espresso: behavioral analysis

December 24, 2005 – 2:00 am

what makes a blend behave? grind more consistently? distribute more cooperatively in the portafilter? tamp with that final “snap”? hold up more evenly under brew pressure? in short, what makes code brown so doggone handleable? though i’d used it months ago, i was reminded recently of how fun it is to play with, how responsive it is to changes and barista technique.

i’ve not seen this stuff discussed in the usual yammer forums, besides maybe a passing reference to “finicky” espressos, yet the code brown has me wondering just that — what makes one bean or blend more workable than another? the spray coming from the maw of the mazzer major just seems a bit more silky-consistent with some beans, at comparable grind settings. this affects how even and cooperative the distribution feels with your finger. some beans or blends, you tamp the tar out of the grounds and it just “mushes” together. with others, you get a comfy, reassuring “snap” when it seems like everything has coalesced into a nice, unified puck.

it seems clearly origin-related — something about the amount of pulped naturals in a particular import would make sense. also, one’s packing philosophy seems relevent, since the more coarsely ground overdosage of certain other-hemispheric luminaries tends to “mush” together, while a finer grind and a down-dose offers a “snap” deeper in the portafilter basket. and the roast would have to be a factor, no? darker, less humid beans typically pack more nicely, whereas the original moisture still inherent in a lighter roast can feel “gummy” when handling. but i got no empirical data.

i guess i’m talking mainly about fine matters of feeling in the wrist, gleaned over eons of working a bar. i find that, as i get comfortable with my equipment and bean-specific routine, i develop a confidence quotient very early on in the shot-building process for how good this shot will be, and that confidence is based largely on how a particular bean or blend “feels” as i’m handling it. of course, my confidence level is sometimes contradicted by good or bad results in the cup, and (cough, obligatory third-wave shout-out, cough) final taste is everything! my point is that entirely apart from the end results, good or bad, my brain involuntarily assumes how likely this shot is going to be spot-on. often, i’m right. and often, i’m right when the grind is cool and non-clumpy, when the finger glides over the heap of grinds like fiona apple over key changes, when the tamper offers an indulgent “snap” that quivers up your elbow (“duh! amateur! boo!” yell the professionals).

but here’s what i’m certain of — certain espressos are undoubtedly more disposed to this than others. much of this feel factor may truly be about barista technique and skill, but with a blend like code brown, things were just feeling good no matter what i tried. there was just a very precise, responsive workability to the coffee itself, and i’m rather flummoxed as to how you get this. how you do it yourself. guess i’ll ask.

UPDATE: bad idea? you decide.