19 Comments Video 13 – How does it look

  1. Coffeehorse

    Apart from (technically) the green cast, the high level of background noise (any good audio editor will let you remove this) and the ear scratching 8 seconds in, plus the slightly weird perspective (coming from using a laptop/lower camera?), the content is rocking.

    I tend to agree with the overextraction “bold tiger stripes” being the sign of a syrupy/overextracted pour that doesn’t necessarily get the best flavour profile out of the cup – and the photography issue is a major one. With a background in professional photography and a foreground in coffee, good coffee photography does not equal good coffee. I think. It can be quite hard to tell when you’re trying to shoot four-dozen pours and taste them all.

  2. Jered Marrington

    Interesting point about fetishism and syphons. I agree that a well brewed syphon cup in no ‘better’ then any other brewing method. However in Australia where the general consumer looks down upon any brewing method other then espresso (almost laughed at if you offer someone drip), the syphon offers a unique avenue to get ‘brewed’ coffee into the hands of consumers. Because of the theatre of syphon- the excitement of the heating (particularly with halogen bulbs), the rolling bubbling of the water in the top chamber and the beauty of the pull down, it intrigues and interests the consumer. Then it makes education. Over time you are able to convince people that a french press can be as tasty and satisfying as espresso, and that is what makes it all worth while. Because of this I will continue to revel in the ‘theatre’ of syphon brewing.

    But to tell you the truth I don’t really worry about the dome either. ;)

  3. Hunt Slade

    Addressing both the look of a pull and the hyper-focus on syphon, I believe that beauty is in the balance. Not trying to be trite. I have tried to hone an ability to assess what type of preparation best fits any given customer and once hooking them on that prep, slowly introduce them to other styles of prep – the same goes for preference of bean or coffee character. I have found the spread of preference to be quite even across the board. Logistically, this has given us the foresight to roast an appropriate amount of inventory for the shop so that we do not come up short or have beans that go past freshness and hit the compost bin. I think that there is a balance to be found in everything – for example, how photogenic a shot is v/s how well extracted it turns out to be. I do use how the pull looks, extraction time, temp, etc. in deciding if a shot is fit to be served. I just wish I could still taste every one before I hand it over.

  4. Mike White

    I think visual indicators are just as important as all your other senses. You mentioned that the espresso’s you’ve enjoyed the least have had similar physical visual characteristics. This is important, not because you’ve assigned aesthetic value to what you’re seeing, but because you’ve recognize the impact these specific visual characteristics can have on flavor. I agree that doming for domes sake is silly (for example), but find value in discovering that either way it will taste differently. Understanding why the differences exist has value as well. As much as we may want to, we can’t taste everything we serve. We rely on sight, smell, sound, feeling, timing, and muscle memory. Every little bit of understanding helps (IMHO).

  5. SlowRain

    I think the majority of people–and not only in coffee, but in all things–tend to put visual aesthetics over the inherent characteristics of almost everything. It’s a rare person who realizes what the eyes perceive as good is not necessarily translated as good by the mind or other senses. A fancy-looking coffee shop with poor coffee can outsell an average-looking one with great coffee.

    We all have to be careful of putting visual any-old-thing ahead of tangible something. However, we live in an age where it’s rampant everywhere. I don’t see this pattern reversing itself any time soon. In addition to the espresso porn that you mentioned, I’ve always been a little suspicious of the amount of brand-name bling that people think they need. It’s expensive and looks cool, but does it really perform better?

  6. BaconMeister

    I totally agree with James on the Visual vs. Taste bit, personal experiences tells me a faster shot is generally more Aromatic than a much slower shot. But we also have to look at whether we are making the shots for straight espressos or for Cappuccinos, a faster shot may be better for espressos but may not work as well for Cappuccinos as most of that Aromatics will be lost in Milk anyway, and generally speaking a slower shot produces a sweeter shot provided you don’t burn it which translate into a sweeter Cappuccino, and the Caramelize of sugar is something I value highly in Cappuccinos.
    But the main importance as a Barista is taste taste and taste, every blend/origin is different so make the best out of it.
    On the topic of Siphon brewing, I always think it excites me on the nose not the mouth. A plunger brew often satisfy me more than Siphon as it’s just more Complete.

  7. Per B

    I would probably go as far as to say that visual(and other non-flavur) attributes are major factors in that home coffee geks in general seem to put espresso based drinks higher in rank than any other types of coffee. The shiny cromed machines, the small cups filled with a beautifully tiger flecked red substance, the leaves and hearts made of milk and coffee and so on.

    That said I believe that for both for those working with, and us who only enjoy, taste and flavour experiences, the whole experience is in most cases what matters. And the whole experience is given by context, company, state of mind and all other surrounding factors including the visual appearance of what is to be consumed. On the cupping table though, I suppose only flavour+mouthfeel is what matters.

