The Italian Barista Champion Fights Back!!

A couple weeks ago, The Atlantic Magazine published a (puff) piece by Giorgio Milos (Illy employee and former Italian Barista Champion). This piece was... umm.... insulting to many people in the coffee community. I wrote about it in my Cultural Imperialism bit.

Well.... Giorgio is back.
And this time he's a lot less condescending. Which is nice.
But he's still kind of missing the point.

Note: I am assuming that some editor at The Atlantic actually came up with the title of the piece ("Espresso 101: An Expert Responds to Readers") - but if not then I'll retract my above "less condescending" comment.

Anyway... to the piece and my point...

He starts off with a long bit on his background, his credentials... basically defending himself and establishing that he actually does - in fact - know what he's talking about.

At the center of my 20-plus years of training and knowledge is illycaffè. Certainly my views on coffee have been influenced by the company's scientific environment, created by three generations of chemists; a research and development unit covering agronomy, botany, physics, chemistry, biology, statistics, and computer science; and laboratories dedicated to dedicated to the study of coffee, in areas like sensory perception (not just taste, but aroma as well).

The thing is... none of us were arguing that you don't know a lot about Italian espresso. I mean... come on. Illy is arguably the most respected coffee company in the world when it comes to the science of coffee. And you're the Italian barista champion. So we already knew that - if we had any questions at all about Italian espresso - you're the shit.

The problem is that you still don't seem to get that Italian espresso is not equal to espresso anymore. Espresso is global now. We all have our own styles. We owe a debt to Italy for creating this incredible way to prepare coffee. Thank you. But we're doing our own versions now. And, sadly, it seems that not only are you not an expert in other styles of espresso - you still don't even see that there are (in fact) other styles of espresso.

And so we get to the main points.

But some baristas prefer making double espressos with more than twice the amount of coffee--20 grams, not the 14-18 the SCAA guidelines would suggest--and only the amount of water for a single espresso, one ounce. The idea is a power-packed espresso, with half the one ounce of extraction being crema. It might sound good to espresso fans, but this idea has numerous problems.

Not to be a dick here, but 20 is not twice 14-18. In fact, 20 is only roughly 12% greater than 18 (not 100% greater). So, in fact, if one were to dose 20 grams rather than 18 grams (the upper end of the commonly accepted scale), one would only be increasing dose by roughly 12%.

Now... I agree that a 1oz shot from a 20g dose is unlikely to yield a good flavor experience (not impossible, but unlikely). But let's be realistic here... 1oz doubles are very (very) rare among good coffee bars. What is more common here is the 1.5oz double ristretto from 17.5 to 18.5 grams of coffee. While this is, in fact, slightly outside of your range for both volume and potentially dose - the variance is extremely small.

But anyway, what are these "numerous problems"? Well... it seems like there are two (not exactly "numerous" but whatever).

First... the "too much caffeine" problem.

No matter what you call this concentrate, the caffeine content is much higher than what we have come to expect with a traditional espresso. For years people thought espresso contained more caffeine than brewed coffee. Now, most professionals and coffee lovers know this is not true of Arabica espresso prepared with the traditional formula, which contains 60 to 70 milligrams of caffeine. Overdosing the espresso, even using Arabica beans and not higher-caffeine Robusta, the caffeine content could reach 200 milligrams. As logic would dictate, extraction time--how long coffee and water remain in contact--is a major factor.

As the editor (finally doing his job - thank you) correctly points out - extraction time in fact does not impact caffeine (at least within the range of variance we're talking about).

What the editor fails to point out is yet another math error. So... let's assume the same (gasp horror) 20g dose. This is an increase (as noted) of around 12% over the "accepted" range. The high end of the range he provides for caffeine is 70 milligrams. To get to 200 milligrams of caffeine, we would need to increase dose not by 12% but in fact by almost 300%. In other words, the dose would have to be roughly 50 grams.

Okay, so he's wrong about one of the two "numerous" problems being increased caffeine (or at least increased beyond an additional 12% or so.

What's the other one of these two "numerous" problems then?

For a double espresso, the formula calls for using twice the amount of coffee and twice the water. If the water isn't increased in proportion, the resulting extraction will have too little liquid and too much crema, as in the photo here. The beverage is too concentrated, its aromatic components not optimally released and mixed. Effectively, the aromas overlap with one another, creating issues like an extremely sour taste that can be perceived as salty. With this overconcentration, only a few pleasurable notes can emerge in the cup, masking others produced during roasting like chocolate, toasted bread, cocoa, and caramel. Lost is that ideal balance of bitter and sour.

The above statement is 100% accurate.
If you're using Illy coffee.

The problem is that leading non Italian coffee companies have diverged from the Italian traditions when it comes to the formulation of their espressos. Not only are more and more of these companies working with single origin (not blended) espressos, but the blends are also diverging further and further as well (with a larger and larger percentage of the coffee being washed coffees and fewer and fewer roasters working with lower grown natural and pulped natural coffees from Brazil for these espressos). These coffees are not stored and aged. They're not selected purely for their stability and low acidity.

Because the beans being worked with are so different from what Giorgio is used to - and because the flavor profile of these beans is wildly different -- the method of extraction has to be different.

