Life is full of lessons. Stop at red lights; say please and thank you; don’t run with scissors; and oh yeah, don’t forget to dial-in your espresso.
When changing careers, one quickly discovers a learning curve as steep as the mountainside of Finca La Ilusion, El Salvador. Stepping back into the coffee scene after a jaunt teaching abroad, I needed to sharpen my skills and take them in a new direction. Although I’ve always kept one foot in the coffee world by painting my palate with a variety of varietals and perfecting my pour-over technique, I’ve moved into the production side of specialty coffee in Seattle, Washington. My learning curve is more… space shuttle-ish.
Lured back to the beans by good friend and master roaster, Andrew Russo, author of The Coffee Taster’s Compendium, I was inspired to become a roaster myself. Andrew graciously let me tag along to his high profile cuppings and coffee crawls with local tasting celebrities and other master roasters. I sipped my way through Seattle and with every sip, a little fire grew in me.
Hanging on to the space shuttle by the tips of my fingers, I launched into my own self-guided coffee school, trying to get ahead in the coffee game. I started by researching roasters in places I had previously lived. Akron, Ohio, my place of birth, had about five. Reno, Nevada, had four; Dublin, Ireland, and Oxford, England tie at around seven; and Seattle has about all those combined – and doubled. Then my research turned more serious. I had found the World Barista Championships. The almighty Olympics of making coffee that led me to an epiphany… it’s all about the espresso. Binge watching competition after competition – espresso, cappuccino, and signature beverage – over and over again; I learned the techniques, studied the processes, and talked into the mirror like I was presenting a bright and silky Columbian Huila.
Finally, Andrew introduced me to master roaster, Jesse Nelson, who started Conduit Coffee Company in 2012 with a gorgeous, baby blue Diedrich. Conduit, a wholesale roaster on the bustling west bank of Seattle’s Lake Union, is a company that is true to its name. Jesse’s motto, Be A Conduit, is more like a way of life. Every interaction, either roasting, cupping, delivering coffee on bicycle, visiting importers or hanging out at the studio, fosters a positive energy of support and appreciation. If there is something worthwhile going on in Seattle, Jesse is promoting it. If there is a message for the good of the people in the Lake Union neighborhood, it is being conveyed. Like a true conduit, Jesse brings people not only great coffee but great service. It is with people that coffee thrives.
Volunteering to help out with weekly public cuppings, and being a bit on the tenacious side of eager, I stepped into the role of roaster’s apprentice at Conduit. Up and up the shuttle goes – unlearning what I know about coffee, specifically, espresso. Like layers of an onion, I peeled away the bad habits of a detrained barista. Cupping as a form of quality control is one method of forging a new roast profile or maintaining consistency of another. Having an espresso machine next to the roaster to play with the coffee is another. Pulling espresso for patrons and passers-by of our award winning, Locofocos, blend is not only a way of showing off the personality of the coffee, but also, a way of forming good habits and nurturing an intimate relationship with coffee. I may not yet know the coffee farmers personally, but I can celebrate their efforts by being the final person to roast and touch the coffee before serving it in a cup.
Shaun Lieb, manager of bakery and café, Morsel & Bean, nestled in the craft brewery neighborhood of Ballard, is also a conduit. If he’s not hamming up his barista antics behind Jesse’s refurbished La Marzocco GS2, he’s holding training seminars in the Conduit lab and reigning down knowledge on young baristas. Coffee has a complexity we may never fully understand. Its roots are deep in culture and people all over the planet know what it is and are very particular about how they like it prepared.
As a roaster, I met with Shaun to sharpen my espresso bar skills. Roasting is only half the battle; a good craftsman should be able to showcase the coffee’s versatility.
My anxiety levels rose with the pitch of the Mazzer grinder as Shaun began dosing coffee into his hand. Houston, we have a problem. It’s coffee after all… espresso is coffee. It’s the same stuff dripped, pressed, vacuumed, and pulled. What could be so complicated about tamping it all pretty and pressing a button? Over the next hour Shaun taught me the art of dialing-in espresso, a task I would perform every Tuesday morning for the previous weeks’ roasts, blends, and single origins. I was on a mission to discover the best way to pull each coffee. The best way to celebrate the farmer. Delusions of grandeur swirled like crema in my head. I thought I already knew exactly how to pull great shots of espresso. If the coffee was good, how could I possibly pull a bad shot?
Straight out of the roaster, coffee is a wild, untamed animal. Its power needs to be harnessed. The goal of wrestling with coffee at this stage is finding the right grind setting, dosage, and extraction time & weight. In other words, “dialing-in” espresso is creating a map of windows in which the espresso shot likes to show off its aroma, sweetness, body and aftertaste. Once harmony is reached, theoretically, the coffee will taste nice – or amazing. Amazing is what we are going for. But dialing-in espresso is not like waiting for the planets to align. If one listens to the coffee, it will tell you where it wants to go. This lesson would take a while to sink in.
