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The mystery and heartbreak of bad espresso.
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Discussions > Espresso > Q and A > The mystery and...  
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Florida82
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Joined: 18 Dec 2012
Posts: 2
Location: South Florida
Expertise: I love coffee

Posted Tue Dec 18, 2012, 2:23pm
Subject: The mystery and heartbreak of bad espresso.
 

I would like to explore the question of what contributing factors precipitate the result of bitter, nasty, baaaadddd espresso.

In my life, I have ocassionnally found commercial outlets serving 'good' espresso. Please note that I do not own any espresso equipment now, but more on that below.

Most of the time when I'm brave enough to order an espresso here in South Florida, I am served bitter sludge that is painful to drink.

The most stupefying thing is this. I have tried espresso from grimy courthouse canteens where the cafeteria worker pulls a shot with roasted-last-quarter coffee beans ground that morning -- and it has been marvelously delicious. I have even had many good shots from places using (cue crash of cymbals) one-touch super automatic machines.

And then there is the artisan coffee roaster in downtown Miami, Florida. Where twice I have ordered espresso, and twice have experienced painful, overpriced, tannin-on-the-tongue burning bad coffee. The owner and staff seem earnest enough about what they're doing and certainly go through a lot of intricate steps to make the coffee. But it is nonetheless HORRIBLE.

The espresso I ordered at an airport McDonalds frnchise was less painful.

How can some people be so fussy about coffee and still end up serving the public undrinkable dreck? How can others be so slapdash (just push the button already!) and produce a marvelous pick-me-up?

I've been wanting to start making my own (delicious) espresso, but I wonder if ICAN ever crack the code. What have been your experiences in regard to the mysteries and heartbreak of bad espresso?

As a side note, I speculate that perhaps many of my countrymen, after years  of exposure to a certain Seattle brand, are now habituated to a pronounced 'incinerated' flavor.

Thank you in advance for your collective wisdom. I look forward to your replies and participating in the CoffeeGeek community.
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emradguy
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emradguy
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Posted Tue Dec 18, 2012, 4:55pm
Subject: Re: The mystery and heartbreak of bad espresso.
 

some of the factors that affect shot flavor are, in no particular order:

brew temp
grind fineness
dose amount
coffee to water ratio (length of extraction)


Also, in regard to one of your other questions.  I think most of us here have been quite successful making espresso at home that is extremely better than what you can buy in 95% of the cafes out there.

 
.
Always remember the most important thing is what ends up in your cup!
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qualin
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qualin
Joined: 30 Jun 2012
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Location: Calgary, AB
Expertise: I love coffee

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Posted Tue Dec 18, 2012, 6:44pm
Subject: Re: The mystery and heartbreak of bad espresso.
 

First of all, I just want to say that I don't want to slam all of the hard working Baristas out there on the front line. We're a fussy bunch.  

I don't really want to make over-generalizations about what inexperienced or ignorant baristas do.. but what I can say is this..

Espresso is really fussy in that it must be extracted at a certain temperature in a certain time frame at a certain pressure at a certain grind. That's for sure.
It is challenging to get right, even in a personal environment. In a fast paced commercial environment, it isn't even an option to care in some cases.

Emradguy is right. A lot of us geeks are so fussy about our coffee that we do things that a seasoned veteran barista probably would never do. Realistically, from their point of view,
they want 30 ml of coffee out of the machine ASAP and damned if they care about crema, extraction times, dose, etc.

The more passionate baristas I've spoken with have mentioned to me that they even go so far as to deliberately over-extract the shots when they are making milk drinks, just so they
can bring out the flavors of the coffee a bit more... or that they don't even bother caring about shot times, dose, etc when they are making an extra large latte.

I can understand that. The other problem is the proliferation of super-automatics. For a business owner, they are the bees knees. Very little if any training is required to use them and
they are downright dead simple to use. The problem is that even when the machine says, "Please adjust grind finer!" or "Please adjust grind coarser!", one particular Barista I've spoken to
says that most of them don't care. As long as they get something hot and black coming out of the machine, that's good enough.

One thing I've personally experienced is that that the barista doesn't know the machine. The shop (A cafe or small restaurant) has a heat exchanging machine, but they don't flush before
doing the shot. This results in the espresso being brewed by steam, which highly over extracts the coffee and gives it that "Charcoal" flavor. Tell them to make the shot again and they'll
do it right, but only because the heat exchanger hasn't had enough time to overheat.