The result in the cup is - logically - very different from what you would get from Illy. But this is not a barista error. It is the result of a series of conscious decisions (from bean selection, through blending, through roast style, to preparation and drink style) all to get a desired coffee experience.

The result is highly unlikely to taste like Illy.
That doesn't mean it's "wrong".
And it doesn't mean it is not espresso.


Thank you sir may I have another

Another day.... another chance to beat the snot out of mainstream media...

Today's contestant?
Esquire Magazine.

Actually.... let's be fair here... in this case Esquire is largely the patsy. They're the rube being taken advantage of by the smirking carnie. And that shifty half-assed conman? No other than everyone's favorite has-been coffee guy Todd Carmichael. In case you don't know (and believe me - the fact that you don't know is the big issue for Todd), Todd is the unbearably louche and jaded founder of La Colombe Torrefaction.

La Colombe was once the shit. Like a east coast Torrefazione Italia before Starbucks bought them. Back when everyone still believed that slavish mimicry of Italian traditions was the only possible way to create good coffee - true coffee. But time has passed La Colombe by. Unlike Torrefazione and Seattle's Best - they didn't sell out to Starbucks. And the new breed has left them behind. They're no longer cool. They're no longer the shit. Hell.... they're no longer even good. And Todd... bless his aging hipster little self... Todd is kinda bitter about this.

Todd's now written two "pieces" for Esquire. The first was snide and annoying and self-serving. The second is all that and also bitter and angry -- and wrong.

The problem is that Esquire is the publisher - and conning your publisher always creates problems. The goal of the publisher is NOT just to give you a soapbox. It's also there to make sure you don't make mistakes and don't step off the soapbox and fall off a cliff in the process. To illustrate, I'm going to do what Esquire should have done (if, of course, they hadn't just been your clueless mark).

Listen, the espresso machine was invented for a reason: to be "espress," a.k.a. fast (and, ironically, to replace the siphon and slow-brew.) Listen up, geeks: Drop the slow-brew renaissance and pick up the pace. We have work to get to.

First of all.... you're missing the point here. As mentioned above - time has moved on. As Starbucks has become ubiquitous folks like you (those who serve a quick pharmaceutical product for consumption on the way to work) have ceased to be the cutting edge. There is no point in competing with Starbucks for this market. The cutting edge has moved. You're no longer cool. Convenience espresso is now a commodity.

Beware the presence of the $17,000 coffee machine. It's a lot like the fad of the $100 hamburger: The beef may be good and the press may love it (at least for a day), but if you order it, someone in public relations will be laughing at you. No one was actually supposed to buy it.

An example of how one plays editor... "Todd... what are you trying to say here?" I mean - seriously. Are you saying that you can only get good coffee from cheap espresso machines? So... you spend a lot of time trying to come off like a bargain basement Tony Bourdain. You want to be treated like you're a chef - and spend energy implying that you've got the same sort of chops, approach and cred. So let me ask you a question.... do you think chefs don't care about their tools? Do you think chefs think spending lots of money on the "right" knives, the "right" stoves etc is "a fad?"

Beware the barista who goes techno-nerd on you when describing how he makes coffee: heat-surfing, pre-infusion profiling, tamp-dialing. Seriously, and how would you describe the act of opening a beer, liquid-load pressure breaching?

This is a great analogy - as it gives amazing insight into your mindset Todd. You are, in essence, comparing the skill required to make a good shot of espresso to the skill required to open a beer. A barista - to you - is completely unskilled labor.

I'm not going to defend some of the behavior of current baristas. I, too, rapidly tire of the near total lack of understanding of what a good customer experience is like. I'm bored and annoyed by the lack of professionalism and the record store clerk mentality.

But even the Italians understand that a great espresso is one part machine, one part coffee and one part barista. You've now dissed two out of the three parts. Are you going to go for the trifecta?

Super-geeks love to claim their coffee hails from single-origin Valhalla, unapproachable for any other roaster. Truth is, we live in the computer and commuter age; the world is tiny and coffee only comes from the small band around the middle. We all have access to the same beans.

Yes.... yes you are. So the machine doesn't matter (just a fad - buy something cheap). The barista doesn't matter (if you can use a bottle opener you can make espresso). And coffee is just a commodity that all of us have (and it's all the same). The trifecta. So much for respecting the Italian tradition there my boy.

But more importantly... now this is where you're showing your age there Todd.

Once upon a time, "we" did all have access to the same beans. We'd all call up Royal or Holland America and say "send me the offering sheet." That started really changing about 10 years ago now. At first, only a few smaller niche players were sourcing outside the spot and commodity markets and from outside the traditional exporters. Around 5 years ago - things really took off. Even the big guys started buying outside the markets - auctions become more and more common - and Direct Trade got big. Now - the whole coffee world is centered around the fact that we all do not have access to the same beans. Getting access, locking up sources and production... this is the new name of the game.

Todd... I'll put it bluntly. The coffees you have access are the coffees that everyone else has picked over and passed on. Your coffees are the ones that other roasters have said are not even good enough to put into the house blend.

You can call yourself a "neo-traditionalist" all you want (despite the fact that even a half-wit editor would call semantic bullshit all over you for this description).

Me? I just call you old and washed up.