Saturday, June 04, 2005

   from chris

Don't try this at home

Roasters are going to need to rethink their espresso blends if they've not already done so.

There, I've come out and said it.

I'll explain. More than 3/4 of all coffee consumed in the US is consumed at home. Sales of home espresso equipment have exploded. But the vast majority of espressos available to the consumer are not made for, evaluated on or in many cases even suitable for use on home machines.

It's a bit shocking to me to have come to this realization - but now it seems so obvious in retrospect. Commercial roasters evaluate their espressos on commercial equipment, often in the hands of highly trained professional baristas. In addition, with all the cupping and evaluation that is going on in good commercial roasters - what the desired attributes in an espresso are have in many cases diverged from the norm.

To me - this presents both a problem and an opportunity. I talked a bit with Duane about it and some more with Tonx. I still don't have my head wrapped around it, and in no way do I have any concrete solutions or even a real understanding of the situation. But, to me, if much time passes, the opportunity will be lost and the vast majority of serious home espresso fans will start home-roasting. The truth is that the differences between what they are experiencing from their own home roasts (given their equipment, technique and palate) simply are not worse than what they're getting from the best commercial blends. And this is not just a technique or palate issue. It's also an equipment issue. And we need to be honest about that.

I think that the current commercial espresso blends that try to achieve near-perfection at the cost of becoming very demanding simply are not going to work with home equipment and home baristas - ever. My current thoughts are that espresso blends that have a narrow range of acceptable brew temp are problematic for most home espresso. This is not just due to temp stability problems with home machines - it's also due to brew temp instability during the extraction of a shot with these machine. It also seems like blends with a huge number of beans complicate the issue. In fact, oddly enough, single origin espressos often taste better than many blends with home machines (and sometimes better than when pulled from commercial machines in a few, rare, cases).

Coffees that contain a larger number of beans, are roasted on the light side, that require very high brew temp and that are incredibly dose dependent are a recipe for unsatisfied home users. Of course, the above describes many of the most favored commercial espresso blends.

Finally, it seems like there are some particular beans that present their very own complications and problems. Certain dry processed coffees become very ashy (cigarette ash) and can even get a fish oil note when brewed at temps that are above their target range. Some aged coffees can become astringent and give a strong "wet cardboard" note when brewed at a temp below their target range. As a result, blends that combine beans of both types are a disaster with home machines as even top home machines tend to see intra-shot variance that would exceed the range between these various beans. And the odds of getting a shot that doesn't possess at least one of these negatives is very low. In some cases, temp variance on home machines is great enough that even one of these beans is likely to present problems for a home barista.

The goal, as a result, is to create an espresso blend that possesses the following attributes:
1 - tastes good at brew temps between 198F and 202F. It doesn't have to taste the same at all these brew temps, it just has to taste good.
2 - tastes good with doses from 14 grams to 20 grams in a double, and tastes good with a similar variance in a triple basket

To do this, roasters are going to have to actually buy home machines to evaluate blends on. They're going to have to be deliberate about the variance and the range. They're going to have to accept that the goal is no longer the perfect espresso - but rather the most forgiving good tasting espresso. This, obviously, should not be their only espresso. It is a home espresso. Or they're going to have to be honest with people and say, "our espresso isn't suitable for home use."

Last weekend, Tonx, Bronwen and I came up with a example blend that was an excellent proof of concept. It performed reasonably well at lower temps and equally well at higher temps. It handled sloppy technique as well as can be expected. It was tolerant of a range of doses. It was not an amazing espresso - but it tasted good, all the time.

It had only three beans, it had no "finicky" beans and the base was a coffee that was wonderful as a single origin espresso (and was 50% of the total blend). As we concluded, it tasted "like Illy but better." It's not a noble goal - but it's a realistic and pragmatic one.


Blogger Peter G said...


We think along the same lines. This year, I have been working directly with many home espresso folks including Mike Walsh, a local homeroaster and espresso geek. Mike has helped us develop a blend with very similar goals to yours: we describe the crucial characteristic as "forgiving". The idea is that this blend is especially designed for the home espresso person.

Although if you think about it, this same characteristic would be good for any professional bar who doesn't have great equipment or doesn't have perfect technique.


6/05/2005 06:45:00 AM  
Anonymous blinkingline said...

while i agree with the point that as the home espresso consumption segment agrees, roasters are going to have to begin to adapt to that, i think that really a more key factor is getting equipment manufacturers to step up and provide equipment that can better replicate the commercial level of equipment.

the real problem with that is that the machines that are targeted for mass consumption already know that they can turn out inferior products and the public will buy them. they make their money by making things idiot proof.

for example, it would cost too much money to manufacture and market superautomatics, machines that would basically replicate the coffee beverage shot after shot. so instead, they turn their focus to the pod. now, the consumer doesn't have to worry about inconsistencies in the beans or the grind, all those things are taken care of in the pod. the coffee from a pod will taste the same pretty much the entire life of the pod.

