Global Product, Global Community: Why the SCAA and SCAE Should Unify

We all know that the seed to cup chain is extensive. Thousands of people worldwide, working to make coffee better. Producers, processors, agronomists, exporters, importers, roasters, chemists, sensory scientists, educators, and baristas. The specialty coffee industry is globally interconnected, whether or not there is a single organization or multiple organizations representing it. We are all working with the common goal of promoting specialty coffee. This idea begs the question, “So why unify?”

For me, there are three primary reasons unification is essential. They are community, education, and collaboration.

1. Community

Joining the Barista Guild of America was one of the best decisions I ever made in regards to my career in specialty coffee. I was immediately immersed in a group of like minded individuals who openly shared their passion and knowledge for specialty coffee. Since joining the BGA, the resources available to me from the community have never run out. Whether it was a question about brew methods, people to bounce ideas off of, or having friends in any city I went to — the BGA has provided me with a seemingly endless community of incredible coffee people.

The thought of my community not just being American, but global is mind boggling. Community is one of the most incredible aspects of the BGA and SCAA, and the thought that we could grow that community to a size never before seen is beautiful. Even if the only benefit of increasing the size of the community was having friends around the world, that would be enough. But friends are far from the only benefit of an international community.

Different cultures have different perspectives on specialty coffee. Easier access to these perspectives not only helps us understand them better, but also allows for exponential growth of our own perspective on the industry. We can grow together. Fragmenting our communities creates barriers between us. We can break down those barriers and open up the lines of communication that come with a global organization.

A global product deserves global advocacy. As we grow as an industry I believe it is essential that we have an advocacy group that represents the beliefs of our industry as a whole, not just a segment. Unification will generate a bigger voice for our industry worldwide. Also, I do not believe that a unified voice will silence the voices of local groups or hinder local involvement. In fact, I believe the case to be the exact opposite. Local groups can have their voice heard by a global community instead of a national community. With the expanded resources a unified organization creates, local groups will have access to a global advocacy system allowing the voice of a small group to be heard worldwide.

2. Education

As an educator, this is a big one for me. Of course I can check out the World Coffee Research website, the SCAA education website, or a host of other resources related to coffee information and education. But imagine the possibility of a unified coffee research database. Information from all over the world in one place. This doesn’t mean the research is done by one group, just that the access to research and information can become more easily accessible through centralization.

Not only can information become more easily accessible, but so can education. The possibility of coffee campuses worldwide with a unified education system is promising. This isn’t to say that there is only one way of doing things, but we all have to start with a solid base of knowledge to build off of. Creating a base that is accepted globally will improve the way coffee is prepared worldwide. Even now, so many people look to the SCAA and SCAE for everything from how to make espresso and brew coffee to roasting and agricultural science.

Unifying the educational systems will allow for less confusion. Also, it will not remove conversation. We aren’t talking about a dictatorship. We are talking about a member run organization where members have a say. There can, and will, be discussion and debate over standards that result in new ways of understanding coffee all over the world.

3. Collaboration

Lastly, the possibility for global collaboration is extremely exciting to me. Imagine a Bloom event where satellites are not just in cities in America, but cities all over the world. Coffee, by nature, is a collaborative effort. The seed to cup chain guarantees this. The possibilities for global collaboration increase drastically with unification. Research groups in America can collaborate with research groups in Europe. Roasters can collaborate with cafes all over the world. Baristas can collaborate with each other for recipes and more. What about an ingredient exchange where baristas send local ingredients to each other from all over the world?!

In all honesty, the possibilities for collaboration become endless and easily facilitated through a unified organization.

I’ll end with this — unification of the SCAA and SCAE isn’t about money or power, it is about representation and advocacy for the specialty coffee industry on a scale which has never before existed. The possibilities that come out of a unified organization are truly amazing. A vibrant, diverse, and extensive community. Education that expands beyond borders. And collaboration on a global scale. For me, any negatives that could arise from unification are substantially outweighed by these prospects.

Go vote.


Beyond the Bean

In this day and age, we have access to some of the best coffee the world has ever produced. As baristas in the specialty coffee industry, we focus on highlighting these coffees through exacting extractions of filter and espresso coffee — constantly striving to improve them in order to accentuate their perfect flavor profile. This has resulted in a scientific renaissance of coffee preparation with a never-ending discussion of TDS, extraction yield, water science, particle distribution, and so much more. These are wonderful things — all which I pay close attention to and actively participate in. That being said, I would like to refocus our attention to the sociology of brew methods and coffee customs.

In its beginnings, coffee was not always a solo act. The Ethiopian coffee ceremony much of the time includes the addition of sugar and spices. Turkish coffee can have sugar and cardamom. Indian filter coffee utilizes chicory, sugar, and milk. Vietnamese coffee has sweetened condensed milk. These recipes are incredible and they barely scratch the surface of regional preparation methods. There is a reason that coffee has been paired with these flavors and ingredients for so long — they taste great together. And it isn’t even just about the flavors (though I’ll never turn down any of these national coffee drinks). It’s about the service and the experience.

