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!)


State of SF Coffee (round 3 and final wrap-up)

(For the story up to now - read Round One and Round Two)

The final round (round 3) of cupping has now been completed.
We have the results - and we have some conclusions.

First the results from Round Three...

To start with - this table was very, very good. Most of the roasters really stepped up their games. The differences were noticeable.

For this third round, coffee selection was Roasters' Choice.
Each roaster was asked to suggest two coffees for the table - and each was informed about what was going on (State of SF Coffee, blog posts, cupping blind, yadda yadda).

The coffees provided were as follows:

Ritual Coffee Roasters:

Kenya Kanyoni (also cupped in Round Two, but according to Ritual now with a different roast profile)
Honduras La Pinona (the controversial "sour" coffee from Round One)

Four Barrel Coffee:

El Salvador Finca Los Alpes (part of the Ground for Health program)
Ethiopia Yirgacheffe Moplaco

Blue Bottle Coffee:

Ethiopia Yirgacheffe YCFCU Co-op
Nicaragua Pueblo Nuevo Co-op

Ecco Caffe:

Yirgacheffe Dama Co-op (the top ranked coffee from Rounds One and Two)
Colombia Loma Rodonda Auction Lot

Equator Coffee and Tea:

Ethiopia Sidamo Amaro Gayo
Kenya Riuki AA

Given the number of coffees from East Africa, I have to assume that some notice had been paid to the performance of the Dama Co-op Yirgacheffe in the first two rounds.

In addition to the coffees from these same five Bay Area roasters - this time there were two "ringer" coffees. In order to enable us to evaluate the State of SF Coffee as compared to coffee elsewhere - two coffees from Intelligentsia were sourced. Intelligentsia is one of the top coffee companies in the US - but more than that they are a very good "control" for this cupping. Pretty much everyone knows Intelligentsia and knows how good their coffees are. By comparing to these other coffees - we can derive an understanding of how SF Coffee in general compares.

The coffees sourced from Intelligentsia were:

Kenya Gichathaini
Colombia Finca Santuario Heliconias Bourbon

As always, the coffees were cupped blind - with no whole beans displayed and the coffees coded based upon playing cards to make sure there were no clues given. Coffees were roughly sequenced from light to dark roast - but with no other form of sequencing or sorting.

As noted at the start - the roasters stepped up their games for this one. There was not a single "failed" coffee on the table. Even the lowest ranked coffee would have been ranked out of the bottom 3 in either other round of cupping. In addition, there really were only a couple coffees that showed "issues" in their roasting - a big change from past rounds.

In the end we had an absolutely clear top coffee, a very tight group of coffees in the 2-7 places, a tight group in the 8-10 places and two nearly tied coffees as 11 and 12. In addition, as in Round One, we had one seriously "controversial" coffee - and this time the controversy did not divide the "coffee people" from the "non coffee people."

In this round, the top coffee was the Ritual Kenya Kanyoni. As noted above, the folks at Ritual said that they had changed the roast on this coffee - and that was very clear in the cup. The coffee was incredibly layered and deep - opening up beautifully as it cooled. It had tons of molasses and spice that revealed wonderful bright lemon rind and candied grapefruit over time. Lovely notes of dried berry throughout. A really wonderful coffee.

The 2nd through 7th coffees were as follows:

Ecco Yirgacheffe Dama Co-op (a clearly different roast of this coffee yielded pomegranate and kiwi acidity with tons of lavender and a nice lemon-verbena oil flavour)
Intelligentsia Kenya Gichathaini (a very unusual coffee. sweet roasted beets, leather, tons of dried stone-fruit, simple citrus acidity, complete but crazy. hints of horse-blanket funk as it cools.)
Four Barrel El Salvador Finca Los Alpes (the "controversial" coffee of the day. tons of berry and ferment that by some was considered to be "too much" and others to be "in control". incredibly sweet with lovely fruit and hard candy high notes like jolly ranchers)
Intelligentsia Colombia Finca Santuario (lots of of dried fruit and tropical spice on a very sweet dark molasses backbone. cherry candy and a little bit of "twig tea" flavour)
Four Barrel Ethiopia Yirgacheffe Moplaco (elegant with interesting Nori-like flavours. lovely lemon acidity and assam tea. hints of celery and scallion as it cools.)
Ecco Colombia Loma Redonda Auction Lot (lovely clean acidity with tons of lime and lemon and some sweet tangerine. a bit thin and some hints of ash.)

In the 8th-10th places we had:

Equator Kenya Riuki AA (very savory, a dense and almost huge coffee that opens up with dried stone fruit and a bit of a roasty toasty finish. kind of flat and gets a bit flabby as it cools.)
Ritual Honduras La Pinona (tons of citrus acidity ranging from grapefruit pith to lemon zest to lime juice. sweet honey in the body. unusual flavours of mirin and bologna as it cools. lost some structure over time)
Blue Bottle Nicaragua Pueblo Nuevo (lots and lots of dried cherry and dried plum. a little roasty tasting and a bit flat and bland as it cooled)

And the 11th and 12th place coffees were:

Blue Bottle Yirgacheffe (initially round and dense and big and bold, as it cooled it became initially flat and then notes of smoke appeared and it became somewhat harsh and unbalanced)
Equator Ethiopia Sidamo Amaro Gayo (tons of blueberry but what were initially hints of inner tube became more and more phenolic over time. a great roast of a poor coffee)

A couple things to note from these results - some "take-aways" so to speak...