    But I still think that ones perception of what looks good is, at least patially, tied to if you by experience know that it you will get a good experience from your other senses. I for instance thoght that the good old egg white frothy cappuccinos looked amazing until I learnedto appreciate microfoam, now I think they are ugly, and maybe if people get to taste the tiger striped syrapy naked espresso shots and find them overextrcted they will start to hold their visual appearance less high in regard. Visual taste is definately not static, just have a look into design-, art, or fascion history for instance.
    So maybe this is not that big an issue after all.

  8. Daniel

    Hi James, great series first of all. Just nice to see some regularly updated content from someone obviously very thoughtful about coffee. I’d just want to echo from Jered said before: as someone coming only from a consumer perspective – and one pretty entrenched in that of everyday consumer, in that most of my good friends have limited to no interest in specialty coffee – I want to emphasize that the visual component of truly special coffee can be an extremely important selling point in convincing the otherwise uninterested consumer (eg, my friends) that specialty coffee, with all of its fussiness and (unfortunately common) possible pretensions, is really worth getting into.

    It’s nice to see that you are often both concerned with “geeking” out about coffee to the highest degree (I say that completely a compliment), making sure the coffee is absolutely as good as it can be, while also recognizing the need for growth and accessibility for the “uninitiated.” And I think you need to allow the possible importance of naked-portas/syphons to that second aspect outweigh the possible drawbacks it may have for the first – ie, I think it’s the importance of the Cool Factor, of the Oooo Ahhh Factor, that basically excuses “fetishizing” or overly emphasizing the visual of the naked portafilter or the tornado-like syphon. Even if the syphon does not necessarily create the best coffee, and even if it sometimes may be an inappropriate brewing method for certain coffees, it still does do – for the most part – a good ENOUGH job with making high quality coffee*, and it has the important added bonus of just looking damned cool and acting as a sort of intrinsic marketing ploy for how great and interesting thoughtfully-done specialty coffee can be. As far as I know, latte art adds no real intrinsic value to the quality of a latte, but it’s a symbol for well-done coffee and it’s certainly something that the everyday consumer can latch on to and possibly use as a jumping-off point for greater interest in great coffee. Syhpons (and to a lesser degree naked portafilters, since the Everyday Consumer is not going to be watching the extraction) can function just like latte art.

    *If this is blatantly wrong, feel free to correct me, but I hadn’t heard that it makes BAD or average coffee out of great beans.

  9. Kurt

    “Fetishizing” is my new favorite word. Studying coffee and avoiding becoming a “fetishizer” is a razors edge. All brewing methods, barista competitions, sexy bar designs, tatoos, origins, and cafes or roasters du jur quickly become gobbled up by the coffee culture and “fetishized” to the extreme. Its hyper-consumerism similar to tabloid journalism.

  10. Bikelawya

    Mr. Hoffman: Thanks so much for the vids. They are always informative, and I enjoy them. The visual is a minor point in my brewing. Smell and taste are also important. I appreciate the reality check on Siphon brewing. I have been a little carried away with it lately, especially since I had a religious experience with it at Blue Bottle in San Francisco–where I live. I confess my sins, and will be returning to my La Pavoni in the morning. But honestly my kitchen has the Pavoni, Chemex, Vacu Brew, French Press, etc…. and I love to switch off and enjoy!

    Keep up the inspiration!

  11. Stefan

    A barista I know once said that a nice rosetta on top of your coffee doesn’t make it a nice tasting dito. I think that about sums it up, when discussing the looks of the coffee. I think that the final taste is what counts at the end of the day, even though it’s always nice pouring smashing latte-art. On good or bad coffee alike… Very nice blog, this one, by the way. Keep it up!

  12. Mark

    Since I can (relatively) easily point to alt.coffee posts I was making back in 1999 and before about certain epiphany moments I experienced at that time with siphon coffee, and my love for the method has, if anything increased over the last 10 years (geezus has it been that long already?) I feel pretty confident in saying that at least for some siphon ain’t a fad… and there’s a few people from those alt.coffee days who probably feel the same way.

    That said, I can remember reading with a fair amount of glee the resurgence of the method with folks like the Barismo people talking about it as the next great thing, and coffeed people talking up the method. I used to bug Vince about getting siphons into Artigiano back in the day… and Alistair at Elysian, and Jeff at Zoka… and probably a few others (I remember talking up restaurateurs about doing a vacpot service in their restaurants, back when I was a helluva lot more naive about the realities of restaurant service staff). I hoped and wished for the day I could walk into a quality-driven cafe and get a vacpot brew.

    I mention all of this because yeah totally, siphon coffee is the “next big thing” and what the cool kids are pursuing right now. Intelly’s got their slow bar. 49th’s got their hario stations. I half expected 15th Ave Coffee and Tea to set up a multi-siphon station next to their Clovers… er Starbucks Gourmet Extraction Units. Gotta say I love the fact that this is the trendy thing to do today – wishes can come true lol :)

    I really, really hope that siphon stays around and is not a flash in the pan… because for me at least, I’ve gotten more satisfying cups off a siphon than any other non-espresso brewing method in the past 10 years. But, in reading siphon history (especially with regards to commercial use – widespread in the US prior to WWII) siphon coffee isn’t for the faint of heart. It is very user-involved. It’s not easy to clean or maintain. It saw commercial death for these very reasons.