The Ethiopian coffee ceremony traditionally takes places three times a day. It is a time for socializing and discussion. Just getting the coffee made takes around a half hour. Then, traditionally, one is supposed to drink at least three (small) cups. This is a substantial amount of time per day dedicated to drinking coffee. But it is so important, that the tradition remains in many parts of Ethiopia today. The “brew method” is part of the service and experience. It is an aesthetic that not only elevates the coffee but the “barista” as well as its attendees. It feels special to be part of a ceremony. To be part of the process; even as a recipient of the product.

Turkish coffee takes time as well. Time that allows people to stop, have a conversation, and enjoy each others company. Time to relax. Time to re-energize. Time to enjoy moments.

The way a culture drinks coffee is a representation of the culture itself. For here or to go? Instant coffee, batch brew, or hand brew? Kalita, Chemex, V-60, Clever, or French Press? Focusing on coffee alone has allowed us in the specialty coffee community to craft the best cups possible, and that is amazing. But if you ask me, it removes some of the romanticism behind coffee and the experience. Yes, it demonstrates the farmers commitment to excellence and everyone along the chain for that matter. But for a lot of our guests, coffee is coffee. For our guests, espresso is elevated with the addition of steamed milk and some nice latte art. Espresso (however much I want it to be) is rarely revered on its own.

My initial paradigm shift in coffee didn’t happen due to Esmerelda Geisha or a phenomenal natural Ethiopian. It happened in Jordan, in the back of a tourist shop, where an elderly gentleman with a patch over one eye sat with his Ibrik, methodically moving it closer and further from the flames. I was enthralled. He gestured to me and said “Kafeh?” I said yes, and he proceeded to pour some into a six-ounce styrofoam cup. Half of the cup was grounds and the other half liquid. I was initially put off — until I smelled it. It was incredible. The most amazing aromatic experience. And the flavor! Cardamom, cinnamon, sugar, coffee. Rich and beautiful. Perfectly balanced. I’m sure the coffee he was using was less than specialty grade to say the least.

But I’m also sure that he had learned the recipe from his father, who learned it from his father, and so on. Who knows how many decades it took to perfect the preparation of this single brew method. It was spectacular. That single cup told a story that went back generations. I can’t even imagine the experience if I had been able to sit there and enjoy it with him. That cup surpassed the best cups of coffee I’ve ever had (and still does). Not just in flavor, but in its history and story.

And I guess that is what I’m getting at here. Sometimes we are so focused on the science that we forget the story. We can absolutely tell a story with black coffee. The seed to cup chain is just as incredible to me; and it can be expressed just as romantically. But I feel as if a lot of the time this story gets lost in preparation and service. A demitasse of delicious espresso does little to tell the story behind it. Sometimes, creating a beverage that elevates the flavors of a specific coffee, or coffee in general, can produce a story greater than the sum of its parts. Beverages can transport people. It is how they are served. What they are served in. The environment. The experience.

It is service, environment, and experience that elevated Ethiopian coffee, Turkish coffee, and Indian filter coffee to being national coffee beverages. Of course they taste excellent, but there is more. As baristas, let’s not lose sight of the other factors that make a drink what it can be. Let’s find a way to express the seed to cup chain that equally draws people in and elevates their experience. And most of all, lets not forget that we can tell stories with the coffee we make. I want to be a story-teller and an experience creator.


The Honor and Privilege of Coffee Extraction

As baristas, we are the final step in coffees’ long journey from seed to cup. We produce a product that represents far more than ourselves or our extractions. We all know the long journey that coffee takes to make it to our cafes, but let’s think about it again. Seedlings are started. They are transferred to farms and transplanted when ready. Then it takes at minimum of three years for a coffee plant to produce acceptable cherries and usually more like five years. The plants are intensely cared for. Cherries are hand picked. They are processed in one of multiple methods — all of which require huge amounts of labor and quality control. After initial processing they are transported to a dry mill which removes the hull. They are stored and wait to be purchased. Exporters and importers deal with the logistics of shipping millions of pounds of coffee and act as matchmakers between farmers/co-ops and roasting companies. After the coffee is received, roasters have to determine their profile for the coffee. Then it is sent to the cafes where it is finally brewed and served.

At minimum, coffee touches hundreds of hands before finally making it into a cup. But as baristas, we are the people who get the credit. Much of the time, the consumer doesn’t even consider the farmer(s), processors, importers, exporters, or roasters and their part in the process. They certainly don’t consider the fact that the machinery must be kept up in order to produce high quality coffee. In all honesty, as baristas, we get all of the glory when it comes to the final product. Part of this is absolutely deserved in that even the best coffee in the world, extracted poorly, will produce bad coffee. But also, as baristas we need to remember this — and share the glory when possible.

We are privileged to be able to be serve the work of hundreds of individuals. I cannot think of another product that provides the server with as much credit. Wineries get the credit for their wine. Breweries get the credit for their beer. There are other professions in which the same person who crafts the end product gets credit — like bartenders making cocktails or chefs making meals — but in regards to a single product, like a cup of coffee or glass of wine, it is not the server who gets the credit, but the individuals responsible for crafting the product.