Blue Bottle and Ritual stepped up their games. While the Nicaragua from Blue Bottle was not to everyone's taste, it was still a good professional coffee. As compared to the two previous rounds of cupping, this was a big step up. And the difference in the Kenya Kanyoni from Ritual between the previous cupping and this was truly dramatic.

There are a lot of really good coffees available in SF right now. Of the 10 SF sourced coffees on the table, 8 of them are good to excellent. In addition, every one of the 5 roasters produced at least one coffee that was good or better.

In terms of conclusions.... there are again a couple of high level points to be made.

Coffee in SF can be quite good.
The top three roasters are producing coffee that is competitive with coffee from Intelligentsia - a clear measuring stick nationally. This is huge for SF. In many ways at this point, you can argue that coffee lovers are as well off in SF as anywhere in the US (other than perhaps Portland OR).

The top 3 coffee roasters in the SF area are pretty obvious.
In looking at the scores and the rankings across the three rounds - it is quite clear that the top three roasters in SF are Ecco, Four Barrel and Ritual. By both score and rank, Ecco would be #1 with Four Barrel and Ritual #2 and #3 but separated by a difference of less than 5% in total score. Ecco really rode the success of the Dama Co-op Yirgacheffe while Four Barrel showed impressive consistency across rounds and coffees and Ritual just knocked it out of the park with two coffees and had two that didn't show as well.

SF roasters for the most part are roasting to distinct personal styles.
Four of these roasters are roasting in their own style - and are incredibly consistent about doing so. This is a very good thing as it gives consumers a clear choice - allowing them to choose a style of coffee that pleases them and giving them choice within that style. Ecco is consistently round and elegant and balanced. Four Barrel is consistently developed and big and deep and balanced. Ritual is consistently bright and focused and layered. And Blue Bottle is consistently deep and rich and bottom-heavy with little acidity.

I think these results are at this point quite clear.
So rather than beating a dead horse, I'd like to thank some folks for making this happen.

Thanks to Tal, Johnny and Jeremy from Four Barrel for the feedback and the coffees.
Thanks to Ryan and Ben from Ritual for the thoughts, input and coffees.
Thanks to James from Blue Bottle for the feedback and concerns and for making sure I got the coffee I needed.
Thanks to Maria from Equator for the clarifications and help with sourcing the coffee.
Thanks to Andrew, Drew and Gabe from Ecco for the thoughts, feedback and helping me source the coffee.

Special thanks to my fellow cuppers for the time - the focus - the dedication - and the sense of humor. This was really fun.

Thanks to everyone who commented on the blog or who emailed or called me with feedback, support and input.

Most of all thanks to Valerie for keeping me sane.


State of SF Coffee (round 2)

And so... our second round of cupping coffees from some of the top Bay Area roasters is now complete.

For more information on the idea - the process - and the roasters, please read Part One.

We assembled the same cuppers as in Round One - but this time we (the cuppers) chose the coffees. These coffees were from the same five roasters (Blue Bottle, Ritual, 4 Barrel, Ecco Caffe and Equator). As with Round One - we chose 2 coffees from each roaster. We did, however, run into a snag with one of the roasters. We had hoped to cup Equator's Sumatra Golden Pawani but were unable to lay our hands on any (despite a frantic trek all over San Francisco). This turned out to be a somewhat significant issue as the replacement coffee had some very real issues.

Update: As it turns out, it seems highly probable that the coffee sourced as the replacement for the Equator Sumatra was NOT (as advertised) from Equator. As such, this piece has been re-written to reflect this.

The coffees selected for this round consisted of:

Four Barrel:
El Salvador Siberia Estate Bourbon
Guatemala Finca El Injerto Bourbon

Honduras Finca Fernandez
Kenya Kanyoni

Ethiopia Yirgacheffe Dama Co-op (top ranked coffee from Round One)
Peru Tingo-Maria

Ethiopia Harar

Blue Bottle:
Colombia Cauca Tierradentro
Papua New Guinea "Tribal Aromas"

Unknown Roaster:
Peru Organic (replacement for the Sumatra) (SEE UPDATE)

This combination gave us an interesting table - with coffees representing a wide range of cultivars, growing regions, processing methods and roast styles.

It turned out to be both intriguing and challenging. Comparing coffees of such diverse styles forced us to really get away from simply evaluating the green beans and get into the details of the roast in addition to the beans and created amazing conversations about the holistic appeal of each coffee.

In the end we, again, learned a couple interesting things. These can be summed up in (again) three statements.

You cannot always rely upon the staff selling you coffee.

Across the board we agreed that the coffees we had picked out were better than the coffees picked out for us by staff of the various coffee retailers (Round One). In part we can assume this is because we kind of know what we like - and buy what we like. But given that there were four of us making these decisions, personal tastes should have balanced out. None the less... this time we (with one exception) preferred the coffees over what we'd received in Round One. Obviously, this point is heavily influenced by the (poor) suggestions in Round One for Blue Bottle -- and by the "Mystery" coffee from Round Two.