Other places don't care if it takes 45-60 seconds to extract a shot, again.. resulting in a very nasty, bitter flavor. Barista indifference? I don't know. Add in lots of steamed milk and as long
as the customer doesn't return the drink, it's probably good enough for the majority of the population.

I think the only real way to understand it is to buy some equipment yourself and learn what an underextracted vs an overextracted shot tastes like. Learn what happens when you brew
a shot without flushing a heat exchanging machine first. Learn what not to do and what works. Then you'll understand.

I think this is probably why I took the time and effort to buy my own equipment so that I can make something better than anything I can get from the shops. (Excluding a few, which I know
have extremely knowledgeable baristas.)

What I find is key to "Cracking the code" is having metrics that I can go by. Here are the things I go by:
- Grind fineness - Grind consistency and grind fineness. I should be able to leave a fingerprint in the coffee powder. The rest of it is by trial and error.
- Dosage - Depending on the blend, anything between 14 grams to 19 grams for a double shot. 14 grams is the Italian Standard. Americans like to updose.
- Brew temperature - Usually should be around 200 F. Italians like to extract a little cooler. This is hard to measure on some machines.
- Brew pressure - Should be as close to 9 bar (135 PSI) as possible for consistency. A lot of machines lack a brew pressure gauge so it is done by looks. (ie. Crema)
- Extraction time - A good espresso should be extracted between 20-30 seconds, 25 seconds is an excellent metric to aim for. Adjust to taste.
- Output - Some people judge by volume, others by weight. Others by blonding. For volume, it is 30 ml. For weight, it is 28-32 grams. I prefer to measure the latter.
- Taste... This all depends on the operator/user/etc .. Some people like slightly underextracted shots, some people like slightly overextracted shots.. it all depends.

Going by the metrics above... The numbers are a good place to start but do not denote hard and fast rules.

I think that is the key to unlocking good espresso. If the guidelines above are thrown out the window, you'll get dreck in the cup.

The one thing I love about espresso is that it is such a subjective thing.. It's like art in a cup.. What I would consider to be downright nasty, someone else says it
is the best thing they've ever tasted... and vice versa... so.. go figure.

 
Garbage In, Garbage Out, for every step of the process. From Beans to grinder, grounds to machine, coffee to cup.
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calblacksmith
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calblacksmith
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Posted Tue Dec 18, 2012, 7:27pm
Subject: Re: The mystery and heartbreak of bad espresso.
 

Hi, you might be interested in the rather long post I spent quite a bit of time on, a link is here and I am down about 5 or so posts, uh it is a long read, put your feet up and set a spell.
"Espresso powder"

 
In real life, my name is
Wayne P.
Anything I post is personal opinion and is only worth as much as anyone else's personal opinion. YMMV!

Feed the newbs, starve the trolls and above all enjoy what you drink!
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Florida82
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Joined: 18 Dec 2012
Posts: 2
Location: South Florida
Expertise: I love coffee

Posted Wed Dec 19, 2012, 7:44am
Subject: Re: The mystery and heartbreak of bad espresso.
 

Thank you for your comments. I suppose I can distill my question into this:

My experience has been that some commercial cafes which are quite fussy about the whole espresso process have served me unspeakably bitter (ie my tongue stings from the tannins) coffee, while I have actually had much more positive experiences with cafes using super automatics. I have even found medium roast nespresso quite delicious.

Can someone explain the paradox? I actually hated espresso until I was served a (not bitter) cup from a commercial fully automatic machine some years ago. In fact, I will go so far as to say that I have never experienced a good cup of hand pulled espresso, though I have had some limited positive experience with fully automatics.
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JasonBrandtLewis
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JasonBrandtLewis
Joined: 9 Dec 2005
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Location: Berkeley, CA
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Posted Wed Dec 19, 2012, 8:23am
Subject: Re: The mystery and heartbreak of bad espresso.
 

Florida82 Said:

Can someone explain the paradox?

Posted December 19, 2012 link

No.

Everyone likes what they like.  You have your taste buds in your mouth, not mine.  Ergo, our preferences are different.

Random thoughts (in random order):

--  I have never had a shot from a super-automatic I would rate above "good," "very good" if I'm feeling generous and want to give super-autos the benefit of the proverbial doubt.  Never "great," "excellent," or "outstanding," and certainly never a "god shot"!

--  There should be no difference between a semi-automatic and a full-automatic (i.e.: volumetric dosing) machine of equal capabilities (e.g.:  a La Marzocco Linea AV vs. a La Marzocco Linea EE; an Elektra "Sixties" A3 vs. an Elektra T1, etc.).