As baristas we need to understand that it is an honor to be the last point of representation for a coffee. Your 20 to 30 second espresso extraction represents all of your work with a coffee, the weeks and months of profiling and roasting, the quality control of the importers and exporters, and the years, sometimes generations, of knowledge and farming that a producer has. Decades of knowledge summed up in a 25 second extraction. For me, that is quite humbling, and instills in me a huge sense of honor to be the individual who gets to represent all of this knowledge and the people behind a coffee.

Understanding coffee in this way has massive implications. You aren’t just dialing in for you. You are dialing in to represent your roaster, your importer, the farmer and the processors. Your extraction represents the work and knowledge of hundreds of individuals. So represent them well. Don’t let the espresso grind slip. Taste everything. Extract coffee with intention — remember that each extraction is a representation of this chain. Not only is it humbling, but hopefully it pushes us to continually improve and not just settle for mediocrity.


Systems Before Extraction: Water and Grind

In the beginning of a baristas education, there is infatuation with brew methods. “What do you prefer,” is always the question I get. V-60s, Kalitas, Chemexes, Immersion Drippers? In the beginning, every barista is obsessed with the way coffee is brewed. And rightfully so, as in the beginning, individuals are learning to brew coffee. They are learning the principles of extraction and applicable extraction theory. Don’t get me wrong, it isn’t a bad infatuation. I’ve got a couple grand worth of brew methods at my house.

But I believe that our industry is stuck. And it isn’t just the baristas fault. Cafes are proud to offer their coffee brewed exclusively through a V-60 or Kalita 185 and rarely do cafes focus as intensely on the systems leading up to brewing as the acutal brew method. I hear things like, “We pulse pour 35 grams every 15 seconds with a 35 second bloom,” or, “We just pour directly down the middle of the filter until we reach the desired weight,” or, “We keep the water precisely 1/2 inch above the bed of grounds.” We need to stop focusing on the brew method and start focusing on the systems that exist before brewing. What systems you ask? Particularly grind and water.

I’d rather hear statements like, “We ensure that our water has a PH of 7, with an ample amount of bicarbonate to provide a buffer, and contains a range of minerals with none extremely more prevalent than the other. We test it every day to ensure it has a PPM of 150 and adjust accordingly.” I would wager that the cup of coffee, no matter the brew method, from the cafe that offers that statement to the inquisitive guest, is far better than coffee made at any cafe, with any brew method, using lower quality water. The cafe that controls its water quality controls its coffee quality. With water quality under control, there is really only one other variable that is far more important than brew method when brewing coffee. Grinding.

Particle distribution is on par with water as one of the two most important aspects of brewing. So the question usually arises, what grinder do you use at home/at the shop? Let me be clear, there are some exceptional grinders on the market, that all do some wonderful things in terms of distribution. But there is one thing that NOT ONE GRINDER on the market does, that is common practice is brewers cup competition and in any mad coffee scientists house. Sifting out fines. If you couldn’t tell from any of my earlier articles, I have a severe disdain for fines. I define fines as any coffee particle smaller than 100 microns. They throw everything off. Extraction yield, concentration, and most of all — flavor.

Quick coffee lesson: the extraction yield of a coffee is a percentage based on the average extraction yield of EVERY PARTICLE in a distribution. With fines generally making up between 15 and 20% of a total distribution, their effect on TDS and extraction yield is colossal. And their effect on flavor is even more powerful.

I bought a dental vibrator (usually used to remove air bubbles from plaster dental molds), placed a 150 micron (about anyhow) sieve in a mason jar, placed my dose in the sieve and turned it on. In 15 seconds I can remove near 100% of the fines in a distribution. (Like a mini ROTAP). What does that do? Well, scientifically, it takes the range of extraction yields down from about 15% (15 – 30% EY) to about 5% (18 – 23% EY). This tighter distribution creates a cup with flavor characteristics not commonly imbued on a cup of coffee. Smooth, round, soft, balanced, juicy, and most of all, clear. The clarity of flavors in a cup that has had its fines removed is next to none. There are no flavors of over extraction (bitterness or astringency) and because I am tightening the distribution and removing particles that will over extract, I can push the other particles further into extraction, exposing flavors that may not have previously been present in a coffees extraction. This “intentional particle distribution” allows me the ability to control the extraction much more effectively and remove some of the chaos that goes into brewing coffee.

Now I know that there will be people who argue that fines are necessary in a distribution. Here is what I have to say to that: as an industry, we have become accustomed to extractions tasting a certain way (even the best ones). The bitterness that exists in a cup of coffee doesn’t have to be present in the amounts that it is. In my opinion, we have been tasting coffee wrong for a long time. That isn’t to say that I don’t enjoy traditional extractions, but after experiencing cups created with a water recipe and intentional particle distribution, traditional extractions don’t come close to matching their flavor quality.

