Mar 18, 2011

Adjusting the grind

Sometimes Keegan helps me with espresso. He usually asks me if he can help rather than me asking him if he wants to come on over. He's not a big fan of a straight shot, though he will give it a tiny sip, but he does like tasting a 1oz espresso/3oz milk ratio drink. Yesterday he had a sip as he usually does and I asked him "So what do you taste?" and his response was "I taste marshmallows and candy" my response "Well I taste creamy caramel, some sweet lemon citrus and a bit of maple syrup, can you taste any of those?" his response was "I think it tastes like marshmallows and candy".

Marshmallows and candy? I guess it's time to segue into the subject of espresso/coffee and a necessarily developed language...

A language has to exist in order to have a discussion about what a person tastes in coffee. Coffee isn't just hot. It doesn't just taste like brown. Coffee has unique tastes, often several in one cup, and understanding those tastes requires a developed language. If all you ever think is 'brown' then that's all it can ever be.


I had this same taste/language discussion last weekend with another barista, and in it I was hoping to get the point across that one of the biggest obstacles to a person really tasting what's in their coffee is the person never taking ownership of what they taste. That means they have to move beyond the mental range of 'brown' and expand it into several words like creamy, sweet, chocolate, nutty, honey, spicy or whatever. Saying it out loud in front of someone else with a developed palate and coffee language helps even more, the person trying to develop their palate language knows they have to think about the taste enough that they are willing to go out on a limb and take ownership of what they taste - which develops the language connection of taste to word. It doesn't take too long for some of the basic language to fall in place, words such as creamy, nutty, fruity or chocolatey, are all good starters for which can then be expanded into sharper distinctions like almond, walnut, brazil nut, macadamia, or strawberry, plum, raspberry, peach, apricot, red grape, green grape, rainier cherry, bing cherry, etc.


So now getting back to Keegan, what did he taste? Well he didn't taste the citrus or maple syrup because I asked him a couple of times if he could taste those in the drink and he confirmed he didn't. But he did taste marshmallow and the connection could be made between microfoam milk and the caramel which could cause a bit of marshmallow effect (in a kids palate). And so he's on his way to developing an educated palate, stating out loud what he tastes, which anyone can do, if they take the time to think about taste descriptors rather than simply assigning the word hot and brown.

Coffee really can taste like a hot buttered cherry tart, the sooner a person makes the taste/word connections the sooner they can expand their enjoyment of great coffee.

Disclaimer: I don't think I need to state that Folgers, Starbucks, pod coffees or the likes are part of this concept as it's impossible to use tasty descriptive language for most if not all of them... and it's probably best if you are drinking these kinds of coffees that you try to clear your mind of what they taste like and instead go with very safe words like Hot and Brown. If you know what I mean.

Now on to the subject title of this post.

This last image shows Keegan being super helpful, up until the time I turned my back which allowed him to make some self-selected grinder adjustments just prior to me grinding for a straight shot. His 'help' adjusting the grinder setting caused an espresso flow of approx 4secs on the first lever pull, drinkable in some places but nothing I would ever drink in my kitchen. I had to scratch my head while the shot was spraying everywhere, I really was confused as the liquid shot everywhere. One of the clues to the unannounced adjustment was Keegan sticking his head closer to the basket and paying more attention than usual to the shot flow as I pulled the lever, the whole time with a big smile on his face.

What a kid. Launching a coffee ambush on dad. Now the question is... did he ambush me on purpose? ;-)



John F said...

Viva la mischief!

Shaun Taylor said...

Outwitting me.