Specialty Coffee. I wouldn’t write a creed about using a blade grinder and Maxwell House whole bean in a krups steam toy espresso machine. Of course I’m talking about decent equipment and coffee.
This creed makes a few assumptions. It assumes the coffee is good calibre, fresh roasted, decent tasting. It assumes the grinder is capable of doing an acceptable espresso grind. It assumes the espresso machine can produce 9BAR of pressure steady and hold its temperature reasonably well.
But none of that matters. The creed isn’t really about focusing on any machine, any grinder, any coffee.
The creed is about the Barista, with a capital B. The creed is about a skillset so good, the Barista can go up to an espresso machine they’ve never seen or used before, step up to the machine’s grinder — again a machine theyare unfamiliar with — and use a coffee they’ve never tasted before that comes from a skilled roaster, and within 2, 3 or at most 4 shots, are producing the best espresso that combination of three elements can produce.
The creed is about skill. Not equipment. Not coffee. It’s about understanding the espresso process.
I know many baristas who are absolutely kick ass at what they do: they know their blend (or SO) inside out. They know every nuance of their machine. They understand their grinder intimately. But therein lies the problem: many good baristas are almost literally married to their machines. I’ve heard baristas say they can’t hope to pull a decent shot if they didn’t have their Synesso, or their K10 Touch grinder, or their La Marzocco GB5.
I posit there’s very few Baristas around the world who have enough experience with a wide range of machines, grinders and coffees to be able to hit that gold standard of “any coffee, any grinder, any machine” within 3 or 4 shot pull attempts, without any side reference. And I’ll state something here that won’t make some people happy. I’ve seen some national and world barista champions who are in the Capital B Barista category, and I’ve seen others who have had meltdowns when using unfamiliar machines, grinders and coffees.
This creed is why, in 2009, I started suggesting baristas forget about latte art throwdowns and start concentrating on “spro downs” - espresso shot pulling competitions, pulling shots on unfamiliar machines, using unfamiliar grinders, and using a coffee they’ve never used before. To me, that would seriously test the mettle of a barista’s skillset, infinitely more than pouring latte art.
To live up to this creed means you have to understand the process of what makes espresso happen. You have to be able to instantly diagnose a shot’s defects, and use the skillset and experience you have to modify what you’re doing and the machines you’re doing it on to correct those defects. You also have to be able to taste. All of this takes real skill and dedication. Much more than pouring a leaf or heart in a cup.
This is the Barista Creed I proposed in 2006: Any Coffee. Any Grinder. Any Machine. It saddens and dismays me that far too many people have focused on the “any” part thinking I’m suggesting they use folgers and a blade grinder.
I’m focusing on barista skill. A true artisan’s skill and understanding of the entire espresso making process.
Oh a PS: Anyone who thinks this creed is obsolete doesn’t understand the creed either :D
Anatomies of a Photograph - The Bad becomes The Good.
Last night, I shot a series of photos for an article down the road. The article will be about a manual espresso maker called the ROK Espresso Maker, and to feature the brewers’ interesting construction, I wanted to highlight some details, like the drip tray:
This photo above was just one of about 100 photos I shot of the brewer. I knew the shot I wanted, so I had taken a few at different settings, apertures and the like and though I had the shot. But I didn’t. There’s a lot of things I got wrong with this shot from a visual, appealing and informative standpoint.
Let me start with the lens I was using - a 50mm f2.5 macro Canon lens on a 5D MkII camera (full frame). I went for the .5 macro because I thought i’d get reasonably flat images (no crazy perspective in closeups), but still a wide enough lens for my tight shooting area. For most of my shots, the 50mm macro was fine and did exactly what I wanted it to do. But for these shots, not so much.
Problems in this shot include the following: drip tray isn’t very much in focus (the focal plane is very shallow); the tray’s contrast is pretty flat; my lighting is less than ideal; and worst, my framing, save for the portafilter handle, sucks. Not having the entire tray in frame just really ruins this image for my critical eye.
So. Lens not up to what I wanted. Framing needs to be better. And I need to work my lighting more to get more natural contrast in the drip tray. I staged the shot again and this time put my 100mm f2.8 macro on the 5D MkII. And here’s what I got.
I’m very happy with this shot. Even though the entire tray isn’t in focus (and the portafilter handle isn’t as out of focus as I’d like), a lot more of what I wanted to highlight is tack-sharp, and I had to balance a fully in-focus tray with the blurred handle / top part of the brewer.
