Welcome back to our ongoing educational series in which we find ways to bridge the gap between the roaster and the barista.
In our last post, we explained the importance of using the same brew methods to help calibrate the language that roasters and baristas use about a coffee’s flavor. We recommended that roasters try brewing coffee on the same brew methods that are popular in the cafe. We also suggested that baristas set up a formal cupping to understand coffee from the perspective of a roaster. Simple ideas, straightforward approaches, that’s what successful collaboration is all about. For our next trick, we’ll peel back the curtain to reveal a barista’s mindset during one of their most difficult duties: dialing in.
A Shot in the Dark
Finding out the right brewing parameters for a specific coffee is part science, part guess work, and a whole lot of trial and error. Dialing in coffee, especially espresso, is done early during the shift and throughout the day. To make it more efficient and minimize waste, baristas develop patterns for how they dial in. They taste, evaluate, and change one variable at a time. A great barista can tame an unruly coffee in 3 to 5 shots, but it’s not unusual for it to take more attempts. Especially if the person behind the bar doesn’t know anything about the coffee.
Roasters know so much about the coffees they work with. Especially if they’re involved in coffee purchasing, green grading, or sample roasting. Their knowledge of the greens can be expansive. This knowledge can be the key to help a barista dial in faster and reign in a new coffee with more confidence.
Lesson: Share What You Know
When it comes to dialing in, baristas rely on a recipe. Grams in, milliliters out, seconds elapsed. A brew recipe feels like a road map to a delicious cup of coffee. It can be tempting to use the same map for every single starting point. But each coffee on a menu is starting somewhere new. Ask any roaster, they’ll tell you how each coffee’s unique density, moisture content, or processing method prompted them to change the charge temperature, development time, and mid phase. What does this mean for the person at the espresso machine? You may have to change your recipe.
For years I served a house espresso blend, our workhorse that went into lattes, mochas, and americanos. On a second grinder, there was a rotating single origin which was featured for a few weeks at a time. The parameters for the blend were as consistent, like clockwork. Even when the components changed we could use roughly the same dose and output and with minimal changes to extraction time we could pull a tasty ‘spro. But the single origins were wild cards. They were unpredictable and needed to be tamed.
Success by Accident
Over time, I discovered some patterns: low density, large coffee beans needed a higher dose and a coarser grind setting. Tiny, dense, high-elevation coffees wanted to be ground finer. If something alluded me, I pushed the limits of the “acceptable” range, often serving a 17 second shot or a 41 second shot if it tasted nice. For comparison, the blend was almost always pulling in 25-30 seconds. As an experienced barista with some knowledge of coffee origins, I was able to make changes at the grinder that helped me extract new coffees well. All of these changes, however, were the result of a lot of trial and error. Rarely did I get any information from the roasters about the greens, or how they chose to roast the coffee and why. I was navigating without a compass. Any success I had with a coffee was mostly a result of guesswork and luck.
Knowledge is Power
The roasters’ knowledge of elements like bean density or their total drop time would have given me direction. These details might have helped me develop a deeper understanding and a better ability to find the right brew recipe faster. If you’re a roaster and you’re in contact with baristas, share what you know about the coffees you roast! Even details you think they might not understand or find useful could help them create shortcuts to finding a coffee’s sweet spot. If the communication goes both ways, you may learn something interesting about the coffee as well. A barista’s insights could be just as useful to a roaster, if they had a way to hear them.
What’s the best way to deliver this helpful knowledge? A weekly newsletter, an all-staff email, or a note tucked into the next delivery are all great communication tools. As the roaster, share what you know about the elevation of the farm, unique processing methods (I’m looking at you: triple washed fermentation and carbonic maceration). Even the age of the greens can be a huge help for the retail team. Anything related to a coffee’s density, moisture content, or solubility could have saved me time and energy when I was dialing in. If there is information that changes your approach at the roaster, it’s likely that it’s good intel for the barista as well.
With more greens information added to their arsenal of existing extraction skills, baristas become an even more unstoppable force. Over time, both teams may discover more about how a green coffee’s anatomy influences extraction. The added understanding about the coffees on your menu, and the enhanced teamwork created by that information exchange, can be truly empowering.
We’ll be posting more lessons, insights, and topics for both baristas and roasters to think about as they work together. Keep an eye out for an upcoming post on blend components and composition.