6/05/2005 08:34:00 AM  
Anonymous Alex B said...

I really agree with what you have to say Chris.

There are most absolutely espresso blends that simply do not do at all well on a home espresso machine, no matter how much you temp surf, no matter how exacting your dose and tamp. Some of the best blends in the cafe are some of the worst at home. Vivace's blends come to mind as an example.

I absolutely agree with your comments about Single Origin espresso on home machines. Though I'm a big fan of Single Origin Espresso in general, I think it is especially desireable on home machines. The best shots I've ever achieved on the machine sitting in my kitchen (a Rancilio Silvia) have all been single origin shots. My reasoning on it is that the temperature variance both intra and inter shot that is part of the game with home espresso is much more forgiving of single origin because it only "messes with" one flavor profile, instead of a number of different profiles in a number of different ways in a complex blend. Not a very scientific explanation, but it makes sense to me.

Another interesting thing I've noticed is that in general, the sweeter and heavier the espresso blend (or single origin, but to a lesser degree) the better it performs on a home machine. For example, in my opinion the best performing commercial blend for home use is Victrola's Streamline, a very warm syrupy blend with strong bass and mid-notes. On the flip side, one of the most underperforming blends in the home from my testing is Zoka's Paladino, a much brighter and spicier espresso blend. This holds true for single origins as well. Coffees like Ethiopian Harrar, Yemen Mokha Sana'ani and Sulawesi Toraja in general perform much better than brighter coffees such as Kenyan AA or many of the Latin American Coffees.

I really strongly have to disagree with Blinkingline. The answer is not solely the equipment manufactures, nor would say even mainly them. The reality is that it is simply not possible for them to produce commercial quality machines for home use at an attractive price point. If they could, what would be the point of paying for true "commercial" machines? True, there is a lot of space for improvement in the home espresso equipment field, but I really don't think there's going to be truly revolutionary change. And besides, Chris is writing all this from the perspective of testing all these blends on a Grimac Mia, a machine that is way outside the price and performance range of the vast majority of home espresso fans. By far the best selling home espresso machine is the Rancilio Silvia and even that is seen as "too expensive" for many people who simply want to enjoy "good" espresso in their home. It is up to the roasters to help out with this issue and develop more forgiving blends, not the equipment manufactures to develop sub-$1000 commercial quality machines.

6/05/2005 09:11:00 AM  
Blogger trish said...

From a roasting perspective, we might also consider the question of pre and post blending again.
As Chris concludes...a realistic and pragmatic goal...pre-blending creates a more homogenized roast. It can mitigate variables in a blend and, in the best cases, create a sum greater than its parts.

I predict the door swinging wide open for those very fine robustas. A home roaster and espresso enthusiast will splash out for these high end coffees as part of their cache. There is no denying they are the espresso workhorses...stabalizing and amalgamating a blend.

6/05/2005 10:20:00 AM  
Blogger chris said...

Peter - that's great! I'm glad you're doing this. I think it's a wonderful thing, and a great business decision. I'd love to at some point learn what you've discovered to date.

blinkingline - that is true. The trouble is that the price point for home machines that do not compromise is going to limit them to a tiny percentage of the market, as a result not fixing the real problem (those few folks can just use commercial "cafe" blends).

Alex - I think the Sylvia is another case entirely due to its technology and presents challenges that are unique.

Trish - you rule.

6/05/2005 12:32:00 PM  
Anonymous Mark said...

It's not just doing blends and roasts for home users though, Chris!

If you ever have convos with John Blackwell at ESI, one of his current peeves is that no roaster (yet) has approached doing a tuned blend for super automatics in the commercial workspace (not to mention home). John's argument is similar to yours, but talks more about how the blend and roast has to take into account several realities of a super automatic's process:

- smaller diameter, taller "cake" area for the ground coffee (most super autos have a "filter area" that's about 45-48mm in diameter, and will house anywhere between 1cm and 3cm of coffee in it)

- short brew times - most commercial super autos bang out a double in about 15 seconds. The manufacturers won't change things (brew time plus diameter size of the the puck), so John believes the roast and beans and blend should be approached to be dialed in to produce the most with these parameters.

I am pretty anti-super auto myself (even though I do review them), but John's arguments are sound. And if, as he believes, the quality of brewed espresso can go up 50, 100% with a well tuned blend to that super auto, it's an interesting avenue for small and medium sized roasters (probably not micro roasters tho) to try and approach, especially since *no one* is currently doing it.

6/05/2005 02:02:00 PM  
Blogger default said...

great writing as always, chris.
many things to ponder upon.

6/06/2005 05:22:00 AM  
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