I shot this in bracketed mode for the aperture - shot five frames, from f2.8 up to f5.6, and the f4 shot worked best for me. The tray is fully in frame. The lighting makes the beans in the tray much more contrasty. I painted light a bit (with reflectors) to get the glossy white parts of the upper machine. And while the handle doesn’t go out of frame on a 45 degree angle like the blown shot above, it still does the job for me.
Before I even took the new photos, I really ‘massaged’ my light sources for this. I shoot with florescent light box lights and reflectors - silver, white, gold. For this one, silver all the way. I had one big 36” square reflector balancing on my legs as I stood on a chair to shoot this shot (you can see it’s subtle reflection in the brewer’s base slightly left of centre frame). Once I was happy with the light and the increased contrast in the drip tray area, I fired off five frames, picked the f4, and bam, done.
Sidenote: this photo isn’t perfect, and it’s shots like this that make me consider dropping big bucks on a tilt-shift lens ;)
Social Coffee Co’s People’s Daily Espresso Blend
The coffee blend promises some pretty ambitious things on the label. The primary components are from Brasil, Ethiopia and Panama and the descriptor reads “Luscious melange of chocolate, black currant, dried fruits and vanilla with a nutty, creamy, syrupy finish. A monument to superior blending”.
That’s quite ambitious. Typically when I read blend descriptors like this, my critics hat comes on and I try my best to tear it apart. But first, I gotta get the espresso blend dialed in.
I found that the People’s Daily blend was quite easy to dial in. I had my Speedster and a Baratza Vario set up to produce some great results from another espresso blend, and did no changes when loading up the People’s Daily. After a few test shots, I found my temperatures were just right (199.5F on the Speedster) and my dosing was around between 17.5g and 19.5g into a VST 18g basket. My target shot pulls were in the 30-35 second range (including a long, slow, low pressure preinfuse on the Speedster - about 12 seconds) producing 25-40g of brewed espresso. Halfway through the bag, I settled in on the following parameters:
Temperature: 199.5F at grouphead
Dose: 18.5-19g via Baratza Vario (since grind settings vary between grinders, it’s useless for me to say what setting I used, but for those curious, 2nd macro position, 5th micro position from top)
Shot time, preinfusion: 12 seconds (1bar/Linepressure (3bar))
Shot time, full pressure: 22 seconds
Shot volume: 32-35g brewed
On Taste the most subjective thing really, and the most important thing for people who enjoy espresso. If I had to use a one word descriptor for this coffee, it’d be “sweet”. This is probably the sweetest shot of espresso I’ve produced in over a year. As crazy as it is to say this, the shot was almost too sweet. If it didn’t have the nice acidity the blend has, it probably would be - but the acidity, which is very medium strength, balances out the sweetness fantastically - perhaps even better than the body does.
And this blend has body. There is a definite syrupy texture to the shots even when pulling long (over 35g volume brewed). Shorter shots were in fact too much for my palate.
On flavours one thing I didn’t get from this shot was the black currant; whenever I hear that descriptor, I think of Ribena and that’s a pretty strong taste. I did taste something in the blend not found on the label - a nice mellow mandarin/cherry hybrid taste. Maybe that seems like blackcurrant to some people, just not to my palate.
Another I didn’t get was vanilla, but that’s okay too, because a flavour I did get - caramel - is what some people separate into vanilla and chocolate. I got caramel and chocolate. The residual aftertaste is completely dried fruit… think trail mix stuff. Extremely pleasing aftertaste. I’m still tasting it now, in fact, as I write this.
On cappuccinos I tweeted this yesterday: had one of the best cappuccinos I’ve had in a year or longer with this blend. Possibly top five of all time. My problem is, I couldn’t duplicate that pinnacle of taste. It wasn’t the coffee’s fault, it was mine - I somehow nailed the perfect milk steaming for one cappuccino - just the right amount of residual lactose sweetness left in the foam, milk temperature bang on, goodly amount of foam in the cup - and it was freaking fantastic. Then my other capp attempts (3 of them) - all amazing cappuccinos (I’d score them 4.5-5 on a WBC scoresheet) showing off amazing balance and complexity.
What I particularly liked was how the milk both enhanced the sweetness but maintained the espresso’s taste character, even in a 6oz cup. I could still get the dried fruits. The caramel and orange and cherry were gone, but the chocolate was super enhanced and the dried fruits still lingered. Even cut through the foam in the aromas. Awesome stuff with a bit of milk, this blend is.
