your mother lode of tactile adjectives, right here

January 12, 2006 – 11:59 pm

“this is no game,” he said. “you will never know what it’s like to work on a farm until your hands are raw, just so people can have fresh marijuana.”

which is, like, totally true duuuude. i won’t know. it’s also like saying one’s barista skillz may never be taken seriously because one operates an espresso machine with a meager vibe pump and doesn’t have a budget that affords the luxury of, say, throwing away a third of all brewed shots. also true: i don’t and i don’t. but, ah, the syllogism mixed all up is, and does not produce the stated conclusion. (sorry. i’m not knocking anyone specific, and i guess you gotta be seriously cranial about new yorker satire and to see a link to some of the espresso gurus around whom all of caffeinated cyberspace now seems to orbit). the point: let’s explore more gratuitously the episodic observations of amateurs! or, uh, not. bail now, if it ain’t worth it.

with that for context, let’s review: a recent flurry of working with various beans and blends has led me to the observation that some coffees work better in your hands than others. they don’t necessarily taste better in the cup, but they do tend to more obviously foretell what that taste experience will be like. how? they grind more “cleanly,” sounding like clean snaps in the mazzer, not an overly wet crush or a drier splinter. they distribute more keenly, spreading noticeably easier beneath the finger and offering silky-uniform resistance — unlike the clumpy or more “gummy” feel of some other blends. they tamp with a single distinct “thump” or “crunch” at which point you can literally feel that the grounds have tangibly locked into a single, uniform puck under pressure. when this happens, as it has most recently with the code brown espresso, the barista’s confidence soars and the shots tend to directly reflect what has felt like, in your hands, a sharp, precise and uniform shot-build.

am i describing this phenomenon better than last time? i doubt it. regardless, i’m going to officially retire the issue after this post (i’d prefer to research cup results any day). again: what i’m calling “workable” coffee doesn’t necessarily taste better than other coffees that feel noticeably more uneven in the distribution and more “springy” in the tamp. often, these coffees tend to sound rougher in the grinder as well, though to no apparent detriment in taste. eventually, the shots can be every bit as desireable, but the shot-building process is more demanding, less strewn with quality “flags” and other things that mean the build simply doesn’t feel as good in the process.

i should note some parameters here: we’re talking both home-roasted and commercially roasted beans. we’re talking highly repetitive, long-refined barista techniques here (you’ll have to take my word on it — not pro skills, but attentive and always-improving amateur hands). we’re talking a lot of instances across long periods of brewing all kinds of blends and single-origin coffees. we’re talking very subtle physical hints in how a coffee handles and what causes that in a bean or blend.

now let’s float a morsel of a theory. the roast pictured below, a deliberately drawn-out batch of sulawesi toraja grade 1, was done in a hot-air roaster over a much longer time period than is usually experienced in such a machine (rambling bloviations on why short profiles are ok here), yet carefully roasted at a very steady rate of increase. nonetheless, it tasted horrible:

the catch: the ground beans handled like silly putty fresh from the microwave. numerous roasts at similarly long profiles suggest that, in fact, roast profile has a lot to do with bean workability, and that slow-cooked beans handle extremely well — almost as if the gradual nature of the roast has created more of a fine-sand texture and consistency to the ground product. these grounds produced highly replicable and predictably spot-on pucks that brewed evenly over and over, with fewer occurances of distribution and tamping error than i’m used to and more predictable consistency from shot to shot. unfortunately, roasts this long in a hot-air machine leave the aforementioned tastes of baked brick in your molars.

numerous variations on shorter roast profiles with factors including rest length and ambient temperature maintained comparably, showed that faster-roasted coffee (at least faster-roasted sulawesi) tends to handle more inconsistently. clumpy, harder to distribute perfectly, more springy in the tamp. here’s a more typical sulawesi profile that’s probably a bit quick (i’m still tinkering with moderately longer stuff for my own tastes):

does this mean, if the results of this comparison hold out over a large scale, that longer roast profiles are better? not at all. it means they handle differently, and can sometimes even produce worse espresso. does this mean a hot-air roaster is bound to be produce harder-to-handle espresso? uh-uh. but there are far better places than this blog to find newly emerging hot-air apologetics. obviously, it would stand to reason that the typically longer roast profiles of a drum roaster are what would create highly workable espresso that still tastes good. also, i suspect that roast profile isn’t the only thing that goes into workability. origin would have to play role, and perhaps the grinder too. it could be the grinder, in fact, that holds the key to how espresso feels, and some beans and roasts could simply perform better between the blades! who knows?

am i worn out on this? you bet i am. there was a lot of poo swilled in the knock-around sessions for this screed. i now have loose conclusions biffing around my brain but no empirical results — neither the marketplace of theories that i asked for nor the detailed research others requested, but an intruiging concept nonetheless. that is, if you’re one of those cerebral sorts who might ponder the creative process of off-the-wall new yorker satirists. and i do.