Saturday, October 27, 2007

When Does Coffee Go Stale?

I love watching crema levels. A day after roasting, our espresso blend is so crem-tastic as to include little actual coffee. Three weeks after, the ratios have reversed. About 4-7 days into a batch, I think that the crema sweet spot has been reached. Taste-wise also. Knowing this allows me to alter how I make a shot and also when to order (we only like keeping around coffee for about a week).

With all the espresso evaluation stuff that has been going on, some defining is being refined, especially at (I post here because no new members are allowed there). What I still haven't seen, though, is what exactly "stale" means. How do we know when a coffee has gone stale? How does roast level affect this? Transportation methods? Green quality? What about rates of staling whole versus ground? (I've heard that ground coffee goes stale in 30 seconds, but have yet to see anyone reference any scientific data).

That, I think, is the crux of the issue: science. Most barista/shop owners don't have the fancy-schmancy equipment needed to get past the anecdotal level. Do I think our espresso goes stale after two weeks? Actually, no. But that is my opinion from working with/tasting it. I'm sure others would disagree, both other professionals and customers. The only people who do seem to have the equipment live in Italy at Illy Cafe, but their research skews towards pod brewing--conveniently considering they produce a lot of pods. There is no independent, third-party scientific research going on that I know of. It is frustrating, especially since espresso preparation requires so many steps to achieve a decent, not to mention a superb, shot. Like I said in the last post, where's the beef with polishing? I've been dabbling this week and haven't noticed a huge difference: the bottom of my tamper is scuffed up anyways because I'm a complete newb (Chris Deferio pointed that out to me, analogizing the tamper with the pupil of the eye), so what sort of "polishing" is going on anyway? Add to this my lack of current financial means to afford a Scace device (have you seen the price of the Scace2? Wowsa.) and no PID control on our machine. But we still pull lots of good shots.

I do have hope, though. One of my professorial friends, a Chemistry teacher at Geneva College here in Beaver Falls, is interested in coffee science. Maybe some day I'll have access to fancy-schmancy equipment, or, better yet, a chemistry intern to do some research for me. In the meantime, I'll keep plugging away trying to bring you the best tasting espresso we can. Bottoms up.

PS--When someone asks what drip brewed coffees you have available that day, is it bad form to say "On tap today we have House Blend and Sumatra..." I said that today, even though I do not recall actually tapping a keg/airpot. I stopped midsentence (the ellipsis in the quote above) and stared dumbfounded at the customer until he assured me that he understood, despite my (apparent) best efforts to confuse myself.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Thoughts on Espresso Preparation

I was wondering, as I do, about "polishing" the espresso before brewing. For all those that aren't baristas or at-home-baristas, after you pack the coffee into the brewing device (the portafilter), many spin their tamper to "polish" the top of the espresso. The question, of course, is why?

Before that got to me, though, I was wondering about proper polishing technique. Pressure or no pressure? Back and forth or unidirectional? 360, 580, 720 degrees around or just a little teaser?

I wound up here. I can't post on Coffeed (I'm not part of the club), but I do read it from time to time. Basically, what I learned from this thread confirmed in my mind the number one rule of espresso preparation:

Everything is relative.

Does it taste better with a pressurized spin? Then do it. A convex tamper? Then do it. An expensive tamping grinder? Then do it. No spin? Then do(n't) it. Digging your finger into the middle like a mole? Then do it. With little bits of hair? Then due it. With yellow soda? Then Dew it. And so on.

The strange thing about espresso, and one of its most wonderful qualities, is that it is a mystery, even to those who have worked with it for a long time. What is polishing for? Maybe to lock in the oils, maybe to develop an intricate architectual framework for water passage, maybe to keep the puck clean, and maybe for nothing. There is no scientific basis for any of the conclusions, except taste. That fickle, subjective, allusive, elusive property that snagged me in the last post.

It makes it hard to train folks, however. It takes awhile before someone is ready to start experimenting with their technique; a lot longer to break habits (over and over again). The uncertainty is hard to deal with. Especially when there are so many other factors that go into making a decent, not to even mention an excellent, shot of espresso.

The one factor that I didn't notice having mention in the thread was one of blend. Do different beans, roasted at different levels, need different preparation techniques to bring out their best? I guess this relates more to the last post, but it is something that should be considered.

Here's to chasing that delicious shot! Bottoms up.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Thoughts on Espresso Evaluation

There has been a lot of debate going on, especially at wunder-sites CoffeeGeek and Coffeed, concerning what methodologies, boundaries, limits, variances, etc. are appropriate for evaluating espresso blends much like single origins and cupping. For what it is worth, here's my take.

