“This article was republished with the permission of Barista Magazine.  The article appeared in the August + September 2011 issue and you can view the full article in its original form by viewing pages 48-51 on Barista Magazines I-Mag or in the original publication.  Holly Bastin is the Director of Retail Operations for PT’s Coffee Roasting Co.  She has been with us for 11 years and her roles have included Lead Coffee Trainer, Espresso Quality Control, Espresso Research and Development, and Retail Store Manager, as well as providing assistance whenever needed.  Holly recently traveled to Bogota to assist and coach her longtime friend, United States Barista Champion, Pete Licata, on his route to a second place finish in the World Barista Championship.”

ESPRESSO EVALUATION

When I started in this industry in 2000, the specialty coffee movement was known by the off-beat neighborhood cafes that worked tirelessly to show coffee consumers that there is an art to the beverage they enjoy every day.  We threw around terms like “latte art” and “ristretto” to feel out the coffee shops we visited.  We watched to see if they would toss their shots directly on ice while making a latte on the rocks.  What it took to be superior at the craft of coffee was judged almost solely in the arena of espresso making.  Brewed coffee was always there, but we had yet to truly understand just what kind of vehicle it had potential to be.

Most roasters hadn’t visited a whole lot of farms yet, so naturally we turned our attention to places where we could manipulate the coffee without dealing with the agricultural implications.  We churned all of our creative energies towards the only controls we thought we had: improving our equipment, our roasting and our skills.  For me, I stood conflicted the day I was introduced to the newest grinder technology on the market – the “Swift”.  I stared at that grinder realizing that, at the time, it probably was indeed more consistent than I was at something I so enjoyed doing.  As others looked excited by this new gadgetry, I could only think one thing.

I had to beat it.

Now, after a whirlwind of experiences 10 years later, I barely remember that promise to myself.  As the industry is in a boom of brew methods, single origins and direct trade relationships, we’ve been distracted from our old adversary: espresso.  With baristas even having opportunities to meet farmers and visit countries of origin, a lot of focus has been shifted into the regular old cup of joe.  Even I couldn’t resist it.  As a beverage, I have really come to appreciate the flavor profiles that can be enjoyed drip style, experiencing the influence and range that processing, elevation, varietal, and myriad other factors give to coffees.  But when it comes to coffee as a part of what I do and dissect, I still have only ever had eyes for espresso.  It is beautiful to create and difficult to tame, and I have always been determined to figure it out, whatever that means.

In the years that I have worked for PT’s Coffee Roasting Co., I’ve had a number of roles, but espresso has always been a non-negotiable part of each position I agree to take on.  When I started managing some of the cafes, I also took on the role of staff trainer, wanting to ensure that each barista had a good and continuous grasp on their craft.  As I began coaching our competitive baristas, I found a forum for discussing the refinement of technical skills and a playground for experimentation.  In the last five years that I have been our wholesale coffee trainer, I slowly took over the role of espresso blending and espresso development, giving me hours and hours to try and understand how I can manipulate extraction and get varying effects.  I’ve had exposure to a number of different tools and machines, and I constantly try to live up to our old mantra of “any barista, any coffee, any equipment, any time.”  I sought out new media and experiences, whether competing (yes I did), judging, going on jams, or helping with Specialty Coffee Association of America (SCAA) classes.

The Development Begins
But in 2008 I started to struggle to find new and valid resources, hoping to further discover more in-depth ways that I could understand espresso.  I had gotten into cupping and found an appreciation (as well as a jealousy) that there was a standardized system for tasting and evaluating “regular coffees” already in place, and that was so diametrically opposed to our communal approach to trying new espressos: throw it in the hopper and use your senses to dial it in.  I started to wish that someone would have come up with a similar system for espresso, because even for the most adept barista, it requires a fair bit of consumption throughout the process.

