Post 500: Espresso…..

It only just dawned on me that this next post would be a milestone post (thank you wordpress dashboard) so I thought I should post in an opinionated way about coffee as a couple of things have been eating away at my brain. It has been a real pleasure writing this blog over the last few years and again thanks to all of you who read, comment, correct and interact – it makes learning for me a pleasure.

    Fear of Dilution

This is something that I think we all agree on at Square Mile HQ – a little dilution is not a bad thing.

As coffee is forced onwards in an online game of one-upmanship it seems shots have been getting shorter and shorter. No doubt the very visual medium of the internet means we are more terrified than ever of even the vaguest signs of blonding.

A paler pour does not equal bad taste, it just means that there are less coffee solubles in that pour.

From the colour we can not gauge the quality of those solubles. Empirical evidence certainly suggests that the longer the paler pour continues the more increased the bitterness in the cup. However for me it is all about balance I struggle to find balance in super short shots. Even from a technical standpoint I struggle to see how a complete extraction of all the goodness the coffee has to offer can be done with such a small amount of liquid. (Even though, as Andy Schecter points out here, more energy is being spent in the cake in these type of shots)

The constant chase for the heavier bodied, “sweeter” shot sometimes makes me sad as I wonder how many good flavours and desirable aspects of the coffee get knocked out with the spent puck.


This shot may be blonding to some people but it still tasted good

    The rapidly disappearing single espresso

This one also turns me a bit ranty I am afraid. Maybe it is the bigger, better, harder, stronger thing but in many places around the world when you order an espresso you get a double. Whether the volume is 30ml, 45ml or 60ml this is irrelevant. I like coffee, I like drinking espresso and I like tasting different things. Whilst I may worry about coming across as the curmudgeonly Italian we specialty people all complain about who gets angry about our excessive dosing of coffee, I can’t help but agree that too much caffeine really limits my ability to enjoy my coffee. I really like a single espresso I think one of the most attractive things about great espresso in Scandanavia is that they are all just as hardcore about the quality but don’t feel the pressure of the big drinks to need every espresso brewed to be a double.

This isn’t really a rant about the single basket. I know a lot of people lament its rapid disappearance and I know it is a damn finicky thing to work with. That said one of my most viewed is this one – a single basket naked pour:

naked single basket

Naked single basket

    How to enjoy espresso

This one is less rant and a bit more fun I guess. Tasting shots you brew, or shots you are assessing is rarely, if ever, fun. Inspecting the shot in minute detail with your tongue and olfactory system you quickly find the flaws – a touch of astringency, or a hint of underextraction or maybe the shot shows itself a little overextracted in the finish. It is easy to demolish just about any shot (ask a competition judge if you don’t believe me!) but it is often very difficult to enjoy it.

A friend of mine once told me that a different part of your brain assesses things than makes hedonic decisions a. One part of your brain decides if it like, and the other part analyzes it. One part tends to dominate (the mean, cynical part going by personal experience). Recently I’ve taken to trying to trick myself. (I am aware I am starting to sound crazy now). It all started when we were pulling shots of Coffee Collective’s espresso that Stephen used to win the Irish Barista championship. He pulled me a great looking shot and just as I got it to my lips he asked a distracting question and instead of paying attention to the shot my mind was elsewhere. When my brain finally reconnected with my mouth all that was left was an overall awareness of deliciousness but little more. Suddenly I was like a normal customer, a person who drinks coffee for money because they like it. It had been a long time since I had thought like that, and I really liked it.

So now I will either drink espresso as a harsh judge, and look for every flaw or I will try not to pay attention – to distract myself so I can just switch that part of my brain off to enjoy an espresso now and again.

  1. Though I confess, while I completely trust him – he is painfully smart – I never did go and find papers online to back this up  (back)

15 Comments Post 500: Espresso…..

  1. Meister

    I love this post, James, and congratulations on your milestone! Yours has long been one of my favorite blogs.

    I have to say that I agree with you on the single-espresso tip. When I am making the rounds and trying new coffees, I’m always desperate for singles knowing that by the end of the day I’ll be fully overwhelmed by caffeine. I think the disappearance of the single also has to do with the disappearance of split-shot portafilters, which I also lament. Do you prefer naked ones?


  2. Eric

    These are three wonderful points, and I especially appreciate the third. I often cannot help myself from concentrating on the faults of coffee, beer, food, etc. and it prevents me from enjoying some good food & drink. Just because I have the ability to notice faults damns me to usually being disappointed. On the other hand, when the flavor is perfect, boy is that a great experience, and one that maybe only an “expert” can achieve. On the whole, I bet I’d enjoy myself more if I could be less critical like you propose.