Coffee, whether green, roasted, ground, or brewed, is an extremely volatile product. The guys at Barismo would be the first to tell you that if the pre-roasted green is skanked, then no level of roasting mastery will make a good cup of coffee. The crop, the level of moisture, the storage, the transportation from farm to processing to warehouse to wholesaler to roaster, the depulping method, the geographical location (both regional and down to the individual farm), and much more! all affect the way that the coffee will roast and taste down the line.

The roast can happen in too humid of conditions, too dry of conditions, type of roaster affects taste, length of time, change in air stability, cleanliness of machine, and whether the roaster has a cold all affect the final product.

Time from roaster to grinder, whether too long or too short, affect it, although I've never seen any hard data on this, just a lot of assertion.

Time from grinder to brewing device (in this case the overly complicated, Gnostic-like-initiation-needed espresso machine) affects it, although everyone's opinion on this seems to differ (30 seconds to staling, 3 minutes, 3 hours, 3 weeks; I've never actually seen any hard data on this, just my own experience and, you guessed it, assertion).

Time in said brewing device, temperature, tamping, leveling, dosing, distributing, barista competence, all affect the final product.

Not to mention those overly subjective taste buds--they just won't bow down to the canons of modern science!

One weak in the chain makes a weak product. The question is, can any entire company or roaster be judged on one lot of coffee? Many variables are beyond the roaster's or the barista's control. Even the best can have bad days. Or not "dial it in" well enough. Let's not forget transportation from one place to another. Yes, coffee from Italy is going to stale before it reaches the states, but probably also coffee that has sat (sitten?) in a hot UPS truck for one day is going to be adversely affected or one that has flown in a cold hulled FedEx plane. How much difference? It is hard to tell, but there is a difference, even in color.

More than any possible (and possibly uncontrollable) weak link in the chain, it is this transportation issue that bothers me the most (green storage is the second, but the guys are pretty tight-lipped about their experiments). If we know that transportation affects the beans "adversely", why do we continue to send them long distances for evaluation and expect a fair hearing? The quality of the product has changed and the score has dropped, possibly plummeted. One reason, money. If you ship your beans farther, more people can buy them, which turns into cha-ching. Two reason, branding and furtherance of your name/philosophy. Intelligentsia is a great example of this, and please notice that I don't think any of these reasons are bad reasons, I respect Intelli and have had great coffee from their providers in the Pittsburgh area. Three reason, everybody's doing it. I have yet to meet a roaster that refuses to ship farther than a day away "as the UPS drives". I'm sure they are out there; that is going to be my policy when I start roasting (getting ever closer!), although that might be more from my regional bias than anything else. I'm sure there are other reasons, also, all of which make a formidable barrier to the idea of not shipping. But what about the quality?

I realize that my own Achilles-heel is showing; our drip provider, Grounds for Change, is located way far away (more than a day, that's for sure). However, I'm not using them for evaluation, I'm using them for the taste that I get, even after transportation (which is pretty good, otherwise I wouldn't serve it).

But I don't know if evaluation quality can be maintained through transportation. Imagine if the slighted Italian roasters (just check out their scores!) would agree that the American/Canadian "upstarts" are better than them. They might be right, but only locationally. If an Italian CoffeeGeek had the same test, with the same provisions and methodologies followed by Mark Prince, then I assure you the scores would be reversed. You just can't compare things that have had such divergent histories. It is like comparing a McCormick Reaper (which a great-grandpa of mine had a patent on) to a modern John Deere corn-harvesting-zip-code-having-eat-all-massive-soil-compacting-behemoth tractor in how efficiently they harvest corn. Well, what are the factors? Are we talking large, industrial field, or small, tight, hilly field? Etc. Etc. Etc. (Yul Brenner cameo). So, the results there, at least the Italian stuff, doesn't mean a whole lot. Plus, the initial impetus, the infamous Ken David's review, had a less transparent methodology, so we aren't sure why the Italians fared better: did he have access to fresher Italian roasts or older American roasts; was that batch of BlackCat an off-batch, etc. etc.?

Do I think it is possible to accurately review and evaluated espresso? Sure, but the methodology should be tightened up significantly. Here are my thoughts (with, of course, a provisio that should have been placed at the beginning perhaps: I'm not an accomplished cupper and I'm still working on "dialing in" my shop's espresso, so I'm no expert):

Batches with similar histories since roast should be evaluated, not ones that might have been roasted weeks or months apart.

Anonymous batches should be selected, that is, no roaster should have the opportunity to dress up their roast for the competition while they offer their customers something different.

A disclaimer should proceed all such evaluations of the volatile nature of said reviews. Roasts change from batch to batch, taste buds change, etc. In other words, this is an art, not a science. You cannot, I know, make people actually believe or listen to this disclaimer, but it should be there anyway.

As for the rest, I generally agree with Mark Prince's evaluation criteria and methodology, although I think more than three tasters, and preferably less than half of them related by blood or marriage, should be the rule.

Well, if you've made it this far, I thank you and would greatly appreciate your feedback. Bottom's up!