The Americano

Years and years ago, I worked on the vast and bustling trading floor of a big bank overseas, part of a small trading team composed largely of nerdy Americans.  Every Friday, and to the great hilarity of those around us, a couple of enormous British bond salesmen would deliver coffee to us – short Americanos, of course.

Ah the wit!  Anyway these memories of a gilded age aside, prior to opening a coffee shop, I never thought much of the Americano.  To be frank, I used to consider it an inferior drink: usually crappy espresso diluted with boiling water.  As a cafe owner though, I definitely appreciate the rationale behind the beverage and now largely take issue only with its preparation.

There are plenty of good reasons for the Americano even for cafes with great batch coffee (like us!).  For many customers, this is just their default order.  Perhaps they’ve been traumatized by bad batch coffee, or simply like espresso but find it too strong.  Espresso, after all, is what to many makes a cafe special.  Or perhaps they like the “richer” mouthfeel of an Americano, given that more coffee oils pass through the metal espresso portafilter basket than the paper filter typically used in batch brewing.

There is a second category of “why” that is a bit more specific to our shop.  We don’t sell tons of decaf, and of the decaf orders, a number are “half-caf” (hard to accommodate with a standard set-up).  Rather than dedicate an under-utilized grinder to decaf (fated to be infrequently dialed in and either purged at the end of each day, wasting a ton of coffee relative to the amount used in beverages, or left with a full hopper of oxidizing beans) we always have small amounts of fresh decaf on hand which we single dose in our EK43 grinder (in a ratio of caffeinated to decaffeinated beans to suit the order).  We don’t do pour-overs, so the Americano is the most efficient way for us to serve decaf cups of coffee.  The second shop-specific reason is that we roast coffee on a spectrum from light to medium, but never dark.  The single origin we use as our “House” espresso is roasted a bit darker than most of the other coffees on our roster, and tends to have a more familiar “comfort cup” profile.   So when a customer asks for a “dark roast”, we generally offer them an Americano, which almost always makes them happy.

In any event, the Americano is a surprisingly popular beverage and something cafes really should prepare well, but I suspect too few do.  There are many pitfalls (at least to make the type of Americano that I enjoy).  First, many shops, even amongst the most progressive out there, use a more traditional Italian-influenced house espresso (a darker roast typically involving South American and naturally processed beans).  I don’t feel that these espressos translate well to Americanos as they don’t have a lot of flavor clarity; diluted with water, they can thus tasty murky and ashy.  Second, it is very hard to properly extract espresso.  To hit a 20-22% extraction (a pretty optimal range for the flavor balance you’ll really taste in the slowed-down experience of a longer drink like an Americano), you really need a first rate and well maintained grinder and a higher ratio of beverage mass to ground bean dose than typical.  Third, I feel that most Americanos are way too diluted, and in order to get the beverage strength right (ideally somewhere between 1.25-1.5% coffee matter), the Americano probably can’t be a full 12oz unless the shop doses their espresso with 20g+ of coffee (and extracts >20%).  And finally, the water used in the cup shouldn’t be >200F (even though many customers like their Americanos hot.)  With water that hot, the beverage will be a lot hotter than most batch coffee, and customers risk burns and can’t taste anything but “hot”.  Although I’d really like to use 175F water, to balance taste vs demands for “hot”, I prefer using 190F water.  And the water should never be drawn from the espresso machine hot water dispenser (both as this is way too hot and to preserve the longevity of the machine).

Anyway, these gripes reflect my personal preferences – but also a consistency with general principles of brewing and crafting quality beverages.

The Ikawa Sample Roaster & survivor bias

One of the many routine tasks in a coffee roasting business is sample roasting.  We’re constantly receiving small quantities of different coffees from green coffee importers, and we need to figure out whether it makes sense to buy any of them.  Sample roasting is time consuming, and tbh, not a lot of fun.  The goal is to roast the different coffees to a similar roast/development level so that they can be evaluated apples-to-apples (without differences imparted by variations in roast).  So the goal isn’t necessarily to bring about the best in each coffee, but just to stick to a process. It can also be stressful: typically you roast a lot of samples at once, and some green coffee importers only send enough of a sample to allow for one, possibly two roasts….you don’t want to make a mistake as green coffee buying is a speed game, coveted coffees go extremely quickly.

Enter the Ikawa. It looks like a glorified electric air popper, and it kind of is. However, it is a lot more robust, has a fast thermocouple (which reads the air temp right above the rotating fluid-bed-y coffee mass as a proxy for bean temp) and a PID linked to an iOS app which allows you to program profiles for the time-temp path you’d like the temperature readings to travel. It also has a very clever built in chaff separation mechanism, and a roasted bean cooling function. Finally, it has created a great community around the sharing of roast profiles, and it is easy to send profiles to others so that you can roughly sample roast in the same way.

