company - education - coffee

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

A Retrospective by coffee_monkey

First of all, let me appologize for my crappy writing style. I am not a writer. I am an engineer who likes to use passives and long sentences. I also have the tendency to deviate from the main discussion for time to time... So if this bothers you... then that is just too bad!

Anyway... For my first post, I thought it will be nice for me to take a quick look back on my "history" with the whole espresso thing. It will give you a good idea of where I came from and how my current views toward coffee have formed.

I think for most ppl, coffee + internet = coffeegeek. Yup, I started out as a coffeegeek as well. Looking back to my old posts, the first one I wrote was on April 23, 2004 asking to purchase a non-pressurized portafilter.

Actually let me step back a bit... My obsession with coffee started in late 2003/early 2004. I was looking for a new hobby to do and for some odd reason, I decided coffee is cool (don't remember, don't know why). But I didn't want "normal" coffee. I wanted the good stuff. So, as any good consumer does, I went online and read.... I ended up with a Bialetti Brikka 3 cup , a Bodum "fake froather", and started to use stored roasted, store-ground Allegro that I got from Whole Foods (I think was still Freshfields back then). The mokapot makes some pretty nice strong drinks, and with milk, it tasted much better than any drip stuff. This was the time when I "found" coffeegeek.

When I first read coffeegeek, I thought all the ppl on that forum were insane. I mean, who in the right mind would call a $250 grinder "cheap" (Rocky), let alone using one that looks like a monster and costs a bundle (Mini). I decided I WILL NOT get an espresso machine because it costs too much (CG mantra = good grinder + cheap machine = sucess!), but will get a nice grinder to improve my coffee. After a long struggle, I bought a Maestro Plus and it was a very expansive grinder for me back then. I never spend so much on coffee stuff and was really disappointed at the piece of plastic toy I got for $150. Nevertheless, fresh ground stuff at home really tastes nice.

As my coffee improved, so did my appetite. The next step was home roasting so within a couple of months, I had a freshroast +8 and a few pounds of greens from sweet marias. I also started to read coffeegeek religiously and the desire of getting an espresso machine grew everyday.

I finally broke down and upon much research, the cheapest "solution" I arrived at was getting an old Estro Vapore (aka Starbucks Barista) from ebay. I got mine for $80 and aside from some minor rust on the frame, the unit I got was clean and functional. I did all the research I could to get the most out of this thing (unpressurized portafilter, temp surfing, etc) and realize that I finally have to face what I was trying to avoid when I got my mokapot - a serious grinder.

So, more money was charged on the credit card and shortly after the Estro Vapore, I have a Rocky doserless. And then all hell break loose. Soon after the setup was changed to an Isomac Rituale (E61 HX) and a used Super Jolly. I also bought just about any form of coffee maker including a Hario vaccum pot, a Bodum french press, a vietnamese coffee maker, a Presto drip maker, and most recently, an Aeropress. The only (worthwhile) thing I don't have is a manual drip and a ice-drip.

So where was I... yeah, coffeegeek. So you see, coffeegeek was a big influence on me. I have gained a lot of information from it. HOWEVER, I felt that I also gained a lot of mis-information from it, and did not realize this until I stepped outside of the online-world.

You see, back then, espresso to me is all about getting that 1 ~ 1.5 oz double restretto. In my head, it should taste thick, syrupy, chcolatey, smooth and SEXY (sorry... a little inside joke...). I mean, that was what EVERYONE was talking about on coffeegeek, so it must be right, right? And I worked very hard toward that. The shots from Vivace and Zoka when I visited Seattle in Summer of 04 further re-enforced the idea what "god shots" should be like.

With the purchase of my "nice setup", I went on to try many of the famous online blends: Vivace's dolce, Zoka's paladino, Coffee Emergency's code brown, Intelly's black cat, Cafe Fresco's Ambrosia, and Terroir's Northern. Even though I struggle with making great shots as I refine my skills, I manage to produce many drinkable shots from most blends. The only oddball from the lineup was Terroir's coffee. No matter what I try, I could not make it taste good. It was very sour and thin and shared none of the traits of other blends. It really puzzled me as it was quite well recieved online. Then an opportunity came along in spring of 05. I attended the first (and only) espresso seminar at Terroir and was really shocked at the difference of Nothern pulled at the warehouse versus what I tasted at home. I learned that my brew temp was too high, my dose too much, and my tamp too hard. I also learned that espresso can taste good at a full 2oz, medium body, and with tons of acidity.

But this experience also confused me. Because to get to that cup, I have to abandon "THE WAY" of making espresso as learned from coffeegeek. That is, overfill and leveled dose is good. Bigger basket and more coffee is good. 1.5 oz, thick, drippy ristretto is good. Chocolatey, smooth, non-acidic is good. Terroir's Northen is none of that!

I played around with Terroir's Northern a little bit more, but ultimately abandoned it since it was too difficult to repeat my experience at the Acton warehouse. Plus it tasted too different than all the other espresso I had previously tried and maybe it was not to my taste. So I continued to work on my ristretto style pulls in hope to get to those "coffeegeek god shots".

Then I met Jaime. It was the definitive turning point of my espresso hobby. At our first meeting, I tasted something that blew my mind. An espresso shot that actually matches the flowery descriptions on the bag!! An espresso that actually had multi-layers of taste yet smooth from start to finish. An espresso that tasted good and it was a full double?! It was at this exact moment that I realize I have been doing it all wrong all these times because the same exact bean tasted like crap on my home machine. For the first time, I have a "real world" benchmark to work with instead of the imaginative, description words online.

Since then, it's been an exciting journey. His pro-perspective helped me to advance my knowledge in understanding, brewing, and tasting coffee; and my home-perspective helped him to see more things outside the shop. And that is what I hope to bring to the blog. A home user's candid perspective that the pros might not have see from their environment. I also look forward to test/experience many of the things written online. Because.. as there is much good information online, there are also MANY mis-information that could lead many down the wrong way.

Btw, is the celebrated overdose ristretto style wrong? Not really... it depends on the coffee...