Thursday, February 19, 2009

   from Nick

Open letter to espresso machine manufacturers:

I'm coming off reading the first hands-on critique of a newly developed espresso machine, and my mind is racing with thoughts... mostly frustrations.

Having had the opportunities to talk to many designers and engineers who have developed espresso machines in the past, I've observed a recurring issue where people seemed to be trying to build machines around a few key ideas that they had that they wanted to see realized, rather than really setting out to analyze how the resulting taste experience happens "in the puck," and then working backwards to design a machine to achieve 'perfection.' Frankly, this seems to ring true with every machine I can think of.

Since the temperature-stable P.I.D. controlled machines debuted in 2004, all we've seen are solutions that are looking for problems. Except, perhaps, for the teflon-type application to steam wands and portafilter innards, we're on our 5th year without anything I can think of that's truly helping to improve the taste experience.

What we really need is real work and development in portafilter baskets: geometry, hole patterns, hole sizes, etc. We need more attention paid to the ways that the showerhead delivers water to the puck, as well as overall group-head/shower-head design improvements. We need grinders that work with the baristas, not against them. We need better grind-profile development through burr designs. We need dosing mechanisms that provide (or help provide) a truly lateral-density-level dose. We need ways to help us measure things by mass, not by time or volume. We need group-head designs that keep the brewing-water-contact surfaces clean. Grind delivery mechanisms that leave little to no grinds behind. Grinder burr carriers that are designed to help keep the burrs cool (heat sinks or some other passive or active cooling), rather than keep the heat in (heat soak). The list goes on and on.

A fairly well-known espresso guru once told me many years ago that he believed that the obsession with brew water temperature stability stemmed from the fact that brew water temperature is something that is relatively easily measured and corrected. Much more difficult are things like managing the migration of fines (the finest grind particles) during extraction, which is a more significant variable than a couple of degrees of water temp, he told me. I think he's right.

It's time to start thinking outside the box. It's time to start attacking the difficult problems that have significant outcomes.

All said, the good news is that since 2004, rather than complaining about our brew water temperatures, baristas have been focusing on the coffees, getting to know the coffee itself and how everything relates to taste. Obviously, there's still a ton more to learn, but it's time for the espresso equipment industry (both big and small) to attack the real problems.

Oh yeah... dosers for lefties too. That's one for my favorite left-handed barista, Mr. Barack Obama.


Anonymous Mark said...

baskets and filters ain't anything new. A bunch of folks cornered the LM guys back in Boston SCAA 2003 complaining about the lack of innovation in those areas, only to be push-ah'ed away. The complaints have been raised countless times since then about baskets and screens, only to be told it's a low priority, or it's the first they've heard this kind of talk, or saying well, baskets and screens are all made by a couple of 3rd parties (Ascaso in Spain is one of them) and there's no want or desire to change them, or at the very least improve the existing products.

I've gone blue from complaining about LM basket quality issues over the years. I don't even waste my breath with other companies on these issues any longer.

The manufacturers know about these issues. They just don't care, apparently.

2/19/2009 10:25:00 PM  
Blogger AndyS said...

Sounds good, but please present your evidence that new basket/showerhead designs will "help the taste experience" more than the temperature and pressure gadgets you are dissing. Otherwise baskets and showerheads just sound like your personal pet projects instead of someone else's....

BTW, JB from ESI told me several years ago that he could make his own custom baskets and was experimenting with them. If trick baskets were a panacea, I would think he would have improved versions on the market.

Re: Michael's comments on fines migration...a thorough line pressure preinfusion goes a very long way towards "managing" fines a fairly effective means of doing so is already available to many baristas...but it hasn't produced revolutionary effects, AFAIK.

It always a good time to think outside the box. Unfortunately, most great ideas, once tested, don't pan out. It's worth the effort though, for the one idea out of a hundred that actually improves the coffee.

Notwithstanding my skeptical comments, good thought-provoking post, Nick.

2/20/2009 08:09:00 PM  
Blogger Nick said...

Mark: Thanks, but never said anything was "new" or not. Otherwise, amen, brotha.

AndyS: never dissed temp or pressure gadgets.

Love Mr. JB, but people (apparently) chopped the floors off of portafilters years before they hit the scene big-time in 2004 too. There's something there... in basket design. You're right though... it's sort of a pet-project-idea of mine for sure.

Who's "Michael?"

Fines migration, in my experience and estimation, has as much to do with why we love our Mazzer Roburs so much as it does with preinfusion, flow-restriction, etc.

I hear ya on your skepticism. I remember not long ago when the we in the barista echo-chamber were collectively exclaiming, "Give us a belt-driven 2-axle grinder, and we won't have heat!!!" As we know now, not so simple after all.

Still, we haven't really seen anything new under the sun since 2004. Teflon, anti-siphon valves, etc. Those things are small, but absolutely good. Not much for 5 years.

One more thing to add to the list: portafilters with larger diameter basket-to-spout plumbing. I think there's something to that.

All said, AndyS, yer my hero.

2/20/2009 08:25:00 PM  
Blogger AndyS said...

Hi Nick:

I was saying that JB was experimenting with basket designs, not simply the bottomless pf.

I'm mistaken about Michael, I thought you were referring to Teahan.