San Francisco has some fantastic green coffee.

The top six coffees on the table were exceptional. They were unique, enjoyable, lovely, intriguing and represented a wide range of taste experiences. All of the top 6 coffees were clearly exceptionally high quality green coffee - something that really pleased us. It is very clear that San Francisco is seeing some green coffee that is on par with what any top roaster anywhere is getting.

San Francisco roasters have to improve.

While the top 6 coffees were all exceptional, we could really only say that 3 of the coffees were (in our opinions) optimally roasted. Out of the ten coffees, in fact, 3 were egregiously poorly roasted. In the case of 2 of the coffees, this went from merely sloppy roasting to truly unprofessional roasting. Compared to top roasters in the established roasting centers, SF roasters still have a long way to go.

From this cupping the results were as follows...

As noted, we had a group of 6 coffees that were all exceptional. We had to resort, in many cases, to using 1/4 points in order to break some of the ties (individually) and still ended up with one (aggregate) tie.

The top ranked coffee was the Ecco Ethiopia Yirgacheffe Dama Co-op -- a repeat from last week. This is a lovely coffee, with notes of lime blossom and grapefruit rind and marmalade with the only critique being that it was a bit thin in the body and lacked some mouthfeel.

Following behind this (in tight formation and in order) were:
Four Barrel Guatemala Finca El Injerto Bourbon (wonderfully balanced, plum, berry, super sweet chocolate, dried fruit)
Ritual Kenya Kanyoni (dried blackberry, tomato broth, wonderful pomegranate / citrus / berry acidity as it cools)
Four Barrel El Salvador Siberia Estate Bourbon (tons of juicy stone fruit, lovely balance, classic profile, dark chocolate bon-bon)
Ecco Peru Tingo-Maria (super juicy, watermelon jolly rancher, white pepper, drying finish)
Ritual Honduras Finca Fernandez (subtle, delicate floral and soft fruit notes, tightly knotted fruit acidity, milk chocolate and caramel, orange pith finish)

All of these coffees were very good - showcasing both the palates and in some cases the roasting skills of the coffee companies in SF.

Following these top 6 came a group of 3 coffees that were mediocre and flawed but still acceptable. These were (in order):
Equator Ethiopia Harar (tons of blueberry, nice kirsch notes, hints of earth, medicinal NyQuil note in the finish, obvious ferment)
Blue Bottle Colombia Cauca Tierradentro (brazil nut, maple butter, dried fruit, hints of vanilla, a little ashy, slightly baggy with wet straw notes)
Blue Bottle Papua New Guinea (earth, mushroom, dried fruit, semi-sweet chocolate, smoke, mold, ash)

Finally, there was one coffee that was simply not acceptable. It was hard to know if this coffee (in green form) was of speciality coffee grade, but our guess is that it was not. In addition, it was catastrophically misroasted.
Unknown Roaster Peru Organic (trash fire, diapers, moldy charcoal briquettes)

Unlike in Round One, we did not have any "controversial" coffees this time. While there were slight differences of opinion on rankings of some coffees there were mostly differences of one place in the ranking ("I have numbers 4 and 5 swapped from where you have them") or differences of less than 1 point in scoring.

We are starting to see some segmentation among the roasters as well. As of right now, we seem to have a group of 3 roasters who are producing consistently excellent coffee, and 2 roasters who are not.

While Blue Bottle's coffees showed far better in this cupping than they did in Round One, they are clearly still underperforming. I'm hoping that they can up their results in the third part of this evaluation. Given that they are considered by many foodies in SF (and outside of SF) to be the "top" coffee company in the Bay Area - their poor performance to date (1 marginal coffee, 1 poor coffee, 2 unacceptable coffees) is both shocking and simply not okay.

I'm a bit disappointed with Equator's coffees as well at this point. I'd like to see them move up into contention with the top three in the final round. They are the reigning "Roaster of the Year" from Roast Magazine -- and as a result a lot more is expected of them from what we've seen so far (1 decent coffee and 2 marginal coffees).

While Ecco has had the top coffee both weeks, over-all they are effectively in a dead heat with Four Barrel and Ritual. Four Barrel's coffees have been as consistent as Ecco's, while Ritual has been hurt first by the "controversial" Honduras La Pinona and this week by the underperformance of their COE Honduras Finca Fernandez (expected by many of us to at least challenge the Ecco Yirgacheffe for top spot).

As an interesting aside - the shock inclusion of this "mystery" unknown roaster coffee has enabled us to compare these "top" roasters against what we could describe as a "generic" roaster. In this comparison - any and all of these roasters come out clearly on top. At the same time, the idea that ANY coffee bars are serving coffee of the quality of that Peru is simply shocking.

In our next (and final) round of cupping we will be soliciting 2 coffees from each of these 5 roaster directly -- allowing them to choose the coffees they would expect to do best under these circumstances. I'm expecting that this will be the strongest showing of all three rounds.