--  "Bitter" and "Sour" are often temperature-related; tannins are a different matter, and have to do with over-extracted shots.

--  Starbucks is amazingly over-roasted and it pretty much sucks.

-- Given that millions of people around the world LOVE Starbucks, I clearly don't know what I'm talking about.

 
A morning without coffee is sleep . . .
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qualin
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qualin
Joined: 30 Jun 2012
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Posted Wed Dec 19, 2012, 10:05pm
Subject: Re: The mystery and heartbreak of bad espresso.
 

Florida82 Said:

My experience has been that some commercial cafes which are quite fussy about the whole espresso process have served me unspeakably bitter (ie my tongue stings from the tannins) coffee,

Posted December 19, 2012 link

This could be due to a variety of problems. It could be because the machine is pushing out water which is too hot. It could be because they over-extracted the coffee. It could be because the beans are burnt or over-roasted
or they're not really using a decent blend which may be to your liking. (Try asking for that blend in drip and see if you notice any change in flavour.)  

Keep trying different coffee shops and make your judgement. You'll find every place a little different. Some just bang out God shot after god shot, others have no clue what they're doing and make charcoal in a cup.
To the vast majority of coffee drinkers, they probably couldn't tell the difference.

Florida82 Said:

while I have actually had much more positive experiences with cafes using super automatics.

Posted December 19, 2012 link

In my own personal experiences, everything I've ever had out of any super-automatic machine has been overextracted and bitter, but not charcoal. This could be because they're "tuned" to make mostly milk drinks.
In which case, a slightly over-extracted shot is desirable to bring out the coffee flavour... but in all honesty, it sucks for straight shots and Americanos.

Florida82 Said:

Can someone explain the paradox?

Posted December 19, 2012 link

Yes, your own personal tastes, just like what Jason mentioned. :-) Like I said, keep trying different shops. You'll eventually hit on one which will surprise you.  

What you should want to do is really understand what an under extracted and an over extracted shot tastes like. You may find that the under extracted shot tastes considerably better
(In your opinion) than the over extracted shot. Consider it a cheap $6 lesson. :-)

If you can attend a cupping, that's even better. You may not like the house blend that the shop is using, even though they're extracting it properly.

Some shops like to use a very dark roasted blend for their espresso, which may lead to your dislikes. Other shops I've been to use a light to medium roasted single origin, which is amazing.

Good luck!

 
Garbage In, Garbage Out, for every step of the process. From Beans to grinder, grounds to machine, coffee to cup.
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varnex
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Posted Thu Dec 27, 2012, 1:18pm
Subject: Re: The mystery and heartbreak of bad espresso.
 

When lighter roasts and heavy updosing is all you'll find in many "artisan" shops, you're bound to get a bunch of strong under-extracted, burn-in-your-tongue shots.

And it doesn't help that many baristas are being taught that a lot of acidity is a very good thing, either.
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qualin
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qualin
Joined: 30 Jun 2012
Posts: 654
Location: Calgary, AB
Expertise: I love coffee

Espresso: Izzo Alex Duetto 3
Grinder: Mazzer Mini Elect. Type A
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Posted Fri Dec 28, 2012, 12:44am
Subject: Re: The mystery and heartbreak of bad espresso.
 

varnex Said:

When lighter roasts and heavy updosing is all you'll find in many "artisan" shops, you're bound to get a bunch of strong under-extracted, burn-in-your-tongue shots.

Posted December 27, 2012 link

I've noticed that some of the new wave style coffee shops use severe updosing.. Like 19 grams for a double. That immensely surprised me because I've always thought the "standard" was a 16 gram dose for a double.

While there are espresso blends which are best suited for espresso, there isn't any law that says that you can't use other coffees with lighter roasts. I admit I like lightly roasted coffees for espresso, while I
like darker roasts for drip coffee, but that is just a personal preference. I think that the Italian standard usually calls for a darker roasted espresso blend. It seems that when someone puts "Espresso Roast"
on their coffee, they might as well just say "Burnt".

varnex Said:

And it doesn't help that many baristas are being taught that a lot of acidity is a very good thing, either.

Posted December 27, 2012 link

I agree.. a shot which has too much of a citrus-like taste, has a very acidic taste or tastes kind of "dull" can be the sign of an under extraction.  

The best thing to do is to learn what the differences are and what they are like.. then find the balance of flavors which suit you.

 
Garbage In, Garbage Out, for every step of the process. From Beans to grinder, grounds to machine, coffee to cup.
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