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The Art of the Dial

Five Senses CoffeeDavid Christie 5 December 2016

Dialing in a tasty shot of espresso is how many of us start each and every day. The ritual of setting up, pulling your first shot and adjusting your grind to get the very best out of that coffee is extremely satisfying. The words “dialing in” can mean different things to different people, but basically, it’s all about adjusting your brewing parameters to best suit the coffee you have in front of you and the gear you have to brew it on.

This is an important thing to remember- although we start by training baristas how to work with numbers, the one and only goal is a delicious tasting coffee.

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Getting Started

The first thing you’ll learn as a barista is how to dial-in to someone else’s recipe. This will be a set of numbers (dose, yield and time) given to you by your roaster or by another barista in your café. It is important to remember that while a set recipe can be very useful, they have inherent limitations. Useful because they give you something to aim towards in a sea of possibilities, limited because they can’t allow for the myriad things that are different about the shot you are pulling.

The most common way to achieve your starting recipe is to keep your dose and yield stable (using scales and volumetrics where appropriate) while adjusting the grind until you hit your desired time target. Going coarser will speed you up and finer will slow you down. Pretty simple stuff so far, but here’s a few tips to help you out if you’re having difficulties:

  • Remember to purge. All traditional espresso grinders hold at least a little bit of ground coffee inside, and adjusting your burrs won’t affect this coffee. Always “purge” some coffee in between adjustments or you’ll see no effect on your next shot.
  • Think before you act. Work out exactly how far you need to move your grinder before you make your adjustment. This is going to help you learn your grinder faster, and you’ll be able to make more accurate adjustments in future.
  • Don’t over adjust. New baristas can spend hours adjusting their grind and throwing away coffee to get that “perfect” shot. Don’t do it! As soon as you’re in the ballpark, it’s time to have a taste. You can always tweak it later.
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Tweaking to Taste

Once you’re up and running with a set recipe, it’s time to get your taste buds involved. This can be an intimidating step for some baristas, but it’s an important one. In many ways, learning to make great coffee is also learning to taste coffee. The first step is to put your coffee into one of three categories: is it over-extracted, under-extracted, or perfectly extracted? Under-extracted coffee generally tastes sour, thin, with a quick finish and is sometimes grassy or salty. Over extracted coffee is generally characterised as bitter and dry in the finish- the aftertaste will drive you away from this cup.

A well extracted coffee is one that is sweet, with well-balanced body and acidity, and above all delicious.

The amount you extract from a coffee can totally skew the taste balance one way or another, and getting it wrong can make the most delicious beans taste awful. The extraction level is the primary way we interact with the flavour of the coffee we’re drinking. The first way you’ll learn to change your extraction is by modifying the grind to change the speed of your shots, and therefore the total contact time. More time spent with the water = a higher level of extraction. So, if your coffee is sitting in one of those over or under-extracted categories, it’s time to push it towards optimum. We’re looking to move the grinder in small increments, aim for about 2 seconds, and taste each time. If your coffee’s tasting a little sour, try a slightly finer grind. If it’s on the bitter side, try going coarser.

  • Slow and Steady. This bears repeating – make small adjustments on your grinder! You don’t want to get stuck in the trap of over-correcting back and forth. Err on the side of making two small adjustments in the same direction rather than one big one.
  • Taste is complicated. Unfortunately, it’s not always as simple as I’ve made it seem above. Sometimes an under-extracted coffee will taste bitter due to its lack of sweetness. Sometimes, a particular coffee won’t taste bitter no matter how far you push it. There’s no real answer to this apart from continual tasting and experimentation and grabbing an experienced palette to do it with you if there’s one available!
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In Depth Variables

Of course, there are many other variables to dive into while dialing in your coffee. These variables often play second fiddle to brew time for purely practical reasons: they are either more difficult to change or have dramatic side effects (such as brew ratio’s impact on strength.) This blog has already produced some great content diving into each one in depth and I won’t repeat them: check out our articles on brew temperature, brew ratios and pressure profiling if you haven’t already. At this point set recipes from roasters can still be a useful starting point, although a baristas own knowledge of working with different origins, roast levels and specific coffees will start to take over.

Up to this point, I haven’t mentioned coffee or equipment selection. These things are outside of what I normally call “dialing in,” but are worth talking about. Philosophically, a barista’s job is to extract the best a coffee has to offer, not to force it into an arbitrary profile. There’s nothing to be gained from forcing a coffee to go where it doesn’t want to go. A heavy, chocolatey coffee will not become fruity and light no matter what you do to it- sounds like you chose the wrong coffee! Equipment selection is a pretty big topic to tackle here but that old saying about a workman and his tools is as true as it is tired. My honest advice is it’s ok to recognize when your kit is holding you back, but remember that we’re working in a privileged time: the state of espresso and grinder tech has never been better and the rate that new ideas and technologies are coming at us is faster than ever. Unfortunately, this also makes it expensive to stay at the cutting edge, which is doubly worth remembering if you aren’t the one forking over the cash! Here’s some tips to keep in mind:

  • Keep a log. Recording your recipe, shot times and flavour score/notes daily will quickly build up a wealth of knowledge that will help with your own training and allow you to rapidly jump to the sweet spot of similar coffees.
  • Play devil’s advocate. It’s easy to get complacent once you’ve “mastered” making a coffee taste nice. Don’t! Challenge yourself once a week to try something you don’t think will work, and taste it honestly.
  • Know when to stop. After you’ve had a certain amount of coffees, they all start to taste bad. There’s no way around this: espresso is very intense and bitterness is very tiring to the palate.
  • Remember who you’re making coffee for. A question I like to ask a lot is “who’s having the fun?” is it the barista? Or the customer? There is no point in spending hours crafting a beautiful shot that only you will appreciate- don’t be afraid to ask your customers what they want to taste.

Happy brewing!

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