And, again... my thanks to the cuppers working on this. You all rock.

Important Update: In talking with the folks from Equator, it seems HIGHLY likely the Peru that was provided to us was in fact not from Equator. While I'd love to blame the coffee company that sold us this coffee - I have to take at least part of the responsibility myself. I absolutely should have double checked to make sure that this was a coffee on Equator's current roster and accept the blame for not doing so. My apologies to Equator - and to the poor cuppers who had to taste that coffee.


State of SF Coffee

Well.... step one is now complete. The first of three such cuppings has concluded and results have been tallied. There were some surprises, and some lessons learned.

First... a little set up.

Goal - evaluate the state of high end quality coffee in San Francisco.
Process - three different cupping sessions each with a different selection approach (today was the first of the three).
Protocol - blind cupping with cuppers selected who are independent of any of the roasters and who each represent a different perspective, background and palate.

This first of the three cuppings was of coffees selected as follows:
 - an employee of the vendor was asked for recommendations for two coffees to buy. The only constraint was that no blends would be selected and that this was not for espresso. They were not told this would be for cupping or for analysis of any sort. Coffees were paid for and there was no reveal of my role in any of this.

The cuppers were selected to be representative of:
 1 - professional coffee cuppers / roasters
 2 - serious home (semi-pro) coffee roasters
 3 - serious food and wine professional (passionate about coffee)

I cupped as well (mostly for the fun of it).

The hardest part of the process was selecting which roasters to buy from. In the end I made an executive decision and chose what I thought were likely to be the top five roasters in the area (as calculated by average opinions of passionate coffee buyers and professionals). As a result, I left out two roasters who probably deserved to be on the list - which I feel bad about. But I think this is a good representative sampling none the less, and I do feel it's a good "average opinion" list.

The roasters were:

Four Barrel Coffee - San Francisco based roaster and coffee bar. The "newest" of the roasters on this list, Four Barrel has a lot of buzz amongst coffee professionals.

Ritual Coffee Roasters - San Francisco based roaster with three coffee bars. Ritual has a strong presence in San Francisco and has expanded into the Napa region as well.

Ecco Caffe - Santa Rosa based roaster, wholesale only. The smallest of the roasters on this list, Ecco is known for its espresso and its organic coffees.

Equator Estate Coffees - San Rafael based roaster, wholesale only. A well-known coffee brand, Equator won Roast Magazine's 'Roaster of the Year' award for 2010 and is served at The French Laundry.

Blue Bottle Coffee Company - Oakland based roaster with four cafes. One of the hottest coffee brands in the US right now, Blue Bottle is loved by SF foodies and is expanding nationally.

The coffees sourced were as follows:

Four Barrel:
 - Costa Rica Cafetin 1900
 - El Salvador Kilimanjaro

(It was no shock to me that the coffees selected were both from central america given Four Barrel's focus and their style of roasting.)

 - Guatemala Xeucalvitz
 - Honduras La Pinona

(Again, these selections were not a shock given the style of coffee that Ritual focuses on.)

 - Ethiopia Yirgacheffe Dama Co-op
 - Kenya Gichathaini

(While Ecco is well-known for their espresso, I'd ruled espresso out. And the new crop Brazils have not arrived for US roasters yet, so this selection made sense to me.)

 - Nicaragua Aldea Global
 - Costa Rica Montes de Oro

(I was a little surprised that both coffees were from central america given Equator's offering list, but both coffees seemed well chosen none the less.)

Blue Bottle:
 - Mexico Chiapas
 - Mexico Nayarita

(I was quite surprised by this selection. Suggesting two coffees from Mexico seems a little odd to me. The Nayarita was quite enthusiastically praised and the Chiapas was suggested as a way to compare the Nayarita to a more traditional coffee from Mexico.)

The cupping went very well.
It was informative and fun.
The mix of backgrounds and perspectives created a really interesting dialogue - and in the end there were only 2 coffees that provoked any dispute. And in some ways this dispute was the single most valuable take away from the day.

What we learned can be summed up by three statements.

The very best coffees from San Francisco are very good indeed.

The top four coffees were nearly unanimous, and when scores were averaged the gap between these four and the remaining coffees was quite large. In addition, there was almost no gap between the 2nd, 3rd and 4th coffees (they were effectively a three way tie).

Beyond this, however, these top four coffees were all of exceptional quality. We felt these four coffees could hold their own on nearly any cupping table in the US.

Coffee people like sour coffees - consumers with educated palates do not.

The most controversial coffee was one which was alternately described as "sparkly, tart, with lovely bright acidity" and "sour, painful, harsh and thin."

Our wine and food professional commented of this coffee, "this is the kind of coffee that you coffee people love - but the rest of us hate."

I think this is something that coffee professionals need to be concerned about. I've heard this sort of critique before and it's usually written off as coming from an uneducated consumer palate. In this case, the consumer in question had a palate FAR more educated than any of the coffee palates - so I think we have to pay attention.

The top Bay Area roasters still produce some bad coffee.

While the top coffees would stand on their own on any cupping table, the bottom coffees in our opinion were not of speciality coffee grade.