In the end, controlling for water quality and utilizing intentional particle distributions will facilitate a far better cup than any barista or brew method can provide with mediocre water or chaotic grinding. I’ll say it again, we need to stop focusing on method and start focusing on the systems that lead up to the method. It’s only through focus in these areas that we will be able to not just slightly improve on cup quality, but drastically improve upon it and perhaps even demonstrate to people a new way that coffee can taste. I’ll take a FETCO of dialed in, 7PH, 150 PPM, fines removed coffee any day before a V-60, Kalita, Chemex, or Press Pot made with the highest degree of attention, but only mediocre water and a wide distribution range.

If you don’t believe me, try it. Make some water, sift out your fines and brew. I think anybody who hasn’t tasted coffee this way will be amazed at how different the extractions with mediocre water and chaotic particle distributions are from those with fantastic water and intentional particle distributions. Have fun.



Size + Shape + Density = Distribution


We have all heard that without a good grinder you can’t make good coffee. This statement cannot be more true. There are only really two factors that can guarantee quality extractions: water and grind. Water is a topic all on its own (and one which I will cover in other musings). To be more specific in regards to grind, it is the size, shape, and density that combine to create the distribution of a grind. Thousands of particles make up the total distribution and each particle is unique in each of these characteristics. Particles are like snowflakes — no two are the same.

We need to stop focusing on coffee macroscopically — the beans — and start thinking smaller. Like a lot smaller. Single origin or blend, Chemex or French Press; coffee and brew method mean little in comparison to the distribution of the thousands of particles being extracted. It means far less what coffee we use or how we extract it and far more the uniformity of the size, shape, and density of a particle distribution. Of course, this is only important if evenness of extraction is our goal (which I hope it is). So without further ado, particles.


The size of the particles being extracted is one of three primary components of a distribution. In general, though there are other factors to take into account, the larger the particle the slower the extraction, and the smaller the particle the faster the extraction. Hence the quickness of espresso extraction and the lengthier time of a French Press extraction.

But in all honesty, size means little when compared to shape and density — both of which affect rate of extraction as well. Size can be deceiving. Think for a moment about cooking meat. We have two one-pound steaks. One of the steaks is a half inch thick and 10 inches long and the other is a square two and a half inch filet (excuse the semi-accurate math). It will take less time to cook (to the same degree) the half inch thick steak than the two and a half inch filet even though they take up the same amount of space.

So back to coffee. When a grinder produces particles that are the same size (area/volume), but shaped differently, the particles won’t extract at the same rate. This leads to the idea that uniformity of shape is more important to extraction than uniformity of size.


Out of size, shape, and density, shape may be the most important aspect of guaranteeing evenness of extraction. Depending on the type of burrs on a grinder — conical or flat — different particle shapes are created. Conical burrs create more cylindrical/circular shaped particles, whereas flat burrs create flatter particles.

Consider two pieces of paper; one flat and one crumpled into a ball. If we are to set both those pieces of paper into a filled bathtub, we would see that the flat piece of paper becomes water logged much faster than the paper crumpled into a ball. The same goes for coffee. Water permeates flat particles faster than round ones. Interestingly enough, shape is deceiving in relation to size. A flat and round particle that take up the same amount of total space will look substantially different to the naked eye. The flat particle will look much larger than the round one. This is because its area is spread out.

This also means that the flatter the particle, the more surface area it possesses. And the more surface area, the faster the extraction. But what if those two pieces of paper were different? What if one is denser than the other? Like construction paper versus notebook paper.


Density is the third and last aspect of the particles that must be considered. The denser the particle, the slower it can be permeated by water and vice versa. This means that in order to produce the same extraction yield in the same time in two particles with different densities, those particles must be different sizes or shapes. The denser particle must be smaller and the less dense particle larger.

But let’s get real. I keep talking about one or two particles. Even brewing 12 ounces of coffee requires thousands of individual particles. This is where distribution comes in.


The goal of grinders (or at least I hope) is to produce the most uniform particle distribution in regards to size, shape, and density. Uniformity in particle distribution helps to guarantee evenness of extractions. The tighter (or more narrow) a grinders distribution the more even the resulting extraction is, while wider distributions make it difficult (if even at all possible) to produce even extractions.

For me, this is why extraction yield is such a misleading number when measuring evenness of extractions. According to the Universal Brewing Control Chart, properly extracted coffee has an extraction yield of 18-22%. This is all fine and well, but we must remember that the final extraction yield is a combination of the respective yields of thousands of particles. It’s an average. Horrible particle distributions can still produce a “good” or correct extraction yield by averaging all of the under and over extracted particles. This is not to say that 18-22% is incorrect (though recent data suggests that tighter distributions allow for higher extraction yields without the taste characteristics of over extraction).

We have to remember we are not just extracting a type of coffee. We are extracting thousands of particles at the same time, and each particle plays a role in the final extraction.


