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Newbie Revelations
Newbie or Not Newbie: That is the Question
Author: Karl Brown
Posted: June 20, 2006
Article rating: 8.5
feedback: (26) comments | read | write
Old London CoffeeHouse

Wow! I've got something in common with Shakespeare!

Coffee became popular in England at about the same time as the Bard's plays. The story goes that the Pope (perhaps Clement VII, Pope for the years 1592-1605) baptized the bean making it a legitimate drink for Europeans. The famous "Penny Universities," otherwise known as coffee houses, hit the scene just about the time the popular playwright retired. So, my best guess is that Old Bill discovered the brew just before his final exit, stage right.

And, just like Mr. Shakespeare, I almost missed it too, but here I am, in my fifth decade, and I've suddenly discovered coffee. Not that I had never heard of it before, but the truth is I hated it.

You see I was born with a not-uncommon gene called TAS2R38. This gene made me ultra-sensitive to tastes that are bitter. As a child, I remember my Grandmother giving me coffee to dip my toast and jam in. Ugh! Despite all the milk and sugar I put into that brown muck, it nearly put me into shock when it hit my tender little taste buds. That horrible taste memory from my formative years guaranteed a life-long aversion to anything with a coffee flavor.

My aversion to bitter drinks extended beyond coffee to include beer. I have never imbued a glass of beer in my life and enjoyed it. However, a few months ago, I found myself in a restaurant with my son and some friends. As often happens, someone said, "I know you don't like beer, but try this beer, it's great!" I tasted it, fully prepared for the unsavory kick-me-in-the-back-of-the-mouth bitter aftertaste I've come to loathe.

It didn't happen.

So, I took a second tentative sip. Again, no bitterness. Well, well, well. . .
Could this apply to coffee?

It turned out that "genetic sensitivity to bitterness" wears off after a few years (about fifty, in my case). Lord, I thought, the next thing is, I'll be losing my baby fat! The next time I walked past the local JJ Bean café, I popped inside and instead of ordering my usual spiced tea; I bravely ordered "One Espresso!"

"Hey," I reasoned, "If I'm going to taste coffee, I'm not starting with some wimpy drip decaf."

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The young lady took my money, and asked for my name (always a thrill for an old guy like me). A minute later, the barista, Lucho, who I came to know as a great man of coffee, placed a glass of water and a tiny cup on the counter and called my name. I retrieved my order, sat down and stuck my nose into the cup (with my nose, that's wasn't an easy task; espresso cups are small). I enjoyed the aroma, but expected to. Oddly, I've always hated the taste of coffee, but have always found the smell delightful. Then (drum roll please), I slurped it.

Good Lord! Holy mackerel! Sure, I tasted some bitterness. A little. But, the flavors! Wow! Buttery-caramel. Pepper. Nutty-creamy something-or-other. Mystery. Fleeting memories of past tasty delights. How could such a tiny cup contain such an explosion of flavors?

In a state of happy shock, I finished my coffee, quietly put down the miniature cup, gathered my belongings and slowly made my way home, deep in thought.

Years ago, when my wife moved out, she'd left behind an "espresso maker". Although I had used it to make mochas and lattés for guests, I never actually tasted the brew that came out of it. Now I wanted to so, I loaded up the little critter, let it steam away, and drank the dark liquid that dribbled out of it. Ooh, yuck! This was NOT the same magic I had just tasted in the Café. What was going on anyway?

I'm obsessed with learning and I love to try different things. When I decide to try something out, I usually hurl myself into it without reservation. If I had a coat of arms, the motto on it might be "Anything worth doing, is worth overdoing." For example,: when I decided to try kayaking, I started by doing research, and ended up building a reproduction of a skin-on-frame Greenland hunting kayak. I was told that most people would have rented a kayak first, but I've never understood most people.

The Internet is a wonderful thing for a learning-addicted guy like me. Within hours, I knew about things like crema, the value of a little robusta in a blend, microfoam. It was a whole new world. I also found out that my little espresso maker was called a "steam toy", and was famous for making terrible espresso. I learned that if I wanted a real espresso maker, I would have to hand over a hefty chunk of cash.

Lust on the Internet

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Ironically, my youngest son (early twenties) is a barista at a local downtown Vancouver, up-scale Caffé/martini bar called Caffé Sette on Burrard Street. A few days after my espresso experience, he treated me to an Internet tour of espresso machines in exchange for my agreement to trick out his La Marzocco at work with some blue LEDs. And it was then on that tour that I fell hard for Elektra Micro Casa a Leva, Elektra for short.