Scoring I’m not scoring this (or any coffee I review on Tumblr / G+). I will say - buy it. At $1 per ounce of whole bean coffee ($12CAD / 12oz), it is a fantastic bargain. But bug Social to put this blend back into 1lb (or better yet, 500g) bags. 12oz / 340g is not enough. Mine’s already gone.
This is, by far and away, the best coffee related, barista competition related video I have ever seen. I miss Tim Wendelboe - haven’t seen him in person in 4 years!
Mypressi Twist Origins Program
Remember the OLPC (one laptop per child) Give one Get One Program?
Mypressi, maker of the Mypressi Twist, the first real portable espresso maker, has a similar program, called the Mypressi Origins program.
The program asks you, a a potential purchaser of the Mypressi Twist, to spend only $10 more than the normal price ($179 instead of $169) and in return, Mypressi will send a full unit to coffee farmers in originating countries.
From Mypressi’s website:
Your participation in the Origin’s Give One, Get One program will give a coffee farmer the unprecedented opportunity to taste and profile their beans in a new and empowering way. By doing so as espresso, and learning how this impacts the price at auction, farmers will better understand what buyers are looking for in higher-priced specialty coffees. They will also be left with a diagnostic tool that will continue to improve their understanding of the variables that create quality coffee, increase demand, and yield consistent and higher prices, laying the foundation for a more sustainable system.
Earning even a few more cents per pound can make a significant difference to the quality of every farmer’s life and community. Now you can also make a difference.
So far, participation in this program has been very low; and I find that very surprising. Many people I know in the business are fans of this product and see a lot of potential for it; many involved in the buying of coffee have already started talking about how tools like this brewer will change the lives of many farmers, learning exactly how their product is used, and allowing them to improve.
Yet very few units have been sold in the Origins program, and there’s not much talk amongst my peers and coffee professionals about the program.
It is a great program, and anyone considering buying the Mypressi Twist should hopefully consider supporting this program. I also hope more coffee professionals will talk it up and get more and more of the public aware of this program.
$10 is barely the cost of two frappuccinos. It’s not going to break the bank for any Mypressi purchaser; please help any way you can to get the word out about this great the Mypressi Origins Give one, Get One program.
Balance - the Basis Point
Yesterday afternoon, I had a brief twitter discussion with @Glanvillain (Kyle Glanville of Intelligentsia) about balance. Earlier, I said that I expect espresso shots to have balance, and Kyle wrote “flavor balance is based on a catalog of personal experience”… “it is not universal”.
I agreed with him to a point - that point was, once you get into extremely refined tastes - tastes that are harder and harder to describe, one person’s balance is another person’s unbalance.
But I also disagreed with him. Because balance has a strong basis point for most normal palates. And I used mixology as an example.
Our experience with espresso is very short - only really 65 years in total, and in reality, maybe only 20 years as we reached a beginning saturation point of global citizens who have tasted actual espresso.
Our experience with coffee is hundreds of years old, but experiencing coffee as a culinary thing is at most 40 years old (Peets in Berkeley), and more realistically maybe 10-15 years old for many coffee consumers.
In the meantime, the culinary aspects of cocktail making date back 150 years or more. And in that time, there was a long standing pursuit of something called balance in cocktail mixology. Notwithstanding the sugary 80s and 90s, much of the true cocktail history was a dedicated pursuit to a balance of refined, delicate, and often fleeting flavours. Over 100 years ago, Mixology authors were writing about the importance of balancing sweets, sours, and bitters.
One of my all time favourite cocktails is one that is almost 100 years old, and is by far and away the most delicate balanced yet still complex cocktails I know. That beverage is called the Aviation.
The Aviation dates to at least 1916 - it appears in Hugo Ensslin’s book Recipes for Mixed Drinks printed at that time. Here is the original recipe:
1/3rd Lemon Juice (the sour)
2/3rds El Bart Gin (a slightly sweeter gin, yet still bitters style, than the London Dry styles of today)
2 dashes of Maraschino Liqueur (very sweet)
2 dashes of Creme de Violette (again, very, very very sweet, prior to the 1940s)
Shake with ice, strain, serve. This drink was a master of balance. The sours of the lemon balanced with the sweets of the liqueurs, and the gin brought further balance via some sweets and the botanical bitters. This drink will be 100 years old in 2016, and if it were made today with the same ingredients, it would still be characterized as balanced by our modern day palates.
Today, we don’t have El Bart, and people have boozed up the recipe somewhat, but the balance in a genuine Aviation remains:
2oz dry gin (I like Plymouth for it)
1/2oz fresh squeezed lemon juice
2 tsp of maraschino liqueur
1 tsp of creme de violette.