In the end, our goal as an industry, in order to produce the highest quality extractions (understood as the most even extractions), must be to produce, or urge, the production of grinders with the most narrow particle distributions possible. It is only through advances in grinder science that we can further our ability to produce better and more even extractions.

We all know how important controlling variables is in the world of coffee; and many of the tools we have are excellent at achieving this control. But particle distribution is chaotic and it will be our ability to better control this chaos that will lead to better coffee in the end. Everything for a better cup.

Particle Graphic

Got Married, Went to Iceland, and Tasted Excellent Extractions in Beautiful Places

So if the title of this doesn’t say it all, I got married to a wonderful lady, and we went to Iceland on our honeymoon. It was, and still is, seriously awesome. The most shocking aspect of Iceland — aside from the glaciers, mountains, volcanos, weather, 24-hour sun, land rainbows, orcas, lava fields, incredible cuisine and beautiful people — was how consistently good the coffee extractions I tasted were. This could have to do with the fact that Icelanders love their coffee. Scandinavians in general consume some of the highest amounts of coffee per capita in the world. Nonetheless, from the smallest cafe, brewing Illy coffee on a home Technivorm to the N1 gas stations, who were brewing Kaffitar (an Icelandic speciality roaster) through FETCO brewers. The extractions were great everywhere. And so were the surroundings.

We were staying on the Snaefellsnes peninsula in the tiny village of Helnar. To the north, Snaefellsjokull, a massive glacier surrounded by beautiful mountains and lava fields and directly to our south, the ocean.

The North:

Beautiful Mountain (Day 3)

The South:

The View from Fjoruhsid in Helnar (Day 3)

The place is out of control gorgeous. I really have never been anywhere or seen anything like it. We had 2 local coffee shops, in a village of 15 buildings. One of them was known as Fjoruhusid and the picture above was our view from their patio. They served drip coffee, waffles, and espresso beverages — and perhaps the best hot chocolate I’ve ever tasted. The coffee was brewed through an older Techivorm and tasted great and the waffle was spectacular. And check out the location; talk about a destination coffee shop. (Actually, a waitress from our favorite restaurant at the northern tip of the peninsula told us that she would drive the 45 minutes just to sit there). As if the view above wasn’t enough, check out how quaint this place is.

Iceland Day 3_222

The other shop in town, also great was called Primus Cafe. Being a massive Primus (the band) fan I found this to be pretty awesome. Though not as picturesque as Fjoruhusid, the coffee was just as awesome. And it was connected to a sweet little museum of the Snaefellsjokull National Park. For those Primus Fans, here’s a picture:

Iceland Day 2_192

As you drive around Iceland, you realize that there is coffee everywhere. From boards that have, “Waffle Coffee” written in paint on the side of the road to one of the leading gas stations carrying speciality grade coffee by Kaffitar — no village had any shortage of cafes or access to coffee. Also, I noticed that restaurants did coffee right, or at least all the ones I went to. How I wish that was the case in America. Coffee is generally such an afterthought at any restaurant in America and it was refreshing to see the way that Icelandic restaurants treated coffee. Granted we went to the same place for lunch for four days. Hraun.

Hraun (Day 6)

By far, four of the best service experiences I’ve had in my life. Hraun just took care of us like we were family. They always had a bottle of water at the table. The food was always perfect. Servers were attentive but never intrusive. And the coffee was delicious.

The fact that coffee was so good everywhere makes me wonder about the water quality in the country. Speaking of which, we drank 4 year old water off the floor of a cave that tasted better than any other water I’ve ever had. But seriously, water is so integral to good coffee that it would make sense that they have exceptional coffee because they have access to exceptional water.

Also, drinking coffee in Iceland made me think about how much a space affects experiences. This isn’t to say that the coffee would have been bad anywhere else, they were still excellent extractions, but I wonder how much of peoples experiences with beverages and food are based on setting. I mean look at this country.

Fjordious (Day 5)

It’s insane. And so was everything about the trip. So now I’m married, I know that Iceland is one of the most incredible places ever, and I got to drink coffee in places that were so gorgeous they made me think about the way I experience life, let alone coffee.

Exceptional Sometimes or Very Good All the Time?

As a trainer, one of the most common questions I get is, “Will you taste this?” (And not just at the cafes I am responsible for). The answer is always yes. Of course I will taste coffee. Espresso, pour over, cold brew, whatever. I’m all about it. That being said, there is an underlying statement around this question, which is, “I trust your palate better than my own.” That’s not to say that people shouldn’t ask for a second opinion. I love free coffee and have no problem providing my opinion. My life during competition season is second opinions. But one of the most important things in coffee preparation is trusting your palate and your training.

As espresso practitioners, baristas are constantly chasing the elusive “god shot”. And for good reason. Everybody loves a phenomenal shot of espresso. They are necessary in order to understand just how good espresso can be. But they are fleeting and inconsistent. This isn’t to say that it’s impossible to pull consistent, exceptional shots, but due to the chaos of variables in espresso preparation, it’s going to take a few sink shots for every exceptional shot. Particle distribution alone guarantees this. Along with grinder dose variances, small pressure and flow differences, and being able to stop shots at exactly the right time — a “6” (the best espresso score in USBC scoring) is essentially unattainable every time (or any time arguably).

