This morning I’m mixing up my coffee review with some espresso education (esprucation? LOL) for something a little different. This morning’s coffee is a “mystery” seasonal espresso from my friends at San Diego’s Manzanita Roasting Co. Since I don’t have any idea what this coffee is, this turned out to be a perfect opportunity to talk about dialing-in and evaluating espresso.
MANZANITA ROASTING CO. SEASONAL ESPRESSO
Weston and Samantha Nawrocki know food and bev. Wes is a trained chef and sommelier and Samantha is a ?-generation vintner whose family owns the 125+ year old San Bernardo Winery in San Diego county. We seem to have a really good working relationship and Wes likes to send me coffees that are still in the experimental phase, like this one. The label on this coffee reads, “Seasonal Espresso (fancy name to come soon) A single origin that is sweet and bright.” I know he just wanted my opinion on the coffee itself, but it’s a lot of fun for me to try and guess origins when I don’t know them already (which is why I love Populace’s Flight of Fancy contest every year). And I wanted to share how I dial-in and evaluate a new espresso on my equipment, too.
So, first things first, let’s talk about the coffee (it’s tasty!) and then I’ll circle around with how I arrived here, equipment, etc. Single origin espresso (SOE) has some inherent challenges, in my opinion. A SOE is what it is, simply put. Blends, on the other hand, allow a good blender the ability to emphasize some flavors and dial-back others. Blends allow for different roast levels of different components, which can also be used to influence flavors. In my opinion, blends almost always end up having a nicer crema and they seem to be easier to pull than SOE’s, which are more finicky, again in my opinion. Blends are more forgiving, in other words, again, in general and, again, in my personal opinion and experience. From the perspective of evaluating espresso, I think it’s more challenging than regular coffee, for me. The flavors are super-concentrated, but I feel like the spectrum of flavor notes is a lot narrower. Now, this is certainly possible because I review filter coffee every day and I only get to enjoy espresso a couple times per week, but I think it’s overall just a bit tougher to evaluate. It’s a small cup, too, so you either need to drink a lot of it or get the information you need very quickly, which adds to the challenge.
All that being said, the shots I evaluated had nice flavors. Appearance-wise, I ended up with a pretty nice crema that held up to vigorous stirring. I got a little roasted nuttiness in the flavor and was immediately hit with a lot of tart cherry and cherry juice sweetness notes. I find cherry in a lot of the espresso I drink, but this one was REALLY cherry, a lot more obvious and up front than it is in other coffees where it’s a side note. The finish read strongly of cherry cola for me, too, which I loved. In a couple sips toward the middle of the shot I got a lot of floral notes and there is a healthy amount of lemon acidity with some more limey bitterness, too. More lemon than lime, though. 10+ minutes after drinking I had hints of berry jam and maybe even a bit of blueberry on my palate, but certainly berry jam.
Looking at the coffee visually, I noted a variety of bean sizes and shapes, so that immediately brings me to Ethiopia. Ethiopian coffees are popular as blend components and they can work as SOE’s, too. There was something rustic about this coffee, too, that said Africa to me rather than the Americas. Kenya screens coffees for size so that was out, unless this was a weird lot from that country, and it didn’t taste Kenyan at all, either. Burundi, Rwanda and some of the other countries of East Africa are always possibilities, too, but Burundi, for example, grows mostly Bourbon and so I would expect the beans to be more uniform. I had big beans, small beans, regular-shaped beans, some peaberries… and that kind of mix immediately screams Ethiopia to me. The next question is washed, or natural? I’m never any good at visually figuring this out when it comes to coffee. The center line of the beans mostly have a bit of chaff/parchment caught in there and I’m pretty sure that’s more characteristic of a natural coffee. So, final guess… I’m calling this an Ethiopian natural and I’m certainly not even going to fathom a guess as to the region of Ethiopia. This isn’t Somm, after all! LOL I’ll update my post when I get word back from Manzanita about it.
DIALING IN ESPRESSO
Dialing in is fairly easy, if you’re consistent (and boy, does THAT open up a can of potential worms). I generally start with a standard “recipe” in mind, which is using 20g of coffee and aiming for a 40g shot, give or take a few, in about 27-30 seconds. I find I generally end up landing a little short of that (pulling 30-35g in about 27-30 seconds) and being really pleased with the results. Dialing-in refers to the act of getting all the parameters set to pull what you think is the best-tasting espresso. I did end up really liking this coffee from Manzanita at 20g of coffee in the basket and 40g of coffee out in 28-29 seconds.
Things that affect how an espresso pulls include the grind size, dose size (how much coffee you’re using), how well you prepare the dose in the basket, how well and how hard you tamp the grounds, and of course, the pressure the espresso machine is running at. This morning I used the following equipment:
- Gaggia Espresso machine – this is a late 1990’s/early 2000’s low end Gaggia with no frills. I can’t control pressure, do any pressure profiling, or any other fancy stuff, but it does a great job and it uses a real, full-size 58mm portafilter
- Aftermarket bottomless portafilter
- Decent Espresso 20g precision basket
- Rancilio Rocky espresso grinder – this is a stepped grinder (each adjustment setting “clicks” into place vs a stepless grinder, which has no “clicks” or steps and infinite adjustability) and it’s also a doserless model (a doser is that paddle thing you hear baristas whaling on all day long as they grind coffee)
- Matt Perger/Barista Hustle 58.5mm tamper
- AWS-SC-2kg scale, which reads to 1/10 of a gram (i.e. 20.1 instead of “20”)
My last espresso was Jade, a blend from Rosalind Coffee, so I left my grinder where it was set, which was on 7 for my machine. I ended up pulling four shots before being happy, so here’s the breakdown of each one:
- Left the grinder on 7. Did 20.0g in, 32.0g out in 30s, which is pretty slow. I didn’t even bother drinking this one because I had my caffeine sobriety to maintain.
- Bumped the grinder to 8 and used a 20.0g dose again. This one was a MESS. Got tons of channeling and 2-3 major jets spitting water and coffee all over the place out of the bottom of the portafilter, so I tossed that shot, too.
- I stayed at 8 for this one and used 20.0g in. I used a funnel and fork in my portafilter to distribute the grounds better and break up the clumps. It pulled much nicer than the previous shot, but I got 63.7g out in 25 seconds, which is ridiculous and way too fast. I should’ve been tasting all of these shots, but I wanted to wait for one that would actually hit the parameters I was looking for.
- This shot I went back to 7 on the grinder. I used the funnel and fork technique again for hopefully better distribution of the coffee in the puck and used a lighter tamp pressure. This got me right in the pocket at 20.0g of coffee in and 40.0g out in 28-29 seconds. This is the shot I tasted and reviewed above.
So, that’s pretty much it. The next step from here would be to slow the extraction down some and evaluate it and speed it up some and evaluate it, to get it perfectly dialed in, but I was happy enough with this 4th shot that I didn’t see the need as a home espresso guy. It’s important to note that I kept as many variables as I could constant. If you are changing dose, grind size and pressure on your machine every shot, dialing-in is going to be crazy. If I further dialed-in this coffee, I would probably leave everything the same and just change my dose size a bit. I had plenty of room in the 20g basket, so I could go to 21, probably even 22g if I wanted. The coffee seemed really rowdy on 8 on my grinder, so I would want to keep the grind size on 7 if at all possible.
But, there you have it! Then it’s a matter of waiting for the coffee to cool down so you can actually taste something!