    This time around, the people promoting siphon coffee in commercial venues are arguably much more quality driven than the typical 1930s diner brewer running six Corys on a multi electrical burner station. The owners recognize the brewing standard the siphon is capable of, and want it. Staffing’s another issue. I’ve had some very bad siphon coffees in some of these new siphon-enabled cafes, and it is all down to operator error in most cases.

    I also worry that form over function (or taste) is a concern. When Barismo (sorry to single them out – but hey, they were at the forefront of this) and others started promoting the dome and the “ritual of the stir” I starting thinking – really? Domeporn is that important? Like many I did my fair share of experimentation with stirs, with time, with when to add the coffee, yada yada, and at least in my own testing, stirs at the end, cloths wrapped about the siphon bowl, etc contributed nothing positive to the taste, and even some potential cup defects. Because of this, whenever stirs as a subject came up, I’d promote stirring at the start to saturate grounds, and leave the siphon alone after that. I remember one discussion on CG forums where someone actually said “but then you won’t have that beautiful dome of coffee!” or something like that and I was flashing back to crazy latte art discussions all over again.

    All of this said, I don’t deny the fact that some folks who preach the dome stir method aren’t getting some great cups of coffee from their practiced and tried methods. The problem here is I’ve seen advice saying “you should see a nearly perfect dome, with dimples / craters as the coffee is vacuumed dry” etc etc and really, come on, that’s totally irrelevant advice with regards to how the coffee should come to be. I’ve seen domestirs that come out with loopy domes and the coffee tastes fine. Cuz the dome is loopy, should I expect something is wrong?

    This is my long rambling way of saying that, at least when it comes to siphon coffee, I am firmly convinced there is no pretty aesthetic to indicate a great cup vs. a bad cup. In fact, lately I’ve come to believe that certain aesthetics could in fact be indicators of potential problems. Here’s one example: Since getting the hario halogen burner, I’ve discovered that the more gentle brewing processes throughout (kick up, saturation time, kick down all being remarkably more “gentle”, even, slow than with butane burners or cloth wicks) usually contributes to a better cup. A short time ago we did a small and very informal siphon test in the Lab – head to head brews, halogen burner vs butane, every other factor kept as even as possible (steep time, stirs applied, filters used, volume of water, grind fineness, etc). We even finessed the butane burner to be as gentle as possible, controlling the flame quite a bit after the water kicked up.

    Long story short, the butane was a FAIL compared to the halogen in terms of taste. The main differences were how the brew happened – butane kicked up hot water quicker; it created more turbulence in the top portion; it somehow contributed to a more rapid kickdown, including some minor foaming in the bottom bowl.

    But a rapid kickdown with some nice foamy action looks cool :)

  13. Stephen

    As an echo to a lot of what has been said already:

    I, along with most I would assume, would Much rather have a homely tasty coffee – rather than beautiful rubbish. That being said, of course I would prefer tasty AND beautiful coffee.

    One of the advantages of siphon brewing, besides the tasty coffee it can make, to me; It helps engage the customers at a greater percentage rate than other methods. This makes for less work for the barista. Anything that will help to capture attention, to get them to ask questions, makes all of our lives easier; Allowing more customers to experience amazing coffee. Then you tell them that excellence can be obtained from a simple pour-over method as well? Attainable excellence!

    If you were to brew a siphon in the back room, would some of the appeal be lost? I think so. It parallels with coffee as being culinary. You would expect great presentation from a high-end restaurant would you not? You would also expect excellent food. Taste and presentation are inexorably married to each other – probably even more so for those at the top.

    Of course there are always those who fetishize anything that is ‘in the moment’. Some you may be able to talk sense into, some not. Some will use only coffees they feel taste the best via this method, some will care not.

    All that being said: Siphon Domes are rubbish :)

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  15. Colin Loh

    I was first introduced to the naked portafilter after reading Dan Kehn’s article on home-barista.com titled “Perfecting the Naked Extraction.” Looking at the beautiful striping and the gooey pour hooked me immediately and had me ordering bottomless portafilters to match my machines. While I now know the end result sometimes doesn’t taste as good as it looks, the naked portafilter is an invaluable tool in helping me perfect my routine – grinding, dosing, tamping, up to cutting the pour.

  16. Alexandr

    Jim, your photos are very delicious! What is the reason of beautiful reddish reflection color of espresso crema? Coffee species, roast style, or what? Im not about good extraction because not all blends give reddish reflection for crema on espresso with good extraction.


  17. Hallie Taylor

    I found that naked portafilters helped me determine the evenness of the bed (especially at first.) By visually checking my leveled and tamped espresso I often thought that something looked perfectly level when in fact it was slightly tilted, and this was evident when watching the shot from underneath. This was pretty quickly alleviated, however, and I never again saw much reason to watch the shot every time from below. But then, I’m one for going by weight.

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