The Dirty Portafilter

My corner of the Internet, mostly espresso related but occasionally life will interfere.

Sunday, November 20, 2005

Science Meets Art in the World of Espresso

Below is an excerpt from a running thread at Home-Barista, How do you explore the extraction space?

I have noticed that there tends to be two distinct trains of thought in the espresso world.

You have the technical geeks. The nuts and bolts (science) behind the process. Measurements, tests, and technology used to dissect the process, to learn exactly what a change in one of the dozens of variables will result in. Then use modern tech to minimize those variations (thermocouples, PID’s, regulators, etc).

The second school of thought is the art of espresso. Don’t worry about the nuts and bolts, it is what is on the other side of the portafilter that makes the difference. The Zen aspect, pulling shots by feel and frothing milk by sound and touch. No gauges, no measurements, pure instinct that has been developed by years of practice.

There is nothing wrong with either of these beliefs, nor do I believe that one can exist without the other. In order to maximize what you have in the cup, you need to understand the mechanics behind the process as well as poses a certain amount of intuition. Science meets art, or the GS3 meets the manual lever.

So chin up and push on with the tests and measurements because they are needed. They validate and prove the integrity and abilities of the machine. Then your experience, the art, of espresso is enhanced by the science of espresso. In the end you are rewarded with an ever increasing quality in the cup.


But that is the trick. Learning the variables (science side) and being able to marry that to the resulting cup (art side). In my mind, achieving symmetry between the two is the holy grail of knowledge.

My observations were not aimed at any one person, just a general observation over the past year based on my observations of post in multiple forums. You and a handful of others have found that balance, as evident in you first post. Knowing that adding a gram here or subtracting a degree there will typically yield Z in the cup. Keeping track of all the deltas involved is mind numbing at times. That is where experience, art and science meet in the cup. Without understanding one, you will never master the other.

And with that I must shut down and head off to bed. I am standing here in my smoke filled garage at 1:30am, covered with chaff and looking at six different beans and a notebook with scribbling that only a another coffee enthusiast would understand. I am getting there, slowly but surely, and one day I will hopefully hit that balance.


Without challenging the currently accepted ‘norm’ there will be no continued evolution. As I look back at the history of espresso (or anything else), every milestone was created by one person that asked one simple question, is the there nothing more?

In each case, the technology and cup were thought to be at the zenith, there is no way to improve upon what we currently have. Then someone thinking outside of the box questions the established dogma. Applying a bit of new technology to the old art suddenly yields the next big breakthrough. In a hundred years people may look back and wonder how we ever made due with the GS3 and its low tech PID controllers and rotary pump. We have not even touched on the source, the Arabica tree. Maybe the next big innovation will come from the field and not the lab.

Using technology to enhance the understanding of the art of espresso. Learning to balance the two is the trick IMHO and is what I am targeting. I believe the best baristas have a solid understand of both. As I said, without understanding one, we will never master the other.

These are just my comments, to read the entire conversation follow the link up top.


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