The recipe accounts for the changes in the gin (drier) and the violette (Rothman & Winter is probably the best one sorta-readily available these days and it isn’t as sweet as ancient violettes, and much more floral) and it is boozed up. But it is a supreme example of delicate balance, with complexity. The lemon cuts through offering the sours (and some bitters from the skin oils squeezed through); the maraschino sweetens like crazy, and the violette brings floral aromatics that, when used too much, will turn the beautiful beverage into soap.
Now, some prefer this with 1.5tsp of creme de violette, or more lemon and more maraschino (note both balance each other).
This is where the more refined elements of a drink’s balance can come into play, and how different people perceive that balance differently. But the bottom line is this - the cocktail’s most pure recipe has a good basis point for balance, and you fine tune it from there. And what was seen as balance 100 years ago is still seen as balance in a beverage today.
My point? Within our western culture (and especially the diet we eat) we have communally basic equal sense of taste balance that hasn’t changed very much in over 100 years. The recipe books for mixology from 50, 75, 100, 125 years ago show this quite well. There are plenty of cocktail recipes in these books that use ingredients that are quite similar, if not nearly identical today (ie the taste of lemon, or green Chartreuse, or Benedictine).
Balance in cocktails is a science and art that dates back centuries. Balance in espresso? We’re still trying to figure it out after only decades, and I worry some in our industry forget about just how important balance is. I’ll take balance over clarity anyday.
Tim talks up using the La Marzocco Strada machine with some great insight. Tim’s a constant valuable resource for the craft of the barista and for espresso production.
In the Kitchen
We recently bought a new condo, Beata and I, and I took on the task of completely redesigning the kitchen, starting from scratch. We knocked down two walls and changed it to an open concept kitchen with a few tricks. Some are related to the overall size of our home (for instance, we incorporated a convertible dining table right into the counter design), other design concepts are related, in a stealthy way, to the joy of coffee and espresso.
As the kitchen nears completion, I had to decide just how much coffee related items there will be in the kitchen. Our espresso machine (see below) is extremely prominent, so I wanted to minimize other coffee elements where I could. The result is three readily accessible brewing methods, and others (about a dozen) more hidden away. Here’s the readily accessible.
It’s no secret that I think the Buono Kettle is overpriced, and dubious at best as a “magical improver” of all things pourover. Some swear by the long spout, I don’t. However, our new kitchen has a hybrid oven range by Samsung that features wo induction elements side by side with two radiant elements. Turns out the Buono is very induction element friendly - so much so it takes less than 3 minutes to turn ice cold water into boiling water with the kettle. I like that, and because of that, the Buono stays permanently visible on our range ready to boil water… for siphon, for press, and for Eva Solo.
Siphon Coffee + Hario Beam Heater
The second brewing method readily accessible in our kitchen is siphon coffee, via the Hario Beam Heater (sidenote - don’t ask me where you can buy one - unfortunately, Hario discontinued this unit). The beam heater runs on Japanese voltage (100V), which is less than N. American voltage (110V), but since a) the plug is the same as N. America, and b) the Beam Heater is essentially a glorified light dimmer switch and assembly, I can safely run it on our household current - as long as I don’t push it past 85% power.
The Beam heater neatly slots into a space on our counter between the range and the Speedster Espresso Machine (and Anfim Super Caimano grinder); I have two siphons ready to go - the Hario Technica 3 cup model (on the Beam Heater) and a Technica 5 cup model.
Speedster Espresso Machine
The main rockstar of our kitchen is the Speedster Espresso Machine, paired with an Anfim Super Caimano V2 grinder. It is actually operated from the living room side of our open concept kitchen, but it hasn’t proved a problem so far (though a bar fridge right below the machine would have been nice). Water filter, water lines, and pump are in a base cabinet right below the machine. Bonus is a second line from the water filter that I can use to fill our hot water tower which is to the left of the grinder (not in this photo).
not pictured are the two other ready-available brew methods - Eva Solos (small and large) and press pots (3 sizes). They are to the left of the Anfim Grinder in a glass wall cupboard. Below that cupboard is a hot water tower (still not sure about keeping it there) and a Baratza Vario grinder.