Looking over the top of his glasses at me, Shaun said flatly, “Most importantly, treat the coffee delicately.” What he meant was, it was once growing on the side of a mountain a long way away, suffering through harsh sunlit days and shivering in the cold moonlit nights. Farmers took great care with the cherries when picking and processing them, making sure they were washed thoroughly, sorted and dried so as to not grow mold or bake too long. It was roasted in a clean facility and prepared nicely in an attractive bag. You wouldn’t take your Ferrari through a drive through car wash, so don’t beat up the grounds. Don’t throw the coffee all over the bar; don’t redose the grounds after they’ve sat for a period of time; don’t slam the portafilter into the machine. In essence, if you are nice to the coffee, it will return the favor.
These barista basics seemed like common sense to me – but it was actually refreshing to hear respect for coffee articulated that way. Perhaps it was Shaun’s Hawaiian heritage emerging in his work – the coffee is like a Zen garden, the roastery his dojo. Embodying this level of respect has personified the coffee for me into a living soul. It was once alive, growing in rich volcanic soil; and it was taken from its home to my home. It is my guest and I will respect it as if it is a living entity. Just taking on this perspective has elevated my appreciation and gratitude for coffee. It is my honor to work it through my hands and share it with others.
Getting back to the practical side of making espresso, finding the right grind setting is a real hands-on experience. One must use all five senses when dialing-in a fresh roast. The lesson here is to contact your inner child. Do not be afraid to get your hands dirty. Play around with it and feel the texture of the coffee. It should feel like building sand, wanting to stack up. It will feel slightly warm and be a little pliable, similar to sand you might build a sand castle with but not quite as sticky. When it starts clumping as you pinch it with your fingers, you have found the right window.
The next step in dialing-in espresso is dosing. Without getting too technical, one must discern how much to use in the basket. First of all, the portafilter basket has a recommended dosing window of its own. According to Shaun, start on the low end of the window and work your way up. Pull some shots at a lower dose, 17 grams for our portafilters. Start small for fresher roasts, as the coffee will bloom when it comes in contact with water. A high dose of fresh coffee will disrupt an even flow of water and cause over-extraction. See how the coffee reacts. How fast does it flow? Shaun weighs the dose in and the weight out using a 1:2 ratio. If we dose at 17 grams, the shot itself should weigh 34 grams out. That is pretty simple math if my calculations are correct. Approach this step like a scientist; just observe how the coffee reacts. Up the dose and find the window that the coffee likes, adjusting the grind setting to speed up or slow down the extraction. Knowing what to look for takes time and experience. Don’t be afraid to go back and forth between grind and dosage.
Finally, tasting the coffee is rewarding and fun but there is a life lesson hidden here. A critical barista can have no expectations of the coffee. Shaun directs, “Let the coffee tell you what it is like, not what you think it should be.” Do not try to force the coffee to reveal its sweetness by pulling ristretto shots without putting in the time or going-with-your-gut. If it tastes like black tea, let it taste like black tea; but, if you know it can taste like strawberry, tighten up the grind a bit. Just like in life, take no short cuts. Keep paying attention to the map you are creating through the windows. When grind is more or less dialed-in and the dose is close, keep as many variables the same and only change one at a time to see how the coffee reacts. Use slightly less time, maybe a finer grind, or a less weight out… experimenting with the coffee to find its best aroma, body, and aftertaste. Listen to what the coffee likes and it will reward you with its nuances. Moreover, don’t hog all the coffee. When applicable, share these practice shots with friends to break up the awkwardness of you making love to the machine.
The takeaway when dialing-in espresso is understanding the trial and error component to finding windows. Practicing patience and having a sense of humor goes a long way. Luckily for me, working with Shaun is like flipping through cable channels; I never know what he will say next but it is always entertaining and insightful. Furthermore, do not stress too much when dialing-in a fresh roasted coffee – it will be changing every day anyway as it off-gasses, since there will be less volatile material to interact with hot water. Look forward to playing with the ratios all over again tomorrow.
As the shuttle slowly starts to right itself in an orbit far above the roastery, the final life lesson I have learned through coffee is to own your work. Since there is more than one way to dial-in an espresso, find what works for you to achieve the goal. I have read to never change the dose, except when making more coffee. I can see how that works. I have heard that some cafes never adjust the grind setting. Maybe they just get lucky. If the goal is to be knowledgeable and serve nice coffee, do what it takes to be consistent with your goals and own it. Let the coffee be your life coach as you get in touch with your inner Zen – I bet your game bumps up a notch. Don’t freak out with numbers; just listen to the coffee. Be patient, have fun, and be a conduit.