This is where SF coffee needs to improve the most. As compared to coffee in, for example, Portland - our good is good, but our bad is unacceptable. We need to raise the bar for what minimum quality is - and not sell or serve coffee that doesn't meet this minimal grade. Obviously, if the coffee is not of speciality coffee grade then it should not be used.

From this first cupping... the results were as follows.

The top rated coffee was the Ecco Caffe Yirgacheffe Dama Co-op. This was an absolutely lovely coffee with gorgeous grapefruit zest and a lovely hoppy flavour that reminded us of a pine-less Russian River Pliny the Elder. Wonderfully elegant and sophisticated, we all felt that this coffee was a true stand-out.

Following this were three coffees in a virtual dead heat. These were:
 - Four Barrel Costa Rica Cafetin 1900 (wonderful sweet acidity, pluot and cherry notes)
 - Ecco Caffe Kenya Gichathaini (juicy jolly rancher sweet fruit leading to robust, savory and fleshy barnyard and broth)
 - Ritual Guatemala Xeucelvitz (super crisp lime acidity, mellowing over time to a rounded and full sweet blackberry)

These top four coffees were all considered to be exceptional.

After the top four, there came the controversial, "sour" coffee. This coffee was rated quite highly by two cuppers and very poorly by a third. In this case, we can conclude that the results have more to do with the style of coffee than the coffee itself.
 - Ritual Honduras La Pinona (super bright with apricot and green apple and white grape skin in some ways hiding a bottom of cane syrup)

Below this coffee there was a reasonable gap before another group of three coffees. These three were less closely clustered than the top four and ranged in our opinion from good to servicable to acceptable in quality. They were:
 - Four Barrel El Salvador Kilimanjaro (tons of midrange with dried fruit, spice and stonefruit and lovely aromatics but diminished acidity)
 - Equator Nicaragua Aldea Global (some nice crisp tangerine acidity and hints of milk chocolate and spice but a little flat and slightly toasty tasting)
 - Equator Costa Rica Montes de Oro micro-lot (smoky and flat with some decent sweet caramel but also noticeable ash and little to no acidity)

At the very bottom were the two coffees that in our opinion failed to make the speciality coffee grade. We were unanimous with our opinion on these. They were:
 - Blue Bottle Chiapas (dirty with strong cardboard and mushroom notes; noticeable ash and hints of fish)
 - Blue Bottle Nayarita (severe defect. heavy ferment. very dirty. rotting berries and diapers)

In looking at these coffees, I think that one thing we learned is that a significant part of the results have to do with the selection. I was a bit surprised by the selection from Blue Bottle - especially as there was a Yirgacheffe on the list. And the surprising selection obviously hurt them. I'm looking forward to the next two cupping sessions (where selection will be handled differently) as I'm expecting that Blue Bottle's coffees perform far better than this.

I was also shocked by the Equator Costa Rica. This is a micro-lot coffee that I would have expected to have had far more character and to be honest would have thought would finish ahead of the other Equator coffee. I think this shows just how much variance there is in coffee, and how much of your experience is going to be luck (was the roaster "in the groove" that day, are the beans at or near the end of their lifetime, etc).

But overall - I'm quite proud of these coffees and I think San Francisco has a lot to be proud of.

Thanks to my guest cuppers - you all are the best.


the state of SF coffee

I'm very excited that this is going to happen!

I think SF is finally to the point where we can really evaluate the state of our coffee.
So... tomorrow I'm going to be facilitating a little cupping experience.

I've recruited some fantastic representative tasters, and have sourced what I hope is a representative sampling of the best coffees being produced from the Bay Area.

Tomorrow - we are going to find out just where Bay Area coffee is at -- and along the way we're going to find out how these coffees (and roasters) stack up against each other.

So... what happens when one (independent) professional coffee roaster, one michelin starred chef, one ex professional barista and one passionate home roaster and barista get their hands on 10 of the "top" coffees in the San Francisco area?

Whose coffee reigns supreme?!?!?!


Learning from Restaurants (and a pet peeve)

Anyone who has worked with or for me has heard me rant about how they need to learn from the way professional kitchens work.

The efficiency - the focus - the attention to detail - the professionalism....

Perhaps most of all, we need to learn from the intolerance of incompetence. When working the line in a restaurant, you have to know you don't even need to think about (much less worry about) them doing their job well. Everyone on the line has to do their job well - and you have to know that everyone is doing their job well. You have to be able to rely upon all of them - 'cause if even one of them is falling down on the job, you're all in the weeds. Realistically, if you're even wondering about them doing their job well, you're probably about to be screwed.

On a functional line, you're a team. Everyone has each other's backs - all the time. Yeah, people fuck up and you cover for them or bail them out. That's different from simply not being able to do the job (or just failing to do the job well).

Everyone knows this.

So when someone isn't cutting it - they're fired. There is no, "let's try and make it work." It's just business. It's not personal.

And everyone knows that.

So everyone works to have each other's backs - and everyone works hard to do their job as well as they possibly can every single shift. Because the rest of the team is relying upon them.

In coffee we don't have that.
We don't have each other's backs.
And we tolerate incompetence.
We're selfish.