But, I do believe that through control of variables it is possible to pull great shots of espresso consistently. Cafe environment is a huge factor in how easy it is to pull excellent espresso. Let’s take a brief look at how the size of a cafe affects espresso extraction. At the busiest of cafes, consistency is attained through a good barista, who is constantly tasting, reliable grinders and a reliable espresso machine. In the fastest pace cafe environments, weighing the in’s and out’s of every shot and maintaing some semblance of speed of service is impossible (I’m sure that people will beg to differ). But that doesn’t mean that they can’t pull good espresso. I get great espresso in busy cafes all the time. The burrs on the grinder stay at a somewhat stable temperature due to their constant use. A good barista can use basket size, and good leveling techniques to easily obtain doses within a gram of intention. And as long as they taste any shot that would go to “waste”, small grinder adjustments can be made all the time to ensure that the espresso stays great.

A note on busy cafes. There are several busy cafes I go to that weigh all of their ins and outs, but those same cafes take 4-8 minutes to pull me a shot of espresso generally, and honestly, the espresso that I get is generally not quantifiably better than the busy cafe that is just staying on top of their espresso game.

I’m going to leave mid-volume cafes for last (as I believe they actually have it the hardest). So, for a low volume cafe, ensuring great espresso can be a fairly easy task. Parameters can be measured and attained without affecting speed of service (because there isn’t that much service). The burrs on the grinder stay at a fairly consistent temperature due to their (lack of) use. Every controllable variable can be accounted for, because the time exists for it. Shots can be weighed easily and having to re-pull a shot is not a huge issue. Really, there is no excuse for bad espresso in a low volume environment. If you work in one, enjoy it.

This leaves mid-volume cafes for last. So why did I say they are the hardest? A lot of that reason revolves around burrs heating up and cooling down during service. Expansion and contraction of burrs along with the temperature of the grounds being output cause substantial complications for espresso preparation. The invention of the Mythos One grinder has helped solve some of these problems, but there is another problem that comes with mid-volume shops. As a barista, its so hard to get in a grove when business comes in spurts. Several people here and there. Nothing consistent. It’s because of this I feel that many mid-volume cafes I’ve been to have staffing issues. It’s hard to know how many people you need on shift when business isn’t consistent and it seems as if that causes the most difficulty in producing good espresso. (Workflow is an uncontrollable variable sadly).

So when I consider what cafe(s) I’d like to go to on a day off, I choose based on how consistent my experiences have been at that cafe, not how good the best quality shot I had there was. And thats what we have to remember as professionals. It’s consistency that continually brings our guests back and turn them into regulars. I love phenomenal espresso when I can get it, but even more, I like good espresso on a regular basis. Sometimes a single experience is all thats needed, but I really believe that most of the time its repeat experiences and consistency of product that keep our guests coming back time and time again.

Particle Distribution – Obsession, Frustration, and Implications

If you are reading this, then chances are you are a barista, coffee professional, or coffee enthusiast of sorts. Most guests don’t have an obsession with particle distribution. Or for that matter even know what it is or how it affects extraction. I have never had a guest ask me to, “Tell me everything you know about particle distribution.” I, on the other hand, do have an obsession with particle distribution and I’m glad to see more discussion relating to the topic in the world of coffee. That being said, it has been quite a frustrating ride for the past few years, as our industry has been in the discovery stage of understanding particle distribution and how truly important it is.

That isn’t to say that the coffee industry didn’t get it before, but I don’t think that it was ever viewed as the most important aspect of coffee extraction — which seems to be changing (thanks to Matt Perger, the EK-43 revolution, and a general shift in industry focus). I would agree and argue that the most important variable when making coffee is particle distribution, followed incredibly closely by water quality (perhaps they are even equal in their importance). So, why particle distribution?

I’ll tell you. Let’s start with a brief look at measuring extraction yield. Currently, the industry standard window for proper extraction yield is between 18-22%. Extraction yield measured is an average of the yield of every particle being extracted. We have to stop thinking about extraction yield as a single number, but instead an average of thousands of individual extraction yields (each particle). As we know, smaller particles extract faster and coarser particles extract slower. Fines and overly coarse particles are outliers when determining extraction yield — but because this isn’t statistics and we can’t just remove outliers from our analysis — they contribute to the overall extraction yield. Over-extracted particles create bitter flavors in coffee and under-extracted particles create sour flavors. When a grinders distribution is such that it emits large amounts of fine and coarse particles, the resulting brew can taste both over and under-extracted.

