Reaching Espresso Nirvana
Almost every "espresso-head" I know wants to reach this thing we call nirvana - this level of perfection in a cup. Home Baristas furiously work at their PID'ed Rancilio Silvias, and professionals toil away on their 3 group Synesso Cyncras. Both have an idea of nirvana in the cup, and both are radically different, but really, they're also the same.
And both probably don't know this - the dream as they may think about it will never come to fruition. They'll never truly reach espresso nirvana, because at the end of the day, it's not about a goal or finish line. It's about a process. And during this process, the bar is constantly being raised. It has through the history of brewing coffee. Think about it.
A history lesson
In the 1840s and 1850s, coffee making experimentation appeared to reach a zenith. Vacuum brewers, initially invented in Germany, were being designed and sold in France and England, as well as the rest of Europe. Vacuum brewing applies a certain amount of pressure, or force on the grounds, extracting more coffee essence than normal gravity extraction does. But not much - not much at all. People were amazed at the cup produced - it was unlike anything drunk before. The coffee produced was cleaner, deeper, richer in flavour. Less bitters came out because boiling water rarely touched the brewing coffee. They thought it was the zenith, the nirvana of coffee.
But not everyone thought so. The process continued. In the 1850s, further attempts to apply greater than gravity force to extract coffee essence are developed. Percolation comes about, steam applications, and hydrostatic pressure, in the form of the Edouard Loisel Hydrostatic, 2000 cups per hour machine initially displayed at the Paris Expo of 1855. At the time, they felt they reached the peak of possible coffee brewing technology - this was it - coffee at its pinnacle.
But by the 1880s, the Germans, French and Italians are experimenting with using steam pressure to force water to higher than 1 atmosphere (normal air pressure) to get more essence out of finer grind coffee. By 1905, the first commercial success - the Pavoni/Bezerra Ideale Espresso machine. This machine extracted a heavy coffee essence using about 1.5 atmospheres of pressure. Was this the peak? Many thought so once again.
From that period to the end of World War II, the world knew espresso coffee as something that was more about making coffee expressly for you (one cup at a time), than the beverage we know today as espresso. Machines like the Pavonis, the Victoria Ardunio and others ruled the day. The bar remained the same, and was not to rise again until 1946 when Gaggia developed the spring piston system that produced an amazing (for the time) 60psi of pressure, or about 4 atmospheres of pressure on the fine coffee grinds, producing the world's first authentic crema-based espresso beverage. The bar wasn't just raised - it was completely redesigned. A new coffee drink was born. Maybe this was espresso nirvana...
It wasn't. During the 1950s, the spring/piston lever system first introduced by Gaggia was widely copied by other Italian espresso machine makers. The biggest problem with this gear was the inconsistency it allowed - the pressure, eventually raised to 9 atmospheres (130 psi) was directly dependent on the strength and "touch" of the barista. Faema changed all this in 1961 when they introduced their E61 Espresso machine. Rotary pump driven. Heat exchange water delivery. Continuously heated brewgroups. Large steaming boiler. It had it all. Welcome to modern day espresso. Maybe this was the peak.
Since the term was first used back in the turn of the century, espresso has meant many things. By the late 1990s, it means a specific beverage type - the deep, rich and thick black beverage with the dark golden-reddish brown crema head. 1.5 ounces per espresso, less than 1 ounce per ristretto. Barely 40 years old.
I think it would be the height of arrogance for us to consider today's technology, which is still largely based on that original E61 machine, as the absolute peak. The end all, be all. A lot of people do feel this way however - I can recount dozens of friendly, yet passionate arguments I've had with some Italian friends over what constitutes espresso nirvana. But I'll say it again - it is arrogant of us to think that we reached a nirvana over 40 years ago.
And while it is arrogant, I can also understand why. We have the ability to push pressures way beyond 130psi. We have the ability to almost atomize coffee grounds. But time and time again, we see that 130-140psi water, 7-9 grams per shot, 1-1.5 ounces brewed seems to be the pinnacle, or "espresso nirvana" for most.
Nirvana as a process
It did seem for a long while that espresso brewing technology stalled. The E61 concept came out, impressed all, and ruled for decades. To this very day, you will find hundreds of professionals, top tier folks, who say this is it - this is perfection for the cup. Sorry, I say we stalled; we rested on our laurels.
My first serious espresso machine was based on 1961 technology (the Pasquini Livia). My second, third and fourth serious machines were also based on this old technology. The materials used, copper and brass, also based on nearly a century of use.
Then the Internet came along. Sure, it took some time, but the Internet lead to someone not only coming up with the brilliant idea of putting a PID into a Rancilio Silvia, but sharing it with the rest of the world. There are two somene's, actually - Andy Schecter and Greg Scace, both people I consider friends and two people I am immensely grateful to for getting this whole new evolution rolling.