And it's hurting the experience customers have. It's hurting our businesses.
It's hurting coffee.
It's gotta stop.

And an (unrelated) pet peeve...

I live in San Francisco. It's a great food city - and it's becoming a very good coffee city.
But visitors to San Francisco often end up being steered to mediocre (over-rated) restaurants. We all know Zuni is coasting - but tourists are always sent there. The tragedy is that they have limited meals, and instead of going somewhere great - they're going somewhere mediocre.
This has always bothered me.
And now it's repeating itself in coffee. These days I constantly read about coffee enthusiasts who visit San Francisco, go to Blue Bottle and return home saying "San Francisco coffee ain't all that."
Blue Bottle ain't all that.
But it's your fault that you only visited the 5th best coffee place in SF.
San Francisco coffee really is all that. Yeah... it's no Portland. But it's getting better every day.


beating up on Coffee Review

So... yeah... it's good that you (finally) provided transparency on preparation of espresso.
And it's good you used a professional barista to pull shots.

Nuova Simonelli barista competition brew baskets, 18-gram dose, 28-second extraction, 2-ounce double split into two 1-ounce singles; water temperature 200F.
See here is the thing....
I can name TONS of truly great espresso that is going to taste like ASS when extracted as described above.
Does that mean it's bad espresso?
No. It means you don't understand espresso.

You need to learn to prepare espresso in an appropriate manner for each coffee - it's a matter of respect (pure and simple).

And the results are freakin' predictable.

Paradise Espresso Classico has a "thin body"? Yeah... that coffee prep (per the roaster) is FAR from what you're using.
Kaldi Competition scores really high? No shock given that your machine set up is WBC spec and the blend was created for USBC competition.
Olympia Big Truck is "astringent"? Uhhh... try the shot as ristretto (1.75oz not 2oz).

Out of curiosity... what about the other 25+ coffees you tasted?
I'd LOVE to see those reviews.
I'm guessing there are a number of famous coffees that are "sour" (brew temp too low) and some that are "thin and bitter" (brew temp to high) and some that are "muddy" (dose too high) and some that are "unbalanced and not sweet" (dose too low) etc etc.

And, beyond that, the fact that Ken uses the descriptor "musty" in several of his high rated coffees disturbs me - especially as I would agree in the cases where I've tasted these coffees, and it's why I think the espresso is bad. It's hard to imagine scoring a "musty" coffee in the 90s.

Finally... Ken... if you want to make this more relevant you need to not do an aggregate score. Taking the score for a straight shot and averaging it with the score for a latte makes no sense.

Given all the above... is it shocking to ANYONE that Intelli, Stumptown and Terroir ALL opted out of this review? And honestly... how relevant is a review of "boutique" American Espresso that leaves out all three of these roasters?

Sorry... epic fail.


Monster Mia (update)

As was pointed out to me... I failed to put a price or a way to contact me on my "Monster Mia for sale" post.

yeah... pretty stupid!!!

After checking around, it looks like it would run you at least $2500 to rebuild the Monster Mia (without the additional little bits of equipment etc).

So I'm going to ask $2k for it. And rather than going "highest bid" I'm simply going to sell it to the first person who comes to me with the money.

Pics here.

Reach me at malachi AT gmail DOT com


Monster Mia is for Sale

Yes... it's true.
I'm selling the infamous "Monster Mia".
It's not an easy decision - but I have the chance to purchase an incredible (dream) machine and I need capital to make it happen.

The Monster Mia has been a great experience for me - and along with the GS3 has convinced me that home espresso doesn't have to be a frustrating battle against arbitrary constraints (or require sacrificing white chickens).

For those of you who don't know the story behind this machine and haven't had the chance to either play with it or taste shots from it....

This machine started off its life as a stock Grimac Mia. It was, in fact, the machine I tested for the Home-Barista.com review. After testing was complete, it went back to Espresso Parts NW and I moved on. The Briccoletta followed it, and then the GS3. After the GS3, Terry Z suggested we take the Bricc and "mod" it into the "Monster Bricc". As those of you who read this blog know - this took a long time and resulted in an explosion in my place in Portland. In the end it was decided that the Bricc was a poor choice for the sort of aggressive modifications we were looking to do. The Espresso Parts NW boyz had already done a bunch of mods to the Mia by this time and were using it as their office machine. Terry suggested that this could become the "Monster" project base - and eventually it came to me.

When I first started using it I referred to it as a "poor man's GS3" for its combination of ease of use and suitability for espresso experimentation. Since then I've both discovered more great things about it as well as discovered some of the things that are not so great (as compared to the GS3 for example). It's a wonderful machine - and under normal circumstanced I'd never be letting it go.

Some details on the machine.
- Grimac Mia case/body
- Reservoir and vibe pump removed (replaced with a nice Procon rotary pump and plumbed in)
- Modified to take a long thermoprobe into the boiler (and the requisite electronics including front mounted PID controller)
- Some tweaks and tricks to the internal plumbing to enable better stability
- All crazy work performed by the guys at Espresso Parts NW under the guidance of madman Terry Z.