I had to have her. I was in lust.

Well, cutting the usual romantic comedy antics out of my little love affair, I have to tell you that it was not a happy ending. After three weeks of shopping, review reading, and driving every coffee drinker I knew crazy with questions, I did a thing that I hardly ever do: I let good sense and reason overcome passion and lust.

Maybe it is age, but with a yearning in my heart for the brass-and-copper clad, curvaceous, temperamental, hot-blooded, little Italian beauty, Elektra, I turned my back on her and paid the bride price for another. I bought the Silvia.

Just like the bitter, but sweet taste of some espresso, the journey home with Silvia was filled with promise, and a little regret. Perhaps I did the right thing by getting the Silvia. She was reliable. She was economical. She was sensible. But, bless her boxy stainless-steel, industrial construction, Silvia just didn't have the sex appeal that Elektra had.

Oh well, on to life with Silvia.

Measure. Grind. Tamp. Ugh!

There were so many things to learn, but I love learning, as I've already mentioned. Grind setting, dose size (I bought a scale that measures in tenths of grams), type of coffee (more on that, later), timing, temperature surfing. What Fun! Damn awful taste though. The learning curve had a few bumps in it.

It turned out that my son, the up-scale, Latté-artist-barista, was no help with Silvia. His professional, microprocessor-controlled equipment was pre-set for temperature, motorized tamping, and flow-control. The only thing that he actually had to work at was the microfoam and pour techniques. He was helpless in the hands of Silvia. As a critic though, he excelled. He knows good espresso. He can microfroth with his eyes closed. And he has contacts! (which turned out to be important later on).

Eventually, with his helpful criticism and guidance, Silvia and I fell into a happy relationship. Now she gives me crema on every shot, and most of the time, I don't burn the delicate oils in the espresso.

Being a professor in Electronics, and an ex-micro-controller designer, I confess to a re-occurring fantasy of surgically enhancing Silvia. She might not have the sex appeal that Elektra had, but a PID type device implanted into her, ah, well, stuffed into her umm well, you know, installed in the FRONT of her, would do wonders for her temperature stabilization (and perhaps add a few curves).

Meeting the Coffee Gods

At that point, three weeks had passed since I'd started down this path of discovery. Once I could pull consistent shots with Silvia, knew the facts behind PID-controlled machines, and could tell you the difference between a Starbucks pressurized portafilter and an E-61 equipped machine, I was ready to learn a bit about coffee, the little beans themselves.

I knew the common facts: coffee beans peak in flavor on the fourth day after roasting, you should pull the shot within thirty seconds of grinding, and so on, but past experience with learning (especially unicycling), has led me to realize that there is more to knowledge than just what you get from printed material. You need experience! You have to get on that unicycle and ride. You have to get your nose right over those beans as they pour out of the roaster. In other words, I had to go to Mecca. So, I set off to Seattle with my son and his co-worker/girlfriend. We had brains, we had beauty, and we had the day off.

The one-two punch of my son (the Latté-art Pro Barista from Vancouver) and me (the guy who can code a PID algorithm in 8-bit machine language), and his cute sweetheart got us into places, and talking to people we didn't dream existed.

"Victrola" is a Caffé/micro-roastery in East Seattle. Within minutes of ordering our espressos, we were in the inner sanctum of the roasters. We found ourselves talking to the guy who meets with the coffee farmers, and buys their beans. We were learning directly from one of the globe-trotting pros! We not only had our noses over the beans as they were poured out of the roaster, we were running our fingers through them. We had BEAN CHAFF in our hair! (Well, my son did. I merely had it bouncing off my bald head). Can it get any better than this?

Treated like Royalty

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Our next stop was Caffé D'arte's flagship Caffé in downtown Seattle. My son's boss has a special connection with them, and he 'd let them know we were coming. We were greeted by a professional, knowledgeable and charming woman named Sarah who brought thoughts of the Elektra to my mind! She fed us, and plied us with coffees served in hand-blown glass that were astounding works of art and coffee was darn tasty too. My feeble efforts at literary description cannot do them justice. You'll simply have to go there and try their coffee. Ask for Veronica behind the counter. She is an artist.

Sarah was not done with us yet. After our tasting, she then took us on a high-speed-caffeine-induced chase south on the freeways of Seattle, to Caffé D'arte's roasting house, west of Boeing's museum of flight.