While both were home espresso tyros, they got people (through the power of the Internet) who had more of a voice in the industry thinking about temperature controls. I won't get into the long history here, but all roads led to La Marzoccos being hacked with PID controls, then Synesso Cyncras being built with it standard, to La Marzocco again building it standard in their new GB5, and raising the bar even further with the experimental GS3 model.
The La Marzocco GS3 could be argued today as being the epitome of temperature profile control, and it shows us that, no, we have not yet come near enough yet to espresso nirvana, but we're getting closer.
And it doesn't end there. The growing voice of the professional Barista, as heard through the World Barista Championships and other venues and online forums tells us there's another gaping, glaring hole in the formula - the grinder.
We're still using grinders today based on 1960s technology and 1950s design and usability. We use grinders today that heat the ground coffee, don't grind even enough, and don't distribute every particle of the grind to the portafilter. But that too, my friends, is changing. Work is being done right now, albeit quietly, on grinders that will meet the exceeding demands professional, world championship caliber Baristas are demanding.
I hope I'm not being too boastful to give my own concept of this perfect grinder. It's one I've talked to many engineers about, and interestingly enough, I get nods and winks back. The concept is simple, really. A machine that separates the motor area from the grinding area. Vertical, new concept designed burrs. A delivery mechanism for the whole beans to the grinding area. And a straight fall through path for the ground coffee. We see some elements of this in Kitchen Aid's new Proline grinder, but dullish burrs, a lack of precise grind control, and the fact that it's not designed purely for espresso show this product is a good step, but not the solution.
And there's more
When I first wrote this article, way back in 2001 (and modified it a year or two later), I can't believe how naive I was on things. The entire focus of the article was on the machine technology.
Well, the machine is only part of the equation. The good news is, machines like the La Marzocco GS3 take the machine out of the equation. It makes the machine as technically perfect and stable as we can ask today. Will we see better tomorrow? I sure hope so, but even more than that, I hope the technology we see in $4,500 single group machines will filter down to the $500 consumer machine.
The grinder is very important as well - something I didn't cover in this original article. The good news is, in the next year or two, we may see this addressed - the grinder truly coming into the 21rst century.
But there are three other factors. There's water. We still don't understand enough about how water influences the espresso shot. Yes, we know to use filtered, clean water, but how clean? How filtered? When I brew with clean water from Vancouver's water system, the resulting shots taste better to me than Cirqua filtered water does in competitions. Then again, Cirqua water generally tastes better to me than any spring water I can buy in Vancouver. The challenge is, some water reacts differently with different coffees. It's an amazing, complex thing that I don't think anyone has even started to tackle yet.
Then there's the coffee. Listen up folks. Coffee is massively evolving, right now. As I write this, some of the best coffees the world has ever seen are on market, right now. Cup of Excellence coffees. Microlots and limited origin products from individual roasters. Freezing green to prolong taste. It's all giving us coffee that is just mind blowing. And it constantly changes the game - roasters will have to continually retool and re-evaluate their espresso blends to get even more out of them. It never ends.
And the third thing - you, the Barista. Do you know that Paul Bassett, a former WBC champion, pulled a better shot for me on a $750 consumer machine and a $150 grinder than I was able to ever pull, in my life, on a La Marzocco GS3 and a Mazzer Super Jolly grinder? It's skill folks. A truly gifted Barista can make equipment, water, and beans sing.
It won't stop, and that's the true beauty of espresso. It's ever evolving. Yesterday's nirvana is tomorrow's standard cup. Artistry is a huge factor. Is a chef an artist? I think so. The Barista is too. It is an artform, and art never sits still.
We could sit for days and argue things like, what's the perfect size for a single shot? How much crema is important? What is the ideal brewing time and temperature? To tamp or not to tamp? Is espresso only an "espresso" when it is under a certain volume of liquid per grams of coffee used? Should you use robusta? Should you sweeten it? Why stop at 9 atmospheres? Can a super auto produce authentic espresso? And this is just the tip of the proverbial iceberg.
There still is no hard and fast rule on what true espresso is, and if you brought together 100 professional, established and well schooled baristas in a room, you'd get 100 different opinions. With that said, I have my own opinions, and I'm very proud and happy to say those opinions of mine constantly evolve.
And the same should go for you. Your espresso nirvana could just be pulling the first shot of espresso you've ever had that didn't make you wince. It could be the tenth shot in a row that made you wish you could keep the lingering aftertaste forever. It's important to know that true espresso nirvana, the proverbial god shot, may never exist. Or, it may exist every single time you go through the process of preparing, pulling, and drinking a shot of espresso.
I like to think it's the latter. That espresso nirvana always exists, continually exists. It exists in the process of finding out that it can just continue to get better, and better, and better. Espresso Nirvana is the realization that you're just enjoyed something that is a culinary delight, and not a commodity.
Espresso Nirvana is the path you take, making coffee sing.