The machine is incredibly easy to use.
You basically set the brew temp (calculating temp offset from boiler to group), let it stabilize and then go.
To pull a shot, you don't have to go through any crazy flushing routines. I literally just do a quick "rinsing" flush (like I would on a commercial La Marzocco) to get any grounds off the screen and pull the shot.
Changing temp consists of pushing the button on the PID controller until you get the desired temp.
Inter-shot stability is very high.
Intra-shot profile shows a hybrid map (like a flattened version of the HX hump - with less hump and a similar ramp down).

The machine runs at a lower boiler pressure than normal (of course - and dependent upon brew temp). At brew temps above 200f it's fine to steam even for 12oz lattes. It's fine for capps down to around 198f. Below that it takes some nursing.
It's probably not the machine for someone who wants to make a lot of big milk drinks.
On the other hand - if you want to explore espresso and easily make straight shots and short milk drinks (no muss no fuss) it's a dream.
It really is an easy machine to work with. VERY easy.

I find that the espresso consistently has excellent mouthfeel and great clarity and reproduction of flavours. It holds its own against commercial machines in this area.

The machine will include a whole bunch of portafilters (old style rubber handled LM spouted, new style plastic handled LM bottomless, VBM for backflushing) and a whole bunch of baskets (LM OEM doubles, LM triple, Synesso triple, Faema double, Faema single, LM single, blanks).

If you're in the Bay Area... I'll throw in help with the set up and some training on using it.

You want a famous, easy to use and truly unique espresso machine?



How To

I've taken a stab at describing how I go about "dialing in" an espresso at various points in time and in various venues.

As time has gone by - I've refined my methodology and practice.

For what it's worth - here is my current model.

The idea: you have a coffee that is new to you, and you want to figure out the extraction parameters for this coffee that give you the best results (for your tastes).

The caveats: some of the stuff in here is specific for my own taste/perception/expectation of espresso. In particular, my concept of espresso is that it is a unique and different way of preparing coffee. In other words - I'm not trying to re-create the flavour of the coffee when cupped or brewed as drip or press-pot or something. I'm also not trying to create something that (as D Schomer put it - "tastes like ground coffee smells"). And I'm not trying to create some sort of HeMan beverage that "puts hair on your chest." For me - I'm trying to extract a balanced and complete mix of clearly defined and differentatiated flavours -- a round balance of sweet, sour, bitter -- that expresses the unique flavours and aromatics of the coffee. In addition, I pay for a small percentage of my beans and can thus afford to "waste" a lot of coffee. And finally, I work on equipment that is easy to "tune" and change quickly.

The process:

I try to start with some constants that are as likely as possible to be accurate for the majority of coffees. In this case, I start with an LM ridged double basket and a target volume of between 1.75 and 2.0 oz with a moderate flow rate (somewhere around 25 seconds for that volume, though I evaluate by flow not time).

I'll also try and understand up front the "signature taste" of the coffee.
The "signature taste" requires some knowledge of the roaster's style and the desired flavour profile of the coffee. Is the person roasting this coffee a fan of low acidity espresso? Are they a "chocolate bomb" aficionado? If you know what they like out of their espresso you can do minor adjustments to your dose. In many cases (these days) you can use the interwebs to research and find out what the roaster looks for. Otherwise, go by the retail location of the roaster and taste the shots.
This allows me to understand what I'm "shooting for" in the cup.

Once I have this information, I'll start making some guesses on the primary variables.

My initial goal is to make a quick estimate of likely dose volume.
I do this based upon the coffee (the bean/blend composition.)
If the coffee seems likely to have low pH (has robusta or aged coffees or a lot of naturals) I'll start with a down dose. If it seems likely to have a moderate pH (pulped naturals, a mix of naturals and washed coffees) I'll go with a moderate dose. If the coffee is high pH (mostly high-grown washed arabica) I'll up-dose.
This baseline is then slightly impacted by degree of roast (for a darker roast I'll drop the roast a percentage, for a lighter roast I'll up it).

On a side note - this focus on pH of coffee is new to me and is the result of reading the results of a research study done by Nestle Labs. This study found that coffee compaction in espresso brewing is dependent upon pH of brew water and pH of coffee. Coffee compacts under brew pressure - but according to this study, how much it compacts depends upon pH. Low pH coffees (robusta and aged or monsooned coffees at the extreme) compact the least and high pH coffees (high-grown washed arabicas) compact the most. Focusing on the pH of the coffee seems to have enabled me to more quickly estimate dose volume -- and this (so far) seems to my taste to be a very consistent system.

Anyway... once I have a starting point for dose, I'll try to come up with a starting point for brew temp.
I'll evaluate the coffee for two characteristics. First - roast degree and second - bean composition.
With the former, I tend to make some quick rough decisions. If the roast is light, I tend to start with a baseline temp of 202F. If medium, I will stick with 200F. If dark, I'll drop it down to 197F.
Now... I'll also adjust this based on the bean composition. If, for example, I'm working with high-grown washed arabica I'm going to reduce the brew temp. If I'm working with aged or monsooned coffees I will up the brew temp (both from the baseline above).
So a light roasted coffee with monsooned beans will move up to 203F as a starting point.