  3. Klaus

    What a great post James. And I have to agree with you completely.
    Lately we’ve been going down on our dose on the TCC espresso blend. We’d slowly gone up and up and were around 19 – 19,5 grammes for a double, but now are down at 18 g again.
    We only brew doubles that are split at the portafilter spouts. I only ever drink single espressos. The doubles are too intense and there’s too much crema to go through. I prefer to drink a shot in just two sips really.

  4. Peter Van de Reep

    Congratulations James on 500!

    I love going into a shop and just drinking coffee as a customer. I really do enjoy it that much more. I started out as a home barista on poor equipment years ago and when I made the jump to commercial equipment and quality beans it was like every shot I pulled myself was beautiful. Nowadays it’s a rare shot here and there that really hits the spot if I’m making them for myself. I thought it was just me!

  5. Brad

    “This shot may be blonding to some people but it still tasted good”
    It looks like a very fresh batch of coffee in this photo was it?? i have found that if the coffee is quite fresh it will blonde at quite a short shot but can taste harsh if the blonde part is not allowed to run abit has anyone else found this to be true or is this in my head? :)
    congrats on 500 James

  6. AndyS

    Nice post, James.

    > the longer the paler pour continues the more increased the bitterness
    > in the cup. However for me it is all about balance I struggle to
    > find balance in super short shots

    The often-espressed gospel that longer pours are bitter is very exaggerated, IMHO. Sure the latter pour contains bitters, but they are very dilute. Longer pours are more often simply more dilute, less acidic pours. And those dilute pours allow flavors to “open,” and allow shots to become refreshing beverages rather than hammer blow ultra-ristrettos.

    Sometimes we want a hammer blow, sometimes a love tap — everything has a place and a time, no?

  7. jeff verellen

    art in a museum is also enjoyable but its true meaning is comprehended and appreciated trough the explenation of a good guide.

  8. Daniel

    Congratulations on the 500th post. Also, thanks for putting those thoughts out there, as they are all things that I’ve definitely been thinking about lately.

  9. Doug Zell

    I often wonder if great chefs when they are eating anywhere other than in their own kitchen face the same challenge that we in the hyper critical world of the upper echelons of Specialty Coffee do? That is the inability to actually enjoy something as it is versus just looking to pick it apart? I think our customers are lucky in that they may get more satisfaction out of a great cup than we do

  10. The Onocoffee

    Count me as one of the guilty who goes into a restaurant and finds something wrong, like my dinner at WD-50 where I couldn’t help but notice the lazy way the staff placed our silverware…

    As “professionals” I think we need to step away and see the experience for its’ entirety and not micro-focus on just the espresso, ’cause we’re missing the boat. It’s too easy for us to get fixated on the minute bad of what may otherwise be a wonderful experience.

    The other weekend, I had dinner at Eleven Madison Park in NYC. To be honest, the food was good, delicious even, but it wasn’t the best I’ve ever had – it didn’t blow me away. If I had only focused on that aspect, it would have been a nice experience. But the reality is that the experience encompasses so much more: from the decor but, more importantly, to the way we were taken care of by the staff (exquisite), and that made for a wonderful experience that propelled that dinner to one of the most memorable.

    We have to remember that the customer experience is more than just the coffee.

  11. James Hoffmann

    That is the inability to actually enjoy something as it is versus just looking to pick it apart? I think our customers are lucky in that they may get more satisfaction out of a great cup than we do

    Though when it comes to coffees that require some level of intellectual connection (high price stuff like Esmeralda and all that) does the customer miss out because they don’t quite get what is so amazing about it? Does this restrict how far we can realistically push coffee and price in the next 3-5 years? Perhaps another topic.

    Brad: Your point about fresh coffee blonding makes sense. If there is more gas in the brew then there would be more foam which would create a lighter looking colour, probably throughout most of the pour.

  12. Anthony Epp

    Yeah, 500!!! I only with I had come on board sooner.

    “Count me as one of the guilty who goes into a restaurant and finds something wrong,”

    Guilty. After 17 years in restaurant and having served in some 4-star ones, the service is always the one that get me. I’ve been to some where the server is pleasant, prompt with what we need and impressively enough takes the order without a pad and gets it right through several changes. Now, whether it’s with/without a pad, you’re always going to start somewhere on the table. So why, when the runners bring the food to the table, do they “auction off” the food. God that is annoying. Were they even paying attention?

    I think they can enjoy a great cup like Esmeralda, just not to the intimate level as someone who know might. But unless they REALLY believe about the uber quality, it definitely will affect the price we can charge.

  13. Pingback: Espresso para el alma. « Soul Barista!

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