Roasters. BIG roasters. Roasters powered by gas. Roasters powered by wood. And Roasters with 30 years experience (he was not gas-powered though). These guys are the real Italian stuff. How cool are these guys? A pile of chaff actually caught fire just a few feet from me (I was barely conscious of it, being somewhat overcome by the steaming bin of fresh-roasted beans under my nose). A roaster just casually knocked the burning pile apart and trod on the flaming bits as he walked by. No big deal.

First Step On the Dark Path

And then I summoned my courage and asked Sarah the question. From the moment I'd met her, and each time I talked with her, a question kept running through my mind.

So I got close to her (well I had to, with the roaster noise, it was difficult to talk).

"Sara", I said.
"Yes", she replied.
"Sara". "I've been meaning to ask you..."
"Yes?"
"Well, I was wondering..."
"Yes?"
"Could I get a 1/2 pound bag of fresh-roasted beans straight from the roaster?"

She looked a little surprised, but left us briefly, and returned with TWO one-pound bags of their espresso blends, roasted that hour! I left Caff['e} D'arte with a pound of Capri which is their southern Italian style roast and a pound of Firenze, which represents the northern Italian style. Oh boy! That Sara, what a woman!

Day one: Hmm. Did I do something wrong? Both of the coffees are so mild that I suspect I'm doing its got something to do with me. I make three shots of each. Consistently mild taste. Perhaps I am not running Silvia correctly? But no, each time I make a shot (six in all), I get normal amounts of crema, but very mild flavour. The Firenze is the mildest of the two. Hmm. . . .

Day two: A bit more flavor. More crema. Still, not the rich flavor that I enjoyed at the Caffé D'arte in Seattle. I noticed that the beans were "dry" looking. Usually, when I look at espresso beans, I notice tiny beads of moisture (oil?) on them. These beans had almost none.

Day three: The Capri is sweeter. The Firenze still had very little flavor compared to what I when it was made by the pros. The beans looked a little "wetter." Little beads of moisture have formed on them.

Day four: Better. Flavors more pronounced. Especially the Firenze. Crema is abundant and thick.

Day five:Yes! This is the day. The Firenze was rich, and peppery at the same time. Capri had mellow, sweet flavors. Both of them had a sweetness that I had not noticed before. I made three of each. Crema, flavour, Oh...Yes! Yes! Yes! I wish you could have been there.

Day six: Still heavenly. Not much difference from day five. I was rushed today, so only one shot of the Capri, two of the Firenze.

Day 7: Still lots of crema. In fact, I had to wait about 50 seconds before tasting, since, at the instant it was poured, the clear cup showed 75% crema, and only a tiny 25% liquid. The Crema very reluctantly turned into liquid. Capri was almost unchanged from day five, but Firenze was noticeably different. The crema was very acidic, almost bitter. The liquid was just as tasty, but sweeter than before. Is this caused by the acidic crema making my taste buds search out any sweetness that they can find? Ooh, I love this (did I mention that I love learning things)?

Day 8: I was in a hurry on this morning, and I think I screwed up operating the Silvia. I suspect that my temperature surfing was off, and I burned both shots. The crema was still good, although I thought it settled out to the normal thickness (1/4 inch thick) rather more quickly than usual. The bitterness was likely my fault this morning.

Click for larger image
Crema examples
Two shots of espresso showing wrong and right crema.

Day 9: Iím striving for objectivity. I don't want the fact that I am starting on week two of this batch get in the way of my subjectively-coupled taste buds. But, the Firenze tasted bitter. Even after two tries, I could not get that sweetness that I had on day five. The crema was still good. Through my glass espresso cups, I could see the crema quite well, but today (I timed it) the crema thinned out to 1/4 inch after only 30 seconds. On previous days, the crema lasted so long that it was almost a problem. I wanted to taste the liquid, but had to wait around a minute before the crema subsided. Not today.

The taste of the Capri is down a little also. Sweetness is there, but the flavour has lost a little richness. Perhaps it's that subjective thing.

Day 10: This morning, I had plenty of time to play with Silvia. I took my time, did things as exactly as I could. I know that even with "Temperature Surfing," Silvia can still be inconsistent regarding water temperature at the actual puck, so I pulled three shots of each coffee type. The results? Well, the shot quality was still better than the "vacuum-packed" coffee beans that I first bought for Miss Silvia. Crema was good, although it shrunk to 1/4 inch within 15 sec. The second shot of Firenze was the best, about the same quality as day three, but much, much more bitter. The Capri was bitter also, but with flavor so mild as to make me wonder if it was the same coffee as day five. The magic had left the coffee. All that remained was a bunch of has-beans.