Once I've got temp and dose I dial in the grind and then I'll start experimenting.
I always start by re-evaluating temp. So I'll pull a shot and evaluate it for brew temp. Is it alkaloid? Is it thin? Is it sour or bitter? Astringent or burnt? Does it taste ashy or like fish oil? Based on the taste, I will alter the temp by small degrees to find the sweet spot. If it's sour - I'll take the temp up. If it's ashy, I'll take it down. If it's thin and lacks sweetness and fruit, I'll take it down. Etc. It's basic pattern recognition.
I'm not looking for a great shot here -- I'm just looking for the right brew temp. The idea is to get the balance of sweet, sour and bitter. If any of these dominate too much, I need to change brew temp.

Once I've found what I feel is the brew temp sweet spot, I'll start working on dose.
The way I tend to do this is focus on two things. First - clarity of flavour and second - roundness and balance.
If the cup is "muddied" I'll reduce the dose. If the cup isn't fully developed and sweet and rich I'll up the dose. Mouthfeel is one of the critical attributes I'm looking at here - as is sweetness and definition. If I need a "denser" cup I'll up the dose. If I need more sweetness, the dose goes up. If there is a lack of clarity in the cup, or it's out of balance (with the low end dominating and limited aromatics and high end) then I'll reduce the dose.

This is usually enough. It usually gets me to the point where I have a shot that I feel matches well with the signature profile and optimizes the coffee.
Now... that doesn't mean I like the shot. There are coffees that I just don't like. It means that I feel like I have a cup profile that fits the coffee.

From here I can "tune" with small changes in flow rate, volume of shot, etc.
This allows me to then tune the extraction for what I really want out of the coffee -- to force it a bit in my desired direction.

And that covers all but the edge cases.

But there are exceptions. There are these edge cases where all the above doesn't get me to where I want to be with the coffee.
It's usually only at this point that I start looking at changes to extraction volume and basket size.

For example, I've found that some lighter roasted delicate coffees tend to end up poorly developed no matter what I do - especially when they are pulped naturals. But if I then swap to a triple basket and deliberately down-dose (19 grams) I "open up" the coffee and it becomes more defined and clear. Or with monsooned coffee I find that the only way I can get the desired sweetness without getting a "wet cardboard" aftertaste is by going with a triple basket, normal dose and then pulling a ristretto shot. Sometimes I find that some high-grown washed coffees are best pulled very short and slow. The same is true of some Indonesians.
You get the idea.

I know that some people are simply not into this sort of fiddling.
And others find the lack of "science" associated with this approach to be problematic.
For me - however - this process and approach is not only successful, but quite enjoyable.

And most importantly, by making it entirely taste based - I learn from each and every coffee and each and every change. By not tying it to measurement and machinery but instead to what I taste in the cup - I learn.


we need a legit espresso review resource

I've thought (for a long time) that we really need a legitimate resource for reviews of espressos that is both unbiased and (perhaps more important) skilled and accurate.

Today - the critical nature of this belief became terrifyingly clear to me.

Coffee Review's review of Pod espressos...

Nespresso Ristreto Capsules - 91 points
Island Joe ESE Pod - 90 points

To compare, here are some espressos that many of us would consider to be "leading lights" of the industry...

Stumptown Hairbender - 90 points
Ecco Caffe Reserve - 90 points
Intelligentsia Black Cat - 88 points

So - what we have here is a clear indication that consumers should not be buying coffees from these pesky "boutique craft coffee companies" and shouldn't bother with things like freshness but instead should just buy cheap pod machines and bulk produced "generic" coffee in pre-ground packaging.

So what's wrong here?

For a simple illustration - let's look at the review of the Hairbender (simply because it's a coffee I know very well).
Smoke, toast and a hint of flowers in the aroma. In the small cup medium-bodied and smooth in mouthfeel, balanced, rich, simple, with hints of cedar, dark chocolate and toast. Sweet finish. In milk lean-bodied but lush, dominated by a smoky semi-sweet chocolate.
This doesn't sound like Hairbender, right?
Well.... actually, if you were to give some Hairbender to a marginally trained barista and have the pull shots with the "wrong" parameters you could easily replicate this. Say you were to set the machine at a little over 201F. Now dose around 15 grams in a double basket. Pull a 1.75 oz double in around 29 seconds.
The problem is that Hairbender is actually best at around 198f (a full 3f colder). And it's best at around 19 grams in a double basket (more than 25% more coffee). And while a 1.75 oz double is about right - you'd want to do it in around 27 seconds. And, of course, most of all you want this done by a trained barista. Of course... if you had a trained barista - they wouldn't have pulled the shot with the wrong settings.

So what do these odd and seemingly shocking review results really tell us?
Should we really all just switch to pods?

Well... if you're the kind of person who likes coffee but can't be bothered to be a barista or learn about things like brew temp and extraction parameters then yes.
But that's pretty damn obvious.

On the other hand... this really (really) clearly indicates that Coffee Review is not a viable or appropriate resource for espresso reviews.
And we don't have anything else.

So someone... please...
Start a legit espresso review magazine or website or service.