Currently, most grinders output too many fine particles and too far (in micron size) from the mean distribution size. This results in baristas dialing in (espresso and hand-brews) coarser in order to remove bitter flavors and astringency from the final extraction. What this means, is that the mean size particles of a grinders’ distribution are under-extracted to avoid the bitterness that the fines would impart. The problem with this is that the potential sweetness of a coffee remains undiscovered because of a fear of bitterness. (Sweetness comes just before bitterness when extracting coffee). Lessening the fines a grinder produces allows for sweeter brews due to the fact that the mean size of particles can be extracted further. Also, when the mean particle size is closer to the fines size, the extraction becomes more even. This is one of the advantages to the EK-43 that Perger notes. The closer the particle distribution of a grinder, the easier it is to push extraction yields to 21-23% without exhibiting bitter or dry notes.

So even though I love all of this science it doesn’t mean that its implications are easily understood. Let’s discuss these implications on different scales. For the coffee company/cafe/roaster the implications of even particle distribution are massive. From the flavor of batch and hand brews to the nuances of espresso extraction. Particle distribution has a direct and huge effect on how good brewed coffee can actually be. This means that for the barista, particle distribution puts a cap on how even, and good, an extraction can be. Without good distribution, there is no hope for good coffee (sans sifting to remove fines and other unachievable tasks in a cafe environment). Also, since not all of our guests have grinders at home, many of them purchase their coffee pre-ground. The more even the particle distribution the better their pre-ground coffee will taste when brewed which means better representation for the roaster.

In terms of grinding and brewing at home, if an individual can get a 90-100 micron sieve and remove fines from the particle distribution, the quality of coffee brewed will immediately improve. This may be a bit much for most home brew enthusiasts, but the increase in quality could be enough to sway some. Also, unless the EK-43 somehow becomes an attainable home grinder (which I don’t see happening in the near future), the most important decision that a home brewer can make is which grinder to purchase. Hopefully I will be able to shed some light on this when I am able to execute my grinder experiment in the near future.

In the end, the push for more even particle distribution from grinder companies is one that must be made by our industry for the sake of better coffee for all.

For further reading regarding particle distribution check out Matt Perger’s 3-part article on the EK-43 (in which he covers far more information than just the grinder).

Romanticized Extractions, Exceptional and Horrible Coffee: My Perspective on Manual Brew Methods

Some of the best coffee that I’ve had in my life has come from the efforts of a dedicated barista with a manual brew device. At the same time, some of the worst coffee that I’ve had in my life has come from the efforts of a dedicated barista with a manual brew device. Attaining consistency with manual brew methods requires control over many variables, and it is cafes that guarantee consistency in their extractions that bring me back to them over and over again. It’s also the primary reason that I brew through a Bona-Vita at home (unless I run out of filters, which in case give me a Kalita 185 and a flow-restricted kettle…but we’ll get to that later). There are so many aspects of control related to the extraction of coffee: coffee to water ratio, particle size/distribution, water quality/temperature/distribution, agitation, flow rate, filtration, and a host of other variables.

The reason that SCAA/SCAE approved brewers are so legit is because they take control of water temperature, water distribution, and flow rate — leaving the brewer to select a coffee to water ratio, grind properly, and ensure proper filtration. That’s it. All an individual needs is good coffee, a good quality burr grinder, filters, and a decent palate (to dial-in of course), and they can make very good coffee time after time.

I think that the quality provided by automated brewers is such that they can guarantee very good coffee consistently, but don’t produce exceptional coffee consistently (without just as much effort as is needed to produce exceptional coffee from a manual brew device). Absolute control has to be taken over all possible variables to produce exceptional coffee. An automated brewer can only control for several variables (though they are very important variables). Don’t get me wrong. I think that an automated brewer can produce good to very good coffee far easier than the operation of a manual brew method, but where’s the fun in that? Where is the passion? The craft?

And that really is the entire point isn’t it? I don’t believe that manual brew methods caught on because our guests were really getting that much better of a cup from a Chemex or a V-60. They caught on because the guest could watch their coffee get brewed. The guest could talk to the person brewing their coffee. They could smell the bloom and become entranced with the pouring method. It’s romantic. And there is something beautiful to manually extracted coffee that batch brew just doesn’t have. It’s an intangible — and it’s wonderful.

And as I said earlier, when controlling all of the variables, exceptional coffee can be crafted with manual brew methods. The best drip coffee I’ve had most definitely comes from manual brew methods. Particularly the Kalita 185. This isn’t a commercial for 185’s so I’ll just say that the flat bottom, in conjunction with a well made filter, provides for a fairly forgiving device to use, that produces one of the most evenly extracted cups of coffee one can get out of a drip manual brew device. I did make a video with Kaldi’s Coffee about how to brew Kalitas if that’s where your interest leads you.

But I digress. My whole point here is that cupping coffee from a properly operated automatic brewer along side a manual brew method will not generally result in some mind altering difference of quality. I would even posit that the best cuppers could not determine the difference between a 1.3 TDS and 20% extraction yield FETCO and the same TDS and extraction yield Kalita. The difference is in the aesthetic. And it is substantial. The act of seeing ones coffee being brewed and experiencing the entire process with all senses provides for the perceived increase of quality from manual brew methods. And what a wonderful perceived increase it is.