I could write another blog post on profile creation and the different approaches for different origins/processing methods, and whether I think a PID which forces the roast along a prescribed path is an optimal way to go about roasting coffee.  But suffice to say that basically, the Ikawa dramatically simplifies workflow and churns out pretty decent sample roasts. Load a profile onto the machine via a Bluetooth enabled iOS device, hit a button, wait until the Ikawa warms to the charge temp, load the green coffee, and wait for a chime to go off 7-8 minutes later to let you know the roast is done. You can even do other things while the coffee is roasting which is kind of incredible for a roaster.

So it is no wonder that the Ikawa roaster is taking the roasting and green coffee end of the supply chain by storm. It makes sample roasting so much easier and efficient. In tandem with this, I see more green coffee importers offering roasted samples of coffees in lieu of green coffee samples. Makes sense: it’s less work for the roaster, the Importer is ensured that the roaster is giving the coffee a fair shake (ie hasn’t done horrible things to the coffee while sample roasting, and is actually going to cup the samples!) and reduces waste (just one 50g sample bag, not a larger amount of green, some of which will inevitably be wasted).

When you receive roasted coffee samples, however, you are deprived the opportunity to examine and grade the green. You can’t count defect number and type, nor can you read the moisture and the like. So you need to be sure that the roasted coffee you receive accurately reflects what is inside the 150lb bags of green coffee you’ll be buying. Every green importer I’ve dealt with has been honest to a fault and would never groom green samples and remove defects. However, when it comes to roasted samples, I think there is an inadvertent source of bias that perhaps many importers and roasters don’t consider when evaluating the coffee.

The Ikawa sample roaster is pretty close to being a purely convective roaster, the coffee makes very little if any contact with metal surfaces, and thus heat transfer occurs entirely via hot air.  The green coffee is held aloft by the force of the air, kind of in the same way that a hovercraft floats over the water or ground. So airflow is by necessity high, and I believe proportionally higher in the Ikawa than in more traditional open faced sample roasters (or any traditional drum roaster for that matter). Ikawa cleverly uses this high airflow to loft away the chaff (which is far less dense than the coffee) into a catch “cup”. But quakers and many other types of defective beans are also less dense than the more perfect ones, and these are jettisoned with an alarmingly high efficiency into the same catch cup too. So, if you are in a hurry and dump the contents of the catch cup without pulling the quakers (and at times it can be hard to see the light colored beans in the fluffy chaff), you are basically grooming the coffee of defects and creating a sample that is better than – and not accurately representative of – the actual coffee lot under consideration. It is certainly the case that all roasters will suck up some quakers into their chaff-clearing cyclones; but from what I’ve seen, the Ikawa removes more defects as a percentage of the total defect pool than other roasters.

This might not make too much of a difference for extremely clean and well processed coffees with very few defects/quakers (typically these are very high scoring and pricey coffees). But in most samples of even decent specialty coffee, you’ll find a surprising number of quakers and other mild defects. In mid-range specialty coffee, I often find around half the quakers and other obvious defects in the catch cup; in a 50g Ikawa roast, this means that I might find as many as 3-5 defective beans in the cup (on the order of 1% of the total 50g!)  To me, this is pretty significant and to the point where I believe it’s impacting the cupping scores. And also quite telling is that most of the beans that end up in the catch cup are quakers and not viable coffee (good beans also make it into the catch cup, but in lower numbers, and thus at a much lower percentage of the total amount of good beans in the sample).

This is not to disparage the Ikawa, it is an awesome machine. I just want to point out that a by-product of its chaff clearing system – that is ironically perhaps too good – is that the user could be left with a cleaned up pool of coffee and should factor that into the evaluation process.

EK43 Burr Alignment – Experience with the Titus Tool and the Perger Method

As the burrs on our EK grinder started to break in with use, it became apparent that their alignment was pretty far off. EK espressos were flowing too quickly and extraction was far less than optimal; under-extraction was exacerbated by updosing to stretch contact time. We had tried the Perger technique (dry erase marker on the flat portion of the burr, aluminum shims, attempting to align both the fixed and the moving burrs sequentially) without as much success as hoped. So, on the recommendation of a friend, I purchased a Titus EK alignment kit, which has helped immensely – our EK shots are ground well off the “zero” point, have slowed down substantially and extraction is now running at about 22%. And they are tasting great.

