September 21, 2012

Thoughts on Perfect Espresso

So, the planned conversation on espresso did not go as planned. For me, it did not go at all. Short version: Technical difficulties.

Still, I was introduced to several new people and a myriad of new perspectives, and perhaps, I'll have an opportunity to jump in to the next roundtable. 

In the meantime, however, I wanted to share some loose thoughts I had on "perfect espresso", what it is, and how we might seek it. 

The first - and perhaps, most important - point is that espresso perfection is a journey with no tangible destination. We are seeking something inherently arbitrary and subjective, and yet, like the Supreme Court with pornography, we feel intuitively that we'll know it when we see it. 

Yet despite the inherently impossible nature of the quest, it is worth undertaking. While perfection is unattainable, quality is very real, very tangible, and at this point, the least we can do. We have access to quality equipment, beans, and technique, such that bad espresso isn't excusable. 

Unless, of course, you don't have one of those three things. These are the ingredients without which great espresso simply will not happen. So, if your beans suck, fix that. If your equipment is dirty, broken, or otherwise sub-optimal, fix that too. And learn decent technique. Find videos of the best baristas online, watch, and then practice. Mostly practice. 

What about the specifics? What about pull time, gram dosage, bean blending, etc.? On those things, I'm mostly agnostic. There's a wide range that works, and without knowing the details of every situation, we can only really say that those things will inevitably vary. My best advice is to ask your roaster what they do in their cafe. Chances are, they know best how to treat their beans. 

Finally, sometimes, forget about all of those things. Perfect espresso - or at least as close as we get - is never really about those things anyway. Rather, it's a cumulative sensory experience, a compilation of every bit of present context. The best shots are the ones you pull (well, maybe not, but I prefer my own handiwork), present in every sense of the word for every aspect of the preparation. That sense continues through consumption, everything around you mattering, and yet not, context totally informative and irrelevant. 

Perfect espresso is in your hands, your mouth, all around, right now. It is a moment, poetically similar in length to the shots themselves, short, concentrated, beautiful. 


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