An Espresso Manifesto, a Dial-In Diatribe, and Related Musings

Espresso.  It’s the base for almost every cafe beverage.  Macchiatos, cortados, cappuccinos, lattes, and a plethora of flavored beverages.  For most drinks, is has the most impact on flavor of any ingredient.  When training, it is what I am asked about the most and it is also what we practice the most.  Espresso’s rise to the worldwide most preferred (by quantity) extraction method is hard wrap my head around, considering the complication of consistent, quality extractions taking place. Though I am quite thankful for it, because I owe my career to it, most espresso I have is not good or mediocre.  It is very difficult to consistently extract “good” espresso.

Espresso is controlled anarchy.  It is the attempted control of tens of variables, some controllable and some not, whose exacting specificity is integral to its creation…and to it being “good.”  Let’s take a quick break to talk about what good means to me.  In one sentence, good means a harmonious balance of acidity, sweetness, and bitterness.  Of course there is always some amount of subjectivity to taste.  Some individuals prefer acidic espressos and some prefer bitter espressos.  This is why so many styles of roasting and extraction exist and all styles can all be sustained.  Because everybody likes their coffee differently.

So what is espresso?  The Specialty Coffee Association of America defines espresso as, “a 25-35ml beverage prepared from 7-9 grams of coffee through which clean water of 195°- 205°F (92°-95°C) has been forced at 9-10 atmospheres of pressure, and where the grind of the coffee is such that the brewing ‘flow’ time is approximately 20-30 seconds.”  To people who don’t make espresso on a daily basis, this seems reasonable (if even understandable).  To individuals who make espresso on a daily basis, at a speciality coffee cafe, this definition does not apply.  I know that there is an attempt to change this definition currently, and hope that it happens.  That being said, when people come with me with questions regarding espresso the current definition provides me with little help in answering them.

First of all, drink volume should actually be weight.  Extraction needs to be defined as a ratio.  Ratio’s allow for exact measurements.  Second, 7-9 grams of coffee (which is for a single) is really 14 – 18 grams for a double.  That, with a range of 50-70ml output puts all possible extractions off the Universal Brewing Control Chart (not that good coffee can’t exist off this chart, it just rarely does).  Third, while I agree that 9 bars of pressure is the best for extracting espresso, I have had very good espresso extracted at 6 bars and other pressures as well.  Fourth, once again, while I agree that 20 – 30 seconds is a good window for espresso, that does not mean that good espresso cannot be attained outside that time window.

My definition for espresso, which was inspired by the hopeful SCAA definition, and should be taken more as a guideline, is:

Espresso is the result of a pressurized extraction of finely ground coffee resulting in a beverage weight of 1.25 – 2.25 times the initial coffee dose, in 20 – 30 seconds, and possessing crema.

To provide an example: if ones in dose is 20 grams, the output of that dose should be between 25-45 grams extracted in 20 – 30 seconds.

I’m sure many people are saying right now, “But you just said that you have had good coffee outside the window of 20 – 30 seconds?!”  This definition is a guideline, and one that will I’m sure change over time as new aspects of espresso extraction are discovered and baristas push parameters to the limits in an effort to produce the best tasting extractions.  But for now, in order to create consistent espresso for myself and my guests, and to train for consistency, I work within this window.

Also a note as to why possessing crema is important to me.  It is in my definition because crema signifies that the extraction resulted in an emulsion, not a solution.  That is all.  Whether the crema breaks and its color have little to no meaning for me.

Now that I’ve provided a frame for what espresso is, I can speak to the dial-in questions that arise no matter where or who I am teaching.  Dialing in isn’t easy and it’s a constant process that occurs throughout the course of espresso service.  The huge amount of variables in the creation of espresso guarantee this and they are also the source for the statement I hear constantly which is, “I don’t even know where to start.”

This is the reason that I created this dial-in flow chart.  There are a lot of variables in the creation of espresso, but there are only four that are immediately affectable by baristas.  These are cleanliness, dose, grind, and time.  And luckily enough, through the changing of these variables, most of the time, good espresso can be attained.  A note, I’m sure many will notice that 19-21g are my parameters for a double espresso.  This is what I shoot for 98% of the time.  There are occasions where a 21.3g dose or a 18.7g dose happen and taste great, but for simplicity sake, 19 – 21 provides consistency while still allowing for a bit of wiggle room.  The last note before looking over the chart is that most baristas I train just don’t trust themselves.  They don’t trust their palate.  In order to create good espresso consistently, you have to trust yourself.  Trust your tongue.  Chances are if you are making espresso, you have tasted it a lot before.

Dial-In Parameters

So that’s it.  The flow chart is just a visual representation of my thought process every time I’m dialing in.  The definitions at the bottom are the context for which I understand the espresso that I pull.  I know that not everybody will agree with this method, or definitions, or my understanding of espresso in general.  But for me, this is the way that I have been able to produce consistent espresso.  Tasting constantly, always re-evaluating the extraction, and always taking the time to dial in is what will allow for baristas to step up their own espresso game as well as their cafes.