When we started making espresso we didn’t have all the awesome tools we have now, and the tools we did have we really didn’t use to their full potential.
We used scales to weigh dose…sometimes. It wasn’t uncommon to break out the scale for maybe only 3 minutes of an 8 hour shift; just enough time to get a baseline. Who had the time to weigh everything anyway?
We NEVER weighed output. Recipes referred to shot volume in ounces and it was almost always a judgment call. The small shot glasses that had volumetric lines on them were hardly accurate so we mostly based things off what it looked like in the cup, then assigned it a number. “That’s 1.5 ounces!” Volumetric dosing did exist but it was so passé in the new wave of specialty coffee that if your shop had an AV machine you were instantly kicked out of the cool kids club.
The most commonly used machines didn’t have built in timers. We had stopwatches but again, who had time to start, stop and clear them before every shot? What if you were rocking all three groups? Do you have three timers clogging up your bar? No. You used one, and you used it when you could. Maybe every 10th shot?
Refractometer? Yeah right. If you would have walked up to one of us at Ritual or the Naked Lounge circa 2006 and asked us what our TDS or extraction percentage was you would have been met with a dead stare. Hell, I had a Scace device and a Fluke thermometer to measure brew water temp and I though I was cutting edge.
Technology and tools have made it so much easier for anyone to make delicious coffee…this is a good thing for sure. The more people who get better coffee, the happier we are. But are we missing something?
Lack of tools and technology forced us to find other ways to quantify quality and indications of quality. Because we didn’t use tools as a crutch and built a skill set over time using lots of tactile feedback, some amazing things happened once the use of scales, timers, and all of our other fun toys became commonplace in specialty coffee:
– We could consistently guess dose inputs within .2 of a gram and realized that even though now it was “ok” to use the scale for every shot, we really didnt have to.
– Our extraction yields were consistently accurate within two grams, even though we’d been talking in ounces and only gauging shots by eye. Again, even though everyone was now weighing output all the time we found we really didn’t need to.
– Other indicators like the feel of the coffee during redistribution, how the far the tamper sat in the portafilter when the bed was compacted, shot drop time, flow rate, visual discrepancies in extraction appearance with shots that had similar flow rates, the smell of the empty cup after the shot had ben served or passed off, were all points of feedback that were programmed into our subconscious that gave us the ability to make coffee taste great in any situation, tools or no tools. See “The Barista Creed – Seven Years Later” by Mark Prince for more on this type of thought process.
So are we suggesting everyone should go full freestyle? No.
Tools and systems are important, but you should use them as a way to hone and improve your skills and not rest on them as a crutch. Every time you put a portafilter on a scale you should make a guess as to how much coffee is in it; if you’re wildly off on a regular basis there’s some kind of adjustment that needs to be made. Same with output. Try extracting off of the scale for a bit; note the behavior of the shot and stop it when you think you’ve reached your desired output. Then check it on the scale. Cover up the timer every once in a while. Try different extractions and taste them even if the numbers suggest they should taste bad. You get the idea. Understanding the intricacies of the entire process will let you use your tools that much more effectively and efficiently, and also build in a fail-safe in case of a technological apocalypse. People will still need great coffee if all the computers, smart phones, and scales stop working.
Really the most important reason to spend a day without a scale is that it’s FUN. So fun! It might just make you fall in love with being a barista all over again. So give it a try…just don’t get fired from your job for breaking the rules.