Hey, yer my hero, too, Mr Cho.

2/21/2009 08:41:00 AM  
Blogger Nick said...

I know what you were saying about JB... I meant, just because people tried something, or did something, or experimented with something doesn't mean they closed the chapter on anything. The bottomless pf story is an extreme example of this.

How can I be yer hero when you're MY hero?

2/21/2009 08:45:00 AM  
Anonymous Tim Allen said...

Just punch them in the dick since your so frustrated.

Do something instead of yammering on about your frustrations.

2/21/2009 10:35:00 PM  
Blogger Klaus Thomsen said...

NIck, I thought this was a great post and I am sure many, many people agree with you. We've changed out all our LM baskets for Synesso and it's been a huge improvement. But it just made me wonder all the more about how much experimentation Synesso actually put into theirs and how much more there is to be gained.
Portafilters? Why aren't we seeing more innovation here? Teflon coating is great but has it problems and limitations too. Spouts need some serious re-thinking too.

I'll join your 'choire of yammering' for now. If anyone from any espresso machine or grinder manufacturer would like to listen tehy can give me a ring. For you, Tim Allen, I think this open letter *is* doing something. Nick (or I) don't produce machines or equipment, so the way we can actively do something, is by wording our thoughts and try to bring information from baristas to manufacturers.

Not long ago I had an espresso training session with two very smart engineers. When I talked them through a state-of-the-art espresso machine, they were stunned how old technology there is in general implemented. We didn't go into many details, but PID for example, they told me, is a really old system and there's much more precise controls for temperature available. - Andy S, you must be able to clarify what they could've been talking about?

Last note: I'm not blaming the manufacturers for not listening or not being innovative. I know they have limits such as financing. I know they do their best job, but hopefully we can all collectively make better equipment that will enable us to make better coffee.

Peace and love!

3/10/2009 10:34:00 AM  
Anonymous Jason said...

I was frustrated too.

It's hard to get what you want or even get someone to "get" what you want.  I've found myself describing ideas as I stare into the eyes of someone at a factory who just wishes I would stop talking, or who you know has no intention of making any changes or rocking their boat for your dumb idea!!!  

So, the reason for Slayer is to offer an "open source" platform where we can get together, the baristas & roasters, and add the stuff we NEED to realize more out of the coffee.  The Slayer machine is going to be great right out of the gate, because I have spared no effort, and the test platform makes a truly awesome coffee.  The COFFEE TASTES AND PERFORMS AMAZING OFF THIS MACHINE.  If your going to Atlanta, you'll  taste and see what I mean - so please, please grab my attention when you're there and bring your espresso to try out on the machine.

But this is just Slayer 1.  Slayer 2 is going to be even more amazing, and the machine will be better the year after that if we work together. Why?  Because the ideas we come up with now, the ones we have been experimenting with for years (and maybe even cobbling onto some old linea or GS) will have a soul mate in this product platform, a purpose built machine where new ideas can be implemented FOR REAL, for a wider audience than just ourselves.  

We at Slayer are totally stoked about this, more than anything.  And this is why we literally have sold out of one or maybe two months of production ALREADY.  The "Slayer" concept is one that I and a lot of other guys have wanted for years, including the people on this forum.  Any of you who remember the old ESI (before all the filtering and  distractions from super automatics and the like) will notice the same soul when you come to our new studio.  I am determined to make this authentic for us and the people who freakin' love this industry. Slayer is the machine that is NOT about manufacturing, it's about the COFFEE!!!



3/10/2009 12:52:00 PM  
Blogger AndyS said...

Klaus, yes, PID was invented in the 1950's, it's really old stuff. PID is "feedback" control, meaning that the controller waits for the system to move away from setpoint, then calculates a correction.

One simple addition in an espresso machine control system would be "feedforward" control:

When you pull a shot, a certain amount of colder water enters a hot brew boiler. If your machine was equipped with a flowmeter and a thermocouple that measured (1) the amount and (2) the temperature of fresh water that entered the boiler, it could calculate how much additional time the heater would have to run to bring that fresh water up to boiler operating temperature. So the heater could start immediately as you pulled a shot, instead of waiting until the temperature dropped. This would mean more stable temperatures.

3/11/2009 06:37:00 PM  
Anonymous Espresso Bloc said...

I think of a hand crafted nature, staying closer to touch and feel from the human hand while understanding the physics.

Instead of thinking about the how machines can do the same thing every time, considering the bean itself seems most reliable. Beans from different parts of the world, and soils, and growers will have differences, and therefore require differences in (etc.), grinding and brewing.

A rigid or automated construct may not ever be able to address every minute necessary change, and as irregularly as a well practiced and smart human being. Technology may bring us a machine that is as flexible and changeable as, a human mind - but we already have that!!

LBJ - Espresso Blōc

3/24/2009 07:05:00 PM  
Anonymous Bluecold said...

Even water dispersion was perfected in 1948. And subsequently abandoned in 1961.

3/30/2009 03:52:00 AM  
Blogger GamerForever said...

Yes, absolutely you should be kicking things off, instead of blurting out your frustrations. You need to move things, if you feel they should be moved. Eye-opening post. Thanks. Maybe coffee machine manufacturers limit their thinking just up to their own interests rather than consumer or user's interests.

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