UCC’s Anthony Lawrence on myth busting espresso and achieving consistency


Anthony Lawrence of UCC on myth busting espresso, setting specific espresso service goals and the most important factor – achieving consistency.

The words “espresso” or “short black” are commonly displayed on café menus and dining establishments across the globe. Less common to see are the words “thermo-molecularly enhanced caffeine extract”, but whichever way you say it, the humble espresso has been around for decades, and can be traced back to the early 1900s in Milan, Italy. It is used as the base of other popular drinks such as the flat white, cappuccino, macchiato, you name it. Our brew success rests upon the espresso shot. 

Modern day baristas are in a much better position to make exceptional espresso than ever before. Grinders and coffee machines produce more consistent parameters that reduce variables between each espresso shot, however, there are still barrier points of entry when it comes to good espresso service, which is the most important part of our jobs. So, how can we tell if what we are making is any good beyond tasting it? What if we don’t want to be tasting every second or third shot to establish how consistently we are extracting our espresso shots? What else is at our disposal to help us understand our espresso shots better?

Myth: You need to taste your espresso to know if it is running correctly.

Fact: You don’t

As a trainer for UCC, often during my classes I meet baristas who dislike the espresso part of coffee. The intensity of the taste or the fact they have not tasted a shot they considered “good” can present a challenge when it comes to establishing a consistent quality of espresso. Liking something and being able to make it well are separate things. Of course, it is helpful to enjoy what you are serving but you can still make consistent coffee without having to taste it. This is where coffee’s olfactory sensations can aid you. A barista can use sight, smell and touch to establish if a coffee has been made well or incorrectly. 

Look at your coffee shot during extraction. What colour does it start at? A proper shot should be dark in colour, think a few shades lighter than roasted beans. Does the texture look rich and structured? Honey like texture is a good comparison here. If the surface of the espresso is looking rich and shiny, it demonstrates strength and richness, which is essential for the beginnings of a good espresso. 

How your coffee shot progresses during the extraction phase gives lots of useful information. Try experimenting. Can you tell if the shot has run too quickly or too slowly? By familiarising yourself with the stages of the coffee shot, you can use this to quickly establish the normal range for your shot to run. This becomes your “baseline” for where you want your shot to sit at during service.

Smell is another great way to check if your shot has extracted correctly and how consistently you are making it. If your shot is extracting to specifications, then the aroma should be strong, clean, and sweet. The lingering aroma should be open and clean to demonstrate a balanced, flavoured shot, nothing dominating that can imbalance the overall flavour of the shot. If your shot is running too quickly, then it will have a weaker and sour aroma, leaving a sharp, almost pinching sensation, in your nose. Too much acidity is another common profile for a shot that has run too quickly. If your shot is running too slow, it will have an astringent, ashy aroma that lingers. This means bitterness, and an over-extracted shot. 

Touch is another useful sense to assess correct extraction. One of the most important areas a barista needs to perfect consistently, is the first stage of espresso preparation, which is dosing the ground coffee into the portafilter basket. The goal with dosing is to fill the space of the basket within its capacity. This is where your coffee recipe comes to play. For example, imagine your recipe is 23 grams of coffee in, 48 grams of espresso out, and a shot duration of 25 to 30 seconds. The closer you can keep your coffee to 23 grams is essential. Too little or too much coffee used changes what we refer to as the “brew ratio”. If we dose too low, there is more space in the portafilter basket, and this promotes more water flow through the coffee. It results in a more diluted shot – similar to an under extracted shot. Too much coffee above 23 grams restricts the water flow and creates an espresso that is too intense in flavour – similar to an over-extracted shot. 

A coffee scale is good tool to see if you are dosing within the coffee recipe parameters, but if you want to be more time effective, use your sense of touch is just as effective. If you are dosing to the capacity of the portafilter basket, then the coffee bed post-shot will have a distinct texture, like a firm cake. It will be spongy and soft on the surface and becomes firmer as you compress it. This demonstrates that the water has moved through the coffee bed evenly and removed the soluble material without breaking up the structure that was made when you tamped it. This method can be used quickly between transferring the portafilter to the knock-box without interrupting your workflow or productivity. 

If you are underdosing, what will remain will be a very soft, muddy, wet and messy looking coffee bed which, due to the extra space in the basket, has been blown apart by the high-water flow moving through it. This also leaves a messy residue in your basket after knocking out the used coffee bed. An overdosed coffee bed will look firmer and drier. Once again, I encourage you to experiment here. Try dosing well out of your recipe range, a good one to two grams over and under and study the results. 

By using our senses, we can create what I call a 360-degree understanding of the espresso we serve, and begin to see the whole process of what we are creating, which is a beverage based beyond something that needs to only taste good. 

If we are cognisant with each aspect of our espresso shot, we can piece it together with more understanding. Next time you are pulling shots, take notice of these areas: colour, aroma, texture and use them to create a more complete picture of what you are serving. I hope this helps you brew with more confidence. 

Special thanks to Eman Yu from UCC for helping me with this concept.

This article appears in the August 2023 edition of BeanScene. Subscribe HERE.

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