I'm a believer

I was convinced. Fresh-roasting is important all right. So important, that I can see that it would well pay (flavour-wise) to roast my own coffee. Providing, of course, that I can roast coffee decently. The alternative would be to develop a good relationship with someone who does roast decent coffee. The folks at Caffé D'arte take freshness very seriously, and promise to "ship your order via U.P.S. within 24 hours". Given that they roast VERY decently and daily, ordering through their phone service means coffee which is just ready to peak (in my amateur opinion) in a day or two. CafféSette only orders enough at a time to keep things fresh.

My local "JJ Bean" barista, Lucho, says that he can provide me with the exact date of roasting for my "Nero Forte Espresso" beans, which tells me that this is another company that takes pride in the freshness of their product. I love the professionalism that is prevalent in these smaller coffee companies. "Charbucks" may have made people take coffee seriously, which is good, but if you want seriously good coffee, you have to deal with companies where you can have a trusting relationship with people close to the roasters.

Barista for a day

Last Saturday, my son invited me to "Play Barista" at Caffé Sette, where he works. We started the day by cleaning the machine (parts had been soaking in cleaner all night), then taking the lid off it to inspect the boilers, switches and wiring. He was concerned about the consistency of the shots lately (my son, the perfectionist), and we thought we'd just look inside and see if we could find anything obvious. We did tests and documented that the temp was not only low, but varied about 10 degrees from shot to shot. A day or two later, the shop owner had a technician come by and look at it. He did a few adjustments and things were all better.

My son gave me some instruction on Latté Art, running and cleaning the machine, running the grinder, etc. My art was not even close to the perfection that my son regularly pulls off, but good enough to qualify as a member of the staff.

My greatest impression of the day? That machine's steamer is sweet. It has STEAM! Makes you feel like you have some real power in your hands. Microfoam? Hah! Give me 10 seconds, and I'll give you 20 oz of soft, sweet, creamy white mustachio-maker!

Geekster Life, and Lust

Today, I ordered another Silvia boiler. I don't like being unable to steam milk while the shot is pouring. I thought that I would remove Silvia's original water reservoir tank, and plumb her directly into the house water system. Then she will have room enough inside her for another boiler, which would be dedicated to steam delivery. Sigh, the bottom plate of the boiler turns out to be the group head. This means that I cannot "merely" buy a new boiler. I would have to design and machine a new plate for the bottom. It will be simpler to find a non-Silvia boiler, and cram it into her. The search continues...

After supper, my son and I visited Lucho. He pulled an astounding shot of JJ's Espresso Blend for us. Enthusiastic discussion of different brewing temperatures followed. My education continues.

Tonight, I will be installing a thermocouple on Silvia's boiler. This will enable some data gathering in preparation for designing her PID micro-controller. I don't like the unreliability of temperature surfing. I've designed PID algorithms for mechanical systems in robots, but never for boilers. I'll get to learn about the boiler's temperature-hysterics curves (which look fascinating).

Next month, I'm going back to Seattle to see Sarah at Caffé D'arte. She invited us to spend some time in their lab (which has some two and three-group pro machines in it), and learn about the different machines. (I suspect she knows that I'd like to learn).

I have to accept her invitation for a visit. It's not just about those three-group, multi-thousand dollar machines. It's not just about learning either. It's, well, it's, umm, you see, Sara's got something that is pretty attractive to me. I'm a bit embarrassed to admit it, but, Sarah has something that I really want to umm, well, something that I really want to get my hands on.

Sarah has an Elektra Micro Casa a Leva.

It's lust.

All wrapped up

So, am I still a "Newbie"? I don't know. I like to think that I am. I've still so much to learn about coffee, and its taste.

Espresso is one of those things that prove to me that the world still has wonderful surprises in it. All these years, coffee was beyond my reach (or taste buds) to enjoy. Now, it is a daily experience, and delight. Each morning I look forward to starting my day with Miss Silvia.

It has taken me a long time to discover coffee, and I have to say that the long wait makes the discovery just that much sweeter.

Article rating: 8.5
Author: Karl Brown
Posted: June 20, 2006
feedback: (26) comments | read | write
Newbie Revelations Column Archives  
Column Description
Every week, the CoffeeGeek website features a new submitted article by folks who are (or used to be) unashamably known as "newbies" to quality coffee and espresso. These articles will detail the baby steps, then maybe even the big steps the writers took going from a no coffee / instant coffee world to a new taste world known as quality coffee and espresso.

Find out how to submit your story

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