The Speedster’s Preinfusion tricks
One of the great things about the Speedster espresso machine (built by Kees Van Der Westen) is the variety of preinfusion methods you as a barista can perform with it. In this day and age of exploratory work on preinfusion methods and pressure profiling, many may not know that the Speedster provides the barista with a few tricks and techniques for doing different levels of pressure profiling during a shot pull. Here’s a post to detail how the machine works with pressure and preinfusion.
Most espresso machines offer one type of pressure - the pump’s preset (or dialed in) pressure. You insert your portafilter loaded with packed coffee, flip a switch (or press a button), and the machine ramps up from no pressure to the pump’s pressure (usually 9bar, or 135psi). There is a climb from 0bar to that pressure that can take a second or two (or longer, if the machine has flow restrictors installed), but not much else.
Recently, developments by La Marzocco, Slayer and other companies have introduced programmable or manual control over pressures, which the industry calls “pressure profiling”. On La Marzocco’s new Strada machine, the barista can theoretically set any pressure at any time on the machine during a shot pull (the machine can also be preset or preprogrammed to deliver specific pressures at specific times during the shot). The Slayer works a bit differently, in that a series of flow restrictors are turned on or off as soon as you enable the shot process (the pump is always working from the moment you move the lever); this can be changed manually in between shots for different levels of pressure. Moving the paddle back and forth can “massage” the pressure between the machine’s various preset pressure points.
I am not a huge fan of these methods for two reasons.
- I don’t believe we, as “espresso professionals” (I mean the entire industry) know enough about espresso percolation and production to take advantage of these kinds of precise pressure adjustments to improve coffee
- Personally, I have not tasted any real improvement (or detriment) in taste from shots I’ve had on both Slayers and Stradas to justify the money and expense put into this technology.
That said, even though these are developments in the last 12-18 months, there is another machine that has been on the market since 2008 that does also offer some control over pressure profiling, but in a much more manual (and imo, less prone to break down) way: the Speedster.
The Speedster’s pressure delivery system
With the Speedster, I’m able to pull a shot with the following pressures:
- Neutral (gravity fed, not much else) preinfusion pressure, up to 7 seconds or longer (set time, not adjustable longer, but can be adjusted shorter, see below)
- Ramp up to line pressure, controlled by flow restrictors (usually less than 1 second, not adjustable)
- 3bar (or line pressure from your home or office’s normal tap water pressure) for as long as you want
- Ramp up to pump pressure, controlled by flow restrictors (usually about 1-1.5seconds, not adjustable)
- Pump pressure, whatever the rotary pump is set for - for as long as you want.
- Ramp down to line pressure (slower than ramp up, not adjustable)
- Line pressure finishing at 3bar / whatever your line pressure is (again, for as long as you want)
The Speedster achieves these things via two rather unique design elements on the machine: a two stage (or two gear) water and pump actuator control (the brewing gear lever), and a separate preinfusion chamber that in some ways mimics the preinfusion chamber on lever espresso machines.
The beauty of this system is that you as the barista can control 1, 3, 5, and 7 for as long or as short as you want. If you want to have a very short preinfusion with near-neutral water pressure, you can have it by dropping the machine into “second gear” faster or immediately (by passing 1st gear entirely). If you want an extra long 3bar preinfusion, you can do this too by leaving the machine in 1st gear for a longer period. You can also control what I call “post infusion” (probably a bad term) by dropping the machine back down to first gear after brewing with the pump for a 15 or 20 second time period.
You can even get more complex in your brewing method on the Speedster. For example, you can start the shot in first gear, pop up to second quickly to rapidly fill the preinfusion chamber (thus shortening the initial low-pressure preinfusion, forcing the machine to get up to 3bar preinfusion quicker), then drop back down to first gear to continue preinfusing at 3bar… and eventually, pop up to second gear again to get the pump working and brew the shot at 9bar.
How this improves espresso, I still don’t know. As I said above, we still don’t know jack about espresso extraction as an industry, and I’m very much in line with the industry in my own knowledge. I still experiment every day with espresso on the Speedster, and have found most of my shots benefit from the following brewing method:
- Preinfuse at near-neutral pressure for full time the machine allows (as long as the preinfusion chamber is still filling up and the piston is still extending from the machine’s front panel, the puck is getting less than 1bar pressure) - about 7 seconds
- Continue preinfusion with 3 bar line pressure (still in 1st gear) as initial dribbles of brew come out of the portafilter for about 3 seconds
- Pop to second gear, brew for around 20 seconds
- Drop back down to first gear, allow machine to ramp back down to 3bar pressure, finish off the shot (about 5 seconds)
- Drop the machine back down to off or zero gear to finish shot.