balance in espresso

One of the elusive properties I look for in coffee is balance.
In fact, balance is a positive value in coffee for most people. For me, however, it is of nearly paramount importance. My hierarchy of value when it comes to coffee has changed over time, and at this point I prize balance above almost everything else.
In talking about coffee and writing about coffee, as a result, I mention balance a lot.

But the other day someone said to me, "I don't really understand what you mean by balance."

After a couple discussions with various folks - I realized that what I thought was clear is far, far from it. In fact, what I describe as "balance" is probably wildly different from what others describe and at least slightly different from what almost anyone else means what they use the word.

So... I thought I would take a stab at defining the concept - as I use it.

I view balance as having four dimensions (as is true with any complex system).

If you flatten this into two dimensional models, what you get is one model that shows balance as a sort of "even distribution" of gross level taste components; beneath that one model that then maps that even distribution in terms of synergistic (hopefully) flavour components that combine to create an experience; and then map both these models over time.

So you have Model One - which shows the balance of the traditional Sweet, Sour, Bitter, Umami and Salty tastes; you have Model Two which takes that balance and describes the flavours within the above model and its hopeful completeness; and then you have how those two models combined change and are experienced over time.

I figured I would illustrate this through the analysis of three different types of espresso. So I went with Tonx to three of the leading SF espresso bars and tasted a shot at each. We then discussed the distribution of tastes, mapped the flavours, and then modeled it all over time.

In looking at the above chart (click on it for the full size version) of the results for Model One, you see an interesting and unique "profile" for each shot.
Obviously, for my personal taste (prizing balance) I preferred the shot from Four Barrel. What's interesting is that you can see how someone who strongly dislikes bitter flavors and doesn't prize my definition of "balance" would likely prefer the Ritual shot. In fact, you could see how someone who does not prize balance and has specific tastes they like more or less would likely prefer one of these over the others - and can predict which it would be.

Now let's look at each shot in terms of flavour profile and balance / completeness within the taste style described in the chart (ie Model Two).

Ritual - the combination of tons of fruit and honeyed sweetness yields a very intense tart and syrupy shot that is powerful and interesting. In terms of balance as defined as synergistic completeness, however, the shot is hollow and missing the counterpoint notes to both play off of and complement the strong fruit and citrus and simple syrup notes. It is largely a two note coffee - albeit one where the two notes are not only interesting and flavourful but also played very loud.

Four Barrel - the semi-sweet chocolate body provides the bitterness and some sweetness and is balanced against an interesting pomegranate acidity which provides sour notes. Strong savory flavors that are somewhat reminiscent of cured meat fill in the gaps. This combines counterpoint and unexpectedness into a very complete albeit unusual flavour combination - what I would describe as balance.

Sightglass - perhaps the shop or the barista was having a bad day, but the shot was thin and underextracted and a bit dirty and as a result the flavours were dominated by an astringent turpentine and some resin notes. There was some citric acidity and a woody mushroomy body. In addition to being rather unpleasant, this created a severely incomplete and in-fact clashing rather than synergizing flavour combination.

Finally, we'll look at each shot by mapping the two prior two-dimensional models over time - adding in the fourth dimension.

Ritual - over time the sweetness slowly faded, but the sour acidity did not. This resulted in a concentration of flavour on the center of the palate that seemed to almost intensify as time went by. I would describe this as unbalanced on this last dimension.

Four Barrel - over time the savory notes become stronger and both the umami and the salty flavours intensified. Sweetness and sourness declined and the shot tasted more and more strongly of cured meats and soy sauce. While this was not unpleasant, it was also not balanced as a complete experience.

Sightglass - over time the acidity faded, the residual sugars faded and what was left was a flavour of slightly rancid oil and a strong metallic note. Obviously... neither enjoyable nor complete.

In the end, if I were to score each of these shots for Balance on all four dimensions combined - I would do so as follows:
Ritual - 5/10
Four Barrel - 8/10
Sightglass - 3/10

This does not say I would grade each as an entire experience as such. In fact, I would likely grade Ritual's shot higher than that score due to its positive flavors and Sightglass' lower due to its preparation flaws and the fact that the machine was clearly dirty. I think it's important to understand that modeling balance does not equal grading the shot. You can have a very enjoyable unbalanced shot - just as you can have a poor and / or unenjoyable balanced shot. Nothing is so simple...

As a final point - my concept of "balance" as defined above is largely the result of my working in restaurant kitchens and may not be shared by many (or in fact any) coffee professionals. In talking with some very qualified coffee folks, I've found that some (for example) see no need for any bitterness in an espresso and consider an espresso with zero bitterness to still be "balanced." I'm not arguing that my concept is correct - or that others are wrong. I'm not arguing that "balance" should be the primary desired characteristic for other people. I'm merely illustrating what I mean when I say Balance. And I'm hoping that this will lead other people to evaluate their own values hierarchy and what they mean when they say "balance."

(All photos provided by Tonx - concept of the spider graph for flavours stolen from 33Beers thanks!)