Some quick tips from my experience (and a caveat, I’m far from an expert here! I’m just hoping to help you save a bit of time when you go for it!):

  • I have the V1 kit, without the thumbscrew in the mounting bracket (the additional thumbscrew helps adjust both mounting bracket height and ease of removal). With the v1 kit, you need a rubber mallet to basically hammer the mounting bracket onto the shaft.  Be sure not to hammer it all the way down as it’ll be realllly hard to remove!
  • The real trick to using the Titus kit is getting the deflection gauge probe in the right position, at the edge of the flat portion of the burr, just brushing the top surface of the ridges.
  • If you zero the gauge properly at the top of one of the ridges, you’ll quickly find the high point on the burrs as your carefully rotate it 360.
  • The technique that worked for me was marking the high point, then bringing two other points, around 120 degrees apart, to the same level via the shims (you might need different thickness shims in these spots to get to the high point).  Ie, basically building a tripod so that the burr is brought to the highest level of distortion in the frame.  The Titus kit comes with shims in 0.01mm increments, which takes a lot of the guess work out of the levelling process.
  • Matt Perger’s Barista Hustle video on EK alignment is a must-see before attempting to align the EK burrs, even with the Titus kit!  He points out so many crucial aspects of alignment, such as ensuring you are shimming the outer rim of the burrs (the only part that makes contact with frame.)
  • You also need to review the Barista Hustle video because the Titus tool only helps with the fixed burr (I’m sure there is some super clever person out there who has figured out how to mount it onto the rotating burr…I’m clueless).  So once you’ve levelled the fixed burr, you need to use the Perger dry erase marker technique to find the high points on the rotating outer burr.  Again, I used the tripod shim technique (ie shims in two places around what I thought to be the high point) and that seemed to work well.

Best of luck – and if you can finish this project in less than two hours, my proverbial hat is off to you!

– Aaron

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DIY Graduated Pitchers/Tumblers/Shakers

The graduated frothing pitchers out there are great and a big step forward in reducing milk waste.  But sometimes you just want to pour with a lucky pitcher, want an etched tumbler (for iced lattes etc), or just want an excuse to do a fun little project.  So in an effort to assuage the baristas while still keeping an eye on milk waste, I tried a couple of methods of etching lines on the interior some stainless steel vessels.

  • Dremel and various bits (cutting, grinding etc.)  I think in theory this could work extremely well if you properly clamp the Dremel in place, and ideally the pitcher too.  In practice, this was well beyond my weak Dremel skills and I ended up with a lot of messy scratches and a poorly defined score line.
  • Etching with electricity.  Eureka!

I can’t claim any credit for the this idea, there are plenty of great videos on the internet showing how it is done.  But I can say I tried it, it works, it is super cheap (you probably have almost everything you need in your shop already), and it’s quite satisfying.  Here’s the quick version of what worked for me (try at your own risk…this is an educational post only!):

Materials:

  • Four alligator clips
  • Wire
  • 9v battery
  • a bit of salt water
  • a bunch of Q-tips
  • a flashlight
  • electrician’s tape
  • an exacto knife/box cutter
  • and of course the metal vessels you wish to etch.

Steps:

  1. Clean and dry the interior of the vessel.  Mark the line you’d like to etch with a Sharpie.
  2. Cut a thin bar into the electrician’s tape with a precise cutting instrument (I used blue tape, but in hindsight electrician’s tape would have been better, probably would have helped create crisper borders). Stick the cut-out tape in place over the Sharpie mark.  In practice, this is the most difficult part of the whole project given that you need to try to get it level pretty deep inside the pitcher.  Sticking the tape to the end of a straight edge (aligning it such that the center of the cut-out is at the corner edge of the straight edge), then running the straight edge down the middle of the spout, helped to get the tape as level as possible.  A flashlight also helps when trying to position the cut-out over the sharpie mark.
  3. After you’ve attached alligator clips to both ends of two wires, attach one clip to the positive end of the 9v battery.  The other end gets clipped to the pitcher.
  4. Soak the end of a Q-tip in a bit of saltwater (to better conduct the electricity) and clip the Q-tip (closer to the tip works better) with one alligator clip on the second wire.  The clip needs to be biting down on wet cotton.  The other end of the wire gets clipped to the negative end of the battery.
  5. Hold the Q-tip by the shaft and “paint” the cut-out, going back and forth.  You’ll probably need to do this for about 5 minutes if you are using a 9v battery, and will probably need to replace your Q-tip (swapping ends as they blacken) several times in order to get a good etch.  You’ll see a bit of very tiny bubbling, maybe a wisp of vapor, and hear a slight hum.

The etch marks aren’t quite laser crisp, but they are visible and work!

-Aaron

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