My role in blending was increasing to help maintain our mainline espressos, as well as identifying potential single origin espresso offerings, which was fun and exciting.  But it also meant many days of over-caffienation and espresso highs. I needed a structure to work within, and after expressing my wish for a version of cupping for espresso to Jeff Taylor, he challenged me to create my own using our resources.

I accepted whole-heartedly.

The very moment I started to think about what made systems like the Cup of Excellence (CoE) or SCAA cupping forms work, I realized exactly why no one had really done anything for espresso yet.  The fundamental elements that make those systems viable is a standardization of dose, particle size, water volume, and water contact time.  The very nature of espresso – at least as we have so far collectively approached it – defies those kinds of specific parameters, varying in style, preference, and profile the whole world over.  I’m not saying the same can’t be said of all brew methods, but espresso takes the phrase “margin of error” to a whole new level.

While it was almost an overwhelming impasse, I tried to think around the issue, attempting to figure out if there were some variables that could be proportionately set, like a sliding scale for parameters depending on the style of blend you were working with.  The closest I came to an answer was roast profile possibly relating to an optimal dose, the lightest and darkest requiring a lower dose and finer grind, while a more mid-ranged profile tended to be in the 18-20 gram range for a double.  In many cases I did find this to be true, but never totally definitive.

Over the next two-and-a-half years I continued to seek out patterns and answers, constantly adding new data to track so I could find a central point to start building a system.  All the while we constantly used it in whatever current incarnation we were in as a tool for evaluating our espressos, as well as having group double-blind tastings from multiple roasters.

recreated-espresso-evaluation-form

The Result and Implementation

When I try to define what exactly this form is, I find the simplest description for it is the “Espresso Evaluation and Tracking Form.”  At it’s most functional, that is what it is designed to be:  for people who want a way to understand what led to the flavors they are tasting and whether or not it’s a viable option for their purposes and tastes.  It’s not about a hard and fast judgement or score on a coffee, but has built-in versatility, it can be used in creative ways to suit other ends, whether in part or as a whole.

For roasting companies, this form can be massively helpful for the arduous  task of espresso blend management.  Whether building or maintaining a blend, it gives a road map to the many ways that you potentially could achieve the flavor profile you are trying to accomplish.  The Coffee Info Capture section isolates the fundamentals of what comes with the preparation of the coffee before use for consumption.  The Extraction Info Capture section throughout consistent use shows the barisata’s influence on the flavor, shot to shot and day to day.  It also bridges the communication between the roaster and the blender, giving them a common language and format to both have and to share information within.  In full use in a roasting environment, it creates accountability and can help see potential for innovation in research and development of coffee or equipment.

For cafe owners and managers, this form provides a great way to gather information about the coffees you serve and track their peaks and fades.  It can be used in part as a barista dial-in training tool, or for checking grind adjustments during a staff change.  You can use it to track the overall consistency of the shots you serve and the coffee you buy.  It’s a quality control form as much as it is a tracking tool.

With repeated use, it can really pay off for the home barista, as well, who often pays $20 for a pound of coffee.  You can dial in your favorites and basically have a reference for a good ballpark start point for next time, or switch from coffee to coffee without worrying about wasting precious coffee by dialing in the grind again.  It can help you remember old favorites when it’s time to buy again.

And for us barista folk, this form is a tool to use while learning to hone your craft.  It forces us to consider and identify all of your variables simultaneously, and through consistent use creates reflexive habits.  If espresso were music, this would be like an etude or technical piece, designed to make you more comfortable with a particular move or speed of playing.  This trains thought, spurs refinement of action and encourages experimentation, giving a data pool from which to create new theories or confirm them to fact.  It can also rapidly point out weakness on your part, so you know where to focus your technique and quickly improve.  It’s great for training for barista competitions.  It instantly gives you homework while you quickly get to know your coffee and where its absolute peak is.  It’s a bit intense to use on your own, but it is manageable.  Don’t get beat by technology.

The best and worst part?  You get to taste the fruits of your labor to understand how your actions changed it.  After all, the point of coffee is to taste good.